Thursday 6 January 2022

UCL Seminar series on 'Researching Illicit Antiquities'


Ethical Challenges in Researching (Il)licit Antiquities (Term II UCL Institute of Archaeology thematic series)

"The goal of this seminar series is to present the multifaceted, multidisciplinary nature of research investigating issues surrounding illicit antiquities – defining what illicit and licit antiquities mean, highlighting the ethical complexities of dealing with such objects archaeologically, including the legal, ethical, and political considerations involved. The series brings together scholars from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to discuss policies, data collection and publication, material analysis, and sociological modelling of trafficking networks, artefact status, and human agencies involved in dealing with looted material nationally, internationally and transnationally. Over a period of 10 weeks we will combine archaeology, museums studies, law, sociology, and heritage research to work towards a better understanding of the analysis, publication and display of global (il)licit antiquities and cultural objects".
"Event Information: Open to all, cost: free.
Organisers: Alice Stevenson/Summer Austin/Kevin MacDonald

Mondays, from 4pm GMT, via Zoom
January 10: Sam Hardy (Research Fellow in Cultural Heritage and Conflicts, Norwegian Institute in Rome, University of Oslo) - Cultural property crime and human security: organised crime and conflict financing
January 17: Katie Paul (Co-director and founder, ATHAR project) - Title tbc
January 24: Silvia Forni (Senior Curator of Global Africa in the ROM's Department of Art and Culture) - Title tbc
January 31: Sophie Hayes (Detective Constable, Metropolitan Police Antiques and Arts Unit) - The Art of Organized Crime
February 7: Jacques Schuhmacher (Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Provenance and Spoliation Curator, Victoria & Albert Museum) - Provenance Research, Due Diligence and Restitution’ or ‘The gold ewer: Provenance Research, Museum policies and Return
February 21: Gail Boyle (Senior Curator - Archaeology and World Cultures at Bristol Culture, Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives) - Putting the archaeology back into antiquarian: the Dr Fawcett Collection of typology
February 28: Christos Tsirogiannis (Associate Professor, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies) - Academics’ responsibilities and the market in unprovenanced and illicit antiquities
March 7: Emiline Smith (Lecturer in Criminology, University of Glasgow) - Title tbc
March 14: Morag Kersel (Associate Professor, DePaul College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) - Licence to Sell. The Legal Trade of Antiquities in Israel
March 21: Speaker tbc
All welcome! Any enquiries about the series may be directed to Alice Stevenson. Summer Austin should be contacted for Zoom links".

While it is always useful to have an open discussion of these issues and hear what researchers in the field have to say, the programme as presented invites a number of comments. First of all, this is the (my old) Institute of Archaeology - yet, from what one can see of the programme and the introductory blurb, this is a very object-centric approach. The subject of the looting/artefact hunting ["meta detecting" plus]/ collection driven exploitation of the archaeological record appears to be going to be treated marginally by the programme as a whole. Yet in archaeological terms, it is the central issue. This is a very British approach, born of the PAS, we even have here an 'Ixelles Six' idea that it does not matter how something left the ground, because "zero gain" can be turned around by "putting the archaeology back into antiquarian". Good luck with that, but what kind of "archaeology" is this? 

The number of "title to be announced" presentations does not instil much confidence that this programme has been put together with much thought. Even the title of the series seems to express lack of clarity about what is to be discussed - what are "(il)licit antiquities"? Seems to me that the organisers cannot make their mind up what the subject is going to be.

If the series is called "Ethical Challenges in Researching [illicit, licit, licit-illcit, illicit-licit?] Antiquities", my questions where are these ethics in the titles of the presentations that we know about? It's very trendy to say "we are going to discuss the ethics here..." but where are they? I think this is indeed a question that needs discussion.

In dealing with "antiquities" [ie decontextualised/trashed archaeological evidence/artefacts] what ethical concerns are involved both as archaeologists and also citizens?

- What are the ethics concerned in dealing with dealers whose livelihoods are involved? If you reveal they sell what are clearly fakes or potentially freshly-looted material (or both) what are the ethics of alerting the wider community to that - with the financial consequences that may have for the seller if potential buyers take note?

- What are the ethics concerned in dealing with collectors, whose money and reputation are involved?

- If a collector asks a researcher questions about the objects, what are the ethics involved with answering/refusing to answer them?

- Is it ethical to handle (let alone publish) artefacts in a private - or public - collection about which there is doubt about their licit origins? At what stage, if any, is it possible to ignore those doubts?   

- Accessing information in "netnographic research" when it involves entering closed communities (social media groups, members-only forums), and eventually later quoting material seen there as evidence?

- What about engagement or lack of engagement as a voice in such situations? How to react to something archaeologically/socially damaging being discussed in such closed venues [which would reveal the researcher's presence]?

- Buying something from an online trader to get access to information (name, address, bank details that can then be passed on) not otherwise available?

- Being witness to potential or possible criminal activity and not reporting it to relevant law enforcement authorities? What about watching a dealer sell what the researcher recognises as the result of their specialist knowledge as fake after fake and failing to report them? This is a disservice to the members of the public lacking that specialist knowledge that are being defrauded through that professional negligence.

- It was in 2021, I received the rudest, most obstructive and dismissive reactions from the Portable Antiquities Scheme to perfectly civil and justified requests for information about items and situations described in the public domain for my research. I can understand that they're not very happy that I am not one of the thousands of PAS yes-men/women - but they are a public funded body and the archaeological resource is a common good, so what are the ethics involved here?

I am sure there are many more, some of which overlap into general professional ethics and responsibilities and some of which occur with varying intensities in different countries (despite the UCL calling itself a "global university", the situation concerning antiquities in the UK is in no way comparable to the situation in the majority of other countries, so perhaps this is not the place anyway to attempt to be a centre of such discussions). 

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