Thursday, 4 February 2016

Are US Customs officials issued with crystal balls?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the United States has passed a bill (HR 1493) that is designed to "protect and preserve international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters, and for other purposes". The bill is largely in response to UN resolution 2199 (2015) which seeks to prevent trade in archaeological and historical artefacts removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, thus providing a disincentive to loot in those countries.

I note that Peter Tompa, lobbyist for the American coin trade, has posed an apparent conundrum on his blog:
"The major remaining concern deals with how such restrictions will be implemented.  Will the State Department and US Customs revert to standard operating procedure and restrict items solely based on them being of a type manufactured in Syria hundreds or thousands of years ago? Or will the governing UN Resolution and statutory intent be honored so that restrictions only apply to artifacts illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war?"
I'll pose another set of questions to Peter Tompa: how does he expect officials in the State Department and US Customs to be able to distinguish between artefacts that have been "illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war" and those that were removed before it? Is he under the impression that officials in the State Department and US Customs are issued with magic crystal balls as part of their standard equipment?

Or, despite his earlier reluctance to acknowledge the obvious solution regarding restrictions on Egyptian antiquities, will he finally be urging his trade clients to recognise common sense this time and ensure that they only import and deal in Syrian antiquities with at least some kind of documentation to show the items were out of Syria long before March 2011? (It is wise to bear in mind that the old principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is not implemented in civil cases in quite the same way as it is in criminal ones.)

Royal advisers and government officials may still possess all sorts of powers but I think even Peter Tompa will have to accept that their powers of divination have been severely curtailed since the days of Merlin.

Monday, 28 December 2015

British tabloid reveals the truth about detecting?

An article in a British tabloid ("Is there a fortune buried in your back garden? As metal detector sales soar, we join Britain's treasure-hunting boom", Daily Mail, 22 December 2015) - brazenly in the "Money" section - has elicited an enthusiastically approving response from an American coin dealer that the world of metal detecting is "not what Barfy would have us think it is" (presumably referring to criticisms of some of the more thoughtless aspects of the hobby by Paul Barford).

Indeed, I'm sure the dealer is quite right ... because Ruth Lythe, a writer for the Daily Mail, knows far more about archaeology than archaeologists. The best way to discover our past is for tens of thousands of people to dig up as many metal bits out of the ground as fast as they can in the hope of finding treasure and making a fortune. How could any archaeologist or historian possibly object to that?

(For those unfamiliar with British humour, I'll provide a hint that there may be a degree of sarcasm hidden in my post.)

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The REAL meaning of "primary source"

Ah, I made the mistake of assuming that Dave Welsh (the "owner of Classical Coins" referred to in my previous post) knew what the phrase ""primary source" meant. He didn't. Since his response to my blog post was on a members-only list, I'll quote only a tiny extract:

"[Primary source] means "a source of the first order of importance." That specific meaning is well understood among historians. Knell perhaps did misunderstand its meaning, not being a historian."

I'm never quite sure which irritates me more: the fact that so many of Welsh's statements are utter rubbish or the smug conviction used to state them. At any rate, as usual, he is quite wrong.

Since other people may also be unfamiliar with the historiographical phrase, I'll try to clarify it ...

I suspect Welsh is confused by the word "primary", looking no further than its popular and commonest definition as "being of chief importance", whereas in this case the word is meant in its more academic and rarer alternative definition as "being earliest in time".

To an historian, the phrase "primary source" means only one thing and one thing only: the earliest evidence extant (e.g. an artefact or a document). Such evidence is typically, though not invariably (Ambraseys, Melville and Adams 1994), original.

While such evidence would normally rank first in order of preference to historians seeking reliable material, the word "primary" in the phrase has nothing to do with that rank. The word refers solely to the fact that, unlike a secondary source, the evidence is as close to the matter being examined as possible.

Nor does the phrase necessarily correlate to the "order of importance" in the composition of a work. A scholar compiling a history of, say, a town may find that by far the most important source for his narrative is earlier published books but, unless they are first-hand accounts, they are unlikely to be a "primary source" - whereas a tatty old deed, verifying a minor event so incidental that it warrants only a footnote, would be.

The sole criterion for "primary source" is the degree of originality, not importance. The fact that the source is original, and therefore more reliable, may well be of huge importance - provided that it imparts information of value - but that importance is not what defines it as "primary".

The real meaning of the phrase is indeed "well understood among historians". To turn the snide comment made by the owner of Classical Coins back on him: Welsh certainly did misunderstand its meaning, not being a person in the habit of bothering to check facts before making statements.

Sadly, it seems he knows as much about historiography as he does about archaeology. And the blindingly obvious fact that archaeological materials provide a major source of original evidence highlights the insanity of his remark that "archaeology is not a primary source for the development of history".

Both archaeology and numismatics can provide a "primary source" for historians. It's not some kind of bizarre competition - but I'll explore that fantasy contest in another post ...

Monday, 7 December 2015

A classic from Classical Coins

As someone who ardently supports the private ownership of some antiquities, I cringe almost visibly when an individual who one would think also supports that belief makes such a stunningly brainless remark that the general public would be forgiven for wondering whether private individuals should be entrusted with being allowed to dress themselves let alone own an antiquity.

Some remarks are so outstanding in the sheer plumbless depth of their nonsense that they deserve an award at least for their entertainment value if nothing else. There would be no shortage of candidates, particularly among those made by some members of the ACCG, but a strong contender for this year's nomination must be this recent pronouncement by the owner of Classical Coins:

"... archaeology is not a primary source for the development of history, while numismatics certainly is." 

I'll just leave that there - with little further comment - for the sublime majesty of its jaw-dropping inanity to fully sink in.

I'll merely note that 'history' is a rather broad concept - and involves somewhat more than only kings, queens and politics. For instance, while archaeological research has frequently played an invaluable part in compiling studies of past interiors in my own sector of social history, I'm scratching my head trying to recall when coins played any part in it at all. But my distress is minor; it must baffle the owner of Classical Coins to distraction trying to work out how on earth historians have somehow managed to know so much about ancient societies such as early pharaonic Egypt or Minoan Crete before coins were even invented.


If readers are unsure of the meaning of "primary source", please see my explanation.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Yugoslavia anyone? A future for Syria and Iraq ...

Hmm, so the West (Britain and France) created two huge artificial political "nations" named Syria and Iraq by simplistically drawing lines on a map during and after World War I - largely based on competing imperialist claims to oil but almost completely ignoring the ancient tribal/cultural differences of the regions within those artificial "nations" they created. And now, surprised at the lack of homogeneity and the inherent violent internal rivalry caused or inflamed by their short-sighted creation and exacerbated even further by their bungled attempts to "fix" what was already wrong to begin with, the West's proposed solution is to simply bomb one of the most bitter factions into submission.

Yeah right, like that's gonna work ... because a sure way to stop people being bitter about perceived inequality and injustice - so bitter in fact that their desperate situation provides a fertile breeding ground for extremists to gain power - is to make them even more bitter. 

'Islamic State' is a symptom of the frustration of that wider faction, not the cause. A lasting solution to the crisis in Syria and Iraq can only be achieved by addressing some of the basic causes of the bitterness and hostility rather than merely snipping at the symptoms. One of those causes was compounded by the political insensitivity of the West in the early 20th century.

Nations that have formed and evolved naturally over the ages tend to have done so because the overwhelming majority of its population throughout its territory broadly shares a common culture. But a "nation" created artificially by outside powers may have no such natural unity. The fabrication of arbitrary political boundaries that ignore substantial internal populations of opposing cultures can so easily be a recipe for injustice, violent friction and even genocide. Where the government of that "nation" is a dictatorship, the result can be humanitarian disaster and even where it is ostensibly a democracy, the result can be the subjugation of a very sizeable minority to the overall will of a hostile majority and widespread abuse. 

There may come a time when Syria and Iraq can overcome the difficulties of fairly and peacefully accommodating a diverse population but, in the meantime, it may be worth considering proposals to divide the territory at least temporarily into districts that more sensitively reflect the current gulfs. 

But I guess bombing people is so much easier than the West admitting the borders were totally mucked up in the first place, helping to renegotiate them properly and sensibly to reflect the reality of people rather than just oil this time around, and redrawing the stupid map.

Yugoslavia anyone? Maps - and the practice of lumping inherently incompatible cultures all together into the artificial "nations" created by them - are NOT immutable. When the old cartographic divisions so obviously ain't working and instead are causing human suffering on a massive scale, change them!


My apologies for veering from the primary topic of this blog but I am somewhat irritated by the reluctance of the West to fully acknowledge its part in contributing to this situation and to take responsibility for helping to resolve it in a sensible manner.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

"Shut yer mouth" diplomacy

You probably know the type. Here in the UK, some of us occasionally have the misfortune to come across them in the pub. If they sense you are new to the pub and see you are alone, the type - usually a somewhat ageing gent dressed as if the 21st century had never arrived and whiffing vaguely of an aftershave that must have been banned as a health hazard since the 1970s - will sidle next to you and perhaps even offer to buy you a drink. You feel slightly irked by the sympathetic look flashed to you by the bartender as he hands you the drink - after all, the elderly gent seems quite scholarly and benign - until the horrifying truth dawns during the eternity as you sip it. The bartender knows the regular clientele only too well. You've been cornered by the type - a species which in less politically correct times might have been uncharitably referred to as a 'windbag'.

Torn between a compunction to remain polite and an urgent need to find any excuse to leave the pub - at some points, even the planet - you listen as the type endlessly drones on in excruciating detail about his homespun theories on Dubonnic coinage, you try to look suitably impressed while he repeatedly drops the names of the myriad obscure scholars he once met into his monologue, and you hover on the brink of extinction while he tops it off with random snippets of half-grasped Jungian philosophy.

"Gosh," you exclaim politely, while eyeing the tempting distance between the bartender's fruit-knife and your wrists.

"I know more about the coins of the Celtic Coriosolite coins than anyone else in the world," the type responds modestly (Moneta-L, 30/7/08). He then proudly goes on to add that he collects them and that although he has never had any formal training in archaeology, he knows far more about it than people who have. And those archaeologists or anyone else who disagree with him are just suffering from 'enantiodromia' (turns out he's rather fond of big words, especially those used by Jung, and, you suspect, even more especially those he feels will showcase his unrivalled erudition and overawe you).

For instance, despite the overwhelming view of most archaeologists, only he and his inner circle know that in fact "there is no such thing as an archaeological record" (Past Times, 8/12/14).

"Really?" you rashly dare to question, caught off-guard while preoccupied with checking you still have a pulse. "I thought the archaeological record was very important and that one of the reasons museums and antiquity collectors should avoid buying items without a provenance was that it would encourage looters to destroy the record to supply them."

At this point, a bemused smile plays over the type's face as he regards you with a look between contempt and pity. You are not, after all, even remotely in his league of superior knowledge and intellect. "I see nothing wrong with buying an unprovenanced item if it can tell us things apart from that detail," he patiently explains with an air of pained condescension (AncientArtifacts, 8/8/10).

Inwardly, you wonder if trashed archaeological sites are really just a "detail" and if the historians looking at bulldozed Roman remains in places like Bulgaria would see things in quite the same way as the mental giant facing you. But you sense that any attempt at rational discussion would be a mind-numbing exercise in futility. You wisely say nothing, you gulp down the rest of your drink and, muttering that you just remembered your house is on fire, you make a frantic dash for the door.


By now, I dare say readers may have sussed that my light-hearted portrayal of this fictional 'type' is loosely based on a real person and the quotations are his - though in real life the venues are online forums and a blog rather than a pub (I hope he wouldn't really corner an unwilling listener in the latter and, for that matter, I really know nothing about his fashion sense or aftershave). I've mentioned him anonymously before - and in case he fails to see the funny side in being the inspiration for a fictional character, I'll respect his feelings and keep it that way. I'll just refer to him as 'Anon FSA'.

While Anon FSA himself simply dismisses any views that diverge from his own as the drivel of a mere mortal - a "moron" as he once described me - and likes to depict those differing views as paltry "squabbles", there are others who rush to grab their (hopefully metaphorical) baseball bats - and this is where it gets serious.

His pseudo-academic ramblings have deeply impressed some more extremist members of the metal detecting community and they have eagerly seized on his cavalier attitude to genuine archaeology as if his assertions were authentic scholarship and gave them carte blanche. One in particular, John Howland (I've mentioned him once or twice too), has aligned himself like some kind of Billy Bunter crony.

If anyone has the audacity to actually challenge Anon FSA's pronouncements instead of making a "frantic dash for the door" (as in the fictional scenario above), Howland will use every means he can think of to silence them. Apparently frustrated by an inability to form cogent thoughts or express himself in reasoned discussion, he resorts instead to playground bully tactics and engages in puerile name-calling and veiled threats. The latter consists of feverishly tracking down any personal details about the individual he can find - photograph, address, telephone number - and publishing them as widely as possible. It's clearly designed as a form of intimidation - pretty much the equivalent of a thug's "we know where you live, mate".

Since some scholars have been on the receiving end of this form of intimidation and are rightly concerned about the safety of both themselves and their family (one has received death threats over the telephone), the tactic is particularly vile and correctly condemned.

The blame for this incitement to thuggery lies not only with Howland but equally with those who allow him to publish his venom on their blogs. After seeing that Anon FSA had happily allowed two of Howland's poison intimidations as comments on his own blog and clearly supported them, I sent him the following comment on Thursday, 5 November ...

J***, while our views on archaeology and other things may differ, I had always respected you as a man of honour and integrity. I am now utterly shocked. 
While I have criticised the views of other people on my own blog, sometimes even with a degree of sarcasm, I would NEVER and have NEVER debased my criticism to such a personal 'ad hominem' level that I would even DREAM of publishing (or allowing commenters to publish) any details of their private lives - including addresses, telephone numbers, insurance numbers and so on. Such tactics are a form of gutter-level intimidation and play absolutely no part in any scholarly debate. 
I expect such tactics from your commenter; I do not expect you to permit or condone them. Blogspot allows the owner of the blog to vet comments before they are published or to retroactively remove them.  
In the meantime, I remain appalled. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, I would hope that you of all people would understand the standards of academic discussion and also appreciate the risk of bringing the Society you have the honour of belonging to into disrepute. Please restore my respect.

So far, almost a week later, Anon FSA has not published my comment but those of Howland remain. I still remain appalled.

Friday, 30 October 2015

"There is no evidence" that these antiquities are fakes

Let's be clear: the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes and some of them can be difficult to spot. Dealers in antiquities may handle hundreds or thousands of items over a long career and it is inevitable that even the most expert and honest dealer among them will inadvertently offer an occasional fake now and then. Even major museums can be fooled sometimes. But if common low-grade fakes or replicas that should not fool a myopic tourist persistently occur with tedious regularity among a dealer's stock, a line has been crossed. If that dealer has been in business for a very long time and we can reasonably expect them to have acquired a great deal of experience, we have to question not only the dealer's expertise but the honesty of their intentions. Such a scenario would undermine the credibility of the antiquities trade as a whole.

Back in April this year, after an earlier post querying some bronze lamps, I questioned several items that had appeared in the stock offered by Artemission, an antiquities business based in London and owned by Antoine Karawani, a committee member of the Association of International Antiquities Dealers (AIAD). In my April blog post I candidly but unwisely stated my opinion on the authenticity of those items. Artemission objected and asked Google, the blog host, to remove both the blog post itself and any links to it in its search results on the grounds that my post was "causing serious financial and reputation damage" and that it contained "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks which are presented as ‘facts’ when there is no evidence to support the claims". Google complied.

Fair enough, I have no wish to damage an honest business. I will NOT state my opinion on the authenticity of those items. I will NOT make any "defamatory and unsubstantiated remarks". And, to avoid any unfair loading in search results, I will NOT even include the name of the company in the post title or URL.

Instead, I will merely present the same selection of seven items I queried in my original post (items sold as fakes or openly as replicas on eBay or other venues by other sellers are on the left, very similar items offered by Artemission are on the right) and just politely ask Mr Karawani himself to explain why he feels that his items (those on the right) are authentic. Perhaps my concern is misplaced. In the meantime, I will remain silent and make no comment one way or the other.

(Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

I'm hoping the owner of Artemission will be able to clarify the reasons for the worrying similarity and, while we're at it, perhaps he can also explain why the inscription on his example of an "incantation bowl" apparently lies OVER the burial deposits. I am familiar with these artefacts and I confess to being a little baffled. The inscription does not appear to be Aramaic as described and I would have thought that if it were contemporary with the bowl, the inscription would lie UNDER the deposits formed during burial. Just curious ...

I am also curious about quite a few other items that have appeared in the stock of Artemission but Mr Karawani seems a little touchy about having his stock questioned so I'll just swallow my curiosity about those.


The legal complaint requesting removal of my original blog post asserted that "The individual(s) behind this link are intent on damaging our company". Not so. I should clarify that in fact I have absolutely no personal grudge against Mr Karawani (I have never met him) nor do I have the slightest personal interest in damaging his particular company (I am neither a rival dealer nor a disgruntled customer). I am utterly impartial. My blog is not intended as some kind of witch-hunt; any mention of individuals, companies or organisations in the posts is simply incidental to an overall theme.

My interest is in the image of the antiquities trade as a whole and, as I have previously done with other dealers (e.g. here and here), I reserve my right to question or criticise ANY member of that trade who in my opinion may not be helping that image. Karawani is not only a member of the AIAD - an association proudly displaying the slogans "Purchase with Confidence, Trustworthy & Transparent Trading, Dependable Dealership, Reliability & Good Faith" - he is on the Executive Committee. The reputation of a member reflects not only on the credibility of the association to which he or she belongs but on that of the entire trade.

As I said, the antiquities trade is notoriously plagued with fakes. In common with merchandise such as fine art, autographs and other antiques, a key component in the financial value of an antiquity lies in its authenticity. A painting by Van Gogh or Picasso will not be accepted as authentic unless the dealer can prove beyond doubt that it is. The same must apply to an antiquity. It should not be a matter of having to provide evidence that an antiquity is fake; the onus must lie with the person selling the item to prove that it is not.

Nowadays, when scholars such as Elizabeth Marlowe and Oscar White Muscarella are questioning even museum objects unless they have a cast-iron provenance back to a documented excavation, the days of simply taking a dealer's word at face value are over. And when a dealer's response to questions is not to answer them but to simply stifle them by threatening legal action, the slogans of trade associations like the AIAD begin to look somewhat hollow and unconvincing. Is that the image the antiquities trade wishes to project?

Do such actions promote the aura of trade openness and transparency that conservationists have been campaigning for over the last few decades?


While I warmly welcome constructive comments from the owner of the business mentioned in this post, I would be grateful if other people refrain from passing any definitive judgement on his items in the meantime.

Note: Although made merely as a reproduction or tourist souvenir, an item becomes "fake" when deceptively offered as the real thing.



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