Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Mything the point about the PAS

Attempting to explain why collectors of portable antiquities are so opposed to preserving information about the provenance of their “preciouses”, Dave Welsh has stated:
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.
He repeatedly terms such an approach “extremist”.

The Chairman of Britain’s Heritage Action pointed out that both Mr Welsh himself as well as the organization which he represents advocate the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a model that should be adopted in other source countries. The PAS of course promotes the archaeological concept of the need to determine and record the provenance of all finds of archaeological material, especially with regard the purchase of antiquities for collection. The PAS of course makes no differentiation on grounds of commercial value or commonness of different types of archaeological artefact.

Welsh’s response is astounding and seems to suggest he simply did not understand (or was avoiding) the point made. He wrote:
I regard a "full provenance" as essential insofar as that term applies to acquiring objects which British law requires to be reported. That (as I understand it) does exempt many objects including coins, for various reasons such as date of discovery, sparsity of a find, etc.
(he is referring to the Treasure Act, not the PAS – and forgets Scotland and Northern Ireland)

Eight million pounds have been spent trying to convince portable antiquity collectors in the UK of the importance of depositing information about the provenance of all recordable finds in the PAS database. The ACCG sent a letter to the British Minister of Culture expressing full support of the PAS… and yet it would seem that the vision the chair of the International Affairs Committee (presumably Welsh would have been one of the authors of that letter) is now expressing the candid opinion that this only refers to “objects which British law requires to be reported”. Mr Welsh seems unaware that the PAS was set up however to deal with NON-Treasure finds.

So, what does this alternative view of what the PAS is about tell us about the support of portable antiquity collectors? It suggests that in their advocacy of what they portray as "the British way" as a model that other source countries "should' apply to the treatment of their own heritage, there is very little understanding about what it actually consists of. For these collecting advocates, the existence of a PAS serves only as the basis of an utopian myth. Secondly, one may suggest that such attitudes about provenance data suggest that if museum stores were emptied of the more collectable "redundant" (sic) artefacts into the personal collections of the likes of Mr Welsh and his ACCG fellows, they would very soon lose all provenance data ("not required by law") - see my posting about "un-curation" earlier.

Is it actually "extreme", "completely impractical" and "unreasonable" to suggest that in a properly curated collection of artefacts taken from archaeological sites, whether public or private, there should be documentation about where they come from? Especially when in the English-speaking world organizations like the PAS and SAFE exist to ask collectors - ever so politely - to do this?

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