Wednesday 29 April 2009

Druggies Stealing State's History

Les Smith reports ("Druggies Stealing Arkansas Artifacts") that looting of archaeological sites in Northeast Arkansas USA is seriously damaging our ability to understand the past of the region. The area has become a lucrative hunting ground for those interested in archaeological artefacts not for their value for scholarship when interpreted in context, but for black market bucks gained from looting sites in search of valuable antiquities.

Dr. Juliet Morrow, Jonesboro-based archeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey, says, "There are some people who collect artifacts and there's others who loot them so that they can then sell them to get money to purchase drugs. Especially, methamphetamine that's popular in this part of the state." Morrow explains that on the no-questions-asked US collectors’ market, the artefacts these people hunt, "can bring very high dollar figures upwards of 50 thousand dollars for a single pottery vessel, if it's the right time period, the right style. There are spear points that can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's what the buyers are willing to pay. This is a market that's been escalating over the last couple of decades."

The report uses as an example of the effects of this looting what AAS archaeologists found at one farm located about an hour east of Jonesboro, where earlier this month they learnt of the looting of an old Native American cemetery. The artefact hunters dug into the grave to extract artefacts for sale to portable antiquity collectors and in the process, left scattered around their holes a number of the artefacts they had dug out of the archaeological record but were not deemed ‘saleable’, as well as human skeletal remains. This is just one case of many reported year after year all over the United States.

Arkansas already has laws against this kind of thing, including increased criminal penalties against desecrating burial grounds for profit. Through a seminar scheduled for next week at A-S-U, Dr. Morrow hopes to secure help from surrounding local law enforcement agencies to more aggressively enforce the law. She says that, "If we fight the looting problem, we'll also be putting a damper on the drug trafficking that's going on because it's […] intricately connected."

Watch a video of the original news report here.

This report illustrates a number of things.

1) Firstly there is no difference between portable antiquity collectors in the USA buying an object (say a pot “of the right right time period and style” to fill a gap in their personal collection) and portable antiquity collectors in the USA buying objects looted from ancient sites abroad (say an ancient Greek coin “of the right right time period and style” to fill a gap in their personal collection). It’s exactly the same phenomenon, and to treat them as separate cases is simply self-delusion.

2) The United States has laws protecting the archaeological heritage (which they call a “Resource” – which it is, a fragile and finite one). Artefact diggers and no-questions-asked collectors are ignoring it in the same way as the foreign artefact diggers ignore theirs because collectors outside their country’s borders will pay (no-questions-asked) dollars for what they dig up.

3) Not all artefact diggers are doing it to get money for “starving families” as collectors claim – it seems to be an emerging pattern that the antiquities market is increasingly seen a source of easy cash financing a number of iunsavoury and illegal activities. The no-questions-asked collector is directly responsible for the cash flow which sustains these activities.

4) The numbers of artefacts on the market at the ‘buyer’ end are disproportionate to the amount of destruction done in “mining” them. Dozens or hundreds of archaeological features and layers will be destroyed in the search for the one pot that sells for 50000 bucks. Thousands of other pieces of pottery will be dug out of their archaeological context (destroying the latter) only to be discarded on the site – they never make it to the market for collectors to “preserve” in their personal collections.

5) It is notable that the US advocates of collectors rights (such as ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles who lives just across the state line 160 km from Jonesboro) do not apply their stock arguments about the alleged social benefits of the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities to the artefact hunting and collecting occurring on their own doorstep. Isn’t that a little inconsistent of them? The arguments about portable antiquity collecting as a source of personal “knowledge” about culture, tolerance between nations, preserving the artefacts from having to lie in the ground (giving them a better home), the “free enterprise” benefits of disregarding “restrictive laws” imposed by an authoritarian government for the benefit of ivory tower elitist archaeologists (to a man, compliant “nationalists” to boot) and all the rest simply do not apply here. So why on earth would anyone want us to believe they apply to the collection of portable antiquities from anywhere else?

As I have said earlier, before urging other countries to liberalise their archaeological resource protection legislation to facilitate the stigma-free collection in the USA of portable antiquities taken from sites in their territory, let these US collectors campaign loudly and publicly for the repeal of the comparable laws that protect the archaeological heritage of their country. After all, they can hardly expect other nations to follow where the USA and its law-abiding citizen refuses to be an example, can they?

Here is an interesting web page about Arkansas pot hunting and artefact collecting (Sam Dellinger and much more) which has a venerable tradition (sound familiar?)

The web page of the Arkansas state archaeologist (They produce teaching resources for schools, including a 'discovery box' - sounds like a handling collection to me. I bet, unlike the Ancient Coins For Education programme, the aim is not to produce young collectors by giving them potentially stolen archaeological items from foreign lands to take home and keep.)


Robyn said...

Hi Paul,

If Wayne Sayles and the ACCG collected Native American artifacts, they would be campaigning to repeal the laws in the US that prohibit digging them up without a permit. The don't collect those items (there are obviously no ancient coins in the US) so they don't bother. This only illustrates the fact that they are not about "collectors rights" at all, but only continuing their businesses undisturbed by such silly things as laws that protect cultural heritage and the historical record. With those silly laws and restrictions in place, their profit margin is much lower. Can't have that, now can we?

Paul Barford said...

Well Robyn, as you say, it would be nice to see some consistency from the ACCG collectors' rights brigade. You will note they are very keen to tell stamp collectors that they are on their side too against UNESCO (as if...) but I cannot recall ever seeing them say they'll fight for the "collectors' rights" of US pot hunters and lithics collectors. Why not?

Especially from Wayne Sayles who over on his mate Peter Tompa's blog accuses me of "fear that if the truth came out the party would be over".

I agree that it is clear that the ACCG is not so much about "collectors' " rights, but dealers' - its just the collectors who are expected to pick up the bill. As I pointed out here:

Mr Sayles and Mr Tompa and Mr Welsh are welcome to comment here and show me wrong ("way off-base"). I'm not holding my breath though. I am sure they are more comfortable holding forth (about the injustices of the world and how misunderstood they are) among those who ask no awkward questions of them - like ancient coin collectors.

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