Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Closed to Debate in Bangor

I was talking about British archaeologists who support collectors and collecting the other day. In the Moneta-L message discussed in the post above this, ACCG employee John Hooker has obligingly supplied another example, this time from Wales. Interestingly he does so in the context of pontificating on the alleged "bad judgement" of "people with established reputations" to engage in the debate on the archaeological heritage and the illicit trade in antiquities. He warns, "This can result in a rapid loss of hard-earned reputation". As an example he appends a name-dropping anecdote:
I once directed Prof. Raimund Karl to one of Paul Barford's blog entries. Ray was shocked, as he had communicated with Paul Barford years ago. Ray is not only a long-time correspondent of mine but is an archaeologist specialist in both Iron Age and heritage matters and is the "head of school" at his university. He has an impressive CV for his positions in Austria, Germany and Wales. I cannot say what he said, but he had provided me with the quotable:
"There certainly are some fundamentalist archaeologists, too, who condemn any trading of antiquities regardless of the specific circumstances of the individual case, but those can reasonably safely be ignored."
He said that he already has said the same (in German) on television.
Well Karl lists as one of his research interests "heritage management" though does not reveal on his webpage whether he collects any antiquities or coins.

Professor Karl might find it interesting to pay more attention to the heritage debate in his adopted country. If he did, he would find that it is not exclusive, it does not "ignore" people whose views do not fit into the mainstream, but there is a much more open engagement. This is what English Heritage Conservation Policy Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment (online here) establishes . I am sure prof Karl will be well familiar with its content and implications (I am sorry I have not seen the corresponding document for Wales, it probably says much the same).

I am not sure how many of those "fundamentalist archaeologists" who "condemn any trading of antiquities" whatsoever there really are in the United Kingdom. It seems that such a position would be more prevalent in US circles (but again not as a general rule, even in AIA circles). I know of a few examples, two British (that post invited collectors to list others, such a list never materialised) and it seems to me that there can be very few others. This is even if we accept that for some reason they are afraid to raise their voice in criticism of the laissez faire policies represented by the PAS in Bloomsbury, partnering English and Welsh (for the moment) antiquity collectors.

Certainly I would not agree with them. In order for there to be an "illicit" market in antiquities, it means there is a licit one. I cannot see why any archaeologists ("fundamentalists" or not) would argue against the sale of Grand Tour antiquities like that sarcophagus side from the Adams interior at Lansdowne House discussed in the press a while ago. It was discovered, hoiked out and cut up long ago, and it has been well-documented by those who curated it and there is no question about the ethics involved in its acquisition (there were no ethical guidelines or such qualms in the Grand Tour years). No harm, either real or potential, is being done to the archaeological record by the sale of objects such as this with such well-documented collecting histories. This is licit antiquity (or as some would have it "ancient art" collecting) and I see nothing wrong with it. The only thing that for me is vaguely controversial is that one might perhaps question whether public funds should not be raised so that something like this would not be shut away in a private collection but a public one - but by purchase and not coercion, but in fact I see nothing wrong with an item with such a documented pedigree of private ownership remaining as such another generation or so. We might also debate whether the heritage is enhanced or depreciated by the fact that this object has now left the interior and setting of Lansdowne House, though of course there is nothing anyone can do about that if it is a result of the owners falling on hard times in the past, one may regret - as I am sure they do - that they had to sell it, but cannot criticise them for it.

It is not just Grand Tour artefacts that are on the market licitly. It has come to be accepted in most circles that the date 1970 (the first accessions to the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) is a valid nominal cut-off point for licitness of antiquities. Anything documentable as having "surfaced" on the market before then can be treated for most purposes as if it were kosher - whether or not its acquisition in fact was. That seems reasonable to me (even though in fact there were earlier international documents highlighting the damaging effects of the illicit trade and clandestine artefact hunting on archaeological sites, and the 1970 Convention is far from a perfect tool).

I suspect that it is not so much "fundamentalist archaeologists" who are against the free circulation of artefacts which "surfaced" pre-1970 (leaving aside the rather extreme position of Zahi Hawass in Egypt).* If you look more carefully at the debates on "repatriation", while they may be supported by archaeologists, to a great degree the campaigns are being conducted by people from other areas of public life and for several different purposes. This is why I do not consider so-called "repatriation issues" to be an integral part of the set of problems which I discuss on this blog. The inclusion of this body of separate issues in the portable antiquity collecting debate confuses the issue. While there may be to an extent (a small, I would say, one) some justice in what people like Cuno say about these issues when seen in the context of "pre-1970 repatriation" debates, I see no absolutely grounds for applying them wholesale to the ongoing commerce in and collection (either private or public) of items more recently "surfaced" (from underground). Mixing the two only allows the "collectors' rights" (sic) lobbyists to confuse the public. (And I think they are doing this deliberately and dishonestly.)

I personally think that "pre-1970 repatriation" issues are only marginally related to the issue of the expanding international no-questions-asked antiquities market and artefact hunting and collecting. I am certainly against "fundamentalist" calls to "send it all back" in general, though think the issue should be openly discussed on a case by case basis.

I certainly do not agree with Raimund Karl's reported position that the views of any "fundamentalist archaeologists" about antiquity collecting and commerce should be simply "ignored". I think we (especially other archaeologists and heritage professionals) should encourage them to participate in the wider debate as it is only through an exchange of views that the core issues can be isolated and dealt with. Another archaeologist supportive of collecting, Gabriel Moshenska of UCL has pointed out in a recent forum discussion that the "metal detecting debate" is as much about splits within the archaeological community about what is important and what is not. One may disagree (as I do) about what he considers in that paper as "staggeringly unimportant", but that is where debate begins - not with simply dismissing an opposing view as something that "can reasonably safely be ignored". Let us see some more archaeologists in the UK taking the 'artefact hunting and preservation debate' bull by the horns and facing the issues instead of just running from them.

* It would be interesting to count how many archaeologists were at the Cairo Conference last year

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.