Tuesday 5 April 2011

Rocks from Space and the Antiquity Trade

The New York Times (April 4th 2011) has an interesting article by William J. Broad on "Black-Market Trinkets From Space" which is about meteorite collection. Here we see the same conflict as in "portable antiquities" between collectors and dealers and those that want to use this finite resource for their research.

The market for meteorites has blossomed in the past two decades, largely encouraged by the ease of selling them widely brought about by the Internet (another parallel with so-called 'minor antiquities"). The problem is that, again like archaeological artefacts, many countries place export restrictions on certain types of geological specimen (among them meteorites). While some traders deal in legitimate exports, many do not bother about such things as export licences:
“It’s a black market,” said Ralph P. Harvey, a geologist at Case Western Reserve University who directs the federal search for meteorites in Antarctica. “It’s as organized as any drug trade and just as illegal. The rampant looting of meteorite sites and skyrocketing prices for the fragments, he said, “dramatically reduce who can get samples to do the research.”
The article discusses the discovery in February 2009 by Italian mineralogist Vincenzo de Michele and Mario Di Martino (Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Turin) of a rich and historically significant meteorite crater (the Gebel Kamil crater), in southern Egypt, just north of the Sudanese border and the effect the voracious appetite for new fragments has had on their research.
Just as scientists appeared to be on the cusp of decrypting the evidence to solve an ancient puzzle, looters plundered the desolate site [...] a few months later, in June, meteorites from the crater were for sale at a show in Ensisheim, France. [...] scavengers have disseminated them widely: on Star-bits.com, one of many sites that sell a variety of meteorites, the 10 fragments with rich patinas are said to be from Gebel Kamil. The costliest of the 10 — a two-pound rock, just large enough to cover the fingers of a man’s hand — is priced at $1,600. Eric Olson of Star-bits defended the marketing as legitimate and beyond Egyptian law. “I didn’t buy them from the Egyptians,” he said in an interview. “I bought them second- and thirdhand.” The scientists say they have relatively few samples compared with the booming illicit sales. “We have at our disposal a very limited number of specimens to study and exhibit,” said Dr. Di Martino. He and other members of the Gebel Kamil crater discovery team, he added, don’t have the money to buy them on the flourishing black market. [...] Dr. Di Martino said it was futile to try to save its otherworldly riches from the looters. “Considering the social, political and geographic situation there,” he said of the remote corner of southwestern Egypt, “it will be completely useless to protect the area” — unless the authorities put in “a permanent garrison of marines and/or a minefield.”
The market for "minor artefacts" took off in Europe and US with the production of portable metal detectors for hobby use in the 1970s, this utterly changed the market, and further changes came with the rise of internet trading in the first half of the 1990s. The US and European coin market also received a huge and transforming boost by the flood of archaeological finds which appeared on the market from 1990 onwards coming from the looting of archaeological sites on an industrial scale (in some cases using earthmoving machinery) in the Balkans and southeastern Europe (Bulgaria being especially badly affected). This is not a exceptional event, the same thing happened in meteorite collecting:
The black market has exploded in size mainly because of a rush of new meteorites arriving from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Starting in the late 1980s and 1990s, explorers and nomads discovered that dark-colored meteorites stood out against flat, featureless areas covered by sand and small pebbles. And dry desert air helped preserve the rocks from space. The pace of collecting began to soar after explorers scrutinizing the sands of Libya discovered a number of meteorites from the Moon and Mars. These rare types formed during cosmic smashups, eventually fell to Earth and fetched high prices.
The point about the new African and Arabian peninsula finds is that they appeared on the market in bulk, meaning that pieces of some of them could be bought for a few dollars apiece. It became possible for somebody to build up a collection of formerly rare space-rocks for a moderate expenditure, no more than you'd pay on an average collection of coins or postage stamps, thus with the ability to entice new members into the collecting world. Like the "minor antiquities" which now form the basis of the current antiquities market they facilitate the cash-flow process for the dealers specialising in such material, they are the bread-and-butter of the trade. The problem is of course that the bulk appearance of the market of fragments from some previously preserved 'strewfield' (the name for the pattern of fragments of the fall on the ground - studied it can tell us much about the angle, speed and fragmentation patterns of the event) meant bulk stripping of sites where these items had lain preserved in situ for millennia. Again another parallel with archaeology, the sale of bulk finds ("minor items") sold for "a few dollars" destroys a finite resource for ever. Not all meteorite collectors are as impervious to the arguments of preservationists as antiquity collectors:
One buyer expressed remorse after reading about scientific angst over the thriving market. “I’m very ashamed,” the buyer wrote on a blog. “I’m surely a part of the problem.” Still, many collectors defend the hobby as advantageous for scientists, saying the market is producing many discoveries and creating many opportunities. Amateurs often turn to experts for analysis and authentication and, in return, share the extraterrestrial haul. “The scientists do not have time to go hunt for their own meteorites, so somebody has to do it for them,” said Anne M. Black, president of the collectors association. “It’s common sense.”
And like the British archaeologists who praise and partner artefact hunters and collectors, in meteorology we see the same phenomenon - for the same reasons.
Some scientists applaud the new market. “I see it as a good thing on balance,” said Carl B. Agee, director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico. “It’s beneficial mainly because of the huge diversity of meteorites not previously known about and not accessible.”
Again though, the collecting of the fragments without any recording of the pattern of their scattering (and like many of the NW African ones where they fell at all) hinders the study of how and when these items entered Earth's atmosphere, and the processes acting on them as they did. Again, all this contextual information is totally lost in most cases when the fragments have been collected by amateur and commercial hunters, rather than as a piece of planned research according to a defined methodology.

The parallels for archaeology are very close indeed. There is however one very significant difference: the collecting of meteorites is all about provenance (the findspot on earth) and collecting history (how that provenance is established and can be verified by knowing precisely through whose hands the specimens have passed). Antiquity dealers and collectors take note.

Vignette: LOOTED A 60-gram fragment of the Gebel Kamil meteorite.

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