Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Gathering Stones in the Desert for Collectors

In another post here today, I discuss the effects on the archaeological record of a large expanse of the northwestern part of the African continent of the gathering up of archaeological material for sale to foreign collectors who are basically uninterested in where it came from and how it got into the big box of mixed goodies the seller in his own country offers to him at "reasonable prices". The archaeological issues have however analogies in those connected with other areas of collectorship. The same northwest African markets for example provide western markets with many fossils. It would seem though from the numbers of doctored and false specimens now appearing on the market that some of the previously more accessible sources are drying up. In other words, they have been collected away.

A more informative analogy however is with the surface collection of meteorites in the Sahara. A few years ago meteorites were relatively rare on the market and specimens fetched high prices. US collectors however were finding a number lying on the surface of arid regions in their own country (they stood out by colour, shape and texture from other stones and also were relatively stable in arid environments). Then some enterprising dealers realised that the deserts of other continents would be a good source of the commodity. So they began to make contact with dealers of geological specimens and persuade them to get desert wanderers to pick up the types of rocks they were interested in buying. Very soon this stuff started flowing onto the market in huge quantities. prices dropped, once a rare material, space rocks were now sellable for a few dollars a kilo. Now instead of being a highly-prized material accessible to only a few monied and well-connected collectors, they are now being collected by all and sundry and due to the glut, even used for making novelties (jewellery, watches, cut into novelty shapes). The availability of cheap material has allowed a substantial expansion of the market, new collectors are being enticed into the fold by various means which can only be good news for the dealers, its probably good news for the Bedouin (until the resource dries up) - but is it good news for the finite resource involved?

The situation is entirely analagous to the current state of the portable antiquities market, the expansion of which is encouraged by the ready availability of "minor" (sic) artefacts brought to light with metal detectors and with huge international oureach through internet auction and sales sites. In fact the similarities are so great that many of the arguments used by meteorite dealers and collectors to justify this personal collection of 'Rocks From Space' are exactly those used by dealers and collectors of 'Pieces of the Past'. There is no space to develop this here (which I hope to do elsewhere), but a few points need to be made about the material coming from somewhere in the Libyan and Algerian desert and surrounding areas currently being sold euphemistcally as "NWA" (Northwest Africa) material.

Meteorites are named by the place of discovery (where they fell). Stones from the fragmentation of the same meteoroid are grouped together under that name. An example is the Park Forest meteorite that fell on the outskirts of Chicago. This fragmented in the atmosphere and the pieces fell in a particular pattern (see Figure) which make up its "strewnfield". The study of the information of this pattern allows us to say something about the trajectory of the object and how it broke up (not without significance in studying the mechanisms of breakup on entry into the atmosphere of other objects from space, such as returning space vehicles and satellites). The pieces of a single meteorite can be studied together, the weight of recovered fragments determined and other such information obtained.

The situation with meteorites picked up "somewhere in the Sahara" and sold as part of a mixed bulk lot through a dealer in Marocco tell us nothing, other than a stone of a particular type fell some time in the somewhat large area known as "Northwest Africa", and now can be bought for a dollar a gramme from a Chicago dealer.

Collectors of these cut-price 'Rocks From Space' scoff at the idea that there is some form of technique and ETHICS that should be applied to collecting from strewnfields in the same way as many collectors of "Pieces of the Past" scoff at those who desire them to keep an account of provenance of the objects they covet. Meteorite collectors buying mixed lots of NWA material totally ignore the destruction of information for which their cupidity is directly responsible (just the same as those who deny that collecting of portable antiquities has any connection with the exploiting of archaeological sites as a source of collectables). Given such attitudes, the Bedouin collecting these rocks have no incentive to collect any information in the field on the strewnfield patterning of the material, since dealers know that private collectors will buy the loot regardless (they are not even overly interested that they cannot even learn which country or region the stuff fell in). Indeed, there are good commercial reasons for the finder keeping the actual findspot a secret. One of the most interesting and prolific of the NWA finds is the meteorite NWA 869, all that is known of it is that it was found (for most of it has now been collected away) at "Tindouf" on the Algerian-Maroccan border. Like the collectors of "Pieces-of-Other-People's-Past", meteorite collectors scoff at the existence of laws restricting the exploitation of a scientifically significant resource for commercial purposes. Likewise they scoff at the existence of "retentive" laws restricting the movement of certain resources across international borders and prefer not to think too deeply about who might be generating cash from this trade and to what aims. Collectors raising ethical questions like Richard & Roland Pelisson are ridiculed by the average meteorite collector, on the whole totally uninterested in anything like this which gets in the way of their free and easy (and cheap) access to material from which to build their own personal collection for entertainment and profit.

The strewnfield figure is taken from the webpage based on the article: L. Martell "Meteorite Shower in Park Forest, Illinois".

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.