Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Rewarding "finders" to stop looting of archaeological sites?

On the Unidroit-L discussion list appeared the news item Macedonian police seize stolen antiquities
SKOPJE, Macedonia: Authorities have seized dozens of stolen ancient artifacts after raiding the homes of two suspected antiquities smugglers in southern Macedonia. Police confiscated about 70 archaeological items, including coins, terracotta figurines, pieces of silver and bronze jewelry and amphora dating from the Hellenistic and Roman periods in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. [...]They are believed to have been stolen from Isar, one of Macedonia's largest archaeological sites in the south [...]The artifacts were found in the homes of two brothers who had previous convictions for antiquities smuggling [...] Macedonia has some 6,000 registered archaeological sites. Experts warn that since the country gained independence from Yugoslavia 17 years ago, the antiquities have become increasingly vulnerable to looters who use sophisticated navigation and excavating equipment.
Discussing this case one of the major contributors to the Unidroit-L discussions antiquities dealer Eftis Paraskevaides added:
This is a typical example of what happens in poor nations in the Near and Middle East. Peasants and the such often have to resort to digging up and selling antiquities to the Black Market, in order to make a living.
This statement is a typical example of the sort of arguments used by collectors to justify their buying artefacts which have been excavated from archaeological sites in disregard of the laws which are established by cultural nations to protect the archaeological heritage from needless destruction. Collectors pretend its an act of charity, they soothe their consciences that they are putting money into the pockets of needy subsistence diggers among the disadvantaged peasantry of the developing world. They are deluding themselves. Studies show that most of their money goes into the pockets of the dealers, and the middlemen and smugglers whose anonymity the former are careful to shield. Some of the latter clearly have close connections with organized crime and are involved in other criminal activity too. These shady middlemen and fat US dealers are in no danger of starving if nobody bought looted antiquities from them.

According to Paraskevaides when these criminals are caught the authorities of the country whose archaeological heritage is being looted "embark on their spectacular punishment of such individuals" which they allegedly do "in order to save face to the outside world.....What a fruitless exercise!". Is punishing law-breakers fruitless? what makes it less effective as a deterrent is that regardless of the punishment of foreigners for such offences, western dealers will buy undocumented and contextless archaeological material from them knowing full well the likely origin of most of it will have been in clandestine digging and illicit export. They do so knowing that careless collectors will continue to buy such dodgy commodities no-questions-asked.

Paraskevaides, along with almost all western dealers in portable antiquities has his own suggestion how the problem of looting can be resolved:
Would it not be more appropriate to provide financial support and renumeration to antiquity finders in particular, thus negating the illicit trade?!
He seems not actually to have read what this so-called typical case involves. What was apparently being traded here were not the odd accidental find made by a toothless Macedonian peasant by the chicken coop in his own backyard and sold in the market in the nearby town alongside free-range eggs. These are alleged to be objects deliberately looted from a known and registered site in southern Macedonia and sold by diggers with "sophisticated navigation and excavating equipment" to two brothers who are known to have been previously involved in supplying theme to the foreign collectors' market. Why would Mr Paraskevaides wish the individuals involved in this case to be rewarded by the cash-strapped Macedonian state? Would this really stop the looting of sites like Isar (or Isin in Iraq)? Would such a system really put an end to the international trade in clandestinely excavated antiquities? Of course not, because if the Macedonian government was buying looted antiquities from the looters at fair prices (market value), like the UK's various Treasure laws it would be so that they could be curated in public collections in that country. It would not be so they could then be bought and sold by Mr Paraskevaides (Bidancient) and his foreign antiquity dealing associates. The legitimate antiquities for which the "finders" received a reward would stay in Macedonian museums, and foreign dealers would have to seek their goods elsewhere. Nothing in fact would change, western collectors would continue to buy artefacts of unverified provenenience just as before but due to a system of rewarding artefact hunters the Macedonian state and the Macedonian archaeological heritage would both be progressively the poorer.

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