Friday 19 March 2010

As others see us: History Hoons Ransack Europe's Heritage

Paola Totaro is an Italian born Australian journalist working for the Sydney Morning Herald Among other things she covers political and social issues in Britain and mainland Europe.
In a recent article ( Antiquities not just another brick in wall, Sydney Morning Herald, March 19th 2010 - which also appeared a day later in the Melbourne newspaper The Age :"History hoons ransack Europe's heritage" The Age, March 20, 2010) she has a few observations on the British treatment of their heritage:

Last weekend, standing beside the mighty Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland National Park, I watched open-mouthed as a [... woman...] tried to haul herself atop the wall. First she dug her heavy boots into the masonry to get a grip. When that failed, she used her walking stock to scrape a foothold. Then she tried to haul herself up with her hands, and used her boots again to halt her slide back to earth. A shower of dust accompanied each clumsy manoeuvre. She was not alone. Dozens of others did the same at an event organised by British heritage authorities to highlight the need to protect Britain's biggest, longest monument. It seems extraordinary that while Hadrian's legacy is taught in schools worldwide, the 117-kilometre wall's keepers have to tell the 47 million people who come to see it that while they are welcome to look, they must not touch.

Totaro reports that she has often been struck by the very cavalier attitude to history that she has observed as she has travelled Europe: "splashes of graffiti on the walls of Venetian palazzi, adults leaning against the fragile colours of an ancient chapel in Croatia, camera-toting tourists ignoring ''No flash'' signs before Milan's Last Supper, a child in the Louvre allowed to hang off a marble statue before a guard lambasts the parents". These are, she admits "seemingly small misdemeanours in the scheme of the damage done by the illicit antiquities trade, a market estimated by a 1999 UN report at $US7.8 billion a year worldwide". They are nevertheless shocking examples of the complete disregard for the fragility of the record past generations have left us and our descendants. One example she highlights in particular:

In Britain, pseudo-archaeologists and treasure hunters with metal detectors are an increasing problem. Caches of ancient treasures are being dug up by sleuths equipped with ever-more-sophisticated equipment. Just last week in Northumbria, local newspapers reported that an amateur group had unearthed Roman treasure, including a pot of gold coins apparently bearing an image of Emperor Hadrian's head. Last year a stash of Anglo-Saxon gold artifacts was found on a farm by a man with a metal detector. The collection could be broken up and sold to collectors if £3.3 million cannot be found by April 17 to secure it for museums. Increasingly, British archaeological faculties have come to the conclusion that if you can't lick 'em, it's best to join 'em. They are exploring ways to educate amateurs on how to document their finds - harm minimisation for antiquities.
I appreciated the fact that she explicitly used the phrase "pseudo-archaeologists", it is good to see that some journalists see the difference, pity though that its not Brit ones who tend to be misled by teh pro-collecting rhetoric fed to them by the PAS and other pro-collecting archaeologists. She concludes this is all due to lack of respect:

At Hadrian's Wall last Saturday, I was sure of one thing: if it had been an Australian historic building or a site of Aboriginal or natural significance, those climbers would not have lasted a minute at the hands of the crowd. Cultural respect starts with children, and we have taught ours well.
Not so the Brits, where a public archaeological outreach Scheme costing millions is telling people that artefact hunting and collecting is not only "OK", but in some way "beneficial". Certainly a case of if they can't be bothered to even try to beat them, they are in it together with their esteemed metal detector using "partners". It seems that by encouraging a particular (dig up your own) type of hands-on approach to the past, we do not seem to be getting the message of 'feet and bottoms off'.

Hoon, by the way, I find out is apparently a derogatory term used in Australia and New Zealand to refer to a younger person who engages in loutish, anti-social behaviour. I would say that the way archaeological antiquities are dug out of the ground by selfish individuals for entertainment and profit is pretty hoonish too.
Photos: Hoons on Hadrians wall, the first is some 'anorak' the other two are an American Christian group who were guests in the UK and obviously felt very much at home there.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that elsewhere it would be the general public that would take the lead in defence of heritage.

Of course, in Britain they are less likely to because they aren't told, plain and straight, that acquisitive collection of archaeological artefact is NOT in the national interest. The hoon at the farmer's door and the FLO at the finds day give an opposite impression (though the latter wouldn't actually dare say so of course since they know the truth is otherwise. Ask them, and watch them wriggle. We have!)

We have long said that the most useful outreach PAS could deliver in defence of our archaeological heritage is to landowners. See here:

How come it is left to US to publish that advice to farmers. Shouldn't it be on the front page of the PAS website - notwithstanding the howls of their detectorist partners.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for that. Yes I think in the case of artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting in Britain, this is very much a case of misinformation - or incomplete information - being supplied to the general public by those who should be supplying it.

The UNESCO Convention requires the UK to be educating people about looting. Name me one British archaeological body which actually does this in any co-ordinated manner. Not even one, and the one that really should be doing this outreach the PAS is busy "engaging with" the collectors rather than telling the non-collectors what damage collecting in its present form is causing worldwide and in the UK to the archaeological heritage.

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