Saturday, 27 December 2008

Archaeology for All? US Portable Antiquity Collectors' Schools Outreach

Scott Uhrick of Ancient Coins for Education is seeking donations of cash or uncleaned ancient coins to help the ACE in its work. ("we would like to remind everyone that we are a registered Not-For-Profit and all donations to us of cash or coins are tax deductible”). These coins go to selected teachers:

many of whom have set up small collections of their own and use them in their curriculum. Cash goes to support the main program of getting ancient coins into the hands of students studying a relevant topic such as Latin. Our goal if to share our appreciation of the beauty and history in these artifacts with kids who may hopefully grow into collectors in their own right.
This reveals the main purpose of this organization, to create potential new collectors to help US purveyors of other countries’ antiquities expand their market.

Earlier, ACE Board President Mark Lehman too admitted the purpose of the organization was to help expand and protect the market in contextless archaeological artefacts. He
wrote in December 2007:

We profoundly hope these coins will serve, as intended, as a sort of "dragons' teeth" seed, sown in the hope and expectation of raising a whole new generation of collectors [...].
... who will form a numerous army of warriors for the Cause, no doubt. It is no surprise whatsoever to learn that the ACE is fully supported by the pro-collecting ACCG.

The ACE website says, "The heart of the program consists of
authentic 4th century A.D. Roman coins that the students receive to prepare, to identify and to keep." But where do these ancient coins being handed out like candies by US Latin teachers come from? Not from archaeological sites in the USA that is for sure.

ACE blithely admit:

The vast majority of uncleaned material on the market at the present time comes from Eastern Europe - the "countries formerly known as Yugoslavia" and Bulgaria in particular - but ancient coins can be and are found wherever the people who used them lived. Coins are also commonly found in Western Europe and Great Britain as well as the Middle East, Turkey, and Northern Africa.
In most of the places named the coins are produced by illegal excavation of archaeological sites on an almost industrial scale (as in Iraq – in the “Middle East”) and their smuggling in huge quantities to the US is something that has been highlighted by a number of cultural property activists (such as Nathan Elkins, here and here). The looting in Bulgaria has reached crisis proportions and the mafia is deeply involved in this trade. The huge US market for these looted coins is one of the motors which keep the activity profitable for those involved. We may legitimately ask what steps ACE is taking to ensure it is not indirectly putting untaxed US money into the pockets of foreign criminals.

A year ago there was a
similar discussion on US antiquities dealer Dave Welsh’s Unidroit-L forum (misrepresented by Wayne Sayles on his blog, commented by David Gill). Then it was ACE’s Mark Lehman who wrote of managing “with our supporters' gracious help, to place tens of thousands of genuine ancient coins in the hands of thousands of students in hundreds of schools and educational venues across the US and Canada.” I asked whether that was
tens of thousands of provenanced coins which you can show the teachers and kids an export licence guaranteeing the recipients that you are giving the kids of law-abiding American and Canadian citizens legitimately-obtained material? A provenance they can look up on a map? Or is that tens of thousands of totally unprovenanced coins liberated by the "free enterprise" we hear so much about here from such restraints? Or is that one of those little details which the ACE "avoids like the plague" in presenting coin collecting to these kids?
Needless to say, as in most cases when one challenges the glib mantras of the pro-collecting lobby, I did not get a satisfactory answer.

Lehman's text "How to address the collector/scholar vs. AIA "no one but the 'experts' should have access to antiquities" viewpoints…." to which I referred is well worth consulting for the twisted arguments offered by the pro-collecting lobby against the those who raise resource conservation concerns. The ACE is, we are told a form of “Archaeology for all”. By liberating archaeological evidence from the possibility it might fall into the hands of elitist foreign archaeologists, the dealers and collectors of ACE are bringing the past to the people (or the USA and Canada). I'd like to hear the pro-collecting lobby to define properly and unambiguously when collecting of portable is and is not "archaeology for all". So far nobody seems keen to do this.

It is of course perfectly possible to create a hands-on educational resource by buying well-provenanced fourth century Roman issues arranged in a travelling handling collection which could be lent out to US schools. Coins could have a variety of imperial portraits, reverses, inscriptions and mintmarks and all with a valid export licence. Such coins could come from a number of dealers and "metal detectorists" in the UK, for example. As educational material, British Roman coins are ideal because the province has a substantial literature about changing patterns of coin supply based on a close study of archaeological finds (John Casey, Richard Reece and others). Such a handling collection could be created without a single coin having to be clandestinely or illegally excavated or smuggled into the US. Emphasising that in the classroom would in itselfhave an important educational value - teaching of conservation and responsibility. I think we can guess though that the latter is not what the ACE are interested in teaching US kids.

The main issue here is one concerning the conservation of a resource rather than one of personal rights and access. The real problem about all these coins is (
and always has been) where the coins used in the ACE programme come from and what they represent. I note that is one answer that Lehman refuses to address in any detail, except suggesting they come from 'potato fields'...

Its a shame that ACE avoids discussions of the ethics of all this "like the plague". Treating both sides of the issue (instead of the glib and meaningless platitudes ACE offers as your "answers" to the "AIA" critics) would be an ideal opportunity to produce a young generation who truly "can keenly appreciate" the need to cherish the remains of the past. Let them have all the information on which to base their own informed decisions if they want to become collectors or conservationists.In the entire ACE website (including the lesson plans), there is not a single mention of any of the issues raised in criticism of the current status quo regarding collecting unprovenanced ancient coins. If the ACE’s real aim was to provide an educational resource about the study of the past, in the interests of providing a balanced overview of the topic, there should be at least a mention of this topic, if not for example a link or two to online resources such as the SAFE article about "
why coins matter" and the discussions about it.

When I was a kid, a subject was good and inspiring because the teacher was good and inspiring, not because they gave out gee-gaws in the lessons. There are other ways of becoming interested in the past than collecting unprovenanced bits of other people's archaeological heritage.

I would like to know when we are going to see the AAE “Ancient arrowheads for Education” a pot-diggers and arrowhead collectors’ group with a “program of getting ancient Native American artifacts into the hands of schoolkids all over the USA to share our appreciation of the beauty and history in these artifacts with kids who may hopefully grow into collectors in their own right”. US Pot-diggers unite, archaeology for all.

1 comment:

Nathan Elkins said...

There are also multiple ethical alternatives to introduce archaeology and associated material culture disciplines to the classroom without encouraging systematic looting in source countries and associated organized criminal structures. The AIA, ASOR (whose relevant pages are presently being updated), and
all have detailed education and outreach pages for primary and secondary educators.

A couple of months back I blogged about an excavation simulation posted on the AIA's website.

I am told the American Numismatic Society once had a traveling teaching collection which was loaned out to schools for educational purposes.

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