Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (II): Preservation of the Archaeological Record

A fundamental problem of Professor Raimund Karl’s "On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz" is the manner in which it defines the issue of preservation of the “archaeological heritage”. I assume that it is only unintentional that it is presented solely as a matter of making sure that finds (individual objects) are treated in a certain way. One can search the text in vain for any indications hinting that the scope of archaeological protection is much wider than that. Thus it is that the law which (in the view of the author) prevents loose finds being reported are “useless” (p. 124) for preservation of the archaeological heritage, whatever else they achieve. I find this attitude extremely puzzling and can only put it down to a surfeit of contact with the views of collectors like John Hooker and Peter Tompa and supporters of the PAS. It is quite thought provoking when one of the few articles to emerge from a British university on this topic differs not an iota from the ideas about “preservation” expressed on the “Cultural property Observer” blog of the paid lobbyist of the international dugup antiquities dealers, suggesting how deep the effects of British archaeological “partnership” with collectors extends.

It is my opinion that the recording of finds made by members of the public is of importance, but certainly, despite the impression created by Raimund Karl’s text, the complexities of the issues of preservation of archaeological information for use for various purposes now and by future generations go FAR beyond this single issue.

Karl goes on to say - as Gabriel Moshenska in London - that "it does not matter" (p. 115):
And who are we kidding? Let us not fall for an archaeological fantasy: a find which has already been made, which has already been dug up, can no longer be protected from its removal from its subsoil context, whether that removal is legal or not. From the point of view of scholarship or heritage management, once it has been removed it is entirely irrelevant whether it would have been better not removed; whatever damage its removal may have caused, it has been done and cannot be reversed, however much we would like that.
Well, from the point of "heritage management" (which it seems Professor Karl TEACHES over in Wales, this seems a very odd Unitedkingdomian understanding of the idea of "heritage management") it certainly is NOT "irrelevant" whether or not random collectable items should be being removed from archaeological assemblages. Archaeological sites have more in them - both physically and metaphorically - than a few collectable brooches and other geegaws, don't they? Protecting the archaeological record means protecting the archaeological record, not merely collecting up fragments of the information when destruction has not been prevented.

So here we have the UK "better than nothing" model of heritage protection; this says in effect, its too difficult for us to actually do anything to reduce the problem, let alone tackle it head on, but we can try and paper over the cracks by smiling and putting a brave face on the failure. Maybe nobody will notice.

Karl goes on about his fibulae hoovered-up and hoiked out of archaeological assemblages:
what certainly is not irrelevant in such circumstances is whether we learn of the existence of a find or not. If we do, it remains available to scholarship, even if perhaps with somewhat reduced potential for gaining scholarly knowledge from it. If we do not, however, we lose not just the information that we could have learnt from its context (from both the finder and an investigation of the find’s spot), but also whatever information remains in the find itself. It is as if the object had never been made, deposited and excavated. And that cannot be desirable.
Again artefactocentrism, it is the information about the artefact which for Karl is "somewhat reduced" rather than the context of discovery which is lost.

What is desirable is to stop people hoiking them out willy nilly in the first place, just the same as stopping developers bulldoze a site to make a skatepark without mitigation, stopping gravel quarries quarrying them away without record, or toxic waste dumpers making it into a storage area for chemical slurry with no record of what is underneath. Anything else is not "management", it is shoulder-shrugging. Isn't it?

Like Moshenska, Karl reportedly thinks that the views of "extremists" like me should be ignored. The PAS ignores these questions too, very convenient of course, but the questions are fundamental ones about the nature of the archaeological record and about archaeology itself. They will not go away.

Vignette: not about artefacts, but their assemblages and spatial patterns and relationships with pother evidence - the Corona site.


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