Saturday 31 October 2009

Winter Blogging Break

I will most likely be posting very little on this blog over the coming weeks, until the beginning of February. The reason for this is that I will be in the field, with the Polish Mission in Deir El-Bahari in Egypt to be precise, probably up a ladder in the chapel of Hathor in the Temple of Hatshepsut recording the mural decoration, and then in the second part of the season down a ladder below the floor of an annexe with a couple of guys excavating the rubble filling under the floor to examine the stability of the adjacent foundations.

Access to the internet is I understand somewhat restricted on the edge of the Western Desert, and although I'm taking my netbook, will mostly be using it to keep up with editorial and translating duties from back home. Any time I am not hunched over it in some dark corner of the dig house struggling with the verbal gymnastics of Polish historians, I will no doubt be stomping (hopefully not limping this year) around Western Thebes trying to see what I did not find last time I was there. Its one of the most fascinating places in the world for anyone of an archaeological bent, and I regard it an immense privilege to be involved in this work.

I was amused by an announcement (made rather prematurely) about my absence from an artefact collectors discussion forum. The moderator told collectors that Paul Barford will not be bothering them a while as:

He has gone to Egypt for the summer so he can dig some nice antiquities. He's allowed contact with antiquities, but we're not...
Well, "mad dogs and Englishmen" may dig in the summer, but the mission I will be with is (as I told the moderator of that group) a winter one. I am not so sure about "contact with (portable) antiquities", most of the time I will be digging rubble and actually there is a high chance that it will be the infill of old excavations anyway. To judge from the adjacent trench dug two years ago, though there may be shaft tomb here of the Third Intermediate Period, any "antiquities" (i.e., archaeological evidence) will mostly be in the form of smashed-up bits of cartonage and maybe the odd shabti fragment or two. I do not know whether that would really count in collectors' circles as "nice" (more like a cut-price better than nothing gap-filler).

As for the other part of the statement, sadly, I have to note once again another exhibition of the "bogeyman syndrome". I do not think I have ever said that in my opinion nobody should have any contact with antiquities other than me/archaeologists. What should be obvious is that I am concerned that there is "contact with antiquities" which causes ongong and unmitigated destruction of archaeological evidence, and "contact with antiquities" that does not. All I am urging is a better definition of the difference between the two and collectors consciously and actively desisting from the first. Is that so difficult to understand? It seems that for collectors it is.

Are archaeologists digging here to have "contact with antiquities"? Well, Hatshepsut's temple is more or less already dug out starting with the Egypt Exploration Society at the beginning of the century. There are walls and the stuff in archaeological storerooms. What is needed now is primarily conservation and display/interpretation of the monument (and here in this case this includes continuing the anastylosis begun at the beginning of the twentieth century). Part of that process requires determining whether the foundations of the terraced walls under earlier reconstructions do not need strengthening. If there were no need to examine the stability of these foundations, then there would be no digging here. When we dig here, what we would are hoping to find is not so much "antiquities", but (lack of) evidence of cracking, shifting of the foundations, and what was done to them in the Third Intermediate Period (when burials were inserted below the building's floor). The "collectable thingies" in the rubble below the floor are only a small part of the information contents of those layers. There will be other evidence there which can provide archaeological information (stone chips from shaping the architecture, fragments of earlier stone paving with wear patterns, wood offcuts from erecting various phases of scaffolding etc) which would never grace the cabinets of a collector of antiquities in the US or anywhere else, but are valuable archaeological information - evidence that would be lost the moment a looter digs his way down to find something more saleable to "Internet antiquitists".

Anyway - the long and the short of it is that I will not be following the portable antiquity antics of the dealers and collectors, the apologists and the rogues and moaning about them. It will be a welcome break for us all I am sure. Neither will I be using my current email address, so I will be unaware of any comments sent to this blog . So none will appear until about the middle of February.

Friday 30 October 2009

Bulgarian dugup coin collection investigated

A forthcoming court case apparently involving the investigation of the origins of coins from a major private collection in Bulgaria will be one of its first tests of Bulgaria’s new law on cultural heritage (Petar Kostadino "A case study", Sofia Echo Fri, Oct 30 2009).

It comes two weeks after the new law’s deadline expired for all holders of archaeological findings to register them in court.

The case has aroused interest in US collecting circles because one of the people accused of involvment is Dimitar Draganov, a professor in numismatics from the town of Rousse on the Danube. Draganov is author of a number of publications (see Ed Snible’s blog for more details) and is also a member of the UK’s Royal Numismatics Society. “He is also manager of the Bobokovi Foundation of two Rousse-based business people, the brothers Plamen and and Atanas Bobokovi, who share a collection of coins, the reason for the accusations against Draganov”.

The case started in 2008 when Draganov was among 19 people arrested in Rousse on allegations of illegal treasure hunting. Police found about 400 ancient coins, worth 370 000 leva, in Draganov’s home. According to police, the coins were about to be sold abroad, with Draganov hired to record them as an expert. Draganov’s version of the story is different. He said that the coins were part of a collection owned by the Bobokovi Foundation and his job was indeed to register them as archaeological artefacts so that a catalogue could be compiled and a book written about them.
It seems the whole business started in the summer of 2007 with the publication and public exhibition of the massive coin collection of the Bobokovi brothers which aroused speculation about how the collection had been created. "The collection which police confiscated from my desk, I received from the Bobokovi brothers with a protocol so that I can do research on it", he said. The value of the coins found “in his desk” is the equivalent of 190 000 Euros. Draganov confirmed that the collection was registered and declared at the museum in Rousse as well as with the Ministry of Culture. Prosecutors want to see the papers used by Bobokovi and Draganov to register the collection. They suspect that some of the coins in the collection may have been illegally excavated by organised crime groups specialising in illegal treasure hunting intending to profit from selling archaeological finds abroad. Deputy Minister of Culture Todor Chobanov says that there are about 30 organised treasure hunting groups in Bulgaria which specialised in digging for archaeological artefacts which are then smuggled outside the country to be sold at auctions. Bulgarians buying illicitly obtained coins from such sources coins then get a bill of sale from a foreign seller which then legalises their import. The outcome of the case will beyond doubt serve as a precedent for future cases involving private collection holders in Bulgaria. Most of the illicitly-obtained antiquities reaching these foreign dealers do not return to Bulgaria, they go to foreign collectors in richer countries exploiting the difference between the strength of their country's economy with those of the central European and other states which produce the material they covet.

Photo: top - the Bobokov brothers in 2004 (Standart), below Dimitr Draganov .

Mining the Past in Bulgaria

As part of what seems to be a series of articles dealing with the looting of Bulgaria's cultural heritage in the Sofia Echo of Fri, Oct 30 2009, Gabriel Hershman wrote an article ("Risky business") discussing the Australian documentary Plundering the Past presented by David O’Shea discussed earlier here. The collectors who buy dugups produced by treasure hunting claim it is not their fault because the people who dig up the items which they buy have no jobs – so go out digging up old stuff to sell. But the film poses the question of morals, is poverty an excuse for robbing a nation’s heritage?

The documentary focuses on just one site affected by the recent plague of looting, the site of Ratiaria - a former Roman settlement near Archar in north-west Bulgaria. Here the state authorities - the police, lawmakers and the courts – have for a number of reasons failed to crack down on activities. O’Shea interviewed Todor Chobanov Deputy Minister of Culture who talks of the problems caused by the “very willing buyers who will give huge amounts of money for artifacts and goods” and adds: “the profits are comparable to those of the drugs trade”.

In an earlier post I give a link to where readers can access this video. In it O’Shea went out in the field with some treasure hunters. They claim they have no choice but to do what they do, saying that "work that existed for them during communism has disappeared". A recurrent theme throughout the film is that since the collapse of communism a kind of Wild West capitalism has prospered in Bulgaria. The excavators themselves are poor and desperate, pawns of greedy organised crime gangs for whom valuable Roman Thracian remains – pottery and glass from graves, stone and bronze figurines, artefacts of all types and especially coins - provide rich pickings. "Everyone digs here, by hand or with a pickaxe. Most diggers make very little money. A few people make big money, but not us - the diggers," one villager tells presenter David O’Shea. They do not take kindly to closer interest being shown in their illicit activities. O'Shea notes that even filming the treasure hunters he received death threats. "These guys are poor", he was warned by a local archaeologist, "but sometimes they carry guns and might even shoot".

After talking to these people, O’Shea gave an interview and notes that instead of taking avantage of the new conditions offered by the xpanding post-Communist economy "those people are sitting around, complaining that they’ve got no money, and that they are forced to go hunting for treasure, and the state appears to be doing very little about it, and the police are clearly not serious about it."

We saw earlier that the collectors that finance this digging by buying the artefacts it produces say that the sites should in some way be guarded to prevent people going onto them, this is of course an entirely impractical proposition to place armed guards on every single archaeological site in every country where the archaeological heritage is being looted to feed foreign markets.
Surely the most important step in stopping the looting would be to come down hard on all those buying the products. Make the stuff unsaleable by cutting off the producers from the consumers. That would include more aggressively pursuing those abroad who knowingly handle material coming from this disreputable process. An even more direct means to achieve this would be for concerned consumers (if there are any in reality) to play their role, by boycotting antiquity sellers who offer dugup material without any proof that it does NOT come from this looting.

Archaeology’s losing fight in Bulgaria

Collectors of dugup archaeological finds have been following with interest recect developments in Bulgarian cultural heritage protection legislation. The interest is especially strong in the USA - not surprisingly as the US is one of the largest markets for illicitly excavated and smuggled archaeological artefacts (that in coins being particularly lucrative) from that country. Before "discussing" the legislation, US collectors have been very unwilling to access any sources of direct information (such as those given here). Speculation about what has been happening in the "source country" for the items in many a transatlantic collection has been rife and entered collecting folklore. A recent article in English by Alex Bivol in the Sofia Echo ("Archaeology's losing fight") is therefore to be welcomed and may help linguistically-challenged collectors outside central Europe understand what has been happening.

Bulgaria has long been in need of a new legislative framework to protect its archaeological heritage. Much has inevitably been damaged by increased revelopment over the past two decades, coupled with dwindling funding of the cultural sector in general, not to mention two decades of large-scale illegal treasure hunting on known (and theoretically legally protected) archaeological sites to produce commodities for the expanding black market in such items. The old law regulating the treatment of the cultural heritage was four decades old and had been written in entirely different social conditions. A new law was thus proposed in 2006 and was sponsored by a group of MPs spearheaded by Nina Chilova, then culture and tourism minister, and Ognyan Gerdjikov, then speaker of Parliament. From the beginning its creation it aroused strong opposition which caused long delays to the legislative process. The bill was intended to regulate arriving at a balance between the state’s goal of preserving Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and the private interests of art collectors. Although advice was sought from many quarters, including archaeologists, at the very first public discussion of the bill, in April 2006, various voices were being raised (including from archaeologists and museum directors) that because it was treating a rich variety of different areas of Bulgaria's cultural heritage together, the draft bill lacked any coherent direction, did not have clear-cut legal definitions and raised more new questions than it answered. Sadly it appears that law-makers were unable to take these criticisms on board and the resultant text still has these faults.

The resultant Cultural Heritage Act (2009) was a compromise that satisfied nobody. Collectors said it was too restrictive and many archaeologists said it was too lax for the purposes of protecting the archaeological heritage. Those faced with administering its provisions noted that the resultant text was chaotic, blurry and with provisions that were mutually contradictory.

In common with many European heritage laws, Bulgaria's old laws declared all cultural property to be state property, anyone holding it was, in effect, merely its curator. The new laws allowed such items to be treated as private property, provided the holder of any artwork or antiques (and antiquities) could prove their ownership and gave them a specific period of time in which to do this. There are probably many undeclared collections of art works and antiquities in Bulgaria, one of the aims of the present law was to inventorise what resources remained within the country in private hands as well as public collections. Another concern is that “at least some secret collections were accumulated to launder money and would eventually be sold legally, provided that the law allows for the unrestricted sale of artwork”. Collectors however were strongly opposed to having to demonstrate that they had obtained their collectables by legal channels, and this provision would become the defining battleground between the law’s supporters and its detractors. The future of the Act is now in limbo after Constitutional Court judges ruled that a number of provisions in the law concerning this were unconstitutional and must be amended.
A major shortcoming in tha law in its present form is that it does not clearly define what constitutes a collection or a collectors. According to the law’s article 108, "a collection is an aggregate of movable culturally valuable items, which in their entirety and thematic coherence have a scientific and cultural value". Two more articles in the law identify a collector as the holder or owner of such a collection and require collectors to maintain a register and hold certificates for all their artwork.As critics pointed out, does that mean that an individual with a couple of paintings or half a dozen old coins is a collector? Furthermore, how would one prove ownership of such items, as the law requires? The provision, meant to track down and seize collections that were built through illicit means, would pose equal difficulties for legitimate small-time collectors that accumulated their artwork over time through legal means, but did not have the paperwork to prove this, the law’s detractors said.The law said that items whose origin collectors could not prove would become state property, while the collectors themselves would be categorised as "holders" of said items. To prove ownership, collectors needed a document from a state institution – such as a court decision or customs declaration proving that the item had been brought into the country. Collectors could not cite an expired statute of limitations to dispense with the requirement to provide proof, the law said.
A bill of amendments was put forward by Bulgaria’s new ruling party Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated as GERB in Bulgarian), meant to relax the requirements, allowing any document to suffice as proof, including simple purchase contracts.Before that amendment could be voted into law, however, the Constitutional Court ruled that such limitations breached the right to own private property, since Bulgaria has not had a system to issue paperwork proving the origin of artwork or antiques, therefore their holders had no way of presenting such documents. The court also ruled that the lawmakers were wrong to dismiss the statute of limitations as a valid exemption from the requirement to provide proof of ownership.Bulgarian media described the court’s decision as a victory for big collectors, who were seen as the main force lobbying in favour of dropping the proof requirements and allowing a statute of limitations dispensation. Their opponents say that, having been built during a period when any sale of antiques was forbidden, the collections are clearly illegal.The ruling, announced on September 29, means that the law would have to be amended again to fill the voids created by striking out the provisions declared as unconstitutional, MPs and lawyers said. Four and a half years after a cultural heritage bill was presented, the process does not appear to be over.

Why not?

Archaeologist Trevor Watkins of Edinburgh University has an interesting idea which he aired on the Archaeology Theory and method Discussion List, since the archives are only accessible to members, with his permission, I post his thought-provoking comments here:
Where a particularly iconic artefact or group of artefacts should be curated and exhibited has become a matter of public debate in recent years. The Troy treasures, excavated by Schliemann, taken to Greece, exhibited in London, but finally donated to the German people and housed in Berlin, until they were spirited away to Russia, are a case in point. How could it ever be resolved where they should exhibited and which modern state should 'own' them? [...] when they were shown in public for the first time in Russia after they had been examined by an expert group of international archaeologists, they were at once claimed by the Turkish, Greek, and German governments. The USSR response was that they should be considered Russian, as part of the restitution for USSR losses at the hands of the Nazi forces in World War II.

I think that it is very significant that the public, and archaeologists, have accepted that a visit to Lascaux II, or to the facsimile of Altamira, is equivalent to seeing 'the real thing'. I heard a lecture by Paul Bahn yesterday evening in which he said that he found the replica Altamira more useful to visit, because you can walk around on an even floor, with the painted roof at a convenient distance above your head, and the lighting of the replica allows you to see more and see better than you can in the original cave.

Museums now have the ability to make replicas that are indistinguishable from the real thing - which even feel like the original and weigh like the original. I wonder if the answer to all these claims for the return of objects could not be resolved by making replicas, and then swopping them about. Thus, Nefertiti could spend a year or two in Cairo, while her body-double sits it out in Berlin; she could then head back to Berlin for a period, passing her double in mid-flight. Within a decade, no-one but the curators of the two museums would know which of the two was where. And the evidence is that most of the public would be perfectly happy. In fact, if I could
see the Elgin Marbles when I was in London, but also see them together with the other sculptures that Lord Elgin left behind, and in the shadow of their original and intended location, I would count it a gain.

So I would propose that national museums make bi-lateral agreements (a) to have replicas made of these artefacts of contended national ownership, and (b) that originals and replicas then be exhibited turn and turn about without any notification to the public of which was in front of their eyes, the 'the real thing', or the authentic replica.
Interesting concept.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Rabble raising Rant from ACCG Ideologue

ACCG ideologue and lawyer Peter Tompa discusses the article “Elmalı treasure finally on display at home”, concluding in a classic example of transparent and pathetic rabble rousing which is all one learns to expect from these quarters:
The high costs of hiring lawyers helps explain why source countries now generally look to the U.S. Justice Department to pursue such matters in court. That in turn forces the U.S. taxpayer to in effect subsidize the enforcement of unfair, foreign laws, like those of Turkey.
No, what actually is costing the American taxpayer money in cases like this is the total disregard of a minority group of US citizens. There would be no need for the American taxpayer to finance anything at all if the antiquities market in America was run on transparent and ethical lines in which there was no place for illicitly obtained material like the smuggled Emali hoard.

Monday 26 October 2009

The Night of the Counting of Years (1969)

On one of the artefact forums there is a discussion of a 1969 Egyptian film classic "The Night of the Counting of Years" (also known as "The Mummy") available on the Internet Archive. The story is a fictionalised version of the tale of the 1881 reporting of the Deir El-Bahari Cache of royal mummies (DB320/TT320 near the village of Qurna). A mountain clan had been robbing the cache and selling the artefacts on the black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members went to the police, helping the Antiquities Service find the cache. What is interesting is the way the neglected ruins and artefacts of the lost past are shown as affecting both local ways of life, but also identity. The hero Wanis grew up among the ruins of Western Thebes, the monuments of dead kings were his "childhood companions", and when he is shown the destruction of their graves to feed the greedy outside markets with saleable trinkets, he is horrified. There are a lot of themes in this admittedly slow-moving film.

Since an Egyptian film maker in 1969 was apparently aware of the political and ideological issues surrounding the movement of ancient artefacts from one milieu to another, from one place to another, it is all the more surprising to see the tub-thumpers of the US collecting milieu (e.g., Peter Tompa: When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns ; the "Hooker Papers") trying to present these issues as some novel concept they have just discovered which allegedly overturns the logic of the arguments of the preservationists. Also it is worth noting where the position of the ACCG advocates of a free trade in portable antiquities fits in the picture portrayed in this film. Ayyub the dealer has not too positive a role to play here, neither do those who supply him.

Cherishing the Historical Environment: Good or Bad?

well, I was wondering how long it would be before a feature about "abroad" in last week's New York Times (Michael Kimmelman "When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns") would find its way over to the blogs of the "culture club" throwbacks. It just has:

While bloggers steeped in an "archaeology over all" perspective claim that only "looting matters," those cultural property observers with a broader perspective recognize the importance of the political and nationalistic dimensions to the debate about restitution, import restrictions and the like.
writes Mr Tompa. But of course if we are of the conviction that "Looting really does Matter", then repatriation, import restrictions are side issues in the wider one. Why does the antiquities trade and all those who support it not address the core issue rather than fiddling about with the side issues all the time? Because it is easier there to pass the buck and say it's somebody else who is at fault?

Now what exactly is the "importance" of the political and nationalistic dimensions of the debate, features which anyone engaged in actual debate, and anyone at all familiar with the copious academic literature, knows has been accepted as part of the pictures since at least the 1980s? Yes "heritage" is indeed connected to specific groups of people who claim various types of it as their own. That is in its essence. Collectors of ancient dugup coins do the same, they claim them as some part of their own personal ('global') heritage.

Mr Tompa calls it "nationalism" that local people take an interest in the material remains (but also related intangible values) of millennia past of the region in which they live. He seems to see it as an entirely negative phenomenon when it stops collectors getting their hands of assorted "pieces of the past" with which to create a pretend "place on the past" of their own. Mr Kimmelman the author of the article which so tickled Mr Tompa sees nothing incongruous in using decontextualised bits of Roman heritage to create a "new public space" in New York surrounded by faux-Roman architecture on the edge of Central Park.

The same Mr Kimmelman who wrote:

Italy is not like America. Art isn’t reduced here to a litany of obscene auction prices or lamentations over the bursting bubble of shameless excess. It’s a matter of daily life, linking home and history. [...] “Without the culture that connects us to our territory, we lose our identity,” he said. “There may not be many famous artists or famous monuments here, but before anything, Italians feel proud of the culture that comes from their own towns, their own regions.
So this art which gives a region its identity is a good thing or a bad thing for Mr Kimmelman when he is in Italy?

Or what about when he's in Poland ("Poland Searches Its Own Soul")?

To the surprise even of the researchers, many residents said the Jewish history of their district was crucial to their own sense of pride and home. The study found that the monuments, museums and other cultural reminders of the past were essential to sustaining the neighborhood’s collective memory. “History is being rewritten here every day,” as Mr. Bilewicz put it.
The power of place, good or bad? It seems to me Kimmelman is writing approvingly here when he's in Poland. So what changes when the stuff is hoiked away into a western big-green-dollar museum where it can no longer be used to speak of the past to generations lving in the area where these items were made, used and deposited many years ago? Why is it mere "nationalisssm" to say this should not be happening? Why is it "nationalism" that the people of Athens say they'd like the bits of their Parthenon back please?

It seems to me that cherishing and attempting to protect the historic environment in a world of change and erosion of landscape values by commercial interests can only be seen as a positive thing. Not, it seems if you are a collector of portable antiquities or lobbyist on their behalf. They seem hell-bent on trying to misrepresent such concerns as negative phenomena, in total disregard of the public debate that has been going on for the last three decades at least.

For a far more thoughtful reaction to the Kimmelman NYT piece than Tompa's, see Derek Fincham:
"It's about emotion, not airtight logic and consistent policy."

Also for a piece on archaeology and identity in the united Kingdom, see Madeleine Bunting's comment mentioning the weekend's cringeworthy BNP's Nick Griffin "Questions Time" appearance ("Original thinking: The booming interest in archaeology suggests a new quest for identity in a time of rapid change"). She argues that proper archaeology is a tool to fight the woolly views of the past favoured by real nationalists like Nick Griffin (who does NOT get a link here).

Coroners and Justice Bill

Some interesting discussions took place today on the Coroners and Justice Bill which include some important suggested amendments to the UK 1996 Treasure Act.

The Müller Coin Case: »Spätrömischer Schrott« ist keine Hehlerware

As has been reported in the coiney media, in Germany there have been a number of cases involving collectors of ancient dug-up coins. US collectors were up-in-arms about collectors having their houses searched and collections seized the rhetoric even evoking images of Brownshirts and swastikas.

The cases concerned had resulted from collaboration between police officers and eBay concerning online purchases of coins thought to have come from illegal excavations. A 47-year-old installer Sylvio Müller from Hessen had been buying bulk lots of unprovenanced uncleaned coins on eBay (mostly the type called disrespectfully "Spätrömischer Schrott" by collectors over there), cleaning them and reselling them to collectors on eBay. Since there was no documentation that the coins involved were of licit provenance, and there was believed to be the likelihood they had come from illegal looting of unknown archaeological sites, he was charged with the handling of stolen goods (hehlerei). The police then carried out preliminary investigations of 347 collectors who had bought coins from Sylvio Müller. In some cases houses were searched, and even some collections of coins which could not immediately be documented as of legal provenance were seized for further investigation. Presumably the police were interested in identifying other suppliers of similar material which these people had been buying coins from. Many of the collectors whose title to some of their items was questioned instead of facing court cases in fact relinquished these coins, which prevented the examinations proceding further.

On September 21st, 2009, Müller stood trial. The trial was brief and he was acquitted unconditionally of the charges of handling stolen goods. This case was taken to mean by the German media that in that country no proof of origin is necessary in the acquisition or sale of dug up ancient coins. According to the Wetterauer Zeitung from September 22nd, 2009, Judge Franske put her estimation of the case this way: "Rest assured - you are entitled to further pursue your hobby".

UPDATE (June 18th 2010)

The cases against some collectors in Hessen who had been under investigation initially because they had bought material from Muller have been continuing. A chief superintendent in the Bavarian police accused of dealing in stolen goods since he had bought ten Roman coins at the price of 6 Euros from Mr Müller for his son refused the closing of the proceeding because he didn't want an endorsement in his personal file. He also was acquitted of all charges.

Collector Alexander Krombach was also investigated and his case is discussed in a recent issue of Coin News. He had his house searched and his collection of 821 coins was saved as evidence. The owner estimated the value of his collection at Euros 8.000 to 13.000 (the collection was later valued by the administrative court at 20 000 euros). Most of the coins had no “proof of origin”, though some were accompanied by papers (invoices) showing they had been bought at of well-known German coin dealers (Künker, Lanz, Ritter et al.). The material seized was mostly Roman Imperial, dating from the second to fourth centuries and many of them that could be assigned a source (by mintmark) came "from the east part of the Roman Empire, only a few from the west parts". It was later suggested that – according to their kind, amount and composition – the coins had come from digging on different sites in the east Balkans (Bulgaria, Serbia), with only very few coins perhaps coming from Germany and France.
As reasoning of the start of judicial proceedings the following aspects were stated: the accused had acquired five historic coins without the necessary proof of origin an March 8th, 2005. In addition, he had bought another 358 historic objects, mainly coins, of which he did not have any proof of origin. “The coins’ provenance could not be clearly ascertained so far. With a probability bordering on certainty they were purchased illegally. According to § 259 StGB, there is suspicion of receiving stolen goods”.
At the end of the preliminary proceedings, the collector was proposed a closure of the case with the surrender of the coins and a fine of 1000 euros. He refused because there was no evidence of "wilful misconduct with a probability bordering on certainty" which would be necessary for a conviction.

In July 2009 the Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts for some reason issued a directive for the 821 coins to be seized and deposited in the Institute for History and Archaeology of the Roman Art and Subsidiary Science of Archaeology, to be used in that institution for “reasons of study and education”. Krombach resisted and took the case to the administrative court of the Federal State of Hesse in Wiesbaden and then Geissen. In the meantime Muller was acquitted, and on May 6th the directive of the ministry was dismissed.

Dugup Coin Dealers: It's a Conspiracy, no alternative to litigation

Of course, having been rebuffed by the Department of State I[nspector] G[eneral] (and perhaps having been retaliated against for even bringing up concerns about process), the ACCG, IAPN and PNG had no recourse but to litigationwrites ACCG’s apologist Peter Tompa.

So why would the US government retaliate against the "Ancient Coin Collectors Guild", and "International Association of Professional Numismatists", and the "Professional Numismatists Guild"? Well, apparently “Some time ago, the ACCG, IAPN and PNG asked the State Department I[nspector] G[eneral] to review the practices of the [State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs] Cultural Heritage Center” […] (Tinfoil helmets on for this one please) “which shortly thereafter departed from existing precedent and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee's recommendations before imposing import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type”. Well, I suppose one can see this as "retaliation" if of a certain mental disposition, most of the rest of us would see this as recogition that ancient coins are archaeological artefacts.

"No alternative", eh? How about the ACCG, IAPN and PNG simply following what US law lays down about the import of certain groups of ancient coins? It's not particularly onerous, just means getting a piece of paper to accompany certain groups of imported coins. That is after all what the codes of ethics of all three groups require them to do.

Photo: this could be a US coin collector telling the world how victimised he is.

Friday 23 October 2009

The Republic of Ruritania to the USA: We'll Help You Protect your Cultural Heritage if You do This

I was recently reading Article II of the US MOU with Italy over the importation of archaeological objects which will be under discussion with the CPAC in November. I was interested in looking at it in the light of recent discussions here and elsewhere on the scale of their own looting problem and the inadequate response in the USA.

As readers may recall, the US mechanism for enforcing the 1970 UNESCO Convention (the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act - in my opinion a distortion of Article 15 of the UNESCO convention) de facto makes a mockery of the idea behind the Convention itself, one wonders why the US bothered ratifying it. What the it means is they will only apply it properly to certain choice nations, the ones with which they actually currently have an MOU - which they only award if the country asks, and only then after a long period of evaluation. What a farce - made even more so by the farcical farsity of the dealers' lobbies currently questioning them at EVERY STAGE of the process, both before and after. I really do not know what sort of help this is to anyone - while tonnes (literally) of material looted in the Balkans pass into America to form the basis of the market in so-called "minor antiquities" present on the market from a number of cultures of the so-called "Classical World". Nobody will stop it there as the USA has no MOU with Bulgaria, Hungary or Bosnia or anywehere else in the region obliging them to actually uphold Article 8 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. What hypocrites.

Anyway, the imposition on import restrictions on just certain categories of material is made conditional on the source country doing certain things for America. It is these conditions applied to Italy that are under discussion on November 13th. The dealers' lobby has been pointing out (such as it being a constant feature of the "Cultural Property Observer" blog) for many months preceding this that Italy cannot really be trusted to look after its own cultural heritage (so, the schoolyard argument goes, "why should we put ourselves out to help them when there is so much money to be made by not?").

I was reflecting on what in its present form Article II of the Italy MOU initially imposed in 2001 requires the Italians to do (quite apart from the ideas individuals like Peter Tompa have about what more it should be doing "Back in 2000, CPAC recommended that Italy consider a Treasure Trove program"). It struck me that the US government is asking a foreign government to do far more than it seems to me they themselves are doing to protect the archaeological heritage of their own country. So I wondered what the same agreement would look like if the boot was on the other foot, if America was the petitioner. What conditions would the other nation impose on the US? Let's have a look:

Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Ruritania and the Government of the United States of America Concerning the Imposition of Import Restrictions on Categories of Archaeological Material Representing the Various Periods of Prehistory and Multicultural Nature of the Rich Cultural Heritage of the United States of America

In reaching the decision to recommend protection for the archaeological and cultural heritage of the United States of America , the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Ruritanian Department of State, determined that, pursuant to the requirements of the Act, the cultural patrimony of the United States is in jeopardy from the pillage of archaeological materials which represent its multi-cultural heritage of prehistoric and historic periods, and that such pillage is widespread, definitive, systematic, on-going, and frequently associated with criminal activity. Dating from approximately 40 000 B.P. to approximately fifty years go, the cultural heritage of America’s past includes many categories of artifacts include sculpture, vessels, ornaments, weapons, decorated items. These materials are of cultural significance because they derive from cultures that developed autonomously in the region of the present day United States of America that attained a high degree of political, technological, economic, and artistic achievement. The pillage of these materials from their context has prevented the fullest possible understanding of the cultural history of the region by systematically destroying the archaeological record. Furthermore, the cultural patrimony represented by these materials is a source of identity and esteem for the modern American nation. […] Desiring to reduce the incentive for pillage of irreplaceable archaeological material representing the various periods of prehistory and multi-cultural nature of the rich archaeological heritage of the United States of America; Have agreed as follows: […]



B. Both Governments agree that in order for these measures to be fully successful in deterring pillage, the Government of the United States of America shall use its best efforts to increase scientific research and protection of archaeological patrimony and protective measures for archaeological excavations at known sites, particularly in areas at greatest risk from looters. We acknowledge the efforts of the Government of the United States of America in recent years to devote more public funds to guard archaeological sites and museums and to develop incentives for private support of legitimate excavation.

C. The Government of the United States of America shall reinforce, with respect to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the protection of its cultural patrimony. In particular, they shall provide for:

1. instituting more severe penalties and prompt prosecution of looters,
2. regulating the use of metal detectors,
3. providing additional training for the special units for the protection of the cultural heritage of Federal law enforcement bodies and Federal land management agencies, and
4. intensifying the investigations by Federal authorities on the looting of archaeological sites and on the routes of the smugglers of these artifacts. […]

F. The Government of the United States of America is encouraged to review the laws concerning the ownership of archaeological artifacts and to improve the efficiency of the system verifying provenance of material which is on sale from excavations within the territory of the United States. The Government of the United States of America will continue to examine new ways to facilitate the export of archaeological items of Native American or other origins legitimately sold within the country. […]


The obligations of both Governments and the activities carried out under this Memorandum of Understanding shall be subject to the laws and regulations of each Government, as applicable, including the availability of funds. [...].

And so on... well, the main reason one suspects that there will never be such a document is that the United States of America does not produce an awful lot of material which would be snapped up by European collectors as much as the material from various "source countries" so ravenously coveted by US collectors. The objects in dispute in the "Cerberus Action" bust in the Four Corners area for example included such things as menstrual pads, holed blankets from graves, baskets and worn-out sandals. Hardly "Red-figure krater, scarab on Tuthmosis III, Athenenian tetradrachm type" material.

US collectors have seriously suggested that the US should condition their agreement to do anything at all to help these countries stem the illicit trade only after they introduce a PAS-Treasure-Act type system modelled on Britain's laissez-faire legislation. This seems to be what Peter Tompa seems to be going to suggest to the CPAC they should (again) recommend to the US Governmemt that they should ask the Italians to institute.

Let us first see the same US dealers and collectors getting a similar system working in the US before they urge the imposition of the legislation of one foreign county on another.

Let us see the US taking the same approach to the problem of looting within their own country before imposing on foreign governments their ideas of how they should be tackling the problem.

Let us see the US leading by example and not creating additional conditions for its foreign partners at the bidding of the US antiquity dealing community. Let us see the US properly applying the UNESCO convention to the dealings of its own citizens in the material illegally removed from archaeological sites and illegally removed from their countries of origin.

Let us see the Bulgarian coins and kilogramme lots of metal detected artefacts from sites like "Vidin" and other carbuncles on the image of the licit trade disappear from eBay US and VCoins.

Let us see an investigation of the holdings of all those involved in the attempted import through Baltimore of ancient coins without adequate documentation in defiance of the CPIA earlier this year - who knows what other missing documentation else Federal authorities may find.

Only then I would say could the government of the United States of America justify the moral right to dictate to other governments further measure which they should be applying before they will help - and not before. The very idea, just who do they think they are?

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Germany does the right thing, now to find out what happened

The gold vessel that was being sold as from "Troy" by Münzhandlung Hirsch Nachfolger a German coin (sic) dealer has been handed over to Iraq by German authorities after a court case and the insistence of Michaeł Muller-Karpe that it could not have come from Troy but was Mesopotamian, and probably from the Royal Graves at Ur (see Nathan Elkins' post with links to more material on this).

While the object is back to where it should never have left, this should by no means be the end of the matter, this is not at all about "restitution". Let us hope investigations are still underway to determine where Münzhandlung Hirsch Nachfolger got this object from, and who is responsible for taking it out of the source country to Germany and giving it a false provenance and ultimately those responsible for looting a site the rank of the (if Muller Karpe is right) Royal Cemetery in Ur and selling the finds. What else have they dug up there and where is it? This has nothing to do (pace Sayles) with "cultural property nationalism" (sic) and persecuting gentleman antiquity dealers engaged in a harmless 'licit trade', this is about catching the lawbreakers and law-benders that get the trade as a whole a very bad reputation. I am assuming that any dealers through whose hands that object passed kept records of their due diligence processes and are helping the investigations fully. Where the buck stops should be a jail sentence.

Date for your diary

13th November will no doubt see an influx of coin dealers into Washington, though not for the landing of another plane with undocumented dugup coins destined for US collectors, but a public meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. Then (the day after they discuss the San Salvador MOU over import restrictions on archaeological artefacts - not much interest for the coineys) they will be discussing Italy. To be precise they will be discussing the extension of the 2001/2006 "Import Restrictions Imposed On Archaeological Material Originating in Italy and Representing the Pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman Periods" MOU.

Now Peter Tompa over on his "Cultural Property Observer" blog has in relation to this been hammering away at poor old Italy for weeks now, it seems he thinks they are useless at everything (except perhaps making pizzas). He reckons Italy has too much culture to be able to look after it properly. No doubt he and other will be at the CPAC meeting expounding on how they cannot be trusted as much as he and his collecting mates to looks after scattered bits of the Italian archaeological heritage.
I suspect the US coin dealers gathered in the ACCG, IAPN and PNG are all worried that those untrustworthy "eyties" might want to consider dugup ancient coins archaeological objects. The very idea, eh?

From what they've been writing in recent months, it seems the ACCG has convinced itself that when discussing this issue some while back President Bush's CPAC was composed of buffoons who agreed that ancient coins are not ancient artefacts. If you live near Washington, it might be worth going along to see what these people look like. Book now, have your say, and give the coin dealers a run for their money...
Photo: the CPAC in session (CultureGrrl)

Dig your own – no questions asked

My attention has been drawn to a post on another blog which might raise a few eyebrows (David Connolly: Dig your own – Ethics of pay to dig out entire sites BAJR Blogspot). Of course what is described is totally legal, some archaeological sites in the US are by historical accident on federally-owned land and are thus protected by the state in whose ownership they are. Other archaeological sites happen to be on privately-owned land and the owner can do what he likes with them. So we see the effects... Do click on David's link to Digfest and have a good look at the photos...

This is as David Connolly notes an ethical question, not a matter of what is merely within the letter of the law. I'd like to know how the collector's rights advocates (especially the "coiney" ones) have to say about this kind of destruction of the archaeological record so that collectors can have something to collect. it may be legal Mr Sayles/Tompa/Welsh/all the rest of you dugup coin selling and collecting individuals, but is it "right"? Connolly used the Isin photos as an analogy, I'd personally use the Archar ones - the coins bought and sold in the USA come primarily from southeaster European sites like that. And there is is not even legal, and certainly not "right".

There is a page of US arrowhead collectors getting ethical about the destruction caused by "raubgrabung" of archaeological sites (actually I see no difference to what they are fighting and the average Metal detecting rally in the UK) - where is the corresponding one of US coin collectors wonder? I've not seen many yet (I can only recall this somewhat incomplete one at the moment) - maybe somebody would like to point us all to a few more....
Photo: new cash crop for US farmers (from '' ).

Tuesday 20 October 2009

"Harpies of Cultural Property Nationalism"

A few days ago Missouri dug-up ancient coin dealer Wayne Sayles announced on his blog that he was going to give up his attempts there to “control drivel”, at the time he gave the impression that he was no longer going to try to oppose the views of preservationists (“time is an increasingly precious commodity and there is little point to hammering the same old tune on our dulcimers”). Instead it seems he meant he was not going to spend the time curbing his own drivel.

So, obviously a man of his word, just five days later he lambasts those he labels “harpies of cultural property nationalism” for “a nauseating stream of blog posts, news articles, discussion list comments and convention presentation reports that condemn the "illicit" trade in antiquities”. He claims that “the entire trade [in antiquities] is painted with a broad brush as illicit” by these people. He repeats the same text in the online "Coin Collecting News". Let's have a look at what he says.

1) Now as one of the "archaeological bloggers" he presumably had in mind, and fairly sure of what I think about the trade and generally pretty careful in choosng my words, I determined to see whether it is the case here that the whole antiquities trade is labelled "illicit". In some 700 posts here, I found the word “illicit” occurs 80 times. There is a search facility at the top of this blog, so I will save space by just stating that the reader can check themselves: there is absolutely not a single case where that word is used here to refer to the market in general on (in?) this blog. It is quite clear from the context of each and every one of those words that in this blog I am concerned with the participation of illicitly-obtained artifacts ON the market, and specifically the PART of the market which I think should concern us all, which I label “no-questions-asked” market. Sayles seems not to see the distinction. Certainly I do not see the market in antiquities as a whole an illicit one, but I do think illicit artefacts play a large part in it in its present form. I also think that the fact that neither dealers or collectors are the slightest concerned to know or differentiate where the items on the market came (or are coming) from enables these illicit artefacts to be disseminated alongside those of more licit origin (e.g., from old collections) which enables the looters and smugglers to continue to profit.

2) As for those Sayles persists in pejoratively labelling “nationalists”, what on earth is that about? (apart from being some more Saylesian name-calling). [Sayles, by the way, sees himself as a patriot and certain of his own writings in that vein seen from this side of the Atlantic certainly seem nationalistic to me, so when is the pot calling the kettle black?]

Dealer Sayles, it seems to me uses the term "cultural property nationalists" primarily to describe those who oppose the movement of archaeological material from one country to the next in defiance of export controls (export controls which dealers in ancient dug-ups argue should not exist and the ACCG Baltimore coin stunt and the IAPN and the PNG "freedom of information" battle with the US State Department are intended to challenge). Just recently the ACCG to raise money for this challenge sold a whole bunch of ancient dug-ups from unstated sources to collectors who could not care less where they came from (“the trade in antiquities does not require documented provenance […] provenance is not especially valued by collectors of minor objects”). They raised in excess of 32000 dollars for this. I think we all know full well that the people (metal detector users, peasant farmers, unemployed Gypsies, people working for organised criminal groups etc.) who sought out and dug up those coins in the ground of some distant corner of the ancient world on another continent did not get anything like the equivalence of 32000 for those coins when they were covered in corrosion and earth. We have a situation where moving an artefact from one country to another, cleanuing them up a bit and marketing them is a highly profitable enterprise, this is the problem. The foreign market where comparatively large profits are involved attracts the interest of those in the developing economies of eastern Europe and the Near East who can make a good business from buying old metal things in one country and finding a way to get them out to the lucrative markets (of which the epitome is the US market). These “exporters” are discomforted by the type of import controls (scrutiny of legality of export) that Mr Sayles’ organization the ACCG is actively opposing in the US.

Now I oppose smuggling of antiquities – there are mechanisms for legal export and import, and it seems to me that the licit trade (the one Sayles falsely accuses myself and my colleagues of not perceiving) complies by the letter of those regulations (the truly ethical trade would go further than mere adherence to the letter of the law, but that is by the by). That makes me a “culture property nationalist” according to Sayles. I also oppose the smuggling of the hides, tusks, teeth, feet, feathers in fact any part of endangered species, dead or alive – does that make me too a “Wildlife Nationalist” in Sayles’ eyes? I oppose drug smuggling (“Narco-nationalist”?) people smuggling (“Sex-Slave-nationalist”?), laundering of dirty money through overseas bank accounts (“Cash-nationalist”?), nuclear fuel (“Urano-nationalist”). The use of the label in the manner Sayles and his dealer-collector pals does in this way is just silly. There are good reasons why there should be controls over the movement of certain commodities, either for the sake of the commodity involved (sex-slaves) or the finite resource from which they come (CITES regulations). To lump all the issues involved in avoidance of export controls together under the one heading of "restitution of artefacts to a homeland" is simply confusing the issue (see David Gill on this confusion among the advocates of the no-questions-asked market and collecting). But then producing utterly simplistic arguments in favour of keeping the status quo on the antiquities market is the name of the game for Sayles and his dealer pals. Collectors (coin collectors especially) are not likely to question them, after all.

3) Mr Sayles and his fellow dealers persist in deliberately misrepresenting the position of those they oppose. Typical is his misrepresentation of what the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property actually SAYS. (Please read Article 1 and consider whether Wayne Sayles’ garage junk is eligible as he claims it will be - clue: “is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science”.) I guess in making such misrepresentations they are angling for the attention of those too dumb and unconcerned to check the veracity of what they are told by the agitators intent on winning what they see as a “cultural property war”. After all, if their clients started asking questions, the current no-questions-asked trade (which makes all the dealers involved so much money from selling other people’s cultural heritage) would simply collapse. The fact exists at all is a symptom of the mentality of those that patronise it.

4) Another example of this occurs in Sayles' post when he writes:
The approach of some, to characterize private collecting and the associated trade as "evil" or "illicit", and as the "root cause" of looting, is simply not going to solve the problem.
But, Mr Sayles fails (again) to recognize (or admit) that what is being criticized is a certain (though disturbingly widespread) mode of private collection and the associated trade (should be the other way round perhaps) – the “no-questions-asked’ approach. There are collectors and dealers who demand provenances for the artifacts to prove they are licitly-obtained. They are a minority, true, and the trade as a whole will be rendered truly licit when they become the majority and push the “no-questions-asked” cowboys and excuse-makers out.

5) Now I expect Sayles will say this is all “drivel”. Read the UNESCO Convention and read what the dealers say it says and decide for yourselves who is writing drivel, who is a “nationalist” and who is making (lots of) money out of the public exhibition of arrogant imperialist/ colonialist ideologies.

As Sayles says:
The situation is not going to improve until the rhetoric changes...

Whose rhetoric, I leave it up to the enquiring reader to decide.

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Pro-Collecting Archaeologists, the "Fifth Column of Plunder Culture"?

Most frequently debates about the exploitation of archaeological sites and assemblages as a source of saleable collectables are treated as a straightforward conflict of interests between, on one side collectors and dealers and on the other preservationist archaeologists. In a recent paper , "The Fifth Column Within the Archaeological Realm: The Great Divide" Dr. Oscar White Muscarella examines the network of connections involved in plunder and pays special attention to an overlooked accomplice in the continued destruction of the body of evidence for understanding the past by archaeological means. He sees four visible mutually supporting pillars of "Plunder Culture."
1) on-site looters or tombaroli,
2) local dealers and smugglers,
3) commercial antiquities dealers,
4) collectors, private and public (museums and universities).
The archaeological record may be endangered most by the fifth invisible column whose members are within the archaeological community. Muscarella illustrates the ways in which professional archaeologists facilitate Plunder Culture, suggesting that attitudes to collecting and collectors reveal that the "discipline of archaeology has no comprehensive sense of itself, no unclouded self-knowledge, no awareness of its moral and academic weakness".

Muscarella urges archaeologists to reconsider the consequences of their professional, academic, and personal associations, and to those who consider themselves clean, he urges active participation in the protection of the archaeological record from the commercial depredations of the dealer and collector. I would say Muscarella's paper should make thought-provoking reading for all those supporters of the PAS out there in the UK. Are they "Fifth columnists"?

Two wrongs make a Right for collector?

The Americans are not renowned for knowing much about the world outside the frontiers of their own country - so Peter Tompa gets a "D -" for knowledge of foreign affairs with his repeating verbatim a story about the "brother in law of the Prime Minister of Iraq" who according to a tale "circulating in the internet" was arrested at Dubai with "Sumarian" (sic) antiquities in his luggage which he was allegedly on the way to the US to sell. The problem is that in Tompa's version of the story the name given was that of the current PM the shoe-dodging Nouri Kamil al-Maliki. This story is in fact, in the roughly translated version Tompa uses, lifted verbatim from the Iraq Crisis list which clearly reports it as unconfirmed. Strangely, instead of coming clean about where he got it from, Tompa instead cites as his source an Arabic version - can ancient coin collector Tompa read Arabic as well as Greek?

Tompa's conclusion is surprising:

If true, this article demonstrates the continued hypocrisy of the Iraqi Government when it comes to antiquities. During Saddam's reign, common people were executed for dealing in antiquities while the Baathist elite collected and sold what they wished. Today, no one is executed, but they are punished when found with such items. Yet, connected people still apparently continue to deal in them. We will see if the Iraqi PM's family members are ultimately treated like everyone else, but the article already suggests that will not be the case. If harsh laws cannot be applied equally, perhaps it is time to loosen them for everyone!
Everybody: "Yay!!!" So who was BUYING these antiquities then in the US (they would not be ACCP people would they)?

Now let us suppose a US Democrat senator is found one morning asleep slumped over the wheel of a car in the bushes at the side of the road out of Washington, dead drunk and wearing nothing but women's underwear. Now, although you can't get much more "connected" than that, does this mean (applying Mr Tompa's logic) that the USA would suspend its drink-drive laws? Or would there be calls from people like Mr Tompa and all his like-thinking friends for that democrat to step down from office? So... why would Mr Tompa wish to have the consequences of the Iraqi Prime Minister treated any differently?

I did post a comment to Mr Tompa's website pointing out who Mr Nouri Kamil al-Maliki was and suggesting this was faulty reporting - and of course pointing out that the buyers here were as much at fault. Nobody will be much surprised to learn that he rejected the comment. He corrected the spelling but left the accusation of a head of a foreign goverment up on his blog.

Although this story has not been picked up by the western press so far (so is it the Iraqis giving him special treatment?) other sources suggest that the allegations might concern Abu Ali Al-Asfahani, the son in law of the PM. Let us see how the story develops, but I certainly do not think many will be joining Mr Tompa's gleeful calls to loosen the "retentive laws" put in place to prevent the commercial use of looted and stolen Iraqi artefacts. Maybe the Collectors' Guild would like to stage a "test case" of that too?

Photo: accused by Peter Tompa (Nouri Kamil al-Maliki is on the right).

Monday 12 October 2009

Prison time and felony charges rare for archaeological looters in US

In an article by Associated Press writer Mike Stark a few days ago ("Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters") it was pointed out that the comparatively lenient sentence received by two members of the Redd family (probation, a fine equivalent to the value of just one item in their collection of 180 BOXES of ancient artefacts and human remains confiscated), was typical in the USA.

Despite high-profile arrests and indictments, most people convicted of illegally digging up, collecting and cashing in on artefacts in the United States don't go to prison, and for those that do, most are in for a year or less. This was according to a 10-year analysis of prosecutions under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 carried out by Robert Palmer published in 2007 (“Into the mind of looters”. Yearbook of Cultural Property Law 2007). Palmer found that of the 83 people found guilty of offences under the Act, 20 went to prison and 13 of those received sentences of a year or less. Palmer also found that while prosecutors were successful in the cases they took on, they turned away about a third of the cases they got, mostly because of weak evidence or a lack of clear criminal intent. (That sounds familiar to anyone familiar with the fate of cases of illegal artefact hunting in the UK.)

According to Palmer, the failures of the US legal system to deal with those breaking the law, together with a lack of manpower and other priorities for investigators, are the reason why in the US "we are witnessing the wholesale stripping and selling off for scrap our collective American heritage".

Apparently in the US, on average, 840 looting cases (so about two per day) of looting of archaeological sites are reported each year across federal land managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are certainly more cases that are either never discovered or never reported, he said. "Lord knows what the scope of the problem actually is", BLM officer Todd Swain said. "But clearly the numbers we do have are seriously under what's going on". Of the reported cases in the past decade, only about 14 percent ever get solved and some 94 percent of violators walk away with misdemeanor tickets. Todd Swain is the Park Service's lone investigator on cultural crimes and these figures appear in his 2007 analysis of the situation (“Cultural resource damage on public lands: what the statistics show", Yearbook of Cultural Property Law 2007).

Despite a push in recent decades to get tougher on artifact looters, there are no significant signs that prosecutions or punishments are having any major effect on looting, especially those that steal for commercial purposes. It would seem that alongside trying to catch the diggers red-handed, a more effective means of controlling the problem would be closer supervision and accountability of the market.

Of course the collectors have an answer to this, one “N2theancient” (apparently a collector) comments on the Stark article:
“Until law enforcement decides to work with us (Law abiding dealers and collectors) within the LEGAL antique market instead of against us i.e.. continually targeting the good guys, ridiculous propaganda, scrutinizing us all as criminals, etc than they are contributing to the crime. They, by perpetuating resentment and distrust, pave the way for looting by disconnecting the most important element to disabling the crime. That element is a system of co-operation and interaction between the dealers and the department of the interior. Until you archaeologists and agents get it, we will all be on this silly little merry-go-round until the end of time”.
Sound familiar? Of course law enforcement in the US or anywhere else are not concerned with the “LEGAL antique market” (sic) or “targeting the good guys”. I fail to understand in what way scrutinizing the market, even if it is “perpetuating resentment and distrust” (of whom by whom?) can “pave the way for looting”. What does that is the no-questions-asked market and those that perpetuate and patronise it. So if instead of fighting commercial and other exploitation of archaeological sites and assemblages as mines for collectables, archaeologists and law enforcement agencies decide to “work with” the artefact hunters, there would be no problem with looting. Call it by another name, and you solve the problem, easy ! So, yes, let collectors and dealers work with law enforcement agencies to clean up once and for all the sewer that is the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Diligence? What diligence?

"Ancient art" by Looter.

A few days ago discussing the Theban Tomb 15 fresco fragment that turned up in the Louvre, I said I could not find a picture. Now I have, on Heritage Key which may in turn have derived from Zahi Hawass' blog - and I must say I am shocked.

Well firstly on seeing it, it seems to me pretty obvious that on being offered a bit of fresco like the bit the Louvre bought, it seems to shout out "Thebes, early New Kingdom". Any due diligence search should have looked at published Theban tombs, should have involved the regional inspectors. Did they? So why was this fragment of a scene not almost identified for what it was by the "experts" at the Louvre? Why after its purchase was it not recognised for what it was and returned without having to be asked?

Secondly what on earth did these people think they were doing? What kind of "art" were they displaying? This cut out piece shows nothing, means nothing taken out of the context of the whole scene (including the dancers to the left). It is a shallow vestige, a mere trophy, not a document. It is a piece of wall of a structure brutally turned into a "portable" antiquity. It is obvious that the person getting it out bungled the job, presumably meant to take more, but the edges crumbled - in other words large areas of the fresco are destroyed already, just so some collector could have a trophy and eventually sell it on - no doubt at a hefty profit over what he paid the smugglers and his business partners. What does this fragment in a museum tell the viewer that a large scale high fidelity reproduction of the whole scene cannot? Why do museums still buy such items?

The money the Louvre paid for this hacked out bit of what was once a work of art as well as precious evidence of the past, could just as well (and much more usefully) have been paid into a fund to conserve paintings like these in situ - but then even though the remains of the past would be preserved the Museum would not have its trophies. I think the French government should now be invited to take patronage over TT15, do a proper conservation job and perhaps restoration, and then find a way of making this tomb more secure from further attacks, but also allow its opening to the public and bear all the costs. If they want to "preserve the past", fine. Let them actually do it and not add to the destruction by financing it.

Photo: "Vestiges of ancient art", decoupage by "Looter".

"Due diligence" and collecting

There has been some recent hoo-haa about the excavations of the Louvre at Sakkara in Egypt being suspended over the fact that they had some Egyptian relief fragments in their collections which turned out to be stolen from a Theban tomb. The case has been discussed by David Gill and others (Looting Matters here and subsequent posts updating the story). I was more interested in what the Louvre might have been expected to know about the origin of these fragments before buying them.
The news reports tell us that the items came from the tomb of Tetaki (Ttjkj/ Tetiki). A little bit of mouse-clicking reveals this is Theban Tomb 15, in the Dra Abu al Naga cemetery, early XVIIIth Dynasty in date, from the reign of Ahmose/Amenhotep I.

According to the Theban Mapping Project, it is published:
Carnarvon, Earl of and Howard Carter. Five Years Explorations at Thebes. Oxford, 1912. Pp. 12-21, pls. 1-12.
Davies, N. de Garis. The Tomb of Tetaky at Thebes (No. 15). JEA 11 (1925): 10-18.
Eaton-Krauss, Marianne. Four Notes on the Early Eighteenth Dynasty. JEA 84 (1988): 205-210.
Kampp, Friederike. Die thebanische Nekropole. Zum Wandel des Grabgedankens von der XVIII. bis zur XX. Dynastie (= Theben, 13). 2 vols. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1996. Pp. 194-196, figs. 96-98.
Porter, Bertha and Rosalind Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Text, Reliefs, and Paintings. I, 1. The Theban Necropolis: Private Tombs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960. Pp. 26-27.

As far as I can make out (the map of the Theban tombs I have is relative to the old road system), the tomb is in the low rise behind the houses in the middle of the Google Earth picture here.

The road to the left is that which leads to the Hatshepsut Temple (where I will be working in three weeks, more of that later) the yellow winding road is that which takes tourists round the hills to the Valley of the Kings.

Now I have not seen any pictures of the disputed fragments, nor do I know to what degree one could work out from the Carnarvon/Carter and Davies publications that these were parts of these reliefs, it would be useful if this information could be made available pour encourager les autres. It can be seen however that this is not some tomb stuck out in the middle of the desert sixty miles from the nearest habitation but right in the middle of one of the most intensively visited and investigated archaeological complexes in the world. This must be intensely embarrassing for the Louvre. This must be intensely embarrassing for the Egyptian Antiquities Service (which has guards posted all over the Theban necropolis to stop these things happening).

The objects were robbed (we are told) in the 1980s but bought by the Louvre in 2000 and 2003. Where had they been in the interim? Let us hope that the story does not end just with four pieces of stone going back to Egypt, let there be a full investigation of all those who handled them, to trace the trail of the handling of stolen items back to its source.

Somewhere - possibly in the houses visible in the satellite photo - there is a crowbar-wielding culture-thief who somehow got into the tomb and smashed these bits out of the wall. Over the river (probably) is a dealer who bought the fragments from him and aranged to have them smuggled out of the country. If those handling them outside Egypt did not do so no-questions-asked, there would be every chance that these two could still be discovereed and brought to justice. But my guess is these guys sleep soundly for we all know the trail will stop dead somewhere in western Europe probably at the place where they were just before 2000. But then, what should happen to the dealer in antiquities in whose records the attempt to unravel backwards the trail of movement of stolen antiquities ends abruptly? Should they not be liable at least for the money the Louvre lost?

Observations on Cultural Property from the Era of "Culture Club"

US antiquities Collectors and their supporters seem to take a child-like delight in rediscovering that archaeology is “political’, that “heritage” is a political issue. We have the "Hooker Papers" (sic) and now lawyer Peter Tompa sets out to prove that "archaeological bloggers seem unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that politics impacts how nations deal with cultural property issues".

It all seems pretty odd until you realize that the post-Processual debate (going on since the mid-eighties) in archaeology is not in general an American phenomenon. Nobody working in “heritage” in about the same period is going to be unaware of the issues either. It seems it is just the no-questions-asked collectors of portable antiquities who live in some kind of a retarded alternative world where the literature on the topic which has been circulating in other areas of public life for well over two decades is only now gradually gradually penetrating. These "observers" are still back in the age when poular culture was dominated by groups such as "Duran Duran", "Wham!" and '80s boy band "Culture Club" (picture). Still, I suppose we should be grateful that some of them are waking up to what has been happening in the humanities since the 1980s – many of them still act as if we were in the Colonial world of the period before World War I.

Thursday 8 October 2009

Staffordshire Hoard - the alternative view

Writing about the media hoo-haa about the "Staffordshire hoard" from the point of view of Ireland where unlicensed metal detecting has been illegal here since 1987, Gordon Kingston points out:
One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day, nor does one shining, glorious hoard make up for all the information lost, or heritage sold.
He dismisses the Noble Detectorist model being propagated by the PAS and its apologists, and I think he is right in doing so. Not everybody has their minds clouded by the romanticised image of artefact hunting put out by the British media.

"Stop sneering at Metal Detectorists": British Museum

British Museum curator Gareth Williams has written in defence of the artefact hunter and collector. His text is a reply to a comment by Alexander Chancellor in the Guardian newspaper a few days ago on the potentially damaging effects on the archaeological record of the publicity given to the discovery of the so-called "Staffordshire Hoard". Dr Williams writes of Mr Chancellor's views that "in complaining that the Staffordshire find will "inevitably bring metal-detecting in from the cold and lead to a modern gold rush", he harks back to a cold war mentality between metal detectorists and archaeologists that is now long out of date". Quite apart from Williams (deliberately or by inattention) entirely missing the point made by Mr Chancellor, this is a typical ploy of the pro-collecting lobby. They claim that those individuals who express concern about preserving the archaeological record from being exploited by artefact hunters as a mere source of collectables are somehow "dinosaurs" out of touch with modern thought on how the archaeological resource should be used. Personally I rather think that those who wish to condone nineteenth century elginistic trophy-seeking modes of exploitation of that record that are the ones left behind.

Mr Williams continues that despite being based in central London he can "work regularly with metal detectorists", now who would have thought there'd be so many of them in Bloomsbury? He chants the obligatory mantra: ""Detector-finds" have been "fundamental in changing our understanding of the past". So actually have roadworks, urban redevelopment and new airports. Second World War bombs on our historic cities and ancient sites too.

He then comes out with the same old "Noble Seeker" model that has become de rigeur in recent British discussion about artefact hunting. With misty-eyed sentimentality he assures us that "the vast majority of finds bring little or no pecuniary reward to the finders, nor are they expected to". (I wonder if he has seen the finds valuation pages of British detecting magazines like "The Searcher", let alone "Treasure Hunting magazine"?) Metal detector users (apparently) search for archaeological artefacts "not in the hope of financial gain, but because they are genuinely interested in history and want to find out more" and collecting artefacts from archaeological sites is the only way they can think of "finding out more about history". A lot of people are genuinely interested in history and do NOT collect in a back room or shed archaeological artefacts taken from archaeological sites.

Museum employee Williams assures us that many of them "have donated items to museum collections without reward, because they wish to make those finds available to the public". In that case, it would be useful if instead of coming out with glib statements like that he could supply some statistics on that from his own museum (indeed his own department), how many recent British metal-detector-made finds have actually been donated to the British Museum since 1999 [and how much they would be worth on the open market] as opposed to how many recent finds the BM has acquired which they've had to buy in the same period.

Williams produces his next trite justification, it is not the bona fide "metal detectorists" that are causing the damage to the archaeological record but ""nighthawks" – who detect without permission, and primarily for financial gain. They do real damage, both to farmland and to the archaeological record, and fully deserve Chancellor's criticisms". Hmm. At least he did not use the other de rigeur words here "minority of".

I really cannot accept this strange argument that metal detecting which is not "nighthawking" is not causing any damage to the archaeological record. That is simply nonsense. With or without the landowner's permission, if items are taken from archaeological sites, they are gone together with any information their position in the ground relative to other evidence may have held if observed properly, finito. The quality of the record determines to what extent any information lost when the finds are removed from context (even if it is a pattern across the surface of a ploughed field) can be recovered. This has nothing to do with whether farmer Bloggs knows who the two guys in combat fatigues in his field are and whether they give him a cut of the proceeds of any sales, or whether the sun is high in the sky or not. It's about the actual mechanism by which the collectable archaeological finds leaves the ground for the collector's pocket, and what information is collected with them, and what subsequently happens to both. To argue otherwise is as simplistic and misleading as it is false logic.

Williams gets even more misty-eyed about the knocks his artefact hunting "partners" have taken from life:
Some, like Mr Herbert, are unemployed, or in low-income jobs. Many (but by no means all) have limited formal education. Rather than assuming that such people must necessarily be greedy and uninterested in history, we should welcome the fact that metal-detecting has generated an interest in history in social groups which have not traditionally engaged with museums.
Come, Mr Williams, you are making our hearts bleed. Note the words "formal education". There is not much of that being provided these days by the British school system, so the trend is to pretend it is somehow not important. Now, what I do not understand is how a museum employee can seriously propose that all the material (many hundreds of thousands of items a decade) that is being taken out of the archaeological record by ill-educated, poorly-resourced individuals is best curated in the personal collections of people in "social groups which have not traditionally engaged with museums".

The views Dr Williams expresses in the Guardian as his own are of course the stock mantras of the pro-collecting crowd, trotted out by the supporters of private collectors of assorted portable antiquities on every occasion when there is a reporter or microphone in sight. Goodness knows why, surely museums in particular (and the British Museum especially) should be educating people NOT to encourage the elginistic exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables. Which brings us back to the point made by Mr Chancellor. Has Dr Williams answered it? Well, not really, he has gone to the other extreme, saying it does not matter because...

I should have pointed out at the beginning that in the British Museum Gareth Williams is curator of Early Medieval coins. I think that is perhaps not without significance.

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