Friday, 13 August 2010

More on Unprovenanced "Oxfordshire" Finial (1) Provenance

This is a further consideration of the object discussed here earlier, because the discussion about it is still ongoing on at least two forums, one open access. The earlier posts on it can be found here, here, and here.

In a recent post on Tim Haines' closed access AncientArtifacts discussion group John Hooker alleges that for archaeologists provenance is only a "religious dogma". While "for serious scholars of the subject it is a mixed bag -- some provenances are useful, others are not". Phew. He goes on that "Warwick Rodwell has much to say about the illusory dependence on provenance" (the reference is to Rodwell, W. 1981, "Lost and found: the archaeology of find-spots of Celtic coins", pp. 43-52 of CBA Occ. paper, Coinage and Society in Britain and Gaul, Some Current Problems). What Rodwell does instead discuss is the harmful effects on our knowledge of provenances of thousands of items recovered in the past and today through "the blight of metal detectors" (p. 50) when provenances are NOT recorded. In any case the main focus of Rodwell's attention in this paper is distribution maps rather than site-specific information. But even here, patterns only emerge from recording of individual pieces of information, and information affecting a whole area of knowledge is lost when (for example) objects "surface" on the market without any kind of information about where they were found. This is therefore wanton damage to the basis on which we can gain information on the past.
Perhaps if collectors were to look a little higher than the top of their coin cabinets, they would see that there is in fact also a great deal more to the subject than the "find-spots of Celtic coins". I really do not understand the notion that "some provenances are useful, others are not", surely they all need recording, and what significance emerges from the patterns are to be determined after and not before.

When I used to teach at Warsaw University, in the first lesson of the "Introduction to Archaeology" course for first year students 'fresh off the streets' was (among other things) about 'postgnostic reasoning' (a la Jerzy Topolski, a theoretician of historiography here in Poznan) which I introduced with a "murder scene" in the corner of the classroom and various clues about what the murderer and victim had been doing before and after the foul deed. It is a useful analogy to archaeology in many ways. To show where collectors like Hooker are mistaken I'd like to use it here.

In the hunt for missing person, the police would rather the public phone in with every possible lead they may have, rather than decide themselves "some sightings of the missing person are useful, others are not" and not phone in. Obviously it is true that for every good lead there will be thousands of false leads, but since there is no way of telling a priori, does that mean that none of the information should not be collected and collated? At the crime scene may be all sorts of things, cigarette butts, footprints, thread and hair samples, many of which ended up there before the crime was committed, some after, and only some during. The forensic team on the site will collect and doccument everything without judging what is and is not "significant". There is a group of people who later works on that information and decides what is and what is not important.

What then of the person in our hypothetical scenario who walking in the woods finds a bloodstained knife near the spot a girl was last seen and takes it home and throws it in the bin, or takes it away for his knife fancier's collection? Or puts it in an envelope with three others from earlier finds and sends it to the police with no information who found them where when and in what circumstances and no return address? This is totally analogous with what is happening to archaeological assemblages. Provenance of evidence is important. Finds are being dug up, some discarded, some collected, but without any information, some being passed on anonymously.

Elsewhere on the AncientArtifacts forum Hooker boasts: "As I am a research collector rather than a hobby collector, my main responsibility is to the truth of the data rather than any background to the object". In other words, recording provenance of dugups is not the concern of "researchers"? I would say quite the opposite, geegaw collectors don't fret where their bits and pieces come from, a researcher who cannot say where "evidence" came from, how it got in his hands, and how we can verify how reliable it is, is just a dabbler.

Hooker says that "one archaeology professor and a specialist in "Heritage" matters" instructs him "to pay such attacks no heed and that he believes that the object coming into my possession has resulted in it being greatly discussed in academic circles". Yeah, right. Apparently this unnamed "heritage" specalist said "this would not have happened if it had vanished into some other private collection or museum stores and was thus ignored". Hmmmm. The good Collector model trotted out again. The sullied knife in a weapon collector's collection could well be widely described on knife fetishist forums, and something about the victim and predelictions of her attacker surmised, but not knowing where they were found and when does nothing to help the official investigation into the events surrounding her disappearance.

We have all seen however that when a crime has been committed, or suspected to have been committed, the news forums are full of people who have their theories whodunnit and why. Suppose these home-grown sleuths were out there in the field, taking evidence away "for their own investigations", contiminating the crime scene, eroding and altering the patterns of evidence? Would that be acceptable? Let us not even consider the possibility that potential evidence connected with a serious crime could be sold to such "enthusiasts" on the internet. (Not inconceivable, less than a week after the Polish President's plane crashed in the trees at Smolensk in April, pieces of what were said to be fuselage of the plane were being offered for sale on the internet gathered at the site while the official investigation in the field was still ongoing).

In the case of metal detected finds from England and Wales, there is no legal reason for the provenance of the piece to be unknown or not revealed, if the piece was legally obtained. There is of course every reason to hide that information if the item was illegally obtained. This is why in the case of archaeological material deriving from recent artefact hunting, in the absence of a PAS record confirming its legitimate provenance and that it was discovered by a responsible metal detectorist (one working within the framework of the Code of Practice for responsible metal Detecting), no responsible collector should be buying unprovenanced material from England or Wales. Still less an employee of the PAS-supporting Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild.

Vignette: Hooker will not release a photo of his "precious" but its in the "Disney" style. Mickey Mouse seems an ideal mascot for "intuitive" antiquitist pseudo-archaeology.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent. The popularity of the CSI-series might help to illustrate the importance of context if you want to use traces (objects but also real traces, e.g. postholes) to understand what's happened in the past, recent or remote

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