Friday, 15 August 2008

Is Looting of archaeological sites the 'fault of archaeologists'?

In a famous reply to comments by Ricardo Elia, Colin Renfrew (1993) formulated the notion that “Collectors are the real looters” . By this he means that the international trade in illicitly obtained and illegally exported archeological artifacts is supported and maintained by demand from collectors that purchase such artifacts without regard for, or even enquiring into, the manner in which they were acquired and reached the market. Collectors of course deny strenuously that this is the case. I have to admit that the logic of their arguments totally escapes me. A piece of a Nok terracotta only becomes worth digging up under the hot Nigerian sun if there is somebody in the region eager to pay the “subsistence digger” money to pass it on to the international market. A cuneiform tablet is just a lump of clay to a middle eastern peasant, but can be turned into cash if they can find a purchaser. It only becomes worth venturing into the Cambodian jungle with a hammer and chisel and a big bag to visit the overgrown temple if there is a man who will buy all the little heads of smiling Buddha which have been ‘harvested’ to end up in western galleries at extortionate prices (Brodie 1998).

In retaliation for conservationists pointing out this obvious and uncomfortable truth, collectors are trying to reapportion the blame. Three of the most commonly used ploys have been rehearsed recently on archaeological forums in the English-speaking world.

1) “If you give us the stuff we want we’ll stop buying dodgy items”. In this model, the portable antiquity collector asserts that the dog-in-a-manger archaeological “elitists” trying to spoil their fun have hidden away plenty of “redundant” collectables which they should release on the market to create a regulated market.

Doing that requires more than collectors and the trade can do by themselves. A cooperative effort involving archaeologists, academics and governments is needed. […] Why won't archaeologists take an interest in establishing a regulated licit numismatic market? That would do more to eliminate looting than you could imagine.” (Dave Welsh

In an earlier post we are told:
If it were feasible to establish internationally controlled antiquities auctions, in which objects (whether surplus to museums, or recently found by archaeologists and others) would be sold with provenance after they had been duly examined and recorded, that the illegal trade in unprovenanced antiquities would be greatly diminished.” (Dave Welsh)
There are many millions of redundant, unstudied antiquities in storerooms that no one has any real interest in, nor seems to have any idea what to do with. […]The motive for archaeologists to agree to such cooperation is to understand human social dynamics clearly enough to realize that this is the ONLY possible approach that can actually bring looting of archaeological sites under control. Provenance/provenience will command a sufficient economic premium in a regulated licit market to make cooperating with the authorities the only economically rational choice for those who discover antiquities. That motive will even cause those who presently loot sites to start policing them so that they can be reserved for cooperative licit excavation, if something like the Treasure Act/PAS scheme can be adopted in source states such as Iraq. (Dave Welsh)
The basic message then is that “archaeologists must agree to this, there is no alternative”. [The rather odd idea for a PAS-clone in Iraq is worthy of discussion in its own right....].

If you don’t guard the sites properly, stuff will be stolen”. In this model, the portable antiquity collector asserts that archaeologists and conservationists are simply not doing enough to keep illegal diggers off sites in most of the source countries. It is this lack of site guards (presumably like the Antiquities Police of Egypt or the guards which were present in Iraq prior to 1990) which is the cause of the looting.
The looting of sites should be treated not through laws, but through proper security measures. Would you leave money lying around unattended and rely on laws to prevent it being stolen? It is irresponsible to expose a site without providing a guard and/or security systems to protect it. If money is not dedicated to that, or volunteers employed, then it should remain undug. There is the technology to provide proper protection for even very large sites”. (John Hooker)
The only solution to the looting problem is better methods in the countries where this is happening, and that can never be a total solution. All it can possibly do is to lessen the instances of it back to pre 1970 levels, or perhaps a little better than that”. (John Hooker)
I simply do not know how many times I must repeat myself that unless the governments of the source countries take some harsh measures to guard every one of their archaeological sites, the illegal digging will go on forever and you and people like you CANNOT do anything about it”. (Farhad Assar)
It is a good job that we have not reached such a desperate situation as to need to post armed guards to defend every environmental resource we value, in the bluebell woods, nature reserves and wild places. We only need them to keep poachers out of game reserves. What does that say about the antiquities market?

“Archaeologists must sort out foreign social problems to curb looting”. Then we have those who say looting will take place as long as there is poverty in the world. If the portable antiquity collectors do not buy these things and give them a good home, they will be “sold for scrap” and “turned into tourist trinkets”. [While this argument may apply to metal (uncorroded copper alloys, lead, silver and gold) it does not apply to Nok terracottas, Southeast Asian Buddha heads and sculpture fragments, or cuneiform tablets]. Anyhow, the adherents of this line of argument are clear, the archaeologist concerned with the circulation of illicitly excavated archaeological material in the markets of the developed countries must deal with all the other social problems in the region.
If you genuinely care about the ancient heritage of people in poor and/or developing countries […], then please begin educating those people properly, not by dumping on them your unwanted rubbish, but through the opportunities you create for them to get the same level of education you, yourself, received. Then, and only then, they may begin to think that there is some sense in saving their ancient dog- or cat-bones, coins, vases, jewellery, bronze sculptures, palaces, etc. In other words, find the root causes of the irreversible damage to the archaeological sites all over the world, including the effects of illicit and clandestine digging, and do not put the blame for what is going on in this respect at the doors of coin collectors and dealers alone. (Farhad Assar)
If the advocates of protecting the historical assets of all nations are sincere about their good intentions, they must begin by educating the poor and providing for the needy in those countries in order to encourage them to appreciate and protect their cultural heritage. Then, private collecting and dealing will begin to slow down, become unprofitable, and eventually die out. (Farhad Assar)
I suspect these collectors pride themselves that by buying artefacts dug out of foreign sites they are doing their little bit to solve the problems of world poverty (but see Brodie 1998), as well as giving the displaced artefacts a "good home". Nevertheless I agree that an important approach is education of local populations persuading them that their cultural heritage has a value and is worthy of their attention and care. Mind you, what in that situation they will then think of all those that took advantage of them now and took lots of it away for their own foreign collections may only be imagined.

These three arguments have a common theme, its not the collectors’ fault that there is a market for antiquities, they claim that there is nothing they or anyone except the archaeologist or governments can do to stop it. If the archaeologist or foreign government will not adopt what collectors like the ones cited above insist is the “obvious” solution, then it is not the fault of the collector that no progress can be made with the destruction of the archaeological heritage by exploitation as a source of collectables for various people's entertainment and profit. It seems to me however that there is some rather obvious special pleading going on here.

Brodie Neil 1998, 'Pity the poor middlemen' Culture Without Context, Issue 3, Autumn 1998.

Renfrew, Colin 1993 Collectors are the real looters. Archaeology 46(3):16-17

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