Friday, 4 August 2017

Do-Righters Don't Collect Antiquities?

Antiquities crime is still a significant problem in many countries, but particularly Southeast Asia ('The real cost of looting', Frontier, August 03, 2017).
There are many reasons for this: poverty, porous borders, the region’s rich cultural history, weak law enforcement, and the relative lack of archaeological work that has been conducted – to name but a few. When we think of looting, it’s often large or particularly significant items that spring to mind. But as Phacharaphorn Phanomvan, a PhD Candidate in economic history at the University of Oxford, wrote in a recent article for the Tea Circle blog, even smaller, less obviously valuable objects have their market. Phanomvan wrote that beads from Dawei and elsewhere in Tanintharyi Region have become popular among buyers in Thailand and some other countries, not just for their appearance but also perceived spiritual power. They are being sold online and even in markets in Bangkok, which has long been a clearing-house for antiquities looted from around the region (as well as many more reproductions being passed off as antiquities). This is about more than the loss of a country’s physical heritage. In and of themselves, the things that are often being taken – beads, coins, small amulets – have little monetary value, and would probably not find pride of place in a museum. 

We are all familiar with the self-serving arguments of the dealers - people who profit from these sales - that what should be being preserved are only the 'items of cultural significance', this totally avoids the main issue:
But the looting process is highly destructive. Looters, be they area residents or more professional outfits, have little interest in objects that are not valuable or desirable in some way, and will throw them away like rubbish. Their methods result in more than just the loss of historic items. The looting damages the integrity of archaeological sites that often have not been properly surveyed, or even studied at all. Even if items are recovered, the context in which they were excavated cannot be recreated. To an archaeologist or anthropologist, the item itself is not as valuable as what it can tell us about the people who created, used, traded or discarded it. This is the real loss from looting: the opportunity, when the resources are available, to learn more about Myanmar’s many cultures. In particular, non-Burmese cultures, which have often been neglected by the authorities. In the meantime, Myanmar and its neighbours clearly need to do more to stem looting and the illicit trade in antiquities. The key is to diminish or eliminate demand, because if there are no buyers there will be no looting. That will require enforcement, education – and more people, like the Bodles, who make the effort to do the right thing.
 But a moment's perusal of the literature shows perfectly clearly that few collectors are making any effort to perceive what is right, their attention is almost always focused on what it merely legal (or not-exactly-illegal), like the collectors who are going through a court case to hang onto something they bought which they now know there is every reason to believe was looted from a storeroom in a civil war.

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