Wednesday 10 June 2009

2009 PAS Conference: Archaeological finds made by the Public in "Different European Countries"

Coincidentally the announcement from the PAS of their upcoming promotional conference (British Museum, 7th September) has just appeared on Britarch. It is not about how many artefacts are being removed from the record by artefact hunters without anybody knowing, or how the PAS can increase public awareness of archaeological issues or help deal with 'nighthawking' or anything like that, but about:

Recording the PASt: How Different European Countries Deal (sic) with Portable Antiquities. The blurb announces:

This conference aims to gain a wider understanding of how different European countries deal with portable antiquities (archaeological small finds) found by members of the public and promote best practice amongst finders. The key questions that speakers will address are: whether there is a legal requirement for finders of portable antiquities to report archaeological objects and whether the state claims ownership of them; whether it is permissible to search for such finds with a metal-detector or by other means; how many people (in that country) are known to search for archaeological objects (legally or not); how many objects are reported each year; and whether the systems in place (in that country) work as well as they could or whether improvements could be made. It is hoped the conference will help identify the main strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches adopted by countries across Europe, in order to draw conclusions as to how best to preserve an archaeological record of finds found, develop best practice, and find ways to educate the public about the importance of such finds for understanding the past.
Oddly enough, not a word then about the protection of the archaeological record from the exploitation by artefact hunters and collectors as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit. Surely that is the key issue in discussing legislation and response concerning archaeological finds which are potential collectables, not whether by becoming "partners" with those involved in this destructive process, archaeology can gain a little information (which is I bet the way the discussion is headed).

Also missing is mention of the participants providing any definition of what constitutes a "portable antiquity" in each country which seems to me likely to lead to confusion. Surely a more efficient way to organize this sort of international discussion is first to gather the information on legislation etc, publish it and then have a discussion of participants based on the reading and diogesting and reflection on the information presented rather than a series of twenty minute potted and inevitably incomplete and superficial presentations of what are extremely complex and multi-aspectual issues.

I was amused for example to see that the organizers have allocated just 25 minutes for Roger Bland to present his paper "The English and Welsh approach to portable antiquities: a perfect system or fundamentally flawed?" Personally I see no question about it (the latter), but since we can all guess what conclusion the Head of the Scheme will inevitably come to, I wonder just how many words he can devote to exploring whether becoming "partners" with those that dig up the archaeological record for collectables for entertainment and profit is in archaeological and heritage management terms a "fundamentally flawed" approach. Not many, I wager.

These "different European countries" considered in the conference do not actually seem all that different in their legislative and social conditions and archaeological organization as they could be. There are three groups, there is England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic. Then there will be the Netherlands, Schleswig Holstein and Denmark. Then the edges of Europe, Slovenia, Hungary and Poland (Alek Bursche). This is followed by just half an hour "discussion" - no doubt just the amount of time needed for everyone to agree that the PAS partnership with collectors is the "best thing since sliced bread for portable antiquities" before rushing for their trains.

Presumably there will be a conference publication intended to promote the same message for all those US collectors and dealers in portable antiquities who could not make it to the conference to use in their lobbying. The use that is made of the PAS by the lobbyists of this 'no-questions-asked antiquities trade protection lobby' (such as the PAS' "numismatic friends" the ACCG) is one of the disasterous and the most damaging of the home goals the PAS has scored for archaeological heritage management. This conference seems almost designed to compound that effect.

That this question is being treated instrumentally seems to be suggested by the programme. Is the range of papers collected in the preliminary programme really representative of the European panorama of problems and responses? Where is Europe's biggest portable antiquity mine, Bulgaria? What about the German response in other Lander where progress is being made against the illicit antiquity market? France is conspicuous by its absence (I dare PAS to invite somebody from HAPPAH to take part in the discussions). Spain, Italy and Greece (not to mention Cyprus and soon-to-be EU-Turkey) have experiences in these issues which it would be rash to ignore. Loss of archaeological information from artefact hunting is a huge problem in the Crimea too.

I imagine participants from these regions of Europe would have some useful things to say about coping (or failing to cope) with artefact hunting and other finders but I presume that they would not say things the PAS would like to hear - especially in response to any suggestion that archaeologists should just let the artefact miners get on with quarrying the archaeological sites for saleable collectables and show a few of the things they've dug up (voluntarily of course) to the archaeologists which is the PAS approach. I wonder whether their absence is fortunate (for the PAS, less so for the archaeological heritage) accident or design?

Furthermore we see once again the confusion between two entirely different issues - which are treated separately in the legislation of other countries - which is the accidental finding of archaeological material, and the deliberate seeking and exploitation of it as collectables. These are not the same thing at all, although the PAS and its supporters and even (oddly) reviewers, insist it is.

Vignette: Even Lewis Carroll appreciated that suggesting imposing a PAS-like system on the rest of the world is rather like the idea of stuffing a fat dormouse into a tiny teapot.....

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