Saturday, 12 July 2014

Visit to the Flat Earth Society

I made a statement in the comments on a recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". It was in reply to an ACCG lobbyist for coin dealers who is intent on downplaying the part played by collecting in encouraging looting and blaming everyone else for it instead.

Whereas the purpose of an archaeological excavation is to gather information, the sole purpose of looting is purely to dig out objects that provide material or monetary gain. While a few looters, like those in ancient times, may dig in the faint hope of finding gold or other items of intrinsic worth, it is indeed "blatantly obvious" that most looters today are motivated by the far more realistic hope of finding things that are given high monetary value by the black market of the antiquities trade. In the basic logic of economics, as long as indiscriminate collectors continue to provide a 'demand', looters will be encouraged to provide a 'supply'.

In my innocence, I had thought my statement was so patently self-evident that I wasn't really expecting it to be contested. It was pretty much like saying water is wet or fire is hot. Sadly, I had not counted on the amazing logic-defying acrobatics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). To be fair, I do remember another member of the ACCG refusing to accept that looters are motivated by the monetary value of antiquities years ago - but I thought that even the ACCG had long since given up that quixotic attempt at denial. But nope, they are still at it.

In a move apparently calculated to push the ACCG into the same league of denial as the Flat Earth Society, Wayne Sayles, its Executive Director, challenged my statement with the riposte that "I think that is an inaccurate characterization". On his blog ("A Shot in the Foot", 6 July 2014), he went on to say ...
"I'm not sure in this case who "the rest of the world" is, but Knell's statement did not seem all that obvious to me, and does not comport with scholarly opinions that cite poverty as the primary cause of cultural property looting."
Aha! Poverty. So presumably, poor people take up looting as a pastime simply to relieve their boredom, toil away in the baking hot sun just to get a fashionable tan or go digging deep into the soil because of some irresistible mole-like instinct inherited from primordial ancestors. That must be it. Who am I to argue with "scholarly opinions"?

Oh wait ... seeing as they're so poor, the motivation for looting couldn't be because they might make money from it, could it? You know ... the money paid by middlemen and dealers and ultimately the collectors they supply? Nah, that would be just another convoluted way of saying that collecting provides most of the motivation for looting. Which sort of brings us back to my statement - the one that "did not seem all that obvious".

I'm not entirely convinced that looters, typically in organised gangs often armed with bulldozers, metal detectors and other sophisticated machinery, represent everyone's idea of "poverty". Helping to relieve genuine poverty is indeed a worthy cause but if Sayles really is concerned about poor people, I would have thought a more constructive approach would be to urge his clients to plough their money into supporting foreign charities, schools and hospitals rather than subsidising the destruction of archaeological sites. Encouraging destitute people to destroy their own cultural heritage just so you can drool over the goodies is known as 'taking advantage' of them, not as a humanitarian gesture. But in an attempt to justify his priorities, Sayles adds ...
"Eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins clearly would not eliminate looting. Some scholars have said as much publicly and at least one did so in the recent Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearing in Washington DC."
Ah! The trusty old 'straw man' argument again. It's not a question of eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins; it's a question of eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) the indiscriminate private collecting of ancient coins. Collectors need to be able to distinguish between coins that have been around for years and those that have been freshly looted. As I've said countless times, it ain't rocket science.

No, of course careful collecting would not eliminate looting - but it would be a giant step in the right direction. Sayles then tries to justify his 'straw man' argument ...
"One reason is that the trade is truly worldwide and repressing one market would simply divert the flow to another. Should American collectors be disenfranchised simply to make a meaningless point? Universal market repression is simply not going to happen."
Ah! The old "if elephant ivory is quite openly sold in China and the whaling industry is legal in Japan, why shouldn't we do that too" argument. Why do I keep seeing the same old tired excuses trotted out over and over again? There are tens of thousands of coin collectors in the US (a huge "flow"- so hardly "meaningless") but the economic dictum that demand stimulates supply apparently falls on selective hearing in this case. And I'd prefer to think that American collectors were ethically enlightened rather than "disenfranchised". Does a man prevented from snatching purses from little old ladies feel "disenfranchised" too - just because other people get away with it?

Sayles goes on to invent another justification ...
"The other reason is that those who loot ancient sites will inevitably find precious metal objects that can be melted down for bullion if not sold intact. Many who are familiar with Middle Eastern bazaars know very well that this is precisely what happens to many coin finds irrespective of national or international laws."
Yup, I've already heard this old chestnut too. For those of my readers who haven't drifted off by now, I'll just remind them of my statement: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". Precious metal items are quite rare in ancient sites and the effort put into gathering ordinary coins for scrap value is hardly likely to be worthwhile on a large scale. Few looters are going to expend enormous amounts of time and energy in the extremely vague hope that they just might chance upon something of intrinsic worth or a couple of kilos of old copper; they do it in the reasonable expectation of finding things that will repay their effort - common things given an inflated value by demand from the black market of the antiquities trade.

Sayles ends with a dark warning ...
"So, what is the point of this blog post? Simply that this sort of nonsense is not doing Archaeology any good."
I'm not quite sure why he thinks those working in archaeology would do better to turn a blind eye to activities that threaten to destroy the evidence that sustains it. One would suppose that anyone advising members of a profession what they should or should not do would have at least a basic knowledge of the topic but his later sentence reveals that he hasn't got even a vague idea of what archaeology actually is ...
"Because of a misguided concern about common coins that are sold legally worldwide and that archaeologists have traditionally ignored?"
No, it is not a "misguided concern"; the protection of evidence is a fundamental principle. Archaeology is about information, not just objects for their own sake. Sayles is confusing it with looting. It makes absolutely no difference how common the coins are - the looting of common coins causes every bit as much damage to sites as the looting of rare ones - archaeologists are concerned about the loss of information caused by their brutal removal, not just the coins themselves. Some in the profession may have tolerated such philistinism in the past but people are far more aware of conservation issues today and, as I keep trying to point out, times have changed.

As a former collector myself, I fully understand the pleasure of collecting and I firmly support its future. But it does need to be carried out thoughtfully. A denial of facts that are indeed blatantly obvious is akin to being a "flat-earther" and merely opens the hobby to scorn and ridicule. Perhaps worse still, it perpetuates a common perception of all collectors as rapacious introverts who will invent any shallow excuse to exploit the archaeological resource for their own selfish ends. Sadly, it seems the ACCG circle of coin dealers is hell-bent on doing precisely that.

In his BAR comment, Sayles compared looting in Egypt and Britain. Paul Barford, an archaeologist, aptly described the activity of digging up archaeological objects purely for personal entertainment and profit as "Collection Driven Exploitation" (CDE) no matter where it takes place. I think that all-encompassing phrase covers it very well. Barford also posted an excellent response ("A Shot in the foot? Or Somebody Else's Despicable Verbal Tricks?", 6 July 2014) to Sayles's other points. Well worth reading.

----------------

Brief reply to the silly comment below the post on Sayles's blog:
"Knell is a collector of classic [sic - I think he means 'classical'] oil lamps of the type regularly uncovered from Roman and Greco-Roman habitation sites [sic - most are recovered from tombs]. Why he imagines that his collecting ethics motivate looters less, than say, other equally licit collectors, continues to be a source of humorous speculation."
No, Knell was a collector of ancient lamps. I stopped. I doubt that many looters are going to be motivated by someone who doesn't buy their loot.
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Image: an ACCG coin dealer's view of the world?


Friday, 4 July 2014

A way forward?

My previous post about the response to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review has received a lengthy comment (split into two parts) from Rasiel Suarez, the coin dealer whose remarks I focused on. Rasiel has clearly spent some time composing his comment and rather than leaving it in relative obscurity, I have attempted to highlight his main points and reply to them properly in a new post. (The entire unedited comment is here.)
"I should probably know better than to write in defense; given the tone it's clear your perception of me and other ancient coin enthusiasts is long past the point where reasoned debate has any prayer of swaying opinions. All the same, I'll make an exception."
It is in the hope of "reasoned debate" that I am highlighting your comment in a post of its own. In that spirit, I have overlooked some of your less constructive statements rather than attack them and tried to focus more on the positive points you raised. Any "tone" you may perceive in my previous post was caused by the sheer frustration of apparently hitting my head against a brick wall.
"Your "solution" did not meet with stony silence as you say. It met with rightful ridicule. Let me reiterate: there is no such thing as a market where one may buy faultlessly provenanced coins."
Rasiel, you're inventing 'straw man' arguments again. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from current and future looting. That's it, nothing more. It's a simple and realistic goal; let's not confuse it with the higher ethical standards set by museums and institutions. We are both agreed that in the majority of cases coins in private hands cannot be "faultlessly provenanced" back to 1970 or whatever to meet those standards but that has nothing to do with the goal we are seeking to achieve. As I said in my previous post, all dealers need to do in order to discourage current and future looting is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot. It's really not rocket science.

Recording coins need not involve "official-looking writeups, licenses, stamps and concomitant minutiae of bureaucracy". By "record", I mean simply document the coins in a way that is not easily open to abuse and forgery. The primary objective is to 'date-stamp' them. I proposed a system for doing that nearly five years ago.

Of course, it is not an ideal solution from the viewpoint of those seeking to redress real or imagined past wrongs - nothing can magically create a genuine 1970 provenance out of thin air - but that is not its goal and it is a huge step forward in the right direction. It sounds as if its basic concept is not too different from what you set up on your own website (I haven't seen your version in detail since it requires a log-in): "a free service that timestamps a record of your coin along with pertinent information (including provenance) which at the very least lets the world know a date of possession..." That sort of thing is precisely what is needed and I applaud you for setting the ball rolling.
"Whether freshly excavated or recycled from a hundred previous auctions what the collector ultimately cares about is filling a hole in his or her collection."
What the rest of society ultimately cares about is filling gaps in the knowledge of their history and protecting the means of doing so from collectors who think of ancient coins like baseball cards. There will always be collectors of that mentality around but there is a limit to the time that the rest of society will pander to them.

The figures in your market barometer are interesting but irrelevant. Regardless of whether the market is growing or shrinking, the fact remains that coins are still being looted from archaeological sites and most dealers provide no means of distinguishing them from coins that have been around for years.
"... you've already admitted to owning coins you know DAMN well came from some location you'd rather not dwell too much on ..."
Nope, I don't feel guilty at all. I've already dealt with the guilt aspect in my previous post. What I'm trying to discuss is the prevention of current and future looting. You're conflating two different issues.
"On the other hand, looking at things from your perspective, you know that if there is no current "neat" solution to acquiring what the public desires then that demand will still get met one way or the other."
Indeed, but which "public" are you ultimately more worried will pose a greater threat to your business and coin collecting in general? If you mean the few thousand or so people who collect ancient coins, then yes, a proportion of those collectors will do anything to get their goodies. If you mean the millions of other people who care about history but don't give a toss about the people who collect coins, then they will gladly back any legislation that protects what matters to them - even if that legislation is unnecessarily harsh and bans collecting altogether. The trade needs to get THAT public on their side by cleaning up their act and showing that dealers care about history too. Ignore the majority of the population at your peril.
"Rather than take the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative - to a commercial base that would by all appearances be quite receptive even - you instead choose to bellyache over looters running wild blog after pointless blog from your bedroom pulpit urging us evil collectors to mend our ways. Have at it, then."
(As a former web designer, let me just explain terminology to avoid confusion before I reply. I think Rasiel means "post after post". A "blog" is a website that the posts are published on. I have made dozens of posts but I have only one blog.)

I would be happier if you had bothered to read through my blog before criticising it. As I said, I have already taken "the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative" nearly five years ago. The original post is here and there are follow-up posts here and here. It's not exactly hidden.

I have no interest in setting up as a coin dealer. What I am proposing is an online registry for coins and other antiquities. It must be funded of course but first, let's be realistic. Apart from the PAS in the UK, few elected governments will ask their taxpayers to fund a scheme which will merely help a tiny proportion of the electorate to carry on private collecting; they are more likely to take the cheaper and politically more popular step of simply banning or severely curtailing private collecting altogether. You could approach the government - but I wouldn't hold your breath.

A more likely source of funding is the private sector. Registration itself would need to be free or at least minimal. Revenue would have to be based on a form of advertising. Auction houses and large trade businesses dealing in ancient coins and other antiquities would receive a tremendous boost to their corporate image by being seen to back and sponsor such a public-spirited 'green' initiative directly related to what they do. They can spin it any way they want.

I worked for a large utility firm here in the UK at one time. You would be amazed at the obscure causes they sponsored just to be seen as 'green'. They may well have been secret cynics inside the boardroom but corporate image was vital.

The opportunity is there for you and the rest of the trade to expand the concept you already have on your website into a much broader vision, and fight the negative image of the trade by proactively showing the public that you really do care about the conservation of history and the environment. I will gladly work together with you. By all means, let's "have at it"!


Monday, 30 June 2014

Over 10,000,000 ancient coins is not enough

An article published in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review ("Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins", by Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist) dared to point out that analysing an archaeological site is much like investigating a crime scene and that looting ancient coins destroys a vital part of the evidence ...
“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”
The announcement of the article was greeted with a long series of hostile comments by outraged coin dealers and lobbyists, some of them trying to convince us that the innocent article was all part of a dastardly political plot to prevent anyone collecting ancient coins. One amateur lectured the archaeology professor on what archaeology is, another darkly threatened that coin collectors far outnumber those wishing to conserve historically sensitive sites, and so on.

Among the more disingenuous tactics used by the coin dealers and lobbyists was the alarmist 'straw man' argument set up by a dealer who specialises in importing ancient coins in bulk from the Balkans and elsewhere. The simple explanation why he has “yet to see a compelling reason why John Q. Public should not be allowed to own ancient coins” is that no one has ever said he shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with owning ancient coins; I own a few myself. The theme of the article merely emphasised that buying ancient coins blindly will encourage looters to source them by trashing archaeological sites.

Apparently miffed that anyone would question his right to trash archaeological sites, the dealer then set a challenge to suggest an alternative source - "a viable source of ancient coins where one may purchase free of guilt" - clearly thinking that that was impossible.

I think "guilt" is all relative. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from looting. The only looting that can be prevented is that taking place now or in the future; it’s a bit late to stop the looting that took place in the distant past and a bit late to feel guilty about that. The real “guilt” is in encouraging the looting to continue.

Since I am very familiar with how the ordinary antiques trade works, I would have thought that “a viable source of ancient coins” is blindingly obvious. Antiques are sourced through auctions, fairs, markets, other dealers, collectors, and so on. The coin trade is forever droning on about how many millions of ancient coins are already in private collections. Wayne Sayles estimated some 10 million of them over ten years ago (Ancient Coin Collecting, 2003, p.76). Yes, that is 10 million ancient coins just in private hands - and constantly being recycled on the market at some stage - not those tucked away out of reach in museums.

In reality, I suspect that Sayles's estimate is far too conservative and the true figure today is likely to be in the several tens of millions at least. The unrelenting import of huge bulk lots from the Balkans and elsewhere must have boosted the figure enormously in the United States alone over the past decade or so. Nevertheless, even if we accept 10 million as the very bare minimum for the sake of argument, the amount of ancient coins in private hands is truly staggering. All the trade has to do is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot and collectors can purchase them relatively “free of guilt”.

My solution met with stony silence. Many collectors of other antiquities are quite happy with recycled items - typically treasuring the record of past ownership as part of their provenance - but I gather that is not the case with these coin dealers. Recycled ancient coins are not good enough. Like some demonic vision out of a vampire movie, they simply must have fresh blood. The coins must be fresh. Not satisfied with the mere 10 million ancient coins they already have, they are desperate to encourage and justify the continued trashing of archaeological sites so they can have still more.

I have to wonder when is enough going to be enough for them? Perhaps when every single site on the planet has been obliterated just so they can make money and their customers can salivate over yet more fresh goodies? Will that suffice?

Note: My compiled image (at the top) is not intended to depict ALL dealers or collectors of ancient coins but it seems to be a worryingly accurate portrayal of a significant proportion of them. If anyone thinks the bulldozer shown is an exaggeration, please note just one example of many.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Out of the fire and into the frying pan?

In a post bizarrely entitled "Better Burned then Smuggled?" (I suspect the word he is looking for is "than", not "then"), Peter Tompa has slammed "UNESCO and the Iraqi cultural bureaucracy" for complaining that rare Iraqi manuscripts have been stolen from libraries in Mosul and smuggled into Turkey. He naively seems to think that stealing the manuscripts was a good thing as they will now be safe.

I rather doubt that either UNESCO or Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage would want the manuscripts to be endangered by immediately returning them to a location under threat and let's be clear: the act of looters stealing them was unlikely to be an altruistic rescue operation. They are probably being smuggled into Turkey to be sold on the black market, where they are very likely to be broken up (disbound and covers discarded) both to avoid detection and because flogging individual leaves fetches a higher price than the whole. If Tompa innocently believes the rare manuscripts will remain intact - or that even bits of them will ever see Iraq again - he doesn't know the darker side of the antiquarian book trade very well.

The manuscripts have escaped the vague risk of being burned into the near certainty of being mutilated beyond recognition. Are the authorities really wrong to be concerned?

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A priceless comment below the post also caught my attention. An English detectorist uses the occasion to have a go at Paul Barford ...
"With people being slaughtered on an industrial scale in Syria thousands made homeless refugees, and with increasingly savage and vile atrocities reported on every news bulletin, what does Barford see as the pressing issue to complain about in Syria? Antiquities."
In his frenzy to attack the archaeologist, the detectorist appears to have missed the title of Paul's blog: "Portable ANTIQUITY Collecting ..." Just a wild guess ... and I may be going out on a limb here ... but perhaps the blog is likely to be about antiquities? Dunno, just a thought ...


Friday, 20 June 2014

Old chestnuts from ACCG - only fit for roasting

Do you ever experience a weird moment as if you were in some kind of supernatural time warp, a place forever suspended in another era? I had such an experience today while reading a blog post by Derek Fincham ("On chasing the looting/terror connection", 19 June 2014).

No, not the post itself. I largely agree with Fincham's point that the part played by antiquities looting in funding terrorism may be exaggerated - and the credibility of those who sensationalise the connection could be damaged. It was the comment below the post that caused the eerie experience of motionless déjà vu as if caught in a warped space-time continuum - a comment made by Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers) .

In his comment, Sayles mentioned: "The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has extended a standing offer to engage in serious discussions with archaeological community decision makers with an aim toward establishing manageable parameters in the legitimate trade. The hoped for response has not been forthcoming."

Now where have I heard that before? Ah yes, it was over four years ago (and I suspect the tired claim is far older than that - frozen somewhere in the Jurassic). It was all about the ACCG "reaching out" to the main archaeological groups. That all sounds fine but the stunningly uninformed proposals made by the ACCG in their sham attempt at "serious discussions" are so laughable that the lack of response by those members of the archaeological profession who managed to keep a straight face was probably just as well. Perhaps the ACCG should count itself lucky.

Apparently hurt by rejection, Sayles looks back wistfully at the days when academia and coin collectors "once enjoyed a symbiotic relationship" (perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase since it very often refers to a host exploited by a parasite). I have great respect for Wayne Sayles as a numismatic author but he really has got to accept not only that times have changed but understand the reasons WHY they have changed.

Among the more obvious of those reasons are the vastly increased risk to heritage caused by modern technological advances such as detecting machinery and global internet marketing, and a rational shift in emphasis of archaeological methodology. It's the 21st century now. Many people, including a lot of those dratted academics, are far more aware of issues that were not fully recognised decades ago. For one thing, we are now aware of the massive danger that collecting coins and other antiquities poses to archaeology unless carried out with a bit more care than the feeble advice given by the archaic ACCG.

It's no good repeating outdated arguments that may have seemed valid in a less enlightened era. The generation of today simply won't fall for them. The ACCG logic is still mired in a fantasy vision of the distant past - while the rest of the world, Toto included, has long realised that we're not in Kansas anymore.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Detectorist sighs "I just don’t get it"

The president of the Society for American Archaeology, Jeff Altschul, voices his frustration at the damage done by metal detectorists and other treasure hunters on public land in Idaho and elsewhere ("One Man's Treasure", Boise Weekly, 4 June 2014). Referring to the artefacts that are being pilfered, Altschul patiently explains:
"It's important that those items sit in the dirt. Once it gets out of the dirt, if it's not recovered adequately, it's just a thing on the shelf. It has no importance to history. You've lost the entire story of what that piece meant, and you lose all ability to reconstruct the past, the settlement of the West and how people lived. These are generally not the people in history books; they're not wealthy. The only thing that remains is the archaeological record. If you take that out, the story is gone. All it does is sit on your shelf."

His phrase "recovered adequately" clearly means meticulously recorded and excavated by trained professionals in a forensic manner, with full regard for its context (the whole site, any related structural remains or features, stratigraphy, associated objects, and so on). That is the only way that the object can help to reveal the entire story of its past instead of ending up as just another meaningless bauble in someone's private home.

It all seems patently obvious to me but an American detectorist cannot understand: "I don’t know about you but I am damn tired of hearing this. It gets old real fast! ... Jeezus I just don’t get it." I gather he is 73. I'd hazard a guess that if the penny still hasn't dropped by now, there is a strong chance that it never will.

He appears to be under the weird impression that his treasure hunting is really some kind of frantic rescue operation, a sort of self-appointed one-man task force in a desperate race against time. Even though some of the artefacts have already sat quietly buried for at least over a hundred years, he seems to think that he is saving them from some imagined catastrophe about to strike any second - all for the public good of course, despite the fact that the artefacts will have now been forever robbed of any context that may have given them meaning and instead are likely to end up as just another piece of useless bric-a-brac in his private home. In addition, the sites where the artefacts were found will have now been devastated too - thoughtlessly stripped of evidence that may have helped to interpret them.

Curiously, the detectorist even objects to the use of the word "steal" by one archaeologist referring to private people taking things from public land. He says the use of the word is "totally uncalled for and just wrong. Do detectorists sell their relics or historical finds?" I appreciate that the detectorist is no longer in the first flush of youth but unless definitions have changed dramatically over his lifetime, I suspect that someone going into a public park and taking the benches, lamp posts or flowers has always been known as a thief, regardless of whether they sell them or not.

The British Museum is also public property. That doesn't mean a single member of the public can go inside and simply help themselves to anything they want. Most things described as "public" belong to the public as a whole entity, not to individual members of it.

Meanwhile, the ongoing battle of people like Altschul to preserve what remains of the archaeological record - so that future generations will have the chance to know a bit more about their past than they can ever discover from denuded objects scattered in private hoardings - continues. The battle would be easier if many other people were not so utterly clueless about what "saving history" actually is despite having it carefully explained to them over and over and over again.

(Clue: discovering history relies on context, NOT just objects.)



Wednesday, 4 June 2014

How reliable is the PAS database?

In recent examinations (here and here) of the database used by the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to record archaeological artefacts found by members of the public in England and Wales, Paul Barford, a British archaeologist based in Warsaw, noted that several of the coins he spotted in his search had a questionable origin. Since the artefacts do not derive from scientific excavations, perhaps a degree of unreliabilty is to be expected but some results are quite alarming.

Some objects are clearly not derived from the archaeological record of England and Wales at all but are likely to be modern imports from another country altogether. While a proportion of these were perhaps lost by a modern collector or discarded by heirs unaware of their value (I know of an ancient Egyptian ushabti that now lies buried somewhere in a local landfill), some of them are likely to have been deliberately 'planted' as a joke or their findspot fabricated to enhance their resale price on eBay (a PAS record suggesting a British find raises financial value considerably). It is not difficult to see how the PAS database could also be used to launder foreign artefacts lacking a licit provenance.

I know little about coins so I tested the PAS results myself with a search for 'lamp', an artefact I am more familiar with. Roman lamps are a relatively rare find in Britain and the search took little time to go through. One of the Roman lamps was recorded as a "chance find during metal detecting" in Essex. That chance find would be more credible if the lamp was not a Syro-Palestinian type (Kennedy Type 5) found almost exclusively in the Levant and not brought into Britain as popular tourist souvenirs until modern times.

Another lamp, also described as "Roman", is recorded as having been found in Kent and only "identified from photograph". In fact, the lamp is not Roman at all; it was made during the Hellenistic period (more precisely the 3rd century BC) in the Eastern Mediterranean. While nothing is impossible, it is extremely unlikely that it ever formed part of Britain's ancient archaeology.

It was also a trifle disconcerting to see that several artefacts entitled "Unidentified Object" (e.g. here) were nevertheless classified as "Object type certainty: Certain". I'm not quite sure what that means. Does it indicate that the cataloguer is certain that they are not certain?

At any rate, that's just a quick glance at the limited number of Roman lamps recorded. I have no idea how many, if any, of the metal finds (buckles, fibulae, keys, coins, etc.) were actually modern imports from the Balkans and elsewhere. From what I've seen so far, my confidence in all of them really being found in Britain is not high.

The PAS system is often touted as a perfect panacea to unrecorded looting - and a model for other countries to follow. To be fair, I suspect it was only ever envisaged as a pragmatic compromise, a form of 'damage limitation' to appease the metal detecting lobby, and it also works well for genuinely chance finds. It could be argued that without it the situation would be worse and no finds recorded at all. But sadly, the PAS is inherently open to abuse.

What serious scholar can rely on the PAS to compile studies when so many of its records are likely to be polluted with false claims? Is the scholar expected to take pot luck, perhaps basing the study on the sheer number of finds in one location and desperately hoping that some laundering dealer didn't pretend to have found a dozen Bulgarian brooches in a small area? Or realistically, in many cases where accurate data is a must, is the whole system too flawed to be reliable enough for practical use?

If the PAS really is ever adopted as a model for other countries to follow, perhaps we can all look forward to some truly unexpected delights: a Ban Chiang jar discovered in Guatemala or a Haida totem pole turning up in Egypt. I may be exaggerating but personally, in the meantime, I would treat any study or survey based on it with a caveat the size of Stonehenge. At least we know Stonehenge really was found where it was purported to have been found. And I feel safer classifying that as "Certain".

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