Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Outrage in Missouri

Humour - a vanishing resource?
Archaeologist Dr Donna Yates recently expressed her worry that her scholarly research on the origins of two Mesoamerican artefacts sold by the St Louis AIA may have enhanced the price fetched at Bonham's auction on 12 November. Scholars tend to avoid discussing unprovenanced antiquities on the principle that enhancing the commercial value of such artefacts may encourage looting. These items were not in fact in that category (they were well provenanced) but I still understand Dr Yates's position.

I posted this somehat light-hearted comment on Paul Barford's coverage of the event:
"Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep."
I thought nothing more of it but on revisiting Paul's post a few days later, I was surprised to find that my brief comment had provoked an outraged response from Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). He was apparently horrified by my gentle dig at the art market and couched his diatribe in what was presumably intended to be biting sarcasm ...
"Annointed scholar David Knell expressed an erudite opinion [...] How enlightening!  The art market ought perhaps to consider the views of archaeologists when it comes to valuation of works.  If the views of archaeologists and similar highly educated "experts" are to be taken seriously, every artifact more than 100 years old, menial as it might be, is of inestimable value and is essentially "priceless"."
Well, in a figurative sense, every artefact that adds to our knowledge of the human past is "priceless" - but that wasn't the point of my comment.

It's a pity that someone living in a state that produced one of the greatest humourists of all time appears to have no grasp of the concept himself. My comment about the art market was slightly tongue-in-cheek but the humour clearly flew stratospherically over the head of this present-day resident of Missouri.

His disgruntled response, however, betrays that there might be a strong element of truth underlying my comment. Certainly, Sayles himself seems to be scandalised by the notion that anything more intellectually taxing than gushing over how pretty an object is should have any effect whatsoever on its worth.

What value could an artefact possibly have other than how well it complements Aunt Mary's drapes in the living room or how nicely it fills a gap in an upmarket equivalent of a sticker album? And it's all legal, innit?

God forbid that some fool might actually see value in knowing the individual history of an historical object. Such a radical and unseemly exercising of brain cells could end up challenging the time-honoured mindset that artefacts are mere baubles that should be pigeonholed and graded by comparing them to pictures in a book. And, even more apocalyptically, it could thus threaten the very mindset on which much of the antiquities trade (notably that in ancient coins) is largely dependent.

Perhaps most dealers of Sayles's acquaintance share his indignant dismissal of the value of knowledge. But someone once said that "whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect". In the meantime, I do wish this affronted advocate of dealers' 'rights' would try to lighten up a bit. My quip was hardly in the same league as those by Mark Twain - and literary perception may have dulled a little in the internet age - but it would be a sad indictment of the ACCG that any remark today must be accompanied by at least a dozen smilies before their dour members could even guess that it might have been intended as dry humour.



Friday, 19 September 2014

A few thoughts on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)

As an addendum to my previous post outlining a few changes that I would like to see in the way metal detecting is approached, I would urge the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), as a government organisation in the front line of the situation, to do a better job at getting the conservation message across. They rightly state: "Context is vital in archaeology in order to be able [to] understand past human activity. Archaeology is not simply about studying isolated objects. How these came to be where they were found, their relationship to other objects and stratigraphy (position in the ground), among other factors help build up a picture of the past as a whole."

Fine - but that statement is hidden in a small font among a lot of densely packed, badly presented and carelessly formatted text on a lesser page, and makes no detailed mention of the significance of artefacts in surface surveys. I would like to see that message displayed far more prominently - together with several of the points raised by the CBA on their page covering the topic.

There seems to be a common misconception that the mission of the PAS is to encourage and foster metal detecting for its own sake. It is not. The 'Aims and Objectives' of the PAS make it plain that the Scheme is intended as a 'partnership' "between finders and museums/archaeologists". In other words, the PAS offers a means whereby any members of the public who find objects of archaeological interest can contribute to a shared resource. Those who deliberately search for such objects as a dedicated hobby are only part of that and, in this case, the PAS is attempting to limit the potentially erosive impact of an amateur pastime by promoting best practice and harnessing any positive aspect the hobby may have in advancing "our understanding of the past".

I think the word 'partnership' is an unfortunate choice of vocabulary. I suspect the PAS meant the word to convey merely taking part in something but a large number of detectorists apparently interpret it as meaning far more: that they are equal to the trained professionals.

Sadly, what those professionals actually do seems to be utterly lost on the more braindead members of the hobby, many of whom are under the impression that 'archaeology' is just about digging up objects, that 'context' is just a matter of noting roughly where the objects were found, and that 'saving history' is just a race to shove the objects into museums as fast as possible. Labouring under that severe cerebral limitation, they easily jump to the conclusion that 'hey, archaeology is easy!' and may even resent those 'toffee-nosed academics' being paid to do it. It is then only a tiny step for them to regard their hobby not as something that may occasionally aid archaeology but as something that is in competition with it and, since detectorists may find more objects and shove them into museums faster, even superior to it. Thus, we witness the abysmal stupidity of claims such as that made by James Warr.

There are undoubtedly perceptive detectorists out there but it is clear that a large proportion of them are anything but. As I said in my previous post, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. Perhaps among the regulations should be a minimal requirement that anyone wishing to use a metal detector passes a basic test proving their understanding of what archaeology actually is exceeds that of a lobotomised baboon. In the meantime, the PAS faces an uphill struggle - and I would like to see them spend more time on explaining the pitfalls of the hobby and less time on condoning its sensationalisation.

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Three

Never say never. I did conclude my last post on this topic by saying that was all I had to say on it. However, I should try to clarify any confusion caused by the final paragraph in my last post and I added this comment to Andy Baines's blog post ...

KPVW, 
Sorry for my poor formatting. That last paragraph in my comment was not specifically aimed at you (perhaps I should have used 'they' as a pronoun instead of 'you') but at a huge proportion of metal detectorists in general, particularly those who like to portray the hobby unconditionally as a 'saving history' movement. It is THAT attitude that I think is misguided and I do feel many of the arguments used unreservedly to depict metal detectorists as magnanimous crusaders who selflessly toil away to help the public are largely 'bullshit'. Unless they have taken the trouble to learn and fully understand the effects of what they are doing within the discipline of archaeology and undertake detecting responsibly, preferably in coordination with trained professionals, they pursue their hobby purely for their own pleasure and, very often, in the hope of personal profit. And while there may be 'occasional exceptions' (some finds have been extremely beneficial in advancing our knowledge of the past), I suspect that overall the unaffiliated and unrestrained conduct of the hobby does far more harm than good. 
Yet again, you did not read my previous comments. No, I would not like to see a total ban on metal detecting - I'm inherently wary of too many government prohibitions and they very often backfire anyway - but I would like to see a change in the way metal detecting is portrayed in the media and elsewhere, a more realistic acknowledgement of the danger it poses to true archaeology and the principle of conservation instead of the current unqualified gushing over every find. 
And, since so many detectorists don't appear to have the common sense to recognise that danger themselves or simply don't care, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. I gather some of the more responsible members of the hobby would like to see that too. 
One of my greatest concerns is the sheer scale of the hobby and the lack of restraint. As I said earlier, "I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation". Even supposing detectorists were never tempted to dig deeper, there needs to be a recognition that merely because artefacts are in topsoil or ploughed layers is not a carte blanche excuse to grab every single one of them - and there needs to be far fewer people doing that if the finite archaeological record is going to stand any chance of being more meaningfully interpreted in the future.  
I recently read one detectorist naively saying that future generations will thank them for digging up all the artefacts. No, they will curse them for it. A few items here and there are no big deal - and some finds undoubtedly point archaeologists and historians in the right direction - but a future in which museums are stacked with bits and bobs ripped from their context while almost nothing is still left intact where it could have meant so much more is not one I would relish. Those bits and bobs will just be bitter reminders of lost opportunities wrecked by the misguided generation of today.
After composing my comment yesterday, I was gobsmacked to read about another detectorist reinforcing the point I made in the first paragraph of my transcribed comment above. Defending his pastime, he stated, "My work is important to me ...". WORK? What, like collecting stamps or spotting trains? Get real, dude. It's a hobby.
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(Since my original post, I have revised the first paragraph of my comment to clarify that truly responsible members of the hobby are excluded from my generalisations. 25/9/2014)
 



Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Two

Continuing on from my previous blog post about a debate on conservation, here is a copy of my latest comment sent to Andy Baines's blog ...

Andy, 
*NOW ANSWERED*? No, Andy. As I said, Paul Barford "answered your question in his very first reply" - 54 minutes after you asked it. It's just that you failed to realise it. A more accurate correction to your post title should read *INSTANTLY ANSWERED - NOW ACKNOWLEDGED*.

KPVW, 
You found my reply "personal", "condescending", "derogatory"? It seems your ego is easily offended. While I simply shrugged off the withering sarcasm in your own pointed questions, you get upset at my accurate description of your points, not you, as "shallow and utterly unconvincing" without even a hint of sarcasm. I have no wish to offend you but please try to distinguish between criticism of your arguments and criticism of you.

"I am talking about detecting on areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest ..." 
There are many "areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest". The argument for conservation is that we do not know which places may turn out to be sites of archaeological interest in the future. As I said, why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal evidence that may have helped to interpret them? And, quite apart from potential excavations, why the frantic rush to destroy the traces used in surface surveys?

"... all my finds including non metalic finds are recorded, grid referenced, photographed, the landowner is then informed/shown and the items are then handed over to the relevant authorities be it my local museum or in most cases to the TTU in Edinburgh." 
That is commendable - but it is still the opposite of conservation. However you may try to justify your actions; ultimately, you are digging things up for your own pleasure. I am not convinced that society needs yet more hundreds of crudely dug-up and largely decontextualised Anglo-Saxon brooches and Roman buckles cluttering up museum display cases or shoved away in storage; those of us who genuinely appreciate history would much rather have a few sites with enough evidence left intact to allow a more meaningful, more intellectual interpretation.

"Problem there is when is the right time if archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving at what stage do we say to ourselves this is the point to do it and not wait for say another year, ten years, or even a hundred years ..." 
But you are NOT "doing it", are you? Crudely and selectively digging up all the metal bits is largely destroying evidence that may have been vital if any archaeological exploration is eventually done.

"... in hindsight should for example the Mary Rose have been lifted, could it not have been protected on the sea bed at the time ..." 
No, the lifting of the Mary Rose came within what is described as an emergency 'rescue operation'. There were fears that that area of the Spithead seabed was about to be deep-dredged to create a new shipping channel into Portsmouth. There was also the threat of amateur divers destroying the integrity of the site while scavenging for bits of treasure and souvenirs. Some of those divers may have deluded themselves into thinking they were 'saving history' - sound familiar? 
Excellent explanations of why the old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails can be found on Paul Barford's blog (just one example of many).

"....you didnt mention PAS in your intial post." 
Why would I need to? The whole point of both Andy's post and the post he was responding to on Paul Barford's blog was about almost 1 million objects recorded by the PAS. I don't want to upset your ego again but it would help the credibility of your arguments if you took the trouble to find out what you are commenting on before you comment.

"Have a nice day at the rock festival, try and avoid the head banging Dave." 
Thanks. I did actually say "for a few days" - a minor point but again, please read what you are commenting on. The only head banging I'm doing seems to be against a brick wall trying to get you guys to read. :) 
Go ahead and do metal detecting to your heart's desire. I can't stop you. It's all perfectly legal in England and Wales under minimal conditions. But at least spare us all the bullshit and be honest about it: it's just a selfish treasure hunt you pursue for your own pleasure, whether you give your finds to museums or not. Please don't try to delude yourself or try to convince others that you are somehow altruistically 'saving history' for everyone else. You're not. There may be occasional exceptions but more often than not, you're wrecking much of the evidence of history just to satisfy your own need for entertainment. As I said, that is NOT conservation. 
David (not "Dave" - nor, for that matter, some cryptic four-letter acronym hiding my real identity)
That's really all I have to say on that topic. Now to move onto other things in my next post ...

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part One

When Paul Barford lamented the fate of the almost one million artefacts recorded by the PAS ("Where have Eleven Million Objects Gone?", 15 August 2014), Andy Baines, a metal detectorist, questioned where Barford would prefer the artefacts to be: "In the ground still or in a storage container? In a museum back office filling cabinet?" Barford replied by listing a few examples of conservation issues and pointedly asked, "in somebody's ephemeral collection, or still where they were before the poachers came along?"

I think the meaning in Barford's reply was mind-blowingly clear to most people but it flew over Baines's head and, thinking his question had not been answered, he created a post on his own blog ("The question that a conservationist cannot answer", 15 August 2014). Understandably somewhat exasperated, Barford then carefully explained his position in detail.

I also had a go myself at trying to explain Barford's reply to Andy Baines ...
Paul answered your question in his very first reply.  
Elephant tusks are best left on the elephant - where they form part of an endangered species - rather than brutally cut off and carted away into the ivory trade, leaving the elephant dead. Keep destroying elephants like that and you'll eventually run out of elephants. 
Wild bird eggs are best left in the nest - where they form part of an ecosystem - rather than picked out and carted away into a display box, leaving the birds without their offspring. Keep destroying eggs like that and you'll eventually run out of those birds. 
And so on ... 
Ancient artefacts are best left "in the ground" - where they form ONLY ONE PART of a WHOLE assemblage of assorted evidence - rather than selectively dug up and carted away into some unknown private collection, leaving the other evidence denuded. Keep destroying evidence like that and you'll eventually run out of sites that can be meaningfully interpreted.

"They are buried many inches underground at no benefit to anyone until they are discovered ..." 
The mere DISCOVERY of artefacts is only a tiny part of the process. They need to be examined in the stratigraphic context of the site as a whole, in relation to structural and other remains, other objects such as pottery shards, and many types of subtle evidence that require expertise to analyse. In most cases, the only "benefit to anyone" that you will achieve by just selectively ripping the metal bits out of the ground will be to have yet more decontextualised baubles to gawp at. The site itself will have been robbed of much of its evidence and the potential to add to our knowledge of history is likely to have gone forever. 
conserve (verb): Protect from harm or destruction.
Someone posting as "Anonymous" but signed as "KPVW" also commented on Baines's blog. I then replied to that comment ...

KPVW, 
I'm sure the points you raised were well-intentioned but even as a general member of the public, an historian rather than either an archaeologist or a detectorist, I find them shallow and utterly unconvincing. 
The old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails on at least two points. Firstly, it fails to recognise the importance of field surveys, etc. Secondly, no matter what archaeological practice is now or was in the past, it fails to acknowledge that techniques used by future generations are likely to be very different (and far more sophisticated). Do you really believe archaeology will remain exactly the same in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years time? I suspect future archaeologists will look back at the methods used today and shudder. 
One third of Pompeii and two thirds of Herculaneum are still unexcavated. The reason is not solely one of cost but, more importantly, a recognition that archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving, and the areas are best left buried in the meantime for future generations to explore with superior technology and methods.  
I don't think anyone is in favour of leaving everything in the UK undiscovered forever but my comment was phrased with a "rather than" qualifier. I believe that artefacts are indeed better left buried in the ground rather than only the metal bits selectively dug out and the archaeological record irretrievably eroded. I doubt that "every field in this country will be examined by a qualified archaeologist" any time soon but it would be nice if the fields that ARE examined still have a few scraps of evidence left.  
Apart from situations where land is genuinely threatened by immediate development or whatever (the danger posed by chemical fertilisers appears to be largely an urban myth), why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal that has already lain in the ground for hundreds of years? The alarmist excuses to do so sound like they derive from a selfish 'sod future generations, I want the goodies now' motive.

"... that is your assumption that not one find is ever recorded." 
Huh? I assume nothing of the kind. We're discussing finds in the PAS database; ALL the finds are recorded by definition. But do you seriously think that merely keeping a record of where something was dug up is always enough? What I am saying is that regardless of whether the findspot of the metal item has been recorded (even with coordinates), its precise relationship to OTHER evidence (including otherwise meaningless traces) is likely to have been lost. And we all know just how fragile that evidence can often be. The preservation of context is often vital to a proper understanding; my experience with projects such as the Mary Rose made that abundantly clear. 
I don't think anyone could object to chance surface finds - be they metallic, "worked flints, pottery or other non metalic items". Properly recorded, such finds can be of enormous value and the finders are to be applauded. But let's be honest, a huge proportion of the finds recorded in the PAS database were searched for deliberately by people using a metal detector - and it is those that cause concern.  
Hobbyist metal detecting is largely incompatible with the aims of archaeology. Limited in both its goal and methodology by its very nature, it is a targetted object-centric approach that typically ignores the integrity of the archaeological record as a whole. I understand the thrill of finding something and, under certain conditions, I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly - but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation. Even if every item really were recorded, the prospect of thousands of untrained and largely misguided amateurs sprawled over England and Wales selectively digging up thousands of ancient metal artefacts as fast as they can grab them is more than a little disconcerting to those of us who value the evidence of history. That is NOT conservation. Not by a long shot. It is the exact opposite.
Andy Baines responded that he now understood the views of a conservationist but did not agree with them. Fair enough. He added, "If amateur metal detecting was so bad and we were destroying so much archaeological history then surely there would be uproar ...". I pointed out that merely because metal detecting had not caused a public "uproar" did not mean it was harmless ...
Bear in mind that public "uproar" is not always an accurate barometer of what is right or wrong. Most people were perfectly happy with things like the ivory trade, egg collecting, uprooting bluebells and catching butterflies until they were eventually made aware of the downside to something that seemed innocent. Sometimes it takes a very long time for the general public to realise that things they take for granted are not always as simple and wholesome as they may seem.
I mentioned that I was off to a rock festival for a few days but, in the meantime, I did suggest that he might want to think about changing the title of his blog post. On my return, I found that he had added the words "*NOW ANSWERED*" to his title and that "KPVW" had added another comment. Since blogs by metal detectorists have a reputation for being somewhat ephemeral sometimes, I have posted my response on my own blog - in Part Two.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

British history revamped by London road works during the 1970s

Now a season of rock festivals and other general summer debauchery has abated, it's time to add a little to my blog ...


A couple of "Roman" lamps from "c.100 A.D." being sold on eBay caught my eye:
http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/351154976647 (ending 4 September)
http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/141391709622 (ending 6 September)

Both are described as "British found in London during 1970s road works". Since both lamps are actually types made in northern Syria during the 5th - 6th centuries AD, the finds could add a whole new exciting dimension to British history. Are they evidence of an early attempt to found a Syrian monastery in darkest Maida Vale?

Sadly, such musings are doomed by the harsh reality that lamps of this type are not found in Britain until brought back from the Levant as souvenirs in modern times, typically by either tourists or dealers rather than Byzantine monks. It is of course possible that workmen involved in the "1970s road works" inadvertently blasted through the basement stockroom of a London antiquities dealer in that era of black-outs and power cuts - oops! - but the reputation of the eBay seller suggests another reason for the sensational claim.

The seller is the infamous "Saxby's Coins". Even he seems to balk at trying to pass off ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese items as having come from an English meadow but he has no hesitation in describing almost everything else he sells as "British found". Despite the fact that much of his stock appears to derive from metal detecting on the European mainland, such as this "c.1450 A.D British Found Medieval Period Hammered Type European Silver Coin" (actually minted at Elbing in Poland and clearly dated 1632), the seller is apparently convinced that pretending it has all been discovered in the UK will enhance the price.

The stories weaved to launder 'high-end' antiquities are old news but these lamps demonstrate just how far some dealers are prepared to go in fabricating the provenance of even minor items. Not content with a mere "British found", it seems this seller has happily invented a place (London), a time (1970s) and an event (road works) to increase plausibility.

Just how much faith can we place on mere hearsay, whether it is a dealer's undocumented claim of provenance when selling an item or a person's undocumented claim of a findspot and circumstances when getting an item recorded in the PAS database?

There is much to be said in favour of Elizabeth Marlowe's contention (Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) that only 'grounded' (archaeologically documented) antiquities form a truly reliable basis for scholarship; those which are 'ungrounded' (lacking archaeological confirmation) can be risky and, if the stories attached to them are simply taken at face-value, may be thoroughly misleading.

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.

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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?


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