Monday 12 April 2010

Collector: "Where I disagree with Paul Barford"

There is an antiquities collector calling herself "Meechmunchie", who seems to be the same person as the individual calling themselves scrabcake - another computer gaming nick - who has been posting comments here, she runs the Egyptologygeek blog.

Anyhow, whoever she really is, she has several times hinted on collectors' blogs that although she agrees with a lot of what "Barford" says (Phew, eh?) she thinks that I take "a rather black and white stance on a topic that seems to be more ethically complex than he gives it credit". Now she feels the time is right to explain at more length what she means by that:

Barford is right that antiquities looting takes an object out of context destroying almost all of what we could learn about it. This is a crime against both the descendants of the people who made the object, who have been robbed of their own history and against anyone who would want to know about the object for any research. I think there is a lot more potential in science and research to restore parts of this provenance than does barford. These objects are not historically worthless out of context. For example...
[For the record, it is a gross oversimplification to say that I believe antiquities belong to "the descendants of the people that made the object". Apart from the fact it is nonsense.] There then follows a suggestion that chemical analysis can "restore context" because it can say where some objects were made. Well, that may apply to a few object types, but in general that approach gets us nowhere. There was a programme of thin sectioning all Neolithic stone axes in Britain, and identifying the source of the rock. This only gave information about exchange patterns when that information could be linked to where the axe was found - where it ended up. Without that information the axe was just a piece of worked stone. Bronze Age metalwork (well, actually most ancient metalwork) was produced from melting down older tems, so analysis can only say what kind of alloys went into the crucible, not where the finished object was used and lost, or what it was then found in association with. An archaeological context lost is in many cases - Renfrew's recent suggestions notwithstanding - indeed a context completely and irretrievably lost. The only "complexities" here are produced by attempts by indicriminate collectors to say that this is not true or that it does not matter.

She then admits that instead of trying to restore context to decontextualised items, "it is better to prevent looting". Sadly, we then have the ritual trotting out of the "harsh punishment has never worked" mantra. Now this seems to be regarded as one of the "complexities", even though I have never advocated reliance on it alone. I think most of us are aware that merely banning something and punishing people for disobeying does not stop that thing happening. Which is why this is not what is being advocated by preservationists, who are not stupid people on the whole and have much more nuanced ideas about curbing the illicit trade in antiquities than it seems this collector gives credit for.

Anyway, Meechmunchie then suggests the reason why we cannot stop looting by harsh legislation (which is what she seems to think is all that I am proposing). This is next "complexity" is that - and here she refers to a text of mine - that the need to make money is the reason people sell artefacts for the money (duh). She reckons I could have dealt "with a little more empathy" in my blog post with an Egyptian would-be seller of looted artefacts and a little boy peddling sherds because, and here's the crux of the matter:
A lot of our looters and the merchants who resell their wares are crushingly poor, and many feel no connection to the past that they are hawking except as a way to put the food on the table. [...] So, you are struggling to feed your kids and you have a potential goldmine in the field across the road or the desert out back.

("our" looters?) Let me tell her that the man behind the counter in a tourist shop right in the tourist centre of Luxor is unlikely to be "crushingly poor". The guy hawking antiquities to foreign tourists on the sites there is not doing at all badly. One of them by the Tombs of the Nobles jubilantly showed me in January the 200 Euros he'd just got ten minutes earlier from a German tourist for a shabti... fake of course, he has nothing else.

We have here the "subsistence digger" model again beloved of collectors. The indiscriminate collector of looted antiquities kids himself that he is "doing good" by buying looted antiquities because they can pride themselves that they are "putting food on the table" of some "crushingly poor people" for whom they feel some empathy. This is simply self-delusion as well as patronising. Firstly, encouraging the less well-off to earn money by infringing the law is not a way many would recognise as a legitimate way to help them out of poverty. Why stop at antiquities, when they can strip lead off other people's roofs, copper cables from alongside railway lines (belong to nobody in particular), brass crosses from gravestones (not your own family of course)? There will always be a buyer. The money can put food on the table and its easier to strip unguarded copper cable from signal boxes than dig in the dust and dirt. The second thing is that of course none of the money that a buyer pays a dealer never gets to the digger. Robin Symes sold some of his objects for millions, and how much did the finder get?
In fact a number of cases are discussed in the literature of dealers going along to indigenous communities, showing them what they will pay money for and showing them where to dig, and they start digging where there had previously been no such a tradition of looting ancient sites for scrap metal or anything else. As the Bible says, the poor were always with us, but its the antiquities market that is the damaging new development.

Nevertheless, on the basis of her victimised subsistence digger model, Meechmunchie concludes:
that using the big stick is not going to work until the standard of living is high enough that there is no excuse for looting, and people have a respect for if not identification with the past which they are depleting. This can only happen with education. Only with these improvements will locking a person up in a deep dark dungeon for 25 years for hawking a potsherd be morally justifiable.

That sounds nice and progressive doesn't it? One complexity then in that neat model, how do we explain the looting which is taking place not in the countries where browner-skinned people squat on the ground eating beans, but in western Europe? In the Four Corners area of the US? In the National Parks around the Ozark mountains? In Canada? In Germany (Nebra Skydisc) and France? These are not countries where there is a particularly low standard of education, nor low standard of living. Nor indeed are these countries where the population as a whole is "alienated from the past". On the contrary, these are the very countries where the finds looted in other ("source") countries are most often ending up. The buyers of these objects moreover claim that they are doing so in the name of education (let us not forget the looted coins ending up being used in America in the Ancient Coins for Education project). Basically therefore merely blaming on world poverty the fact that there are looted artefacts on western markets is rather simplistic. If we look at the US however we find that while the majority of citizens do not take a shovel to the nearesdt native American burial ground or midden, BLM officers are increasingl pointing to one particular segment of society that is involved in this activity. It is not just that certain populations "have no money" that leads them to culture crime, it is in some cases a poverty of morals too. I wonder then if "Meechmunchie" really thinks locking people up in a deep dungeon for looting and trading in looted artefacts should be regarded as "morally justifiable" in the US and Britain? Then she has a go at the Brits and the PAS:
Which brings us to the situation in Britain where people ought to know better. If only the British government was so hard assed as the Egyptian one! I shall defer to Barford on this situation since I don't know much about it, but there should be a punishment for looting Roman coins in the UK because there is really no excuse. Ideally they would stay in the ground where they've been for over a millennia for future generations to study. Having them dug up by metal detectorists and sold on eBay only benefits the buyer and seller to the potential detriment to the entire scholarly community, and having them stuck in a museum basement in a shelf next to 100 other roman coins which have been judged by the museum to be worthless to the cause of bringing in revenues while being too mundane to publish doesn't do much good either.

That is the end of her attempted explanation where I've got it all wrong and cannot see the"complexities" which she does. It seems to be a rule in discussions with artefact collectors that when they accuse the other side of "extremism" and that issues "seem to be more ethically complex", that in fact when they set about explaining how, we get a wholly simplistic set of views. This lengthy post is no exception. The "complexities" boil down to a few simple points. Before discussing them however let's deal with the bit on the Brits.

Here we are in relative agreement, the Brits indeed "ought to know better", a position I have always held with regard artefact hunting. That they do not is entirely due to the uncritical approach of the media and the campaign conducted by the supporters of artefact hunting. I think it would be very good if the British government was so concerned "as the Egyptian one", but that is due entirely to strong leadership. The British archaeological community is acephalous and weak-willed and will not stand up to the artefact collectors. As for "a punishment for looting Roman coins in the UK because there is really no excuse" there is no excuse and the punishment should be for more than just illegally obtained "Roman coins" of course. But again, this comes down to what society and the judiciary regards as acceptable - the US has the same problem. In most cases that end in a conviction, the sentence is little more than a slap on the hand. I have also long maintained, including on this blog, that the Treasure Act is doing very little that is archaeologcally worthwhile if stuff is just going into museums (and it makes no difference if it is to a brightly lit showcase or the darkness of the conservation store) and not being published. Part of the cost of obtaining these archaeological Treasures for the nation should go on its conservation and publishing and the proper investigation and protection of the findspot.

The complexities that "Meechmunchie" wanted to talk about are not such complex matters. Basically she suggests (1) that decontextualised artefacts can have their context "restored" by some analytical method that nobody has invented or tested yet. Also (2) harsh punishment has never worked and we should be tender with subsistence looters. Then (3) the reason for looting of archaeological sites is poverty and lack of education, and some kind of "alienation" from the past. That, rather disappointingly, seems to be about it.

Well, what can I say? The first point is I think just nonsense and self-serving. The collector says that it does not matter if we throw away information now, we must trust that one day we'll be able to get it back again "somehow". Well, Meechmunchie, that is not how conservation works. We cannot allow all the tigers to be killed justifying this because "anyway we will be able to clone more one day from the DNA in the hairs of an old tigerskin rug" (well, you can say it if you like, I will not). This fluffy bunny "its not their fault they are looters because they are poor" really does not wash. What in fact is being said by collectors who use this argument is that it is the fault of the governments of "source countries" that sites are looted because they have not given good jobs and employment to every citizen. In other words, the collector is saying it is not their (collectors') faults that sites are looted, but "somebody else's".
Now this really is odd logic. Take Nigeria and those dinky little dug-up clay sculptures sold as "tribal art". They were very fashionable to collect not so long ago, the figures had a powerful "primevalness", slightly comic with bulging eyes and misshapen figures. They were dug out of archaeological sites at the behest of foreign dealers. Yes, subsistence diggers existed in Nigeria, but this only started because there was already a market for them. There was no "tradition" of digging stuff up to sell until dealers appeared offering the prospect of easy cash for a bit of digging. The same thing is happening in Southeast Asia, a while ago the only people taking hammers to places of worship to smash off a Buddha head were brutal white colonial adventurers. Today young locals are setting off to smash the sites of worship of their own cultures because getting money from foreign dealers is more important to them than respect for these old sites. The "alienation" which Meechmunchie talks of is not always endemic, but created by contact with the commerciality and lack of morals of the foreign buyer. This also was in fact the case in Egypt too. Neglect and reuse of elements of monuments is one thing, looting another. It was only the appearance of mass tourism and the antiquities market that led to the modern looting of, for example, the Theban necropolis, which led to the locals' perception of the holes in the hills as "a goldmine".
Most of the specious arguments applied to justify collecting really fall flat when examined critically and objectively. As far as I am concerned the complexities actually come down to one simple fact. If there were no possibility of making money by selling unprovenanced antiquities, if responsible collectors stopped buying them, then there would be no market for looted Nok terracottas, looted egyptian scarabs, mummy masks and shabtis, knocked-off buddha heads, dug up tetradrachms, or bulk lots of metal detected artefacts from sites like Archar and suchlike (this also goes for poached ivory and body bits of other endangered species). It is because collectors shut their eyes to where finds come from, and simply buy indiscriminately what comes along, that the looters can push unlimited amounts of stuff onto the market.


Marcus Preen said...

How utterly outrageous. "The problem of looting is more ethically complex than you give it credit". No, it is ethicallyy simple: If people didn't buy looted goods, goods wouldn't be looted.

As for "I think there is a lot more potential in science and research to restore parts of this provenance than does barford" - on what planet does that apply? Metal detectorists in Britain have ripped ten million artefacts from their context. So far, science and research has failed to restore the provenance of a single one of them.

Too many words and talkifying about this subject, and all the time real vandals are stealing real history from real victims. Only when the "respectable" elements of the collecting community stand shoulder to shoulder with "Barford" will the damage cease.

Paul Barford said...

To much talkifying and not enough strong-minded saying "no" to dodgy practices and their attempted justifications. Even by those who claim to want to lecture me on "ethics" - there is often a difference between what people say and what they do.

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