Thursday 2 October 2008

Portable Antiquities According to Derek Fincham

"This article attempts to clear up any misconceptions of the cultural policy framework in England and Wales" writes Derek Fincham in the abstract of an article that has aroused much interest in the collecting world. It trots out the same old stuff about "adapting the cultural heritage policy (sic) of England and Wales to other nations of origin" as we have seen before - most recently see my recent discussion of Eftis Paraskevaides' comments on Unidroit-L and other posts here.

This notion is of course as simplistic and nonsensical as it is wholly impractical. The British legislation concerning so-called portable antiquities developed in a particular context, a particular legal and cultural situation, it cannot simply be implanted into (or "adapted" to)another country's system without changing other elements of the surrounding context. Like driving on the left.

Fincham is wrong when he writes that the laws of foreign countries on ownership of archaeological artefacts and export restrictions are "the default legal strategies currently used by nations of origin to prevent the looting of archaeological sites", they in fact exist for other purposes (too). Are all nations that are the currently fashionable sources of collectables to change their laws to take into account the collecting trends and needs of an exploitive minority in the so-called 'market countries' (exploitive countries)? How much will this cost the citizens of exploited countries and why should they be expected to meet these costs?

The key point for all these arguments like Fincham's is the system of compensation for "finders" in place in Britain. England and Wales is contrasted with Scotland which has a different legislative framework. Fincham, however, seems to be ignoring the fact that in Scotland too finders of archaeological objects who report them as the law requires also receive compensation at market value. So why is it not producing the same results as the system in England and Wales? (For it is not.) It is NOT simply a matter of whether somebody gets compensation or not, there is obviously an element missing from the pro-collecting arguments, one they do not actually want to admit to. So what actually is it that would have to be adopted from the cultural heritage policy (sic) of England and Wales "to other nations of origin"?
He surmises: "compensating finders of antiquities may even preclude an illicit market in antiquities" but of course that is NOT what the system in England and Wales does ! It only compensates a small minority of them. The rest just get to keep to do what they like with the goodies, sell them on eBay, make earrings out of them, throw them in a skip or whatever, and they do not have to report any of this to anyone, and frequently (90% of them) don't. Fincham is confusing the system of England and Wales with that of Scotland - which he seems to be saying is less efficient than that of England and Wales. Instead of clearing up any "misconceptions of the cultural policy framework in England and Wales" among collectors, Fincham seems from evidence like comments of some observers from that milieu to be adding to them.

Fincham suggests that this "leads to less looting of important archaeological sites". Really? That the Oxford Archaeology Nighthawking (sic) Survey with its flawed definitions and flawed methodology seems not to be getting very far in identifying the real scale of this problem (though they are very tardy in presenting their results) should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there IS a LOT of illegal metal detecting and handling of archaeological artefacts going on in the UK, despite the best efforts of the PAS. Metal detectorists and British farmers know all about this, Mr Fincham apparently not.

As for "has produced more data and contextual information with which to conduct historical and archaeological research on an unprecedented scale"... I would certainly question that "contextual data". A six-figure national grid reference for an Anglo-Saxon grave find dug up with a metal detector is NOT "contextual" information. It is no information at all if we are to look at patterns of surface finds across a site which has been "done over" by metal detectorists. As for "more", more than what? It is very simplistic to take the PAS good news statistics out of their wider context of finds reporting by the British public in general over the past few decades and the context in which these data are currently being gathered (clue: "metal detecting clubs"). Without that context, there is no real possibility of adopting the English system in Iraq for example, nor even of adapting it. Mr Fincham seems not to have actually looked too closely at how the PAS actually gets their hands on the quantities of data that he extols. Neither does he take into account the other side-effects of the "policy" (sic).

Is the English and Welsh system concerning the protection of the archaeological heritage and so-called "portable antiquities" in particular a "coordinated legal and policy approach"? Not by any means whatsoever. It is an utterly flawed ad-hoc "better than nothing" compromise, and in terms of its relationship to the collecting of "portable antiquities", the only archaeological "policy" embodied in it is of "letting sleeping dogs lie" and "not rocking the boat".

In any case, would importing something like the British Portable Antiquities Scheme into southern Iraq, a liberalisation of the antiquities protection legislation there and and a system of "full market value" rewarding of artefact diggers to hand over what they've freshly dug up actually in any way stop or even curb the looting problem? That is a rhetorical question, it's patently obvious that it is a stupid idea, quite unsuited to the local conditions (though actually was even seriously suggested by one US academic). Almost certainly the diggers of Iraqi tells since 1990 have not been getting "full market value" from the local middlemen who sponsor them. Putting Mr Fincham's suggestion into operation in the region would not stop the looting, I suspect it would get many more people reching for their spades. So how would Mr Fincham "adapt" that system to the benefit of Iraq's archaeological heritage?

Anyway, the PAS is under review, the report was due out "in September", let's see what that has to say about the current "policies" and the way they are to develop. Eight million pounds its cost us already, where is it going? How much more is it going to cost?


David Gill said...

Cyprus has also been suggested (by collectors!) as a place to introduce a PAS-style operation.

Unknown said...

Many thanks for your interest in the article. I had hoped it would spur a spirited debate.

I fear however that this may not be a productive discussion of the merits, as many of the criticisms you raise indicate you have not read the article! I'd be happy to forward you a copy. I'm happy to accept disagreement, but this appears as if you've just taken the abstract and failed to read the evidence I've gathered. I'm in the process of posting a copy on SSRN, and you can read it here for now:

I finish the article by making a call for meaningful discourse. A partisan debate, on both sides leaves us no room for a meaningful discussion, which like it or not is how policy is created.

Dr. Derek Fincham

Cultural Property Observer said...

On your point about Scotland, perhaps less is reported because there is less to report and because there is no outreach program similar to PAS. (Scotland was outside of Roman territory and presumably less coin and "treasure" was buried there.)

In my opinion the cost of this program is "peanuts" given its scope and particularly when compared with the amounts of money governments throw around for other purposes.

On David's point about Cyprus, I should also note that I recall that the suggestion for something akin to Treasure Trove was also made in an article in the journal of the Cyprus Numismatic Society some time ago.

Further on Cyprus, I should note that an official from the Cypriot Embassy attended Dr. Bland't talk in Washington, but I don't think anything more came of it.

Finally with respect to Cyprus, it would be interesting to learn how many objects the public reports each year. I would guess the number would be minimal, particularly when compared to what is reported under the Treasure Act and PAS.

Finally, its not as if Cyprus could not afford a program like the Treasure Act and PAS. Cyprus is a rich EU nation.


Peter Tompa

Paul Barford said...

Yes I made it clear I was discussing the SAME abstract as the collectors were getting excited about.
I take issue with the statements you make in the abstract. If your abstract states something different from what the text says, then of course I'd be glad to see the text. I am not sure what "evidence" you could marshall to show the PAS is what in my opinion it is not, but I'd be glad to learn in more detail what you think.

I also wonder what this "meaningful discourse" between those concerned with protection of the archaeological record with collectors like those discussed in this blog would actually consist of.

Basically policy is changed when enough people say "hey this is not right" for the vote-seekers to take note. There is a lot which is "not right" on the antiquities collecting scene, where's the problem with an archaeologist pointing it out? Why in fact would an archaeologist do otherwise? Why aren't your PAS pointing it out?

Paul Barford said...

Replying to Culture Property Observer, who remarks:
> On your point about Scotland, perhaps less is reported because there is less to report […]Scotland was outside of Roman territory and presumably less coin and "treasure" was buried there.<

Good grief. So you think Scottish culture advanced little more than sharpened sticks then? (Little tip Peter, if you have any Scottish pubs in Washington, leave opinions like that outside before you go in to one !!!). Scotland has a very rich culture, pre_Roman, Roman period, post-Roman and still has one today. Scotland also has a large number of metal detector users and metal detecting clubs and collectors. I do not believe that Scottish metal detectorists are stupid enough to sick at a hobby years on end if they are not finding a thing. But it is not being reported – despite a perfectly adequate reward system more extensive than the English and Welsh one you all think is so wonderful. So there is something missing isn’t there? What could it be? Read the forthcoming book I’m writing with Nigel Swift to find out.

> In my opinion the cost of this program is "peanuts" <
Eight million quid is NOT “peanuts”, especially if its going on something which is (I think we can show) not achieving more than 10% efficiency doing what it was set up to do. So, if you think about it, to do it properly this way would cost eight million quid a year for as long as artefact collecting goes on in its current form. There are ten thousand portable antiquity collectors in the UK (10 000 in a population of 62 million). Why actually should the 62 million be asked to foot the cost of what these ten thousand do for entertainment and profit? Why should the Cypriote taxpayer, the Indian, the Macedonian, Afghan, Iranian and all the rest because a few foreign individuals want to buy bits of their archaeological heritage? So why don’t US collectors foot the bill? After all, you say you are all “interested in the past” and “interested in preserving the past”. Let’s see less words but some collector-dollars backing that up.

David Gill said...

Peter Tompa wrote: "Scotland was outside of Roman territory and presumably less coin and "treasure" was buried there." He is perhaps unaware of the Antonine Wall that ran between the Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde --- or indeed the network of Roman forts in Scotland. Perhaps I could point him towards Roman Scotland, published by Historic Scotland [WorldCat].

Paul Barford said...

Sadly I think that is not the only thing US collectors who insist on pressing as a model the PAS on other "source nations" are ignorant of.

In this case, being just a coin collector is no excuse, there is a whole load of articles (for example in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1918, 1924, 1939 etc and most recently by Anne Robertson) on the many finds and hoards of Roman coins from north of the (modern) border.

But then how odd to equate "having anything to report" with "having been part of the Roman Empire". I guess that such a standpoint would mean that the USA has no archaeology at all.

I think also though that Tompa's implication that in some way the Scottish archaeological heritage may be in some way "inferior" to that of England (and Wales?) a bit disturbing and reflecting stereotypes. Since these collectors claim to be "understanding other cultures" by their collecting, I would urge Mr Tompa and those who think like he apparently does to read a few books on Scottish coinage, if not archaeology and history. But, PLEASE read the books, don't collect for yourself what should (in the case of Scotland) be going to public collections.

samarkeolog said...

While it was kind of Peter Tompa to offer to let Cyprus underwrite this kind of programme, the fact is it does far worse already, with periodic amnesties in which antiquities of - to put it politely - questionable provenience are registered/legalised (and sometimes even published) by the Department of Antiquities, and are then available for sale.

Paraskevaides noted that the Republic of Cyprus held its most recent amnesty in 1998, after which date 'it would be illegal to possess an unregistered Cypriot antiquity'. Proposing that it would be 'the ideal opportunity to bring the black market in antiquities on the island to an end', he stated that 'I certainly availed myself of the opportunity and officially registered my collection on the island'. (Notably, Cyprus held a similar amnesty in 1973, so it doesn't require too much imagination to work out the nature of the more recently-registered antiquities.)

Those antiquities are then available for sale, as Paraskevaides' work amply demonstrates. So, Cyprus's policy already enables looting and private collecting of looted antiquities. It also buys looted antiquities back off the market, so it underwrites the entire process. How much more support and subsidy would he like?

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