Wednesday 31 December 2008

Happah New Year

The end of a year and the beginning of a new one are traditionally a time to reflect on the past and look to the future, and I’d like to present a few of the personal highlights of the ongoing discussions that come to mind on a cold January morning. For me a number of events stand out.

One of the most obvious series of events of the past year involved the continuing effects on the museum world of the spreading ripples of the Medici-Hecht-associated affair nicely documented in the past year in David Gill’s Looting matters blog. The discovery of a dealer’s polaroid photos and records a few years ago has led this year to the identification of more objects in US museums which it seems had been looted from archaeological sites in several countries like Italy. Several of them have been persuaded to return these artefacts to the countries whose archaeological record has been thus damaged. These included the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Unlike the majority of the decontextualised archaeological objects moving through the shady no-questions-asked antiquity market there was documentary evidence of the illicit origin of these finds.

The original owners of another cause celebre, the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask now in St Louis, USA have not been so lucky. At the moment the St Louis Art Museum is stubbornly hanging on to it, claiming that it has not been proven that the object was stolen from a Sakkara museum storeroom. Neither has it been proven that in buying such an object from the Aboutaams, SLAM actually did its homework to determine where the object had come from. The appointment of the SLAM director as one of the US president’s advisors on antiquities policy last year really rubbed salt into the wounds.

It was in such an atmosphere that we saw the publication in June of James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? which attracted an enormous number of reviews. As Renfrew observed in his extremely balanced review, Cuno "sets out what might, ten years ago, have been described as the art museum director’s case on the proprieties of ownership and acquisition”. As the Medici-Hecht-Schultz/Tokely-Marion True affairs are bringing to public attention the abuses hiding just below the surface of the no-questions-asked antiquities market, the museum world has moved on slightly from the days when it was fashionable to proclaim “universalism” as the answer to any problems raised about the ethics of their acquisitions.

This places the private collector (and the dealers that in recent years has come increasingly to rely on the market they create) in a difficult position. A fact they acknowledge by the desperate campaigns emerging from some quarters to get public opinion on their side. Groups like the ACCG have not been inactive this year, from postulating some kind of conspiracy behind the US Department of State's acceptance that ancient coins were archaeological finds (duh!) to launching a series of personal attacks on those that question their mantras. Cuno’s book, however, found a ready market here. While many museum staff and archaeologists distanced themselves from the more extreme implications of Cuno’s arguments, collectors were delighted to embrace the series of arguments it placed in their hands. These reverberated with those that they had adopted over the past decade or so. Private collectors were, they said, the new universalists, collecting portable antiquities to make a better world, free of “nationalist” impositions. Thes claims disregard two things, firstly their collecting is itself an expression of neo-colonialist values and secondly that Cuno was arguing that if the Universal Museums were not allowed to buy the items they want there was a danger that they would disappear into private collections. Antiquity collectors do not seem to have read that far into the contents of Cuno’s book.

Another field of debate was Iraq. Shocking photos of archaeological sites riddled with looters’ holes (apparently as the side-effects of an increasingly unpopular unilateral military intervention) were useful ammunition in bringing home to public opinion the significance of the problem of looting of the world's archaeological sites as a major source of the collectables being offered for sale by dealers. This made it an uncomfortable issue for both the arts trade and private collectors. They were delighted by and made much of reports (published primarily in the Art Newspaper) that the stories about the looting were exaggerated. In any case, the collectors argued that the markets in their own countries were uninvolved. The attempts to seize on these stories would be comical were it not for the true scale of the destruction to Iraq’s archaeological heritage caused since the imposition of sanctions in the 1990s while we all stood by and did noting about the flood of antiquities which appeared on the market, and continue to do so.

As is clear from reading the texts they produce, portable antiquity collectors all over the world regard England’s Portable Antiquities Scheme to be their darling and pet. If only, they say, all other source countries would have such liberal laws as England and Wales and pump millions of pounds/dollars/Euros into creating similar schemes, there "would be no looting”. This is treated as so “obvious” a solution (so obvious, let the USA adopt it for the archaeological sites on federal land , eh?) that we are asked to believe that any nation that does not adopt such a solution and does not mount a 24-hour armed guard on every archaeological site deserves to have its archaeological heritage destroyed by “free-enterprise” looters. In other words, its not the collectors who buy looted stuff no-questions-asked who are the cause of looting, but – the twisted argument goes – the “archaeologists” who do not persuade governments that they “must” accommodate the collectors.

To add insult to injury, an “independent” review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme was published last year which actually pronounced British archaeology to be in partnership (sic) with portable antiquity hunters and collectors. A partnership is characterized by two or more sides working together to common aims. We all know the aims of the accumulators of personal collections of portable antiquities, it is disturbing to be informed that British archaeologists are now working to the same aims. Incredible though it may seem, as far as I can see, not a single archaeologist in Britain (and I am told there are 7400 of them now) seems to have raised a peep of protest about this unilateral declaration !

Anyway readers of this blog will know that I think there is a lot of evidence that the PAS is not actually coping with the issues of portable antiquity collecting in England and Wales anywhere near as well as the pro-collecting propaganda makes out. In fact, in several areas it is distinctly lacking. It would be nice to think that in 2009 we will see some discussion and improvement in this area.

Looking to the future, I think we need more stock taking and discussion of the current status quo. In Britain for example I have argued that there is an urgent and inescapable need to carry out a proper survey of the effects of current policies on artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting on the archaeological record. I have tried to show in these pages through a number of cases occurring in 2008 the need for such questioning of the glib statements in favour of maintaining the status quo. Perhaps 2009 will be the year when moves are made to organize such a stock-taking?

Another task for the future is proper public outreach. It is clear that the public is relatively uninformed (or unconcerned) about these issues. For many, “archaeology” is synonymous with “discovery of treasures”, and that, after all, is what artefact hunters and looters are doing, “finding more treasures”. It seems to me that for many people the only problem is whether these artefacts are ending up in museums (and in which country). The whole issue of the destruction of the archaeological record to create these “commodities” is less visible to them. Archaeologists are doing too little to promote a picture of the discipline which says otherwise. In fact in Britain, most public outreach (through the PAS) is having the opposite effect. We need better public information about these issues. It is good to see that, while government and official agencies are loathe to attack this problem face on, organizations such as SAFE, Heritage Action and HAPPAH are trying to fill the gap. Let us wish them success in the coming year. It would be nice to see the official organizations showing more recognition of and supporting their efforts.

Reflections on the events of 2008 confirm my belief that the ultimate aim of all this should be suspension of social approval for no-questions-asked collecting of archaeological artefacts (and yes, I include coins in that) by a properly informed public. Making the public of both “source” and “market” countries fully aware of the deleterious effects of artefact hunting and collecting on the finite resource places the discussion firmly in the realm of conservation (and not “personal rights”). It is my hope that this will make private collecting of “fresh” and undocumented archaeological artefacts as socially reprehensible as the picking of scarce flora.

Above all I would like to see collectors themselves taking more responsibility for the effects of their pastime on the survival of the archaeological record, not only in their own country, but seen in a global perspective. We have seen in 2008 that dealers are unwilling to face the consequences of a more transparent market - unless they are forced to it by ranks of responsible collectors refusing to buy goods the legitimacy of which is tested by the quality of documentation of provenance rather than "reputation" of a dealer. A widely-accepted collectors' code of ethics expressing a firm stance against the no-questions-asked approach which fosters the illegal trade in antiquities would be a great step in the right direction. A beginning was made on one on an antiquity collectors’ discussion list in 2008, a cacophony of protest was heard from the dealers and the will to take the project forward seems to have faltered. Let us hope that those involved in the initiative pick up the ball again and run with it.

In 2008 there was some discussion in collecting circles about creating registers of finds to allow their movement from a documented provenance through various scattered and ephemeral collections. Let us hope that these discussions will continue in 2009. If collectors wish scattered and ephemeral personal collections to be seen as a normal and beneficial means of curating the archaeological record, then we need to see the will to actually provide the best possible means of curation of the information associated with legitimately-obtained artefacts.

Many advocates of portable antiquity present it as a way individuals can gain (their own personal) “window on the past” and the way the man in the street can challenge the elitism they allege is inherent it the existence of specialist disciplines involved in the creation of the communal past. I’d like to see more discussion in archaeology of ways to create new opportunities for public involvement in (proper) archaeology in preference to erosive relic collection. Let us see if archaeology cannot find another way to deal with this social need. First though it has to discover why a “passionate interest in the past” takes precisely the form it does. So far it has not really asked that question. Another question they have not addressed (or rather, refused to address) is “when is portable antiquity collecting archaeology for all, and when is it not?”. Perhaps we will hear an answer in 2009?

An obvious desideratum is that we need to get our governments to take immediate, active and effective measures to stamp out the trade in illicit antiquities in our respective countries. It is not enough to have laws which protect only those archaeological artefacts dug up within the frontiers of that country leaving dealers apparently free to sell openly objects dug up illegally in other countries. Britain for example has a law which pretends to prevent this, it is flouted every day on a certain internet auction site, and not an archaeological eyelid is batted. While the archaeologists of Britain stay silent, its not surprising that the public and politicians do not appreciate the scale and seriousness of the problem.

Tuesday 30 December 2008

Artefacts from Isin in clearance sale in Jerusalem?

We are exporters and dealers of bulk ancient coins and other fine ancient art & antiquities from the Holy Land. We are located in Jerusalem, Israel. We are "antiquities dealers to antiquities dealers". We supply bulk antiquities to distributors, as well as individual high-end pieces to VIP collectors, connoiseurs, distributors, dealers, and museums worldwide.
Says the website of ZZAncient Art (Mr B. Leon, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, 91241 Israel). [I am not posting a link to the website itself, it apparently has a virus on it - here is the Google cache page]

At the moment this dealer is offering (cut-price): Very Rare Cuneiform (Akkadian) Inscribed Foundation Cones a snip at 1600 USD each, or five for 7,000 USD:

Here is sample from the cones you see in pictures in link below:
king Ishme-Dagan of Isin, telling about the building of the wall of Isin.

The dealer assures potential buyers:

These inscribed foundation cones were used as a means of communication (i.e. as a portable "letter" or document that would not be easily damaged in transit), found together in one hoard here in the HolyLand, probably left by the armies or officials of one of these two [Akkadian or Assyrian PMB] Near-Eastern Empires.[...] For serious collectors only. "

No. "Serious collectors" know that foundation cones were not "letters" carried by armies. Ones referring to the building of a wall at Isin by the 'Akkadian' ruler Ishme-Dagan will have been found in a wall at Isin.

Isin is in southern Iraq, not "the Holy Land". A long way away.

Isin is one of the sites which we all know has been extensively looted in recent years, and artefacts from which are being peddled by dodgy dealers with or without fake provenances (see for example here SAFE, here, here, here [NYT], here [Guardian]).

IF these cones really are authentic ancient artefacts (as ZZAncient Art unconditionally guarantees), this looks incredibly suspicious. Presumably since the dealer wants potential buyers to believe they were found in "the Holy Land" and not Mesopotamia, it means he has no documentation of legal export from Iraq. So one would presume that he would be able to produce evidence that supports his story of a findspot in "the Holy Land". I think we'd all very much like to see that.

Israel has not ratified the UNESCO convention has it? This dealer claims to have 20 000 other antiquities which he can ship to anywhere in the world, and with an export licence too. I wonder where they came from?

Map. Isin is south of Babylon, 943 km from Jerusalem.

Archaeology with balls

Over on the left of this blog is a little map widget which shows where people are reading this stuff, and gives (limited) information on what they read. I notice that this week there’s quite a few from France (bonjour) and one person did a search for HAPPAH – and I realize he did not find any post on the topic. So here is one.

This is a wonderful group of people doing what British archaeologists used to do before they lost their will to try and protect the archaeological heritage from this sort of erosion, and have now become “partners” (sic) with the artefact hunters. British archaeology once had a STOP (Stop Taking Our Past) campaign before they “dropped the ball”. The French organization has taken it up and running with it. Good for them. I wonder how many British archaeologists are even aware they exist? I wonder how many of them, if they knew, would support them?

Milken the Past

The Milken Institute has published a report Financial Innovations for Developing Archaeological Discovery and Conservation (December 2008)which so far has aroused some interest in the world of portable antiquities collecting (outside the UK) but little in archaeology (but see David Gill's discussion here and here). Basically one of the main theses is that rescue excavation could be financed by selling off (part of) the excavation archives (finds) to collectors. We’ve heard that before… Sometimes I wonder why it is that archaeologists are so lax about getting over to people what it is they do, and why and what an excavation produces and what is done with these data.

I was interested in the (all too brief and typically superficial) presentation of the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (page 9). They say “

The scheme has also been criticized by some scholars as legalizing looting, promoting the removal of artifacts by amateurs. Proponents of the plan counter that the looting was happening already and that the scheme encourages those who have looted to at least document what was taken and from where, preserving minimal cultural context.”
Hey guys, talking about this “looting that was happening already”, you are talking about the PAS new partners, the shed-owning metal detector wielding portable antiquity hunters of Great Britain. You can’t call them “looters”, its not politically correct, you know.

Monday 29 December 2008

Collectors and looters in South Dakota

Much has been written about the effect of the capacious and expanding no-questions-asked antiquities market in the US on the degree of looting of the world’s archaeological sites. US Collectors are especially vocal in their use of all sorts of arguments to defend their “right to collect” pieces of a past coming from other people’s archaeological heritage. It is therefore interesting to see how public opinion and law enforcement authorities deal with the threat portable antiquity hunting and collecting collecting causes to the archaeological heritage of the USA.

Josh Verges writes of the federal indictments earlier this month of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts in South Dakota which “reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture's buried history” in the heart of the USA. The investigation continues with the possibility of more indictments, and those already filed involve "a significant number of artifacts."

Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby and Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre allegedly sold three copper arm bands in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and were involved in the collection of many other artifacts, including beads, arrowheads and bone tools. Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre is accused of buying red stone discs, arrowheads and a sandstone scraping tool, all of which had been removed from public and Indian lands.
In the context of the discussion of the current no-questions-asked portable antiquities market it is notable that Matteson (who like the other two pleads not guilty) “said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins”.

In the US, Federal laws prohibit the removal of human remains, funerary items and other sacred items from Indian land and public land. It also prohibits anyone from knowingly buying those items. The law does not however stop landowners from digging or collecting those items on their own property; leading to a very patchy system of protecting the archaeological resource. Obviously if, mindful of this, collectors demanded and retained evidence of legitimate provenance of the artefacts in their personal “artefact museums” then Matteson would not have had any problems with the authorities. Nor would the authorities now have problems in sorting out the origin of the items in his “38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years” which was recently confiscated by federal agents. (I guess its convenient it was on wheels and not in a garden shed as many UK “metal detectorists” use to “curate” their collections).

Mr Matteson said he “began collecting arrowheads as a child when he would get farmers' permission to search their cornfields and keep an eye out while fishing with his father. When the Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979 restricted the collection of artifacts from riverbeds - navigable waterways are public land - he turned to auctions and gun shows to build his collection” (gun shows?). Matteson said: "I scoured the country for those arrowheads. I put my life into this. I built this museum to go to schools to teach and show kids," Are there no proper museums in South Dakota that its inhabitants have to rely on a collector’s show-and-tell session from a rock-shop owner to learn about their region’s past? Presumably the region has had some rescue archaeology where is the material from that archived? Perhaps it is a lack of cultural outreach about the rich prehistory of the territory of North America which leads its citizens to hanker for bits and pieces looted from archaeological sitres across the seas?

Looting of native American sites by artefact hunters is a large problem in the area. University of South Dakota anthropologist Brian Molyneaux pointed out that "As tribes hold every place and every remnant of the past as part of a living legacy - central to their religions and histories - each act of looting is yet another in a very long line of aggressive attacks against them, when they only want to live at peace in their own land."

"Hold every place and every remnant of the past as part of a living legacy”

That seems something that US portable antiquity collectors should try to get their heads around in their rants about the “archaeologists” who are trying to conserve the archaeological resource in situ. The focus of discussion these days is not so much national identity (pace Cuno) but about power of place.

Photo: Sioux territory in the Dakotas.

Office Party faux PAS?

Readers of this blog will hardly be surprised to learn that the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme is not on my Christmas card list this year. I was therefore surprised to find on opening my mail this morning that I was on theirs.

I received a card posted in Cambridge on 20th Dec. Inside in Michael Lewis' handwriting it says "Dear Paul, merry christmas and many thanks for all your support for PAS in 2008!" and underneath are signatures of 23 members of PAS staff. It is not unlikely that this originated as some huge sarcastic joke at a December get-together of FLOs and PAS staff, presumably the office Christmas party and perhaps at this stage they were very very merry. As perhaps were the post office workers who delivered it to Poland with only a first class stamp on it (overseas mail costs more).

I found the picture on the card appropriate. Its a fragment of a fresco in the Milan Pinacoteca di Brera (I think) by the Lombard artist Bernardino Luini (c. 1475-1531) showing angelic musicians. The irony of this is that works by Luini were extremely popular among private collectors from 1790 to about 1900, as a result of which many of his frescoes were detached from their original settings as an integral part of the interior decoration of Renaissance buildings in northern Italy and scattered to the four winds. Rather like the portable antiquity collectors with whom the PAS is now in "partnership" are doing to archaeological sites (ripping out their integral parts to form part of scattered personal collections). Many of Luini's works in private hands have suffered through inappropriate handling and many have lost their provenance, which is a shame given the scarcity of documentation on the painter's life and work.

Thank you Sam, Wendy, Ciorstaidh, Anne B, Laura, Kate, Adam, Julian, David, Anja, Rob, Michael, Illegible 1, Illegible 2, Anni, Katie H, Kevin Leahy, Roger, Frances, Illegible3, Jennifer, Liz and Geoff for the Christmas wishes, I hope you all had a good Christmas break and return to work refreshed and ready for the fray.

Photo: Luini's angels

British archaeology-collecting partnership in action

"This website is a resource designed and maintained by metal detector entusiasts (sic) to record finds and promote good practice within the hobby." That's what it now says on the revamped Council for British Archaeology website about the UK Detector Finds Database . The world has gone mad.

I think the archaeological community is entitled to ask what the CBA's definition of "good practice" in the hobby of artefact collecting actually is. There are a number of highly significant differences between the UKDFD and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and it is for this reason the latter, and not the former figures in the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales, which - believe it or not - the CBA had a large part in brokering.

It is perhaps significant that this does seem to be one of the few links on this section of the CBA's new webpage which actually works. What a shambles.

Saturday 27 December 2008

Archaeology for All? US Portable Antiquity Collectors' Schools Outreach

Scott Uhrick of Ancient Coins for Education is seeking donations of cash or uncleaned ancient coins to help the ACE in its work. ("we would like to remind everyone that we are a registered Not-For-Profit and all donations to us of cash or coins are tax deductible”). These coins go to selected teachers:

many of whom have set up small collections of their own and use them in their curriculum. Cash goes to support the main program of getting ancient coins into the hands of students studying a relevant topic such as Latin. Our goal if to share our appreciation of the beauty and history in these artifacts with kids who may hopefully grow into collectors in their own right.
This reveals the main purpose of this organization, to create potential new collectors to help US purveyors of other countries’ antiquities expand their market.

Earlier, ACE Board President Mark Lehman too admitted the purpose of the organization was to help expand and protect the market in contextless archaeological artefacts. He
wrote in December 2007:

We profoundly hope these coins will serve, as intended, as a sort of "dragons' teeth" seed, sown in the hope and expectation of raising a whole new generation of collectors [...].
... who will form a numerous army of warriors for the Cause, no doubt. It is no surprise whatsoever to learn that the ACE is fully supported by the pro-collecting ACCG.

The ACE website says, "The heart of the program consists of
authentic 4th century A.D. Roman coins that the students receive to prepare, to identify and to keep." But where do these ancient coins being handed out like candies by US Latin teachers come from? Not from archaeological sites in the USA that is for sure.

ACE blithely admit:

The vast majority of uncleaned material on the market at the present time comes from Eastern Europe - the "countries formerly known as Yugoslavia" and Bulgaria in particular - but ancient coins can be and are found wherever the people who used them lived. Coins are also commonly found in Western Europe and Great Britain as well as the Middle East, Turkey, and Northern Africa.
In most of the places named the coins are produced by illegal excavation of archaeological sites on an almost industrial scale (as in Iraq – in the “Middle East”) and their smuggling in huge quantities to the US is something that has been highlighted by a number of cultural property activists (such as Nathan Elkins, here and here). The looting in Bulgaria has reached crisis proportions and the mafia is deeply involved in this trade. The huge US market for these looted coins is one of the motors which keep the activity profitable for those involved. We may legitimately ask what steps ACE is taking to ensure it is not indirectly putting untaxed US money into the pockets of foreign criminals.

A year ago there was a
similar discussion on US antiquities dealer Dave Welsh’s Unidroit-L forum (misrepresented by Wayne Sayles on his blog, commented by David Gill). Then it was ACE’s Mark Lehman who wrote of managing “with our supporters' gracious help, to place tens of thousands of genuine ancient coins in the hands of thousands of students in hundreds of schools and educational venues across the US and Canada.” I asked whether that was
tens of thousands of provenanced coins which you can show the teachers and kids an export licence guaranteeing the recipients that you are giving the kids of law-abiding American and Canadian citizens legitimately-obtained material? A provenance they can look up on a map? Or is that tens of thousands of totally unprovenanced coins liberated by the "free enterprise" we hear so much about here from such restraints? Or is that one of those little details which the ACE "avoids like the plague" in presenting coin collecting to these kids?
Needless to say, as in most cases when one challenges the glib mantras of the pro-collecting lobby, I did not get a satisfactory answer.

Lehman's text "How to address the collector/scholar vs. AIA "no one but the 'experts' should have access to antiquities" viewpoints…." to which I referred is well worth consulting for the twisted arguments offered by the pro-collecting lobby against the those who raise resource conservation concerns. The ACE is, we are told a form of “Archaeology for all”. By liberating archaeological evidence from the possibility it might fall into the hands of elitist foreign archaeologists, the dealers and collectors of ACE are bringing the past to the people (or the USA and Canada). I'd like to hear the pro-collecting lobby to define properly and unambiguously when collecting of portable is and is not "archaeology for all". So far nobody seems keen to do this.

It is of course perfectly possible to create a hands-on educational resource by buying well-provenanced fourth century Roman issues arranged in a travelling handling collection which could be lent out to US schools. Coins could have a variety of imperial portraits, reverses, inscriptions and mintmarks and all with a valid export licence. Such coins could come from a number of dealers and "metal detectorists" in the UK, for example. As educational material, British Roman coins are ideal because the province has a substantial literature about changing patterns of coin supply based on a close study of archaeological finds (John Casey, Richard Reece and others). Such a handling collection could be created without a single coin having to be clandestinely or illegally excavated or smuggled into the US. Emphasising that in the classroom would in itselfhave an important educational value - teaching of conservation and responsibility. I think we can guess though that the latter is not what the ACE are interested in teaching US kids.

The main issue here is one concerning the conservation of a resource rather than one of personal rights and access. The real problem about all these coins is (
and always has been) where the coins used in the ACE programme come from and what they represent. I note that is one answer that Lehman refuses to address in any detail, except suggesting they come from 'potato fields'...

Its a shame that ACE avoids discussions of the ethics of all this "like the plague". Treating both sides of the issue (instead of the glib and meaningless platitudes ACE offers as your "answers" to the "AIA" critics) would be an ideal opportunity to produce a young generation who truly "can keenly appreciate" the need to cherish the remains of the past. Let them have all the information on which to base their own informed decisions if they want to become collectors or conservationists.In the entire ACE website (including the lesson plans), there is not a single mention of any of the issues raised in criticism of the current status quo regarding collecting unprovenanced ancient coins. If the ACE’s real aim was to provide an educational resource about the study of the past, in the interests of providing a balanced overview of the topic, there should be at least a mention of this topic, if not for example a link or two to online resources such as the SAFE article about "
why coins matter" and the discussions about it.

When I was a kid, a subject was good and inspiring because the teacher was good and inspiring, not because they gave out gee-gaws in the lessons. There are other ways of becoming interested in the past than collecting unprovenanced bits of other people's archaeological heritage.

I would like to know when we are going to see the AAE “Ancient arrowheads for Education” a pot-diggers and arrowhead collectors’ group with a “program of getting ancient Native American artifacts into the hands of schoolkids all over the USA to share our appreciation of the beauty and history in these artifacts with kids who may hopefully grow into collectors in their own right”. US Pot-diggers unite, archaeology for all.

Thursday 25 December 2008

St. George man among 19 pardoned by Bush

A man convicted in 1992 of digging up ancient Indian ruins on public lands in Garfield County is among 19 people being pardoned for various crimes as President George W. Bush prepares to leave office (Ben Winslow, 'St. George man among 19 pardoned by Bush', Deseret News, Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008). According to Deseret News reports from the time (Matthew S. Brown, Two S. Utah Men Get Probation for Digging Up Ruins', Deseret News Oct. 7, 1992), in 1991 David Lane Woolsey and co-defendant Jimmy G. Barney had been seen by hikers digging in an ancient Indian ruin at Boulder Creek near Escalante. Both men ultimately pleaded guilty. The prosecution came at a time when authorities were cracking down on archaeological thefts and Federal prosecutors had sought to send a "significant message" about a trend of archaeological site vandalism by artefact hunters.Woolsey was convicted of an aiding and abetting violation of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act . The penalty could have been two years in prison, but U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Greene settled on a sentence of three years probation and 100 hours of community service (they also seem to have had their vehicles confiscated). "I know I done wrong," Woolsey said. "But I feel grateful I got a second chance". A federal felony conviction stays with a person for life and strips a person of his or her right to possess a weapon or vote. Woolsey said he wanted the pardon so he could get his gun rights back and go hunting with his son. He also felt he had been discriminated against on the job market because of his record. Apparently the pardon had been sought by his wife about two and a half years ago, filling out an application for clemency on the Internet.

Among others pardoned by the US President at the same time are people convicted of such crimes as arms smuggling, possession of an unregistered firearm and cocaine distribution, conspiracy to harbor and transport illegal aliens.

While one sympathises with Mr Wooley's plight, this pardon gives out the wrong message to the public about the seriousness of the prblem of the looting of the archaeological heritage for collectables. The media are silent about what happened to Mr Barney.

Thursday 18 December 2008

Customs Seize Haul of Antiquities at Dubai


Dubai Customs have seized more than 100 antiquities from a vessel that attempted to smuggle them through Dubai Creek's entry, in one of the biggest ever attempts of its kind in the history of the area.
Ahmad Butti Ahmad, Director General of Dubai Customs, said the seized antiques date back to various eras of Middle Eastern history, but are around 5,000 years old. He said six sailors, believed to be from Iran, were on board the vessel and have been detained for questioning. Ahmad said the 128 pieces include stone sculptures, pottery and silver vessels, golden and silver coins, worked pieces of gold and silver, and jewellery.

Customs inspectors had suspected a vessel that arrived in Dubai Creek after they noticed suspicious behaviour from the ship's captain and crew. The captain insisted on clearing the customs procedures of the vessel swiftly and told the inspectors questioning him about the vessel's load that it was empty. A
team of three inspectors boarded the vessel and found a partition in the a wall. The captain refused to remove the partition when asked, claiming that the vessel would sink if the partition is removed. When the inspectors removed the partition, a large number of antiquities concealed in paper boxes were found. Initial examinations showed that the pieces were Iraqi. The captain and the crew denied any knowledge of the contraband, while one sailor admitted to be the one who stored the boxes without the knowledge of the captain and other sailors."The Customs are investigating the issue and questioning the sailors who are giving different versions of stories and saying different countries' names, but apparently they do not know the value of these items," Ahmad said.
Alia Al Theeb,'Customs make huge haul of antiques at Dubai', Gulf News November 27, 2008; also Anon. 'Dubai Customs foil a major attempt to smuggle antiquities', UAE
posted on 27/11/2008.

See also: Gregor McClenaghan, 'Iraqi antiquities seized in Dubai', The National Nov 26, 2008.

Friday 12 December 2008

UK "Metal Detectorist" Reactions

Two days ago a really awful new video appeared on You Tube. In it Norwegian "metal detectorist" Gary Brun dressed in an ill-fitting dinner jacket and bow tie holds a metal detector while jigging frenetically around behind a microphone while a series of photos flash on and off a monitor behind him. He is lip-syncing (badly) a version (the Michael Bublé version) of the classic Frank Sinatra song "Call me irresponsible" but with the lyrics altered to refer to... well, what on earth is it about? It seems to be a personal attack on Roger Bland and the Portable Antiquities Scheme and refers in some oblique way to the UK Detector Finds Database and the Code of Responsible Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales. Quite what possessed him to do that is anyone's guess.

About the same time a new heritage-related blog appeared. It is supposed to be (at least that's what it says in the heading) a "response" to this one. It is called "Paul M. [sic] Barford and Barfordisation" which rather suggests that its author does not really intend to discuss the issues raised here so much (i.e., the sort of "response" one might expect from somebody aiming to dispel doubts which might be raised by some of the issues discussed here), as discuss the person of the writer. This is typical. Both of these "responses" take issues which should be being discusse and try to dismiss them by means of deflecting the discussion to personal attack.

It is interesting that the author of the new blog takes care to maintain anonymity, his Google profile says only he is based in Monmouth and he claims to be a metal detectorist who is "Middle aged, middle class, professional working in the field of law". I really do not think that somebody who has not the guts to put his name under what he writes need be treated seriously here. Let's see whether he has anything to say that is relevant to the public debate on artefact hunting and collecting.

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Newark Torc questions

In February 2005, “metal detectorist” Maurice Richardson found an electrum torc of Snettisham type dated to 200-50BC in a field near Newark in Nottinghamshire (Martin Wainwright, 'Iron age necklace discovered' Guardian, 18th Feb 2005):

The 700g (1.5lb) necklace was buried beneath a field which has been ploughed for years on the outskirts of Newark. Mr Richardson said: "I got down on my stomach and scraped away and that was when a glint of gold came into view. It took me another half an hour to get it out of the ground because I was so nervous.

The object is intact "It came out as though I had bought it from the shop yesterday, It shone, it was solid and perfect in every way". Not plough-battered, then. The finder reports that he dug it out from "about two foot four inches down". This is therefore another object recovered without any kind of archaeological recording from deposits below plough level. After going through the ‘Treasure process’, the object was one of the star exhibits at the British museum a couple of weeks ago at the launching of the 2005/6 Treasure report at (where it is discussed as case 2005 T52 (Cat 82) on page 30 and illustrated on the cover). It also got a lot of press coverage. Most of the reports mentioned that it was worth 350,000 pounds which “is the most expensive single Treasure find in recent history”. Apart from the fact that it was removed without record from below plough level, there is one other detail that the many press articles did not touch upon, and it is interesting to reflect why. What was Mr Richardson doing in that field (which, incidentally is owned by Trinity College Cambridge)? 

The PAS webpage carries a blog entry for November 19, 2008 which looks like it comes from a press release. It says “Mr Richardson was searching for a crashed WW2 aircraft when he discovered this important find.” The 24 Hours Museum news, usually a close follower of PAS sources (Richard Moss, ‘Museums, metal detectorists and our archaeological heritage’ 23 Nov 2008). says the same: "The amateur metal detectorist was searching for the remains of a crashed aircraft in a field". The BBC reports a similar story (anon. ‘Treasure hunters boost gold finds', 19 November 2008), “a gold Iron Age choker, valued at £360,000, which was found by a man searching for remains of crashed WWII aircraft in Nottinghamshire”. Another BBC text (anon ‘Busy year for UK treasure hunters' 19th Nov 2008) says “It was unearthed by a man who was looking for parts of crashed World War II aircraft”. The next day the Times reported a similar version (Laura Dixon and Ben Hoyle, ' Paydirt at last after 40 years of prospecting for gold', 20 Nov 2008) “Then one rainy day, using his metal detector to look for parts of a Second World War aircraft, he stumbled across the most expensive single find in recent history”. In a similar vein was the article in the Daily Mail (James Tozer, 'Pictured: The Ł350,000 Iron Age neckband discovered by one man and his metal detector' Dail Mail 19th Nov 2008): "he almost ignored an unpromising-sounding beep as he searched for debris from a wartime air crash while being pelted with rain". These accounts all seem likely to derive at least in part and maybe wholly from material supplied to journalists by the British Museum press office and therefore supplied for public consumption by the British Museum, the Treasure Unit and Portable Antiquities Scheme. The accounts released for the 19th November all inform us that Mr Richardson was searching the field for "remains of" or "parts of" a crashed WW2 aircraft. 

But on 20th November another story started to circulate. It seems to have originated with the Guardian (Maev Kennedy ‘£350,000 gold collar hailed as best iron age find in 50 years’, 20 Nov, 2008). This version attempts to suggest that the finder was not looking for any crashed military aircraft. It reads:
“I was only in the field because a customer kept me late," Maurice Richardson, a tree surgeon from Newark, said yesterday. "Normally I'd never want to go into this field because a plane crashed there in the last war, and the whole place is littered with bits of metal." The first beep from his detector was indeed a chunk of wartime scrap metal, but as he bent down to discard it, his machine gave a louder signal. Expecting to find a bigger chunk of fuselage, he instead discovered the 2,200-year-old collar.
This changed version is the one that was picked up by the AFP and was later spread around the world.

Why is this important? In general, metal detecting for relics of the past is not restricted very much in England and Wales (or Scotland, despite the differing laws there on finds). There are however some situations even in the UK where metal detectors cannot freely be used in this way (without a permit). Scheduled archaeological sites and monuments are one of them. Aeroplane crash sites of the Second World War are another. Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 , all military aircraft crash sites in the United Kingdom (UK), its territorial waters, or British aircraft in international waters (and irrespective of whether they are war graves), are controlled sites. It is an offence under this act to tamper with, damage, move or unearth any items at such sites, unless the Ministry of Defence has issued a licence authorizing such activity. They are issued by its Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) who issue about fifty search licences annually. A slightly awkward problem for finders of valuable items is that: “Notwithstanding the issuing of a licence, all items recovered remain the property of the Crown. Excavations are licensed on the understanding that the Ministry of Defence may require the licensee to surrender all items recovered to the Department without compensation.” 

Did Mr Richardson have the requisite licence to be searching this crash site in February 2005? If he did, it is odd no mention was made of this in any of the accounts of the find published to date. Indeed, it is interesting that half way through the 2008 media circus, the ‘official’ story was changed to remove reference to him actively searching for plane fragments. Given the very clear legal restrictions on searching such sites and the status of finds from such a search, I would like to ask the PAS and British Museum Treasure unit whether, in processing this treasure case, the legality of searching a wartime aircraft crash site was at any stage considered and raised with the finder and whether he was asked to produce the licence which would have shown that his search in that field was done with regard to due legal procedure? Surely, it is hardly possible that the organization responsible for outreach to and instilling “best practice” in artefact hunters would have omitted to do this. If it turns out that the search was carried out in defiance of current legislation, should the full reward be paid? 

I was interested to follow this up. Just after the launch of the treasure report, a preliminary enquiry was made at the SPVA, listing 32 aircraft crash sites in the broad vicinity of Newark and asking if any licences were issued for searching any of them in and around Feb 2005. Sadly since the actual findspot of the Newark torc has not been made public by the PAS, the SPVA had to search the records of each of them in order to answer this query. Today the answer was received that according to SPVA records, no such search licence had been issued at that time for the disturbance of or metal detecting activities on any of those military aircraft crash sites in the vicinity of Newark. One application (a Lancaster bomber in Newark itself) was refused due to the presence of bombs and human remains (it is a military grave).

So what is going on? The PAS has been putting out the information that the finder was searching an aircraft crash site when it appears on information I have received that no permit for such an operation has been issued in the area. There is more than one type of illegal metal detecting, has the PAS turned a blind eye to an example here? Or is there something I am missing about this case? I would love to learn more.

Zahi Hawass on CNN

CNN's Ben Wedeman on Head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass. A staff, it is said of 30 000 people. Features the Hat.

Photo from Hawass's website.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Portable Antiquity Collecting in the UK and Archaeology

The superficial PAS review with its burden of missed opportunities came out just in time for a mention in a little something that's been taking up (too much of) my time recently. Here's the publisher's blurb for Britain's Portable Antiquity Heritage: Artefact Collecting and the Archaeological Record by Paul Barford and Nigel Swift
In recent years the discourse on artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection, and their relationship to archaeology in Britain, has become dominated by a particular blend of ideas grown up around the ethos of 'liaison'. These have had a far-reaching impact and are reflected in almost anything that
is currently being written about artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection. This book takes as its starting point an examination of some of the fundamental assumptions on which this model is based and subjects the rhetoric of this discourse to careful analysis. As a result, a somewhat disturbing alternative picture emerges. After a historical chapter, artefact hunting and collecting are discussed with reference to basic principles of archaeological practice and ethics. The phenomenon is also examined against the background of portable antiquity collecting and the antiquities trade. The authors then move on to consider justifications offered by the advocates of collecting both in the hobby itself and the profession; the role of the media in forming public opinion; the part played by metal detecting; the use of personal collections as a means of curating Britain's archaeological record; and, the role of the Treasure Process and export licences in creating a national heritage from the finds of artefact hunters. Alternative proposals for dealing with the problem are also presented in this title.
Alea iacta est. Mind you, I cannot say I am too keen on the cover being proposed at the moment, it looks a little "bland". But there are some interesting ideas floating around. But there will not be any "gold" on it. No way. That's not what its about at all.

Monday 8 December 2008

Salt on St Louis

A few days ago, Alun Salt wrote an extremely readable account of the affair of the 'Ka Nefer Nefer' mask from Sakkara now in St Louis. The text is called "Do you need a note from a criminal to prove an artefact is stolen?" which just about says it all.

He has an amusing mock test for museum staff involved in the purchase ("If you scored mostly ‘A’s: Congratulations! You would not be not looking like a prize buffoon. ..."), which reminded me that one person we have heard very little from is Sidney Goldstein, the curator of ancient and islamic art at the St Louis Art Museum that was (at least according to the Riverfront Times article on the affair) primarily responsible for the purchase. I guess in Salt's test, he would have "scored mostly ‘B’s". I wonder what the Trustees of the beleagured museum think about that. It would be interesting to hear Mr Goldstein's side of the story.

Sunday 7 December 2008

"Ethics (being purely subjective) have nothing to do with the situation"

On his blog, Wayne Sayles presents his views on Ethics, Law and Globalization. He writes “One view in archaeology today is that private citizens of any given country have an ethical responsibility to preserve the cultural heritage of all countries.” I would question whether this is a view just “in archaeology” or whether conservation-conscious people in general do not see the conservation of all finite and fragile resources as the ethical responsibility of us all. Like the products of the taking or slaughter of endangered species, the non-sustainable felling of tropical hardwoods, the pollution of the environment with chemical effluents and other waste, greenhouse gas emissions and so on. Sayles tries simplistically to present his "war" as one between collectors (in the white hats) and "archaeologists (the guys in the black hats), when it is the minority of self-centred collectors who want to gobble up selected bits obtained destructively from the global archaeological resource for their own entertainment and profit who are pitted against the whole resource conservation ideology to which increasing numbers of people continue to accept. That is the primary ethical concern, that which affects us all in our interaction with our environment, that collectors are expected to heed. That they persist in their self-delusive argumentation and posing in order to avoid that inconvenient truth, only reflects badly on them.

I find it pretty odd that thirty eight years on, the actual purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property is so persistently misconstrued (or misrepresented) in pro-collecting circles.
Photo: Conservationists remind us we have only one earth to bequeath to our grandchildren, but despite that some still want to use up as much its resources as they can get their hands on now.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Mr Buck, “taking a resource without landowner consent”

"Some law-abiding hunters are worried that people will unfairly lump them into this illegal activity", said Harris County assistant district attorney Eric Bily, who will prosecute the case. "This guy is not a hunter," Bily said of the arrested man. "This is very different from what hunters do."

We seem to have heard that one before.

Is it? Some animal lovers might say it is irrelevant whether or not the culprit was where and when he was allowed to be by law when engaged in the case of the brutal slaying of an animal and dismemberment just because some guy “had a great admiration for the deer's antlers”. (Those other dead deer on the guy's patio signify a "passionate interest in nature" no doubt.) The motive for the killing and dismemberment was the same – the prize, the trophy. So, some might say, it is with so-called “nighthawks” in the UK. What kind of "passionate interest in history" is it that leads to the dismemberment of archaeological assemblages for a handful of trophy collectables? Of course, I expect gun-owners with bits of dead animal on their walls see it somewhat differently.

Background to the story:
Tame Deer Named 'Mr. Buck' Beheaded in Texas Wildlife Sanctuary
Mr Buck
Mr. Buck's severed head recovered from suspect's home

Collection with attitude

David Knell is a well-known collector of ancient oil lamps based in Hampshire, he has an attractive and informative website displaying his collection. He has recently added an introduction which I found worthy of note:

Policy The core of the collection was formed many decades ago and added to since. In the early days it was easy to be certain that the lamps acquired had come from even older collections but over the years it has become far more difficult to distinguish between those and lamps that might have been excavated more recently. Due to that difficulty and a desire not to contribute, even unknowingly, to a destruction of the archaeological record caused by modern illicit excavations, the collection of material is now static. Attention is focused on research.Any further acquisition would have to comply with the relevant section and points in the revised Code of Ethics adopted by the Museums Association (UK) and published in 2008.
This is the sort of responsible attitude one would dearly like to see more of among collectors of and dealers in portable antiquities in future.

Over on her blog, Kimberly Alderman discusses the SAFE poll about whether museums should disclose their acquisitions policies and says that what she calls "private museums" should not be so constrained (as she sees it as some kind of infringement of "personal rights" or something like that here ). She seems to see this however only as something that could be imposed by "regulation" rather than social pressure. I think it would be a welcome development if a much tighter system of ethics was imposed on collecting from below, from among collectors themselves emulating the more responsible among their number and not allowing themselves to be in any way inferior to public institutions.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Collectors as Scholars?

I found Nathan Elkins' recent blog post "
Ulterior Motives in Discussion of Looting Issues?" particularly interesting and well-argued. It is a riposte to points frequently made by the US collecting lobby which basically argue that curtailing a no-questions-asked market would in some way be deleterious to scholarship because portable antiquity collectors are independent scholars. They argue that calls for a more open and ethical trade are in some way aimed at stopping independent scholarship. I think Elkins efectively shows how nonsensical such claims are. In any case I think it far from demonstrated that all consumers of hundreds of thousands of looted and smuggled ancient coins from the Balkans or metal detected finds from France and England are engaged in any form of scholarship. They are dealers and collectors.

I was also interested in contrasting the arguments proffered by the US lobby with those of UK antiquity collectors. I cannot recall ever hearing a discussion of the unfairness of unaffiliated artefact collectors not being able to access the JSTOR academic library resources on a British metal detecting forum. Still, now they are partners, perhaps the Portable Antiquities Scheme can organize it for British metal detectorists?

Wednesday 3 December 2008

The New PAS-Collecting Partnership

In most countries of the civilised world, the exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and commerce is regarded as damaging to the longterm survival of the resource and historic environment.

In the topsy-turvy land of Britain, this is not so. There, it is almost as if the core beliefs of the ACCG had been enshrined in national policy. The nation’s biggest archaeological outreach organization, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, has long been dominated buy its close engagement with metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors. It has now been urged by the Clark Review to ditch the archaeological policy component of its advisory body (p. 30) which must now be seen as balancing the “interests of finders” with those of archaeology and curation. The objectives and aims of the NuPAS should reflect even more strongly that it is a “partnership with finders” (pp 6, 26-7, 28, 38) and PAS staff should maintain an “independence” from archaeological concerns about artefact hunting (p. 31). It seems the new way forward for the NuPAS is to enter into a “partnership with finders” and taking their “interests” into account. No sooner have the scandalous pro-metal detecting proposals of this review been made public, than we find the PAS is already busily pursuing these aims.

In his excited article “The Portable Antiquities Scheme Saved! Thanks to UK Detector Net”, in the 16th number of the detectorists’s newsletter “UKDN Word”, Roger Bland announces a number of moves intended to strengthen this partnership and deliver artefact hunters and collectors a better service (p. 22, sic). Among them is a bid for funding from English Heritage's National Capacity Building Programme in which his organization is in partnership with the metal detecting internet forum (sic) UK DETECTOR NET. They are seeking money to enable a feed from the PAS database to go to the UKDN website and also to help UKDN produce its newsletter (!). This is reputedly to “make the database more visible to UKDN users”. This cash handout to metal detectorists from English Heritage funds looks awfully like a thank you for the use to which that forum had been put in the recent public campaign. This is not the only metal detecting forum in Britain, it will be interesting to see whether PAS will be attempting to arrange cash handouts for them all. Here once again we see the same old emphasis on the “wottalotta finds” database rather than the archaeological outreach influencing attitudes to this type of exploitation of the archaeological resource this organization should be doing.

Another grant has been applied for “to pay for potential volunteers to attend residential summer schools to be trained in how to record finds on the PAS database”, this is in accordance with the recommendations of the Clark Review. We can no doubt expect another jump in “numbers of objects recorded on our database” as a result, though cutting out the FLO means that opportunities for archaeological outreach are thereby reduced. We recall that the Clark Review (p. 28 points out “outreach can be done by others”.

The PAS has reportedly also applied for outside money “to buy 200 hand-held GPS machines to give to every detecting club in the country and to community archaeology groups”. So the PAS is now giving the artefact hunters electronic equipment to help these artefact hunters to more quickly empty selected elements of archaeological sites into their personal collections without having to fumble with large scale maps. These handheld GPS are of course a double-bladed weapon. Meteorite hunters use them to find on the ground a point corresponding to the published co-ordinates of a fall or find, and they can then start exploiting them as a source of collectables. I am sure some club members will find this a useful aid in the wide-open fields of some areas of Britain to locating specific spots identified from old archaeological publications. Once again, this is clearly a PAS move to try and improve annual report statistics while cutting out the outreach and input by their own staff. Perhaps we will hear soon that in order to facilitate adding more and more appropriated collectables from archaeological assemblages added to this explosively growing "virtual collection", these new artefact hunting “partners” of British archaeology will be able to claim petrol money for going to commercial artefact hunting rallies – and maybe have the price of the entry ticket refunded from EH funds. Where will this all end?

Apparently the Council for British Archaeology is also a partner in this 'GPS for metal detecting clubs' bid. The CBA has recently appointed pro-collecting archaeologist Suzie Thomas as their 'Community Archaeology Support Officer', so it seems in what direction they are going on this issue too. When is portable antiquity collecting "archaeology for all” and when is it not? That’s the question to which I would like to hear a detailed and unassailable answer from both the CBA and the PAS. I am not holding my breath though.

We all know that a partnership means two entities working together towards a common aim. We know what the aim of the artefact hunter is, to locate and empty archaeological assemblages of selected pieces of archaeological evidence (ignoring and even discarding the rest) and add them to their scattered and ephemeral personal collections. British archaeology, and the PAS in particular, by calling its relationship with artefact hunting and collecting of portable antiquities, is therefore voluntarily party to this approach to the "management" (sic) of the British archaeological resource. The excuse given is that by gathering data about large number of ex-situ decontextualised artefacts they are in some way facilitating archaeological research. But if one looks at what the PAS produces as exemplars of that research we see narrow antiquitist (artefactological) studies of individual varieties or types of (metal) artefact, ethnic overinterpretation of emblemic artefact types and dot distribution maps. This is the type of research that would have been all too familiar to Gustav Kossinna and other investigators of the past with an intellectual foot in the scholarly world of the nineteenth century. Archaeology tried to leave Kossinnism behind decades ago, British archaeology is being dragged back to it by their current fascination with metal detected "data".

It seems to me that in entering a partnership with exploiters of the archaeological record for collectables will need some far-reaching rewrites of the codes of ethics of British archaeologists – fuzzy as they are on this issue at the moment. In fact, what kind of approach to archaeological ethics does this move represent? If to "create knowledge about the past" it is enough for any Tom Dick and Mohammed just to take a metal detector out into the countryside and hoik stuff up willy-nilly, then what on earth do archaeologists have codes of professional conduct and ethics for in the first place?

"Nighthawking Down - Hooray for PAS"?

In an earlier post here, I drew attention to the general feeling among British "metal detectorists" that illegal metal detecting is still a major problem in the UK. "Not so" say the pro-collecting lobby. We are asked to believe that due to the shining light emanating from Bloomsbury and through the 37 Finds Liaison Officers of the PAS, these criminals with metal detectors have been won over, softened up and mended their ways. They go no more a-roving at night looking out for saleable and collectable things, they apparently go out at day and trot along to the PAS with them.

Bill Sykes has joined the ranks of the "responsible detectorists", become a heritage saver, a hero. That's what we are asked to believe now. First there was Kate Clark making this claim, now it is the official version.

Roger Bland has now joined the “leak the preliminary results of the Nighthawking Survey” bandwagon. In his thank you piece to his new partners, the metal detector using artefact hunters and portable antiquity collectors, he tells them:

A survey by Oxford Archaeology on Nighthawking (to be published in February 2009) has found that this problem appears to have declined on two counts compared with an earlier survey in 1995: (a) in 1995 188 scheduled monuments were reported as having been damaged, and in 2008 the number was 70 and (b) in 1995 74% of archaeological units reported that they had been attacked, whereas in 2008 the number is 28%. The report will attribute this, in part, to the educational work of PAS.
I am sure all those metal detectorists on the UKDN forum are comforted by this announcement of the decline in the numbers of these “black sheep that get the hobby a bad name” and all due to the PAS. They probably have a feeling of warm gratitude that yet another hurdle in the way of the British public wholeheartedly accepting the relentless exploitation of the archaeological heritage for collectables for entertainment and profit has been removed. No more nighthawks, and all due to their partnership with the PAS. Wonderful.

This claim however conceals a puzzle. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has taken a long time to make any headway with the "responsible detectorists" of England and Wales, the UKDFD recognises that there are still many of them who simply will not record finds with the PAS. So how has a voluntary recording scheme like the PAS been able to persuade the law breakers to change their ways so much more rapidly?

I find disturbing the leaking of what are only selected and preliminary results of a controversial joint project by only one of the partners for its own purposes. I have already discussed the use to which these leaked conclusions have been put by Kate Clark. Denison and Dobinson's survey was restricted to England and Wales (as is the PAS), while the Oxford Survey is nationwide. If nationwide numbers have dropped, not to put too fine a point on it, it cannot be due to the PAS, and I fail to see how, if they are doing the job properly, Oxford Archaeology could claim it was.

I suspect that when we see the full report, we will understand better what these figures show or do not show. I am convinced that we will discover that this is an artefact of the manner in which the data were gathered rather than being a reflection of anything that is actually happening in the fields of Britain. I am sure though that the conclusions are exactly what the government and pro-collecting archaeologists of that topsy-turvy land want to hear. So I do not expect we will see much proper criticism of the report from the interested parties.

It seems a rather dubious strategy of the PAS to argue that they are responsible for a decline in the numbers of illegal metal detector operators. After all every single findspot on the PAS database is hidden from profane eyes, because allegedly there are so many "nighthawks" who could use this information. If the number of these "nighthawks" is on the decline (after all seventy sites nationwide is the work of only one or two gangs of professional treasure seekers), then let’s have the PAS database opened up to the full view of those who pay for it.

Equally, the PAS reports that although in 2007 there were over 700 Treasure cases reported, their scrutiny of just one internet sales outlet (eBay UK) revealed as many as 183 cases of illegal sales of unreported Treasure, information on these cases was passed to the police (let us see what they do with it). There is more, after all to illegal metal detecting than Bill Sykes just going out at night with a metal detector and spade to the nearest scheduled site and looking for coins to sell to US dealers.
Photo: Newark metal detectorists Mark Longdon and Dean Wright after conviction for daylight illegal metal detecting on the scheduled Roman site of Margidunum in 2007 (Photo: Newark Advertiser)

Tuesday 2 December 2008

PAS: How many artefacts Got away?

The former Minister of Culture in Britain once likened artefact hunting with metal detectors to "fishing on land". As we all know, fishermen like to tell tales of the "one that got away". We are told that the Portable Antiquities Collection is managing to record "40 to 80%" of the artefacts removed by these people to scattered ephemeral artefact collection (or eBay) each year. How many artefacts then does Roger Bland, head of the PAS say are getting away unrecorded after being removed from the ground?

We can use the 2007 figures (summarized by Clark, p. 22 and now by Bland). Bland asserts that the total number of finds reported by metal detector users in 2007 is 40 to 80 % of all finds made by metal detector users in England and Wales in that year. This would mean that annually "metal detectorists" in England and Wales are removing from the ground between 70 and 165 thousand archaeological objects a year. Of these they reported about 58 thousand (on average ten finds per reporter). This means the number of “finds that got away” was between 12 and 107 thousand artefacts. that is the equivalent of between one and nineteen unreported finds per “detectorist”. So is each metal detectorist in the country holding back a statistical one object a year from the PAS (why? What is this mysterious object and why is it kept hidden away?) or are they statistically showing ten but holding back nineteen? What actually is the real pattern of activity behind Bland's broad estimate? Why, after over a decade of outreach among these people do we not have firmer figures?

The results of the gathering of data on this problem by the British volunteer group Heritage Action discussed earlier on this blog indicate that the national figures are much higher, at a conservative estimate, approximately 300 000 objects a year. How accurate is this comforting picture painted by Dr Bland? On what secret PAS data is it based? How well is Britain really coping with the plague of artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting and commerce?
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