Monday 24 May 2010

It is not My Fault, miss: "They" did it!

Californian part time antiquities dealer and "Internationalist" "cultural rights" lobbyist Dave Welsh is unapologetic about writing interminably about the politics of the coin market on an artefact collectors' discussion list. But it is not, he asserts, his fault that this "situation" exists:

That arose [...] not because of anything I did, nor anything the ACCG did, but instead because of what the archaeology lobby has done. [... collectors ...] have a responsibility to understand who caused the problem. It has 100% been caused by the archaeology lobby. [...] I suggest that you address your complaints to the archaeology lobby which has created the problem [...] you are blaming the wrong people for that problem. The ACCG and I would like nothing better than the permanent elimination of political issues from the AA list and other online fora. This is not a problem which has originated in anything that anyone in the collectors' rights movement has done, other than refusing to cave in to outrageous demands that would ultimately extinguish the topical subject of this list - i. e. private collecting of antiquities.

Well, these "outrageous demands" are to start dealing more ethically transparently and accountably in ancient artefacts. I personally see nothing "outrageous" in such an idea, but then I do not make my money from selling ancient artefacts of unknown provenance.

Likewise I am sure there are many collectors and lobbyists that would like anybody at all critical about policies and the politics of the global antiquities market kicked off or shouted down on every online forum. Many of them are actively working towards this with discussion list owners. But supressing free speech and silencing open discussion will not make the issues go away.

IS it actually the archaeologists' fault that these discussions take place? Looking back over the literature of the subject one gets the impression that this is not the right interpretation to place on events. The conflict between collecting and archaeology goes back in Europe at least only to the advent of the metal detector. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, the collecting of small ancient objects in those days relied on people finding things by "eyeballing", picking them up from the very surface, from ploughed fields, footpaths, molehills in the countries where this sort of material occurred on the surface. The damage done was small scale and relatively slight. There were relatively few collectors, and not much of a market in such things. In those days finders popped along to the museum, showed the nice guy there, who'd tell them what it was, spin a yarn about it (and make young boys like myself decide they want to be an archaeologist when they grow up). The objects found most often had little market value, and finders were often pleased to deposit the object in the museum for safe keeping.

Things changed with the metal detector (c. 1970 onwards). Suddenly treasure hunters had a tool which could see below the surface, which it was perceived encouraged digging into sites, and allowed the finder to take home not single items, but dozens every time they went out. It also changed the size and nature of the antiquities market. Within a few years there were reportedly 180 000 people in the UK alone robbing archaeological sites of potential archaeological evidence. Archaeologists in the UK set up a public information programme, called STOP (Stop Taking Our Past) and then the trouble started. The detector users got militant and started hitting back using less subtle means. The legacy of this period of conflict remains today.

The second event was the arrival of the internet as a means of communication. While it was used as such, then it was clearly beneficial in bringing people (and peoples) together. The information explosion was seen by many as a useful development, archaeologists are still finding ways of making the discipline more "open" through it. Not so collectors. They did not appreciate people looking over their shoulders. From the beginning metal detecting forums were secretive members-only-access affairs, people writing guardedly under pseudonyms.

In about the middle of the 1990s a number of dealers in a number of commodities (including dug up artefacts) began to realise the potential of the internet to bring more people to the market and within a few short years the Internet trade in antiquities had exploded into a line of business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly. The problem was that there were not enough items coming onto that market from the splitting up of old collections. In the period befoere 1970 there were relatively few collectors, the explosion in numbers only came with the internet. The limited pool of old collection objects had to be made up for from other sources. This was the opportunity for criminal gangs all over Europe, but in particular those formed in the vacuum of collapsing states such as the Balkans and Iraq to benefit from the deficit. An elaborate but secretive distribution chain was set up, which merged with those of the licitly obtained artefacts from old collections. The still-existing shortfall in supply in dugups then had to be filled with fakes, produced in countries like Bulgaria and China as well as South and central America in considerable quantities, which began to be real concern in collecting communities after about 2002-3.

It was in this period too that many people found that artefacts could be bought and sold from these various sources for a tidy profit and with very little risk of anyone asking any questions about where they came from. The number of artefact dealers now exploded, from relatively few sellers in high street shops and exclusive galleries, there are now thousands of people selling ancient objects from all sorts of sources from the back bedrooms of council houses. There are uncounted thousands of smmall and large dealers selling ancient artefacts to a global market of uncounted (but probably hundreds of) thousands of collectors most of whom care littel about where the items came from, and certainly with no intention of keeping any documentation to pass on with the obects when they or their heirs dispose of them.

The problem was however that while what goes on in the back room of a Bond Street gallery is known only to a few, the internet means that anyone anywhere can look in at what is on offer by whom, listen in to collectors' discussions on their chat lists (as they can of course on archaeological ones) and form their own conclusions about what is going on and comment on it.

The body of rhetoric which is used by collectors to counter these criticisms in fact can trace its origins back to that of the 1970s, thought up by artefact hunters denying that they were eroding any heritage at all. Old back numbers of hobby magazines contain the same drivel as being put out by collectors today as their newest thoughts. In fact there is nothing new in these scissors and paste views, very little development whatsoever of the argument.

Mr Welsh tries to convince gullible collectors that it is the fault of the archaeologists that there are discussions about what to do about the no-questions-asked market and irresponsible collecting. It is not. It was not the archaeologists who created and then led to the expansion of a huge and unregulated market in dugup antiquities in the space of a few decades. It is not the archaeologists who set up small business to profit from the flow of new material onto the market, much of it from illegal digging. It has not been the archaeologist holding out against any possible change in the business patterns that would even dent the possibilities of freshly dug artefacts being traded.

After all, it is not the archaeologist who has anything to lose by the trade being restricted only to items verifibly of licit origin. But I think we would find if the truth were known, and the dealers would stop obfuscating, the more honest among them would admit that large sections of the antiquities trade would have a very great deal to lose if their ability to sell illegally excavated material was curtailed. This is what groups like the ACCG are fighting against. This would of course not "ultimately extinguish" the private collecting of antiquities, but it would do a lot to severely curtail the current large scale of irresponsible dealing and collecting which allows illicitly obtained (looted) and illicitly exported (smuggled) artefacts to be sold indiscriminately to uncaring collectors. ACCG board member Welsh may equate the two, I do not.

Welsh apparently stands, undiscriminatingly, for all collecting. The rest of us discriminate between ethical, responsible collecting (which if the archaeological record is not to be further damaged is what we need) and unethical and irresponsible collecting, which is what we do not.

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