Wednesday 18 February 2009

False dichotomy: you're either with us or against us

That phrase "you're either with us or against us", epitomised by a version in Bush’s speech against terrorism in 2001 but used throughout history, has always seemed to me to have overtones of the playground bully’s "you’re either part of my gang or you’re the enemy" mentality. It makes good rhetoric but its basic fallacy is soon revealed under close analysis. In reality there is nearly always a middle ground.

An example of a false dilemma has arisen in the world of antiquities and there is a danger of getting caught between the extremists.

On one side there are those extremists – typified by a few coin dealers – who advocate thoughtless collecting, demand that there must be no limit to a massive supply of fresh finds, even if it means ignoring or changing the law, pretend that their type of object has little to do with archaeology, downplay the importance of context, argue that ethics are irrelevant, and even take the heady stance that any restriction, no matter how sensible, is an attack on human rights.

On the other side are those extremists – typified by a few narrow academics – who seem to think that no object should be outside the country where it was found no matter how long it has been there, deem every undocumented object as ‘looted’ and insist that every artefact must have documentation for the past forty years regardless of circumstances, or think no artefact should be in private hands and would ban collecting altogether, in some cases even giving the impression that they would prefer to destroy objects rather than letting them fall into the hands of the great unwashed.

It is human nature that it will always be the extreme views that grab headlines; majority views are not sensational. But there is a real danger that even rational people get carried away by the propaganda and falsely see only two polarised camps; they may feel that they can belong only to one or the other. You're either with us or against us.

Are there really only two options? Ignore the propaganda, stand up to the playground bully tactics for a moment, and a whole new perspective emerges. In fact there is an enormous middle ground, the one that doesn’t grab headlines.

A favourite tactic of the camp defending the status quo in collecting is to portray those who question them as "radical archaeologists". The emotive word ‘radical’ implies extreme or fundamental change. In fact, the only real change that most of those concerned about protecting a fragile archaeological resource are asking for is that those who wish to collect artefacts do so more thoughtfully and responsibly than they did in the past.

Is it really only archaeologists who want that change? Thoughtless collecting can easily lead to rampant destruction of the archaeological record. The archaeological record is the source of much of our knowledge of history. Are archaeologists the only people who care about history? That seems a bit dismissive of the intellectual capacity of the rest of us.

A hackneyed tactic of those who would be happy to ban collecting altogether is to portray all collectors as shallow and selfish individuals who are interested only in possessing pretty art objects to put on their mantelpiece, as fiends who will stop at nothing to acquire them. It conjures up an ugly picture but in reality a great many collectors are highly intelligent and kindhearted people with a deep passion for history and for the objects they own, and an altruistic desire to share that passion, often at considerable personal expense. Their genuine knowledge of the past frequently exceeds that of those who criticise them.

Middle ground
Such propagandist tactics can all too easily sway opinion. But neither of those two extreme camps represent or acknowledge the middle ground: the thousands of people, including many academics (and several archaeologists), who enjoy owning a few artefacts but do so responsibly because they also care about protecting the archaeological record.

Despite what the two polarised camps would like us to believe, it is not a question of Collectors vs. Academics. There are plenty of people who are both. It is a question of Extremists vs. Extremists – plus a rather large middle ground. The views of the middle ground are unextreme – so not very exciting or sensational – but perhaps it is time to publicise those views a bit more.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Minor antiquities: the importance of keeping records

Paul Barford, an archaeologist with a keen interest in protecting the archaeological record from looting, recently observed: Surely there are more than enough shabtis on the market with verifiable provenances showing licit origins ...

No, Paul. Sadly, there are not.

The big impressive shabtis with lots of hieroglyphs are 'high-end', in a similar category to other major antiquities. If you happen to be an oil magnate it is relatively easy to find and insist on those with a long provenance to the Bagsofmoney Collection and illustrated in Sothebys/Christies catalogues. No problem.

But the run-of-the-mill (affordable by those who aren't millionaires) shabtis are in a similar league as other 'minor' antiquities: ordinary scarabs, pots, amulets, lamps, fibulae, etc. The huge majority don't have even hearsay provenances, let alone verifiable ones. Vast quantities of such things came into Western Europe and North America in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Many were bought as souvenirs or knick-knacks long before export licences were needed. Many of the things themselves were probably thrown out unrecognised by heirs and certainly most of the early receipts have long gone. If such low-money stuff ever went through any major auction house at all (very little did) it would have been in unillustrated multiple lots. Problem.

I imagine Paul's remark was actually rhetorical (as was my reply) - in fact he is of course thoroughly aware of the issues regarding collecting - but it makes a useful springboard for discussion since it does succinctly encapsulate the views of many worried about heritage conservation and the effects of unbridled collecting on a fragile archaeological resource. I share that concern and I'll comment in general on the situation from the collecting point of view.

It seems easy to insist that only objects with a documented history before 1970 can be collected. But that would condemn nearly all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of minor artefacts already in circulation to oblivion.

The only sensible option is a more pragmatic approach, a middle road, one which embraces the notion that unrestricted and irresponsible collecting will encourage the destruction of a finite and fragile resource, yet one which also acknowledges that the huge heritage of undocumented artefacts which already exists must be cherished.

Objects without context
The view expressed by some that objects without context have no value is patently nonsense, a blinkered view held only by those too biased to see beyond their own goals. Context is king - it is not only how we can learn about the ancient world in general but even how we advance our knowledge of the objects themselves - and an object divorced from it is a frustratingly missed opportunity - but that object is still by no means meaningless. In an ideal world every artefact would be carefully recorded in its context - and we increase the chances of that by collecting responsibly - but it would be madness to spurn those artefacts collected by earlier generations simply because their context was lost.

Cut-off date
The problem lies in distinguishing between those thousands of objects inherited from old collections and those objects which are being ripped from the ground today and obliterating archaeological evidence in the process.

It's no good indiscriminately insisting on a documented provenance going back before an unrealistic and arbitrary cut-off date such as 1970 (even the UNESCO Convention itself didn't come into force until 24 April 1972, the USA didn't accept it until 1983, the UK accepted it in 2002 and Germany ratified it in 2007). That arbitrary year may serve for museums acquiring major objects which are more likely to have records. It is not realistic for minor objects.

We have seen that it is pointless to naively insist on old pre-1970 documentation for the majority of low-value antiquities; most minor artefacts no longer have early receipts or other records and many were around long before export licences.

But equally it is clear that the status quo cannot go on. An increasing population with increased leisure time, aided by modern technology such as metal detectors and the internet market, is gobbling up artefacts and destroying the archaeological resource faster than anything our forefathers could have imagined.

As long as conservationists insist on an unrealistic and largely unworkable cut-off date and collectors insist on not coming up with an achievable alternative, we will have stalemate - an unsustainable impasse which will eventually doom collecting in public opinion. It is the merits of heritage conservation that will win public opinion, not the protests of a minority that selfishly ignores them.

There has to be action - and the initiative has to come from those who wish to carry on collecting. The only way to both discourage the destruction of the archaeological resource and preserve the undocumented 'orphaned' artefacts we already have (rather than throwing them out) is twofold:
1) to perform as much 'due diligence' as possible to determine if an item is likely to have licit origins, and in the absence of any documentation, to use informed judgement,
2) to properly record the item now as far back as possible.

By recording objects now, and then at some point insisting on acquiring only those objects which have been recorded by a certain date, collectors will help to eliminate a market for freshly excavated (and thus unrecorded) objects in the future. Voluntary recording is infinitely preferable - none of us would wish the potential alternative of recording forced by legislation - but it must be done if we care about both the archaeological resource and the heritage of orphaned objects. And the sooner the better.

The general public in the 39 years since 1970 has not been aware enough or dedicated enough to appreciate the reasoning behind the importance of recording artefacts - it's too late to change that - but a more conservation-aware present and future generation will have a less cavalier attitude. They will increasingly insist that any artefact they buy (or even respect) will have some kind of provenance to show at least that it has not contributed to recent destruction. The further back - even if only to 2005 or whatever - that provenance goes the better it will be.

People are becoming increasingly aware of heritage conservation and the day will certainly come when an artefact without even an attempt at documentation will be as shunned as ivory and fur. An irresponsible collection of unrecorded artefacts will have the same stigma (and the same worthlessness) as a collection of birds' eggs (another pasttime considered harmless until it was realised how much damage was being done).

A fascinating history of a hobby that became socially unacceptable.

Collectors have the opportunity to maintain the appeal and restore the respectability of artefact collecting - but that calls for an attitude which differs from the status quo: an attitude which clearly demonstrates that instead of traditionally turning a blind eye to the problem that threatens to make artefact collecting socially unacceptable, collectors are actively working to help eliminate that problem themselves.

Collectors can, and must, show that instead of working against conservation, they are working with it.



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