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.


Sasquatch said...

Paul, how then do I document my artefacts? The ones that "come from an old British collection", or "from a west coast collection acquired before 1970", or "acquired at the turn of the century and handed down from the original to the present owner" when that is the sum total of the provenance? How do I do this to satisfy the self-appointed guardians of ancient heritage?

Some of the most qualified and reputable dealers are often unable to give me any provenance because the piece has none. I have to trust them to be honourable people and I work hard to do so, but nothing is guaranteed. I live in a place with no museums and the nearest one is a plane ride thousands of kilometres away. My kids don't get the chance to experience these things unless I provide them the opportunity.

There is nothing I enjoy better than researching the pieces. Finding reference is immensely satisfying. Sometimes I buy for beauty, sometimes because there is a gap in my collection. Sometimes I buy because I want to research the piece and learn more about the culture.

There is a bit of a chicken and egg argument to say anything without provenance is worthless or useless, and I appreciate your middle-ground approach.

I am a classical scholar and yet I find the academic argument that without context the piece is useless to be arrogant and self-serving. Who the hell gives some academic the right to say that? Not I, that's for sure. It's not useless to me, and there are degrees of value and that's just life. It isn't perfect and never will be.

There is so much stuff rotting away in museum and university basements around the world in what I think may be a bigger crime that looting! Certainly neglect and withdrawal are serious issues that the academics never seem to want to talk about. These people often live in a bubble and forget what the real world is all about. And partnering with politicians, well, let's not even go there. We know what drives politicians to make the decisions they do.

And, then the idea that cultural heritage can only belong to the culture it came from 2 or 3 millennia is completely fallacious. Find me an Assyrian or an Ionian who wants his stuff back and I'll be happy to comply. These cultures do not exist in present day national boundaries. I've never heard of a Greco/Turkish Friendship Society, but maybe I am just out of the loop. And, not everybody can afford to go to Rome to learn about things Roman. So, why not make these things available to a wider lay audience through the means of private collections? I encourage any one who wants to view my collection and learn from it. It has created a joy and desire to learn history in my children and I would fight tooth and nail anyone who wanted to remove these artefacts from my possession.

While I definitely think that nobody should be drilling down into ancient tombs without the proper authorization, we have to remember we aren't curing Cancer here. Provenance and context are valuable, but not important. I think that's an critical distinction. It's valuable to have these things, but it's not the be all and end all in the world. Unless you are a self-important academic working in your silo and ignoring the rest of the world.

The only thing disrespectful about collecting is the attitude of the academics and politicians who think they know best for the rest of the world. I am and will always be learning, whether through the university or through my own means. Nobody has the right to decide how I can increase my knowledge and enjoyment of the ancient world.

David Knell said...

Hello Lingocreative,

Thanks for your comment. I'm David by the way, not Paul.

Simply taking a photo of the item, keeping any paperwork you may have and recording as much of its recent history as you know (even if it's just hearsay or the details of your own purchase) is far better than nothing. That record, no matter how short it may be, is at least the foundation of a provenance and should be carefully kept with other important documents.

I think we should *all* be "guardians of ancient heritage" if we care about preserving evidence of the past.

Incidentally, I do have some ideas for an online International Antiquities Registry (IAR). The concept is essentially simple, reasonably economical and certainly workable - but there are side issues (e.g. transfer of title, security, etc.) which are complex and the project would need a great deal of work and commitment to get off the ground.

I am a bit puzzled by your comments on the importance of context. I don't think anyone would compare the importance of context to that of life-threatening illnesses - but I cannot see a corollary that context is not important. The archaeological record is the source of much of our knowledge of history and history is important to many people, not just academics. You seem to be saying that your objects are more important than history.

samarkeolog said...


I really appreciate you trying to fashion an ethical way of collecting, but I worry about some of the points in your plan.

'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.'

Unfortunately, that would create a window of opportunity in which looting and trading would explode.

Given you don't think the two years between the passing of the UNESCO convention and its coming into force, or the 37 more years since its coming into force, were sufficient, I assume you would like an amnesty that lasted for some years. The amount that would be taken out of the ground would be unimaginable.

David Knell said...

Thank you for your comments, Sam.

"Unfortunately, that would create a window of opportunity in which looting and trading would explode."

The window already exists and is being exploited. Insisting on an unrealistic cut-off date will achieve nothing but a perpetuation of the status quo. The general public was not typically aware of the UNESCO Convention nor did they fully appreciate the reasoning behind it in the decades immediately after 1970.

That situation has now changed. To move forward, a more recent, more achievable date is needed.



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