Saturday 27 June 2009

Harvesting the Collectables: Balancing the Interests

The libertarian Las Vegas Review-Journal on Jun. 21, 2009 published an (unsigned) editorial "Do the feds own everything?". In it we read:

"Pot hunting" is legal on private land; it is considered a crime on lands controlled by the government. But the tiny ratio of private to "government-controlled" land in the West would be considered outrageous anywhere else. No one is endorsing wanton vandalism of such sites or artifacts. But it would be useful and realistic if a cooperative, rather than an adversarial, approach allowed quick surveys of such sites, with the most archaeologically promising being set aside for near-future professional digs, with residents told "Harvest the rest if you can".[my emphasis]
"Harvest the rest"? The article is unsigned, but it is a fair assumption that its author has few sympathies for or connections to Native Americans or US archaeologists and conservationists (let us recall that the Archaeological Resources Protection Act does not onlyprotect sites on public land). But apart from the author's outrage that more state-owned land in the region is not sold off to private owners, what lies behind this suggestion? It seems the author is convinced that the justification for digging over archaeological sites in theregion is that the owners of these "bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads and pendants", the Anasazi "abandoned them, perhaps more than a thousand years ago". So it's finders keepers then. It comes down to property rights and salvage law. The author argues that if these objects are left untouched in the ground, those boring old archaeologists will not come and dig them up right away, but the evidence of past lives will remain unexplored in the ground, until it is "most likely" eroded out,"to be trampled by animals, washed away in the next rains". Obviously the writer does not regard the archaeological evidence of the site being dug through to get a few saleable collectables to sell to a no-questions-asked buyer for a few thouand dollars any kind of threat (presumably "private enterprise"). In fact it seems the writer sees the problem as consisting only of what to do with the "portable antiquities" ("bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads and pendants") rather than one of conserving ancient sites so they do not suffer unmitigated erosion and looting.

This is the sort of thing that the unthinking propagation of the Portable Aniquities Scheme approach leads to. Peter Tompa is a great fan of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, though it is clear that like many of its US promotors with no real understanding of the issues behind it. He writes:

Perhaps, federal authorities should consult with Roger Bland and the PAS to see if that program might provide some ideas for what can be done in the American Southwest [...]. There should be some way to balance the interests of Native Americans, archaeologists, pot hunters interested in local history and the Federal Government outside the purely punitive approach exemplified by the raids in the Four Corners area.
I would indeed welcome hearing what Roger Bland would recommend as a remedy here, liberalise all the heritage protection laws in the US in order tha local pot diggers can "harvest" the bits of the archaeological record that archaeologists have not scheduled to dig up this year or next year? Mr Tompa represents pot hunters as only "interested in local history" (a PAS mantra) when the Blanding "Action Cerberus" was of course aimed entirely at people that were selling their "dugups", and for no small sums of money.

I think the ACCG and the rest of us really should hear from their numismatic "friend" what the PAS position would be here. Would the PAS be for punishing illegal digging of Native American sites and graveyards for collectables, or would it urge a way to "balance the interests" of collectors and the antiquities trade in the American Southwest as Mr Tompa suggests? Since the ACCG seem to feel free to speak for the PAS to an international audience in matters like this, I think we have a right to know what position the PAS itself holds on such matters.

It is nice to look at the comments to that editorial to observe just what kind of company Mr Tompa is with thoughts like he has.

Photo: Native American (Caddo) cemetery recently "harvested" by artefact hunters. Is this what the ACCG have in mind?

1 comment:

Marcus Preen said...

I wonder which planet Mr Tompa is speaking from when he wonders if Roger Bland, a public servant, might support the abandonment of a punitive approach to law-breaking and it's replacement with a negotiated settlement with the criminals whereby their crimes are rendered legal?

Which part of Dr Bland's recent words - "we are anxious to take steps to suppress illegal metal detecting"
does Mr Tompa not understand?

If in doubt, he might care to email Dr Bland and if he times it right he might get a personalised reiteration within seconds. In the meantime he might be better desisting from such public musings since they might give collectors the impression that criminality, on this planet at least, is up for re-casting by public officials in order to favour collectors' and dealers' interests.

I feel that he way things might be done on Planet Zog are not about to be imported to Earth however much some might really, really wish it was otherwise.

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