Sunday 19 October 2014

The "Loot to Save" Argument Again

"The interests of preserving these monuments
to human genius and scholarly study are served otherwise
Bruce Leimsidor 

In the context of the discussion in the New York Times of Zainab Bahrani's brief text about looting and its possible connections with armed conflict, Professor Bruce Leimsidor Università Ca' Foscari Venezia, Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali, in Venice, Italy considers that the way to "save antiquities" (objects) is to "allow their sale, and convincing the warring parties that they are valuable". Archaeological artefacts ("great works of art" - sic) "belong to humanity, not just to a country or an ethnic group".
Sure, it's preferable that they can be seen and enjoyed where they were originally made, but that advantage is not worth putting them in grave danger. Especially given the role of Islamic extremists in Syria, who may very well consider many of Syria's treasures as idolatrous, better that they be sold on the international art market, where some may wind up in museums, than meet the fate of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
First of all, most of the things dug up by looters on archaeological sites are utilitarian items such as pots, vessels, clay tablets, metal ornaments to something else, coins and other such everyday minutiae, not "great works of art". Secondly I am not at all clear how the "saving them from being smashed by the ignorant brown-skinned guys" applies to looting. This does not apply to archaeological objects which are buried and so therefore invisible to iconoclasts and anyone else until they are dug up and hoiked out of the archaeological sites which they are an integral part of. They are dug up because somebody will buy some of them, not in order to smash them all.

The writer (much admired by collector and coiney John Hooker - "softcore terrorists and other bottom-feeders") apparently dismisses the idea that preserving the integrity of archaeological sites as a source of knowledge has any merit:
this is nonsense. The Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities in the museums of Paris, London, Berlin, and New York are hardly without historical interest. [...] Art historians understand enough about style and techniques of production to be able to date and place an object pretty exactly. Moreover, archival photos and drawings exist showing many later looted objects in their original place.
The latter is an utter fallacy in the case of those buried deep in sites like Archar (Ratiaria), Bulgaria, Wanborough, Surrey, Icklingham, Suffolk, Apamea, Syria and Dura Europos until dug out by artefact hunters. Prof. Leimsidor  suggests that by hoiking out artefacts buried in sites like this:
these monuments (sic), which belong to all of humanity, would have been lost if left in place because of war, or even more frequently, simply gross neglect or religious fanaticism. Even if monuments (sic) are sold to private collectors, there is still a better chance that they will be preserved, and even, in time, appear for all of us to see in museums. [...] They are not only better preserved, but also more easily studied when removed from the Syrian desert, the jungles of Cambodia, or the mountains of Tibet
Studied by whom? Syrian, Cambodian and Chinese archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals? What about the Italian archaeological heritage, objects looted from Etruscan cemeteries hoiked out and smuggled to US museums where they can be "more easily studied and better preserved' than the Italians can mange if they are left in the ground?  I think Prof. Leimsidor really has not understood the essence of the discussion over looting when he writes that the real reason for "bemoaning the removal of art objects from their original location" is that leaving them buried deep below the ground in their archaeological context in some way "serves the interests of the tourism industry and nationalism, which has been a major cause of war in the first place". So Prof. Leimsidor would have us believe that digging artefacts up and allowing their sale, "convincing the warring parties that they are valuable" and can be sold to raise funds for their activities, is a way to prevent military conflict? I really do not follow the logic of this argument in the context of the current discussion.

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