Friday, 25 February 2022

Nothing to See Here, Leave That, Let's Move on

The Finlandisation of archaeology goes on with more kowtowing to the object-fetishists.... 

Bonnie L. Pitblado, Matthew J. Rowe, Bryon Schroeder, Suzie Thomas and Anna Wessman (eds) "Professional–Collector Collaboration Moving beyond Debate to Best Practice" Advances in Archaeological Practice Cambridge University Press: 24 February 2022.

"Moving beyond Debate to Best Practice" oh. Where was this "debate" then? Where was the "debate" on what actually is or even can be "best practice" when dealing with collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record? Is this kind of collaboration in site trashing really an "advance in archaeological (sic) practice", Cambridge? The abstract: 

This article introduces the first of what will ultimately be two collections of case studies in archaeologist–responsible/responsive artifact collector collaboration. Focused on the United States, the articles in this issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice share the thoughts and experiences of archaeologists representing diverse employment sectors (compliance, agency, museum, and university), artifact collectors, and members of descendant communities. Research areas extend from California to Virginia and from Ohio to the Texas/Mexico border. The breadth of the writers' backgrounds and their focal regions reinforce the wide applicability of collaborative best practices. Every author explicitly treats two subjects: (1) the intersection of their work with the Society for American Archaeology's (SAA) recently published guidelines for ethical professional–collector collaboration, and (2) their own practical suggestions for establishing and nurturing those relationships. This introductory article provides an overview of each of the other contributions, notes how the contributions articulate with the SAA guidelines, and offers its own, mostly philosophical suggestions for prospective members of professional–collector collaborations.
The rest of the article then follows on. There are undoubtedly those among this text's audience that feel that there is more to world archaeology than some parochial "SAA guidelines" and there is also more than one type of legislation than that of the two countries (USA and UK) where pro-collecting views are strongest. Who is a "responsible" or "responsive" artefact hunter in Greece, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland, China, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia? Can the five authors explain how their collaboration model works there? 

The five authors agree that "ethical collaborative partnerships [with responsive collectors - PMB] are attainable, will improve understanding of the past and protection of the material record, and can (indeed, must) respect all  -not some —people with a vested interest in the past". These authors say they want to move beyond "an oversimplified debate to focus instead on how to appropriately foster relationships between heritage professionals and responsible private collectors". They then go on to point out that in the USA,
The SAA defines “responsible and responsive stewards” as private individuals who legally collect or own artifacts and who share archaeologists’ desire to learn about the past, rather than exploiting the material record for personal gain. The latter point is crucial, because it recognizes that collectors are not a monolithic subculture of evildoers. Rather, they collect for diverse reasons that are not necessarily antithetical to archaeological and even Indigenous goals and values [...]. Conflating and construing all collectors as “looters” is unproductive and fundamentally nonanthropological
Is it? Perhaps the issue here is of focus. The authors are confusing agency with effect. The looters of Isin or el Hibeh, Apamea, Dura Europos, Wanborough and elsewhere may be jolly good citizens, caring fathers, brothers and boyfriends. Some of them may also be history lovers, coin collectors and birdwatchers. Whatever their motives and background, from the archaeological and conservation point of view, it's the holes they dug and dig that is a problem. And that is irrespective of whether they dug those holes because everybody else in the neighbourhood was and they  enjoyed the company, and were curious about what they could find, rather than going to "exploit the archaeological record for material gain". In any case, what does that mean? If holes are dug and material things taken out and kept, that is indeed material gain. The collector has gained a collectable (and got it without paying a dealer for it). Is that not too "material gain", whether or not the collector then reads a few online articles pages to help narrativise it? 

These five authors accuse those who question what they are saying as engaging in "oversimplified debate" without wanting themselves to actually debate the fundamental concepts they are glibly skipping over. They declare themselves ready to "move beyond" something they apparently consider to be beneath them to discuss in detail

They confidently assert that the "ethical collaborative partnerships" that they advocate will, allegedly, "improve understanding of the past". Except when they do not, I guess. But of course those cases where it does not are somehow explained away as "not being best practice" or "responsive" enough. Archaeology was "not trying hard enough" to turn out the silk purses from secondhand incomplete scraps of information from an episode of unmethodical collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record here and there. 

They skip over facts like that in the best documented case, the PAS in the UK, that's eight in nine cases are NOT "respons/ive-ible". I'd like to see the figures for Denmark and all the other countries where artefact hunters are held up as exemplary poster boys - but I guess there is a reason why those numbers are nt being boasted about. So where does that put their model and where does working with some domesticated archaeo-friendly collectors get us as a whole? 

As for saying that working with this minority "will" (sic) "improve protection of the material record"... Pardon? Possibly what they mean by that term is not the material record itself, but just the ripped-out objects, the collected arrowheads (or whatever) and not the sites and the information in the uncollected assemblages of debitage and unworked raw material a site will contain. 

I think if you take a site-focused view (and WHY NOT?), and see the degree collectors (collaboration offered or not) are not "responsive" to anything but their own selfish interests, then this is simply a false statement. Wishful thinking refusing to look at the realities. And yet we are the ones  five authors insultingly accuse of engaging in "oversimplified debate".  

Those realities are expressed by the discussion around the creation of an Institute of Detectorists in the UK. the home of "responsible detecting". Take a look at any collectors' forum to expose the realities.  

I really must take issue with the pomposity of "partnerships [...] must [...] respect all, not some, people with a vested interest in the past". To my mind this includes all non-collectors who have a vested interest in the archaeological record (their archaeological record) not being looted away into collectors' pockets, destroying the context. It does not matter how transparent those pockets are, the destruction of archaeological evidence by those hoiking them out willy-nilly is something that all people aware of the problem should be fighting against. Not listening to those dismissing it as a non-problem. And who should be making the general public aware of this damage? Why... there are several international documents that make this clear that it is not the task of librarians or train drivers. So where are the archaeologists who should be doing this? Up their ivory tower fondling some bits of metal that some bloke found in a field for them and gloatingly putting another dot on their distribution map and singing the praises of "partnership".  

1 comment:

Brian Mattick said...

"Archaeologist–responsible/responsive artifact collector collaboration" is clearly always going to always a minority phenomenon. See Britain after 20 years of such talk, one in nine.

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