Tuesday 28 April 2020

British Museum Curator Eating from Foreign Antiquities Trade Advocate's Hand (II)

"ad hoc and opportunistic" just pretty massive
and looking like looting on an industrial scale,
but what do we 'know' eh? 
It's probably a bit awkward trying to be an advocate for the US antiquities trade is you are trying to pretend that looting's not really a problem that concerns you or your mates, but there happen to be oodles of satellite photos that show massive hole-digging in precisely the sort of places where potatoes don't grow very well, but antiquities will be found.

BM curator St John Simpson has already gone on record to say that "in Syria there had been “ad-hoc and opportunistic looting”...". I drew attention to the satellite photos that say otherwise (PACHI Friday, 10 April 2020, ' British Museum's Notion of "Ad Hoc and Opportunist . Looting in Syria"..'). Now antiquities trade lobbyist Kate Fitz Gibbon tries to draw her interviewee on this point, and he apparently dutifully plays along (Fitz Gibbon, 'St John Simpson Interview: Afghanistan repatriation, Daesh, remote-archaeology and the ILLICID report' Cultural Property News April 26, 2020):
Trade advocate's Question: Databases and satellite tracking can give you the facts about how many holes there are but that doesn’t tell you what’s driving the digging, or what was found there. You might be familiar with a recent study [...] This is what happens when you don’t do field research. 
St John Simpson: There is a whole generation of archaeologists now that has got PhDs and got jobs based on using remote sensing because they couldn’t get to the countries on the ground. [...] I totally agree it needs to be followed up wherever you possibly can with ground research. You’ve got to look at these sites.
First of all, it is not clear how much ground research in northern and eastern Syria Ms Fitz Gibbon has done since 2011, and interestingly the amount done by BM staff themselves in Assad's Syria since 2011 is not one of the questions addressed. Neither are St John Simpson's own qualifications in remote sensing revealed.

I personally would not like to categorise Oxford University's collaborative EAMENA project (under the direction of Bob Bewley, see here) merely as a bunch of inexperienced frustrated archaeologists unable to take part in fieldwork. Nor would I be so keen to dismiss the very real contribution remote sensing and aerial observation can make to learning about threats to the archaeological heritage and the changing nature of archaeological sites as Mr Simpson.

Aerial observation
not exactly new
Ms Fitz Gibbon might like to try her hand at aerial photography interpretation (you know, what some of those others got PhDs doing - so I guess they know 'a little' about it) and tell us what she thinks is going on. Perhaps she'd have us believe that all those 'oriental brown-skinned guys' are digging all day under a hot sun through the dust and rubble just to have some curious 'oriental brown-skinned guys' game that we westerners cannot understand, it's their idea of having fun and keeping fit perhaps? Or is it what it looks like? It looks like looting to me.

She eggs on: "You might be familiar with a recent study..." Pulling up one (US and quite dotty) project as representing the whole body of remote sensing analyses is just the kind of sneaky tactic you'd expect from the antiquities' dealers lobby. I assume (because she does not say) that what she's thinking of is:  Fiona Greenland, James V. Marrone, Oya Topçuoğlu and Tasha Vorderstrasse (2019) 'A Site-Level Market Model of the Antiquities Trade' International Journal of Cultural Property 26:21–47. I discussed this three years earlier here: ' MANTIS Research Project', PACHI Monday, 11 April 2016. So, I think Kate Fizgibbon quite deliberately chose one of the more dubious products of her own country's education system as her straw man. St John Simpson plays along, and wants to send these scholars to Assad's Syria.

So once again, an opportunity is missed to discuss the place of the antiquities trade in making the digging something the looters, industrial or "ad hoc opportunistic", think could be (or actually) worth doing.

The satellite pictures come back again at the end of this interview:
Trade advocate's Question: "Going back to what you were saying about the lack of utility [sic] of what is being done with satellite imaging, is the most beneficial use of the technology that is available today to document objects, not holes in the ground?St John Simpson: That’s right. I completely agree" [...] 
Chalk and cheese, BM. There is identifying and dealing with collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record, aka looting, and the documentation of objects already above the ground that is/will be helping to get them back if they are stolen. You cannot photograph objects buried in the ground until an artefact hunter digs them up. But, what lies between these two different processes is the antiquities trade. Here again we see Ms Fitz Gibbon manoeuvring St John Simpson into saying - in effect - is that it's the source countries' fault their heritage is looted if they don't document the material before it comes onto the antiquities market.

No, the fault is with an antiquities market that continues to handle objects that they cannot account for or document the legitimate origins of. And no amount of weasel-wording and sham manipulated interviews which should never have been agreed-to will change that.

Part three: In which Ms Fitz Gibbon gets him to say a few more things

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