Friday, 23 January 2015

Hermes revisited

In my previous post about a fake head of Hermes prematurely announced by Turkish authorities, I mentioned that there were many other cases involving obvious fakes which should have been detected before going public. Paul Barford has drawn attention to a similar scenario in Thailand. Among thousands of "looted" artefacts seized from disgraced former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, the Thai Fine Arts Department has identified sixteen that appear to be of Cambodian origin and has announced that five of them will be returned to Cambodia ("Pongpat 'treasures' fake, P'Penh says", Bangkok Post, 23 Jan 2015).

Sadly, Cambodia is unimpressed: "Cambodian experts who reviewed pictures of the artefacts, some of which Thailand dated back to the early 15th-century Kulen era, said the statues are obvious fakes ..." ("Statues are ‘treasures'", Phnom Penh Post, 23 Jan 2015). "'I don’t know why they think the statues might be real,' said Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum."

As with the Turkish case and many others too numerous to list here, a worryingly large number of seizures of "looted antiquities" seem to be more in the nature of posturing and feelgood exercises than genuine victories in the fight against looting. Ultimately, such negative publicity only serves to undermine the credibility of nations seeking to protect the heritage. The protection and conservation of the archaeological record deserves to be a serious undertaking, not merely a political game.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Hermes - who is being mugged?

While Turkish police have proudly announced the seizure of a "large number of historical artifacts, including the head of a 2,000-year-old Hermes statue" on 13 January ("Head of god Hermes seized in Anatolia", Hurriyet Daily News, 16 Jan 2015), Dorothy King has noted that the head is in fact an obvious fake ("Introducing the Master of the Miami Vice Hermes", 17 Jan 2015).

Since one of Hermes's attributes is a purse full of gold, I thought at first that the image on the Turkish website (top left) showed him being mugged. But apparently not. It seems those being made to look like a mug are the Turkish police - prematurely announcing a raid of an "historical artifact" without first checking their facts; "Cumhuriyet University academics" - who apparently fell for it too; and of course an alleged buyer - who is said to have paid $1 million for it three years ago and who then attempted to smuggle it abroad.

Certainly, anyone buying this unprovenanced rubbish thinking it is genuine deserves to be fooled (and worse): a) for having no common sense, b) for encouraging looting and c) for engaging in smuggling. But the authorities in cases like this (there have been several involving unsuspected fakes) also need to check their facts a bit better before going public and making themselves just look silly.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Putting the Parthenon Marbles into perspective

In an online discussion stimulated by the recent news that one of the Parthenon marbles has been loaned to Russia, one person posed the following question:

"Question: What happened to the 'missing pieces' of the figures?"

An excellent question. A large number of the marbles had already been damaged, defaced, pillaged, reused as building material or ground down to make cement by the time Lord Elgin saw what remained and I imagine many of the pieces he took may have suffered further or met a similar fate if they had been left behind.

In 1816 Elgin noted: "Every traveller coming added to the general defacement of the statuary in his reach: there are now in London pieces broken off within our day. And the Turks have been continually defacing the heads; and in some instances they have actually acknowledged to me that they have pounded down the statues to convert them into mortar." (St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, OUP 1983, p.97)

That this was not a fabrication by Elgin is confirmed by earlier visitors. "In 1749 the traveller Dalton drew twelve figures in the west pediment of the Parthenon: by the time Lusieri arrived in 1800 there were only four. Five slabs of the frieze drawn by Stuart between 1750 and 1755 had completely disappeared. One slab of which a mould was taken by Fauvel as recently as 1790 was utterly destroyed. The metopes tell a similar story." (ibid.)

Let's be under no illusion. Elgin did not deface an intact or stable monument; by the time he arrived, the Parthenon was already disappearing at an alarming rate. Evidence indicates that neither the Turks nor most of the local Greeks were particularly bothered at the time (it was not until much later that the Greeks adopted the Parthenon as a national monument). It was a frantic race between the British and the French to grab what was left and save it from further damage; if the British had not taken the sculptures, the French would have. The British won. But there is much to suggest that the rivalry was more in the nature of who got the best trophy than who was more conscientious in matters of conservation.

The legality of Elgin's actions was contentious. He had a firman (letter of permission) issued in 1801 by the Turkish authorities but it was somewhat ambiguous and a letter he wrote to Spencer Perceval, the then Prime Minister, in 1811 suggests that Elgin was aware that he may have been going beyond its remit: "I had no advantage from the Turkish government beyond the Firman given equally to other English travellers. My successors in the Embassy could not obtain permission for the removal of what I had not myself taken away. And on Mr Adair's being officially instructed to apply in my favour, he understood, 'The Porte denied that the persons who had sold those marbles to me had any right to dispose of them'." (Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should they be returned to Greece?, Verso 1997, p.38)

The reaction when the sculptures arrived in London was mixed. Byron famously condemned their removal from Athens as "Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed by British hands"; Keats praised them as "Grecian grandeur".

I do not condone what Elgin did - his 'rescue' was undoubtedly not entirely altruistic, the legality of it was tenuous, and his methods caused horrendous damage to the remaining structure - but it is perhaps unfair to judge him by the standards of today. We can only speculate on what would have happened to the sculptures if the French had got them instead or if they had remained. But if they had remained, as Mary Beard has noted: "Whatever Elgin's motives, there is no doubt at all that he saved his sculpture from worse damage." (Beard 2011)

Meanwhile, the debate continues as to whether the sculptures should stay in London or now be returned to Athens ...

Monday, 1 December 2014

Why do museums hoard?

A resentment of museums* apparently stockpiling thousands of "surplus" artefacts rather than selling them and allowing private collectors to buy them is a recurring theme in the world of collectors of antiquities. It seems a valid concern at first glance but much of it is rooted in what I term OCM (object-centric myopia), thinking of artefacts merely as art objects rather than as part of a far wider picture, as research tools in understanding our past.

The following question asked recently on a forum is fairly typical and I'll try to answer it very briefly:
"I think any piece is better off in private hands if fairly insignificant, what would they do in museum warehouses, gather dust?"
In most cases the artefacts not on display do just gather dust but they are normally available on request and, in theory at least, they are preserved (much like evidence from a crime scene) in case further research in the future may shed fresh light. Methodology and technology are constantly improving and, for instance, a present-day re-examination of pottery sherds kept from an excavation in, say, the 1930s may result in entirely different conclusions from the original ones. What may seem "minor" or "insignificant" now might well prove to be extremely valuable to future generations.

Nor is the fact that many of the artefacts are apparently "identical" a reason to dispose of "surplus" examples. The notion of a "duplicate" is just 'baseball card mentality', entrenched in thinking of artefacts as mere art objects to fill gaps in collections. There is no such thing as a "duplicate" in the conduct of archaeological inquiry. In the world of academic research, the very fact that many of the artefacts are seemingly alike can be invaluable in studies such as cultural development investigation or quantitative analysis.

For a very basic example, let's take a "minor" and "insignificant" artefact found in huge quantities. A study of Firmalampen (a type of Roman lamp) a few years ago (Schneider 1993) shattered some earlier theories, set new standards in classifying the type, and enabled far more accurate appraisal of those found in excavations (and thus the site itself). The study was based on an examination of hundreds of superficially similar lamps (both complete and bare fragments) kept in the storage of museums throughout parts of Western Europe. Verified knowledge of their findspot played a vital role and, since chemical analysis was involved, mere photographs were not sufficient. Of course, such a study would not have been possible if the lamps had been dispersed to the market decades ago.

Police forces store evidence, paleontologists store fossils, mineralogists store meteorites, archaeologists store sherds, and so on. It would be rather simplistic to assume they all do so out of a childish resentment of non-professionals or an addiction for compulsive hoarding. Who knows what fresh insights into our past those dozens of identical pots currently gathering dust may reveal in a few years time? But one thing is certain: future generations will not thank us for squandering them away just to please a few people today.

There may be room for museums deaccessioning in some cases but we do need to understand some of the reasons why they may be reluctant to do so. And in the meantime, it's worth bearing in mind that there are literally millions of artefacts already on the market or in private collections.

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*For the purpose of this post, the term "museum" refers to any public institution which includes the storage and preservation of archaeological material as part of its objective, and is thus distinct from those which function purely as a form of art gallery.


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)
 



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