Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Lawyer and Archaeological Site Preservation

In his most recent post ("Misplaced Priorities?"), Peter Tompa suggests that, instead going after antiquity thefts, source-country Bulgaria should use the resources elsewhere:
It seems to me Bulgarian money would be better spent on security for sites under active archaeological investigation and on a treasure trove program for the rest.
It seems to me that "Cultural Property Observer" is not being very observant about the principles observed by those urging the preservation of the archaeological record. This is not regarded anywhere outside a coiney's cabinet as just a case of keeping looters off archaeological sites currently "under active archaeological investigation" (see post below). Whether part of a site is investigated this year, last year or next year is not the determining factor in whether it deserves to be protected from destruction. Certainly not in the US, where Tompa is writing, nor over here in Europe. I really cannot see where the "observer" gets this idea from (maybe talking to Derek Fincham, another US lawyer who seems from what he has previously written - see here and a second time here - not really to grasp this issue either). Certainly he did not get this from discussing this with archaeologists and heritage professionals.

Likewise, how will giving the artefact hunters who dug up this haul of objects a reward of a million dollars (the value reportedly assigned to the items seized in Canada) help protect the archaeological sites they and other finds like them come from? Why does Tompa think this would not merely provide an incentive for more treasure hunters to go and dig more artefacts out of the ground to claim more reward money? Tompa's notion suggests he simply is unobservant not only about the basic principles of archaeological preservation, but also human nature. How is he going to stop the reported "300 000" Bulgarian treasure hunters exploiting these state payouts to empty the remaining archaeological sites of the remaining collectable objects in them? How would what he proposes encourage site preservation and not site destruction?

Wanborough, Surrey: Archaeological site excavated after it had been "done over"by artefact hunters, most of the holes seen here dug into the stratified deposits are the result of the extraction or metal artefacts for collection or sale by "metal detectors". Coin collector and dealers' pal Peter Tompa apparently wants to 'reward' this kind of behaviour. © 2003 Surrey Archaeological Society

This sort of thing forms a repeating pattern in the arguments offered and accepted by the dugup collecting milieu. This raises the very real question of whether it is possible for anyone who collects antiquities these days to think outside the box, and see beyond the (their) artefact to the context from which they come? It seems to me that Tompa is here thinking very schematically and superficially because he is fetishising the object (the portable antiquity) which for him is the sole embodiment of information about the past ( a la: "numismatics is the window through which I look out on the past") rather than recognising that not only are there other means of studying that past, but the collectors' object fetishism is actually destroying the sources for those other approaches. This is a very narrow - even introverted - view, and an ignorance which surely should be dispelled through a wider outreach of educational programmes. Is it possible to educate dugup antiquity collectors? Is it possible to penetrate the mental fog within which such self-consciously unenlightened milieus wrap themselves? Are dugup collectors ("passionately interested in the past") at all interested in learning about the wider context in which their collecting functions, or do they have their heads down and attention merely focussed on the geegaws they accumulate in their ephemeral personal collections?

Well, let's see. In the post below this I have copied and pasted some information from US archaeological sources, information intended for the average member of the US public (in other words not those that claim to be an elite with a special interest in the past). Let us see if Peter Tompa and his fellow collectors exhibit any sign at all that they have understood it.

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