Friday 19 March 2010

Commercial Looting of the Archaeological Heritage and 'Civility'

Name-calling cultural property "Internationaliser" Wayne Sayles complains on his blog today that "in the cultural property world, civility is a rare bird", but reports gratefully that at the "Portable Antiquities: Archaeology, Collecting, Metal Detecting" Conference he managed to find "a refreshing display of British cultural property civility". Well, that is nice for him. I expect he found there too quite a few metal detectorists willing to share stories about how uncivil certain critics of artefact hunting can be about their erosive hobby.

He seems not to have achieved the rapport with Britis metal detectorists that I expected, some of the responsible detectorists there of course distanced themselves from what he was saying at the meeting, but he seems not to have understood the NCMD withdrawal. He notes that "
For some reason vaguely and cryptically described, the NCMD chose to withdraw at the last minute from this conference. Not only was that in poor taste, it was terribly counterproductive. I contacted the leadership of NCMD as soon as I heard about their withdrawal....
... well, I suppose there is not much ideological distance between conspiracy-theory founded ACCG and conspiracy-theory engulfed NCMD. Sayles does not understand the NCMD's problem because he does not read the metal detecing forums, but as a collectors' rights activist who has come all the way across the Atlantic to tell people what is what, surely this is precisely the sort of grass-roots information from collectors he should be seeking?

He however gained some other spiritual enlighten ment:
"Collectors who purchase coins without any concern whatever for their source may unwittingly become part of what a law enforcement officer at the conference referred to as the "disposal network". That is not to say that they themselves are breaking any laws, but they may be helping to enable a law breaker elsewhere".
Sounds awfully close to me to the catchphrase: "collectors are the real looters". Just add the word "indiscriminate" and you've got it in one.

Except collectors are not exactly doing it "unwittingly" are they? They have a choice. But for Sayles the crux of the problem is something else:
How does one insure (sic) that coins, for example, are properly recorded when found? If they were, the world would be a far more civil place. The answer, in my view, is for source countries to impose fair and incentive based laws that do not criminalize normal activities like trying to profit from finding something valuable on your own property.
The first question that comes to mind is how a dealer up in the far off Ozark mountains when he does not even know the name of the site something comes from can somehow know an ancient object on the table before them was found by someone on their own property back in Bulgaria or Iran? Intuition? The second point is that collecting of anbtiquities as a whole would be considerably cleaned up if the place where the coins were after they had been dug up was properly recorded by those selling them on. This would allow the discriminating collector to differentiate the antiquities out of the ground a number of years from those that have been dug up. We are told by the dealers' lobby that the former are in the majority and the latter are in a minority (sold by a handful of unnamed black sheep dealers), but for some reason they cannot bring themselves to document this by showing that the coins that they call "legitimate" in fact are. (If they cannot document that they are, how do they "know" they are? Intuition?).

According to Sayles, trying to prevent the looting of archaeological sites to supply the collectors market by draconian restrictions is a pointless exercise. "It is far better to engage the finder, at the time of the find, and extract the information". But that does not stop the looting, does it? It does not stop archaeological sites being dug over and damaged.

Would the digging out of Native American graves in search of collectables in the Four Corners area be OK then according to US collectors' rights activist Sayles if the finder was engaged at the time of the find and the "information" (what does he mean by that) was extracted? Who would do such a thing when BLM staff are so thin on the ground? Now, I've asked this before, but somehow the US "Internationalist" collectors' rights activists do not seem in a hurry to answer.

Iraq ia a telling (no pun intended) example too. There indeed was apparently relatively little looting when draconian measures were enforced, with the weakening of the government by UN sanctions, it began; with increased civil unrest created by the US-led invasion, it got worse. Now would the problem have been "solved" (would the archaeological layers of the sites have been saved from being riddled like Swiss cheese) if the finder was "engaged" ever-so-civilly at the time of the find and the "information" (what does he mean by that) was extracted?

Also, even though England and Wales (and Scotland) have ever-so-civil antiquities laws which allow prople to take a spade to 90% of the archaeological sites on whosoever's land as long as they ask first, looting (aka "nighthawkjing) does occur. it was discussed at the Newcastle Conference. In Northern Ireland however which has more "draconian" (to use Sayles' terminology) the Nighthawking report notes no examples. So I do not think the actual evidence really supports the various glib assertions of the collectors' lobby too well. Not that they let little things like facts get in the way of their "Internationalist" vision of a Brave New World of cultural property Свобода, равенство и братство.

I really do have problems understanding what the US dealers like Mr Sayles are actually proposing here. What however they seem to be suggesting is lifting antiquities preservation laws (yes?) and lifting export controls for all but a very select group of items (yes?) - but then who decides that, the finder/exporter?

Sayles and all the rest seem totally unaware of the social, political and legislative conditions under which the British systems work, and why the PAS achieves what it does. These conditions do not exist in Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, India, China or anywhere else the coins and antiquities his members sell come from.

Sayles writes:

The British [...] have the most advanced system of cultural property management in the world.
Oh ha ha. That of England and Wales is firmly based in the Victorian world. It is in fact in many regards one of the most retarded. But its nineteenth century attitudes are of course what makes it so attractive for an activist who clearly wants to keep the antiquities trade ideologically and in terms of its praxis firmly in the nineteenth century. And if that sounds "uncivil", I am not at all apologetic.
Vignette: the Portable Antiquities Scheme may (?) work in Islip, UK, but would it solve the problem cause by the search for collectables at Isin, Iraq?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's strange. Mr Sayles has come back from two days with the top management of PAS and doesn't know how one can "insure (sic) that coins, for example, are properly recorded when found?"

Did he not read the PAS website before he went? Does he not recall being told the answer (by me) on Britarch? Did he not ask the PAS management? Did they not buttonhole him and tell him straight, over and over and over?
(Or were they "civil"?!)

Mr Sayles, if you don't buy stuff unless you are sure it is legitimate and recorded (which is what PAS clearly recommends you should do as you know) everything will be fine. Why pose a question as if you don't know the solution when you have announced you won't implement it? Are you worried some of your customers might have consciences?

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