Saturday 31 January 2009

Moose sculptures and stolen antiquities

There is an article in ‘ The Canadian Press’ (Specialized team of Quebec police officers to track stolen art across Canada) about the investigation of art-related crimes in Montreal. Christopher Marinello, executive director of the Art Loss Registers' New York-based office is quoted as saying: "Americans are used to thinking of [their] northern neighbour as dealing only in moose sculptures and antique kayaks," but Canada's art market is "incredibly sophisticated," with auction houses bringing in millions of dollars a year. Illegal activity involving works of art has become a major form of international crime.

The article tells readers that there is now a Quebec police squad dedicated to investigating cases of art theft and counterfeiting, they are Canada's first group of specialized police officers dedicated to fighting that country's share “of what the FBI calls a $6-billion global industry that is believed to fuel everything from organized crime and terrorism to drug trafficking.” Bonnie Czegledi, a Toronto-based international art and cultural property lawyer, is quoted as saying that the world of art fraud and counterfeiting is dark and complicated. "It's not a pretty picture, especially when you get into antiquities crimes, you're dealing with the same people who deal with arms, drugs and women and children," she said. Organized criminal groups with their international contacts, are often involved, using stolen art to launder money or in exchange for drugs.

Marinell0 says "To combat art theft it needs to be a complete effort - not just on the part of law enforcement - but you have to have auction houses, museums, collectors and dealers on board - the whole art community has to get involved […] It's the co-operation of the art community we need and that's what's lacking in Canada." I wonder what the collecting of ancient coins and other portable antiquities from the Old World looks like in Canada? How many dealers and collectors of this kind of material are there, and are their supply networks the same as the US ones we tend to hear more about?

Ringing the "alarm bells"

I have mentioned earlier (here and here) concerns being raised in German collecting circles about the 'criminalisation' of no-questions-asked collecting. According to a message on the Ancient Artifacts forum (cross-posted to the Moneta-L forum too):

German cultural authorities have begun searching private homes and seizing entire collections of antique coins, if provenance of only a few coins in the collection is not documented. These invasions are being conducted under the new German laws on importation of cultural property.[...] In one case, a pensioner from the Thuringian Eisenberg recently acquired four old coins on an Internet auction site. Shortly afterwards his house was searched, ending with seizure of his entire collection. [...] Not only coins, but all "cultural objects" more than 100 years old are subject to these new cultural laws, leading to fears that stamp collections, collections of graphic arts and antique jewelry may also be targeted. [...] The new laws on importation of cultural property became effective in September 2008, after the German government finally gave in to demands that importation of unprovenanced coins and other artifacts should be prevented, because archaeologists allege that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market. This allegation is unproven - no verifiable, factual evidence has yet been presented to support it.
And so on... According to this author, those nasty, nasty, dirty archaeologists are at it again, entering pensioners' homes and seizing little kids' stamp collections to stop looting of archaeological sites.

In reality no new law was passed in Germany in September 2008 empowering the German authorities to seize just any antiques or stamp collections they fancy. (It is typical that the author of the above-quoted passage did not give his readers the name of this legislation so they can check for themselves what the wording actually does say). This is of course just another of those ACCG black fantasies about what the conspiracies plotted by their bogeymen, the mythical Heritage Brownshirts. This turns out to be just the ranting of another US dealer in no-questions-asked portable antiquities.

The people being investigated in Germany are those who have in some way infringed the cultural heritage protection laws. A gentleman who was traced as being the recipient of four - apparently illicitly obtained - coins might well, in any country, expect the police to interest themselves in what else they may have acquired and how in the past. The problem is that no-questions-asked market they have so carelessly patronised leaves them with no defence against such questions.

Perhaps now the discussion has started there among collectors, we will see the German market not following the line of denial and self-delusion adopted in the USA, but adopting a more responsible approach and paying more attention to these issues and the reasons behind the concerns. The US antiquities seller will however lose part of the European market for no-questions-asked undocumentable antiquities as German collectors will shun these in favour of those that they can add to their collection with the paperword "in ordnung" (perhaps that's part of the motivation behind this alarmist type of propaganda from US and other artefact dealers about the 'consequences'). In addition, the US dealer - for whom the German market was formerly an antiquities laundry, a major source of freshly-dug artefacts - will now have no excuse for the claim he makes to his clientele that the middlemen he buys from do not provide any documents for the material they "legally" sell. As the German collector becomes warier - and better informed about the origins of the material they collect, we will hopefully see an increase in the documentation available from the reputable German dealers.

Is it necessarily a 'bad' thing that responsible artefact collectors will increasingly shun undocumented artefacts of unknown origins? Surely that is the way artefact collecting should be going if it is to exist as a socially acceptable pastime in the twenty-first century?
The days of Petrarch are long gone. This is the way the PAS, for example, is leading.

As for the "verifiable, factual evidence" that looting of archaeological sites is driven by the collecting market, surely it is up to the German people to decide whether or not this is true, after all Germany has what the USA does not - an archaeological record containing ancient collectables which is actually being exploited to serve the market. The evidence the US dealers so strenuously - but ultimately unconvincingly - try to deny is in their face. Let the ACCG send their "foreign affairs officer" over to Germany and try to tell the ancient coin collectors there that all the coins in their collections come from hoards buried "on the edges of old battlefields" by "soldiers who never came back from battle". I imagine he'd get short shrift from educated collectors in a source country like Germany who know where ancient coins and other artefacts are to be found in their own country.

Germany ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in November 2007. The reason by the way, was not so much to stop looting but "to help fight illegal trade in cultural property at the international level". I do not see what a responsible collector of portable antiquities would have against such a measure.

The ACCG hoard model rears its ugly head again

On the Unidroit-L forum there is a post called "German Collections are Being Confiscated" which is about portable antiquity (coin) collectors in some regions of Germany who cannot document the legitimate origin of the archaeological items in their collections having them confiscated (more of this later perhaps, see here and here). This has led to the issue of a statement: " Sammeln von Münzen fördert Bildung und Kultur" by a number of German numismatic groups. Its the usual "collectors rights" rant. That text need not detain us, its the same old stuff about "Petrarch collected coins" and "collecting coins is a Jolly Good Thing" which we know from "certain other" milieux. In fact it looks to me like these continental groups are taking a leaf from the US antiquity dealers' song book.

The author of the Unidroit-L post, Minnesota (St Paul) ancient coin collector (Jorg Lueke) provided a "translation" of part of this "Gemeinsame Erklärung ..." but changed the text of its point two in a significant manner. In the original it reads:

Wir unterstützen den Schutz archäologisch bzw. historisch wertvoller Münzfunde, da sie einen mehrfachen Quellenwert besitzen, auch unabhängig von der finanziellen Bewertung der einzelnen Münze durch den Markt.
Mr Luecke for some reason renders this as:

We support the protection of archaeological sites and historically significant coin finds. We understand coin hoards can have more worth than simply their financial worth.

We seem to be back to this fixation the US ancient coin collector seems to have with the "all the coins we collect come from hoards which are not archaeologically significant" fallacy. The Roman empire extended into parts of what is now Germany, and ancient coin finds are made across the whole area. German coin collectors cannot delude themselves so easily as the less well-informed US collector. So the US collector had to change the text to render it "ideologically safe" for the US collectors' market.

Thursday 29 January 2009

Collectors unite! You have nothing to lose but..... eh?

Apparently, though Roger Bland apparently wants to "have the law" on me for writing about portable antiquity issues, I am not all bad. If you read the numismatic press I've even been caught out praising Ancient Coin Fondlers. In an article in World Coin News January 22, 2009 by Richard Giedroyc it is said that Wayne Sayles wrote something or other in response to:

"an unintended compliment the ACCG received from archaeologist Paul Barford in a recent blog. In that blog Barford calls the ACCG "the most prominent ancient coin collectors' lobby group worldwide".
A moment's checking reveals that I do indeed write those heart-warming words, but it seems Mr Giedroyc misunderstands the context. Quelle surprise, it seems Mr Giedroyc does not understand several other things, which it seems he's apparently copied from an editorial in Celator magazine of December 2008. He writes:

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is defending more than collectors of ancient coins against special interests in archaeogical (sic) circles who would outlaw collecting ancient coins if these people could legislate it. Readers should understand that the ACCG is defending all collectors regardless of the age of the coins in their collections, since these special interests claim just about any object of any significant age is the cultural patrimony of the country where it was either found or originated and for this reason should be repatriated to that country regardless of who has current title to that object.
He forgot the stamp collectors. ACCG and its allies are defending stamp collectors against the same mythical nasty, nasty dirty coin-hating archaeologists. And banknote collectors and stuffed wallaby collectors. All collectors, except those US collectors of Nazi memorabilia (it does not mention their "rights" in its press releases).

A message to Coin collectors: whereas these guys are counting on your ignorance, read the relevant documents for yourselves, not just the snippets someone else foists on you. Try to think about what you read, don't just think what others tell you to think. Then you'd be able to spot the glaring fallaces in statements such as the following:

"The Peoples' Republic of China, as an example, has been defining ancient coins of China as those being struck prior to 1911, while attempting to demand the return of their ancient coins from private collectors and museums by lobbying
the U.S. government for legislation that would mandate it."
Now it seems to me that decent ethical folk collecting Chinese coins and wanting to buy coins exported from China should actually know the relevant laws and discussions related to that activity. It seems to me from what he wrote that Mr Giedroyc does not. Let him put a justification of the above statement in his next World Coin News article and leave me out of it.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

South Dakota does not need archaeologists

A few weeks ago as the result of some problems some US portable antiquity collectors were having with the law, I asked in this blog about South Dakota: "Presumably the region has had some rescue archaeology where is the material from that archived? Perhaps it is a lack of cultural outreach about the rich prehistory of the territory of North America which leads its citizens to hanker for bits and pieces looted from archaeological sites across the seas?" Well, it turns out it had. But not for long.

In a move which will probably produce excited anticipation in the ranks of anti-archaeological collectors' groups like the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild, South Dakota State legislature has reportedly completely cut the State Archaeologist's office out of the state budget, which provides nothing for its continued operation. The State Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City is reported to be extremely active in public outreach and have been good stewards of cultural sites for many years. This facility also houses all Federal collections for the state (as well as some others).

I guess then that the state's administrators assume that it will henceforth be in the scattered personal collections of pot-diggers and arrowhead collectors that various newly discovered bits of South Dakota's archaeological heritage are likely to be curated in future. It remains to be seen whether the citizens of South Dakota perceive a need for any more of their land's (pre)history and how they will satisfy it if they get rid of the archaeologists.

I suppose that while collectors' groups persist in persuading the US public that the real roots of America's past lie in the "pieces of past in your hand" cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals of a no-questions-asked market, the ancient coins and "partifacts" metal detected and dug from Balkan and Middle Eastern archaeological sites bought via the Black Market, then there's not much perceived need to spend money on producing proper information about the past of their land.

What are the long-term consequences for archaeology of the effects on public perceptions of the discipline caused by the current laissez-faire policies in some countries on portable antiquity collecting? I think this is something the pro-collecting lobby should be thinking very hard about. When is portable antiquity collecting "archaeology for all" and when is it not?

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Codename: Ainsbrook A Time Team Special

The British TV show “Time Team” aims to present in a fly-on-the-wall quasi-reality-show format the process of archaeological investigation to the wider public. Though its a little cringeworthy in places, I think its generally a very positive thing as a palatable way of propagating knowledge about archaeology. In UK metal detecting forums one or two passing remarks made on air by certain people connected with this programme have become infamous - part of 'being-a-detectorist' lore. In general the programme has tried to stay away from the controversy on portable antiquity collecting in the UK. Perhaps this is with a view to viewer figures, perhaps it is just part of a general wimpyness among British archaeologist afraid to call a spade a spade here.

In a rare exception to this general tendency, presenter Tony Robinson (the only non-archaeologist in the TT 'inner circle') has some outspoken views of his own:
'Metal detecting worries me greatly,' he says. 'To be honest, I think we're [messing] about. The reality, according to Phil [Harding – PMB], is that there are likely to be no metal finds at all in the first foot of Britain's soil within 20 years. The only way we can prevent that happening is by legislation. I think all metal detectors should be licensed and to get a licence they should be required to abide by a code of archaeological best practice.'
'Everything we find, wherever it is, should be scrupulously and
systematically recorded within its archaeological context,' Tony insists. He says that the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which involves the voluntary recording of archaeological finds, is 'great, and I support the people who do it, but in a way it's a policy of despair because it's saying yes, all these people are going to plunder our archaeology but what we'll do is try to persuade the nice ones to tell us where they found it.'
Tony doesn't think legislation on metal detecting is too much to ask. It's about developing a critical mass of support to change hearts and minds on the issue. We don't allow people to collect birds' eggs any more, for example, he says. 'Yet this is worse than egg collecting. There will still be kestrels producing eggs until we get down to the last half dozen kestrels but once you lose archaeological remains they are gone forever.'
It is difficult to argue with any of that. Which, I guess, is why pro-collecting archaeologists in the UK tend to ignore points like this.

I do not think Phil Harding [one of the programme's archaeologists] was right in his assessment that all of the British archaeological record will have been "metal detected" away in two more decades, but it certainly will be more severely damaged than it is today by ineffective British policies on the issue. Part of the problem is that we really know nothing about the rate at which the unrecorded damage is occurring - Time Team for example estimates the number of "metal detectorists' in the UK as "50000". My own work suggests this figure is actually five times too high... This highlights the fact that we really do not know how many of these people there are, or what they are doing. It is high time we did. If there really are 50 000 of them, then the PAS is seeing only a very small proportion of the finds they are taking away (its bad enough if there are 10000).

Time Team usually shares the British media's general pat-on-the-head tendency to depict metal detector users as benign anorakish “history-seekers” only too willing to help archaeologists search sites for metal objects during for example Time Team projects (the official picture promoted by the pro-collecting archaeologists). In a rare exception to this, in January last year a Time Team programme "Codename Ainsbrook" was broadcast which atypically depicted the other side of the problem. It talked about the collecting that lies behind what is domesticated by the effete label "metal detecting". It discussed the archaeological investigation of a site (a single 'productive' site in the north of England), which had been searched by artefact hunters Mark Ainsley and Geoffrey Bambrook for a number of years before it was brought to archaeological attention. In this time they had removed "as many as seven or eight thousand objects" from the site. They were depicted none too kindly - for example as quarelling with the Treasure Valuation Committee about how much reward they "should" get for three silver coins which were declared Treasure.

The programme caused a great deal of discussion on the archaeology and metal detecting forums because it did not give a very flattering picture of the milieu in general. It was on British television again recently and the discussion has revived (see David Gill’s Looting Matters post). Let us see more of this sort of coverage of the artefact collecting issue.
I was interested in a comment added to David Gill's post. One of the Ainsbrook metal detectorists informed us that since the programme was broadcast: "from 2008 and the showing of the program the site is now being ‘nighthawked’ so finds from the site are not being recorded". I wonder whether this figures in the Oxford Archaeology "Nighthawking Survey" which is due out any moment now? It has been leaked is going to proclaim that British policies (and the PAS in partricular) have led to a decline in the illegal use of metal detectors on archaeological sites. We will see the basis for such remarks in due course.
UPDATE 26 Sept 2012: Time Team Special 34 (2008) - Codename Ainsbrook At the moment this episode is available on You Tube.

posted by Fillask·

Saturday 24 January 2009

"We will be seeking legal advice about this posting on Monday."

The Portable Antiquities Scheme threatens, "We will be seeking legal advice about this posting on Monday." The PAS standing at the awkward interface between archaeology and portable antiquity collecting is no stranger to controversy. There are a few archaeologists who publicly question some of the things it is doing, the way it reports them and their long term effects on public perceptions of the discipline. There are many more however in the artefact hunting mileu who strongly criticise the Scheme and individual members of its staff, and make various allegations on the "metal detecting" forums. Sometimes justly, most of the time not, but always spitefully, often in the most abusive of terms; on these forums Roger Bland and the Scheme he runs really are libelled outrageously on a regular basis. I do not recall however ever seeing in all of its eleven years activity any public message from the Head of the Scheme addressed to any "metal detectorist" on a metal detecting forum that the PAS intends to "seek legal advice" about any of those comments made by artefact hunters and portable antiquity collectors (I am sure Dr Bland will correct me if I missed one).

If the disturbing Malmesbury coin affair was misreported by the British media, it surely is not my fault. I can only draw the same conclusions as everybody who read this piece of reporting. If Mr Bland is unhappy about what I wrote here on the basis of what I read in the British media, then he only has to fill in the missing facts to set the record straight.
What is it about the entire pro-collecting lobby that they apparently cannot face critical comments and awkward questions on the difficult issues from those whose prime concern is the preservation of the archaeological record with anything other than threats, aggression and name-calling?

Vignette: "Off with their heads!" (Sir John Tenniel)

Friday 23 January 2009

Myth Detecting

As anyone watching the debates on ethics in the collecting of portable antiquities in the English-speaking world will know, the most vociferous naysayers come from among the collectors of ancient coins, who tend to dominate the debate. An officer of the collecting rights organization the ACCG has recently made another astonishing statement in support of maintaining the status quo. Answering Nathan Elkins on a coin-collecting forum, Californian coin dealer and collecting rights advocate Dave Welsh claims that there is no “evidence” that the current form of no-questions-asked buying and selling of portable antiquities contributes to the looting of archaeological sites, or rather he believes – so supplies no evidence to support his claim – that this cannot be applied to ancient coins. Let us have a look at this blatant piece of special-pleadeing:

"Nothing […] has yet been presented to support the assertion that collecting ancient coins contributes (in a significant way) tp looting of archaeological sites. […] Please note that I am not choosing to take issue here with the assertion that a causal connection exists between antiquities collecting (in general) and archaeological site looting. That is also unproven, however I believe that there is a very significant difference between detectorist "coin prospectors" who specifically search for coin hoards and other scattered metal artifacts, and "looters" who search for all sorts of valuable artifacts in areas where these are most likely to be found (e.g. an ancient necropolis) - selling whatever coins they may incidentally find. Looters would still do what they do even if they knew that there were no coins at all in those places". (my emphasis)
Perhaps the Californian has been misled by the existence of the hobby of "coin-shooting" in the US (searching for modern coins with a metal detector). Even then, however, if one looks at their forums, it is clear these people do not search "blind" but try to find by research places where such coins will be found, 'old' homesteads, fairground sites etc. As for how to search for ancient coins in the Old World, I think Mr Welsh would benefit from going on one of those metal detecting holidays organized by Jimmy Sierra and his English "metal detecting" pals and get some real experience of finding ancient metal objects in field conditions. I would like to hear of Mr Welsh’s experiences if he set out to comb the fields as a “detectorist coin prospector" specifically searching only “for coin hoards” which he himself claims are only buried in isolated spots. It seems to me that many US collectors (especially of coins) are very fond of telling the world all about metal detecting looking for ancient relics, without any real knowledge of the nuts and bolts of what that actuallly entails. Let them at least join a few UK metal detecting forums to find out.

The only information that can presently be used to assess the Dave Welsh Dichotomous Detecting Model comes from England, where the Treasure Report for 2005-6 shows that in those two years almost 1000 significant Roman coin finds were reported to the authorities, most of them by metal detectorists (though not all are what Mr Welsh would be calling “hoards”, and at least some of them coming from settlements). It is estimated that there are some 8700 metal users actively searching for ancient artefacts, but each year only 500 of them report finding hoards in the course of a year’s “detecting”. This means that if one set out deliberately to prospect for a hoard in the open countryside, under such conditions it would take Mr Welsh’s postulated “detectorist coin prospector" about 17 years of “metal detecting” to find even one. This rather casts doubt on the actual existence of such a category of artefact hunter, I wonder if the coin dealer can actually adduce any evidence that this alleged specialization is not more than a figment of his imagination.

The undocumented coins that dealers like Dave Welsh apparently buy by the bucketful to separate out by state of preservation into “featured coins” and “bargain lots” (discussed here) come from middlemen, who are supplied by artefact hunters. Are we really expected to believe that the metal detector-wielding artefact hunters who supply these middlemen really spend a decade and a half out in all weathers searching areas devoid of any trace of ancient activity looking for a hoard ? What would provide their income in this period? Or pay for the petrol and batteries for his detector? Maybe Welsh imagines there is some kind of local 'godfather' who would give them all advance payments over the 17 years waiting for the big discovery?

Alternatively, shall we reject Dave Welsh's rather dubious model and believe what archaeologists in the area (unlike Mr Welsh, actually on the ground), tell us - that they are targeting sites where there are all sorts of potentially saleable artefacts in the same area (e.g. an ancient settlement, military site, necropolis). The loot from this is then passed in bulk to the middlemen who themselves pick out for separate sale the more collectable items, coins in good condition, more complete artefacts, and then pass on the material to wholesalers who then export it (inevitably illegally) from where they ultimately end up on the markets where dealers like Dave Welsh buy them.

In such a case, buying coins from the dealers who are supplied by such sources puts money into the pockets of the middlemen who are buying the items from the people who are actively destroying archaeological sites in the source countries. There are not two fictional classes of artefact hunters supplying the market for portable antiquities (“detectorist coin prospector" distinct from “looters”). This notion is part of the fantasy coin collectors have that “coins are not archaeological objects”.

Maybe it is time for collectors themselves to stop listening to the weak excuses and fallacies propagated by the dealers and start finding out for themselves what lies behind those trays of glittering (or nicely patinated) prizes they are offered.

PAS Reportedly Used to Launder Stolen Coin

In June 2008 a coin of Edward the Confessor dating to 1042 and minted in the minor mint at Malmesbury was stolen by a visitor to a museum display at Malmesbury Abbey from a display case (Joe Ware, Stolen 1,000-year-old coin returned to Malmesbury Abbey, The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, 23rd January 2009). According to this account, a man was recently arrested in Surrey and the coin has been recovered. The reported circumstances of this discovery raise a few questions. The man was apparently traced as the result of an anonymous phoned tip-off to the Abbey bookshop who said he had heard a “metal detectorist” bragging about stealing the coin.

What is highly disturbing about this however is the fact that although the coin was actually stolen from a public display, the artefact hunter is said to have reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer in Surrey, claiming he had discovered it with his metal detector in “Tetbury” (presumably the one in Gloucestershire, where there was recently, I believe, a metal detecting rally, presumably he pretended he had found it there). The media report states that the coin passed through the entire PAS system, the FLO examined and recorded it, researched its history and then after a month of work (in which time both the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had expressed great interest in the "new" find of a coin from this comparatively rare mint), the coin was returned to its finder with its alleged provenance officially-documented.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald reports that it was only after the anonymous tip-off that Wiltshire police went to Surrey and arrested the man, who at first claimed he couldn’t find the coin; the Police said if he didn’t return it they would press charges, and the “metal detectorist” eventually returned the coin. It is now safely back in Malmesbury, this time not on display but locked away in a bank vault until new security measures can be put in place in the church.

This story has a number of dimensions. The pro-collecting lobby tend not to stress that so-called “metal detectorists" are collectors, and as we have seen in previous posts here, many collectors of portable antiquities are not too bothered about where the things they covet come from, just as long as they can get their hands on them. This man, for example, stole from a church, and since he was bragging about it to one or more of his mates (fellow "detectorists"?), saw nothing wrong in that as an expression of his self-centred collecting passion. Likewise many antiquity collectors think nothing about buying portable antiquities they know have been looted in the Balkans or Middle East and smuggled out of the country by black marketeers.

To add insult to injury, in an attempt to cover up his crime the Surrey metal detectorist apparently tried to supply the coin with a false provenance, which would enable him to keep it in his collection or sell it with impunity. It was in this way that the PAS was unwittingly dragged into this affair. He was only caught out because he bragged about the new addition to his collection. This (together with other similar cases which have come to light by accident) raises a very disturbing question. How many more illicitly obtained artefacts (for example by so-called “nighthawking”, or smuggled from other countries) have been recorded under false provenances by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and thus given false legitimacy? We will not know because as far as I know, the PAS has no consistently-applied procedure established for verifying the reported data. Surely it should have, to ensure that its staff are not running the risk of handling dishonestly-obtained material.

The PAS is very fond of publishing impressive numbers showing how their "partnership" with artefact hunters is growing. This is represented by the pro-collecting lobby as an expression of the degree of "responsibility" in the milieu - the Malmesbury Church Looter reminds us that these bald figures hide a multiplicity of individual motives for contacting the PAS, not all of them connected with "responsible" artefact hunting or collecting. I wonder if any records in the PAS database concerning previous 'finds' from this individual will now be deleted, and researchers made aware of these deletions in case they have previously used potentially tainted information in their research?

One thing is unclear from the wording of the news report (“Police said if he didn’t return it they would press charges”), does this mean that the Police did NOT press charges because he gave the coin back? Do we understand that this "metal detectorist" got off with a pat on the head and a “thank you very much, sir” from the police? Let us reflect that as someone (allegedly) with a passionate interest in history he should be aware that in Edward the Confessor's day stealing from a church would have been punished somewhat differently.

Photo: Stolen coin NOT from "Tetbury" (Photo, The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald).

Thursday 22 January 2009

"Things that go on at the commercial level": Closed Discussion on Looting and Collecting

One of the common portable antiquities collectors' mantras (and in particular in the USA) goes something like this:
"The only problem that I have been convinced of is that countries with restrictive ownership laws end up with undocumented excavation by a variety of people". That was Jorg Lueke, but in fact the same motif occurs in the discussion of portable antiquity collecting and illicit commercial exploitation of the archaeological record for collectables time and time again. In this self-serving model, the fault for illegal digging and destruction of the archaeological record is not with the people who sell and buy the stuff making the digging profitable, its "bad laws" which do not let people profit from the digging legally (eh?).

To judge what one can read on portable antiquity collecting forums from those parts, the American collector seems to see almost anyone living to the east of them, especially if of a different skin colour as corrupt, lazy, strange, unworthy and uncultured (orientalism). So Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Iraq, the Middle east in general, all those "eastern" peoples. The Asiatics to the West in China and Southeast Asia equally so, and the Latinos to the south also it seems. So in their world-view apparently all these foreign governments have "bad laws" which "repress the people" (because it stops them digging up archaeological sites just for personal profit) and as such the US collector apparently feels he's doing the right thing to strike a blow for free enterprise and reward people (the ones we'd call "looters") for breaking them. The remedy for looting, they say, is to force all these strange foreigners to change their laws to be more collector-friendly (US collector friendly that is).

There was a discussion on Moneta-L a few days ago about the trade in looted ancient artefacts (for example from the Balkans) in the US [actually specifically coins] and the role of the collector in this trade. This was prompted by a discussion of Elkins' several writings on the scale of the North American market for looted coins from the Balkans and middle east (already referred to here) and possibly Witschonke's recent contribution to the Celator magazine which I mentioned here too.

In the course of this discussion, which went on for a few days before being stopped by the moderators (below), once again the same old arguments came out: the coins that are collected by coin collectors don't "really" come from looted archaeological sites because "coins are not archaeological artefacts" and they "come from hoards buried by soldiers before battle" [this is on a numismatics forum !!], that if collectors did not buy them all the corroded metalwork in archaeological sites would be dug up anyway for melting down. The stupid foreigner anyway does not know how to value the items dug up and taken away (for why else would they be dug up and taken away?), only the erudite American collector can do that and provide these objects with a "good home" in which they can be properly appreciated.

Once again the argument was trundled out... the problem is that these "eastern" countries have restrictive (ie "bad") laws. These laws, the collectors insist need changing. These countries have "corrupt governments" (not like the USA eh?) which make but perversely enforce these laws. Basically they are saying that the American collectors are doing everyone a favour buying all the looted objects by the bucketload from the people smuggling them. What a load of nonsense - but then this is what passes for "discussion" in these "erudite" circles. Anybody who knows anything about where ancient coins come from would be very saddened by going through the archives.

I incautiously made a post in this discussion which attempted to take a slightly wider view, to put these "its the bad foreign laws at fault" views into a wider perspective. The USA has an archaeological record too. The USA also has a problem with citizens that want to dig into it for the artefacts it contains which can be collected and bought and sold. Let us try and see what US coin collectors are saying about the looting of Bulgaria (for example) in the context of their own homeland and its archaeological record.

I asked US coin collectors:
is the United States a country with "restrictive laws", or of the type you would like to see adopted by the whole world? Can you just take a spade and go and dig up ancient relics wherever you want as in the case of England? For example theArcheological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (PL 96-95; 16 U.S.C. 470aa-11). Why does the US have these laws restricting what for example you, a citizen, can legally do on Federal land (2.63 million square kilometers) - nearly 30% of the country's total territory, when all that happens is all those nice history-seeking pot diggers are rendered illegal there? To take your arguments to their logical conclusion, why not repeal all the US archaeological resources protection laws, why not just let anyone who wants to take a spade to a kiva, cave or burial ground just get on with it? Just as long as they turn in any coins and othe treasures found (for which of course you'd give them full market value), and what the museums don't want can go on eBay. That is what is being suggested here and by the ACCG that the rest of the world should adopt, isn't it?

Then you could have the whole Pocola Mining Company episode all over again, countrywide. Jack Lee Harelson needn't have gone to jail. There'd be a stop to the looting in Utah ("Experts estimate that more than 80 percent of American Indian archaeological sites, some dating back 17 centuries, have been looted") and Northern Texas, Citrus County ("Looters of artifact sites raked: 'Like spitting on history'") or Arizona. I expect we could go on... but I am sure we all get the idea. The "looting" would stop when you change the law to give the same thing a new name.

These laws exist for a purpose. Law breakers are law breakers, criminals. The diggers have no respect for what they destroy, and breaking the law is lucrative while there are people in your country who will buy the proceeds. People who buy - whether through the internet, from dealers or however - the proceeds of this looting are just putting money into the pockets of the criminal looters, the spitters on history. Now I wonder whether as an artefact collector ("interested in history") your sympathies might extend to these collectors ("interested in history")? Nevertheless here we see the destruction caused by their digging into archaeological sites to exploit them as a source of collectables (and I am sure you'll be able to find many more examples from the media of this in your country).

I think (hope) most normal people in the US would deplore this kind of destruction. Is this right? Is this the way these sites should be treated? Are you collectors happy with this? Should the laws protecting such sites be repealed to allow collectors "only interested in history" to get their hands on ancient pots, baskets, personal ornament and other "ancient art" produced in this way? And maybe you think the government should pay the looters for their work as has been suggested should happen in the "source countries"?

I think if US collectors are going to convince the whole world to adopt new archaeological resource protection legislation to stop looting by legalising it (sic), you obviously have to first get the US laws changed in line with what you suggest. Lead, and maybe you'll have a better chance of convincing people to follow. In other words, encourage the looting of the archaeological sites of your own country before you encourage the looting of another's.

Perfectly valid points one would have thought in the context of a discussion on the interelationship between collecting and looting. Of course it does not take into account the underlying fallacy with which US (but not UK or European) coin collectors delude themselves that "coins are not archaeological artefacts" (or maybe "coins are not at all like any other kind of archaeological artefact"). Jim Mc Garigle probably spoke for many US coin collectors on the list when he replied:
Paul sets up a straw man and tosses out a red herring too. This is a ancient coin collecting list, not an Native American pottery list or an arrowhead list, etc. This is comparing apples to oranges. I'm not going to be drawn into arguing about pottery or arrowheads or dinosaur bones - I don't collect them or sell
them and they are NOT the focus of this list. I think most people who are U.S. citizens on this list (and others as well) do not want Native American graves violated for pottery or arrowheads and as a Midwesterner who lives a stones throw or a quick drive from a number of Indian mounds, I would never even consider looking for coins at one. It's like going to Chinese restaurant and looking for Pizza on the menu. The only Native American places that you will find coins at are the casinos!
This suggests then that the removal of ancient coins for sale from the archaeological record of other countries is not in any way comparable to the removal of archaeological artefacts in the USA. It shows that some (many/most?) US coin collectors are perfectly happy buying artefacts dug out of archaeological sites in somebody else's country, but wince at the thought of other US collectors buying artefacts dug out of archaeological sites in their own. That coin collectors can propose that foreign governments should "adopt measures" for (just?) coins to allow the commercial exploitation of archaeological sites that they would not like to see imposed by outside collectors for elements of their own archaeological record (even if they do not collect these things themselves). These collectors want to impose upon citizens of other countries anti-resource-conservation measures which they know citizens of the USA would not accept. Sauce for the foreign goose not sauce for the US gander I guess. It would have been interesting discussing these issues further, to see if all coin collectors on the list saw this as a "apples and oranges" situation like Jim McGarigle. Of cours it is not, it is comparing like with like. Too alike it would seem for some in the portable antiquities collecting community.

Putting the commercial looting of somebody else's archaeological record into the perspective of commercial looting of the US archaeological record was a bit uncomfortable for the dealers who are among the moderators of the Moneta-L list. Canadian coin dealer Robert Kokotailo is one of them. In a special "Message from a moderator about Elkins Discussion..." he wrote:
Since this particular discussion has evolved into things that go on at the dealer (this commercial) level, it is in fact off topic and it has been allowed to continue far too long. As moderator I choose to declare this subject line closed. Once I send this post, any further posts on the topic will be stopped at the moderator level. Any non-moderated person slipping through a post will be placed on moderated status for a while. But I make one exception to this. Mr. Barford will be allowed one more post on the subject, but the content of that post can only be links to other discussion groups he may know of where this type of discussion is on topic. Any members who wish to continue it can then do so on those venues. But not on Moneta. But after that, the subject is totally closed on Moneta.
The discussion may be forcibly closed by commercial interests, but the issues will not go away so easily. The refusal of North American collectors to discuss these issues, the refusal to do so openly and honestly is simply alienating them more and more from those who care about the historic environment. Either they will have to face up to their responsibilities, or face the social consequences of not doing so.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Curiouser and curiouser

If, as I suspect, the Egyptian’s intention of only announcing Ali Aboutaam’s arrest in Bulgaria on January 15, several weeks after it happened was intended to prompt the Bulgarians into making an announcement, it seems to have succeeded.

On 21st January the Bulgarian daily Dnevnik daily carried a report about the fact that the Bulgarian court has rejected the request for extradition of Ali Abou'Taam, and only now makes known to its readers the allegations made earlier in the Arthur Brand Museum Security Network posting referred to in this blog. I suspect that these allegations will lead to more questions being asked in Bulgaria in the coming days.

This was followed up by a report by the Sofia Echo [Petar Kostadinov Bulgarian prosecutor, art collector conspired to free controversial art dealer - journalist alleges Wed 21 Jan 2009]. In it we are told:
When Dnevnik asked for more details on the story, authorities said that Abou'Taam was indeed arrested in Sofia. The Sofia City Court (SCC), however, said that because Bulgaria and Egypt did not have an extradition agreement, Abou'Taam could not be sent to Egypt. The court's ruling has been appealed but was denied and Abou'Taam was released. The Interior Ministry told Dnevnik that Abou'Taam left Bulgaria for Switzerland on January 7 2009 after his name was taken off the wanted list based on the SCC ruling.
In the “society” section of another Sofia Echo article written by Nick Iliev however there is another allegation: "Dnevnik quotes an anonimous Interior Ministry source as saying that one of Bulgaria's largest collectors of antiques was involved in arranging the release of Abou'Taam."

I am a bit puzzled about the reference to a lack of extradition agreement, because ten years ago, one or more terrorists was/were indeed extradited from Bulgaria to Egypt, but that was communist Bulgaria and not EU-member Bulgaria. It is odd that the reported version of Aboutaam's lawyers' statement seems not to refer to this aspect of the trial: "Bulgaria purely and simply refused to take up the extradition request, considering in substance that the Egyptian conviction targeting my client was illegitimate."

A somewhat puzzling aspect of all this however is when Mr Aboutaam actually left Bulgaria. On the 5th January, Arthur Brand suggested it had taken place soon after the arrest. The Dnevnik was told that this had happened on the 7th January. That things might perhaps not be quite as they seem is suggested by an article by New York journalist Nadira A. Hira, who works in a building just the other side of Central Park from tha Aboutaam brothers' Phoenix Galleries. The article (Really old money Fortune magazine Published: October 23, 2008 has the subtitle “The new darlings of the art market are ancient artifacts. It's a wild, high-stakes game with a shady past. Playing it could make you rich - or get you arrested”. What is interesting in this context is that it carries an interview with the Aboutaam brothers – and apparently both of them (they are photographed in their gallery), making no reference to the fact that since the 17th of September Ali was actually under arrest in Sofia. But the journalist is perhaps not entirely silent about the story. She says
In 2004 […] Ali was sentenced in absentia by an Egyptian court to 15 years in prison for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring. (The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.).
Well, no, it was not “dropped” because Ali was arrested in September on the basis of that Egyptian conviction – not until a Bulgarian court (according to his lawyer) said that the conviction was “illegitimate” – but then, who did Ms Hira learn that from before October 23rd , and when? Sadly she has not yet returned my email asking that question. Perhaps the article was written long before the fatal trip from Paris to Sofia, if so it is a shame (bearing in mind the headline) that it was not updated, but perhaps Fortune is not as well-informed as it likes to think?

See also David Gill’s continuing Looting Matters coverage of this curious connundrum.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Balkan Artefacts like Manna?

A few weeks ago prompted by looking at ebay, I was discussing here the US trade in artefacts coming from the exploitation of archaeological sites in southern Europe on the basis of what one could find on a well-known internet auction site. In the discussion of some coin collectors’ (false) claims about “where coins come from” I was looking at some of the bulk sellers of ancient coins. It seems worthwhile extending that to look at the range of items offered by sellers on the portable antiquities market in the United States to see whether the buyer can determine whether the material is coming from “old collections” or “things soldiers buried before they went into battle”

The coins of course are not coming out of the ground alone, for the US market various types of artefacts imported from the Old World are segregated out and put into different "piles" (and some sellers will also mix objects from different regions of the world, and even on eBay add fakes to the mix). Let's have a look at one manifestation of the market in collectables including ancient coins. This is all perfectly Legal according to US law, but is it Right? The fact that US collectors are eager to buy (nay, recommend buying) these items provides a ready market an incentive for import of this material.

As the supplies of accessible authentic artefacts dwindles through non-sustainable overexploitation of what is after all a finite resource, many eBay sellers are now handling large numbers of fakes (this in itself is a topic of archaeological significance that I'd like to explore here one day). US collector Reid Goldsborough states that “the percentage of scam ancient coin auctions at any given time on eBay has been estimated to be around 10 or 15 percent (the percentage of scam ancient artifact auctions has been estimated to be around 50 percent).” So in order to try and steer clear of sellers who offered bags and bags of artificially patinated fake artefacts, I made use of his “Woefully incomplete list of recommended dealers” with one addition of my own.

Let us start with Empire Ancients (Danny Harris, Cordova, Tennessee, ebay: empiredanny 1302 feedback). He's the one not on Mr Goldsborough's list, but we've visited his virtual storefront before. Basically three months on he's still offering the same range of goods. In his eBay listings, he has at the moment 21 pages of coins and artefacts - mostly the sort of thing you'd find on archaeological sites in the Balkans. He has been discussed here before. He has a number of bulk lots of ‘partifacts’ such as numbers 250358851032 (ten pound lot), 290289937010, buckles and things 300248233730, 290251474806 etc etc, he has bulk lots of "crusties" (illegible because heavily encrusted coins), "culls" (illegible because worn, broken, generally cruddy coins), the brooch and buckle lots. Other items have been taken out of the mass finds and presented as single lots. These broken and complete items are obviously metal detecting finds from settlement sites, not isolated "hoards" (or as one collector put it on a forum yesterday “fields full of small finds”). The "partifacts" are being sold in bulk lots - but where are the more shapeless scraps that all archaeological sites produce? What happened to the less collectable portion of the archaeological assemblage from these sites? Mr Harris, himself says (and as I have previously discussed):

"In Bulgaria, there are artifact searchers that search with metal detectors every day that weather is permitting. They search around Vidin, Bulgaria and the surrounding area. They find all sorts of items from over 20 centuries of rich Bulgarian history [.] I have purchased over 2000 pounds of these items".

That is nearly a metric tonne.

An eBay seller on the Recommended dealers list is Ancient Treasures (Plamen Arsoff Granada Hills CA 91394, eBay ancient_treasures 37196 feedback). He currently has 12 pages of offers, coins and artefacts - mostly the sort of thing you'd find by metal detecting on archaeological sites in the Balkans) [Arsoff says he takes a cue from today's superstores. Day in and day out, he provides a steady supply of goods that his buyers can depend on. "Our concept is sort of like Home Depot and Costco," explains Arsoff, who has been selling on eBay for close to five years. ]

Then there is Ancient Caesar (Ilian Lalev, Newton, MA 02458, eBay ancientcaesar, feedback 12009) He currently has six eBay pages, coins and various artefacts - mostly the sort of thing you'd find by metal detecting on archaeological sites in the Balkans.

Cameleon Coins (Alex Stanichev, Winettka, United States eBay: cameleoncoins feedback 6938) currently has 6 pages coins and artefacts - mostly the sort of thing you'd find metal detecting on archaeological sites in the Balkans.

Diana Coins (Gantcho Zagorski, Hackensack , NJ ebay dianacoins/paganecoins0oh6, feedback 2112 + 7617) currently has four 4 pages, mostly coins, but a few artefacts - mostly the sort of thing you'd find on archaeological sites in the Balkans.

Several of these sellers also have VCoins stores which offer the same sort of material. These are just a few of the sellers on eBay, selected from those that appeared on a "recommended dealers" list - other dealers on that list offered mainly coins, which one suspects were in part at least at some stage selected from bulk imports such as those evidenced by the above five. Other wholesalers are known and discussed by Nathan Elkins for example elsewhere.

Now it seems to me that these artefacts do not drop out of the sky like manna into the laps of US dealers and wholesalers. It does not seem to me either, looking through these thousands of items currently on sale in the US in one internet portal alone, that these come from “hoards buried by Roman soldiers before battle”. To try and convince the buying public of that is simply sheer dishonesty in the face of what these sites seem to show.

We know illegal metal detecting is going on in southeastern Europe, in Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Makedonia, there has been looting of other kinds in Kosovo. Much of this stuff is going to European markets (Munich is one hub of the system, Geneva too) and then a lot of it is being re-exported to the US. Some of this material has also been appearing on the market in the Netherlands, and it is also reaching Great Britain in some quantities. It is not clear whether this is through direct contacts with the source countries or through German, Swiss and possibly Italian dealers. The material appearing in Poland seems likely to be directly imported from Bulgaria.

It seems to me pretty difficult for collectors to try and pretend now that the material being offered for sale here (some of it with earth still on it) is “from an old European collection”. In admitting that it is freshly dug stuff, exported from the source country under “unclear” circumstances (“those foreign restrictive laws are unfair”) we are now hearing that this really “does not matter” because actually (as collectors say) this material does not really come from archaeological sites (really? How many southeastern European archaeologists would confirm that I wonder). In any case as someone told us all last night:

Most of what is being offered on the market are objects that are very common. Large amounts of the exact same artifact over and over again in a varied states of preservation. From the pile faceless low grade late Roman bronze to the many buckles, pins, fire starters, lamps and other commonly found objects that you see being offered relatively cheap. There is no reason I could ever think of as to why these could not continue to be sold and sold in much the same way as they are sold today.
Well, I do. It is not the market value, or the degree of uniqueness of an object which defines how important a piece of evidence is. That is simply uninformed reasoning. This material is being taken undocumented from the archaeological record at a number of European sites, being mixed up and sold off as so many touchy-feely pieces of the past to be "glommed" and coveted by their possessors, who claim to be home-grown erudites. They are nevertheless Gollum-like apparently incapable of putting two and two together about where their "preciouses" actually come from, and what effect their providing a no-questions-asked market for them simply contributes to the continuance of the trade, and thus the destruction of the archaeological record.

Photo: metal detected artefacts from Europe on sale on a well-known internet auction site in the United States. Each one was obtained by making a hole in somebody else's archaeological record. This dealer has nearly a tonne of them in stock.

Monday 19 January 2009

Hawass Biding Time?

There was much discussion about the recent appointment (Sept. 29th) a few weeks before his departure by President Bush of Brent Benjamin as one of his cultural property advisors despite his St Louis museum being famously involved in a scandal over an item which seems to have been stolen from a museum storeroom in Egypt. The Bush regime in this way seemed to be thumbing its nose at world opinion concerned by the apparent rapaciousness of US collections for looted and stolen archaeological artefacts of which this was seen by some of us as symptomatic.

One of the puzzles about this whole affair was that Egypt's Minister of Culture and the usually very vocifereous Zahi Hawass had remained relatively silent on the issue. It now turns out that (according to recent reports) they probably knew that extradition proceedings were under way for Ali Aboutaam, since the beginning of September 2008 sitting in detention apparently in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Aboutaam not only had been convicted in absentia in a 2004 hearing in a Cairo court for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring, but was also the seller of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask in question in the St Louis case. No doubt Egypt thought that very soon they would have the opportunity to question Mr Aboutaam personally about how he got his hands on this object and obtain more details about the collectors which Pheonix Antiquities says gave the object a watertight alibi.

At the beginning of this year, however, it appears that Bulgaria refused to hand over Mr Aboutaam to the Egyptians. Soon after that, the Egyptians made their announcement that he had been detained, presumably in order to provoke discussion of the case.

Winds change for US antiquity collectors?

President Barack Obama is promising a stronger focus on renewable energy and environmental stewardship. Let's see if any of this rubs off on public attitudes in the US to the destruction of the world's historical environment for the sake of collectables for a minority and erosive hobby.

"Antiquities-Smuggle Rap Zapped"

In an article in the New York Post under a headline so corny I had to share it (Isabel Vincent, "Antiquities-Smuggle Rap Zapped", New York Post January 18, 2009 ) has picked up the Aboutaam arrest story (see David Gill's post on Looting Matters). As readers will recall, Aboutaam, 43, runs Phoenix Ancient Art on the Upper East Side (though lives in Geneva) but was convicted in Cairo in 2004 of smuggling Egyptian artefacts for which he received a 15-year prison sentence in absentia. He was arrested in September last year at Sofia airport.

Vincent's article claims that Aboutaam "spent several weeks under house arrest in Sofia, Bulgaria, as officials debated whether to honor an Interpol warrant issued by the Egyptians, according to court papers". She says that "Bulgaria this month rejected the extradition request."

Peter Chavkin, a Manhattan attorney for Aboutaam, is quoted as saying:
"I think it would be very helpful if the Egyptians read the Bulgarian opinion", "The Bulgarian authorities found that Ali was not afforded fundamental protections and that the underlying conviction was bogus."

David Gill returns to the coverage of the 2004 case and while it is difficult to judge, the New York Times account (Barry Meier and Martin Gottlieb, "An Illicit Journey Out of Egypt, Only a Few Questions Asked", NYT February 23, 2004) suggests that the evidence against Mr Aboutaam might well be of a nature which might be questioned by a European court. ["Mr. Aboutaam had been indicted based on telephone conversations secretly recorded last year, along with other information that showed he had received smuggled artifacts through Mr. Suwaysi's ring".] Obtaining the court documents from Egypt and translating them might account for the delay in Aboutaam’s extradition hearing in Bulgaria.

Aboutaam's attorney Peter Chavin is from the New York office of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C. On their webpage it says that in the field of "Art Fraud" he has "represented one of the world's most significant antiquities dealers in a variety of criminal and civil matters, as well as one of the world's most important collectors in disputes with foreign nations".

Rallying around the artefact hunters

British archaeologists have long refused to pay attention to the dissonance between the politically-correct pro-collecting policies they have adopted and what happens on the commercial artefact hunting rallies which current cultural "management" (I use the term loosely) policies encourage UK farmers to organize. These are a different thing altogether from the lone “metal detectorist” sweeping the fields around his home (and, it is argued by the pro-collecting lobby, learning about the history of his area) which is the usual subject of the pro-collecting fluffy bunny propaganda.

In a commercial artefact hunting rally, hundreds of metal detecting artefact hunters descend on a site or sites known to be likely of archaeological interest and in an uncontrolled fashion strip the whole are within the boundaries of the rally site of any artefacts that might be there. The landowner instead of protecting the historical resources of his land makes a tidy packet selling part of them off to the paying collector. Some of the latter come hundreds of kilometres to be there, they stay two or three days at the most and then go home. There is no question of them researching the history of the site exploited – they are mainly interested in getting together with like-minded individuals and collaboratively grabbing a bit of the loot of the land, the artefacts to add to their growing personal collections or sell on an internet auction site. If there have been arrangements made for voluntary recording, then some participants may show some of what they have found to be recorded before they all disappear into scattered ephemeral collections all over the country.

British archaeologists have only now decided to create a “Guidance Note on metal detecting rallies” for their "partners" the artefact hunter who goes on such commercial rallies. This apparently makes recommendations “designed to limit the impact on the archaeological record” (recommending not holding the commercial artefact hunting rally would do that guys !). We are told that this note “supplements the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal-detecting in England and Wales” well, of course since they are so self-evidently damaging, one would have thought that real joined-up thinking about artefact hunting would have put them at the forefront of such a Code, wouldn’t it?

But there's more: “The Council for British Archaeology is encouraging Natural England to send this Guidance Note to all landowners entering into Environmental Stewardship (ES) agreements, in order to promote good practice when rallies take place” - on Environmental Stewardship land? Good practice or not, what kind of stewardship of the historical environment is that providing? Surely the Council for British Archaeology should be encouraging English Nature not to allow commercial artefact hunting grabfests on countryside conservation scheme land?

It gets worse. We are told that ”The guidance makes 16 recommendations, including a notice period of at least 12 weeks for the local Historic Environment Record (HER) and Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) so that any known archaeological sites can be identified and proper preparations made for the recording of finds.” Known archaeological sites eh? What happened to the little propaganda piece that the reason "we" accept artefact hunting and collecting is because the searching of these "unsung heroes of the UK's heritage" (sic) leads to the discovery of new sites?

The document itself says: “Landholders and rally organisers should also be aware that there can be considerable cost implications for both PAS and Local Authority staff in ensuring an adequate archaeological response to a rally.” I am sure they are very grateful to them for using public money to send professional archaeologists out at weekends and on public holidays (when these events are usually organized) to do the job so the landowner can pocket the proceeds and we do not all lose so much information as we would if they were not there at all. I’d say however the “guidance note” is missing a sentence or two here. Why should everybody bear the costs of this and not the organizers who profit (handsomly)?

What is totally lacking here is any guidance for individual archaeologists participating in commercial artefact hunting rallies what they are and are not supposed to be doing there and how they can avoid infringing archaeology’s own codes of ethics by doing so. Participation in such an event and treating it as an archaeological project involves the archaeologist who subscribes to the IfA Code of Conduct, as well as the EAA ones insisting certain conditions are met. If they are not, then the archaeologist subscribing to such codes has no business to be there. It will come as no surprise to learn that neither organization is listed as being asked their opinion.

Changes to UK Treasure Act?

The Coroners and Justice Bill has just ( 14 January) been placed before the UK Parliament. In the draft version it was intended to effect two changes to the systems for reporting “Treasure” finds, the first was the proposal to introduce a single coroner to deal with Treasure cases from the whole of England and Wales and (rather like the Scottish system). The second was the proposal to amend the Treasure Act 1996 to widen the obligation to report finds of Treasure to anyone who comes into possession of them, rather than just the original finder. It is now being suggested that these two elements may not be included in the final Bill.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Observer suggests "what archaeologists could do"....

ACCG officer and inveterate coin collector Peter Tompa has had some "some additional thoughts on the China MOU" (well actually they are much same as he had a few days ago). He refuses to accept that ancient coins are archaeological artefacts. He refuses to accept that they (or the sites they are looted from to feed the market) can be of cultural significance - though forgetting the the ACCG mantra is that coins are collected because of their cultural significance (duh). Tompa again alleges that it is ill-considered considering ancient coins as ancient artefacts (sic) because US customs officers cannot distinguish between pre-Tang “cash” coins* (covered by the MOU) and later types (not covered by the MOU) because “they all look the same”. As it happens though, whatever the MOU says, examples of these coins produced before 1912 need an export licence anyway to leave China, so a customs officer is justified in asking an exporter entering the US with them to show the export licence.

The probable source of the coin collector's confusion however is revealed by his concluding remark referring to archaeologists:

Wouldn't it be interesting to mandate detailed record keeping about the find spots, as well as the storage and disposition of archaeological finds like individual coins, and then see how the archaeological community would react?
That is a pretty astounding expression of Tompa’s total ignorance of how archaeologists (and American museum services) work. Their work actually does involve Mr Tompa, "detailed record keeping about the find spots [...] of archaeological finds like individual coins", information which is preserved with the finds in the excavation archives maintained in stores (housed in an institution such as a museum). Tompa has perhaps constructed his vision of the discipline from Indiana Jones films and reading about Belzoni. Those days are long gone.

I wonder whether for all their “interest in the past” and declared willingness to contribute to our greater knowledge of the past, portable antiquity collectors like Tompa have ever actually taken the trouble to read an archaeology book and find out what the archaeologists (who he is over-fond of criticising) actually do? What part of the word "archaeology" do they not understand?

* That is the cast ones with square holes in the middle and four (usually) characters round the outside. The photo shows a Tang one (at least that's what the seller says is is).

Man jailed over book page thefts

Farhad Hakimzadeh, a wealthy businessman of Knightsbridge in London, stole and defaced pages from priceless books in the British and Bodleian libraries. He pleaded guilty in May to 14 counts of theft from the libraries in London and Oxford and on Friday was sentenced to two years in jail for the offence.

Passing sentence, Judge Peter Ader said: “[…] you cannot have been unaware of the damage you were causing. You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess. I have no doubt that you were stealing in order to enhance your […] collection. Whether it was for money or for a rather vain wish to improve your collection is perhaps no consolation to the losers.” […] Dr Kristian Jensen said: “Obviously I’m angry because this is somebody […] who has damaged something which belongs to everybody… which this nation has invested in over generations.” Clive Hurst [...] said: “We feel it’s a terrible mutilation of our material, and it’s damaging a source of information so it is less now then when it was complete.” Detective Chief Inspector Dave Cobb, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "[…] Some of the stolen pages were recovered at his home address but many more have been lost forever."

But a collector cutting pages out of rare books is analogous to those who dig holes in individual volumes of the archaeological resource (that great library of our unwritten history) to tear out individual “pages” to put in their personal artefact collections. While Mr Hakimzadeh went to jail for his self-centred destruction of cultural property held in the British Library, collectors of single pages torn from the archaeological record ("it's legal innit?") get a pat on the head from their partner the Portable Antiquities Scheme just down the corridor from its offices.

Friday 16 January 2009

Roman coin hoards, some US numismophilic erudition

One of the justifications that the collectors of ancient objects in general, and US ancient coin collectors in particular are always parading before their critics is how “educational” it is, how much the possessors of ancient coins “learn about the past” from handling lots of contextless pieces of old metal with pictures and symbols on them and how much of that new “knowledge” they disseminate by writing about them and publishing their websites. In fact the actual number of academic publications produced by this milieu is relatively low compared to the size of the collecting community and the huge amount of archaeological damage done by the supplying of the market for contextless artefacts.

I thought it would be instructive to have a look today at what a “heap-of-contextless-ancient-coins-on-my-table” US collector can learn from their ancient coins taking an example of the meaning of hoards. Let's take Roman coin hoards.

Now there is a huge literature on coin (and other) hoard and non-hoard finds, both archaeological and numismatic. They range from catalogues and monographs to theoretical studies. One would have thought therefore that coin collectors, even US ones, would be able to get hold of some of this literature and digest its contents. Not so it would seem.

Californian coin dealer (he calls himself a “professional numismatist”) and pro-collecting advocate (officer of the ACCG) Dave Welsh is one of those propagating the “contextless coins for education model”.

In his provocative “Preserving Numismatic Context from Destruction by Archaeologists" (Dec 15 2007) he stresses that what he calls “Numismatic context” which apparently “is not by any means the same thing as archaeological context” is a specific methodology which can be applied to heaps of totally contextless coins from a no-questions-asked dealer piled on a US table . “It is instead mostly concerned with the systematic study of dies and die-links, and also with the study of coin hoards and their dating. In studying coin hoards, numismatists are only interested in the location and contents of a hoard, and the accuracy to which it can be dated by non-numismatic evidence. Other aspects of archaeological context make very little or no contribution to numismatic knowledge.” For Welsh the study of coins is the study of the associations within and between hoards (sounds like archaeological context to me, but that is by-the-by).

I was therefore struck by something he wrote the other day (A plea for a semblance of sanity Moneta-L, Fri Jan 16, 2009) He writes that it is wrong to think that “eliminating coin collecting” [more of that elsewere] “would diminish looting of archaeological sites”. He then produces a justification of that view, basically saying that ancient coins do not come from archaeological sites at all. Well, they do not in California anyway, but he’s talking about the Old World, where:

“individuals who have interviewed prospectors for ancient coins in countries like Bulgaria relate that the best places to search for coins are the borders of ancient battlefields. Before a battle soldiers would hide their few valuables (usually a small purse of coins) to retrieve after the engagement.”
Well, that’s it. Welsh says that the coins today on the market (the ones he sells for example) are not a product of artefact hunters looting ancient settlement sites and cemeteries. He says (Moneta-L Smuggling and Reality Moneta-Ly Wed Sep 21, 2005) “The facts of the matter are that historical sites are very unrewarding places” (sic) to look for collectable coins. (I guess Mr Welsh does not get out much in the countryside of california with his metal detector, so I guess we can excuse him for not really knowing what he's talking about, though there are metal detecting forums he could join). This he says:

"was clearly demonstrated by 2002 statistics for UK Treasure Act finds. Archaeological excavations produced only three per cent of the coins discovered. Almost all discoveries were in out of the way places such as woods and fields”.
So collecting coins does not damage archaeological sites, a position he has steadfastly maintained a number of years, trotting out the same, unchanged, arguments. (By the way of course these “woods and fields” in Britain contain ancient sites which is why the artefact hunters who are reporting their finds to PAS are there in the first place looking for ancient artefacts to collect and sell !)

The Californian numismatist makes clear elsewhere (Above the laws? Unidroit-L May 26, 2008 ) that he thinks that not “every place in the vicinity of an ancient battlefield, and every field or wood in which a small cache of coins was concealed during antiquity, should also be considered to be an "archaeological site" and part of the "archaeological record." (I wonder what he thinks constitute an archaeological record, a material record of man’s activities in the past?)

Welsh returns elsewhere (HR 1047 Unidrot-L Tue Oct 19, 2004) to his view that battlefields are not archaeological sites

The valuable coins, as numismatists have long recognized, tend to come on the market in groups that suggest they were originally found in a hoard. People didn't often bury these hoards in built up areas. […] coin hoards were concealed in remote places, just like a pirate burying a treasure chest. They are often found today out in areas that have never in the memory of man been anything but a pasture or forest. Many small coin hoards are also the result of soldiers burying their purses before a battle, and ancient battlefields are sought after by detectorists both for weapons and for coins. I have not read that ancient battlefields are considered archaeologically significant sites
(battlefields are indeed the subject of archaeological investigation – including in the USA)

Again, just a few months later (Rarity? Of Ancient Coins? Unidroit-L May 8, 2005)

concentrations of small low value coin hoards that are often found in the vicinity of ancient battlefields […] are no doubt soldiers' purses, concealed to be recovered after the battle by those who did not survive to do so. Here there is some context, but who has any interest in it? When has any archaeologist ever
excavated an ancient battlefield?
One example Dave Welsh should know about is Kalkreise, very carefully searched in recent years, it’s probably the site of the loss of Varus’ troops in the Teutobergerwald. Although coins (quite a lot of them) were found scattered on the site, there were no hoards found on the edges of the battlefield. Maybe Welsh can show us a properly investigated battlefield of the Roman period where they are.

This insistence on a “coins buried before a battle” model by this "professional numismatist" and coin dealer is interesting. I don’t know where it came from, I suspect some early antiquaries may have thought it up as one of their speculations. It however does not function in the current literature on Roman coin hoards as the sole, or even main model for hoard deposition and loss. We have many examples of hoards deposited in settlements or religious sites. So where does the US “professional numismatist” get this idea from?

Well, it seems quite frequently referred to in the community that supplies coins to the public. Here’s Ancient Coin Store (J. Jones): "Soldiers and citizens often buried their coins before battle, and as people were driven from their lands or even worse, killed, the coins would remain where they lay for hundreds or even thousands of years and more”.

Then there is a continental (Italian?) firm MoneteRomane.EuThe coins come from Viminacium, […] it is not difficult to find the coins near constructions and monuments. It moreover must hold account that the roman army often was engaged in war and before a battle the riches came later on buried for being recovered from the legitimate owner, often the soldier did not make return house and its assets remained hidden until the days ours”.

An eBay seller called ‘grandma’s vault’ says: "Before the age of national banks, Roman Soldiers buried their coins in fields for recovery after years of battle. Most of these soldiers never made it back.”

Amazon seller Beverly Oaks LLC “Lot of 10 - Uncleaned Ancient Roman Coins” “Before the age of national banks, Roman Soldiers buried their coins in fields for recovery after years of battle. Most of these soldiers never made it back. Farmers & locals also buried their coins to keep them safe from invaders, bandits and tax collectors. Now, 2,000 years later, YOU can own these coins. These are amazing addition to your collection or as gift.”

Aurelian Antiquities Otisville, NY tells the same story, but in the form of an on-line article: The Loss and Subsequent Discovery of Ancient Roman Coins By D. H. Oomen ’ “If the Roman soldier knew when a battle was going to occur the soldier would bury his pouch of coins to protect it from falling into the hands of the enemy as well as to unburden himself of the pouch and the possible consequences of carrying it into battle”.

A rather overpriced “Roman Empire 20 Coin Emperor Collection” says: “in fact, most Roman coins are from hoards that were buried by soldiers before they went into battle. If a soldier didn’t survive the battle, his life savings were lost until some lucky coin hunter unearthed the valuable coins several years or even centuries later.”

Back to bulk lots, A.T. Goodman: “Uncleaned Ancient Roman Coins Gold Found Just in from Europe!!!” “These uncleaned ancient coins were found north of modern day Greece in the region of the ancient town of Philipopolis”. Aww go on, say it, don’t be coy, you mean in the vicinity of Plovdiv Bulgaria! Anyway he writes: “Many hoards were buried by Roman soldiers before they went off to battle. However, many of the soldiers did not return and thus their money (these very coins) were left in the ground only to be discovered millenniums later by archeologists.” (Archaeologists, eh? Not “coin hunters” then?)

Here’s another coy one (Richmark imports): “This hoard of uncleaned Roman coins has just arrived from Europe” (guess where?) “Because there were no banks at the time, coins were often buried for safe keeping. Countless hoards were buried by Roman soldiers before being sent off to battle. Alas, many of those soldiers never returned and their money remained in the ground only to be discovered millennia later”.

We find the same trite generalizations on coin-collecting forums. Thus Frederick M. S. ‘Origin of Coin Hoards?, Reprise, etc., Moneta-L, Wed Nov 21, 2001: "the number of coins buried just before a battle would probably be in the tens of thousands in and around the vicinity of a battle site.” But wait a minute… in reply to this, the REAL professional numismatist T.V. Buttrey (Dec 5, 2001) correctly noted:”One way in which the army handled this problem was not to pay out full salary in cash, but to keep running accounts of what was owing. The soldier could claim against the credit on his account.”

Well, yes the Romans weren’t stupid. One would have thought that all those avocational erudites handling all those contextless coins to “learn about the past” might have looked at a few books about how these coins were used. One of them of course was as salary for the army. There are many good books on the Roman army for example which inform their reader about this (I guess though you have to actually read the book). The Roman soldier did not carry all his life’s savings around in a big bag on his hip, by the end of his service if he’d avoided gambling and whoring it away, that could have been a pretty heavy bag. The person really learning about the past use of the coins they collect (a) would have come across the terms seposita and deposita and know who looked after this in the army (signifer), they’d have come across the story of the revolt of Saturninus against Domitian and so on. I’d also (b) have thought that since on their forum Ted Buttrey as early as December 2001 was telling them about this (or giving them a hint that here was something to read up about), we’d not be seeing the same myths perpetuated without it being extensively commented on by other forum members - busily "learning" away from each other about coin-related aspects of the past...

Well, that is not so. March 6th 2003, T.J. Buggey wrote: "I think we must remember the origin of the uncleaned coins. Many that are found are the result of major defeats of Roman armies. The pre battle burial scenario, some may be due to settler's hysteria with an oncoming horde - I guess that would make it a horde hoard. Many of these would not be associated with key archaeological sites." Again someone (“rasiel" (Ras Suarez) Moneta-L Thu Mar 6, 2003) Pointed out : “this is the "wisdom of the crowd", […] every ebay uncleaned coin auctioneer states soldiers buried their money before going off to battle.” Andrew McCabe (Moneta-L Wed Jan 14, 2004) notes: "Collectors rather romantically assume their coins were […] buried by a soldier before going off to battle but these are probably the least important mechanisms for coins to exit circulation." So that, one would have thought put the romantics in their place... But no, the US coin collector obviously is a slow learner.

The "before the battle" model refuses to die, dealer Robert Kokotailo (Moneta-L Dec 23, 2004) “One of the things that commonly happens in times of war, is people bury money to keep it safe, and we can be reasonably sure large numbers of these coins got buried just before the battles were fought”. Dealer Dave Welsh again (Re: Comment Requested on Potential Import Restrictions, Moneta-L Aug 10, 2005) “Coins were usually buried under circumstances relating to battles, invasions and other stresses much less common in Italy than in other provinces”. Rasiel (Re: Smuggling and reality Moneta-L Sep 22, 2005) again stresses “despite ebay uncleaned ad boilerplate most coins retrieved by detectorists are _not_ the recovered hoards of long-dead roman soldiers burying theirpennies just prior to battle.” And again the same author (Re: Claudian denarii Moneta-L Fri Nov 25, 2005) “the assumption that hoards were buried by soldiers just prior to battle is an urban myth perpetuated by ebay uncleaned coin ad boilerplate”.

Nathan Elkins in several papers (here and here for example) has recently examined the origin of many of the coins on the US market and concludes that they are accumulations selected from the products of metal detecting and digging over of archaeological sites in many parts of Europe (especially the Balkans) and the Middle East, and not for the most part "hoards". It is odd then that this model has been evoked yet again in the past few days to say where the coins on the US market are coming from.

So why is this still popping up? Is it ignorance, a failure to check facts up and think them through? Or is it a willful disregard of the facts? The sellers of the products of metal detecting archaeological sites in [south] eastern Europe are trying to convince their clients that its “OK to collect” these things because they “do not come from real archaeological sites”. We all know that they do. They come primarily from settlements, urban complexes and forts on the limes and beyond. These sellers are misleading the public with their romanticized and speculative “before the battle” scenario.

It is noticeable that there is a division between serious collectors and REAL numismatists, who are quite clear that the "before the battle model" is a myth and dealers who insist on propagating it in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. After all if all the Roman coin hoards in Britain were the remains of battles, there was an awful lot of fighting going on all across the country throughout the whole Roman period - for which there is no other (not a scrap) evidence. A lot of these hoards show signs of thesaurisation rather than being bulk payments, which is what you would expect of the putative soldier's moneybag. There is not a scrap of real numismatic evidence that the coins on the US market were soldiers' "before the battle" deposits. And it is my bet that people like Dave Welsh know full well that the foolishness they are spouting is numismophillic nonsense.

It is clear that by these tactics, dealers like Dave Welsh and the ACCG are trying to mislead the collecting public and the others to whom their outreach is directed by the same misleading propaganda which bears absolutely no relationship to where the coins currently on the US market really are coming from. The ACCG and a hardcore of vociferously couldn’t-care-less US collectors have stuck to the same story despite having been presented with ample opportunity to find out how true a picture it is. Are these the people we can “build bridges” with?
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