Tuesday 22 November 2011

Coiney Models of Raubgrabung

Peter Tompa once again demonstrates how little he understands about the conservation of the archaeological record. He attempts to create a partial typology of illicit excavations and then "rank them from the most troubling to the least" - though without defining for whom they are "troubling" and from what viewpoint. This seems a rather pointless exercise when the list-maker - encumbered by his stereotypical dichotomic view of an imaginary opposition of "("radical") archaeologists" with the antiquity collector and dealer - really has not troubled to think through what the issues are and what factors are involved. According to Mr Tompa, the "least troubling" type of illegal artefact hunting involves:
"Illicit excavations from private land that already has been disturbed by ploughing."
So that is like the deserted sites of Roman urban complexes such as Verulamium, Wroxeter and Irchester. I presume he means that "nighthawking" on sites like this is "no worse than a traffic offence" on the coiney scale of seeing the world (one has visions of Mr Tompa habitually driving his souped-up red Ferrari ninety miles an hour up Constitution Avenue dodging between the cars moving more sedately). What about Bulgarian Archar, another (once) finds-rich archaeological and - the odd exposed wall excepted - largely featureless site under ploughed fields? Many thousands of artefacts from here have now been scattered in the trays of various dealers and collectors whose money encouraged and financed the utter destruction of large parts of this site.

I have discussed this uninformed "just fields" approach of US coin collectors before (it seems though that the duller of mind among them do little to find out just what it is they are talking about even when the shortcomings of their arguments are pointed out). Mr Tompa fails to take into account (and it is difficult, if you think it through, to avoid the suspicion that deliberately-so) the whole issue of the difference between sites protected by law (as archaeological reserves, or sites of Special Scientific Interest) or those set aside in conservation schemes. He concentrates on what the layman sees on the surface at the expense of paying any attention to the structure of the deposits below the surface. It's like saying we don't need to be concerned with poachers who shoot the rhinos with dirty patches on their skins, "they don't look very nice anyway".

So here we have the second of the two coiney models of looting. The importance of the activity is either (a) determined by the monetary value of the items hoiked out of the sites (so we should not be bothered by looters who supply the market with lots of five-dollar coins from Roman sites), and (b) how lumpy and bumpy the ground is that is looted. Both of these models totally ignore the archaeological damage done. Both of them ignore the conservation aspects of the problem, which is deliberate sleight-of-hand of course as it is the fundamental issue - so best avoided if you are a coiney.


Cultural Property Observer said...

What, no comment on the last part of my post?

And speaking of "wrongs," where would most people rank any failure of archaeologists to:

Properly record what they find;

Properly publish what they find;

Properly preserve what they find;

Properly display what they find.

Where would archaeologists rank theses sins? Are they any worse than illicit excavations?

Is it possible you think looting is akin to murder, but any sins of archaeologists are no worse than traffic violations?

PS Sadly, no Ferrari, but no surprise because coiney lobbying is not as lucrative as you might think.

Paul Barford said...

….any failure of any archaeologists to: Properly record what they find;
Certainly exactly the equivalent of “raubgrabung/artefact digging”. If judged by their peers as unjustifiably guilty, they should be kept away from archaeological sites. This is where a decent permit system comes in. [They could apply for work in the PAS as they will find a common language with the majority of Britain’s artefact hunters who similarly cannot record properly the context of what they find.]

“Properly publish what they find”. There are many reasons for this (I wrote a book chapter on it once) but generally, something to be condemned. This is where a decent permit system comes in. Build up an unjustified backlog, you don't get to dig until you've sorted it out.

“Properly preserve what they find”, not quite sure what you mean. There are international documents/charters about what to do to sites after excavation, again, this is where a decent permit system comes in. If you mean the archives, then if the correct arrangements have been made to deposit them in a responsible institution, it is that institution which surely is responsible rather than the original excavator/researcher.

“Properly display what they find” Ditto. Of course if it is a site - like Irchester mentioned above - display of a site may be out of the hands of the archaeologist, but county council pursestring holders...

Basically I would be in favour of a system refusing permits to archaeologists guilty of the sort of professional bad practice you mention and keeping them away from archaeological sites. The same goes for damaging artefact hunters it goes without saying.

Anonymous said...

Mr Tompa, it’s surprising you rank "Illicit excavations from private land that already has been disturbed by ploughing" as “least troubling”. Perhaps that arises from an assumption that the US model of Federal land being protected and private land being unprotected holds true elsewhere, but it doesn’t. It’s a socialist notion I suppose but in little old Britain scheduled sites are mostly on private land and digging on them is utterly troubling ("bloody illegal", as we non-collectors say) and certainly no less so for the fact the top layers may have been ploughed.

As for the sins of archaeologists – failing to properly record, publish, preserve and display are heinous crimes indeed – but hardly the norm I suppose. Whereas the people who dig on scheduled sites ALWAYS fail to record or publish so your attempt to portray archaeologists as morally equivalent to them is a bit daft in my opinion. And familiar.

kyri said...

paul,personally i wouldnt want to have a typology for illicit excavations.for me looting is looting.as with the splif analogy breaking the law is breaking the law and i dont condone any looting.i would like to know how you suggest policeing the distribution of roman coins worth 50p and how you can justify the expense of doing so.you would need some kind of paperwork to accompany every coin.that is why i think there has to be some kind of cut off point otherwise it would be unworkable.
coins are not like antiquities.
as you know,i collect greek pots and i have seen thousands but i have never once seen two exactly the same,similar but not the same,a line hear,a dot there.they are all unique and thus can be catalogued.these low value coins,though hand struck are practically identical and you would need to put them under a microscope to notice any difference and even then you may have identical examples.there may be 50,000 apulian pots out there but tens of millions of coins.
asking for every single coin to have documentation is a very ethical stance but an imposible one to achieve and by pursuing it you will allways be chaseing shadows.there are just to many that could have come from anywhere in the roman world and beyond.

Paul Barford said...

@ Mr Heritage: daft, and the "two wrongs make a right" argument familiar mainly from the coiney lobbyists and the primary school playground.

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