Saturday 16 March 2013

British Heritage professionals (Roger Bland, Suzie Thomas) on Sayles

It is a great pleasure to note that, although I many fundamentally disagree with a lot the Portable Antiquities Scheme is doing and saying (and not saying), there are still occasions when we can be on the same side. Such an occasion arose as a result of the publication of a whole series of articles on metal detecting and artefact collecting in Internet Archaeology 33, which includes a rather incongruous article by ACCG Head Honcho, Old Man Sayles, basically regurgitating the same old coiney stuff. It was David Gill who pointed out to me the passage in Roger Bland's "response" referring to it. Bland is not kind to Sayles. He characterises him thus:
Lastly a US-based contributor, Wayne Sayles, presents a defence of the private collecting of antiquities. Sayles is Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, a lobby group that defends the rights of collectors and which fights a running battle against attempts by foreign governments seeking bilateral agreements with the US under the 1983 Cultural Property Implementation Act to restrict the importation of antiquities from their countries.
Sayles defence is not so much of collecting as of a particular mode of collecting. That is an important distinction. Also to be accurate, Sayles and his buddies are as much conducting their battle against the US administration as against the governments (and citizens) of the foreign countries from which they would like to be free to supply their markets with coins. Roger Bland then lays into some of Sayles' arguments, valuable in that Bland is himself a respected numismatist:
I am afraid that there is much that is self-serving here. For example, when Sayles condemns the 'intractable claims from the archaeological community that no object from antiquity is of value to society unless its precise archaeological context is known, recorded, and verifiable', one wonders whether he has any appreciation of just how important the information that can be gained from recording a find in its context is. Even more sweeping is his claim 'even if an argument might be made for national retention of certain types, or exceptional examples, of certain artefacts, rarely can a case be made that utilitarian objects like coins are culturally significant objects...'. For someone who writes books about coins, this seems a strange statement indeed.  Equally questionable is Sayles's evident outrage at the fact that 'some archaeologists argue that the looting of ancient sites would not occur were it not for the private collector market': it is self-evident that the reason people loot sites is to recover objects that they can sell
Bland then discusses the degree to which the market can be suppressed, suggesting that "there may be a valid argument to be made for a private market in antiquities", and we will all understand that he was referring only to a market in licitly-obtained antiquities. Bland goes on to point out that "the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales [were] established within the context of a régime where such a market exists" and he finishes by pointing out that "Sayles's bombastic contribution totally fails to make that case". The reason for that is clear, the Treasure inquest procedure and the PAS pay attention to revealing and making known the actual origins of artefacts, the circumstances by which they came to light, precisely what Sayles' no-questions-asked trading buddies simply cannot do (the reader can guess for themselves why they might find this inconvenient). Introducing the PAS into the equation by Sayles would raise they whole question of the documentation of the finds passing through the market. So it is rather telling that he omits any mention of it in an article published in the UK. It is in such a context that Sayles' plaintive moaning that there is no "symbiosis' between collectors and archaeologists in the world any more falls rather flat. Narrowly looking at the world as little more than the USA and its needs, he fails to note that in the country where his text was published, there is not just symbiosis, but a partnership between archaeologists and artefact collectors.

Bland's comments were echoed in the editorial written by one of the organizers of the conference at which this paper was delivered. Suzie Thomas refers to the "different ideologies" (sic) of collectors and archaeologists:
However, as Sayles' article in this special issue shows, and picked up on in discussion by the response papers, his perception, as a collector, of the apparent low significance that should, in his view, be afforded to archaeological context, is in contrast to more archaeologically focused articles such as that of Ferguson. The inclusion of Sayles' article here, very much as an opinion piece, is particularly important therefore in order to demonstrate the often opposing standpoints that can exist outside of the professional heritage sector.  
It would seem that having invited Wayne Sayles to talk in her conference, rather than Nigel Swift, Suzie Thomas is a little embarrassed at what she got, and rather nonplussed about how to deal with it. She says there is a dichotomy between the views of collectors and heritage profeessionals - exchoing Sayles' own thoughts (though he uses the term "radical archaeologists"). I wonder though if this dichotomy is as distinct as she suggests. Quite apart from heritage professionals, what about the educated citizens of the countries, Greece, Italy, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, etc etc whose archaeological heritage Sayles and his clients covet? How do they feel about Sayles claim to have the "collectors rights" to walk off with whatever they take a fancy to without any need for as much as a please or thank you, let alone seeing any need for or possibility allowing any documentation of how much of what has been taken from where and where it has gone?

W. Sayles 2013 'Ideology, governance and consequences from a collector's point of view', Internet Archaeology 33.

Two out of ten for understanding and relevance Mr Sayles.

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