Thursday, 14 August 2008

More codes of ethical collecting?

The idea of ethics codes for portable antiquities collecting [rather than “dealing” which seems a lost cause] seems to be catching on. On the Britarch forum (British archaeology – run by the CBA), Heritage Action Chairman Nigel Swift proposed one, Director of the CBA Mike Heyworth endorsed the idea and in reply US coin dealer and anti-archaeological activist Dave Welsh currently on that forum trying to tell British archaeologists what-is-what wrote: “I enthusiastically endorse everything said in this message. The idea of a Code for Responsible Collecting is worthwhile, and I will be glad to cooperate with all who are interested in drafting it. I regret the gulf that has opened between archaeology and collecting, and desire to do everything possible to bring our disciplines together again, as they were in happier times.”
Thus encouraged, Raimund Karl (Bangor University) then produced a draft of a 'Code of Responsible Collecting of Archaeological Remains' (CoRCoAR) which is accessible here (open archive of posts): It seems however that despite his earlier enthusiasm, coin-dealer Welsh has changed his mind about discussing ethics with British archaeologists now he’s seen what has been placed on the table for discussion. Was that a pin I heard drop?

A few days earlier (August 4th) back on the Moneta-L discussion list Paul McSweeney a coin collector in Ireland addressed some of the anti-conservation naysayers on the list hitting the nail on the head. he wrote:
“as collectors, we cannot dissociate ourselves completely from the fact that the existence of a market for ancient coins in the West (i.e., us) can help drive unscrupulous practices in source countries and so I think we should do our best to collect ethically”.
He asks would it be possible for "collectors to develop a code of (more) ethical collecting?” He then makes a suggestion how it might look, “just to start the ball rolling”, (quoted here with the author’s permission, though I have added the numbering):

1) We only buy coins that could plausibly have come from existing collections and avoid those which are very clearly recently dug up (e.g., those bulk lots of "uncleaned coins fresh from Eastern Europe" we see on eBay!).
2) Give our custom to dealers who appear to stock the above types of coins and who appear to deal ethically.
3) Avoid dealers in source countries without sensible
antiquities laws (as in the UK) and so who are probably exporting coins illegally.
4) Try to encourage dealers to record the provenance of coins,
where possible. I have bought a few coins that came with the previous owner's tag which gives me the great feeling of just being steward of that coin until it is passed on to another collection, probably long after I am gone. I know it is
easier to forge a provenance than a coin, but at least it would send a signal to dealers that provenance is something to be valued and recorded.
5) Avoid collecting antiquities other than coins, without a clear provenance. Coins can plausibly be found in a ploughed field with a metal detector without harm to an archaeological context, but non-metallic antiquities cannot be found other than
by destructive excavation. Likewise, hoards of coins were presumably hidden well away from habitation whereas other antiquities are much more likely to have been found in an archaeological context.

These are just some of my thoughts; I'm sure that others will agree with some points and not with others. However,
would it be possible by consensus to develop such a "code of ethical collecting"? It may not solve the problems of the market for ancient coins helping to drive unscrupulous and destructive
practices, but it might help (and give us more ammunition to defend our hobby!)”

Well, Mr McSweeney threw the ball onto the pitch in front of the players, none of them however have picked it up and run with it, in fact they seem to be pretending not to have noticed it. He tells me that a similar attempt about a year ago met with a similar response.

So at the moment portable antiquity collectors and dealers seem to be playing lip-service to the idea of a code of ethics, but it seems to be beyond them at the moment to actually compose one that suits the needs of the responsible collector as well as contributes substantially to clearing up the ambiguities and the utter mess the trade in portable antiquities currently is in . Still, its good that the idea is floating about the milieu.

I personally think Raimund Karl’s proposed code is too long, and tries too hard to fill in the gaps left by the way the Code for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales was drafted (it should not have been just about metal detecting but all kinds of collecting, pays too little attention to collecting as collecting, and is only applicable to the situation in two of the four regions of the UK – this is not ignoring the fact that getting such an agreement with British "detectorists" in current circumstances WAS indeed a major achievement). I’d like to see a code just on the collecting of artefacts once they have been found and are on the international market, its not a code for Mustafa with a spade digging up the Afghan mountain pastures looking for coins, but it should be aimed more at getting Tony Balony the ancient history buff in Wisconsin buying with discrimination and putting money only into the pockets of ethical dealers' and their suppliers.

Mr McSweeney’s version is interesting. As an archaeologist I would query the “avoid collecting antiquities other than coins, without a clear provenance”. Coins (whether ACCG dealers like it or not, and whether they were produced in thousands and “meant for circulation”), ARE archaeological finds, and if we agree that the archaeological layer of information of a portable artefact is best preserved by having detailed information of provenance, then so much more so is that the case with coins. Off-list correspondence with Mr McSweeney was a heartening experience, he obviously thinks more deeply about the effects of his hobby on the archaeological resource than the majority of his collectors on that discussion list seem to be capable of (to judge by their on-list responses). It is good to learn that there are such people in the hobby alongside the vociferous naysayers who tend to attract more attention. Let's have a code to sort out the sheep from the goats.


Ed Snible said...

Paul, you make some good points. (and others I disagree with!)

When I first heard of the 1970 convention -- in the 1980s -- it was justified in the (slightly) popular press with stories about faces being hacked off statues, church walls being knocked down and giant vases being dug up at midnight. I was collecting 18th and 19th century farthings and other kid-type coins. In my mind there was an association between antiquities laws and "the good stuff." I wasn't thinking of coins, potshards, or fibulas. I didn't actually read the treaty.

Question: In the late 1960s when the treaty was being debated was it widely understood in the academic archaeology press that 99% of the objects to be controlled by the treaty were coins and potshards and tesserae? Did the popular press fall down in explaining this? Or did it come as a happy surprise to realize when you learned that efforts to stop "big looting" could be applied to coins as well?

Paul Barford said...

Surely the answer is clear from the text of the document itself . Article 1 states that: “For the purposes of this Convention, the term "cultural property" means property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to the following categories: […] c. products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries; d. elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered; e. antiquities more than one hundred years old, such as inscriptions, coins and engraved seals; f. objects of ethnological interest”. Its quite clearly talking of anything the states signatory wish to regard as the cultural property of its citizens, whether it comes from below or above the soil within its borders. So coins, potshards, or fibulae if the state determines that these are its cultural property, and most states do indeed see archaeological remains from their territory as a very important part of the story of the region. If the state of Ambrosia wishes to declare its coins up to 1908 the cultural property of all Ambrosians, it has the right to do so, though it is under no obligation to do so, it can state that only coins struck before the “Great Ambrosian Revolution” in 1577 as the cut-off date if they so wish. Who are you or I to say they cannot? What outsider would have the right dictate what your country can regard as its own cultural heritage which you determine to protect?
The 1970 document has to be seen in the context of earlier documents and in particular the 1956 New Delhi Recommendations on International principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations
Obviously the trade in antiquities in general and the international trade in antiquities in particular has undergone both a qualitative and quantitative change since 1956 and 1970. Whereas it was probably more concerned with “arty objects” and the odd coin or two found in ploughing sold through small coin shops, the advent of the metal detector and Internet trading changed all that totally in a way which would probably never have occurred to the authors of these documents in their wildest dreams. The motor of the main part of the market today are so-called “minor antiquities” sold at cut price rates to many more individuals rather than the bulkier items sold to museums and the fewer rich guys of yesteryear. The scale of the destruction is now vastly greater than thirty years ago, the market is dynamically expanding, and with it the severity of the damage to the archaeological record to get more and more items out of a dwindling resource.

This is why in addition to respecting the laws and international agreements, we need to persuade responsible collectors (the ones that really ARE interested in the past) to adopt a more reflexive approach to what they do and think about its effects on the historic environment. This is where a code of ethics comes in. So far the collectors have been stridently demanding that archaeologists adopt a more "collector-friendly" approach, I say why do we not see a move towards an archaeological-environment-friendly type of collecting?

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