Sunday 29 July 2018

A Matter of Belief and Faith in Artefact Hunters: The Ixelles Six side with Robin Symes

David Gill wrote in May about 'Symes and a Roman medical set' (May 10, 2018) concerning some loose metal items associated with the fragments of a case:
Schinousa archive photo of loose metal objects
Pierre Bergé and Associés of Paris are offering a rare Roman bronze medical set (16 May 2018, lot 236). Its recorded history is: "Ancienne collection Hishiguro, Tokyo, 1992". [...] . The set appears to be the one that has been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogannis from an image in the Schinousa archive thus linking it to Robin Symes. Given that the catalogue entry suggests that this piece came from a funerary context and that the history of the piece can only be traced back to 1992 (and not to 1970), questions are being raised about the set's origins.
The Ixelles Six (on pp. 323-34 of their recent joint article) step in with an explanation. According to them, there is nothing at all wrong with this. These objects may have been found in a country with permissive (collector-friendly) legislation - such as the UK-  and their undocumented appearance on the market is not information lost through artefact hunting, not at all, it is (they say) simply 'zero gain'.

Suzie Thomas, Natasha Ferguson, Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat, Stijn Heeren and Michael Lewis (2018, p. 323-4) assure us that it is 'fundamentally wrong' (or as they put it 'a simplistic and incorrect basic assumption') to assert that unrecorded removal of metal artefacts like these from wherever they were originally buried or found equals irrevocable damage to the cultural heritage of an area, and that excavating that site would be less damaging. They apparently consider anyone who disagrees with them as simply ignorant and lacking their 'thorough understanding of the background, practices and impacts' of artefact hunting. You see (I guess, ignoring the effects on the actual part of the archaeological record they came from),
in order to be considered ‘cultural damage’, a find and/or its associated information would have to be irretrievably lost. This assumed loss is a two-step process. Firstly, the ‘unscientific extraction’ of archaeological artefacts in itself, occurring whenever a[n artefact hunter] digs down and retrieves an object from the soil, is assumed to be inherently damaging. [...].
They claim that this is not always the case, they claim that ancient artefacts can be found simply 'loose' in nature (in a field for example) and then nothing is gained by not having a record of its associations and relationship with other material. That's what they say (p. 323-4). But then, how can one tell that a particular find was indeed made loose in a field if there is no documentation of its extraction from the ground? Assuming these objects were not found buried together in an archaeological context seems a matter of belief (faith) than an empirical fact. They go on to say that the artefact hunters (who may even have been amateurs, not 'professionals') from whom a middleman obtained these artefacts may have preserved the associated information of its findspot and associations, so they cannot be said to be lost at all (another matter of faith and belief in artefact hunters). Suzie Thomas, Natasha Ferguson, Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat, Stijn Heeren and Michael Lewis write:
It is true that a number of finds go unreported, even under a permissive legislation and with a recording scheme in place. However, this unreported information is not necessarily lost; often [artefact hunters] keep private records of their finds and finds locations [...], many [...] are open to collaboration and willingly give access to this information when asked by professional archaeologists, even if they have not reported on their own initiative, a phenomenon described elsewhere in studies on avocational artefact collecting attitudes as “responsive” (e.g. Shott, 2017, p. 135). One may wonder whether such ‘hoarding’ [artefact hunter]s are more willing to divulge information later on under permissive or restrictive legal regimes!
So I guess what they are saying is that (if we could find out which country this group of items came from) by making the law of that country less restrictive, those artefact hunters would be sharing their information with archaeologists. Like a lot of little Schinousa archives suddenly surfacing. But then, is a mere record of 'finds and finds locations' enough to preserve the data on the associations and relationship with other material in the context of deposition?  We may doubt that, but hey, they are the Ixelles Six. They know.

But more, the Ixelles Six question the postulation of preservation. Preservation for what?
Another aspect that should be considered is the likelihood that an artefact would yield information if it was not recovered by a[n artefact hunter]. [...] development-led archaeological fieldwork in North-West Europe often employs sampling strategies rather than fully excavating the threatened area. Thus [...] artefacts outside the sample areas would still be overlooked, and likely lost forever during the subsequent building work.
So therefore archaeological excavation is made to sound more damaging (in an object-centric view) than total artefact hunting  But, Suzie Thomas, Natasha Ferguson, Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat, Stijn Heeren and Michael Lewis ignore the fact that Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological record makes a selection of artefact assemblages and does not attempt '100% rescue'.  We come back to that  'thorough understanding of the background, practices and impacts' of artefact hunting, I guess.

These Six, four of them the staff of foreign universities, appear to conclude that:
It [...] is too simplistic to equate unreported metal [...] finds with the loss of cultural heritage [...]  unreported finds are not damage, but at worst a zero-gain (as they may not have been picked up by regulated fieldwork, or may have been lost through damaging agricultural activity), at best information that may become available in the future. It is our view that, in countries that liaise with [artefact hunters], these finds data [...] can advance archaeological knowledge, complementing traditional archaeological survey and fieldwork
So is the sale of the undocumented Symes medical instrument assemblage anything to be concerned about, or should we take a lead from the assurances of Suzie Thomas, Natasha Ferguson, Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat, Stijn Heeren and Michael Lewis that  everything is all right in la-la-land partnership between archaeology and antiquities collecting? I'd be interested to hear their development of this idea of theirs, maybe refining it with information about when they feel / know/ opine that artefact hunting without documentation is harmful, and when it is not (and why). Some suggestions of empirical and transnationally-applicable rules please.

 Source text:
Pieterjan Deckers, Andres Dobat,  Natasha Ferguson,Stijn Heeren, Michael Lewis and Suzie Thomas,(2018)  The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and practice [...] Open Archaeology 4 322-333. [accessed Jul 27 2018].

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