Sunday 12 April 2009

Testing the scrap seekers myth

One of the old saws trotted out by the artefact collectors is that if they did not buy metal antiquities like coins from the people who buy them from the diggers, the items "would end up melted down as scrap metal to turn into tourist trinkets" or some such related excuse. We are asked to believe that there are hordes of subsistence diggers out there in the so-called "source countries" feeding their families by digging up scrap metal from ancient sites. The artefact collectors thus represent themselves as "saving" the artefacts from certain destruction.

Dave Welsh (more of this later) is currently throwing out a challenge to "archaeologists like Paul Barford" to PROVE the link between collecting and collecting (which he denies exists), to document the link between people buying a commodity and the people who supply the demand by digging it up and destroying archaeological assemblages in the process.

Well, let's ask him to apply the same standards to his "melted down for tourist trinkets" model. I propose before we can accept this model trotted out by the pro-collecting community of "what is happening in the source countries", we need two things from the pro-collecting lobby:

1) Documentation that the subsistence digging of ancient sites is currently (let's say post 1989) occurring on a regular basis across a whole region or regions, independently of the search for saleable antiquities. Not anecdotal evidence ("XXX was in an Iranian market once and saw....") nor "common sense" arguments ("it stands to reason that ..."). Some examples of proper documented observations of the process. To support the case the collectors are making, it has to apply to an ancient site, not a modern one.

2) I'd like to see the collectors making this argument also put their money where their mouths are. I do not think they have the foggiest idea about the mechanics of the process which they are proposing is a "general" one. I bet very few of them have much of an idea how metal is distributed in the "average" ancient archaeological site.

I'd like to see them prove me wrong by doing it.

I propose a fair test of the proposition. I'd like to see a group of three of them feed their families for three weeks by selling scrap metal which they have dug out of the ground. Let's give them a headstart on the "source country peasant", just let them meet all food costs from selling excavated scrap (and cover any expenses incurred in the search), we'll leave all the other expenses of US daily life out of it. And since they are in the US, we will not insist they grub the metal only out of "ancient" sites. Any place likely to have metal artefacts (not cables, pipes etc) underground which does not have above-ground elements with metal installations will be game. Whether they break the law or not by digging on federal land, or private property without permission is entirely up to them to decide.

One important restraint. Above all, the toothless, jobless, landless, brown skinned peasant with sixteen starving kids at home that they imagine is doing this generally is not going to have a Minelabs Explorer metal detector at home (or be able to afford the batteries), neither do they have a four wheel drive SUV. So in the proposed test both are forbidden. They must walk to the search site (or go by mule, OK, I'll accept a battered old bicycle). They cannot take metal detectors (divining rods are OK) nor mechanical excavators.

Let's give them another headstart. They can use the local library first to identify where they would search. Old farmsteads, river crossings, fairgrounds, the sort of places where metal detectorists would go for example.

But then that's it. Let them dig with hand tools, picks, shovels, hand hoes, sieves if they like. They can dig as deep or as wide as they like. Dig all day or just a few hours until it gets hot. They might find a few silver dimes, maybe a dollar or two. Or maybe a coin hoard - but they are only allowed to consider their scrap value as their model suggests. They might find some corroded copper alloy or lead, and a lot of corroded iron. I'm sure they will, they are all clever guys those collectors. The ubiquitous Aluminium ringpulls... OK, let's let them use them too, but that is cheating a little isn't it?

To make a record of each day's work, let's have a digital shot of what they've found and an approximate weight of each type of metal. Now let's see them get the loot to the scrap dealer. On foot or by mule or bike. Because this is a fair test, let's allow them to phone round first to ask the local scrap dealer if he'd be interested in buying the corroded dirty and mixed material they have on offer.

So how long can they feed their families like that?

How viable a proposition is it?

Now, just to show what a really fair test this could be, since we all appreciate that Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh and his mates are busy making money other ways, the test would be equally valid if they found three homeless jobless hobos to do the digging for them - but whatever arrangement they make, the money from the digging must be sufficient to feed three families for three weeks.

Frankly, I do not think it is at all possible for a number of reasons. Firstly after the first two or three days' hard digging on the most productive site, the easiest stuff to find will be found. The diggers will have to dig deeper, shift many cubic metres of earth for decreasing yield. They could move on to another site, but after a while the sites are going to be beyond the area easily reached in a few hours' walk from home base, and further to carry the (heavy) yield.

Now having lived in Communist Poland at a time when the economy faltered, collapsed and went haywire, I actually saw this process in action. Right outside my home in fact. The Nazis torched a village in 1944 (the inhabitants were supporting the partisans) and its foundations were visible in the trees and rough grass just beyond where I parked my car in the place where I lived in the 1980s. Quite often I was able to observe small groups of grubby men from the 'margins of society' as the Poles would say, digging around in the ruins. There was in fact quite a bit of non-ferrous scrap just beneath the grass in the rubble, taps, pipes, various fittings. These guys were digging them out and - what was more interesting to me as an archaeologist who dabbled in archaeometallurgy - they were melting down the brass ones at least on site to make them easier to carry away. They had a few bottles of vodka, some food, and there they sat among the trees fanning a makeshift ground-level charcoal hearth. I have a set of photos somewhere recording the remains left behind. Fascinating stuff. Now, I never saw anyone apart from me take any interest in what they were doing, and there was certainly nothing to stop them digging deeper, but I noted that they really were raking over the top ten centimetres of most of the area - so about as much damage as a wild boar would do on the same site.

Coincidentally, I was back there a couple of weeks ago, the area has now been nicely landscaped after some building work in the vicinity, so I decided to fieldwalk the area - there is a lost 13th century village 'somewhere' in the area; I found none of that, but noted that there was still a good deal of metal in the scraped surface which had not been dug away. Today though nobody seems too interested in taking most of it, the price of scrap metal has dropped, especially in the current economic climate.
Back in the 'old days' though, these sad old blokes in the trees were an exception. The more frequent source of scrap metal (until the authorities had a big clampdown) was standing buildings - usually abandoned, but not always, in which there was a fair amount of metal available. Sadly the brass lettering on monuments and gravestones was also taken, iron railings would disappear and in my local park an entire bronze sculpture (recovered from the scrap merchants). This type of grubbing around in the ground was not the preferred option - too much like hard work (as Mr Welsh would soon find out if he took up our challenge). As far as I am aware, there were no cases recorded in the late 1980s of the quarrying of real ancient archaeological sites in Poland for their scrap metal content (and looting for relics was rare in those days as the market was controlled, and anyway metal detectors were rare - and Polish-made ones next to useless in those days).

A final point. As Jesus said, the poor will always be with us... if the digging for scarce scrap metal is as "natural" an option in a developing economy as the collectors' lobbyists pretend, then why are there any metal artefacts at all left in the accessible portions of two thousand year old ancient sites? If what the collectors say is happening is viable, generations of people would already have stripped every ancient site of the non-ferrous artefacts ... and yet oddly enough, until the artefact hunters come along with their metal detectors, there seems to be quite a lot left. This seems to suggest that even if this kind of digging can be documented, it must be episodic and localised, and not a general process occurring across the entire ancient world throughout history.

Is not therefore a better explanation of the digging that is taking place now not that the seekers are primarily searching for scrap, but they are searching for relics to sell? That which is not saleable but taken out of the ground anyway of course will be sold as scrap, but this material is a byproduct of the antiquities market.

For these reasons I really do not believe that subsistence digging of ancient sites merely and only for scrap metal is anywhere near as prevalent as the pro-collecting lobby likes to make out, even in "developing countries". Neither do I think that in reality that it is a viable option IF the sale of artefacts as collectables is ruled out. The majority of settlement sites would be difficult to exploit in this way, a few cemeteries may be more "suitable" for such a process, and of course maybe a peasant may stumble upon a buried hoard, but as a general process affecting the entire archaeological record of the "source countries", I think this is another of those poorly-documented collectors' myths.

If however the collectors would like to make the effort and document it better in the two ways I have indicated, I think we'd all be interested to see the results.

Photo: hot work digging holes in Somalia


Priapus said...

if they find one gold solidus wont that satisfy them for a whole month 4 grams of gold for $80 in countries where per capita income is about $1000. If you are a farmer, in a remote village in the middle east, going to remote caves once every week can give a good boost to your income!
I compare sites in Lebanon and Syria, Lebanon has more relaxed laws than Syria, it's sites are more preserved than the sites in Syria.
In old Damascus lots of people buy homes in the old city for nothing but digging deep in the foundations or checking every hole or plaster filling in the walls.
I hate looting but I wonder what you think might be a good strategy or course of action to stop it or at least limit the damage caused by it.
Kind regards,
Nafez Qanadilo

Paul Barford said...

Thank you Mr Qanadilo.

What the US collectors are talking about are people they say dig over settlement sites and cemeteries for scrap metal in general. I challenged them to document this assertion - as you see they are keeping very quiet.

So, how many solidi can one actually find a year digging the average tell or hunting in the caves in your country? To earn 1000dollars annually by these means you'd have to find 12 a year - I doubt there are many metal detectorists in the UK who can boast those sorts of finds rates of gold (or bullion-quality silver). How many gold coins are found undermining the foundations of your own house or stripping the plaster?

So these devastated sites in Syria, are they hunting for antiquities or scrap bronze and iron to sell?

Thank you for your interest

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Barford,
Thank you for your reply, I truly understand your feelings against the destruction of human culture and history, I also hope to be able to do something to preserve this heritage in anyway I can.
Collectors in the US and UK sometimes miss the feeling of what it is to devastate someone else's heritage.
I agree with you that it is hard to find 12 solidii per year and that the scrap metal theory sometimes is over stretched, but I know lots of people who believe that lottery is a real source of income, they even believe in superstition and witch craft where for a small amount of money a genie, elf, or a pixie can come to you in your sleep and guide you to hidden treasures and piles of ancient Roman and Islamic gold.
Those people are willing to break a dozen of ancient pottery jars and ravage miles of sites in the hope of finding one solidus. It is something like the gold rush of the US but with a middle eastern flavor.
Some conceal it under other hobbies like hiking and hunting, but the real aim is looting. It is not confined by a group or a class of people, it is wide spread, and nothing seems to deter it. Jordan, Syria, and even Lebanon has a very tough legal system compared the UK or US, but those people do not care about laws, and laws in order to be effective should be enforceable, and I am beginning to really doubt that such strict laws can be enforced in practice or have an effect on someone who is determined not to abide by laws.
I feel sorry to see the treasures of my home town becoming merchandise in the hands of greedy dealers, but sometimes life challenges us with peculiarities on the ground that defies any theoretical logic.
I appreciate your contact very highly and am personally very pleased to find some one who preserving culture and heritage is matter of principle to him and hope that I can be able to drink a little bit from the vast well of knowledge you have.
kind regards,
Nafez Qanadilo

Anonymous said...

To give you a picture of the magnitude of destruction, I would like to refer you to a book called Architecture for Poor by Hassan Fathy, who built a small town in Aswan to relocate the farmers living in that area of Gourna (around 7000-8000 inhabitants)who were leaving in slums. The new city was modern, having clean water, and best of all free.
The inhabitants of that area were the first to do everything possible to sabotage that project and go back to their old slums because it turned out that they have an extensive network of tunnels dug under their slums for looting ancient Egyptian cemeteries.
I think it seems quite profitable for them to trade a brand new house for an old slum with a hole under it!
Kind regards,
Nafez Qanadilo

Paul Barford said...

Yes, but you miss the point. is it raw SCRAP METAL they are seeking, or saleable antiquities?

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