Friday 7 August 2015

David Gill, Heritage Crime Matters

Wood and trees: Shishkin, in the grove
David W.J. Gill ('Heritage crime matters', Antiquity, 89, 2015, pp 991-993 [doi:10.15184/aqy.2015.59] reviews Chappell and Hufnagel (eds) 2014 'Contemporary perspectives on the detection, investigation and prosecution of art crime: Australasian, European and North American perspectives'. and Grove and Thomas (eds) 'Heritage crime: progress, prospects and prevention', 2014 and places them in the context of the wider debate. A serious problem which he perceives is that the purely legal perspective from which some of the papers were written failed to engage with the reality of the issues.

After noting the general character of both works, he comments that the Grove and Thomas volume specifically excludes discussion of ‘metal detecting enthusiasts’ and skips over the “acknowledged flaws" in the Portable Antiquities Scheme. is programme” (p. 225). At issue is, he thinks, the definition of what constitutes a crime against the heritage when the looting of archaeological sites to provide material for the market has grown to an industrial scale in some parts of the world:
Imagine the scenario where a major hoard of Saxon coins is found buried on previously undisturbed pasture, at a location that appears on the Historic Environment Record (HER). The hoard is then unceremoniously removed from its location in order to protect its integrity. Is this an example of ‘nighthawking’? No. Does this represent a loss of archaeological knowledge? Yes. Is this an example of heritage crime? Perhaps that is a question for the reader to decide.
There is no reference cited to such a hypothetical case... Knowledge theft surely is acrime against the heritage.

After discussing some of the case studies presented in both volumes, Gill argues that instead of trying to "develop better methods, and better data, than are currently available” as one contributor suggests, what is really needed is "changing attitudes among those linked to the trade of archaeological material, as well as museum curators and private collectors". He notes that 'tactical use' by the Italian authorities of the seized photographic and documentary archives from dealers in Switzerland has had significant impact on the collecting behaviours of museums and private collectors. Gill asks whether the academic discourse of ‘heritage crime’ is failing to address some significant archaeological concerns.
Is the continuing and unsustainable destruction of the archaeological record to supply the insatiable demands of the market having serious intellectual consequences for our discipline? Take, for example, the Roman cavalry parade helmet alleged to have been found at Crosby Garrett in Cumbria (Gill 2014b). Has there been a ‘criminal’ act in removing the helmet from its context? It seems not. But has the archaeological context been irretrievably lost? Yes. Is the helmet presently located in a place where it can be viewed by members of the public? No. Heritage crime matters. But the irretrievable loss of contexts is of more concern to those of us who believe passionately that the past has a place in the future.
This is rather like the metal detectorists loudly insisting "we are not nighthawks", as if that solved any of the issues raised about collection driven exploitation of the archaeological record.

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