Thursday, 10 September 2009

"Archaeologists should compromise"

Derek Fincham (and here too) reckons: "we will never eradicate the desire of collectors to collect. Are there compromise positions which archaeologists may adopt that would shift this desire in helpful directions?" The question is according to him a rhetorical one with an affirmative answer.

Well, first of all, though it was once a popular way to exercise an "interest in nature", there are not too many people these days collecting wild bird eggs in the UK. I imagine anyone walking these days into a British pub holding up an osprey egg they've just robbed and proclaiming what a wonderful guy they are to "give it a good home" in his collection will leave the pub with a bloody nose (and hopefully someody will call the police and give them the number of the idiot's car too). There obviously are things which public opinion these days regards as acceptable to collect, and other things it does not. Kiddie porn is one of the latter, freshly-obtained tiger heads and elephant foot umbrella-stands too. Ivory geegaws will hopefully join them before all the elephants not in zoos dies a painful death. I really do not see why portable antiquity collectors are so confident that public opinion will always be behind them when they refuse to take action within their own ranks to drive out the cowboys who sell looted and smuggled artefacts.

Now why on earth should it be archaeologists who are to make compromises? Why should it be those whose concern is that the archaeological record should not be mined as a source of collectable geegaws who should compromise? Perhaps collectors could compromise over their imagined "rights" which underly the damage caused by looting? Would Mr Fincham urge those concerned about child abuse to make compromises? Those opposed to ivory poaching? Those concerned about drunk drivers? I expect paedophiles, ivory poachers and lager louts would be only too happy if people would give them carte blanche to do what they want in the name of "compromise". But then to compromise would not be in the public interest. To compromise over the totally unrestrained destruction of the world's archaeological heritage is not in the public interest [or if it is people like Derek Fincham really have not produced the arguments to show how it is].

Its difficult fighting culture crime, its difficult fighting child abuse, drink-driving and ivory poaching and much else. But we do. And it is here that public opinion plays a huge role. Society does not sit idly by and let it happen under their noses. The laws reflect what the community as a whole expects of the lawmakers.

If collectors of antiquities wish to have (or retain) public acceptance, then let them show they deserve it. I do not see why anyone concerned about the utter devastation the no-questions-asked antiquities market is causing has to compromise their desire to see it curbed. To compromise would be to accept, ignore and condone it.

Photo: a Victorian wild bird egg collection (it was called "oology"). Birds of course are a self-renewing resource, archaeological sites are not.

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