Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Dispatches and the Missing Evidence

Having been approached by a member of the production team for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme for my input last year, I watched the final outcome with interest on Monday night ("ISIS and the Missing Treasures", Radio Times, 18 April 2016). For those who missed the first showing there are repeats and a streaming video. And Channel 4 has issued a summary.

The amount of preparation for a TV documentary is impressive and the team must find it painful that the project ultimately has to be ruthlessly edited to cram it into only 30 minutes. Although such programmes may draw on scholarly research, it is of course inevitable that their paramount objective is to attract as large an audience as possible within that short span. Thus, they tend to focus on 'popular', 'topical' and 'compelling' - sometimes even favouring the pull of being 'sensational' at the risk of overlooking a mainstay of true scholarship: impartial objectivity.

The catchy title - ISIS and the Missing Treasures - had an Indiana Jones ring to it. The programme did indeed promise to be sensational. However, I am not entirely convinced that the two main "treasures" featured had much, if any, connection to ISIS (also known as ISIL, IS or whatever other acronym is used to denote an organisation currently calling itself the Islamic State).

A carved stone lintel being offered by a minor dealer in Grays Market, a London antiques arcade, was discovered to have been documented as having formed part of a ruined Jewish building at Nawa in Syria in 1988. The lintel had no provenance and it is almost certain that it was stolen and smuggled - but the question is when and by whom.

The programme's title - plus strategic footage of Islamist forces - inferred the culprits were ISIS. But Nawa was captured by al-Nusra Front and other rebel factions, most recently in November 2014, and al-Nusra Front had already split from ISIS by the end of 2013. So, were the real culprits al-Nusra Front?

It is certainly true that civil strife fosters conditions that encourage and often facilitate looting but pinning the blame on any specific group can be difficult. In the absence of more information, all we can safely say is that the lintel was removed from Syria sometime after 1988 and it is quite possible that those responsible were simply part of one of the looting and smuggling networks that have existed in that part of the world for many decades.

The second "treasure" was a Quran advertised on eBay by a seller using the username 'london_oriental'. A team met up with the seller to examine the book in Copenhagen. A fragment torn from the top of an endpaper suggested that a previous owner's seal or inscription had been removed to hide the fact that the book had been stolen. Although the book was advertised as "Persian", an expert identified it as 19th/20th century and "suspect[ed] it was originally taken from a Syrian library". The freshness of the tear on the endpaper caused another expert to speculate that it had been "probably removed quite recently" (though in fact paper tears can remain fresh-looking for decades).

The book may well have been stolen from a Syrian library - but again the question is when and by whom. Objects stolen from various places have been filtering onto the black market for centuries.

The programme's caption on the Channel 4 website - "A battle to stop the Isis cashing in on looted antiquities is being waged in the UK" - expresses a noble aim but, even leaving aside the notion that a modern Quran is an "antiquity" in the first place, the documentary failed to track down a single object in the UK that had definitely been looted from Syria or Iraq since civil unrest began in 2011, let alone one that had definitely helped to fund ISIS.

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme was quite right to emphasise that buyers must insist on a provenance when considering the purchase of any object they even vaguely suspect may have been stolen, and it made attempts to give a balanced view of the situation. However, we are still left wondering why the media is fixated only on ISIS (it is far from being the sole reason for Syria's appalling loss of its heritage both before and during the crisis) and, despite wild claims, just how much money that organisation is really making from the sale of antiquities. And how many of those antiquities are really reaching the UK.

Even only one object is one object too many and we must be utterly vigilant but this programme did nothing to dispel the suspicion that the involvement of the UK market in ISIS loot may be greatly exaggerated. If it is not exaggerated, that omission is counterproductive. If it is, we are largely left tilting at windmills for the sake of sensationalism.


Images are screenshots from a named TV programme used for the purpose of review.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Simples! A quick response to a response to a response ...

Dave Welsh, an American coin dealer and member of the ACCG, remarks that 'decontextualisation' is "an obviously coined word that, along with many other coined words which are employed in a sort of archaeocentric doublespeak, has repeatedly been uttered ..." and suspects the whole subterfuge is all part of some sinister Marxist plot hatched by evil commies. (Before 21st-century readers pinch themselves to check what era we are in, I think it only fair to suppose that his part of California may be trapped in some sort of 1950s McCarthyesque time-warp beyond his control.) At any rate, his blog post ("Decontextualization", Ancient Coins, 4 March 2016) is a response to Paul Barford's response to a blog post by another ACCG member.

Yeah, these little reciprocal blog posts can go back and forth like farmhands slinging pats in a cowshed sometimes. But, never one to be discouraged, I thought it might be worthwhile to add a few pats ... er, words ... of my own. I'll address them to Dave Welsh ...

No, Dave. No matter how you want to spin it, conservation of archaeological resources has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism nor even solely with decontextualisation.('Decontextualisation' - yes, it is a proper word - mainly concerns only the divorced objects themselves; the notion of conservation involves preserving entire sites, where those objects come from, so the totality of evidence can provide a means of interpreting history.) Conservation is just a matter of having respect for the rest of society. Most people don't collect ancient coins but most people do have at least a basic interest in history.

A genuine provenance is a guarantee that an item was not recently looted. Every time you deal in an ancient coin with no regard for where it came from, you are encouraging others to do likewise and encouraging looters to continue destroying the evidence on which history is built in order to supply more of them. That continues in a never-ending cycle until every undisturbed site has gone. It really is that simple!

No amount of fluff and no amount of flannel can alter that fundamental fact. It really is that simple!

If Dave Welsh seriously wants to protect the future of ancient coin collecting as a socially-acceptable hobby, I suggest he opposes those who would ban it altogether with sound arguments and rational compromise rather than expose the trade to ridicule by consistently flying in the face of common sense. As it stands, he is in danger of being one of the coin trade's own worst enemies.


Note: For those outside the UK, I should clarify that the image refers to an old British TV ad in which a rather bright meerkat exclaims "Simples!" (he has a theatrical Russian accent) after he explains an obvious truth.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The problem with binary terminology

Dr Donna Yates has called attention on her blog (Anonymous Swiss Collector, 18 February 2016) to an event to be held on 1 March in New York: "Rethinking Antiquities: Restitution and Collecting in the Time of ISIS". She comments: "This should be an interesting event, clearly promoting an alternate view to the one that you’d usually see on this list: some pro-collecting, anti-regulation, anti-repatriation ideas."

I'm sure Dr Yates used those three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) merely as shorthand and is well aware of their shortcomings but, for the sake of argument and with apologies to Dr Yates, I'll examine them at face value.

Personally, I am not unreservedly pro-collecting, anti-regulation and anti-repatriation. On the other hand, neither am I unreservedly anti-collecting, pro-regulation and pro-repatriation.

Confused? The problem lies in a temptation to dumb-down a complex issue into a series of only two diametrically opposed attitudes, an attempt to reduce reality into binary thought. The process is akin to saying something is either 'hot' or 'cold' while ignoring the countless gradations of 'warm', 'cool', 'tepid' and so on in between.

Applying binary thought may work nicely at football matches or other fantasy conflicts. I hope Dr Yates would readily agree that it doesn't always work quite so well when applied to real life; it typically forces a false dichotomy. Simply put: in reality all three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) are far too broad to either support or oppose unconditionally.

My own reaction to those terms all depends on factors and parameters such as how those terms are defined, how they are qualified, how they are implemented and, very often, the circumstances of different cases and situations. Much of the danger in debates between those fighting for heritage conservation and those fighting to preserve a trade in artefacts lies in polarisation, a tendency to misunderstand, stereotype and sometimes demonise those holding a divergent viewpoint. At its most extreme, a debate can become a myopic impasse of binary thought - with no allowance for nuances and moderation.

I thoroughly agree with Dr Yates that this event should prove to be interesting. And I see it as an opportunity to openly consider and accommodate views from various perspectives - without any baggage of preconceptions and stereotyping. I wish I could attend.

Assemblage 23: Binary

The world isn't rendered in black and white
Other shades lie between
Don't view the world with binary eyes
We are human, not machine

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.



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