Tuesday 22 June 2010

Object-based Universe - the danger of a blinkered view

First, a word about terminology. In general use the words 'provenience' and 'provenance' are synonymous, merely variant spellings of the same word. In speaking of artefacts however, it has become common to distinguish them as having separate meanings: 'provenience' is commonly taken to refer only to the actual findspot where an artefact was excavated; 'provenance' is much broader and includes the findspot but is more often used to refer to the history of an artefact after it was found, where it was subsequently kept, when it was sold, who owned it, etc. There is no absolute consensus but for the sake of convenience I will use the terms in those senses in this post.

In a post on an antiquities forum, a neophyte collector has mentioned the importance of provenance. A specialist collector of Celtic coinage and other artefacts (and editor of the ACCG Newsletter) has grabbed the chance to pooh-pooh the importance of "provenance" by replying with a few comments which belittle the significance of findspots - but completely misses the point.

A narrow perspective is all too common among many collectors, particularly it seems among those who collect ancient coins. In fact, the neophyte collector was discussing antiquities in general and my comments below address that broad overview.

Judging by posts on blogs and forums, there is a large number of collectors who cannot see the wood for the trees. They are so obsessed with the artefacts themselves (the trees) that they seem to think that the context (the wood) is only important if it provides more information about the artefacts. Their whole world revolves around the objects. Their concentration is understandable but it can easily become an extremely narrow "object-centric" universe.

The Celtic specialist shrugs that proveniences "can tell us only so much as this sort of material often traveled far from its origins". And goes on to say that "If there is no [provenience] and no archaeological context, much of this data can be reconstructed, functionally, from other types of data -- metallurgical analysis, typology, art history etc."

Well yes, I dare say it sometimes can - but that's not the point. The purpose of excavating an archaeological site is not just to provide information about objects found there.

It is not just what the site (provenience) could have told us about the object, it is what the object could have told us about the site.

Indeed, the objects themselves may be of comparatively minor importance. Archaeological excavation lies in carefully deconstructing and examining an ancient site, not just the objects buried in it but the site itself - the whole site, the way it was constructed, the way the finds were distributed, their relationship to the site, to structures, to features, to human remains and to each other, what they contained, and a million other tiny details. The finding of a foreign object (something that "traveled far from its origins") may also be significant. It is by putting all those details together that a meaningful story may emerge.

And when objects are looted, the tragedy is not only that the objects have lost their context (as the Celtic coin collector pointed out, the objects may still have some value anyway), it is that the context has lost its objects. In other words, the site has been robbed of the finds that would have helped to meaningfully interpret it. And in many cases, the site has been totally trashed to retrieve them.

The greed of a looter has destroyed a special opportunity to add to our knowledge of the past. A personal greed has trumped a rare and precious boon for all the rest of us.

That brings us to what the neophyte collector may have really had in mind about the importance of provenance, the record of an object after it was found. A provenance can reassure a collector that the object has not been excavated recently, and that by adding it to their collection they are not supporting a modern looter. A provenance gives the collector an opportunity to avoid contributing to the ongoing wholesale destruction of the archaeological record. There is a great deal of value in that - but only to a thoughtful collector who is genuinely interested in history rather than one who sees only the trees but not the wood.

Sunday 23 May 2010

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and Archaeologists

What is it with the ACCG obsession with archaeologists and feebly trying to please them (see my previous Reaching out?)? The archaeologists and other preservationists saw the real audience years ago and vaulted over the dealers straight to them before the ACCG was even founded. To mimic Clinton's election mantra: it's the public, stupid!

But I don't think that the ACCG is stupid for one second. I suspect rather that the idea that the ACCG is trying to win the approval of archaeologists is merely a pretence, a deliberate smokescreen. Anyone with a functioning braincell knows that the archaeological profession would never accept the ridiculously flawed proposals of the ACCG. The ploy seems designed to give the impression that the ACCG is really trying very hard to please but the poor things cannot progress - when in fact the reality is that the ACCG deliberately chose an impossible goal as a delaying tactic, a way to keep the status quo while pretending to be concerned.

ACCG officer Dave Welsh rather let the cat out of the bag with an unguarded post on an antiquities forum. When archaeologist Paul Barford suggested registering what is "already on the market in order to create a watershed beyond which it will be increasingly difficult to insert freshly dugup material" as a way to avoid contributing to ongoing looting, Dave Welsh made it clear in his reply that he would have no interest in such a scheme because all he wanted was a "system for recording provenance which you and others in the archaeological community will accept as proving that an item is licit".

Huh? Only magic could suddenly produce the 1970 provenance required by archaeological institutions out of thin air. In other words, it seems this ACCG officer deliberately set an impossible (and irrelevant) requirement because he had zero interest in establishing such a system for its own sake - to curb looting.

Cut the pretence, ACCG. It won't wash. If the ACCG genuinely wanted a solution it would take a different approach...

Forget the AIA. Forget archaeologists. Talk to the same people they are talking to: the general public. They are the people whose opinion matters most and the people who ultimately cause new legislation. The public see the problem of looting. They want a solution. If and so long as the only solution the public hears is that proposed by extremist elements in the archaeological community, that is the only one they can consider. Give them a sensible and workable alternative.

The public want to see someone actively working to diminish looting and the carnage of archaeological sites. That 'someone' doesn't have to be an archaeologist. Wouldn't it be ideal if the action came from dealers and collectors?

I quickly drafted a proposal for an International Antiquities Registry last year. It addresses the suggestion made by Paul Barford. It needs a few creases ironing out but it is achievable - and it has the potential to create a superb image of dealers and collectors who really do care. It has met with stony silence.


For the record: I am very much in favour of collecting ancient coins. It is a fascinating and stimulating hobby. Likewise, I support responsible dealers in the ancient coin trade; I just think the ACCG is doing a hideous job of representing them. The ACCG might do better if it didn't underestimate the public's intelligence and their ability to see through transparent tactics.

Reaching out?

I very briefly submitted a blog post about the polarised camps in the debate on looting back in February 2009. I removed it and stored it as a draft only a few hours later because I realised I would be too busy on other projects at that time to reply to any comments. I now have a little more time and I have re-posted it:

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

In the few hours it was originally posted the post had a comment by Peter Tompa, a member of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a lobby group for American coin dealers).

I have now posted his comment and my reply to it below since the original post is rather old:

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your blog is interesting, but I think you are being a bit naive. I can say quite forthrightly that collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues, but without any success or even much interest. Unfortunately, the AIA, the main archaeological group in the US, demands provenance information back to 1970. You don't have it and you are said to encourage looting. The current AIA administration is quite a bit more polite than its predecessor, but the message has not changed. The AAMD was basically bullied into accepting the 1970 date and I see no move to suggest anything otherwise for private collectors. One of the truly sad things is that archaeologists that do want to continue good relations with collectors and reach some accomodation have been intimidated from pursing the issue openly. A number of archaeologists I know refer to their bretheren as "radicals" themselves. You may not agree with some or all of the positions of groups like the ACCG, but the ACCG and coin dealers have no power to blackball collectors who disagree. "Hardline" archaeologists do. The prospect of having one's excavation license pulled by a source country based on complaints that an archaeologist is "soft on looting" by being "soft on collecting" has been enough to keep the silent majority in the archaeological community silent indeed about reaching an accomodation with collectors.

19 February 2009 02:34

Thank you for your comments, Peter.

The publicity of the carnage of archaeological sites such as Ratiaria sickens everyone, not only academics but the wider public. It is very clear to the general public that the ultimate cause of the destruction is a demand for artefacts by collectors. Since most people are not collectors themselves, they will endorse the only solutions presented to them - including those presented by the more extreme elements in the archaeological profession. Present another solution.
"collectors and dealers groups have attempted to reach out to the main archaeological groups to discuss the issues ..."

But they haven't 'reached out' with anything even remotely worth seriously considering have they?

Proposals to stiffen policing thousands of sites in poorer countries with very limited budgets and far more pressing priorities aren't very serious. It also strikes me as rather like the classic burglar's excuse to a householder: 'don't blame the thief; you deserve to have your things stolen if you are not able to afford better locks'.

Neither are proposals to implement a PAS system in such poorer countries to be taken lightly. The scheme is extremely expensive to operate in a country with comparatively minor finds such as England; the cost in major-artefact-rich countries such as Egypt or Greece would be astronomic. And actively encouraging people to dig up as many artefacts as they can as fast as they can is hardly in the best interests of archaeological conservation.

Equally unrealistic are proposals for museums to sell off their 'surplus' holdings. The collections are held on behalf of the public. Such holdings are required for potential research in the future and even though the items may number in the thousands, they are finite and would provide only a very temporary source of income anyway.

Nor are proposals that the initiative (and funding) for implementing a registry system should come from the preservationists themselves (archaeologists and the general tax-paying public) going to go down very well. Dealers and collectors are the ultimate cause of much of the looting; the preservationists are merely pointing it out.

Small wonder then that such feeble proposals have not met with "any success or even much interest". To put it bluntly, they ain't going to fly. But perhaps you knew that (see my post on the ACCG)?

Several factors can contribute to looting - and it may well be encouraged by such things as the short-sighted policy of some governments in implementing a blanket state ownership of all artefacts with little or no compensation to the finder regardless of the circumstances in which they were found. But the most obvious and visible cause is the market demand for antiquities. And it is the general public (not just archaeologists - 'hardline' or otherwise) who are increasingly demanding a solution. Give them one.

The 1970 watershed advocated by the AIA is indeed unrealistic for minor artefacts but so far the ACCG has offered no alternative and no compromise. That is not my idea of 'reaching out'. Until the ACCG genuinely endorses a sensible proposal to distinguish between artefacts from old collections and those from fresh looting, and thus eliminate or at least reduce the antisocial stigma that antiquities collecting has acquired, responsible collectors will have no option but to remain in the middle ground.



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