Tuesday 21 December 2010

Christmas Truths About the Built Heritage

US Lawyer Peter Tompa ("No Christmas Truce" (sic)) considers that the discussion by "archaeological busybodies Gill and Barford (along with a sympathetic journalist)" of looted and smuggled artefacts held in US collections is mere "foolishness" intended to "divert attention away from the poor stewardship of archaeological treasures in countries like Greece and Italy". After all:
Pompeii is falling down through gross mismanagement and neglect. The Greek cultural establishment is as bankrupt as the Hellenic Republic.
As readers will recall, one of the main current arguments of the lobbyists for the no-questions-asked antiquities market is that we should ignore the manner by which they were acquired and consider that looted and smuggled artefacts are somehow better off where they can be "properly looked after" (ie in private and museum collections in the United States) than in those foreign countries from which they were clandestinely taken. If the Greek cultural establishment is "as bankrupt as the Hellenic Republic" (sic), that really should surprise nobody, but that surely is no reason to contemplate stealing from them. The notion that the weakness of one nation is adequate justification for another to take away its resources in an unfair exchange, supported by the "we can use it better than them" argument are the basis of colonialist claims.

Tompa spitefully suggests: "If Gill, Barford and friends really care about protecting the archaeological record, perhaps they should devote at least some of their considerable talents to publicizing these larger issues in 2011". While I am as concerned as the next man about bits of the built heritage falling down, whether it is in my own country or abroad, it is not really the focus of my own blog, which as its title declares is portable antiquities, so not standing buildings or complexes of them.

We may note though that Tompa is very selective where he sees the problems of neglect. His blog concentrates on examples from countries like Greece and Cyprus, Italy, China, Afghanistan and Cambodia. These are all countries that have been in a struggle with the US over smuggled dugup artefacts. A struggle where Tompa represents the other side. In fact this is a notable pattern of the majority of Tompa's "cultural property observations". He talks of (no) "Christmas truce", I think we should look at a few Christmas truths about the activities of bloggers like Tompa, Welsh and Sayles.

While poking their fingers at foreigners for their impudent desires to keep US dealers flogging off their stolen heritage, Tompa and his fellow writers consistently fail to see the same problems under their own noses. They insist other nations "must" adopt the "better" (for US dealers and collectors) "British PAS/TA system" in favour of laws which make curation of archaeological cultural property the remit of the state. Yet they fail to note that the US has precisely such legislation in its 1979 ARPA (under which "collectors' rights" are eroded) and the US has no equivalent of the PAS system. Let US "collectors' rights" advocates lead the way by insisting the US adopt one before telling the rest of the world outside that they must change their legislation to suit the US antiquities market. Why does the US not take the moral lead in this, if that is what they really think it is?

US dealers and collectors are the first to point out abuses where a museum in countries with brown-skinned inhabitants falls victim to theft, especially if it is an inside job. Their blogs and discussion lists are full of finger-poking whenever this happens. They are on the whole silent however when it is a US museum which falls victim (see the MSN list for the examples that Tompa, Welsh, Sayles and all the rest routinely do not discuss). US collections, especially the smaller ones, have their storage and conservation problems too, and the current financial climate is not likely to be conducive to their easing.

The reader will seek the blogs of the US "collectors' rights" advocates like Tompa, Welsh, Sayles et al. in vain for any discussion of the arrests in the Four Corners region, or the ongoing looting of artefact rich Native American sites or Civil War battlefields etc. on public land in many regions of the US. You will not find there either any mention of the vandalism of petroglyph sites recently in the news, not even as a Cultural Property Observation. There is much on the coiney blogs about a lack of education of brown-skinned people over the seas, no mention that the root of the problem of US cultural vandalism like the graffiti at Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas and the destruction of archaeological deposits in the Four Corners region is a lack of outreach and eduction where it matters. It seems US cultural property "observers" are unobservant of, even blind to, the problems in their own backyard. Let us hope we see a more holistic approach from them in 2011. Who knows, it might improve their readership figures.

Anyhow, since he suggested I should pay attention to such issues, just to set the ball rolling, I thought I'd draw attention in the post below this to a few built heritage problems closer to home for Mr Tompa than the coiney source-countries he so likes to maul.

Vignette: wonderful picture worth a thousand words, I found it searching for something else, can't find where I got it from, will update when I know.



Anonymous said...

Mr Tompa is having a bit of a Christmas laugh if you ask me, trying to link stewardship issues relating to upstanding monuments ANYWHERE with shipping subterranean stuff to his pals in America for safekeeping.

Take my country,England (that invented monument protection in the nineteenth century) - the failure of the British authorities to do right by Stonehenge for a number of decades recently prompted UNESCO to publicly threaten to withdraw Stonehenge's World Heritage Site status.

You can't get much more criticised than that, so does that mean Mr Tompa would think it's OK - in fact good - to buy loads of Roman coins (of which there are thousands) dug out of the area for miles around Stonehenge by metal detectorists so they can be better looked after by dealers in the States?

Paul Barford said...

Yes, I think he probably would, on condition that Britain first asks the State department to sign an MOU restricting the import of illegally exported artefacts (as you know quite unrelated to the PAS "system" which has nothing to do with export licencing). That's what this constant barrage is about - supporting the continued import of artefacts irrespective of whether they are legally exported from the country of origin or not.

Nota bene, at the moment there is no problem for Tompa and his mates as you can currently perfectly legally import into the US illegally exported coins and other dugup archaeological artefacts from the UK because there is no MOU.

The whole pretended "implementation" of the 1970 UNESCO Convention by the US is a wholly outrageous scandal, and they should be kicked out.

Jee said...

So he would, would he? Thought he might. But there's something I deliberately forgot to mention that makes the Stonehenge - Italy - Greece comparison even more telling....

Despite Britain's ultra enlightened dig-it-up attitude applying most places, the Stonehenge-Avebury area is given a status identical to that in Italy and Greece - if you DO go metal detecting you'll end up in jail as doing so is completely illegal.

Surprised Mr Tompa as a lawyer would think buying coins that have been looted at Stonehenge would be a good idea. OK, I know he hasn't said so, you've spoken for him, but I can't see how he wouldn't do so if he thinks it would be justified elsewhere since, for all legal, moral and practical purposes, Stonehenge is "little Italy"...

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