Friday 31 December 2021

PAS Second Milliongate: "Press Moment" Over, Now the Public Can Know Again?


A few weeks ago the PAS tried to make out, in what they termed a "press moment", that the facetious Martin Foreman (FLO based in Scunthorpe Museum) had made the PAS database's "millionth record". The Guardian's journalist (Rachel Hall) showed no interest in checking the facts, simply repeated what she'd been told to write, but Paul Barford had been quicker off the mark and had already written before this about the approaching millionth record.... He went to the database to check and pointed out that all the evidence on the (official British Museum-run and public-financed) database showed that there was some considerable doubt whether what the Guardian had reported had been said at the Treasure report launch was in fact at all true. In response the PAS.... actually HID the information on the front page of the number of records. They hid this information from the public that pays for it. They hid the information that contradicted the information they were giving out in their "press moment". There is a name for that isn't there? The British authorities in general seem pretty prone to this sort of thing.  Can't trust them any further than you could throw them. 

Well, PAS-watchers, you'll be glad to know that PAS have now "come clean" as the front page shows today at the end of the year:

I'm fed up with trying to get their clunky statistics section to work cleanly (it takes ages and prefers to give you an error message than actually provide answers if you ask it to do any real work), so I'm not wasting any New Year's Eve time working out when "3971 records ago" was. Maybe somebody else would like to have a bash. But the statistics section of the database has always tended to give inconsistent results. Searching "Statistical analysis of the database for Monday 1st January 1996 until Monday 22nd November 2021" (the day when they said they'd had their millionth record gives 997494 total records. More than 500 short. If on the 1st January 2021 they had 971873 records in the database and at the end of the year 1003971 (see screenshot above), that should mean there were 32098 records made in 2021. But for some wacky reason, the counter says there were 29422. So something is wrong here with the numbers. It is pretty worrying that there seems to be such a discrepancy (2676 records to be exact). 

What's this about? How reliable IS the PAS public database?  Why does the PAS feel the need to hide information from the public that pay for it and then arbitrarily decide to stop hiding it when they think everyone has forgotten the reasons they hid it? Is that sort of institutional flipflop transparency all the British public and the rest of us can expect these days? 

Wednesday 29 December 2021

Fluffy Animals Conservation Makes News. Real Archaeology, not Really?

The ring in question (image cropped

A 16/17th century gold ring found in a field depicting a red squirrel squatting while nibbling an acorn discovered by a metal detectorist near Ely in Cambridgeshire in January 2020 has just been declared Treasure (Katy Prickett,'Gold acorn-nibbling squirrel ring found near Ely declared treasure', BBC News, East 28 Dec 2021). At the inquest, county finds liaison officer Helen Fowler, who then went on to speculate it "would have been owned by someone of high status" [we can touch something once touched by somebody very important] and was crafted by someone with "years of training" [look at the workmanship, they don't make them like that today, do they?]. It gets more clichéd:
Miss Fowler said: [...] "It's human nature to wonder who owned it and their thoughts and feelings when they lost it, but it's far more interesting to think about the number of years of training the craftsman would have gone through to be able to create each hair on the squirrel's body and tail. "And to wonder how he might have felt working on such a precious item?"
and gives the usual PAS "relevance to today" fluff, like a dealer's narrativisation in a sales spiel:
Miss Fowler said: "It's done with great skill. "You can tell it is definitely a red squirrel - with its tufted ears - which is also the only native species of squirrel."
Nice to see some tree-hugging, all very laudable, but those comments tell the reader very little about the past users of that item and what they thought of the Sciuridae family and the context in which that object was deposited ("raises awareness of the importance of recording archaeological finds in their context"). It is archaeological outreach that the PAS is paid for (to be fair, even though this is a Treasure item,* the database writeup for this item is much fuller and more detailed than the majority of the FLOs do as 'preservation by documentation' these days).

In a parallel universe, however, the Alter County FLO is at this moment declaring "one day, due to the activities of artefact hunters and buyers, small metallic finds will be like the little red squirrel, absent from most of the places they were once common". That FLO earned the public money that was spent getting the archaeological and conservation message out. But that is in the parallel universe where Bonkers Britain was generally wiser.

Let us just note that no evidence is adduced that the ring was made in the British Isles, the red squirrel has a wider distribution across the northern hemisphere (figure from Wikipedia). Squirrel seal matrices are relatively common in the Midlands and several adjacent areas and the rings seem to be a subset of these. 

*which the Treasure Act lays down should be reported elsewhere, the PAS was set up to be a record of non-Treasure items.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Brexit Likely to Reinforce the Position of the UK as Major Hub for the Trade in Looted Antiquities

    Archaeologist Neil Brodie says the EU
           takes the issue of looted artefacts
      more seriously than the U.K.
       (Photo courtesy Brodie)

"The United Kingdom might become a major centre for the trade in plundered antiquities" warns Stephen Beard ('Will Brexit turn the U.K. into a hub for the trade in looted antiquities?' Marketplace Dec 28, 2021). What? The headline writer seems totally unaware that the UK (and the London market in particular) already is a major centre for the trade in plundered antiquities!
Among the EU laws that the U.K. has repealed in a bid to differentiate itself from the bloc following Brexit is a measure aimed at suppressing the trade in ancient objects stolen from war-torn countries, like Syria and Iraq. Critics of the move claim that by scrapping this measure, the U.K. is in danger of further encouraging a trade that is already flourishing in Britain. The [...] Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, believed to be the world’s oldest surviving work of literature, was pillaged from an Iraqi museum during the first Gulf War. It may have been seized and returned by the United States, but as Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite pointed out during the repatriation ceremony, the stolen tablet first surfaced in London. “The tablet turned up in the U.K. in 2001,” Polite said. “It was then smuggled to the U.S. and sold for $50,000.” The fact that this priceless object, which was eventually sold for $1.6 million to an American museum, was trafficked in London does not cause much surprise in the U.K. “For various reasons, London has become an important center in this illicit trade,” observed archaeologist Mark Altaweel of University College London. He said the trade in looted artifacts — especially in lower-profile items like coins, mosaics and jewelry — has boomed in the British capital in recent years [...], adding that — in his view — the laws banning the importation of stolen artifacts are not enforced rigorously enough in Britain.

Neil Brodie is also quoted, stating that the EU will enact further measures aimed at discouraging this illicit trade. This seems likely to take place at the behest of member states such as Italy and Greece, which historically have been subject to quite heavy looting and the theft of their cultural objects. He points out that the British "seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to the trade in looted artefacts", the country has a history of benefiting from it culturally and financially. This is why, he says, there is no urgency or impetus to act against it in the way the Europeans will.

The post-Brexit decision to repeal EU antiquities legislation makes matters worse, said Fionnuala Rogers, chair of Blue Shield United Kingdom, a group dedicated to protecting cultural property. “Now that the U.K. has left the EU and the EU has brought in much stronger legislation, the U.K. is going to be vulnerable because our legislation is much weaker comparatively,” Rogers said. Unlike the EU, the U.K. doesn’t now require an import license to bring antiquities into the country, and anyone caught importing stolen artifacts can only be convicted of an offense if it can be proven that they knew the item was illegal, which is quite a high bar for prosecutors to clear. The disparity between EU and UK law is going to cause trouble, Rogers said. “The problem with having Europe with a much stricter piece of legislation and the U.K. with essentially nothing comparable, it automatically makes the U.K. a gateway,” she said. Her main anxiety centers on one of the most contentious features of the Brexit withdrawal agreement: the unique status of Northern Ireland. The British province retains a wide-open border with the Irish Republic, and therefore with the European Union. Rogers fears that criminal gangs may ship looted objects quite easily into the U.K. mainland and then use Northern Ireland as a backdoor into the EU. Over time, that backdoor is likely to become an even more attractive option for the smugglers as the EU tightens its controls on every other stretch of its external border.

The article quotes what it represents as a recent British government statement: “We remain committed to combatting illicit trade in cultural objects and believe that existing U.K. law is sufficient to deal with this issue”. This is unsourced and is precisely the same wording as one issues (and then reissued) after the publication of the Palmer Report  two long decades ago, decades in which absolutely nothing was done to actually effectively combat the trade through London markets of illicitly-excavated and smuggled items. What "existing UK law" actually prevents huge numbers of apparently freshly-surfaced items from the MENA region being openly flogged off on- and off-line with dismissively vague "old XX collection, formed before the 1970s (non-nod-wink-wink)" provenance-fluff? How many cases per year has HM Customs deal with in the five-year period 2017-2021? And the Met's antiques task force? If the number is a satisfactory one, why is it not proudly published annually? 


Sunday 26 December 2021

Shoreline Artefact Hunting A Reminder


Lara Maiklem (London Mudlark) @LondonMudlark reminds her readers: 

If there are 2500 'mudlarking' artefact hunters among the population of London (nearly nine million), that means the number of this type of artefact hunters in the population of the metropolis is something like one in 3500. It is a very small minority of the population as a whole. [The data concerning metal detecting in London suggests that in 2021, just "<50 finders" reported just 91/210 finds - 50 in 9mln is 1:180000].  

The same goes for metal detectorists in the country as a whole, even if we arbitrarily up Sam Hardy's estimate to a round 30 000, in a population of  67.1 million for England and Wales, it is still one in 2240. That is far more than the archaeological record can sustain. 

Friday 24 December 2021

Two Million For Christmas


Well, that's quite an interesting Christmas present.... the "Statcount" hit-counter in the left margin (that is not always visible, but it's been clicking away all the time) tells me that just a few minutes ago the number of outside hits i.e., those not generated by my own consulting, adding to, fiddling with posts here) passed the two million mark. So the PAS got their one-millionth record "some time" just recently and the Barford blog two million reads. I think though they will claim their database has more "hits" of people looking at the raw data.  I'm going for Article 10 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Are they?  

As an aside, Google Blogs has another internal one, which is shooting ahead quite startlingly, it says that this blog has a total of 4,759,462 hits. No prizes for guessing which one the metal detectorists and PAS will prefer.

Thursday 23 December 2021

How did the US become a major hub for stolen ancient artefacts?

How did the US become a major hub for stolen ancient artefacts? Al Jazeera 23 Dec 2021 [24 minute video]:
The United States is a major hub for the illicit trade in ancient artefacts. Buyers and sellers can take advantage of lax regulations to make deals on statues from Yemen or clay tablets from Babylonia fairly easily. Shawnee State University Professor Amr al-Azm and Antiquities Coalition founder Deborah Lehr tell host Steve Clemons about their efforts to curtail the artefacts flooding to the West from all corners of the globe.

Saturday 18 December 2021

Egypt Deports Ambassador for Smuggling Antiques

Reportedly (Middle East Monitor, Egypt deports UAE ambassador for smuggling antiques):

Cairo has deported United Arab Emirates (UAE) Ambassador Hamad Saeed Al-Shamsi over his involvement in smuggling Egyptian antiques [...] investigations into businessperson Hassan Ratib and his partner, former member of Egyptian Parliament, Alaa Hassanein: "Revealed his involvement in smuggling Egyptian antiquities with Emirati diplomatic bags" [...] The antiquities include a variety of statues, some of which were inside tombs as part of burial offerings.
If these allegations prove to be true, it will be interesting to see whether the Emirates punish the diplomat concerned and return the artefacts.  It seems that there is a lot of evidence concerning the use of diplomatic pouches in trafficking antiquities.

This seems to be part of the fallout from the June 30, 2021 arrest in Egypt of what was reported as a gang of 19 people, including a wealthy businessman and a former MP, for a vast scheme that involved both looting and trafficking antiquities.

Thursday 16 December 2021

Sow' Ears, Silk Purses and Public Information

    verifiable information and alternative   
 facts in public information 

How do the Portable Antiquities Scheme do it? According to the database statistics when I last checked, on 12 Dec 2021 there were 999966 records. By end of 13 Dec, there were 1,000,212. But the PAS daily statistics tell us that on Monday 13th December only 84 records were made. Rachel Hall of the Guardian, on the other hand, somehow reported on 14 Dec 2021 that the "one millionth record" had been made with NLM-B7AFF3 on 22nd November 2021 (today: "Created: 25 days ago Updated: 3 days ago" what did they "update" on 14th December 2021 after I contacted them and the journalist about this entry?). 

 What is going on here? How much money has been spent on this "public database" and what public purpose does it serve if the public that pay for it cannot get even the simplest information out of it in a reliable form? But I do not expect this is a question that any "Guardian" journalist will be asking, I contacted Ms Hall three days ago and she seems uninterested in responding, neither has the Guardian published a correction to the information she published as a result. Why let the difficulty of establishing verifiable facts get in the way of a "press moment", eh?

Wednesday 15 December 2021

US Post-Fact "Philanthropy" on Trafficked Antiquities

Press release: Manhattan D.A.’s Office Returns 200 Antiquities to Italy, 96 of which were seized from Fordham University’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art. All but two of them had been bought from a single dealer:

Among the items returned today, 150 were seized pursuant to the investigation of Italy native and former New York City resident Edoardo Almagià.
For several years, the Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, along with law enforcement partners at HSI, investigated Almagià for trafficking ancient art from Italy, which he subsequently sold out of his gallery and apartment in New York. Like most traffickers, Almagià used different tombaroli (tomb raiders) to loot and smuggle artifacts from different areas of Italy, including the country’s southern and central regions, Sicily, and Sardinia. Almagià subsequently utilized a “network of scholars, directors, and curators of the most important international museums” to place stolen objects, according to an expert’s findings adopted by an Italian court. To date, the D.A.’s Office and HSI have executed 18 seizures of 160 antiquities trafficked by Almagià. This total includes 10 pieces seized earlier this month from ancient art collector Michael Steinhardt, which will be repatriated to Italy at a later date.

According to court documents filed in the criminal grand jury investigation of Steinhardt,  Almagià kept a ledger labeled the “Green Book,” in which he listed many of the antiquities he sold, the price he paid the tombarolo for each antiquity, the price for which he sold it, and occasionally, to whom he sold the antiquity. The complete ledger contains entries for almost 1,700 looted antiquities that Almagià purchased from tombaroli in Italy and then sold in the United States. Available evidence reveals Almagià expressed surprising candor with his clientele about his black-market supply of looted antiquities. For example, in order to inform them of objects that he would soon be able to offer for sale, he provided clients with details of ongoing clandestine and illegal excavations.

Based on this criminal activity, Italian prosecutors brought charges against Almagià in Italy in 2006 for knowingly committing crimes against the cultural heritage of Italy. The indictment included charges of receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods, and participating in a criminal conspiracy to traffic such goods. Ultimately, however, the charges were dropped because of the running of the statute of limitations. Nonetheless, in 2013, the presiding judge of the Tribunale Ordinario di Roma ordered the confiscation of Almagià’s antiquities that had already been seized in New York and Naples, as well as those of Almagià’s antiquities that had yet to be located. The presiding judge described Almagià as “contribut[ing] to what was one of the greatest sacks of Italian cultural heritage, based on sheer amount of stolen goods,” and added that he and his co-conspirators have “torn pages from the book of Italian history.” Almagià remains at large in Italy.
Also seized was the head of a Greek statue formerly in the Merrin Gallery that had passed through the hands of Giacomo Medici and a pithos from the Getty Museum that Almagià has handled.

It is interesting to note that by far the greatest bulk of US "repatriations" are going through New York, this is not because this is the only place in the US where there are collectors and dodgy dealers willing to shut their eye to the questions of origins of pieces, it is because this is more or less the only place in the whole US where such dealings are routinely investigated. California, Nevada, Pennsylvania and all the rest simply don't. This is largely the work of Manhattan D.A.’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit:
As of today’s ceremony, the D.A.’s Office has returned 717 antiquities to 14 nations since August 2020, including, in recent months, 27 relics to Cambodia, 104 artifacts to Pakistan, and 248 treasures to India. Earlier this month, our Office announced the seizure of 180 stolen pieces from the collection of Mchael Steinhardt, which will be returned to their 11 countries of origin at future ceremonies. To date, the D.A.’s first-of-its-kind Antiquities Trafficking Unit has recovered several thousand stolen antiquities collectively valued at more than $200 million. More than 1,500 of these priceless artifacts have been returned to their rightful owners and repatriated to their countries of origin, including a total of 717 objects to 14 nations since August 2020. Many hundreds more are ready to be repatriated as soon as the relevant countries are able to receive them amid the pandemic. But more than a thousand must be held awaiting criminal proceedings against the traffickers.
Note that very singificant remark: "Almagià expressed surprising candor with his clientele about his black-market supply of looted antiquities. For example, in order to inform them of objects that he would soon be able to offer for sale, he provided clients with details of ongoing clandestine and illegal excavations", and people still express the belief (delusion) that the antiquities market will self-regulate. That is simply a naive cop-out, to avoid taking firm action. I hear on the grapevine that there is at least one other big repatriation event coming up in the near future. In this case too, nobody further down the chain will be even questioned about their role in the trafficking of these items, let alone investigated to swee if they are still involved in more recent trafficking (within the Statute of Limitations). In reality, this is not about stopping the networks of the illegal antiquities trade, but only about salving the tarnished reputation of the US as a major hub of the criminal antiquities market. It's mainly for show. These items were removed from the countries of origin without ceremony or procedure, indeed in secrecy, but are going back in the full glare of the spotlight, everybody presenting themselves as concerned "philantropists", rather than representatives of a system that has done, and continues to do, so much damage.

PASt Exploring. Interrogating the PAS Database

          The subject of the PAS's
       "millionth record"? 

I have discussed the claim that the flaky harness pendant NLM-B7AFF3  was the PAS's "millionth" record as claimed at the launch of the Treasure report (see here too). I showed that it was not, it was something like the 997502nd. On querying that, I was told (M. Lewis in litt.) why the PAS had hidden certain information on the home page of the database

We took off the record counter before we got to 1M else (sic) people might spoil the press moment - there were quite a few very keen to celebrate before we were ready.
Not everybody is so keen to "celebrate" the scale represented by the numbers of artefacts removed from contexts and masses of potential knowledge trashed by artefact hunting on such a scale. 

Anyway, the Head of the PAS reveals that they hide from the public the information to secure the "press moment", when they inform the public what should be public information all along. Once again, it looks like PAS is acting as a gatekeeper. It looks like what we are being told is that these are not public data (about the common archaeological heritage) for public use, but PAS data, for the PAS to make its own use of "when we are ready".

Readers might be aware that this has happened before, back in September 2014 when the Portable Antiquities Scheme was claiming (in another “press moment”?) that “the millionth find” had just been recorded. This was far from clear, and I made a number of posts on this so-called “Milliongate” that raised a number of issues that were never properly addressed by this public-funded body. Now the same thing seems to be happening with the numbers of records.
Whatever the claims and counterclaims, it seems that after quarter of a century expensive outreach the PAS database now does have upward of a million records. That's what their own counter says anyway. The number of records in the PAS database from 1st January 1996 to today is 1000458. So when did it cross that magical "million mark"? It seems that on Sunday 12th December there were 999966 records. By the end of the next day the counter says there were 1,000,212. If these figures are correct, it would mean that the 34th find recorded on Monday 13th December (so the day before they announced they'd already passed the mark on 22nd November) is the best candidate for being the real millionth record from 25+ years of liaison. By my reckoning, if you sort the results by date (and I assume the PAS server additionally organises them by time made) that's a pretty scraggy Beata Tranquillitas Roman coin from Badgeworth near Tewkesbury recorded in Bristol GLO-7448F7 and found 19th November 2021 by metal detecting on land of undetermined character.

But then, this is the PAS database after all, matters are not so simple, because to get from 999966 to 1000212 from one day to the next (see above), the PAS daily statistics tell us that on Monday 13th December only 84 records were made... Something here does not match. Check it out for yourselves.

But let's not lose sight of the fact that in the same 25+ years many million more artefacts have been dug up, pocketed and disappeared, all under the umbrella of "responsible detecting". Who is taking responsibility for what?

PAS Statistics For 2020. Cause for Concern?

"Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, said [...] the PAS system was “admired and emulated” in other countries" says Rachel Hall. Except in the ones where they laugh at it and deplore hobbyist looters trashing the archaeological record. The British media once again presenting the usual blinkered view of the effects of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record on the occasion of the issue of yet another Treasure Report. Some fluff statistics are produced about PAS. Ignoring the public role of the PAS we are told that:

[A]mateur treasure hunting [...] contributed to the 50,000 archaeologically significant finds that were recorded by hobbyists in 2020 and which shed further light on Britain’s history, according to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) annual report published by the British Museum. Among the finds was the millionth archaeological find made by the British public, a copper alloy medieval harness pendant found in Lincolnshire. The finds were recorded by 2,846 individuals and more than 1,000 were treasure discoveries. The overall number was lower than previous years as metal detectorists, who made 91% of the discoveries, were less active due to lockdowns, the report stated. The arts minister, Stephen Parkinson, launched the treasure annual report for 2019 and the PAS report for 2020 at the British Museum on Tuesday.
Let's just get a bit of accuracy here. The actual report is not online yet. According to the PAS database, the actual total number of objects for 2020 is 49490 but the number of individual records is 32293 (which means that 17197 of those finds are duplicate artefacts from the same reported find)! 

There is some fudgy phrasing in the next bit ("The finds were recorded [sic] by 2,846 individuals [...] metal detectorists, who made 91% of the discoveries"). Note, we are not told how many of England and Wales' estimated 27000 metal detecting artefact hunters reported finds, only that 91% of the [either] records, or individual finds *within* those records were reported by metal detectorists. In fact what is probably meant is that 91% of the finders were detectorists, which means that 2590 of them came forward and responsibly reported their finds. 

That in turn means that less than 10% of the region's metal detectorists are in fact abiding by the Code of best Practice and may be termed "responsible". In other words, over 90% of the metal detectorists are not reporting their finds to the PAS, just waking off with them and the knowledge they contain. Ninety percent of these looters do not contribute anything at all to "shedding further light on Britain's history", though they'll mostly all come forward if there is a Treasure reward in the offing ("not in it fer th' munny" of course).

   The Treasure Blip (needs redrawing,
I'll do it when official figures
 for 2020 are available

And here we come to an issue. Who remembers the figure (right) about the "Treasure Blip" I identified a while ago? I am sure you all do, as it raises a very disquieting fact, it seems to be material evidence that the depletion of the metal-detector-accessible archaeological record of England and Wales, at least, has reached a crisis point. I am sure I am not the only person in the world who is given sleepless nights by the possible implications of the figures. Let's put what this article tells us about more people "taking up amateur treasure hunting" and juxtapose it with the "more than 1000" Treasure finds. Even if "more than" means "100 more than 1000", there is still a shortfall. 

The question of the iconic "millionth record" after 25+ years expensive outreach to 27000 artefact hunters with their millions of finds is discussed elsewhere here.

But hey, who cares about anything like that? "Nothing to see here, move along please", yes? Just get some figures, any old figures as long as they are big, down on a piece of paper and hand them to an uninquisitive journalist or two and Bob's yer Uncle. PAS have been doing it for years. 

Rachel Hall, 'Medieval pendant is millionth archaeological find by British public', Guardian 14th December 2021.
Hat tip: Dave Coward

Tuesday 14 December 2021

UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme Claims "Millionth Record" as a "Success"

    Truth in public life in UK  

Following my post a few weeks ago that prompted the PAS to hide the counter of number of records on the home page of their Database (I use the term loosely), the PAS themselves are now themselves claiming they have created their "millionth" record of finds made by members of the public.
The problem is that... according to the official statistics, it is not their millionth record. How difficult can it be to get a computer to count a number of pieces of information, eh? Yesterday there were some self-gratulatory fluff pieces in the British media presumably generated from information supplied by the British Museum's press office. In one (Rachel Hall​, 'Medieval pendant is millionth archaeological find by British public', Guardian 14th December 2021) we read 
"Among the finds was the millionth archaeological find made by the British public, a copper alloy medieval harness pendant found in Lincolnshire". 
That is incredibly misleading and I am sure the British Museum today is scrambling to get the newspaper concerned to publish a correction. No? 

The real "millionth" find made by a member of the public with a metal detector after the start of the PAS was actually (according to the original HAAEC that pointed this out many years ago) was probably made and not reported some time in the early months of 2000, 21 years ago. The actual number of finds hoiked out of archaeological sites and assemblages today is (I estimate) 9.76 million. So to proudly claim a 1:9 rate of information recovery as a "success" is pure Boris-British-bonkery. Not only that, it is failing to keep the public (who pay a lot of money to PAS) totally uninformed. When will the public get the Truth? When will they start asking what the truth is, in fact? Does anybody actually care anyway? 

This is quite apart from the very disturbing fact that according to the PAS' own database: "Statistical analysis of the database for Monday 1st January 1996 until Monday 22nd November 2021" (when that pendant [NLM-B7AFF3] was recorded, "22 days ago" by Martin Foreman in North Lincolnshire Museum, Scunthorpe), the actual publicly documented figures are
"Total objects recorded: 1551100 Total records: 997502"
That is still 2498 records short of a million. (see here too). 

What is going on, UK? What is the actual objective problem in just telling it like it is? Why do we see nothing but smoke and mirrors from the lot of you, and a total lack of care concerning the establishment of the true facts as part of the public duty of British archaeologists?

Monday 13 December 2021

Arrests over Antiquities in Thessaloniki [UPDATE]

         Metal detector users stopped in EU      

A series of archaeological artefacts, chiefly coins removed from trashing the archaeological record were seized from two men, aged 66 and 40, who were (Arrests over antiquities in Thessaloniki Ekathimerini Newsroom 12.12.2021):
arrested by police officers from the Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage and Antiquities in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, authorities announced on Saturday. According to police, a search conducted on Friday at a property in Siatista, Kozani, in Western Macedonia, as well as a vehicle, yielded 292 items, which included bronze and silver coins, rings, seals dating to various periods, as well as tools used in excavations. The confiscated objects were adjudged to fall under the provisions of the law for the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage in general.
Their removal from the contexts of deposition and appropriation for collection or sale are treated as socially unacceptable in European law, and is treated variously as a crime or misdemeanour. In Bonkers Britain of course this does not apply. The antiquities laws there are about as effective as a wet paper bag for protecting the archaeological record from looting and wanton destruction for selfish ends.   Why would that be? Whose interests does that serve? 

Update 13.12.21
From France, a comment from detectophage orchidoclaste
"Vous le voyez arriver vous aussi le commentaire parasite du genre "c'est pas prouvé qu'il utilise un détecteur" ? C'est précisément pour cette raison que toutes les polices du monde prennent en photo le détecteur saisi en même temps que le butin du détectoriste... le déni est ancré dans les pratiques de désinformation de ce milieu de la chasse aux trésors."
This denial is so very widespread....

Thursday 9 December 2021

Human Remains Sensationalism: Fenstanton "Crucifixion"


     Digging up people, not things.

Preliminary results of the processing of material from a 2017 excavation have only now been announced by UK archaeologists with the sensational claim that an internment in the 48-grave cemetery excavated on a housing estate produced "Best physical evidence of Roman crucifixion found in Cambridgeshire" (Jamie Grierson, Guardian Wed 8 Dec 2021). Apparently, "The off-site analysis was conducted by Corinne Duhig, a renowned archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, who came to the conclusion that crucifixion was the reason the nail was used". Yeah? I've not seen the osteologist's report, so cannot say whether that really is the way the results of the analysis and interpretation were phrased by its author but... one wonders if this is not some kind of dodgy publicity stunt by the archaeological team to get more post-excavation funding. A photo (edited here) is given in the Guardian article of these human remains. The damage to the bones of the lower legs and missing bones are notable. Post-mortem, one assumes. More to the point no nail seen there. No mention is made in the account of nail- damage to the other foot or the hands/wrist of the other two limbs. Just a single short nail through a heelbone (calcaneus) at a very odd angle - see below. Do they have a photo of this nail-pierced bone in situ? The accompanying skellie-shot in the newspaper has no nail through the right heelbone that I can see.

More to the point, what kind of nail is it and where would it be on an actual body/cadaver? The article quotes David Ingham, project manager at Albion Archaeology, which conducted the dig:

 "The Fenstanton man was found with an iron nail in his right heel bone, the calcaneum, which would have been inserted into the sides of an upright timber. And, while the location of crucifixion is unknown, it is likely to have been elsewhere, possibly by the side of the road".

Really? So, which surface of the heel bone (calcaneus) is penetrated? Here's a 3-d model (or see here). Take a look at that for a moment. And this figure (a right foot) or something like this (X-ray to the right - perhaps among this blog's readers are people who have their own x-rays from ankle injuries they can check this claim with). If we compare this with the photo showing the bone that is supposedly "evidence", it seems to me that something does not tie up. The head of the nail seems to penetrate the proximal surface of the bone precisely where there is a mass of flesh. While accounts suggest that it is driven in "laterally", that is not clear from the photos published so far (though the bone is a bit eroded, and this bone has a very complicated 3d form). More to the point, according to the scale on the photo, that nail is about 6 cm long. Its head appears to be somewhere in the mass of flesh surrounding the Achilles tendon, but its head is some 7mm above the surface of the bone itself, just adjacent to the facets articulating with the talus while the point barely emerges from the distal surface of the bone. At the exit, the nail passes through the thick pad of flesh at the distal surface a little over a centimetre.  Bear in mind that the bones that this element articulate with ("the ankle bone" - here, the talus and distal end of the tibia) also project a little from the side preventing the area below it to lie flat on anything it would be "nailed to", thus further reducing the penetration into the postulated latter of the point of the nail, especially if it is at an angle. 

Where actually is the archaeological evidence that he has that allows the excavator to conclude that the foot was nailed to "the sides of an upright timber" that stood "possibly by the side of the road"? I'll wager there is none. What he's doing is suggesting an interpretation of a puzzling find derived from a written source or sources. This is "text driven archaeology". Archaeology (or forensic osteology) is not used here as a source of information in its own right, but as a source of illustrations for decorating a text-based narrative. Which British archaeologists delight in doing. 

        Fenstanton bone sensationalist interpretation
 of human remains (British Archaeology)

What posture of legs does Mr Ingham's interpretation give us? More to the point, how was the nail driven in? Can we see a reconstruction that accords with the real position of this three-inch nail?  

Does Mr Ingham do any woodwork? If he does, what does he use three-inch nails for? 

Archaeology should not be making sensationalist claims on the basis of a preliminary superficial analysis. There seems to be no osteological report available in the public domain for this find. This story has been reported on the Internet over 30 000  times, all over the world already. Not a single one of these stories shows the trajectory of the nail, or how much it protruded on a living (or dead) body. That seems a pretty crucial issue. It seems everybody citing and quoting it have taken at face-value a "trust-me-I'm-an-archaeologist" statement, and the fact that other archaeologists are repeating it.  I think there are a whole lot of questions that needed to be asked and answered before going public with this. 

The excavation's director additionally claims that “Well it’s the first time a skeleton has been excavated archaeologically that anyone has found a nail in, so it’s not the sort of thing you’re looking for”. This is not true. A number of antiquarian finds (some, as I vaguely recall from Suffolk near Fenstanston) had traces interpreted as the bodies having been buried with nails driven into the cadaver. The only example I could find easily in the Internet was burials excavated at Bourne Park in Kent (Gentleman's Magazine 1850 34, 75). There are more recent texts on this subject, such as Conde (2011) and Quercia and Cazzulo (2016) and there are probably more for the Roman period. As there are on medieval bodies in which a variety of practices such as this were apparently used to "stop the dead walking". A supposed "witch" at St Osyth, Essex also seems to have had her legs nailed together according to finders. Why is this nailed foot not another example of these? 

Even though it is harder and more time-consuming, and does not bring internet-fame so easily, can we have a proper archaeological publication of this material now, instead of interim gossip?

 Quercia, Alessandro, and Melania Cazzulo. "Fear of the Dead? ‘Deviant’ Burials in Roman Northern Italy" Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, no. 2015 (March 2016): 28. 

Alberto Sevilla Conde, 'Non-Conventional Burials in Roman Hispania : Magic and Ritual in the Roman Funerary World' Latomus T. 70, Fasc. 4 (Décembre 2011), pp. 955-976  

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Collection History of Clunky Escutcheons Questioned

Particularly unlovely and 'clunky' escutcheons with
odd patina and unclear collection history (Sotheby's)
Sotheby's A Pair of Etruscan Bronze Attachments, circa early 5th Century B.C. Estimate: 50,000 - 70,000 GBP [...] 
Mathias Komor, New York, inv. nos. I.514 and I.515
Clarence Day, Memphis, acquired from the above on February 24th, 1978 (Sotheby's, New York, Antiquities from the Collection of the Late Clarence Day, December 7th, 2010, no. 15, illus.)
acquired by the present owner at the above sale
Note that part of this collection history seems to be known only because this item passed through the same auction house two times. The all-important question is where was it before Mr Komor got it, reportedly by 1978? How did it leave the soil and territory of the source country? Without the answers to those questions, this is only a "they can't touch you for it" provenance. It in no way establishes licit excavation and export before it "surfaces" in these records. Prof Christos Tsirogannis suggests there is part of the collection history missing precisely here ( Dalya Alberge, 'Antiquities for auction could be illicitly sourced, archaeologist claims' Guardian 7 Dec 2021). It seems not enough questions were asked by the auction house when they agreed to host this sale. You'd think Sotheby's of all people, with their reputation, would be being a bit more careful over things like this by now. 

Bonhams Boat-Lamp: "Collection History"? You've Got to be Kidding.

Bonhams have just sold an ancient Sardinian bronze object for £ 2,422 to a collector as Lot 83 in their "Antiquities 7 Dec 2021", sale in New Bond Street, London.

A Sardinian bronze boat-shaped lamp Nuragic Period, circa 8th Century B.C.
Private collection, Austria, acquired in the 1960s in Vienna.
For a similar lamp [...] see Kunst Sardiniens....[...].
I'm not kidding, the all-important collection history really is relegated to a footnote and really does say refer to an old Austrian collector who allegedly bought it "in Vienna" sixty years ago. Hmm. The all-important question is where was it before "Mr Anonymous-Austrian-(presumably-now-dead)-collector" got it, reportedly by 1970? How did it leave the soil and territory of the source country? Without the answers to those questions, this is only a "they can't touch you for it" provenance. It in no way establishes licit excavation and export before it "surfaces" in these records.

    Photo dated 1993 in Becchina archive showing what
seems to be the same object (photo C. Tsirogiann

Prof Christos Tsirogiannis suggests there is part of the collection history missing precisely here (Dalya Alberge, 'Antiquities for auction could be illicitly sourced, archaeologist claims' Guardian 7 Dec 2021). It turns out that while Bonhams swallowed the (verbal?) assurance that the object was "in our collection before 1970" and seem not to have taken the steps needed to verify or falsify that, there actually is evidence suggesting that what seems to be the same artefact was in the possession of Gianfranco Becchina. How can this be?

On what basis do auction houses base the statements of the collection history of the  objects they agree to sell? It seems not enough questions were asked by the auction house when they agreed to host this sale to avoid the suspicions that they were duped with a false declaration. So why is that not reflected in the phrasing of collection histories? Perhaps one day we will see an honest dealer that is more careful about nuancing the degree of knowledge and verification "Said to have been...", "reported to have been...", "hearsay suggests that...", "the consigner asserts/ guesses/ insists/ suspects...", "we don't actually know, but this might have been...who knows?", (and of course in the case of some dealers, of course not Bonhams, "we don't actually know, but if anyone asks, you could say that..."). Of course the other honesty is an upfront: "Object excavated at ... in 1979, lot accompanied by excavation permit and official protocol transferring title, a verified export permit issued by ... on.... and full documentation of transfer of ownership, certified copies of which will accompany the object to the buyer in accordance with company policy".

Monday 6 December 2021

Way to Go: Another Antiquities Collector Loses His Stuff

Philanthropist and antiquities collector Michael Steinhardt in 2018 (JVP) 
Michael Steinhardt, one of the world’s largest antiquities collectors (he calls them "ancient art"), has been mentioned in the media and on this blog many times before. part of the reason for this is that there are severe problems in the stated (or unstated)  collection history of some of the antiquities that we know about. Some of them seem to have been acquired in a manner that in hindsight, at least, was rather reckless and with scant regard to the procedures responsible collectors might be expected to being following. By acting in this way under the conviction that they are somehow 'untouchable' and 'entitled', collectors like this are flipping off (right, above) not only heritage professionals and conservationists but also the civil societies or every country whose cultural heritage is pilfered of trophy items to sell to people like this. 

Anyway, there sometimes is some karma. It is being reported that after some rather long investigations, Michael Steinhardt is handing over 180 items reportedly worth $70m and has accepted a lifetime ban on purchasing further antiquities.
The seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation. “For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,” said District Attorney Vance. “His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection. “Even though Steinhardt’s decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures is appalling, the interests of justice prior to indictment and trial favor a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all.
This of course is a totally ridiculous legalistic sentiment based on ideas of "ownership" what has been damaged, and irretrievably, is the archaeological evidence of each and every one of the sites dug into to produce these trophy items. And for every artefact that made its way onto the US market for the dealers Steinhardt once patronised to profit from, hundreds, perhaps thousands of archaeological contexts were trashed to find that one, eminently saleable item. Even if every single one of those now-loose objects were "repatriated" (the current US cultural leitmotif) the damage done - driven by the acquisitive greed of collectors like Steinhardt - can never be undone. It is not the repatriation of items that is needed, but cutting the link between dealers and looters. Since we have seen time and time again that the dealers are unwilling to clean up their act, it seems to me that the most effective way to deal with this is every time to go after the collectors. If more and more people are leery of buying the dodgily unpapered stuff offered by vague and secretive dealers, but insist on having material so transparently and verifiably licitly-obtained, those dealers will be forced to change their business model (and suppliers) or go out of business. Got to go after the collectors.

Steinhardt can afford the legal fees to defend his purchases, and to lose the $70million for artefacts (many of which he enjoyed for many years already), but many other collectors now need to be made to pay for their sense of privilege.

The Stargazer of course was not mentioned, because Steinhardt shifted it before this judgement. There are plenty more of them coming on the market in the UK now, with even less paperwork than Mr Steinhardt had.

Sunday 5 December 2021

Who Needs Experts? Pseudolithics and the Public Past in Britain

I thought that instead of hiding this away in the comments to a post from April 2019 ('Collectors' Corner: Clacton's Bazaar (Bizarre) Modern EBayPalaeolithic', PACHI Saturday, 13 April 2019), I'd make a post on it. The topic seems to have important implications. For some time now I've been interesting in the word of stone tool collectors as another side to collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record - it's not just "metal detecting". In the course of this, one finds that a considerable quantity of items are being offered online by sellers as lithic tools and artefacts that are clearly nothing of the kind. Surprisingly, this includes at least one of the major auction houses selling such things in the UK. But it is most prevalent in peer-to-peer sales among collectors. In the post mentioned above, I look at the sales offers of two individuals who've been picking stuff up from a beach I am very familiar with that they describe as all kinds of fanciful things, except what they in many cases are. Pebbles. In the process, these two have made a lot of money from selling to gullible buyers completely worthless rocks. They have discovered that they can do this and it is apparently as easy as taking candy from kids. I would say, given what is actually involved here, taking advantage of ignorance is at least of dubious morality. 

In the post I ask where are the Portable Antiquities Scheme and British archaeologists in this procedure? ("in the case of the former: "Surely they are there to share archaeological information and educate the wider public on the difference between artefacts and odd-shaped stones"). I think we have part of the answer in the comments I received from an anonymous reader. I assume that this is either the eBay seller emilbal-y0jmlc4z or their local rival dvdad123_7 mentioned in the post who could not work out how to put their name on the comment.

From the comments (reproduced below with the original spelling and punctuation), first of all it emerges that this finder is relieved that he does not have to interact with the past FLO for the area (not that I'd blame him from the experience I and, earlier, my colleagues had with her). Anonymous says:

Since the beaches of Clacton and Holland on sea uk were recharged there has been a great deal of artifacts discovered here. These include many lithics and mobiliary artifacts sadly pas do not currently alnowledge such artifacts apart from the lithics even when a mass of typological repetition is displayed this does not deem them not to be artifacts,it is a simple case of pas having little to compare such finds to therefore using such words as pariedolia or natural is an easier option than trying to explain what they clearly are not ready for. which also seems to be the case here for you paul it looks as of you are more concerned about the profit made from such sales of artifacts rather than the possibility of artifacts been aknowledged your view sways between sensitive sands and punctuation issues! [...] what was your aim in posting such a mish mash which will only confuse the pas/archaeologists more lol [emoticon] [emoticon] Oh one more note paul: not all pioneers are immaculate with there punctuation" [...] Do you personnaly believe that such mobiliary artifacts are discovered on these recharged beaches, other than lithics or are you swayed by the lack of relevant terminology used which has clearly detracted from the artifacts themselves.
Hmmm. Here we apparently have a member of the public who sees their "common sense" interpretations as superior to what the experts are telling them. This is a prime example of the current trend in Britain (and not only) to deprecate expertise, to denounce scholarship. We see the same thing in the anti-vax movement, Covid-scepticism, the baying Brexiters, and we see it among UK (and not only) "metal detectorists" and artefact collectors. "What do they know?" is their mantra, coupled with a deep suspicion that there is some kind of a conspiracy to enable a "Them" to "control us and the way we think and act".  

It may be inferred from this that this member of the public has already been told that their identification of these pebbles as "Palaeolithic portable rock art" is a case of pareidolia and that the shapes they see in them are entirely natural. Possibly some attempt was (I hope) made to demonstrate to them in an understandable way what features of those items leads to such a conclusion. 

The problem is that the finder simply rejects that explanation as being less exciting than their own narrative (punctuation and spelling partially corrected here): 
"PAS do not currently acknowledge such artefacts [...] even when a mass of typological repetition is displayed; thus do not deem them not to be artefacts. It is a simple case of PAS having little to compare such finds to, therefore using such words as pareidolia or natural is an easier option than trying to explain what they clearly are not ready for. [This] also seems to be the case here for you Paul."
I cannot speak for the PAS. I have no idea what they are up to. But since the writer refers to my "case" I can say what I think.

First of all typological repetition, that is confirmation bias. Parts of the beach at Clacton-on-Sea are covered by a spread of pebbles and shingle. If you walk over tens of thousands of them picking out individual ones that conform to a certain criterion of colour, shape, texture, barnacle infestation or whatever, it is a false argument to present them as an assemblage that has 'typological repetition'. They are a selection made on the grounds of conforming to particular characteristics.

Lack of comparanda. To some extent, this is not true. Textbooks and academic literature as well as popular works in at least three different disciplines are full of pictures of Palaeolithic art, including quite a large body of mobile art (sculptures). Many sites have been excavated with archaeologists keeping a keen lookout for anything a bit 'odd' about the stones found, but there is nothing even reminiscent of the "Clacton Beach Pebble Art" in archaeological/palaeontological publications (I would be entertained to be corrected there). 

A problem here is that "Anonymous" reckons him-or-herself to be a (self-taught?) "pioneer" in this field. It would be interesting to know what field they see this as. In the field of lithic technology, the pioneers were in the nineteenth century, with more advanced techniques, 1960s and 1970s. Portable art again nineteenth century and early 20th century. 

I've looked at the items presented online for sale by these two individuals (neither account seems to be active at present) and, even if the photos are set up to suggest the animal or human form the finder (says he-or-she) "sees", it is not apparent to me why these items are not just natural stones. In fact, in the majority of cases, even with the best will it is difficult to see the claimed shape in the "if you hold it at this angle with some raking light, you can see..." description. It's not there. None has anything that looks like toolmarks, the shapes of these items are often such that they clearly cannot have been formed by grinding manually to achieve such a form. None have more than random flakes that have anything like enough of the characteristics of stone-knapping to qualify. 

The question arises whether these two finders have done any research (online or in those papery-things-called-books) about the characteristics of flint tools. Have they any experience themselves of bashing two stones together and learning about flaking angles, platforms, the characteristics of struck flakes? Have they done any experimental grinding to replicate the man-made objects they claim to be finding (a stone softer than flint on a concrete slab would give the general idea of what is possible and what is not)? My guess is that they've done neither of those things with any attention. 

What seems to have happened here is that they've gone triumphantly with their self-proclaimed earth-shattering discoveries to an archaeologist who has looked with attention (afforded to at least the more superficially likely) items and said that they all look natural to them. Instead of accepting with good grace what the expert says, the finder has stormed off muttering "what do they know?".  "Who needs experts", eh? 

So here's a question. How much does the British public (in actual fact) need a Portable Antiquities Scheme? Is it for the public, in fact, or is it for archaeologists? Anonymous here could not give a tinkers what Dr so-and-so of the PAS will tell them if it does not fit in with their half-baked unsupported fantasies  - Anonymous thinks it is the archaeologists who "lack information" and "need to learn" from the "Citizen archaeologist" and not the other way round. How many other people in Britain's current dumbdown, clickbait society think the same?


Eighth Century AD Smuggled Indian Sculpture left to Decay in English Garden

            The sculpture tarted-up              
for sale by Sotheby's

An eighth century statue of a goat-headed female deity was being sold by Sotheby’s as lot 92 in its London auction of 14 November 1988. It was estimated to fetch around £15,000. The sale never took place and the object ended up abandoned standing outdoors in a garden where it was eroded by the effects of the weather, became overgrown by lichens and moss that attacked the surface of the stone (Dalya Alberge Looted and left in an English garden, the goat goddess can return to India Guardian Sat 4 Dec 2021. The sculpture had been stolen from a temple in the village of Lokhari in Uttar Pradesh, India between 1979 and 1982. There were 20 sandstone images of deities, each roughly five feet high and with animal heads, but villagers reported that a number were carted away in trucks by vandals. The one in question had been illustrated in the 1986 book "Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition" by Vidya Dehejia, former curator at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. It seems that Sotheby's had accepted the item for sale, but after it was included in a catalogue it seems they were alerted to the fact that it was illegally obtained and smuggled out of the country of origin. They seem then to have quietly retracted the item from the auction. In 1997, the statue was among looted antiquities featured in the former Observer journalist Peter Watson’s damning book, titled Sotheby’s: Inside Story. The object was only recently found by Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and founder of Art Recovery International. It seems that Sotheby’s appears not to have revealed the consignor or turned over the details to the Metropolitan police, even during the investigations in 1998, when Peter Watson broke the story. More shockingly still, it remained in the UK for over two decades after being listed as stolen and missing in Watson's book. Sotheby's is reported to have been uncooperative with the investigations attempting to locate it. Marinelli says:
"I wrote to them. They were wholly uncooperative.” He added: “My goal is to call out Sotheby’s for selling loot but more importantly to highlight the countless looted objects in English gardens and collections related to colonial history. Collectors should come forward – sort of an amnesty – through us, and we will guarantee them anonymity. Otherwise, they risk embarrassment or legal seizure in the future when they or their heirs attempt to sell the loot in the marketplace”. The sculpture was rediscovered after the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, decided to sell her home. The sculpture was in the garden when she bought it 15 years ago. She immediately ensured that the sculpture would be returned unconditionally. A spokesman for the High Commission of India paid tribute to Marinello’s pro bono work [...] Sotheby’s said: “This episode relates to something that allegedly occurred almost quarter of a century ago. Sotheby’s adheres to the highest standards in the industry, supported by a world-class compliance team, who work closely with outside authorities to ensure that we operate to the highest level of business integrity.”
That's the antiquities business, the man selling bat meat in the market in Wuhan, China will claim the same. Perhaps the antiquities trade as a whole needs to re-examine its notions of what is the highest level and their degree of actual commitment to meeting them. What happens in a reputable firm if they find out a client at the cashier's desk is trying to use a stolen credit card to pay? Just hand it back politely and wish them a nice day? What should a business do if someone comes to them and offers stolen goods to them to sell? 

Picture of decay, the damaged statue in a garden, at least the lichens
show the air is relatively clean. The damage compared to the state
visible in the auctioneers' photos is devastating (Guardian)

Friday 3 December 2021

STOP Act Passes US House of Representatives

SAA Press Release: "US House of Representatives Passes STOP Act " Dec 03, 2021.
Last night, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 2930, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act of 2021 (STOP Act)[...]. This represents a major step forward in enacting this badly needed legislation, which would allow the United States to take effective steps to halt overseas auctions of illicitly procured tribal objects of cultural patrimony, and encourage the voluntary return of such items to their rightful owners.

Currently, the U.S. government and Native American tribes have been disadvantaged in trying to halt sales of illicitly-procured tribal cultural patrimony in overseas auctions because U.S. law does not have a specific prohibition against the export of looted tribal objects or an associated export certification system. The measure creates an explicit prohibition on the export of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) cultural items and Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) archaeological resources whose trafficking is prohibited domestically under existing federal law. The STOP Act will make it possible for tribes to access other countries’ law enforcement mechanisms to regain their stolen property under an existing international treaty to which the United States is a signatory.
So, basically, bringing the US cultural preservation system to where most other countries have been for a very long time. Yet, it is the USA that has a 1980s law in place that restricts the application of that very same "existing international treaty (sic)" to material illicitly removed from about a dozen specifically selected countries (and the rest are largely ignored). To crown it all, the US insists on basing that selection on a colonialist notion of "how well" those countries in the eyes and measure of the USA have been doing preserving the cultural heritage on their own sovereign territory, as if it were any of their business.* Yet the USA has been and is far from any kind of model in that regard. As far as human rights are concerned, maybe in teh 2020s they could scrap the legal and any other distinction between "NAGPRA cultural property" and "ARPA cultural property" and just treat it all as the archaeological and cuiultural heritage of the entire territory of the USA. Because that is what it is, whether the human communities it represents were black, white, red, yellow or green. We are nearly there—the finish line is in sight. The law still has to pass through the Senate, and so more activism is still planned. Probably the US dealers involved in profit-making from the currently unrestricted trade of these items will also be lobbying.

*The reasoning behind those moves is that if the "brown-skinned foreigners" are not unilaterally deemed by a Committee in Washington to be doing enough to protect their cultural heritage from the looters and smugglers, the USA need not bother, let US collectors just grab as much as they can too. That rather negates the whole sense of the existence of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which is to prevent such imbalances being the source of resentment between states party.

Thursday 2 December 2021

Tackling the Global Antiquities Market of the 2020s - Working with a 1960s Mindset

UNESCO report on the fight against illicit antiquities trafficking just out. The Fight Against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property: for a Strengthened Global Dialogue; summary of the conference 2021.The commong agenda of priorities is both preductable and disappointing.
- Working towards universal ratification of the 1970 Convention
- Enhanced international cooperation in applying the Convention
- Raising awareness and training professionals in the cultural sector and the art market
- Supporting the restitution of seized objects.
So, basically, faffing around rehashing the mode of approaching the problem embodied in a fifty-year old "convention" that is not fully honoured by all the nations that are states parties (USA for example applies it selectively). The 1970 Convention reflects the form of the antiquities market at the end of the 1960s and has very little application to the current form of the antiquities market. This seems to me to be a conclusion that UNESCO could draw itself from the reading of the four-yearly national reports (1970: Art 16) they get - if they even read them and states parties put any effort into writing them properly. The vague Art 3, that should be a crucial element of discourse, remains a dead-letter definition by virtue of the fact that the majority of states party to the Convention (let alone anyone else) do not apply the crucial Art. 6,7 and 8 consistently (or at all). Article 11 does not cover all the eventualities, as for example Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc are not under occupation by a foreign power. Article 9 is abused by the USA and, as far as I am aware, the measures outlined have not been implemented anywhere else in teh past 50 years, even if it were clear precisely what the waffle-text means.

Most importantly, in my opinion, while lip service is paid to Article 10, it has never been properly and consistently implemented at a state level in any of the states party to the Convention (would be glad to be corrected on that if I hhave maligned anyone there). And this article 10 is iteself a very good example of the poor drafting of this whole document, it includes vague mentions of three separate, and crucial, issues treated together (public awareness, a [permanent?] register of items passing through ["antique"] dealers' hands, and this is the only place in the whole document that mentions the damage done by looting).* The report mentioned one of these issues: "Raising awareness among the general public is also a major challenge and requires thorough media coverage of events concerning the protection of cultural heritage. This observation led UNESCO to draw up and publish a manual for journalists. This need to raise awareness among the general public is also behind the creation of the International Day against Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property, the first of which took place on 14 November 2020, as well as France’s organization of an exceptional exhibition at the Louvre featuring works that had been looted and later seized by the French customs."So, again, really about smuggling rather than the looting and issues concerning collecting as a whole.

Certainly, the time has come to try and collaborate, internationally (and why not under the umbrella of UNESCO?) in the creating of a new Convention, one that addresses the present state of the market (including its rapid internetisation since 1995), that addresses the new generation of sellers and buyers - very different from the 1960s. Tragically there is not a word about this in the recommendations of this report. Why? Aswering that will tell you a lot about UNESCO and ICOM/ICOMOS et al.

* what is pretty generally not recognised is that this document is not about looting (though see preamble point four, articles 5(d)?, and 10(b)) but only smuggling and "illicit transfer of ownership" (i.e., commerce). Yet it is the looting of sites that should be an equal concern, yet is almost totally sidelined in the existing document.

Vignette: This is the world the 1970 Convention was written for: Leonid Brezhnev and Mohammed Reza Pahlavi meet in 1970.
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