Saturday 13 February 2010

Treasure hunting 101 in America's classrooms

Nathan Elkins' article "Treasure hunting 101 in America's classrooms" (2009, Journal of Field Archaeology 34 (4):482-9) is about the Ancient Coins for Education programme about which I have written on this blog before (here and here for example). It is good to see it being discussed in the serious archaeological literature too. The idea that one can be "educated" by collecting decontextualised artefacts potentially stolen from the archaeological record of another region really is a totally false argument. There are books and other resources that can be used for education, and a skilled teacher needs no props, especially not those derived from the destructive exploitation of a fragile and non-renewable resource. As I have pointed out before, the young US citizen should be educated to respect and help preserve the archaeological record and not become just another thoughtless exploiter of it and another customer of the no-questions-asked internet commerce in archaeological artefacts. Funnily enough that is precisely the aspect that is totally missing from the "educational" material produced by the ACE. Indeed, it is precisely that aspect of the collecting of dugup ancient artefacts that ACE promoters are specifically advised not to talk to people about. ACE's Mark Lehman wrote about Answering Ethical Questions: "My first, and most important advice is to you is to avoid these discussions like the very plague - I cannot possibly stress this strongly enough". Elkins' text shows quite clearly however that whether the supporters of the ACE want to discuss them or not, there are serious ethical questions that need answering. Perhaps it is time to let the parents of the kids approached have the information to allow them to decide whether or not they want their kids exposed to such indoctrination and handling coins that have been acquired from unknown sources no-questions-asked? From that point of view, it would be useful to have this text available online. Heritage Action has also recently drawn attention to the cynical use of children under the guise of their "education" in deflecting criticism of other somewhat dubious activities.

Vignette, what about the children of the countries  that are exploited as the source of the "educational material" for US schools? Photo by China Daily.


Anonymous said...

They way to counter this would be specifically educating children to understand how archaeology works-- by the careful recovery of information, not objects. No reason why the point can't be illustrated with examples of how the artifact, devoid of context, is just a geegaw. Just as children usually get the point re. fur trade or over-fishing, they should quickly understand the point here. Easy enough to illustrate.

Paul Barford said...

Well, of course it is very easy to do it, but ACE will not be doing it, as it is counter-productive to their only real aim which is getting new customers for dugup ancient coins! They are bent on promoting insensitivity to the ethical problems of collecting this kind of material in the guise of "education".

The sad thing is that the teachers doing this are probably quite unaware of the "other side of the coin [trade]". But should they not really be trying to find out before they introduce this into their classrooms?

Anonymous said...

Shorter version: everyone should have learned to ask two questions--

"Where was it found ?"

"How do we know what it is ?"

Paul Barford said...

"The vast majority of coins offered as "uncleaned" on the current world market come from surface finds in potato fields and the like - not from disturbance of established sites" [ like Archar for example] .. and other such tripe here No metal detectors are used either you will note. And instead of stealing from other countries, the dealers that supply dugups to the ACE are allegedly helping to save the people from whom they get them from "starving" (that's a laugh the trade in at least some of them seems to be run by organized crime groups in the Balkans, that is who the money s going to).

In reality, the ACE is not at all interested in telling the truth to the kids, teachers or parents about "where they came from" - neither as the text I quote indicates - do the dealers who run it really care.

As for how we know what they are, why in many cases it will be "the nice man from the ACE came and told us". John, coins mostly have the name of the emitter written on them. That's why even a literate doormose could "study" them (put ones that are the same in one pile, put ones that are diferent in another is what this "study" in reality mainly consists of - except collectors call it "die studies", its really just like those kiddies' "spot the difference" picture games).

You dont need as long an attention span to understand the inscription and pictures on old coins, not as much as doing research about the past by reading a book. Coins are ideal for relatively effortless dumbed-down "edukayshun".

Rather than expecting the ACE to change its ways, it should be challenged by informing people what lies behind the facade they have erected and do so much to try and maintain. And I am grateful that Nathan Elkins has done that.

Anonymous said...

ACE won't teach how to think contextually about material records from the past; surely the boot is on the archaeologists' foot ? Namely: every professional archaeologist should give at least 1 hour a year to speak in a school about what he does-- and more broadly about the past as finite resource, and how the study of this by collectively sanctioned authorities is the right way

Marcus Preen said...

Great idea. In Britain the opposition loses no opportunity to go into schools to show the youngster what they've dug up.

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