Tuesday 11 May 2010

Witschonke Advises the Federal Government

It seems that US coineys have a bit of difficulty doing joined-up thinking. Rick Witschonke of the American Numismatic Society has been given the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (which advises the US government on cultural property issues) some advice how it should respond to Italy's request for US aid to combat illegal trade in artefacts. Through the CPAC, Witschonke gives Italy a whole load of reasons why they need to do this. A really homogeneous approach would require the US adopting such a "superior" system itself.

The US has, as we have seen on this blog, its own problems illegal trade of artefacts which have been clandestinely dug up out in the desert by "finders" and not reported. The collecting of antiquities in the area has a tradition going back many generations, collecting gave the beginnings to archaeological research in the area and many museums have material collected by private individuals at their core. Nevertheless, at some stage archaeologists forgot these roots and in the last century tried to place legislative restrictions on the activities of collectors in much of the US. In technical terms if the law were to be followed to the letter, this makes the many collectors passionately interested in the past of the land they live in busily finding the artefacts of past civilizations in places where few other people ever go into "looters" ("tweakers"). Instead of trying to stop this group of people and rendering the finds they make illicit, Witschonke advises modification of antiquities legislation as a remedy for looting. Obviously the advice he is giving the CPAC should be equally applicable to the US.

Quite clearly recent reports show that the legislation like the Archaeological Resources Protection Act is not enough, and policing all sites and all markets is too difficult to achieve. The United States "is now in a similar situation to that of the UK fifteen years ago: looting is endemic, irreplaceable contextual information is being lost at an appalling rate, and the energetic enforcement of legal sanctions has proven ineffective in controlling the looting". For Mr Witschonke the answer to this problem would be to modify antiquities legislation to:
1) provide for prompt market value rewards for reported finds;
2) support a robust, licit market for objects that are not claimed as Treasure by the state; and
3) establish an effective outreach program, with representatives in each of the regions, to encourage the reporting of finds.

"Such a change would not mean adopting the UK TA/PAS approach wholesale – a program should certainly be tailored to the specific situation [of the US]", and the US "would not even have to renounce state ownership of antiquities found in its soil; the UK still claims ownership of Treasure, but voluntarily offers a reward for it". So that is it, the US should reward finders digging up artefacts from sites lost in the desert and bringing them in for recording before they are sold on eBay.

As Witschonke notes, some ("radical") archaeologists would object to a US approach like the Treasure Act and PAS system as in England and Wales, they would see it as a situation that "constitutes government- subsidized looting":
These archeologists would prefer a situation where all ancient objects remain in the ground until they can be stratigraphically excavated by professional archeologists, and then be professionally conserved, studied, published, stored and curated indefinitely in a secure repository where they will be conveniently available to future researchers. While this ideal scenario would certainly maximize the information extracted from the objects, it represents a false choice, for two reasons. First, it is clear that objects will be excavated by amateurs; the only choices are to allow them to continue to enter the trade unrecorded, or to provide incentives for reporting. And second, even as wealthy a nation as the US has implicitly recognized that the massive funds required to store and curate every archeological artifact, regardless of its significance, are simply not forthcoming. Thus, in reality, the pragmatic choice is between the status quo of unrestrained looting, where few objects are ever recorded, versus a compromise solution where most objects are at least recorded, and the most important are preserved in public collections while the rest go into the market.
Witschonke argues that signing of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding with another country means that both sides have to oblige themselves to the protection of the world's cultural (and in this case archaeological) heritage. Under CCPIA,the states party must have "taken measures [...] to protect its cultural property”. Witschonke suggests that "the measures proposed here are reasonable and necessary if looting is to be reduced".

The United States of America thus according to Mr Witschonke:
faces a clear choice with respect to its archeological heritage. It can continue with its present policies, and have virtually all objects found in other than official excavations leave the country illicitly, with their contextual information lost forever and with little prospect of return, or it can adopt policies which will positively encourage finders to report their finds, and preserve at least some of the objects and information now being lost. I urge the Committee to strongly encourage [the US government] to adopt the later course.

This would then make it easier for collectors to buy archaeological material found on US archaeological sites on public land. It would provide a ready source of finance for the meth-using "twiggers" who "find" these objects and would allow their recording to the benefit of science, rather than leaving them there buried in the stratigraphy of the settlements and graves unknown and uncollected.

When are we going to see the Ozark Mountains Chapter of the Ancient Pot Collectors Guild set up by Mr Sayles to fight for collectors' rights and protect the trade in dugup Native American artefacts from public land in the US? Maybe Mr Witschonke would like to start the New York branch?

Mr Witschonke, before urging it puts pressure on foreign governments, FIRST get the government of your own country to adopt such a system to apply to all collectable artefacts from US soil (such as those which are currently the subject of trials in Blanding because "finders" found them on public land). Why should Italy abandon state ownership at the behest ("encouragement") of US collectors when the US claims state ownership of artefacts found in the deserts of the West? If US collectors are so concerned about "collectors rights" to archaeological material excavated from archaeological sites in foreign lands, let them first establish analagous collectors' rights in their own land. And if they cannot do that, then let them shut up and stop telling other nations how they "should" let US collectors walk all over their heritage protection legislation.

Vignette: US Collectors of this sort of material from public land demand their "rights". Why are the collectors rights' activists of the US ignoring them?

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