Saturday, 22 February 2020 200,000 Archaeological Artefacts on Sale in One Week in January

This weekend I am doing some stakhanovite editing of a text on the trade in North African lithics that is supposed to go in a volume on North African prehistory that I am collaborating in. The first draft of my text has to be shortened by half and has to have a new bit written at the beginning and end... I have just chucked this bit out and it took half a day to get the data together. It's not very satisfactory as a text anyway. The point is however pretty interesting.
The scale of the online commerce in antiquities [as a whole, not just the lithics PMB] is enormous, but it is difficult to count absolute numbers, because of the way different sellers list items using various terms and listing them in different sections of the larger websites. On in the first week of January 2020 for example, the search engine reveals that in that week, there were a total of at least 196,936 archaeological artefacts on sale. This includes just over 72,000 antiquities (and ‘antiquities’) in the section of the portal specifically dedicated to antiquities (over 23,000 of them were of metal). There were about three hundred North African stone artefacts listed here. In the numismatic section, there were 104,800 ancient and medieval coins on sale (excluding an additional several tens of thousand of examples from SE Asia and the Far East that I did not count). More artefacts and pseudo-artefacts can be found in the ‘collectables’ section (mainly under ‘cultures and ethnicities’). Here were found the bulk of the Native American lithic items (19,520) and several hundred North African stone artefacts. Another 616, mostly North African arrowheads were being sold in the ‘rocks and minerals’ section.
Among the antiquities, 3800 items were marketed as Palaeolithic and Neolithic objects, the bulk of which were stone tools from various sources in Europe, MENA and SE Asia. It seems that a substantial proportion of these were in fact not ancient artefacts (this is a general problem with the indiscriminate internet market of portable antiquities, neither buyers nor sellers can distinguish between authentic and fake – and for some sellers fakes are easier, and less risky in legal terms, to market). Together with the ‘collectables’ a total of 20,611 out of 192,750 portable antiquities (10.7 %) were lithic artefacts. While the bulk of this material comes from collecting in the USA and, though to a much lesser extent, Canada, the North African material forms a substantial portion of this group of items.
My paper was intended to be making the point that the discussion of artefact hunting and collecting (Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record) should not by any means be restricted to metal detecting, and I was going to do this by investigating one bit of the trade in lithics. The original plan has had to be changed and the focus of the article will be shifted to the effects of this trade on the archaeological record (I'll try and use the rest elsewhere).

Note that the figure 193,975 refers to items being offered for sale at one time on only one of the several eBay portals (not including results from the various national ones). It also does not include other online selling plaes, catawiki, Faceboox, Sixbid etc etc. This trade is massive. 


sw-an said...

Thank you for your alway interesting articles.
Egyptian antiquities: 10111 today, many are real, but most of them are not real artefacts.

Paul Barford said...

Well, actually when I gathered those figures, I remember that the number of Egyptian artefacts that I thought were real (apart from one dealer who will remain anonymous whose stuff I have ambiguous feelings about) could be counted on the fingers and toes of one person. It's not always like that, but a HUGE number of "ancient Egyptian" artefacts on eBay are pretty dire fakes.

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