Saturday 22 January 2011

Changing world

Whether we like it or not, the world does change. Our attitudes to life and society tend to evolve with the passage of time but I find that some people are more reluctant to adjust to change than others. In particular, there are many collectors of antiquities who look back fondly at a time not too long ago when their hobby was widely regarded as a contribution to scholarship and sometimes openly encouraged by academia; they cannot understand why nowadays that same hobby may provoke an atmosphere of hostility.

My own love of the past was first expressed through handling and collecting 'normal' antiques such as antiquarian books; my only childhood contact with antiquities was the odd Roman coin or lamp. There is a fundamental difference between antiques and antiquities. The former tends to be handed down through the generations; the latter tends to be dug up out of the ground. It is therefore the unbridled acquisition of the latter which poses a special threat to a finite and fragile resource: the archaeological record, that very fabric which can reveal history if treated with respect and interpreted skillfully.

As I said, the world has changed. The hardening attitude of academia towards the antiquities trade is not just a whimsical PC thing; it is largely a response to that change. Collecting unprovenanced antiquities has always been a threat to the archaeological record since it encourages looting but before the modern day it was a relatively minor pursuit and on a relatively minor scale. It was often regarded benignly since the advances in scholarship offered by studying the objects seemed to offset or even outweigh any damage done to the context.

But two concurrent developments have changed all that.
  • Firstly, archaeological excavation has been hugely aided by modern techniques and with the increasing sophistication of site interpretation, object-based studies have been largely marginalised in the main thrust of archaeological field methodology. It has become increasingly accepted even among the general public that objects, while extremely important, are only part of the overall picture.

  • Secondly, antiquities collecting is no longer the quiet backwater it was a few decades ago. It has become fashionable and popular. The ravenous hunger for yet more and more objects to be ripped from the ground is nowadays fueled by an increasing population with increased leisure. It is aided by modern technology such as metal detectors and by modern international marketing through the internet, and has escalated utterly out of control over the past two or three decades - far beyond anything our forefathers could have imagined.
The preservation of context has become paramount to anyone who cares about the past. It's no good trying to justify ignoring it by picking out the odd object or coin hoard where context may seem irrelevant in that specific case. Unless we know the context we will never know if it would have been important or not. It is far safer and more responsible to assume that in the case of most unprovenanced artefacts the context might have been important and, moreover and far more to the point, that a site may well have been irretrievably trashed to obtain that artefact.

I get a thrill from handling and studying old objects. We can safely collect antiques which have been handed down over the generations AND we can collect antiquities which have been dug up. It's just that if we want to be considerate of the rest of society, we should collect the latter thoughtfully. It's not too much to ask.



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