Tuesday 28 July 2020

Joe Watkins Agrees, Agrees and Agrees with Thomas and Pitblado

Joe Watkins (SAA President)
The response  ('not with the same brush') by the current president of the Society for American Archaeology, Joe Watkins, to Thomas and Pitblado's Antiquity text seems to have neither structure nor substance. The author has not marshalled his thoughts and does not seem able to articulate his own opinion on collecting. He agrees with Thomas and Pitblado that it is a false simplification to treat all collectors as money launderers and criminals. Three times. Without recognising that it's a cheap unsubstantiated straw man argument. He is also one of the respondents that sees a mere bipolarity in the "competition between archaeologists and collectors", failing to see any other stakeholders to which both are responsible.  He writes something weak about "being concerned" about the trashing of archaeological sites, though has "less of a concern with individuals who primarily collect from the surface of archaeological sites"* and he thinks "the loss of contextual information about artefacts" is a problem (object-centred), and then says.... its a false simplification to treat all collectors as money launderers and criminals.

And then of course there's a chunky bit of American exceptionalism, "to ascribe these concerns to the majority of the North American pre-Contact period is, of course, somewhat excessive". The subsequent development of that statement is as bizarre and patronising as it is incomprehensible in the context of a discussion of the collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological resource in Antiquity.

Watkins several times refers to then benefits that can come (as T and P say) from working with "responsible and responsive collectors"  (from the context, we can assume artefact hunters too, though less clear whether dealers are included). He says that "we can create them by education" by "informing [collectors] about the best ways to help gather information about the past". Eh? well, here, I'd return to his last sentence "we must carefully paint each individual with their appropriate colours". I think Watkins could easily test the veracity of his ideas by going to the land of the PAS that has been doing it for 23+ years, and take a look on the forums at how that is reflected in the attitudes, not of a 'broad brush' rosy-tinted spectacles characterisation, but individuals, such as   Tattooed Harry, Crazy Cressy, Kevmar, Deep Digger Dan, Detecting4Gold, John Howland, Graham Chetwynd, George Powell and Layton Davies, and all the rest - all real people, and all documented on the forums and elsewhere.

There remains however a problem that Watkins ignores. We may find males accused of being sexual predators that will "responsibly and responsively" leave an SAA meeting when asked, but how some individuals behave some of the time does not resolve the problem of sexual harrassment in archaeology. Recognising that among collectors there are some that do it "responsibly and responsively" does not resolve the overall problem of the effects of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record.

EBay today: Native American lithics on sale today:  18,848 Results in Cultures and Ethnicities . Most of these (2,147) are also Native American. So that's 20,000 artefacts collected and now being sold to other collectors... how many of the people involved in this process are "responsible and responsive collectors" and in what way is that related to the legal removal of archaeological artefacts from accessible surface sites right across the USA?

Watkins omitted Principle nr 1 of the SAA Code of Ethics:
"[...] It is the responsibility of all archaeologists to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record by practicing and promoting stewardship of the archaeological record. Stewards are both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people; as they investigate and interpret the record, they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation".
So is that about encouraging collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for personal artefact collections made for private entertainment and profit, or not? Watkins does not actually answer that question.

*Though I miss here the extension of this thought into "exposed by the plow and exposed on the desert surface"... 

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