Friday, 1 August 2008

Welsh Pompeii: a Portable Antiquity Dealer’s ‘vision’

In his questioning earlier today of the notion of public stewardship, Californian coin dealer, ACCG officer and Unidroit-L listowner Dave Welsh opines:

the vast majority of redundant antiquities controlled by such "meritocrats" are doomed to languish in conditions of appalling neglect and negligence that are in no way comparable to the care and conservation they would receive in private collections. It is my opinion that any objective study of the subject must conclude that public stewardship of antiquities has been a disaster. One really need look no farther than Pompeii to see the essential issues.”

On reading this, I thought it might indeed be a good idea to take a look at Pompeii to see these essential issues. The current state of this fragile exposed and popular site is indeed a cause for extreme concern. Is the problem here that it is in public stewardship instead of being partitioned among private collectors as Welsh suggests? Let us examine where Welsh’s arguments seem to be heading. Let us imagine that a 'forward thinking' administration has replaced Renato Profili by Mr Welsh with his innovative ideas about how to provide 'proper' stewardship of the pieces of Pompeii’s past. In the light of what he is quoted above as saying, and as a collectorship advocate, let's imagine that he would put into practice what he preached about how to provide proper stewardship by engaging in the sale of collectable items from among the 'redundant' (sic) elements of the site not already transferred to a museum. The resources generated from this would go to solving the problems of crumbling frescoes, tourist and natural erosion of the structures, litter and stray dogs.

Very probably the first to go would be any original statuary left in the ruins and stored away from the public gaze, these items should quickly fetch a bit of ready cash to finance further stages of the privatisation. Any reusable panels with parts of inscriptions, or architectural features such as columns, architraves, thresholds and suchlike could be salvaged from their exposed position in the upstanding remains under an Italian sky and reused eclectically in other contexts as architectural features enlivening many a piece of spartan modern concrete architecture, lending a soulless modern interior a certain ‘timeless elegance’ linking its owner with the classical traditions of the past and marking him as an erudite, culturally aware and sensitive individual as well as forming a useful conversation topic at suburban cocktail parties.

Probably some of the better frescoes could be detached from the walls and sold to eager art buyers anxious for a slightly unusual décor in the downstairs bathroom. The ones with erotic imagery would probably be sold even before they could be got off the wall and crated up and would most likely would end up in a Moscow brothel. The famous street-wall graffiti could also be detached and individually framed. They would be ideal to hang on US high school Latin classroom walls (spreading classical education in the US like the Ancient Coins for Education - more of this another time). The famous cross from the wall of one house in the shadow of Vesuvius could probably be found a new home in a New York Evangelical church.

Probably a ready market could also easily be found for a lot of the smaller objects, while the sculptures and frecoes would probably be most profitably sold through foreign art galleries, these could be more easily sold through Internet auction sites. Complete pots, lamps, metal items, coins, found lying where they had been left in the final hours of the city’s life in AD 79 could be sold relatively cheaply and allow anyone to have their own collection of authentic Roman goodies. Amphoras (after discretely drilling drainage holes) would be snapped up as plant holders on suburban balconies across Europe and the USA. Or they could serve as umbrella stands in office foyers.

The casts of the bodies of suffocated Pompeiians might be a bit of a problem. Probably a theme park however could be found to take the most shocking and contorted as a revenue-generating horror show. The ones done in transparent acrylic though might find a place in an art gallery as 'body art', like von Hagen's dissected plastificated corpses.

There might be a problem getting rid of animal bones and charred plant remains to collectors. Possibly this could be got round by tastefully framing them with an explanatory label and a handful of “authentic Vesuvius volcano ash" glued to the backing and spray-painted lurid ‘hot’ colours). The same could go for hand-sized bits of painted plaster, potsherds, window glass fragments.

I would imagine that with clever marketing, some of the more time-worn street paving stones could be taken up and sold to garden enthusiasts wanting to give their lawns and borders the air of respectable maturity. Complete Roman bricks would be intriguing stands for fondue sets or hot teapots (“yes, its 2000 years old, can you imagine that?”). Visitors could be hired small ice pick-like tools to take their own piece of mosaic (“dig and explore like a real archaeologist”), sold at a price calculated at 15 cents a tessera.

And so on… lots of opportunities for private collectors to each have and look after their own “genuine authentic Roman pieces of the past with a Certificate of Authenticity personally signed by authority of the new Minister of Culture”, all that is needed is to develop a collector-friendly approach to stewardship, just like Mr Welsh and his fellow collectors and dealers have been advocating. What I have suggested above would happen to the "minor antiquities" of this site is just a logical extrapolation of what they have been suggesting is how we should (continue to) allow archaeological sites to be treated in general.

While the collector of portable antiquities might be rubbing their hands at the prospect of a glut of cut-price and authentic antiquities coming on the market, let us spare a thought for context.

Collectors suggest that their own personal collection of contextless relics are a valuable way for them to “have access to the past”. No doubt that is the case if that access is primarily measured in emotional terms. But each artefact on the market has come from a context of deposition. Pompeii is a prime example (archaeological theory discusses even the “Pompeii premise”). What makes Pompeii so fascinating for everyone, even the non archaeologist, is the way the evidence can be used to reconstruct past events, past lives, past processes precisely because many of the objects are found in the position (read: context) where they were dropped at or just before a certain short period of time at the end of August AD 79. It was here among other places that the notion of context that was to turn antiquarianism into archaeology began to develop.

What would Pompeii look like after the dealers had finished stripping it of collectables for people to “curate” in scattered ephemeral domestic personal accumulations spread over most of the northern hemisphere? It would be stripped of almost everything which gives the site archaeological (and not only) value today, bare walls would be left, the street plan would remain, but anything along it which gave it character will have long gone to California, Wisconsin, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Murmansk, Birmingham and Konstancin. As a place that tells a real story of the past in the full richness of its authenticity and complexity, a collectable-emptied Pompeii will have been gutted, trashed.

This is a very good analogy explaining why archaeologists and others are against the stripping of archaeological sites by artefact hunters of collectables to feed scattered ephemeral portable antiquity collections. Destroying the context of discovery destroys any chance we and others may have of understanding that site and the rich story it could have told if the artefact hunters had not got there first. That is what the issue is.

Portable antiquity collectors may be in denial, but the issue is not one of elitist archaeologists restricting access to individual items (objects, artefacts which collectors want to accumulate), but trying to work towards the preservation and public accessing of the information that is inevitably trashed when a site is "done over" to get a few saleable items for selfish (often foreign) collectors to rub their hands over.

PS. Of course one of the main group of problems with Pompeii are those associated with making its remains accessible to anyone who wants to see and experience it. The easiest answer would be simply to excavate what archaeologists want to research and then backfill the site, cover it all up again making it inaccessible to the general public. The collectors seem not too willing to discuss the 'public accessibility' element of the problem when roundly criticising the current state of preservation of the site and attempting to use it as ammunition for their anti-archaeological case.

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