Sunday 20 July 2008

Is "collecting" the problem, or Irresponsible Collecting?

Californian ancient coin dealer, blogger and discussion list owner Dave Welsh has published a link to (and selective quote from) this blog to several web groups. For some reason better known to himself (see below), he labels it “Barford's New Anticollecting Blog”.

The list of sites to which he sent this link reveals who he thinks would be interested in this news. Welsh’s message was posted to his own Yahoo 'Unidroit-L' list which as is well known principally serves as a springboard for attacks on the archaeological milieu under the guise of “discussing” cultural heritage protection law; it also went to the Yahoo 'AncientArtifact' discussion list for dealers and collectors of ancient artefacts. Interestingly as many as four refer to the coin collecting community: the Yahoo ACM-L (ancient coin market Ancient and medieval coin auctions and sales discussion group run by Thom Bray; Moneta-L discussion group about ancient coin collecting founded by Kevin Barry; CoinCom (“a Forumn (sic) Of Unrestricted Commerce and Discussions as pertaining to Ancient Coin Collecting”) ; and the Ancient & Medieval Coins Club forum. Also, oddly, it was also sent to Iranica a forum devoted to discussing all aspects of the history of Iran. Thanks Dave for the free publicity and enabling collectors to see more of some of the issues being raised by the conservation lobby about irresponsible personal collecting of and dealing in portable antiquities.

The Unidroit-L posting was half an hour later followed there by a comment from a ‘Lysimachos’ from Ohio: “This blog by Barford at last clearly shows that his protests about being open in the discussion of artifact and ancient coin collecting was nothing more than a ruse”. Hmmm, I cannot quite make out where the accusation of a “ruse” comes from. I have always emphasised and firmly believe, and will thus constantly stress here, that there should be open discussion of the issues that personal collecting of and trade in portable antiquities raise. That is no “ruse”, it is a necessity.

In their present form personal collecting of and trade in portable antiquities are causing serious damage to the archaeological resource, the full richness of the potential knowledge contained in which is the common heritage of us all. Instead of just the owners of foreign personal artefact collections, in particular it is the heritage especially of the people and their descendants of the so-called “source countries” whose archaeological record is exploited to produce these collectables, it is the past of the land they inhabit that is being erased to prooduce these commodities for the trade. They too are stakeholders and cannot be kept uninformed, misinformed and excluded from the debate. Let us have some honest information and frank, informed and open discussion of these issues.

What I do not believe however is that many in the collecting and (especially) antiquity dealing milieus are prepared for such a discussion. They have repeatedly shown that they have neither the background nor intention of engaging in such a dialogue. Over the past decade I have been a close observer of, and sometimes participant in, numerous British ‘metal detecting’ forums (British “metal detecting” being my prime focus of my attention), as well as international and more locally focused collectors’ forums. Some of them the groups mentioned above. They are typical in their reaction to suggestions that we should be looking at the effects of the current status quo in personal artefact collecting and antiquities trade on the archaeological record. Some collectors are genuinely concerned to hear that there might be a problem (I met some on ancientartifacts forum and the British UKDN forum for example), but any expressions of concern on their part soon led to them being shouted down by a vociferous group of hard-liners who by their aggressive behaviour (seldom curbed by the list moderators) invariably attempt to deflect the discussion away from topic and try to turn it into a chaotic shouting match. Quite obviously any kind of serious debate is rendered impossible by such tactics. The only “ruse” employed in these discussions are the constant attempts of the naysayers to avoid frank, open and informed discussion of these issues among forum members.

For the record, the author of this blog is not “anti-collecting”, nor even against the buying and selling of antiquities. I believe there is an acceptable, legitimate and sustainable form of both activities which do not damage the sources of our knowledge of the past through archaeological study. The problem is the refusal of a part, probably a large part, of the collecting and especially antiquity dealing communities which utterly fail to see any difference between this and what they currently do - and furthermore could not care less about exploring it. They pay lip service to notions about “caring about/interested in the past”, they say they are “shocked” by looting of archaeological sites to provide collectables for the market, but absolutely refuse to believe that irresponsible collecting provides the motor for it, or see any connection whatsoever between this and what or the way in which they personally collect. They persuade themselves this is not their problem, its for “somebody else” to deal with, they don’t need to bother themselves to think about it (or to consider how they can take any responsibility for their own actions in order to further this aim). These collectors and dealers produce all sorts of “justifications” why personal artefact collecting is “beneficial to humanity”, or “good for science” and that its not a conservation issue, but one of their personal rights. They insist on "The Right of Access to My Past" which overrides all others. On closer analysis it turns out that most of their rather glib arguments are all self-centred posturing to justify nothing else than the failure to take individual or collective responsibility for the collective deleterious effects of personal actions on a common resource.

I don’t think anyone is against anyone and everyone taking an interest in the past both of their own locality or world culture and wanting in some way to engage with it. The facilitation of this is is what archaeology and other public institutions exist for. I don’t think that anyone is against collecting per se, but we should all (and that includes ethical and reflexive collectors) be against unreflexive and irresponsible collecting which undeniably is leading to erosion and damage to the archaeological record. We should also be against the application and uncritical acceptance of the glib and false arguments and self-centred attitudes that lie behind it.

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