Sunday 18 August 2019

Can Recreational Removal of Cave Art be “Responsible”?

Banksy cans mural
Heritage Action ask 'Can recreational removal of cave art be “responsible”?' They make a very valid point, one that it seems until now has been totally lost on the British archaeologists that support private collecting and the PAS
The Portable Antiquities Scheme website tells detectorists their finds are often the only evidence for human activity which, once removed, will be lost. Therefore. detectorist must report their finds and if they do they’ll be “responsible”. But look at this fellow. He’s removing the only evidence of human activity. If he reports what he’s removing will he be responsible? Hardly. The term “responsible detecting” is as false and misleading to the public as would be the term “responsible cave art removal”.
The reason for this is (and should be 'obviously') two-fold. First no mere record, no matter how detailed a find may be measured, weighed (eh?) and how many photos are taken with a scale can be a full record of every aspect of that object. Secondly, stripping the upper layers of pigment off a rock face and mounting them on a canvas for display in a gallery (like putting a Roman brooch in a little plastic box with Styrofoam padding) may save some aspects of the form of the object, but not its actual setting on an uneven rock wall, precisely placed at a particular height, angle to the light, visibility from other parts of the cave and in relation to other images and features as well as the interior spaces themselves. These are an integral part of the 'reading' of that image.

In fact, the case is especially well made by the May 2008 Banksy Leake Street, London mural used by HA to make the point. The nature of this work, its subject matter, symbolism and its history cannot be properly understood without knowing not only its spatial context, but also its artistic context in the place where it was created. Nor can it be 'read' in the same way in its sterile portableised form.

In the same way as an archaeological find cannot be 'read' as a single 'image from the past', but as part of a complex context that comprises not just an 'x-marks-the-spot' location, but a series of associations and interactions with other types of archaeological evidence of which it is just one part. So-called “responsible detecting” can never be responsible unless it fully takes those factors into account. When are the PAs going to get round to explaining that to the hoiking acquisitive oiks with metal detectors?

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