Wednesday, 2 September 2009

More Stuff and Nonsense on the PAS

Peter Tompa does not understand the “hostility of many U.S. archaeologists” towards the Treasure Act and PAS, saying that “The typical claim of critics is that the Treasure Act and PAS merely "pays people to loot". Well, first of all, what is not understood here is that the PAS does not “pay” anyone to do anything, the Treasure Act and PAS are two quite different things. In the first a reward is paid out for collectables which are surrendered as the law dictates, the second is a purely voluntary scheme, and is not intended just to interact with artefact hunters, though they have tended to dominate it.

Following “legal scholar” Derek Fincham, the Washington lawyer admonishes:

But the fact remains that even in boom times, there is never enough money or enough archaeologists to excavate and properly record all the minor artifacts (particularly coins) out there. There certainly is not enough money to ensure they are all properly conserved.
The fundamental question is of course whether there is a need “to excavate all the minor artifacts out there” (adding “especially coins” of course reveals Tompa’s agenda). Also is there really a need to "conserve" them all outside the archaeological record? What about looking just beyond the isolated artefacts and consider conserving the archaeological record itself? Modern archaeology subscribes to the concept of preservation in situ, preventative conservation. What is the point of digging up all the little “fragments of the past” (taking them out of the record of which they form a single part) and scattering them through a myriad of ephemeral personal collections? The proper place for an Amur Tiger is properly protected in its natural habitat, not caged in a pen shaded by English elms and between the pandas and wallabies in a private zoo in Solihull. The proper place for an Anasazi pot is in the place it was deposited by its users centuries ago where proper methodological excavation can reveal facts about the structure and economy of the group to which they belonged. Not even Mr Tompa I suspect would want every pueblo and cemetery and sacred site in the Southwest riddled with artefact hunters’ holes.

Why not encourage the public to work with archaeologists rather than against them?” says Tompa. Well, yes. Let us stop self-centred members of the public going out with shovels to archaeological sites all over the US to “excavate” their own “fragments of the past” for entertainment or profit, totally trashing the unwritten history that the sites hold. It is members of the public who mine archaeological sites for collectables that are working against the archaeological study of the record they contain. It is members of the public wo buy the products of such looting that are acting against archaeology. It is members of the public who lobby Congress to not place (and even lift) any restrictions on the movement of such material who are working against archaeology (yes, that means you Mr Tompa).

Is the only problem of the US that there is no PAS for artefact hunters like the Redds to go to with what they have dug up for “recording”? Is the lack of a PAS the reason why there are members of the public in the Four Corners region out there working against archaeology, digging up Native American artefacts for collecting and sale? So - instead of fighting import controls of material from foreign countries with endangered sites - why not, Mr Tompa, lobby for the creation of a PAS in the United States? Why not protect the interests of American collectors of American antiquities rather than those who covet foreign stuff? Let’s have a bit of old-fashioned patriotism in the US (anti-) heritage lobby!

In the US too the financial crisis has led to a shortage of archaeologists. Let us hear about Mr Tompa's efforts to lobby for the lifting of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in his own country to allow members of the public to go out onto Federal and Indian lands to "excavate and properly record all those minor artefacts out there" and conserve them on eBay. Obviously if US collectors and dealers are advocating that other countries are to "follow the PAS way" of achieving protection of the archaeological resource, then let the USA lead the way to show the system would work outside the specific legislative and social conditions of England and Wales.

Tompa asks:
What's wrong with letting the public keep minor artifacts after they are recorded, particularly when they will otherwise just be forgotten in the stores of underfunded state museums? Shouldn't it all be about recording and preserving artifacts rather than "keeping control?"
There is nothing wrong with people keeping artifacts, those found accidentally in the course of gardening, walking the dog, on the beach or whatever. There is however a difference between the lucky find and the material accumulated by those people who go out equipped to look for and take away artifacts from archaeological sites for creating ephemeral personal collections.

The problem is that (despite what Mr Fincham and Mr Tompa think), a very small proportion of the archaeological evidence disturbed by these artefact hunters is ever “recorded”, not even (especially) in England and Wales. The Guardian article which prompted Tompa’s outburst is about “grots”, the type of coins the PAS has been complaining that UK metal detector users are not bringing them for recording. These are the coins that end up unsorted in the uncleaned lot of “English dugups” which appear on eBay. There is no need to look too eeply into the figures to perceive this. The PAS is seeing 50 000 record-worthy metal detected finds annually, but if there are eight thousand metal detectorists in England and Wales (Bland’s figure) that means that they are only bringing in a small portion of what there is record-worthy among what they find annually (6.25 artefacts each – many of them can find that many reportable finds in a single weekend). Some of them have a shed full of artefacts, and boxes full of "grots" (from various sites, all now completely mixed up). The PAS database has apparently information on the findspots of 99703 coins today, that means that over the eleven years of the existence of the scheme, statistiaally each metal detectorist in England and Wales has submitted just 12.45 coins, that’s the equivalent of just over one “grot” a year. What that means in real terms is that some have sent them in to the PAS by the boxload, while many more have not shown a single one.

As for what Tompa and fincham suggest, would the objects and data about the objects taken out of the archaeological record by artefact hunters be better preserved in the long term in a specialized institution intended for the purpose (with a statute, collecting policy and board of governers, accessible to visiting scholars and properly registered and curated), or in ten thousand scattered Joe Boggins’ collections of old bric-a-brak in garden sheds from Solihull to Sioux Falls? Despite Mr Tompa's misgivings about what happens in the museums (I presume in his country) he knows about, there are even more severe problems in curating the common heritage scattered between so many ephemeral and unregistered collections that for balance he should consider.

As for “keeping control”, the finite and fragile archaeological resource from which come all these collectables which Mr Tompa wants is precious. When the stratigraphy of all the accessible sites in the country has been churned up by diggers, when all the diagnostic finds have been removed, there will be no more. It surely behoves us to manage all the threatened and finite resources (of all kinds) of our world. Archaeological heritage management means controlling (managing) what happens to the archaeological record. I cannot see how you can manage anything (natural resource, shop, pension fund) without keeping control over what disappears from it. Frankly, if collectors like Mr Tompa and his ACCG mates show absolutely no will or concern to help this process, and are simply a minority group of members of the public working against archaeology, then it is up to somebody else to step in and do it while there is still something left to save.

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