Monday 7 April 2014

Does he mean me?

Another bizarre twist in a bitter campaign to besmirch archaeology ("Un-Organized Crime?") implies that "shady archaeologists" are more likely to be responsible for looted pottery on the market than metal detectorists. It is stated that archaeologists and others "employed on excavations have slipped more than the odd roman oil-lamp down the sides of their Wellie boots", whereas "precisely how a metal detector will locate a ceramic bowl or lamp is never explained".

Well yes, theft has undoubtedly occurred from excavations and storerooms but I think it's blindingly obvious to everyone except the bitter blogger that the overwhelming majority of looted pottery on the market derives from plain old-fashioned common-or-garden looting by people unrelated to archaeology, typically by organised gangs.

I don't think anyone would accuse UK "metal detectorists [of being] the sole cause of dodgy stuff hitting the cobbles". Much of the criticism of them is about the damage done to context, not about the objects themselves. But most of the looted pottery on the market comes from overseas and those looters are indeed often armed with metal detectors in addition to spades - and sometimes even bulldozers. Detectors are carried not only to seek coins and other metal items themselves but also on the assumption that where there is ancient metal, there may be other artefacts too, including pottery. Explaining "precisely how a metal detector will locate a ceramic bowl or lamp" is not really rocket science.

However, what struck me as curious about the post was the recurring fixation with "oil-lamps". I have an old website about ancient lamps and I wonder if the post was aimed at me? Well, I'm not an archaeologist and Roman lamps are quite rare in the UK anyway so I doubt I can be accused of slipping one down the side of my own "Wellie boots". In fact, partly due to my concern about looting, I stopped collecting ancient lamps myself years ago but they were all openly acquired from the market at the time, are all meticulously documented, photographed and published, and until I find a place of my own, are all safely stored in a secure facility that even I cannot access. Regarding "integrity": my support for collecting is no secret but I have also been very vocal about drawing attention to the dangers of damaging a fragile resource and urging dealers and collectors to record and "date-stamp" their items so that ongoing looting will be diminished. No one can accuse me of not following my own advice.

Incidentally, I do wish people would not keep calling them "oil-lamps". It's as silly as insisting on describing vehicles as "motor cars". Most modern cars are powered by motors; most ancient lamps were fuelled by oil. I think we can safely skip redundant adjectives unless an object is an exception to the rule and describe a typical small four-wheeled vehicle found in a modern garage as simply a "car" and a typical pottery lighting device found in a Roman villa as simply a "lamp".

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