Monday 6 June 2022

Briton Goes to Jail for Artefacts

British geologist jailed in Iraq after taking artefacts BBC 6th June 2022

A retired British geologist has been jailed for 15 years for attempting to remove artefacts from Iraq [...] Mr Fitton picked up the stone fragments from Eridu, a historically famous archaeological site in southern Iraq [...] Mr Fitton was arrested at Baghdad airport on 20 March alongside German national Volker Waldmann [...] He was acquitted of the same charges as Mr Fitton [...] According to statements from customs officers and witnesses, Mr Fitton's baggage contained about a dozen stone fragments, pieces of pottery or ceramics.[...] They were charged under a 2002 law against "intentionally taking or trying to take out of Iraq an antiquity".
Look however hos the BBC disdainfully attempts to play down the charges:
collected 12 stones and shards of broken pottery during a recent geology and archaeology tour of the country[...] [...] has insisted he had no idea he was breaking Iraqi laws.[...] a trivial and dubious crime, a crime Jim was not even aware of when he perpetrated it [...] The archaeological site where Jim collected the stones [...] said he took the items because of his "hobby" but added he did not mean to do anything illegal
(Surprised there is no British Museum statement here).

Yes, fifteen years jail for a handful of sherds sounds a bit excessive in British terms. In the UK, any Tom Dick and Francoise can wander into many a friendly farmer's field with a Roman villa in it and take away bucket loads of them and do what they want with them. But these tourists went to another country... and not just a weekend trip to Cracow where the sight of half-naked drunken rowdy British tourists pissing in doorways and accosting local girls is something to which the locals (who are prevented by law from doing these things) are disgusted to have to become accustomed to. These tourists went to a specific country, Iraq. Mr Fitton was a geologist, so he will (should) be professionally aware that there are countries where the removal of certain geological material (palaeontological, even simple geological samples) is regulated or prohibited. So, this should alert him, even if common sense did not, to the need to check what the laws are on removal of other types of material - including archaeological objects.

The BBC seems to be thinking that an exception should be made for this Briton because... Unfortunately, that is precisely why the case should not have been dismissed, it needs to be shown that nobody is above the law. This applies to local boys on a scooter with a spade and a young family to feed as much as a foreign tourist jetting in for a jolly jaunt and wanting to do his "hobby" as he would as if he were at home.

Anybody who researches "portable antiquities" would after just a few minutes searching online be able any given day of the week, week after week, be able to show somebody like Mr Fitton on the UK and US (in particular) markets where they can buy genuine artefacts taken from Iraq ("unencumbered by excess paperwork"). We won't of course, but they are there, in among the very many more fakes. And it is exactly because they are there, and keep surfacing there, that this law exists.

Now both groups of artefacts are illegal, the ones found by Customs checking a traveller's baggage, and the ones found online (that got there from somebody else's unchecked baggage). But in legal - though not moral - terms, buying the ones already smuggled out is safer than smuggling them yourself. Leave that to the professional smugglers who know who to bribe. I do not think anyone has actually been jailed, not even fifteen days, for buying smuggled Mesopotamian artefacts in London or even New York. At worse they lose the artefacts and potentially their money and their names are kept out of the newspapers. Not even the dealers actually get into trouble, even when there is a false paper-trail (fraud), and their names are generally kept out of the papers too.

There are also (scarce) artefacts on the global market that actually do have documented as-kosher-as-can-be collection histories, the collecting of which nobody should have much of a problem with. Except they tend to cost far more than the ones with made-up "provenances" and Mr Fitton is now paying for not having invested in such collectables for his "hobby".

Sympathies to him and his family, but really taking up any hobby means taking the responsibility to spend aas much effort as possible to find out from reliable sources what legal constraints there may be, and also reflecting on the possible impact that hobby has on others (including how those others themselves see the issue). And certainly, what has happened to Mr Fitton should make collectors think a little on their own situation and relationship to the world around them. This activity does not take place in a vacuum, which this court case is no doubt intended to demonstrate.


Unknown said...

Frankly for a geologist on an archaeological tour to pretend he had no idea it was a problem (stuffing fingers in ears, lah,lah,lah) is just rubbish. Of course he knew. He may well not have intended to sell them, but he knew he shouldn’t be taking them.

Btw we knew each other in the past at Wroxeter. Long time….

Paul Barford said...

Yes, long time/small world, I was just writing a few days ago about coins the site in something I am putting together... Would love to go back there for a visit some time, but it's a bit far now.

Any reason why you are anonymous if we actually know each other, was it something I said?

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