Thursday, 10 December 2015

Words and Illicit Antiquities Market Control

Jessica Dietzler gave her seminar presentation on "Words and illicit antiquities market control". It is now available online, and is worth listening to again, and I think others would find it thought-provoking (while others will find in it ammunition).

The short talk was heavy in content, and highly provocative (read: thought-provoking). In places, it was rather too touchy-feely for my personal taste. While I can see her point about the humanity of the agents involved in the transfer of illicit antiquities, I do feel that there is a fuzzyiness if we are to equate the looter (that so-called subsistence looter) and the cynical gallery owner at the other end of the chain with his dodgy weasel-worded arguments. There are people at that end of the antiquities market who know full well what they are doing and what effect it has (though I suspect they themselves rarely consider that human/itarian aspect) and also think they know ways of benefiting from the poor regulation. Do they all earn the same sympathy?

We have a PAS in England who pats artefact hunters and collectors on the head, says "how well" they are (all) doing. We had Tony Gregory and Roger Bland and many others telling us that they were ('mostly') decent folk and misunderstood, that's find that is/was their point of view, it is the one that the media carry and artefact hunters and collectors (all) benefit from. I personally think there is another side to the story, and that the failure to allow that to be widely discussed (so as "not to scare off the punters" as if they were nine-year-olds) is a damaging policy.

The point is that we have a PAS doing precisely what Ms Dietzler suggests is a way of getting dialogue and collaboration. It's been going eighteen years. Yes, everyone knows some decent artefact hunters, but to what (actual, not PAS-spin) degree IS there any actual dialogue as a result? If we look on any metal detecting forum, just a mouse click away, the evidence that this policy is having more than a superficial (and I would say very superficial) effect is simply not there.  Touchy-feely is a nice idea - and arguably worth trying - but it is not working. More than that, when recommendations are made about stopping illicit antiquities (I mean the Nighthawking report), 'touchy-feely' blocked putting the main recommedations into action - so we still have a problem with it in ever-so-liberal England and Wales.

While we should all be concerned about the use of cultural property issues as a surrogate topic deflecting attention from other issues (US Department of State being a major offender as far as I can see) and as appalled as we all are at the destruction of human lives any natural disaster and conflict precipitates, and certainly would not like to see anyone losing sight of these issues, I would not say, as Ms Dietzler does, that candle-lit vigils raising awareness about heritage destruction are in any way "offensive". If people need to be reminded people are dying out there it is not our fault, I think our awareness-raising is intended and should be taken as an "also" and never an "instead of". As she herself says, we should focus, some focus on rhinos, some on preventing child abuse, some on fighting poverty in the Third World. Some of us focus on the cultural heritage.

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