Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (V): The Rhinoceros in the Room, Statistics and Facts

One aspect of the issues covered in Profesor Raimund Karl’s polemic text ("On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz") is wholly absent. This is what the PAS “statistics” represent. We may have some very encouraging results from increasing customs vigilance at international airports, we may be getting twice as many rhino horns confiscated from smugglers than five years ago. Wonderful, eh? But tell that to the rhinos. The fact is the rhino horn industry is not lucrative because of the pointy bits of keratin seized, but the ones that are not detected and seized. The slaughter of rhinos to supply the needs is not related to the number of seizures and convictions. On the contrary, the more smuggling we stop, the more rhinos the traders have to shoot to keep up with demand. Furthermore, as in the case of the PAS, we can find out a lot about the age groups, state of health and (through DNA) family relationships of the rhinos shot (thus providing details which might conceivably benefit the rhinos) by examining the captured horns before they disappear into the incinerator. In fact some of these data might be more easily obtained from material supplied by poachers than professional going out in the field to collect them themselves. Is this then a reason to not stop rhino poaching? Extending the model Professor Karl seems to be proposing in his paper to this issue, the way to benefit from this is to lift restrictions.

I say the analogy with the PAS is a good one (think about it). It seems to me that in the paper under discussion, like most collectors do too, Professor Karl sees this as an issue of (legal) access to and ownership of antiquities, rather than a conservation issue.

The British public who fund it has long been conditioned by the “archaeological outreach” of the PAS to believe that what the PAS database statistics represent is a great “success’ in heritage management, a solution to the “metal detecting problem”. Is it? Are the rhinos being saved by counting the horns stored in customs warehouses and incinerated? Is that conservation? I would say not, I don’t know what the PAS think, they never venture that far into explaining why they do what they do and what they think they are achieving. “Look at the numbers” they say. Professor Karl looks at the numbers, and nods his head in approval.

Professor Karl has at least once in his life looked at this blog. Reportedly he was “shocked” – so he cannot be unaware that there are those out here who insist that the PAS statistics are just the tip of an iceberg of unrecorded artefact hunting of (I say) massive proportions. In my case, I’ve been saying the same very openly for 12 years now. Others say the same thing (usually quieter). So Dr Karl, as a lecturer in heritage management, really cannot pretend he is unaware of this controversy. Where is that reflected in his paper? OK, he may think I am utterly wrong, but that is no reason to pretend that all is sweetness and light and Britain has the answer to the “artefact hunting problem” and places like Austria should be copying its approach – which is what basically his paper seems to be saying (and it is not just me who reads it in that manner).

To recap, I think there are good reasons to believe that four out of five metal detected artefacts in England and Wales (PAS country) are going unreported, and unrecorded. Four out of five simply disappear somewhere. Now, too bad that in Austria it might be 4.8 out of five metal detected finds disappearing, but IS there really such a difference?

(And before Professor Karl says again that I am "wrong" about this, let him think very carefully how he is going to prove it - maybe another questionnaire? This time among the detectorists in his own country - Wales? The country where their Minister says the PAS has been a great "success" - has it? By how much would he say I have to be wrong for the situation to be OK, and am I really that far wrong?)

Vignette: Rhino (photo by Steve Bloom)

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