Monday, 4 August 2008

The Mantras of Collective identities

There is a whole series of protective mantras offered by the collecting advocacy milieu justifying the personal collection of portable antiquities (a euphemism for archaeological evidence ripped blindly out of any archaeological context it may have had in order to function as a collectable). They are loudly propagated nowadays in numerous blogs, discussion groups, publications and websites, most of which strive to present one point of view and discourage dialogue. Many of these belong to dealers in portable antiquities, though one of them is written by a convicted antiquities smuggler. Very few of them however seem to be written by their clients, the ordinary collector in this expanding market. When a collector does venture to give some rationale for what they do and the way they do it, it is notable that these are generally a pale echo of the existing advocacy material produced by the dealers and very few of them exhibit traces of any new thought or deeper reflection on the conventional mantras of portable antiquity collecting.

The function of these justifications is worth exploring. While posing as rational argument for a position, on examination almost all of them turn out to be glib and superficial generalisations. If one begins to attempt to question them, some strong reactions may be expected from the collecting milieu. Why should that be? As a group, they attempt to give the impression that they are erudite gentlefolk engaged in a culturally enlightened pasttime, indeed one which is its own form of scholarship and having a didactic role. So why should debate about their opinions on the effects of collecting on our knowledge of the past, society and culture arouse such strong negative emotions? If one examines the phenomenon with a social anthropological eye, it becomes clear that the repetetive recitation of these comforting soundbites is a ritual of confirmation of identity with and belonging to an elite band of possessors of culture.

It seems to me that many previous discussions with portable antiquity collectors, and in particular metal detector users, for example in the UK, have failed to take into account the extent to which “belonging” to the group contributes to the personal identity of the individuals concerned. Quite often for these collectors, being a collector is a fundamental factor in defining “who they are”. This seems to me a crucial element which cannot be ignored in any dealings with this milieu.

It is for this reason that any criticism of the hobby is invariably treated in collecting circles as though a personal attack had been made. From the point of view of a person who builds a substantial, maybe dominant, part of their self-identity around their collecting, this is how it is seen. If such criticism is made in a group (for example on an internet forum) the pack instinct operates, knee-jerk and unreasoning attacks on any person questioning the basis of individual identity operate as an affirmation of collective identity and solidarity, even though on their own many of the individuals so aggressive in the group setting turn out to be reasonable one-to-one.

This tribalism extends further. Attitudes towards an "Other" is an element that is manipulated by those wishing to gain influence in any group. For the collector of portable antiquities, the archaeologist often functions as that “Other” against which an “Us” is defined, especially in a situation where there is perceived to be competition over scarce resources. Several tactics are adopted. In British “metal detecting”, for example, there is a group that defines itself as Progressive by association with the aims and ideals of this socially powerful Other, principally through the medium of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Apart from being a reflection of the heartfelt sense of responsibility among these individuals, they not infrequently present such an association (and more importantly their own mediation in it) to other collectors as having the potential of protecting the hobby from possible consequences of negative scrutiny. Another group of UK detector users just as vehemently opposed any sort of compliance with the “Other”, loudly attracting support through anti-establishment slogans about "personal freedoms" and concerning “Self Determination for Detecting”. These rabble rousers tend to demonise archaeology as an elitist interest group, up to no good, and ultimately fated to be defeated by ‘people power’. It is in such unsophisticated circles that derogative phrases like "Heritage Brownshirts" and likening opponents to Josef Goebbels arise (see also An Example of Numismophilic Erudition). Similar factions can be observed in other areas of collecting, not only of portable antiquities.

Another group busily manipulating these personal identity formation strategies among collectors are the dealers. They are of course concerned to protect their commercial interests. Many of them warn what would happen to the antiquity market should collectors be foolish enough to listen to the conservationists and “Radical Archaeologists”. The prices of antiquities would skyrocket, collecting itself would disappear, collectors would become extinct. The rationale behind such doom-laden predictions is rarely presented, or asked for, it is enough that the prophets have spoken. This defines the course of action for the right-minded collector anxious to preserve what is dear to him (sometimes her). Out come the chanters of the traditional Collectors’ Mantras handed down as unchangeable holy dogma by word of mouth from the First Embattled Collectors (Byron's criticism of Elgin among them).

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