- Firstly, archaeological excavation has been hugely aided by modern techniques and with the increasing sophistication of site interpretation, object-based studies have been largely marginalised in the main thrust of archaeological field methodology. It has become increasingly accepted even among the general public that objects, while extremely important, are only part of the overall picture.
- Secondly, antiquities collecting is no longer the quiet backwater it was a few decades ago. It has become fashionable and popular. The ravenous hunger for yet more and more objects to be ripped from the ground is nowadays fueled by an increasing population with increased leisure. It is aided by modern technology such as metal detectors and by modern international marketing through the internet, and has escalated utterly out of control over the past two or three decades - far beyond anything our forefathers could have imagined.
Saturday, 22 January 2011
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
First, a word about terminology. In general use the words 'provenience' and 'provenance' are synonymous, merely variant spellings of the same word. In speaking of artefacts however, it has become common to distinguish them as having separate meanings: 'provenience' is commonly taken to refer only to the actual findspot where an artefact was excavated; 'provenance' is much broader and includes the findspot but is more often used to refer to the history of an artefact after it was found, where it was subsequently kept, when it was sold, who owned it, etc. There is no absolute consensus but for the sake of convenience I will use the terms in those senses in this post.
In a post on an antiquities forum, a neophyte collector has mentioned the importance of provenance. A specialist collector of Celtic coinage and other artefacts (and editor of the ACCG Newsletter) has grabbed the chance to pooh-pooh the importance of "provenance" by replying with a few comments which belittle the significance of findspots - but completely misses the point.
A narrow perspective is all too common among many collectors, particularly it seems among those who collect ancient coins. In fact, the neophyte collector was discussing antiquities in general and my comments below address that broad overview.
Judging by posts on blogs and forums, there is a large number of collectors who cannot see the wood for the trees. They are so obsessed with the artefacts themselves (the trees) that they seem to think that the context (the wood) is only important if it provides more information about the artefacts. Their whole world revolves around the objects. Their concentration is understandable but it can easily become an extremely narrow "object-centric" universe.
The Celtic specialist shrugs that proveniences "can tell us only so much as this sort of material often traveled far from its origins". And goes on to say that "If there is no [provenience] and no archaeological context, much of this data can be reconstructed, functionally, from other types of data -- metallurgical analysis, typology, art history etc."
Well yes, I dare say it sometimes can - but that's not the point. The purpose of excavating an archaeological site is not just to provide information about objects found there.
It is not just what the site (provenience) could have told us about the object, it is what the object could have told us about the site.
Indeed, the objects themselves may be of comparatively minor importance. Archaeological excavation lies in carefully deconstructing and examining an ancient site, not just the objects buried in it but the site itself - the whole site, the way it was constructed, the way the finds were distributed, their relationship to the site, to structures, to features, to human remains and to each other, what they contained, and a million other tiny details. The finding of a foreign object (something that "traveled far from its origins") may also be significant. It is by putting all those details together that a meaningful story may emerge.
And when objects are looted, the tragedy is not only that the objects have lost their context (as the Celtic coin collector pointed out, the objects may still have some value anyway), it is that the context has lost its objects. In other words, the site has been robbed of the finds that would have helped to meaningfully interpret it. And in many cases, the site has been totally trashed to retrieve them.
The greed of a looter has destroyed a special opportunity to add to our knowledge of the past. A personal greed has trumped a rare and precious boon for all the rest of us.
That brings us to what the neophyte collector may have really had in mind about the importance of provenance, the record of an object after it was found. A provenance can reassure a collector that the object has not been excavated recently, and that by adding it to their collection they are not supporting a modern looter. A provenance gives the collector an opportunity to avoid contributing to the ongoing wholesale destruction of the archaeological record. There is a great deal of value in that - but only to a thoughtful collector who is genuinely interested in history rather than one who sees only the trees but not the wood.
Sunday, 23 May 2010
But I don't think that the ACCG is stupid for one second. I suspect rather that the idea that the ACCG is trying to win the approval of archaeologists is merely a pretence, a deliberate smokescreen. Anyone with a functioning braincell knows that the archaeological profession would never accept the ridiculously flawed proposals of the ACCG. The ploy seems designed to give the impression that the ACCG is really trying very hard to please but the poor things cannot progress - when in fact the reality is that the ACCG deliberately chose an impossible goal as a delaying tactic, a way to keep the status quo while pretending to be concerned.
ACCG officer Dave Welsh rather let the cat out of the bag with an unguarded post on an antiquities forum. When archaeologist Paul Barford suggested registering what is "already on the market in order to create a watershed beyond which it will be increasingly difficult to insert freshly dugup material" as a way to avoid contributing to ongoing looting, Dave Welsh made it clear in his reply that he would have no interest in such a scheme because all he wanted was a "system for recording provenance which you and others in the archaeological community will accept as proving that an item is licit".
Huh? Only magic could suddenly produce the 1970 provenance required by archaeological institutions out of thin air. In other words, it seems this ACCG officer deliberately set an impossible (and irrelevant) requirement because he had zero interest in establishing such a system for its own sake - to curb looting.
Cut the pretence, ACCG. It won't wash. If the ACCG genuinely wanted a solution it would take a different approach...
Forget the AIA. Forget archaeologists. Talk to the same people they are talking to: the general public. They are the people whose opinion matters most and the people who ultimately cause new legislation. The public see the problem of looting. They want a solution. If and so long as the only solution the public hears is that proposed by extremist elements in the archaeological community, that is the only one they can consider. Give them a sensible and workable alternative.
The public want to see someone actively working to diminish looting and the carnage of archaeological sites. That 'someone' doesn't have to be an archaeologist. Wouldn't it be ideal if the action came from dealers and collectors?
I quickly drafted a proposal for an International Antiquities Registry last year. It addresses the suggestion made by Paul Barford. It needs a few creases ironing out but it is achievable - and it has the potential to create a superb image of dealers and collectors who really do care. It has met with stony silence.
For the record: I am very much in favour of collecting ancient coins. It is a fascinating and stimulating hobby. Likewise, I support responsible dealers in the ancient coin trade; I just think the ACCG is doing a hideous job of representing them. The ACCG might do better if it didn't underestimate the public's intelligence and their ability to see through transparent tactics.
False dichotomy: you're either with us or against us
In the few hours it was originally posted the post had a comment by Peter Tompa, a member of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a lobby group for American coin dealers).
I have now posted his comment and my reply to it below since the original post is rather old:
Cultural Property Observer said...
Your blog is interesting, but I think you are being a bit naive. I can say quite forthrightly that collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues, but without any success or even much interest. Unfortunately, the AIA, the main archaeological group in the US, demands provenance information back to 1970. You don't have it and you are said to encourage looting. The current AIA administration is quite a bit more polite than its predecessor, but the message has not changed. The AAMD was basically bullied into accepting the 1970 date and I see no move to suggest anything otherwise for private collectors. One of the truly sad things is that archaeologists that do want to continue good relations with collectors and reach some accomodation have been intimidated from pursing the issue openly. A number of archaeologists I know refer to their bretheren as "radicals" themselves. You may not agree with some or all of the positions of groups like the ACCG, but the ACCG and coin dealers have no power to blackball collectors who disagree. "Hardline" archaeologists do. The prospect of having one's excavation license pulled by a source country based on complaints that an archaeologist is "soft on looting" by being "soft on collecting" has been enough to keep the silent majority in the archaeological community silent indeed about reaching an accomodation with collectors.
19 February 2009 02:34
Thank you for your comments, Peter.
The publicity of the carnage of archaeological sites such as Ratiaria sickens everyone, not only academics but the wider public. It is very clear to the general public that the ultimate cause of the destruction is a demand for artefacts by collectors. Since most people are not collectors themselves, they will endorse the only solutions presented to them - including those presented by the more extreme elements in the archaeological profession. Present another solution.
"collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues ..."
But they haven't 'reached out' with anything even remotely worth seriously considering have they?
Proposals to stiffen policing thousands of sites in poorer countries with very limited budgets and far more pressing priorities aren't very serious. It also strikes me as rather like the classic burglar's excuse to a householder: 'don't blame the thief; you deserve to have your things stolen if you are not able to afford better locks'.
Neither are proposals to implement a PAS system in such poorer countries to be taken lightly. The scheme is extremely expensive to operate in a country with comparatively minor finds such as England; the cost in major-artefact-rich countries such as Egypt or Greece would be astronomic.
Equally unrealistic are proposals for museums to sell off their 'surplus' holdings. The collections are held on behalf of the public. Such holdings are required for potential research in the future and even though the items may number in the thousands, they are finite and would provide only a very temporary source of income anyway.
Nor are proposals that the initiative (and funding) for implementing a registry system should come from the preservationists themselves (archaeologists and the general tax-paying public) going to go down very well. Dealers and collectors are the ultimate cause of much of the looting; the preservationists are merely pointing it out.
Small wonder then that such feeble proposals have not met with "any success or even much interest". To put it bluntly, they ain't going to fly. But perhaps you knew that (see my post on the ACCG)?
Several factors can contribute to looting - and it may well be encouraged by such things as the short-sighted policy of some governments in implementing a blanket state ownership of all artefacts with little or no compensation to the finder regardless of the circumstances in which they were found. But the most obvious and visible cause is the market demand for antiquities. And it is the general public (not just archaeologists - 'hardline' or otherwise) who are increasingly demanding a solution. Give them one.
The 1970 watershed advocated by the AIA is indeed unrealistic for minor artefacts but so far the ACCG has offered no alternative and no compromise. That is not my idea of 'reaching out'. Until the ACCG genuinely endorses a sensible proposal to distinguish between artefacts from old collections and those from fresh looting, and thus eliminate or at least reduce the antisocial stigma that antiquities collecting has acquired, responsible collectors will have no option but to remain in the middle ground.
Thursday, 8 October 2009
It seems there is no real wish to consider such a scheme. But there are three other things to consider in the meantime...
1) Collectors making a purchase will continue to have to rely on former owners and their heirs keeping and passing on those extremely rare and easily faked little scraps of paper to know the provenance of an item (uncertain even then unless accompanied by photos) instead of simply looking up its IAR number.
2) Since the huge majority of minor antiquities do not even have the little scraps of paper anyway, collectors will continue to have no real way of knowing if most of the items they buy are really from old collections or from fresh digs - and thus still no way of knowing if they are contributing to the ongoing wholesale destruction of the world's heritage or not.
3) When registration of antiquities does come (and it surely will) it will be forced on us by government legislation - very likely with all the draconian bureaucracy and overkill such laws normally entail, and almost certainly including owner details (bureaucrats love that sort of thing even if there is no reason for it) - instead of being a self-regulated voluntary scheme which would have given collectors an excellent image.
I think Nathan Elkins has highlighted part of the root of the problem on his own blog. I suspect that many dealers have no strong desire to upset the status quo and some American coin dealers (who represent a large proportion of the trade in antiquities) have indeed organised a lobby which actively campaigns not to upset the status quo. Concerned collectors, on the other hand, have no lobby and no organisation.
It is true of course that dealers rely on collectors for their livelihood. But until concerned collectors become a large and organised group with a united front many in the trade will continue to ignore them.
Friday, 2 October 2009
Bulgaria has an enormous archaeological heritage from many cultures and nearly all of it is being looted at an alarming rate but the Roman city of Ratiaria (Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria) is "the ultimate example of the carnage that has been going on in the last 20 years".
"... Ratiaria, once a symbol of the glory and might of Rome, has been reduced to a huge field of 20 hectares covered with craters and hills. The sight is unbelievable: the land has been overturned again and again, by machines and by hand. [...] At one particular time there were 17 bulldozers plowing Ratiaria at the same time!"
While the TV team were there, a busload of tourists arrived and Dikov comments sadly that "The poor people really believed that the craters they saw were what Ratiaria was supposed to look like; they had no idea that 20 years ago it had standing walls and everything else". Ratiaria had looked very different only a couple of decades ago.
Bulgaria has been blighted by unemployment and widespread poverty since the fall of the communist system, and the tragedy (and irony) of places like Ratiaria is not only the destruction of heritage for the sake of short-term profit but a sickeningly missed opportunity for a real money-spinner - a project that would have preserved the heritage and provided far more financial gain in the long term.
As the Australian journalist, David O'Shea, noted: "The real tragedy in a place like Ratiaria is that the people searching for treasure are looking for a couple of bucks here and there, where what they could be doing is sitting in a thriving tourist center. There could be hotels, and bars, and restaurants, and tourists everywhere just like there are in Rome, or Athens. That's the real tragedy."
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
What is the purpose of creating a registry?
Two of the greatest objections most collectors have about the idea of an antiquities registry are concerns about privacy and security. But not all registries are the same. There is not only one kind of registry.
Countries like Israel or Greece may use a registry to keep exact track of precisely where artefacts are – who owns them, are they licensed, etc. But that’s only their way of doing it, in their situation, in their political climate, in their position of being a source country subject to corruption and smuggling.
The purpose of collectors may be very different. As responsible collectors we want to achieve two main related goals:
- We want to diminish the destruction caused by looting and avoid making any contribution to it.
- We want to be able to distinguish between artefacts that have been circulating for years and those that have been freshly dug up.
Simple! That is our purpose in creating a registry. Thus...
It is the ARTEFACT we want to register, NOT the collector.
The two are not inseparably and inextricably joined together at the hip. Our primary purpose in creating a registry is to permanently determine the DATE (and hopefully location) an ARTEFACT was first recorded – thus giving us a means of distinguishing it from items newly looted.
It does not matter who or where its current owner is – whether they are Fred Bloggs next door or a Klingon on the far side of the moon. The owner’s details are utterly irrelevant and do not need to be recorded at all.
Neither does it matter whether the item is authentic or fake. The IAR would not be a means of authenticating objects. That has nothing to do with it; its only purpose is to establish the DATE when that object was first recorded.
Think of the IAR number as a serial number, a permanent date-stamp.
International Antiquities Registry (IAR)
There are only FIVE types of compulsory data.
1) IAR number (automatically assigned by the database software)
2) Minimum of two CLEAR photographs for identification
4) Size and weight
5) Date registered (automatically assigned by the database software)
Spaces for OPTIONAL data such as owner, provenance (if known) and other details would be provided but NOT compulsory.
The person entering the data would select from dropdown lists for type, culture, material and perhaps other categories.
1) Searching by IAR number
2) Searching by the categories in the dropdown lists (see above)
Those are the basics.
A few points:
1) Only the assigned category would be editable. The main five fields would be permanent to prevent tampering (e.g. substituting different photos of another item at a later date). Corrections of description or size or further photos could only be added to the original information (in a separate field), not replace it.
2) The IAR would be used to record items only over a certain value, say, £100. It would be pointless separately entering hundreds of identical beads or other extremely common items.
3) It would be the owner’s responsibility (and certainly in their interest) to keep a note of the IAR number with (or even inscribed inconspicuously on) the object.
4) If the IAR number is lost and the item has not been found by searching the database, the item would have to be re-registered afresh.
While the Date is the primary goal of the IAR, if we are to combat illegal trafficking fully it is also important to know what country the item is being registered from – and a sixth field for Location should ideally be added to the IAR.
It would be easy for the software to capture the IP and automatically get the country from that – but that is open to abuse (e.g. a Bulgarian sending photos to a colleague in the USA and getting him to register them before sending the actual items). But there are two points to consider:
1) We would still be no worse off even if items were being registered from a country where export is regulated. IAR registration is not a passport; the items would still have to be smuggled out illegally as they are now. And at least we have the benefit of a date; the items cannot have been excavated after that date.
2) A solution would be to allow only designated officials (say, local museums) to enter items on the IAR on behalf of owners (with the items physically present). The public would have complete access to the Search facility of the IAR but not the Entry section.
1) The initial cost of software programming. It’s really fairly simple and not particularly innovative. It repeats much of the off-the-shelf coding that’s already out there. I dare say I could code it myself (if someone wants to pay me for my time!) but I would want outside specialised help on top-level security.
2) The cost of hosting. The software itself would be tiny. The only large storage would be the images in the database but hosting providing gigabytes of storage is not prohibitively expensive nowadays.
3) The cost of maintenance. I suspect the site could be maintained by only one person, or perhaps two staff at the very most. It would also need to be checked every now and then by an outside web security firm to ensure it keeps up to standards. Not expensive.
Meeting the cost
Since the current trade in antiquities is believed to amount to several million dollars a year, I would hope that major dealers and auction houses would be pleased to subsidise a scheme that gives them a very good image in the public eye!
1) Being able to distinguish between artefacts that have been circulating for years and those that have been freshly dug up
2) Diminishing the destruction caused by looting by being able to avoid making any contribution to it
3) Public Relations: collectors would be seen to be actively doing their part to preserve the archaeological heritage – a far better image than the current one of being perceived by many as selfishly contributing to its destruction
I don't think anyone would seriously suggest that registration would completely destroy the illegal trade - there will always be a black market in any type of goods - although I do think it would be hugely diminished.
It would of course take time for the effect to be noticed but perhaps only a few years if the scheme were to be given enough publicity. Responsible dealers and ethical customers – and there are plenty of both – would increasingly come to accept that an artefact must be registered in order to be saleable or collectable. Those items which were not registered (unless demonstrably in the proverbial grandma’s attic) would be shunned by the huge majority of people in years to come.
At this stage, I envisage the IAR as voluntary, not forced by legislation. Stigma alone may be motivation enough – especially in a few years time. Not many people wear real fur, legal or not.
Just a few thoughts. I’m sure there are lots of points I haven’t considered. But bear in mind that any project – no matter how big - has to start somewhere. Details or even major points are ironed out along the way.