Saturday 1 November 2008

Avian Perambulation Around the Real Issue

US coin dealer Wayne Sayles from the Ozark mountains in Missouri wishes to join in the discussion of the ethics of artefact hunting with metal detectors in the United Kingdom.

Discussions recently with the pro-collecting milieu milieu however have tended to repeatedly confirm Godwin’s Law. Just recently, in blogs and discussion lists we have seen conservationists called "Heritage Brownshirts", compared to "Josef Goebbels", accused of promoting an “archeologie uber alles” ideology and so on. The moment anyone questions this, the culprit protests innocence, claims he was "misunderstood". Anyhow, now the discussion of the report of a court reporter of what was revealed by a Coroner’s inquest (in Milton Keynes in the UK) has by some twisted stretch of the imagination been likened by Sayles on his blog (“Goose stepping” Friday, October 31, 2008, 9:35 AM) to a certain military parade marching step (chillingly portrayed here in one of the more revealing sequences from Riefenstahl’s classic film Triumph der Willens ). I am sure though Sayles will protest that he did not "really" expect people to think he was comparing us to the Nazis.

The whole text seems to me to be an attempt to dress up another personal attack in a pseudo-philosophical dressing. What Sayles labels as “Archaeological Goose-stepping” is in fact perfectly legitimate debate, the sort which Sayles and his ACCG pals would like to quash, dominate and force out of the public arena. Realising that they cannot in fact achieve this by reasoned argument, the best they can come up with is continual personal insult and ridicule, as we see again in this latest blog post.

What actually is wrong with discussing the ethics of an activity – or the way in which it is carried out – whether or not it is legal? In the UK (and many other countries) it was perfectly legal for many years to drive around at high speeds with your kids on the back seats of the family car unrestrained by any seat belts let alone any special car seats. Perfectly legal, but given the number of serious injuries caused annually, and in hindsight, what do we think now about the ethics of parents who did this when they could have fitted seat-belts and kids' car seats well before they were constrained to do so by law? One could multiply such cases. The “it’s legal innit? argument really does not apply to everything, so why should it apply to the exploitation of the archaeological record for collectables for people like Mr Sayles to make a profit selling? He writes:

Mr. Barford's post is equally preposterous. He jumps on the fact that the coins were retrieved in the dark. Would it have been better if the finders waited til morning when the sun had made its cycle?
Although the ancients you admire so much were unaware of this, the Earth revolves around the Sun Mr Sayles. Notions change. Yes, it seems pretty obvious that it would have been better to do any observation and recording of archaeological context in conditions of better visibility. Maybe some of that so-called "numismatic context" (whatever that is) was in some mysterious way preserved from "destruction by the archaeologists" (sic) by hoiking it out in the dark before they came, but I doubt that any archaeological context was. Sayles continues:

Now really, what would you do if you were metal detecting (legally) and found a few coins late in the day? Then you found more, and more, and more! Would you stop retrieving them because the sun had set?
Well, the question is irrelevant as I am not an artefact hunter. Despite Roger Bland having gone over to the US three times, and actually having met and discussed these issues with Wayne Sayles on at least one of these occasions, the Executive Director of the ACCG clearly does not understand anything about how the 1996 Treasure Act is intended to work. Like many collectors in the US he seems to be under the mistaken impression that the Act and its accompanying Code of Practice were instituted to “get the goodies”, get the things out of the ground and into the showcases and salerooms. If he had even the slightest knowledge of the history behind the writing of this Act, Sayles would know that its primary purpose is to preserve archaeological information about those finds. The finds themselves the state could buy back for market price on eBay, the whole point of the reporting process is to allow the context to be properly investigated and recorded. Not by shovel-wielding pensioners grubbing around madly in the dark, but as part of a controlled investigation by trained personnel, preferably in daylight.

There is nothing “preposterous” in an English archaeologist desiring that English “metal detectorists” treat the English archaeological heritage with respect. What is preposterous, and extremely so, is a coin dealer in his big house deep in the Ozark mountains sees this as in any way comparable to “goose stepping”.

UPDATE 26/3/10: I see now that after some months Sayles has thought the better of the wisdom of making the accusations contained in this post and has deleted it. It seems likely that he did this in order to make a framework within which to discuss the civility of lack thereof of the people he attacked in that post, the preservationists. While glad to see that Sayles rejects his former "strategy" of name calling and hatred mongering, the post was a telling indication of the mindset of the US pro-indiscriminate-collecting lobby. Fortunately this text which its author now finds so embarrassing has been preserved in another blog for the moment.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

See now Elkins more eloquently on the same phnomenon.

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