Saturday 11 April 2009

Portable Antiquities: a "dirty but fair bargain"?

Collector of Roman coins Andrew McCabe writes on the Moneta-L coin collectors' discussion forum that as far as Roman Republican coin hoards were concerned, after the publication of "Roman Republican Coin Hoards" in "1970" (it was actually 1969, M.H. Crawford, Royal Numism. Soc. Special Publ. 4), there was only:
a scattering of significant published hoards in the 1970s, and then complete and utter silence. Not only have the massive Balkan finds of the 90's and 2000's gone unrecorded, hoards from Italy and Sicily also dried up completely - so far as information is concerned anyway. What has changed?
This is a rhetorical question, for of course the collector sees this only in terms of the date of publication of the collector's favourite old bugbear, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. A broader view would see that the change was more connected with the proliferation of the market for so-called "minor antiquities" at this time, due in some degree to the rise of metal detecting as a hobby. The same trend is visible in donations of archaeological material of all types and material to many British provincial museums, which in the same period tended increasingly to be replaced by 'purchases'. Of course Mr McCabe's generalisation falls flat when we look beyond Roman Republican coin hoards, for example there is a relatively large number of hoards and also single finds published from Germany (both East and West) and Poland well after "1970". In the case of Poland, a crucial point seems to be the opening up of a less-restricted antiquities market after 1989.

McCabe has an answer to the problem. It will be no surprise that it has nothing whatsoever to do with collectors' responsibilities. It's the same old one we see trotted out time and time again by the pro-collecting lobby...

The enlightened UK Portable Antiquities scheme has, as I understand it, greatly increased reporting. The effect of the scheme has been to achieve partial alignment between the goals of land-owners, dectectorists (and thus ultimately coin collectors) and museums, through, to be frank Adam Smith's invisible hand of commerce. The museums get the information provided the looters get the cash. A dirty but fair bargain.
Now whether publicly-funded archaeologists working as "partners" of artefact hunters ("looters" according to McCabe) and portable antiquity collectors is a particularly "enlightened" approach, is certainly a matter requiring deeper discussion. It seems to me it does nothing to prevent the erosion of the archaeological record by having it collected away for entertainment and profit. Which hardly seems "fair" to the rest of us who highly value the archaeological heritage but do not own metal detectors or personal artefact collections. Of course the coin collector sees it differently...

What this tells us, is that there is hope that the "market success" of the UK scheme may over a very long time persuade other countries of the benefits of change in a direction that recognise that open commercial viability is a key factor in enabling publication.
We have heard all this before of course (including once again the muddling of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the provisions of the UK's Treasure Act which seems to be a tradition in the antiquity collecting community). The collectors are only concerned about their ability to get their hands on more and more stuff without the stigma. McCabe sees the problem only in terms of non-publication of looted material. He ignores the erosion of and damage to the archaeological record connected with the artefact hunters getting the artefacts separated from the archaeological record in the first place, which is the real source of the stigma. He sees as beneficial "some definition of a culturally significant object in terms of uniqueness, value or whatever that would allow by excption an export licence to be withheld, but a presumption that coins and ordinary pottery could flow unhindered". Where and why? It's pretty clear which minority sector of society would benefit from such a trade - the question is to what extent would the preservation of the surviving bits of the fragile and finite archaeological record "benefit"? Surely, and not only from a purely academic view, these conservation issues should be of concern of the decision (and law) makers.

McCabe reckons that "enlightened academics may also realise the case for encouraging private collector to do their bit in contribution to research, and that private ownership - together with publication of same - is not inconsistent with protecting cultural patrimony". I think many academics are only too pleased when amateurs do research which produces results in the form of a usable archive or publication - though not all of us accept that one can only study what you physically own. We have museums and publications and non-invasive investigation methods which allow ample space for much useful research without a single mote of the surviving record being squandered. Ornithologists do not "own" the birds they study, and yet make great contributions to our knowledge of the avian world. Train spotters also do not own the object of their study, though their contribution to wider knowledge is perhaps comparable to those that spend ten years studying the evolution of patterns on a particular group of coins (though as this case shows, numismatic research of this type can be done without physically owning all of them, but studying those in public collections and on the basis of documentation, which will increasingly be the trend with better access to digital forms of recording and information storage).

What however is doubtful is how much of the "knowledge" generated in the heads of the owner of an ephemeral personal accumulation of contextless archaeological artefacts is ever disseminated in any other form than show-and-tell sessions with other collector-geeks. This was the question I asked of Jorg Lueke's "thesis" about context the other day.

What however is entirely clear is that, published or not, the quarrying of archaeological assemblages as a source of collectables for the commercial market is indeed "inconsistent with protecting cultural patrimony" if we see the latter holistically in terms of the archaeological record and not at the level of the individual isolated artefact ripped from it.

McCabe finishes with a few words apparently addressed to the ranters and conspiracy theorists lobbying on behalf of the interests of no-questions-asked dealers, the ACCG:
Groups such as coin-collector lobbyists can help in the process, but it is important that they adopt language perhaps sensible to European ears - just now is perhaps not the time to talk to European governments and academics about the "rights" of collectors and of an unrestrained marketplace, but rather to emphasise the aspects of mutual benefits obtainable.
How lucky for the collectors that they have the Portable Antiquities Scheme already doing that for them.


Phil Davis said...

I see that you've corrected your mistake, rather than publish my comment. This strikes me as less than intellectually honest, and not in accordance with blogging "tradition", which prefers to strike-through errors, rather than simply eliminate them.

Paul Barford said...

Phil, It was as you pointed out an ambiguity in McCabe's original post involving the year of publication which I originally cited as it seemed to be written. I assumed he was referring to a book which he as a specialist collector would know, but I (as a non-collector) might not. It seems he was not, so i have corrected it to say what it seems he was intending to say to avoid confusion.

I was not aware that your original comment was intended as anything other than a helpful remark to help prevent confusion over the year of publication. But thank you anyway.

I was not aware that there was any 'tradition' I am forced to follow in keeping my blog.

It is interesting however to hear a US ancient coin collector speaking of "intellectual honesty" - you should address that to some of your own number when they shout down those with opposing views on their forums, or block their posts, or when they try to pull the wool over everybody's eyes about "where ancient coins on the market today come from", not much "strike through" there either.

Nevertheless the identity of whatever book McCabe was referring to as his fixed point is only a secondary issue to the statement he made about what happened after that, his interpretation of it, and then my comments on that. Side issues Phil, you are trying to deflect the discussion onto side issues, as is the typical strategy of the whole pro-collecting crowd to moment the core issues are raised - as they were in the post to which you are posting these comments. Don't pretend you cannot see that.

Phil Davis said...

Paul-- Your original misstatement (since corrected) was, as I said, insignificant. My pointing it out was not a side issue though, so much as a tit for tat, since you gleefully pounce on the slightest misstep of your opponents, for example confusing the PAS with the Treasure Act.

More substantively, I think you sometimes lose sight of your own goals in your zest for verbal combat. Andrew McCabe is not your enemy; nor am I. Andrew is one of the most serious, intelligent and informed students of Roman Republican coinage in the world, and deserves better of you. He's trying to figure out the Roman Republican coinage, the early stages of which, at any rate, still have any number of unresolved issues. To say that he is "only concerned about (his) ability to get (his) hands on more and more stuff without the stigma" is bizarre. I guarantee you he is as distressed as you are when hoards come on the market unrecorded. Physical access to the coins does matter though; not everything is revealed in an image. In a less polarized situation, you and he could sit down (virtually) and brainstorm possible solutions. I think if you started out with a clean slate, no preconceptions at all, you'd be surprised at how much you and he could agree on.

Speaking for myself, you might be surprised at how much common ground there is between you and I also. I agree, unambiguously, that the archaeological record is finite, fragile, threatened-- and precious. It isn't being protected very well right now. I'm also not naive about the ways in which some, although by no means all or even most, ancient coins come on the market. I would hope that we share the goal of preserving that resource, rather than winning an argument.

With that in mind, I'll return to a personal hobby horse of mine (one that you've declined to comment on in the past.) The interests of knowledge and the interests of the "source countries'" heritage are typically conflated by those in your camp. This identity is treated as a truism and not examined, but I think it's a fallacy. At least, this "identity of interests" should be argued, not merely stated. As long as this conflation persists, no solution is likely other than total victory by one side or the other. As I said, I care, a lot, about preservation of the record, but I honestly care not a fig for the claims of any modern nation-state to our common Graeco-Roman heritage. (An important aside: I'm talking about the records of antiquity. My position is very different in dealing with the artifacts of still-living cultures such as those in Africa. I fully appreciate how intolerable it is for a resident of, say, Nigeria to be forced to travel to Berlin or London to examine the best artifacts of the Edo empire. When a Roman colonist from Dobrudja happens by to claim his stuff, I'll listen attentively.) I'm sorry, but I refuse to accept that Rome is less "my" heritage than it is the heritage of a current resident of Bulgaria (or wherever.)

I'm convinced that some archaeologists are cat's-paws, witting or unwitting, of unsavory forces of nationalism. The source countries, in many cases at least, care very little for their "heritage". They are at least as obsessed as collectors with "stuff", especially expensive stuff. Do you really wish to argue that Turkey litigated for the return of the Dekadrachm Hoard because they held their Athenian "heritage" in high esteem, not because the hoard was high-profile and extremely valuable, and its potential dispersal represented a national loss of face? My understanding is the hoard has never been displayed; it certainly hasn't been published. How is this preferable from the standpoint of science to the alternative? Similarly, my recollection is that the drowning of the Zeugma mosaics was mostly decried by collectors, not by archaeologists. (I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong in this!) If a Taliban-like regime came to power in Egypt (not particularly likely, I know, but conceivable) and threatened to destroy the Sphinx, would that be OK, since ancient Egypt was "their" heritage?

My point isn't to "bash" these countries. I'm perfectly aware for example of the reasons why Zeugma was doomed. I'm merely suggesting that there is another way to look at things; a paradigm-shift, if you will. Why shouldn't archaeologists and collectors be allies, if only of convenience, and only some of the time, helping the "source countries" to better preserve our common heritage where feasible, pressuring them to change their laws where necessary?

Paul Barford said...

Tit for tat but "not a side issue"? Have it you own way Phil. I have clarified my post. Thanks for the help.

I think confusing the PAs with the Treasure Act though is an important issue when collectors say "it" should be adopted by other nations. Obviously it is very important which of the two different things they are talking of. Most US collectors seem not really to know (or care).

I cannot see how you can say I "lose sight of my own goals", if you see them as being that I should sit down at a table with coin collectors and discuss some kind of a compromise over the way we should be treating the archaeological record. That is the job of the PAS. I think there are issues we (and they) should not be “compromising” over.

To be accurate though I did not say Mr McCabe (who I do not know) wants to get his hands on “stuff without stigma”, the word I used was “collectors”.

I really do not think there can be a need to fondle the coins to get typological (“die studies”) information out of them, still less keeping them in a personal collection. That is my opinion, as a non-collector. I have studied and written up tonnes (literally) of archaeological material without owning a scrap of it.

I am really not going to get into a discussion of “nationalism” here, that is a collectors’ red herring, emboldened by Cuno’s recent rant, the point of which they willfully misunderstand.

The point is that the “knowledge” the Resource Preservation lobby is concerned about is not in the objects ripped out of the ground (the ones collectors like you covet), it is the information contained in that ground, in the place your collectables are quarried from. Trying to present it merely as a matter of who gets to hold the “pieces of the past” produced by looting is a side issue which collectors find comfortable to pretend is the main and only issue. It is not, as I pointed out above. The sites that are being quarried are in somebody's territory, and it is only right and proper that the states within whose territory this destruction takes place should be concerned and empowered to take action.

I know you US collectors do not like it when we try to apply your own arguments to the US, but I imagine many of you would be appalled if looters dug holes in ancient sites and monuments near your homes solely to seek collectable items for sale to a foreign market. Be honest. And is that "nationalism"? Is it in any way reprehensible to be worried about such destruction? If so, how? In fact the denial of US coin collectors that the issue (below) is in any way connected is in itself an expression of a different kind of chauvinism.

The problem is that for many of the developing countries, the motor of the looting is the finance to those that organize and profit from it provided by external markets, that is where the issue of movement out of the country becomes important. Where the Parthenon marbles are and are not is less of a problem to me (which does not mean that I do not regard it as problematic) than US dealers paying among others Bulgarian mafia middlemen to finance the plundering of ancient sites for more complete pots, lamps and coins right now.

I think you and your fellow collectors are quite wrong to imagine that your right to possess a piece of looted metalwork from a Balkan site overrides the interests of future generations of that region whose past has been destroyed so you can have the bits that interest you personally.

This may be difficult to understand for somebody who comes from a culture (which perceives itself as) having no ancient roots in the land where they live. Frankly I really cannot see how to get through such Philistine attitudes except to hope that if we talked about the looting of Native American sites some US collectors might start to understand what the issue is for us over here who do. Of course some do which is why the moderators of the Moneta-L discussion forum blocked any further discussion of the "sources of coins and looting" a few weeks back the moment the comparison was made.
That is certainly a prime case of the sort of "intellectual dishonesty" you accuse me of - but on the coin - collectors' part. It seems they are incapable of dioscussing this issue in a wider context than the space between the sides of their coin cabinet and the dealer they get their little treasures from.

Zeugma, I think you are simply unaware of the archaeological campaign which went on against this - and the concern was for more than just the "mosaics". Neither did any archaeologist support the Taliban blowing up Bamiyan, far from it, so your question about the Sphinx is really a bit pointless.

Marcus Preen said...

"Why shouldn't archaeologists and collectors be allies"

Your call for an alliance is a tad premature.

You can hardly ask archaeologists to find common ground with collectors and dealers whose codes of practice don't insist on being sure no item that is bought is looted. When they do, there will be an excellent basis for an alliance - but no need for one.

The above is not just my view but that of PAS in their advice to purchasers of British portable antiquities. I trust the advice of the archaeological organisation that is held in most esteem in collecting circles is not to be ignored or held to be impractical?
All it takes is for personal and commercial benefit to be sacrificed in favour of damage reduction. Progress does not lie in an alliance but in a change of behaviour.

Phil Davis said...

I'll reply quickly to just one point. "This may be difficult to understand for somebody who comes from a culture (which perceives itself as) having no ancient roots in the land where they live." I plead guilty, but make no apologies. I indeed have roots in Chicago, say the development of the labor movement and the flourishing of modern architecture. I indeed have roots in the US as a whole. I have deeper roots in Europe and the Mediterranean basin. I have no significant roots in Native American culture. That culture, by and large, didn't lead to me or make me what I am. I hardly think this makes me a "Philistine", but whatever. I assure you of one thing though, from personal experience. Native Americans with whom I've spoken view my attitude as appropriate and respectful. They are sad, angry, appalled, resigned, anything but grateful, when mainstream Americans claim the Indian past as part of the "heritage" of the United States. They see this, correctly, as cultural imperialism.

Paul Barford said...

Hmm. That's the problem. You and your mates are seeing it as an object-orientated "Ahnenerbe" issue, whereas the conservation world has moved on from that to cultural landscape /"Power of Place"-aligned concepts (actually if you read classics like Riegl it is perhaps in part a return). Collectors (and US ones in particular) are arguing from an outdated viewpoint and moreover in the case of the US collector, one encumbered by your own prejudices (and indeed "nationalist" ones - not to say as ethnically discriminative as the China-Tibet issue collectors love to evoke to justify themselves).

The Native American past IS part of the history of the place you live, it cannot be denied or submerged by pretending something else, it is part of what shaped the land, gives it character (that which you've not swept away). The USA and every citizen is as much a heir to that heritage as the Athenian "owls" and 19th dynasty shabtis and III dynasty cuneiform tablets you all eagerly collect without any documentation of where they come from. US collectors' attitudes to THAT which we can meet on collectors' forums is indeed the worst kind of "cultural imperialism".

So, would you support Native American sites being treated by commercial US artefact diggers as Bulgarian and "Dacian" (since I know that's what you collect) sites and findspots are treated by the artefact diggers that supply the markets you and your collecting buddies frequent?

Surely if you show no respect for the preservation of the one resource (by frequenting those markets and buying the stuff) then it is illogical to argue you have respect for the other. Or is there something I am missing?

What is your position on pot-digging, grave robbing on federal lands (or private property for that matter) in the US? How does that relate to your attitudes to dealing in and purchasing the spoils of illicit digging in Europe? Is US cultural resource protection legislation in need of change to favour the artefract hunter and collector? Why/why not?

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.