Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Collectors' un-stewardship

In the opinion of most collectors, requiring a full provenance extending back to a find site for every antiquity, no matter how common it may be or how low its value (late Roman bronze coins, for instance) is an extreme, completely impractical and unreasonable approach. If such a requirement were actually imposed, it would effectively strangle ethical collecting in a vast morass of paperwork required by impossibly complicated, unreasonable and onerous regulations

yet the notion of curation, of stewardship, requires precisely retaining all the values of the retained item without which it is merely an evocative geegaw. Collectors are currently advocating the emptying of museums of what they see as "redundant" objects for their benefit, without bearing in mind that in museums the provenance of the acquisitions is usually fully documented, and seems likely to be increasingly so in the future. In proper museums this information is retained and retrievable. Just what kind of curation, what kind of stewardship are these collectors offering? They are willing to take into their posession all manner of interesting "cultural material" but only as disembodied objects, without taking the responsibility for documenting their pedigree. What these collectors are proposing is not a "good home", it is not stewardship, it is un-stewardship; it is not curation but antiquitist anti-curation.

Findspots are important even to antiquitist artefactology. In numismatics, die links of things like barbarous radiates, and various forms of official and semi-official provincial copies of ancient coins take on a new significance (in fact can only take on a fuller significance) if they can be placed in a spatial and chonological context. The same goes for the findspots of issues such as celtic coins, sceattas etc. Things like shabtis make more sense linked to the associated assemblages, the distribution of distinctive oil lamps, pottery decoration, glassware, bone and antler combs, whetstones can only be interpreted in terms of social, economic and cultural context if we know where they come from. Of course if artefact hunters, dealers and collectors are taking most of the best stuff and simply ignoring their responsibility of preserving any record of provenance as part of their un-curation, then great - but entirely preventable - losses to our knowledge will ensue. By taking away what could otherwise have been recorded if recovered under different circumstances,
unethical collecting of portable antiquities is not only not curating information of the past properly, it is also contributing to its destruction. I submit that it is not the archaeologist who has to overcome the "practical problems and difficulties" involved in preserving provenance details of privately un-curated portable antiquities, but the antiquities market and collecting milieu. Such a notion should be at the basis of collecting having any pretence to the title ethical.

Illustration: (1) distribution of jew's harps, from Gjermund Kolltveit's site Musark., (2) Claudian coin finds in Wales, Peter Guest, Iron Age and roman coins from Wales: a case study

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