Wednesday 17 June 2009

"The Southwest's good ol' artifact boys"

Craig Childs has an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times called The Southwest's good ol' artifact boys (June 15th 2009) concerning last week's "Operation Cerberus" illicit antiquities bust which makes interesting reading. Childs points out that the people concerned were ordinary citizens:
You might have an imaginary picture of the pot hunters and collectors who live there, a crew of dirty, well-armed black-market privateers roving the desert (in the case of many Western pot hunters, you'd be right). But the scenario becomes more complicated when you look closely at who is actually named. The federal action laid bare a little known culture of ordinary citizens who collect and sell human history. [...] Half of those indicted are in their 60s and 70s, people who grew up pot hunting when it was not even thought of as unethical, much less illegal. The federal action, a lot of locals think, was akin to busting a bunch of good ol' boys with a backwoods still. They don't give much thought to how illegal digging in the Four Corners has decimated one of the richest archaeological regions in the country, putting thousands of years of human history into private hands. Pulling artifacts from the land without documentation and adding them to private collections is a form of archaeological genocide, erasing the record of a people from a place. Yet for many in the Four Corners area, it is like collecting seashells. Sunday picnics used to include shovels. An old-timer once told me that there were so many pots they were like pumpkins on the ground, and few saw anything wrong with digging and collecting. [...] Perhaps last week's raid of so many ordinary citizens was a necessary step in pushing pot hunting further from the realm of what is acceptable.
I guess nobody really paused to think why those pots are no longer "like pumpkins on the ground" and where those pots are now and whether they can ever be traced back to the assemblages dismantled by artefact hunters.

An interesting feature of the article is that the arguments reported as being offered here in support of the excavation of artefacts in the States are almost the same as those used by the pro-collecting lobby in connection with artefact hunting and collecting in the UK. US no-questions-asked collectors of antiquities imported from the Old World (many of whom are more likely than not looted) have recently been verty loudly advocating that the latter is "not their fault" because these source countries "should" introduce laws and systems like those of portable antiquity Topsyturveyland, England and Wales. I say, let them first advocate that such systems are applied across the board in the US. Let them first lobby their own lawmakers and public opinion to make artefact hunting a free for all on public lands as it is in Britain.

Collectors' rights activist Peter Tompa on his blog is, I think I am right in saying, the only person in the whole collectors' rights blogosphere to date to note the Utah raids. The rest are maintaining an embarrassed siilence, pretending it is not in any way connected with their "collectors' rights" battles with their own government and the world as a whole.* Tompa notes "while various archaeological blogs applaud the government's prosecutions of pot hunters, public opinion amongst the locals out West may not be so approving" (Heavy-handed Feds ) and quotes some outraged "locals" stating that "some contend artifacts are not hard to find, as easy as looking down on the ground". I have no doubt that artefacts can be found on the ground on both private and public land. The speciofic artefacts however at the centre of this case were one assumes not the sort of thing that is (any longer) lying on the ground in the region for the taking, otherwise nobody would be asking or paying thousands of dollars for them.

Were the federal authorities "heavy handed" in carrying out this operation? I must say that I have spent some time reading through the comments made by locals on the Salt Lake Tribune website. From this I conclude that, "ordinary citizens" or not, it would be a rash officer who sent two or three unprotected men in without any kind of support to knock on the doors of these locals and announce that they were going to confiscate property (illicit artefacts) worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from each collector - potentially a gun owner (if they have illegal artefacts, then why not illegal guns?). The media report that several of the people arrested in fact had already had a brush with the law earlier on a variety of counts. A federal officer who did not provide adequate support for the men under his command (and it would appear from the search warrants civilian experts accompanying the search teams) in a potentially explosive situation like this would clearly be failing in his duty.

* It is interesting to note that the word often used to describe the surrendering of Native American artefacts to representatives of modern tribes is the one hated by portable antiquity collectors: "repatriation".


Marcus Preen said...

"Sunday picnics used to include shovels"....

Yes, and days out at Stonehenge used to include hammers, but that was long, long ago. Public opinion has moved on in most places and in most communities.

One can hope, since these are often people in their 60s and 70s that there may come a day when there is no-one left that pretends unethical collecting isn't cultural genocide.

How doubly outrageous then is the prospect of British artefact hunters buying their children small metal detectors and US coin dealers making efforts to encourage young people to take up the hobby, thus ensuring the evil that men do lives after them... What brainless (in the one case) and calculating (in the other)behaviour.

Paul Barford said...

Feds: Armed suspects were a concern during American Indian artifact busts in Utah
Something every law-enforcement officer learns at the training academy: No arrest is routine. That's one reason federal agents who served 12 search warrants simultaneously in San Juan County last week were armed and, in a few instances, drew their weapons to ensure their own safety, federal officials said Wednesday. But the main reason was authorities believed nearly all of the 24 people ensnared in the crackdown on illegal trafficking of American Indian artifacts had weapons either on them or in their homes and vehicles, said U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman and FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Fuhrman.

Marcus Preen said...

Good ole boys indeed then!

Not exactly the part saint, part academic, part heroic curators of history that people with shovels tend to be portrayed as by their customers. Are collectors the real shooters? ;)

Paul Barford said...

"Are collectors the real shooters?"


Paul Barford said...

They are breaking the law, they know they are breaking the law, whether or not you think archaeology is "important", the law exists in the USA. If collectors don't like it then they should get the law changed (like the coin collectors are trying to do). Frankly I think it will be an uphill battle as I really do not believe that the average US citizen ifs FOR the destruction of what little cultural heritage that land has. See my post "
Pot Diggers of the US Might Unite Now...".

I expecrt paedophiles say they do it because they "like children" (or "children need the attention"), speeding drivers because they "like exploring the technological limitations of their cars" or whatever. The law however is the law, is it not?

Frankly I just do not buy this "allies of archaeology" story, which the pro-collecting lobby peddle. If collectors were any kind of allies of archaeology they would not be trashing the archaeological record by their scramble to get theirhands on displayable bits of it would they? Would they? I think it goes deeper than that, I think we are failing to see collecting for what it is.

As far as I am concerned your argument is like saying that fox-hunters, seal pup clubbers and whale hunters are potential allies of ecologists. Hardly.

Marcus Preen said...

"What you're doing here is demonising archaeology in the eyes of the public."

What an extraordinary claim! All I see here is opposition to unethical collectors who damage archaeology. How on earth is that demonising archaeology or archaeologists?

"You're attacking a bunch of people who are NOT hardened criminals"

Where is this claimed? Is not the accusation that some collectors and dealers, some of the time, put money into the hands of criminals and/or unethical excavators, sometimes knowingly and very frequently avoidably? And thereby are sometimes party to or encouragers of actual criminality and very frequently cultural crime?
Which element of the above is untrue?

In my view those who fit with any of the above are NOT "just ordinary people pursuing a hobby."
Take a look at ethical collectors. Or bird watchers. See the crucial difference?

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