Friday, 8 August 2008

Discussing Collecting, the British Way

On the Council for British Archaeology's "Britarch" forum this afternoon, Andrew Holland B.Sc. M.Sc. AIFA (who works for the Council for British Archaeology as Education Project Officer) pleaded for a halt in ongoing discussion in that forum of the remarks of coin dealer and vociferous pro-collecting activist Dave Welsh. Welsh had appeared on this discussion list a few days earlier to enlighten list members on his notions of selling off “surplus” portable artefacts from museum stores discussed here earlier. Discussion however had swung from this to how terrible it is that some source countries have restrictive laws and require licenses for exporting archaeological finds so they can be sold in US markets, to Mr Welsh’s notions of "where ancient coins come from".

It is a shame that Mr Holland tried to halt this discussion on a publicly-accessible archaeology forum at this point as it was quite clear that the tide was going against Mr Welsh and his numismadogmatic generalisations and special pleading. It was no doubt acutely embarrassing for the pro-collecting lobby when Welsh started to explain his doctrine of “where coins really come from” and “what archaeological finds are” to archaeologists who actually had dug the things up. It was at this point that Mr Holland decided to step in and make a personal plea to stop the spectacle. Holland (“Yorkbadger” on the pro-detecting forum BAJR) pleads:
Please enough already! [...] the debate stopped being fun a good long while ago now - time to call a truce, agree to disagree. Lets face it you are not going to agree as you're all from hugely divergent views.
I was not aware that discussing among fellow archaeologists policies for the protection of the archaeological heritage against unregulated exploitation as a source of valuables was supposed to be "fun". It seems like a deadly serious problem to me. But for the CBA's education officer "it's very boring!". Mr Holland wants to debate such topics as "why are (sic) there no fish being eaten in Iron Age Britain?" Or "maybe what will the archaeological technologies of 100 years time be able to do - geophysics that can identify wood & bone [...]?". Well, the rate things are going, the main use to which geophysics might be put on most archaeological sites across a large part of the ancient world will primarily be to try and isolate islands of stratigraphy surviving between the looters' holes.

It is true that Mr Holland stressed afterwards that his position was his own private opinion. It is a matter of recorded fact that messages sent to the Britarch discussion list which his organization hosts and which contain “certain trigger words” are sent for moderation and unsuitable posts are not distributed to list members. The “trigger words” concerned are a closely guarded secret, but seem to include the terms “metal detecting” and probably “artefact hunting” (any interest expressed in determining the rest has led to reprimand). This suggests that the list owners and list members find such topics awkward to discuss openly – the question remains why these topics should be at all controversial discussed among archaeologists on an archaeological discussion list in Britain?

For nearly a decade and a half, England has been pursuing an official policy towards a artefact hunting and personal portable antiquity collecting based on the idea that there is allegedly “common ground” between archaeology (archaeological resource management) and the personal collecting or archaeological artefacts taken from that resource. To what degree is that based on a proper definition and forward-looking projection of what is involved, and to what extent is that an expression of despair and lack of will to combat the problem by any other means than adopting a passive approach of turning the other cheek? To what extent is the existence of a “common ground” with collectors an illusion fostered by an unwillingness robustly to discuss certain issues, but sidestepping them in order to avoid “rocking the boat”?

It is telling that Mr Holland, along with many of his fellow British archaeologists, appears to believe that there is a compromise solution to be found to the issues raised by Mr Welsh’s comments to an archaeological forum. This of course raises the question precisely where British archaeologists believe that archaeological practice, principles and ethics can in fact be compromised to reach such an accord with dealers representing views like those held by Mr Welsh and why.

Mr Holland’s comments seem to me symptomatic of the British approach to artefact hunting and collecting, current attitudes in the British archaeological community as a whole seem to be taking political correctness to the verge of apathy. Turning backs on problems does not make them go away. I really do not understand how any archaeologist can countenance an approach of "Let's just ignore the dealers and traders busy trading the unprovenanced and possibly illicitly dug stuff, perhaps if we ignore them long enough they will stop". London is one of the major international centres of the trans-national trade in antiquities both licit and otherwise, right under the noses of the whole archaeological community and the public it serves. This is therefore a problem British archaeology has to face up to, no matter how much they want to avoid talking about it and regret that no equitable "compromise" can be reached. It is a mystery to me why the CBA’s education officer, whether in a professional or personal capacity, would want to reach a compromise with antiquity dealers not only deeply involved as end users in the international trade of objects of undocumented origin but those actively engaged in trying to justify it to public opinion?

Signing up at long last to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the United Kingdom undertook to educate the public about “the threat to the cultural heritage created by theft, clandestine excavations and illicit exports". So when are British archaeological organizations like the CBA going to take a part in this, when and how? Certainly not by stifling open discussion on the topic and suggesting that such problems cannot be openly, frankly and freely discussed. One would have thought that it would be in everybody’s interests to encourage Mr Welsh to learn the opinions of British archaeologists on his suggestions so he could take this information back to his fellow collectors in the States
Antiquities Trade – 1 ; British Archaeology - 0....


Paul Barford said...

I would like to make it clear that I would like to make it clear that I was not implying in this blog post that the CBA filters messages to its forum based on their archaeological content. I am told that some of the posts that have not appeared may have simply got lost somewhere (if I understand correctly) in the gap between two servers of the moderating system. Nevertheless the moderating system itself is a hindrance to free discussion - many of the 'snagged' posts appearing on the list well after the time they were sent and thus out of sequence compared with posts which for some reason or another are not 'snagged' by the system. I really fail to see why discussing portable antiquity collecting and heritage issues between archaeologists on an archaeological discussion list is regarded as such a contentious issue that it is felt its discussion has to be treated in this way. Archaeology is archaeology, surely?

Paul Barford said...

bet you can't edit these things. "I'd like to make it clear" should appear once of course...

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