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.


David Gill said...

He is probably unaware of the Milken Institute report that identifies metal-detecting as looting. The key section can be found on Looting Matters.

Paul Barford said...

I think weird self-justificatory constructs like this illustrate just how much the louder pro-collecting activists are "unaware" generally of the background to these issues. I suspect though that this is due more to closed eyes and ears than inability to find out more.

Dave Welsh said...

Paul Barford refers to "self-justificatory constructs" in dismissing my factually accurate statement that no causal connection between coin collecting and looting has ever been proven.

No such connection has ever been proven. No significant evidence has ever been presented to support the notion that collecting causes looting. Nothing that Paul Barford or David Gill have so far stated alters that judgement. If these gentlemen disagree with that statement, then let them publicly present their evidence.

What is self-justificatory (and indeed irresponsible) in this wearisome controversy is not my reasonable and appropriate demand for proof - or at least significant factual evidence - that collecting does cause looting.

It is the unfounded, unscientific assertion of radical archaeologists such as Paul Barford and David Gill that looting is caused by collecting, which they advance as though this assertion were a proven fact, without any attempt at satisfying scientific expectations that such assertions should not be made without evidence.

David Gill refers to a Milken Institute report that identifies metal-detecting as looting. Why is the opinion of the Milken Institute definitive? What facts sustain it?

To date no proof, no significant factual evidence, have ever been presented to support the assertion that looting is caused by collecting.

Is archaeology really a science? Or is this "discipline" nothing more than a school of thought based upon the unsupported opinions, biases and prejudices of individuals?

Paul Barford said...

the unfounded, unscientific assertion of radical archaeologists such as Paul Barford and David Gill that looting is caused by collecting,

This just sounds more and more like the arguments of the Holocaust Deniers and their Humpty Dumpty word-games. They pretend to have "science" and "logic" on their side too. But, like the coineys, its pseudoscience and twisted logic. ***

I tell you what Mr Welsh, publish a substantive article in a proper peer-reviewed academic journal (could be numismatic) saying all the things you are quoted here saying. If its published, I promise you that I will respond in full. I cannot speak for David Gill of course, though I am sure from what we have all seen, that if he had time he'd have no problem refutiung what you write. Peer-reviewed academic journal though, that should not be too difficult for a professional numismatist to arrange. If you think you can show the critics of collecting are "unscientific" and using "unfounded arguments", then go ahead and show the academic community not just a gaggle of cheering and heckling coineys that this is the case. Please.

Meanwhile, I made some very specific points above about the claim that there are specialist "detectorist coin prospectors who specifically search for coin hoards" and thus are not damaging archaeological sites (sic) for which no evidence has been forthcoming.

Since then the Nighthawking report has appeared in which the link between illegal detecting and the collectors' market is clearly indicated.

It seems everybody's got it wrong, except the "right-thinking" coin dealers of the ACCG and other associated "Friends of Numismatics".

*** and no, mindful of PhDiva's recent mishap I am not accepting ANY comments here from Holocaust deniers - which in any case are against the law of the country in which my keyboard is situated.

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