Sunday 7 December 2014

Putting the Parthenon Marbles into perspective

In an online discussion stimulated by the recent news that one of the Parthenon marbles has been loaned to Russia, one person posed the following question:

"Question: What happened to the 'missing pieces' of the figures?"

An excellent question. A large number of the marbles had already been damaged, defaced, pillaged, reused as building material or ground down to make cement by the time Lord Elgin saw what remained and I imagine many of the pieces he took may have suffered further or met a similar fate if they had been left behind.

In 1816 Elgin noted: "Every traveller coming added to the general defacement of the statuary in his reach: there are now in London pieces broken off within our day. And the Turks have been continually defacing the heads; and in some instances they have actually acknowledged to me that they have pounded down the statues to convert them into mortar." (St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, OUP 1983, p.97)

That this was not a fabrication by Elgin is confirmed by earlier visitors. "In 1749 the traveller Dalton drew twelve figures in the west pediment of the Parthenon: by the time Lusieri arrived in 1800 there were only four. Five slabs of the frieze drawn by Stuart between 1750 and 1755 had completely disappeared. One slab of which a mould was taken by Fauvel as recently as 1790 was utterly destroyed. The metopes tell a similar story." (ibid.)

Let's be under no illusion. Elgin did not deface an intact or stable monument; by the time he arrived, the Parthenon was already disappearing at an alarming rate. Evidence indicates that neither the Turks nor most of the local Greeks were particularly bothered at the time (it was not until much later that the Greeks adopted the Parthenon as a national monument). It was a frantic race between the British and the French to grab what was left and save it from further damage; if the British had not taken the sculptures, the French would have. The British won. But there is much to suggest that the rivalry was more in the nature of who got the best trophy than who was more conscientious in matters of conservation.

The legality of Elgin's actions was contentious. He had a firman (letter of permission) issued in 1801 by the Turkish authorities but it was somewhat ambiguous and a letter he wrote to Spencer Perceval, the then Prime Minister, in 1811 suggests that Elgin was aware that he may have been going beyond its remit: "I had no advantage from the Turkish government beyond the Firman given equally to other English travellers. My successors in the Embassy could not obtain permission for the removal of what I had not myself taken away. And on Mr Adair's being officially instructed to apply in my favour, he understood, 'The Porte denied that the persons who had sold those marbles to me had any right to dispose of them'." (Hitchens, The Elgin Marbles: Should they be returned to Greece?, Verso 1997, p.38)

The reaction when the sculptures arrived in London was mixed. Byron famously condemned their removal from Athens as "Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed by British hands"; Keats praised them as "Grecian grandeur".

I do not condone what Elgin did - his 'rescue' was undoubtedly not entirely altruistic, the legality of it was tenuous, and his methods caused horrendous damage to the remaining structure - but it is perhaps unfair to judge him by the standards of today. We can only speculate on what would have happened to the sculptures if the French had got them instead or if they had remained. But if they had remained, as Mary Beard has noted: "Whatever Elgin's motives, there is no doubt at all that he saved his sculpture from worse damage." (Beard 2011)

Meanwhile, the debate continues as to whether the sculptures should stay in London or now be returned to Athens ...

Monday 1 December 2014

Why do museums hoard?

A resentment of museums* apparently stockpiling thousands of "surplus" artefacts rather than selling them and allowing private collectors to buy them is a recurring theme in the world of collectors of antiquities. It seems a valid concern at first glance but much of it is rooted in what I term OCM (object-centric myopia), thinking of artefacts merely as art objects rather than as part of a far wider picture, as research tools in understanding our past.

The following question asked recently on a forum is fairly typical and I'll try to answer it very briefly:
"I think any piece is better off in private hands if fairly insignificant, what would they do in museum warehouses, gather dust?"
In most cases the artefacts not on display do metaphorically just gather dust but they are normally available on request and, in theory at least, they are preserved (much like evidence from a crime scene) in case further research in the future may shed fresh light. Methodology and technology are constantly improving and, for instance, a present-day re-examination of pottery sherds kept from an excavation in, say, the 1930s may result in entirely different conclusions from the original ones. What may seem "minor" or "insignificant" now might well prove to be extremely valuable to future generations.

Nor is the fact that many of the artefacts are apparently "identical" a reason to dispose of "surplus" examples. The notion of a "duplicate" is just 'baseball card mentality', entrenched in thinking of artefacts as mere art objects to fill gaps in collections. There is no such thing as a "duplicate" in the conduct of archaeological inquiry. In the world of academic research, the very fact that many of the artefacts are seemingly alike can be invaluable in studies such as cultural development investigation or quantitative analysis.

For a very basic example, let's take a "minor" and "insignificant" artefact found in huge quantities. A study of Firmalampen (a type of Roman lamp) a few years ago (Schneider 1993) shattered some earlier theories, set new standards in classifying the type, and enabled far more accurate appraisal of those found in excavations (and thus the site itself). The study was based on an examination of hundreds of superficially similar lamps (both complete and bare fragments) kept in the storage of museums throughout parts of Western Europe. Verified knowledge of their findspot played a vital role and, since chemical analysis was involved, mere photographs were not sufficient. Of course, such a study would not have been possible if the lamps had been dispersed to the market decades ago.

Police forces store evidence, paleontologists store fossils, mineralogists store meteorites, archaeologists store sherds, and so on. It would be rather simplistic to assume they all do so out of a childish resentment of non-professionals or an addiction for compulsive hoarding. Who knows what fresh insights into our past those dozens of identical pots currently gathering dust may reveal in a few years time? But one thing is certain: future generations will not thank us for squandering them away just to please a few people today.

There may be room for museums deaccessioning in some cases but we do need to understand some of the reasons why they may be reluctant to do so. And in the meantime, it's worth bearing in mind that there are literally millions of artefacts already on the market or in private collections.

*For the purpose of this post, the term "museum" refers to any public institution which includes the storage and preservation of archaeological material as part of its objective, and is thus distinct from those which function purely as a form of art gallery.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Outrage in Missouri

Humour - a vanishing resource?
Archaeologist Dr Donna Yates recently expressed her worry that her scholarly research on the origins of two Mesoamerican artefacts sold by the St Louis AIA may have enhanced the price fetched at Bonham's auction on 12 November. Scholars tend to avoid discussing unprovenanced antiquities on the principle that enhancing the commercial value of such artefacts may encourage looting. These items were not in fact in that category (they were well provenanced) but I still understand Dr Yates's position.

I posted this somehat light-hearted comment on Paul Barford's coverage of the event:
"Well, if it's any consolation to Donna Yates, the other lot she mentioned (Lot 149: Zapotec Figural Urn) sold for only $3,750, well within the original $3,000–5,000 estimate. I suspect that the doubling of the price for Lot 156 (Maya Effigy Vase) was motivated more by the fact that it is 'prettier' (the art market being shallow as always) rather than a consideration of the increased depth of its academic credentials. I think Dr Yates need not lose any sleep."
I thought nothing more of it but on revisiting Paul's post a few days later, I was surprised to find that my brief comment had provoked an outraged response from Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). He was apparently horrified by my gentle dig at the art market and couched his diatribe in what was presumably intended to be biting sarcasm ...
"Annointed scholar David Knell expressed an erudite opinion [...] How enlightening!  The art market ought perhaps to consider the views of archaeologists when it comes to valuation of works.  If the views of archaeologists and similar highly educated "experts" are to be taken seriously, every artifact more than 100 years old, menial as it might be, is of inestimable value and is essentially "priceless"."
Well, in a figurative sense, every artefact that adds to our knowledge of the human past is "priceless" - but that wasn't the point of my comment.

It's a pity that someone living in a state that produced one of the greatest humourists of all time appears to have no grasp of the concept himself. My comment about the art market was slightly tongue-in-cheek but the humour clearly flew stratospherically over the head of this present-day resident of Missouri.

His disgruntled response, however, betrays that there might be a strong element of truth underlying my comment. Certainly, Sayles himself seems to be scandalised by the notion that anything more intellectually taxing than gushing over how pretty an object is should have any effect whatsoever on its worth.

What value could an artefact possibly have other than how well it complements Aunt Mary's drapes in the living room or how nicely it fills a gap in an upmarket equivalent of a sticker album? And it's all legal, innit?

God forbid that some fool might actually see value in knowing the individual history of an historical object. Such a radical and unseemly exercising of brain cells could end up challenging the time-honoured mindset that artefacts are mere baubles that should be pigeonholed and graded by comparing them to pictures in a book. And, even more apocalyptically, it could thus threaten the very mindset on which much of the antiquities trade (notably that in ancient coins) is largely dependent.

Perhaps most dealers of Sayles's acquaintance share his indignant dismissal of the value of knowledge. But someone once said that "whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect". In the meantime, I do wish this affronted advocate of dealers' 'rights' would try to lighten up a bit. My quip was hardly in the same league as those by Mark Twain - and literary perception may have dulled a little in the internet age - but it would be a sad indictment of the ACCG that any remark today must be accompanied by at least a dozen smilies before their dour members could even guess that it might have been intended as dry humour.

Friday 19 September 2014

A few thoughts on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)

As an addendum to my previous post outlining a few changes that I would like to see in the way metal detecting is approached, I would urge the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), as a government organisation in the front line of the situation, to do a better job at getting the conservation message across. They rightly state: "Context is vital in archaeology in order to be able [to] understand past human activity. Archaeology is not simply about studying isolated objects. How these came to be where they were found, their relationship to other objects and stratigraphy (position in the ground), among other factors help build up a picture of the past as a whole."

Fine - but that statement is hidden in a small font among a lot of densely packed, badly presented and carelessly formatted text on a lesser page, and makes no detailed mention of the significance of artefacts in surface surveys. I would like to see that message displayed far more prominently - together with several of the points raised by the CBA on their page covering the topic.

There seems to be a common misconception that the mission of the PAS is to encourage and foster metal detecting for its own sake. It is not. The 'Aims and Objectives' of the PAS make it plain that the Scheme is intended as a 'partnership' "between finders and museums/archaeologists". In other words, the PAS offers a means whereby any members of the public who find objects of archaeological interest can contribute to a shared resource. Those who deliberately search for such objects as a dedicated hobby are only part of that and, in this case, the PAS is attempting to limit the potentially erosive impact of an amateur pastime by promoting best practice and harnessing any positive aspect the hobby may have in advancing "our understanding of the past".

I think the word 'partnership' is an unfortunate choice of vocabulary. I suspect the PAS meant the word to convey merely taking part in something but a large number of detectorists apparently interpret it as meaning far more: that they are equal to the trained professionals.

Sadly, what those professionals actually do seems to be utterly lost on the more braindead members of the hobby, many of whom are under the impression that 'archaeology' is just about digging up objects, that 'context' is just a matter of noting roughly where the objects were found, and that 'saving history' is just a race to shove the objects into museums as fast as possible. Labouring under that severe cerebral limitation, they easily jump to the conclusion that 'hey, archaeology is easy!' and may even resent those 'toffee-nosed academics' being paid to do it. It is then only a tiny step for them to regard their hobby not as something that may occasionally aid archaeology but as something that is in competition with it and, since detectorists may find more objects and shove them into museums faster, even superior to it. Thus, we witness the abysmal stupidity of claims such as that made by James Warr.

There are undoubtedly highly perceptive, thoughtful and archaeologically-aware detectorists out there but it is clear that a large proportion of them are anything but. As I said in my previous post, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. Perhaps among the regulations should be a minimal requirement that anyone wishing to use a metal detector passes a basic test proving their understanding of what archaeology actually is exceeds that of a lobotomised baboon. In the meantime, the PAS faces an uphill struggle - and I would like to see them spend more time on explaining the pitfalls of the hobby and less time on condoning its sensationalisation.

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Three

Never say never. I did conclude my last post on this topic by saying that was all I had to say on it. However, I should try to clarify any confusion caused by the final paragraph in my last post and I added this comment to Andy Baines's blog post ...

Sorry for my poor formatting. That last paragraph in my comment was not specifically aimed at you (perhaps I should have used 'they' as a pronoun instead of 'you') but at a huge proportion of metal detectorists in general, particularly those who like to portray the hobby unconditionally as a 'saving history' movement. It is THAT attitude that I think is misguided and I do feel many of the arguments used unreservedly to depict metal detectorists as magnanimous crusaders who selflessly toil away to help the public are largely 'bullshit'. Unless they have taken the trouble to learn and fully understand the effects of what they are doing within the discipline of archaeology and undertake detecting responsibly, preferably in coordination with trained professionals, they pursue their hobby purely for their own pleasure and, very often, in the hope of personal profit. And while there may be 'occasional exceptions' (some finds have been extremely beneficial in advancing our knowledge of the past), I suspect that overall the unaffiliated and unrestrained conduct of the hobby does far more harm than good. 
Yet again, you did not read my previous comments. No, I would not like to see a total ban on metal detecting - I'm inherently wary of too many government prohibitions and they very often backfire anyway - but I would like to see a change in the way metal detecting is portrayed in the media and elsewhere, a more realistic acknowledgement of the danger it poses to true archaeology and the principle of conservation instead of the current unqualified gushing over every find. 
And, since so many detectorists don't appear to have the common sense to recognise that danger themselves or simply don't care, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. I gather some of the more responsible members of the hobby would like to see that too. 
One of my greatest concerns is the sheer scale of the hobby and the lack of restraint. As I said earlier, "I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation". Even supposing detectorists were never tempted to dig deeper, there needs to be a recognition that merely because artefacts are in topsoil or ploughed layers is not a carte blanche excuse to grab every single one of them - and there needs to be far fewer people doing that if the finite archaeological record is going to stand any chance of being more meaningfully interpreted in the future.  
I recently read one detectorist naively saying that future generations will thank them for digging up all the artefacts. No, they will curse them for it. A few items here and there are no big deal - and some finds undoubtedly point archaeologists and historians in the right direction - but a future in which museums are stacked with bits and bobs ripped from their context while almost nothing is still left intact where it could have meant so much more is not one I would relish. Those bits and bobs will just be bitter reminders of lost opportunities wrecked by the misguided generation of today.
After composing my comment yesterday, I was gobsmacked to read about another detectorist reinforcing the point I made in the first paragraph of my transcribed comment above. Defending his pastime, he stated, "My work is important to me ...". WORK? What, like collecting stamps or spotting trains? Get real, dude. It's a hobby.
(Since my original post, I have revised the first paragraph of my comment to clarify that truly responsible members of the hobby are excluded from my generalisations. 25/9/2014)

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Two

Continuing on from my previous blog post about a debate on conservation, here is a copy of my latest comment sent to Andy Baines's blog ...

*NOW ANSWERED*? No, Andy. As I said, Paul Barford "answered your question in his very first reply" - 54 minutes after you asked it. It's just that you failed to realise it. A more accurate correction to your post title should read *INSTANTLY ANSWERED - NOW ACKNOWLEDGED*.

You found my reply "personal", "condescending", "derogatory"? It seems your ego is easily offended. While I simply shrugged off the withering sarcasm in your own pointed questions, you get upset at my accurate description of your points, not you, as "shallow and utterly unconvincing" without even a hint of sarcasm. I have no wish to offend you but please try to distinguish between criticism of your arguments and criticism of you.

"I am talking about detecting on areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest ..." 
There are many "areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest". The argument for conservation is that we do not know which places may turn out to be sites of archaeological interest in the future. As I said, why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal evidence that may have helped to interpret them? And, quite apart from potential excavations, why the frantic rush to destroy the traces used in surface surveys?

"... all my finds including non metalic finds are recorded, grid referenced, photographed, the landowner is then informed/shown and the items are then handed over to the relevant authorities be it my local museum or in most cases to the TTU in Edinburgh." 
That is commendable - but it is still the opposite of conservation. However you may try to justify your actions; ultimately, you are digging things up for your own pleasure. I am not convinced that society needs yet more hundreds of crudely dug-up and largely decontextualised Anglo-Saxon brooches and Roman buckles cluttering up museum display cases or shoved away in storage; those of us who genuinely appreciate history would much rather have a few sites with enough evidence left intact to allow a more meaningful, more intellectual interpretation.

"Problem there is when is the right time if archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving at what stage do we say to ourselves this is the point to do it and not wait for say another year, ten years, or even a hundred years ..." 
But you are NOT "doing it", are you? Crudely and selectively digging up all the metal bits is largely destroying evidence that may have been vital if any archaeological exploration is eventually done.

"... in hindsight should for example the Mary Rose have been lifted, could it not have been protected on the sea bed at the time ..." 
No, the lifting of the Mary Rose came within what is described as an emergency 'rescue operation'. There were fears that that area of the Spithead seabed was about to be deep-dredged to create a new shipping channel into Portsmouth. There was also the threat of amateur divers destroying the integrity of the site while scavenging for bits of treasure and souvenirs. Some of those divers may have deluded themselves into thinking they were 'saving history' - sound familiar? 
Excellent explanations of why the old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails can be found on Paul Barford's blog (just one example of many).

" didnt mention PAS in your intial post." 
Why would I need to? The whole point of both Andy's post and the post he was responding to on Paul Barford's blog was about almost 1 million objects recorded by the PAS. I don't want to upset your ego again but it would help the credibility of your arguments if you took the trouble to find out what you are commenting on before you comment.

"Have a nice day at the rock festival, try and avoid the head banging Dave." 
Thanks. I did actually say "for a few days" - a minor point but again, please read what you are commenting on. The only head banging I'm doing seems to be against a brick wall trying to get you guys to read. :) 
Go ahead and do metal detecting to your heart's desire. I can't stop you. It's all perfectly legal in England and Wales under minimal conditions. But at least spare us all the bullshit and be honest about it: it's just a selfish treasure hunt you pursue for your own pleasure, whether you give your finds to museums or not. Please don't try to delude yourself or try to convince others that you are somehow altruistically 'saving history' for everyone else. You're not. There may be occasional exceptions but more often than not, you're wrecking much of the evidence of history just to satisfy your own need for entertainment. As I said, that is NOT conservation. 
David (not "Dave" - nor, for that matter, some cryptic four-letter acronym hiding my real identity)
That's really all I have to say on that topic. Now to move onto other things in my next post ...


UPDATE: Oops! Did I say "Now to move onto other things in my next post"? Scrub that! Here is Part Three.

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part One

When Paul Barford lamented the fate of the almost one million artefacts recorded by the PAS ("Where have Eleven Million Objects Gone?", 15 August 2014), Andy Baines, a metal detectorist, questioned where Barford would prefer the artefacts to be: "In the ground still or in a storage container? In a museum back office filling cabinet?" Barford replied by listing a few examples of conservation issues and pointedly asked, "in somebody's ephemeral collection, or still where they were before the poachers came along?"

I think the meaning in Barford's reply was mind-blowingly clear to most people but it flew over Baines's head and, thinking his question had not been answered, he created a post on his own blog ("The question that a conservationist cannot answer", 15 August 2014). Understandably somewhat exasperated, Barford then carefully explained his position in detail.

I also had a go myself at trying to explain Barford's reply to Andy Baines ...
Paul answered your question in his very first reply.  
Elephant tusks are best left on the elephant - where they form part of an endangered species - rather than brutally cut off and carted away into the ivory trade, leaving the elephant dead. Keep destroying elephants like that and you'll eventually run out of elephants. 
Wild bird eggs are best left in the nest - where they form part of an ecosystem - rather than picked out and carted away into a display box, leaving the birds without their offspring. Keep destroying eggs like that and you'll eventually run out of those birds. 
And so on ... 
Ancient artefacts are best left "in the ground" - where they form ONLY ONE PART of a WHOLE assemblage of assorted evidence - rather than selectively dug up and carted away into some unknown private collection, leaving the other evidence denuded. Keep destroying evidence like that and you'll eventually run out of sites that can be meaningfully interpreted.

"They are buried many inches underground at no benefit to anyone until they are discovered ..." 
The mere DISCOVERY of artefacts is only a tiny part of the process. They need to be examined in the stratigraphic context of the site as a whole, in relation to structural and other remains, other objects such as pottery shards, and many types of subtle evidence that require expertise to analyse. In most cases, the only "benefit to anyone" that you will achieve by just selectively ripping the metal bits out of the ground will be to have yet more decontextualised baubles to gawp at. The site itself will have been robbed of much of its evidence and the potential to add to our knowledge of history is likely to have gone forever. 
conserve (verb): Protect from harm or destruction.
Someone posting as "Anonymous" but signed as "KPVW" also commented on Baines's blog. I then replied to that comment ...

I'm sure the points you raised were well-intentioned but even as a general member of the public, an historian rather than either an archaeologist or a detectorist, I find them shallow and utterly unconvincing. 
The old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails on at least two points. Firstly, it fails to recognise the importance of field surveys, etc. Secondly, no matter what archaeological practice is now or was in the past, it fails to acknowledge that techniques used by future generations are likely to be very different (and far more sophisticated). Do you really believe archaeology will remain exactly the same in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years time? I suspect future archaeologists will look back at the methods used today and shudder. 
One third of Pompeii and two thirds of Herculaneum are still unexcavated. The reason is not solely one of cost but, more importantly, a recognition that archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving, and the areas are best left buried in the meantime for future generations to explore with superior technology and methods.  
I don't think anyone is in favour of leaving everything in the UK undiscovered forever but my comment was phrased with a "rather than" qualifier. I believe that artefacts are indeed better left buried in the ground rather than only the metal bits selectively dug out and the archaeological record irretrievably eroded. I doubt that "every field in this country will be examined by a qualified archaeologist" any time soon but it would be nice if the fields that ARE examined still have a few scraps of evidence left.  
Apart from situations where land is genuinely threatened by immediate development or whatever (the danger posed by chemical fertilisers appears to be largely an urban myth [or conveniently somewhat exaggerated]), why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal that has already lain in the ground for hundreds of years? The alarmist excuses to do so sound like they derive from a selfish 'sod future generations, I want the goodies now' motive.

"... that is your assumption that not one find is ever recorded." 
Huh? I assume nothing of the kind. We're discussing finds in the PAS database; ALL the finds are recorded by definition. But do you seriously think that merely keeping a record of where something was dug up is always enough? What I am saying is that regardless of whether the findspot of the metal item has been recorded (even with coordinates), its precise relationship to OTHER evidence (including otherwise meaningless traces) is likely to have been lost. And we all know just how fragile that evidence can often be. The preservation of context is often vital to a proper understanding; my experience with projects such as the Mary Rose made that abundantly clear. 
I don't think anyone could object to chance surface finds - be they metallic, "worked flints, pottery or other non metalic items". Properly recorded, such finds can be of enormous value and the finders are to be applauded. But let's be honest, a huge proportion of the finds recorded in the PAS database were searched for deliberately by people using a metal detector - and it is those that cause concern.  
Hobbyist metal detecting is largely incompatible with the aims of archaeology. Limited in both its goal and methodology by its very nature, it is a targetted object-centric approach that typically ignores the integrity of the archaeological record as a whole. I understand the thrill of finding something and, under certain conditions, I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly - but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation. Even if every item really were recorded, the prospect of thousands of untrained and largely misguided amateurs sprawled over England and Wales selectively digging up thousands of ancient metal artefacts as fast as they can grab them is more than a little disconcerting to those of us who value the evidence of history. That is NOT conservation. Not by a long shot. It is the exact opposite.
Andy Baines responded that he now understood the views of a conservationist but did not agree with them. Fair enough. He added, "If amateur metal detecting was so bad and we were destroying so much archaeological history then surely there would be uproar ...". I pointed out that merely because metal detecting had not caused a public "uproar" did not mean it was harmless ...
Bear in mind that public "uproar" is not always an accurate barometer of what is right or wrong. Most people were perfectly happy with things like the ivory trade, egg collecting, uprooting bluebells and catching butterflies until they were eventually made aware of the downside to something that seemed innocent. Sometimes it takes a very long time for the general public to realise that things they take for granted are not always as simple and wholesome as they may seem.
I mentioned that I was off to a rock festival for a few days but, in the meantime, I did suggest that he might want to think about changing the title of his blog post. On my return, I found that he had added the words "*NOW ANSWERED*" to his title and that "KPVW" had added another comment. Since blogs by metal detectorists have a reputation for being somewhat ephemeral sometimes, I have posted my response on my own blog - in Part Two.

Thursday 4 September 2014

British history revamped by London road works during the 1970s

Now a season of rock festivals and other general summer debauchery has abated, it's time to add a little to my blog ...

A couple of "Roman" lamps from "c.100 A.D." being sold on eBay caught my eye: (ending 4 September) (ending 6 September)

Both are described as "British found in London during 1970s road works". Since both lamps are actually types made in northern Syria during the 5th - 6th centuries AD, the finds could add a whole new exciting dimension to British history. Are they evidence of an early attempt to found a Syrian monastery in darkest Maida Vale?

Sadly, such musings are doomed by the harsh reality that lamps of this type are not found in Britain until brought back from the Levant as souvenirs in modern times, typically by either tourists or dealers rather than Byzantine monks. It is of course possible that workmen involved in the "1970s road works" inadvertently blasted through the basement stockroom of a London antiquities dealer in that era of black-outs and power cuts - oops! - but the reputation of the eBay seller suggests another reason for the sensational claim.

The seller is the infamous "Saxby's Coins". Even he seems to balk at trying to pass off ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese items as having come from an English meadow but he has no hesitation in describing almost everything else he sells as "British found". Despite the fact that much of his stock appears to derive from metal detecting on the European mainland, such as this "c.1450 A.D British Found Medieval Period Hammered Type European Silver Coin" (actually minted at Elbing in Poland and clearly dated 1632), the seller is apparently convinced that pretending it has all been discovered in the UK will enhance the price.

The stories weaved to launder 'high-end' antiquities are old news but these lamps demonstrate just how far some dealers are prepared to go in fabricating the provenance of even minor items. Not content with a mere "British found", it seems this seller has happily invented a place (London), a time (1970s) and an event (road works) to increase plausibility.

Just how much faith can we place on mere hearsay, whether it is a dealer's undocumented claim of provenance when selling an item or a person's undocumented claim of a findspot and circumstances when getting an item recorded in the PAS database?

There is much to be said in favour of Elizabeth Marlowe's contention (Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) that only 'grounded' (archaeologically documented) antiquities form a truly reliable basis for scholarship; those which are 'ungrounded' (lacking archaeological confirmation) can be risky and, if the stories attached to them are simply taken at face-value, may be thoroughly misleading.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Visit to the Flat Earth Society

I made a statement in the comments on a recent article in the Biblical Archaeology Review: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". It was in reply to an ACCG lobbyist for coin dealers who is intent on downplaying the part played by collecting in encouraging looting and blaming everyone else for it instead.

Whereas the purpose of an archaeological excavation is to gather information, the sole purpose of looting is purely to dig out objects that provide material or monetary gain. While a few looters, like those in ancient times, may dig in the faint hope of finding gold or other items of intrinsic worth, it is indeed "blatantly obvious" that most looters today are motivated by the far more realistic hope of finding things that are given high monetary value by the black market of the antiquities trade. In the basic logic of economics, as long as indiscriminate collectors continue to provide a 'demand', looters will be encouraged to provide a 'supply'.

In my innocence, I had thought my statement was so patently self-evident that I wasn't really expecting it to be contested. It was pretty much like saying water is wet or fire is hot. Sadly, I had not counted on the amazing logic-defying acrobatics of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers). To be fair, I do remember another member of the ACCG refusing to accept that looters are motivated by the monetary value of antiquities years ago - but I thought that even the ACCG had long since given up that quixotic attempt at denial. But nope, they are still at it.

In a move apparently calculated to push the ACCG into the same league of denial as the Flat Earth Society, Wayne Sayles, its Executive Director, challenged my statement with the riposte that "I think that is an inaccurate characterization". On his blog ("A Shot in the Foot", 6 July 2014), he went on to say ...
"I'm not sure in this case who "the rest of the world" is, but Knell's statement did not seem all that obvious to me, and does not comport with scholarly opinions that cite poverty as the primary cause of cultural property looting."
Aha! Poverty. So presumably, poor people take up looting as a pastime simply to relieve their boredom, toil away in the baking hot sun just to get a fashionable tan or go digging deep into the soil because of some irresistible mole-like instinct inherited from primordial ancestors. That must be it. Who am I to argue with "scholarly opinions"?

Oh wait ... seeing as they're so poor, the motivation for looting couldn't be because they might make money from it, could it? You know ... the money paid by middlemen and dealers and ultimately the collectors they supply? Nah, that would be just another convoluted way of saying that collecting provides most of the motivation for looting. Which sort of brings us back to my statement - the one that "did not seem all that obvious".

I'm not entirely convinced that looters, typically in organised gangs often armed with bulldozers, metal detectors and other sophisticated machinery, represent everyone's idea of "poverty". Helping to relieve genuine poverty is indeed a worthy cause but if Sayles really is concerned about poor people, I would have thought a more constructive approach would be to urge his clients to plough their money into supporting foreign charities, schools and hospitals rather than subsidising the destruction of archaeological sites. Encouraging destitute people to destroy their own cultural heritage just so you can drool over the goodies is known as 'taking advantage' of them, not as a humanitarian gesture. But in an attempt to justify his priorities, Sayles adds ...
"Eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins clearly would not eliminate looting. Some scholars have said as much publicly and at least one did so in the recent Cultural Property Advisory Committee hearing in Washington DC."
Ah! The trusty old 'straw man' argument again. It's not a question of eliminating the private collecting of ancient coins; it's a question of eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) the indiscriminate private collecting of ancient coins. Collectors need to be able to distinguish between coins that have been around for years and those that have been freshly looted. As I've said countless times, it ain't rocket science.

No, of course careful collecting would not eliminate looting - but it would be a giant step in the right direction. Sayles then tries to justify his 'straw man' argument ...
"One reason is that the trade is truly worldwide and repressing one market would simply divert the flow to another. Should American collectors be disenfranchised simply to make a meaningless point? Universal market repression is simply not going to happen."
Ah! The old "if elephant ivory is quite openly sold in China and the whaling industry is legal in Japan, why shouldn't we do that too" argument. Why do I keep seeing the same old tired excuses trotted out over and over again? There are tens of thousands of coin collectors in the US (a huge "flow"- so hardly "meaningless") but the economic dictum that demand stimulates supply apparently falls on selective hearing in this case. And I'd prefer to think that American collectors were ethically enlightened rather than "disenfranchised". Does a man prevented from snatching purses from little old ladies feel "disenfranchised" too - just because other people get away with it?

Sayles goes on to invent another justification ...
"The other reason is that those who loot ancient sites will inevitably find precious metal objects that can be melted down for bullion if not sold intact. Many who are familiar with Middle Eastern bazaars know very well that this is precisely what happens to many coin finds irrespective of national or international laws."
Yup, I've already heard this old chestnut too. For those of my readers who haven't drifted off by now, I'll just remind them of my statement: "That collecting provides most of the motivation for looting is blatantly obvious to the rest of the world". Precious metal items are quite rare in ancient sites and the effort put into gathering ordinary coins for scrap value is hardly likely to be worthwhile on a large scale. Few looters are going to expend enormous amounts of time and energy in the extremely vague hope that they just might chance upon something of intrinsic worth or a couple of kilos of old copper; the majority do it in the reasonable expectation of finding things that will repay their effort - common things given an inflated value by demand from the black market of the antiquities trade.

Sayles ends with a dark warning ...
"So, what is the point of this blog post? Simply that this sort of nonsense is not doing Archaeology any good."
I'm not quite sure why he thinks those working in archaeology would do better to turn a blind eye to activities that threaten to destroy the evidence that sustains it. One would suppose that anyone advising members of a profession what they should or should not do would have at least a basic knowledge of the topic but his later sentence reveals that he hasn't got even a vague idea of what archaeology actually is ...
"Because of a misguided concern about common coins that are sold legally worldwide and that archaeologists have traditionally ignored?"
No, it is not a "misguided concern"; the protection of evidence is a fundamental principle. Archaeology is about information, not just objects for their own sake. Sayles is confusing it with looting. It makes absolutely no difference how common the coins are; the looting of common coins causes every bit as much damage to sites as the looting of rare ones. Archaeologists are concerned about the loss of information caused by their brutal removal, not just the coins themselves. Some in the profession may have tolerated such philistinism in the past but people are far more aware of conservation issues today and, as I keep trying to point out, times have changed.

As a former collector myself, I fully understand the pleasure of collecting and I firmly support its future. But it does need to be carried out thoughtfully. A denial of facts that are indeed blatantly obvious is akin to being a "flat-earther" and merely opens the hobby to scorn and ridicule. Perhaps worse still, it perpetuates a common perception of all collectors as rapacious introverts who will invent any shallow excuse to exploit the archaeological resource for their own selfish ends. Sadly, it seems the ACCG circle of coin dealers is hell-bent on doing precisely that.

In his BAR comment, Sayles compared looting in Egypt and Britain. Paul Barford, an archaeologist, aptly described the activity of digging up archaeological objects purely for personal entertainment and profit as "Collection Driven Exploitation" (CDE) no matter where it takes place. I think that all-encompassing phrase covers it very well. Barford also posted an excellent response ("A Shot in the foot? Or Somebody Else's Despicable Verbal Tricks?", 6 July 2014) to Sayles's other points. Well worth reading.


Brief reply to the silly comment below the post on Sayles's blog:
"Knell is a collector of classic [sic - I think he means 'classical'] oil lamps of the type regularly uncovered from Roman and Greco-Roman habitation sites [sic - most are recovered from tombs]. Why he imagines that his collecting ethics motivate looters less, than say, other equally licit collectors, continues to be a source of humorous speculation."
No, Knell was a collector of ancient lamps. I stopped. I doubt that many looters are going to be motivated by someone who doesn't buy their loot.

Image: an ACCG coin dealer's view of the world - remarkably like a coin?

Friday 4 July 2014

A way forward?

My previous post about the response to an article in Biblical Archaeology Review has received a lengthy comment (split into two parts) from Rasiel Suarez, the coin dealer whose remarks I focused on. Rasiel has clearly spent some time composing his comment and rather than leaving it in relative obscurity, I have attempted to highlight his main points and reply to them properly in a new post. (The entire unedited comment is here.)
"I should probably know better than to write in defense; given the tone it's clear your perception of me and other ancient coin enthusiasts is long past the point where reasoned debate has any prayer of swaying opinions. All the same, I'll make an exception."
It is in the hope of "reasoned debate" that I am highlighting your comment in a post of its own. In that spirit, I have overlooked some of your less constructive statements rather than attack them and tried to focus more on the positive points you raised. Any "tone" you may perceive in my previous post was caused by the sheer frustration of apparently hitting my head against a brick wall.
"Your "solution" did not meet with stony silence as you say. It met with rightful ridicule. Let me reiterate: there is no such thing as a market where one may buy faultlessly provenanced coins."
Rasiel, you're inventing 'straw man' arguments again. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from current and future looting. That's it, nothing more. It's a simple and realistic goal; let's not confuse it with the higher ethical standards set by museums and institutions. We are both agreed that in the majority of cases coins in private hands cannot be "faultlessly provenanced" back to 1970 or whatever to meet those standards but that has nothing to do with the goal we are seeking to achieve. As I said in my previous post, all dealers need to do in order to discourage current and future looting is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot. It's really not rocket science.

Recording coins need not involve "official-looking writeups, licenses, stamps and concomitant minutiae of bureaucracy". By "record", I mean simply document the coins in a way that is not easily open to abuse and forgery. The primary objective is to 'date-stamp' them. I proposed a system for doing that nearly five years ago.

Of course, it is not an ideal solution from the viewpoint of those seeking to redress real or imagined past wrongs - nothing can magically create a genuine 1970 provenance out of thin air - but that is not its goal and it is a huge step forward in the right direction. It sounds as if its basic concept is not too different from what you set up on your own website (I haven't seen your version in detail since it requires a log-in): "a free service that timestamps a record of your coin along with pertinent information (including provenance) which at the very least lets the world know a date of possession..." That sort of thing is precisely what is needed and I applaud you for setting the ball rolling.
"Whether freshly excavated or recycled from a hundred previous auctions what the collector ultimately cares about is filling a hole in his or her collection."
What the rest of society ultimately cares about is filling gaps in the knowledge of their history and protecting the means of doing so from collectors who think of ancient coins like baseball cards. There will always be collectors of that mentality around but there is a limit to the time that the rest of society will pander to them.

The figures in your market barometer are interesting but irrelevant. Regardless of whether the market is growing or shrinking, the fact remains that coins are still being looted from archaeological sites and most dealers provide no means of distinguishing them from coins that have been around for years.
"... you've already admitted to owning coins you know DAMN well came from some location you'd rather not dwell too much on ..."
Nope, I don't feel guilty at all. I've already dealt with the guilt aspect in my previous post. What I'm trying to discuss is the prevention of current and future looting. You're conflating two different issues.
"On the other hand, looking at things from your perspective, you know that if there is no current "neat" solution to acquiring what the public desires then that demand will still get met one way or the other."
Indeed, but which "public" are you ultimately more worried will pose a greater threat to your business and coin collecting in general? If you mean the few thousand or so people who collect ancient coins, then yes, a proportion of those collectors will do anything to get their goodies. If you mean the millions of other people who care about history but don't give a toss about the people who collect coins, then they will gladly back any legislation that protects what matters to them - even if that legislation is unnecessarily harsh and bans collecting altogether. The trade needs to get THAT public on their side by cleaning up their act and showing that dealers care about history too. Ignore the majority of the population at your peril.
"Rather than take the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative - to a commercial base that would by all appearances be quite receptive even - you instead choose to bellyache over looters running wild blog after pointless blog from your bedroom pulpit urging us evil collectors to mend our ways. Have at it, then."
(As a former web designer, let me just explain terminology to avoid confusion before I reply. I think Rasiel means "post after post". A "blog" is a website that the posts are published on. I have made dozens of posts but I have only one blog.)

I would be happier if you had bothered to read through my blog before criticising it. As I said, I have already taken "the productive step of offering a more palatable alternative" nearly five years ago. The original post is here and there are follow-up posts here and here. It's not exactly hidden.

I have no interest in setting up as a coin dealer. What I am proposing is an online registry for coins and other antiquities. It must be funded of course but first, let's be realistic. Apart from the PAS in the UK, few elected governments will ask their taxpayers to fund a scheme which will merely help a tiny proportion of the electorate to carry on private collecting; they are more likely to take the cheaper and politically more popular step of simply banning or severely curtailing private collecting altogether. You could approach the government - but I wouldn't hold your breath.

A more likely source of funding is the private sector. Registration itself would need to be free or at least minimal. Revenue would have to be based on a form of advertising. Auction houses and large trade businesses dealing in ancient coins and other antiquities would receive a tremendous boost to their corporate image by being seen to back and sponsor such a public-spirited 'green' initiative directly related to what they do. They can spin it any way they want.

I worked for a large utility firm here in the UK at one time. You would be amazed at the obscure causes they sponsored just to be seen as 'green'. They may well have been secret cynics inside the boardroom but corporate image was vital.

The opportunity is there for you and the rest of the trade to expand the concept you already have on your website into a much broader vision, and fight the negative image of the trade by proactively showing the public that you really do care about the conservation of history and the environment. I will gladly work together with you. By all means, let's "have at it"!

Sunday 29 June 2014

Over 10,000,000 ancient coins is not enough

An article published in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review ("Investigating the Crime Scene: Looting and Ancient Coins", by Nathan Elkins, Baylor University professor and Huqoq numismatist) dared to point out that analysing an archaeological site is much like investigating a crime scene and that looting ancient coins destroys a vital part of the evidence ...
“Let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the ‘smoking gun’ for an excavation.”
The announcement of the article was greeted with a long series of hostile comments by outraged coin dealers and lobbyists, some of them trying to convince us that the innocent article was all part of a dastardly political plot to prevent anyone collecting ancient coins. One amateur lectured the archaeology professor on what archaeology is, another darkly threatened that coin collectors far outnumber those wishing to conserve historically sensitive sites, and so on.

Among the more disingenuous tactics used by the coin dealers and lobbyists was the alarmist 'straw man' argument set up by a dealer who specialises in importing ancient coins in bulk from the Balkans and elsewhere. The simple explanation why he has “yet to see a compelling reason why John Q. Public should not be allowed to own ancient coins” is that no one has ever said he shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with owning ancient coins; I own a few myself. The theme of the article merely emphasised that buying ancient coins blindly will encourage looters to source them by trashing archaeological sites.

Apparently miffed that anyone would question his right to trash archaeological sites, the dealer then set a challenge to suggest an alternative source - "a viable source of ancient coins where one may purchase free of guilt" - clearly thinking that that was impossible.

I think "guilt" is all relative. The main goal of those of us concerned about archaeological sites is to protect them from looting. The only looting that can be prevented is that taking place now or in the future; it’s a bit late to stop the looting that took place in the distant past and a bit late to feel guilty about that. The real “guilt” is in encouraging the looting to continue.

Since I am very familiar with how the ordinary antiques trade works, I would have thought that “a viable source of ancient coins” is blindingly obvious. Antiques are sourced through auctions, fairs, markets, other dealers, collectors, and so on. The coin trade is forever droning on about how many millions of ancient coins are already in private collections. Wayne Sayles estimated some 10 million of them over ten years ago (Ancient Coin Collecting, 2003, p.76). Yes, that is 10 million ancient coins just in private hands - and constantly being recycled on the market at some stage - not those tucked away out of reach in museums.

In reality, I suspect that Sayles's estimate is far too conservative and the true figure today is likely to be in the several tens of millions at least. The unrelenting import of huge bulk lots from the Balkans and elsewhere must have boosted the figure enormously in the United States alone over the past decade or so. Nevertheless, even if we accept 10 million as the very bare minimum for the sake of argument, the amount of ancient coins in private hands is truly staggering. All the trade has to do is properly record the coins that have been around for many years so people can distinguish them from fresh loot and collectors can purchase them relatively “free of guilt”.

My solution met with stony silence. Many collectors of other antiquities are quite happy with recycled items - typically treasuring the record of past ownership as part of their provenance - but I gather that is not the case with these coin dealers. Recycled ancient coins are not good enough. Like some demonic vision out of a vampire movie, they simply must have fresh blood. The coins must be fresh. Not satisfied with the mere 10 million ancient coins they already have, they are desperate to encourage and justify the continued trashing of archaeological sites so they can have still more.

I have to wonder when is enough going to be enough for them? Perhaps when every single site on the planet has been obliterated just so they can make money and their customers can salivate over yet more fresh goodies? Will that suffice?

Note: My compiled image (at the top) is not intended to depict ALL dealers or collectors of ancient coins but it seems to be a worryingly accurate portrayal of a significant proportion of them. If anyone thinks the bulldozer shown is an exaggeration, please note just one example of many.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Out of the fire and into the frying pan?

In a post bizarrely entitled "Better Burned then Smuggled?" (I suspect the word he is looking for is "than", not "then"), Peter Tompa has slammed "UNESCO and the Iraqi cultural bureaucracy" for complaining that rare Iraqi manuscripts have been stolen from libraries in Mosul and smuggled into Turkey. He naively seems to think that stealing the manuscripts was a good thing as they will now be safe.

I rather doubt that either UNESCO or Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage would want the manuscripts to be endangered by immediately returning them to a location under threat and let's be clear: the act of looters stealing them was unlikely to be an altruistic rescue operation. They are probably being smuggled into Turkey to be sold on the black market, where they are very likely to be broken up (disbound and covers discarded) both to avoid detection and because flogging individual leaves fetches a higher price than the whole. If Tompa innocently believes the rare manuscripts will remain intact - or that even bits of them will ever see Iraq again - he doesn't know the darker side of the antiquarian book trade very well.

The manuscripts have escaped the vague risk of being burned into the near certainty of being mutilated beyond recognition. Are the authorities really wrong to be concerned?


A priceless comment below the post also caught my attention. An English detectorist uses the occasion to have a go at Paul Barford ...
"With people being slaughtered on an industrial scale in Syria thousands made homeless refugees, and with increasingly savage and vile atrocities reported on every news bulletin, what does Barford see as the pressing issue to complain about in Syria? Antiquities."
In his frenzy to attack the archaeologist, the detectorist appears to have missed the title of Paul's blog: "Portable ANTIQUITY Collecting ..." Just a wild guess ... and I may be going out on a limb here ... but perhaps the blog is likely to be about antiquities? Dunno, just a thought ...

Friday 20 June 2014

Old chestnuts from ACCG - only fit for roasting

Do you ever experience a weird moment as if you were in some kind of supernatural time warp, a place forever suspended in another era? I had such an experience today while reading a blog post by Derek Fincham ("On chasing the looting/terror connection", 19 June 2014).

No, not the post itself. I largely agree with Fincham's point that the part played by antiquities looting in funding terrorism may be exaggerated - and the credibility of those who sensationalise the connection could be damaged. It was the comment below the post that caused the eerie experience of motionless déjà vu as if caught in a warped space-time continuum - a comment made by Wayne Sayles, Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (a deceptively-named lobby group for American coin dealers) .

In his comment, Sayles mentioned: "The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild has extended a standing offer to engage in serious discussions with archaeological community decision makers with an aim toward establishing manageable parameters in the legitimate trade. The hoped for response has not been forthcoming."

Now where have I heard that before? Ah yes, it was over four years ago (and I suspect the tired claim is far older than that - frozen somewhere in the Jurassic). It was all about the ACCG "reaching out" to the main archaeological groups. That all sounds fine but the stunningly uninformed proposals made by the ACCG in their sham attempt at "serious discussions" are so laughable that the lack of response by those members of the archaeological profession who managed to keep a straight face was probably just as well. Perhaps the ACCG should count itself lucky.

Apparently hurt by rejection, Sayles looks back wistfully at the days when academia and coin collectors "once enjoyed a symbiotic relationship" (perhaps an unfortunate choice of phrase since it very often refers to a host exploited by a parasite). I have great respect for Wayne Sayles as a numismatic author but he really has got to accept not only that times have changed but understand the reasons WHY they have changed.

Among the more obvious of those reasons are the vastly increased risk to heritage caused by modern technological advances such as detecting machinery and global internet marketing, and a rational shift in emphasis of archaeological methodology. It's the 21st century now. Many people, including a lot of those dratted academics, are far more aware of issues that were not fully recognised decades ago. For one thing, we are now aware of the massive danger that collecting coins and other antiquities poses to archaeology unless carried out with a bit more care than the feeble advice given by the archaic ACCG.

It's no good repeating outdated arguments that may have seemed valid in a less enlightened era. The generation of today simply won't fall for them. The ACCG logic is still mired in a fantasy vision of the distant past - while the rest of the world, Toto included, has long realised that we're not in Kansas anymore.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Detectorist sighs "I just don’t get it"

The president of the Society for American Archaeology, Jeff Altschul, voices his frustration at the damage done by metal detectorists and other treasure hunters on public land in Idaho and elsewhere ("One Man's Treasure", Boise Weekly, 4 June 2014). Referring to the artefacts that are being pilfered, Altschul patiently explains:
"It's important that those items sit in the dirt. Once it gets out of the dirt, if it's not recovered adequately, it's just a thing on the shelf. It has no importance to history. You've lost the entire story of what that piece meant, and you lose all ability to reconstruct the past, the settlement of the West and how people lived. These are generally not the people in history books; they're not wealthy. The only thing that remains is the archaeological record. If you take that out, the story is gone. All it does is sit on your shelf."

His phrase "recovered adequately" clearly means meticulously recorded and excavated by trained professionals in a forensic manner, with full regard for its context (the whole site, any related structural remains or features, stratigraphy, associated objects, and so on). That is the only way that the object can help to reveal the entire story of its past instead of ending up as just another meaningless bauble in someone's private home.

It all seems patently obvious to me but an American detectorist cannot understand: "I don’t know about you but I am damn tired of hearing this. It gets old real fast! ... Jeezus I just don’t get it." I gather he is 73. I'd hazard a guess that if the penny still hasn't dropped by now, there is a strong chance that it never will.

He appears to be under the weird impression that his treasure hunting is really some kind of frantic rescue operation, a sort of self-appointed one-man task force in a desperate race against time. Even though some of the artefacts have already sat quietly buried for at least over a hundred years, he seems to think that he is saving them from some imagined catastrophe about to strike any second - all for the public good of course, despite the fact that the artefacts will have now been forever robbed of any context that may have given them meaning and instead are likely to end up as just another piece of useless bric-a-brac in his private home. In addition, the sites where the artefacts were found will have now been devastated too - thoughtlessly stripped of evidence that may have helped to interpret them.

Curiously, the detectorist even objects to the use of the word "steal" by one archaeologist referring to private people taking things from public land. He says the use of the word is "totally uncalled for and just wrong. Do detectorists sell their relics or historical finds?" I appreciate that the detectorist is no longer in the first flush of youth but unless definitions have changed dramatically over his lifetime, I suspect that someone going into a public park and taking the benches, lamp posts or flowers has always been known as a thief, regardless of whether they sell them or not.

The British Museum is also public property. That doesn't mean a single member of the public can go inside and simply help themselves to anything they want. Most things described as "public" belong to the public as a whole entity, not to individual members of it.

Meanwhile, the ongoing battle of people like Altschul to preserve what remains of the archaeological record - so that future generations will have the chance to know a bit more about their past than they can ever discover from denuded objects scattered in private hoardings - continues. The battle would be easier if many other people were not so utterly clueless about what "saving history" actually is despite having it carefully explained to them over and over and over again.

(Clue: discovering history relies on context, NOT just objects.)

Wednesday 4 June 2014

How reliable is the PAS database?

In recent examinations (here and here) of the database used by the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to record archaeological artefacts found by members of the public in England and Wales, Paul Barford, a British archaeologist based in Warsaw, noted that several of the coins he spotted in his search had a questionable origin. Since the artefacts do not derive from scientific excavations, perhaps a degree of unreliabilty is to be expected but some results are quite alarming.

Some objects are clearly not derived from the archaeological record of England and Wales at all but are likely to be modern imports from another country altogether. While a proportion of these were perhaps lost by a modern collector or discarded by heirs unaware of their value (I know of an ancient Egyptian ushabti that now lies buried somewhere in a local landfill), some of them are likely to have been deliberately 'planted' as a joke or their findspot fabricated to enhance their resale price on eBay (a PAS record suggesting a British find raises financial value considerably). It is not difficult to see how the PAS database could also be used to launder foreign artefacts lacking a licit provenance.

I know little about coins so I tested the PAS results myself with a search for 'lamp', an artefact I am more familiar with. Roman lamps are a relatively rare find in Britain and the search took little time to go through. One of the Roman lamps was recorded as a "chance find during metal detecting" in Essex. That chance find would be more credible if the lamp was not a Syro-Palestinian type (Kennedy Type 5) found almost exclusively in the Levant and not brought into Britain as popular tourist souvenirs until modern times.

Another lamp, also described as "Roman", is recorded as having been found in Kent and only "identified from photograph". In fact, the lamp is not Roman at all; it was made during the Hellenistic period (more precisely the 3rd century BC) in the Eastern Mediterranean. While nothing is impossible, it is extremely unlikely that it ever formed part of Britain's ancient archaeology.

It was also a trifle disconcerting to see that several artefacts entitled "Unidentified Object" (e.g. here) were nevertheless classified as "Object type certainty: Certain". I'm not quite sure what that means. Does it indicate that the cataloguer is certain that they are not certain?

At any rate, that's just a quick glance at the limited number of Roman lamps recorded. I have no idea how many, if any, of the metal finds (buckles, fibulae, keys, coins, etc.) were actually modern imports from the Balkans and elsewhere. From what I've seen so far, my confidence in all of them really being found in Britain is not high.

The PAS system is often touted as a perfect panacea to unrecorded looting - and a model for other countries to follow. To be fair, I suspect it was only ever envisaged as a pragmatic compromise, a form of 'damage limitation' to appease the metal detecting lobby, and it also works well for genuinely chance finds. It could be argued that without it the situation would be worse and no finds recorded at all. But sadly, the PAS is inherently open to abuse.

What serious scholar can rely on the PAS to compile studies when so many of its records are likely to be polluted with false claims? Is the scholar expected to take pot luck, perhaps basing the study on the sheer number of finds in one location and desperately hoping that some laundering dealer didn't pretend to have found a dozen Bulgarian brooches in a small area? Or realistically, in many cases where accurate data is a must, is the whole system too flawed to be reliable enough for practical use?

If the PAS really is ever adopted as a model for other countries to follow, perhaps we can all look forward to some truly unexpected delights: a Ban Chiang jar discovered in Guatemala or a Haida totem pole turning up in Egypt. I may be exaggerating but personally, in the meantime, I would treat any study or survey based on it with a caveat the size of Stonehenge. At least we know Stonehenge really was found where it was purported to have been found. And I feel safer classifying that as "Certain".

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Old cardboard label makes all the difference

I have always stressed the importance of keeping records of artefacts - not only as a means of establishing whether a piece was recently looted or not but for its own sake. Despite claims by some dealers and collectors of ancient artefacts that preserving scraps of paper or other evidence of an item's collecting history is unimportant - "who cares about its recent history?" - a scruffy little cardboard label tucked inside an old pot made a huge difference to its significance. The Guardian reports that Guy Funnell and his partner found the broken and glued together pot when clearing out a garage stacked with his father's possessions in Cornwall. His grandfather had been a taxi driver and family tradition held that the pot had been given to him in lieu of a fare.

The little black and red pot turned out to be from pre-Dynastic Egypt and around 5,500 years old. That is quite impressive in itself but the type is not that uncommon on the antiquities market. What made this one exceptional was that "scruffy little cardboard label" tucked inside it, the knowledge of how it came into the taxi driver's possession, and the faintly pencilled number '1754'. An investigation by the Petrie Museum in London confirmed that the pot was discovered by the famed Egyptologist, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, in 1894-5. The pot not only illuminates an aspect of Ancient Egypt (we now know precisely what grave it came from and what other artefacts were associated with it); it also sheds light on the work practices of a 19th-century archaeologist.

Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum, observes: "There were obviously many such cards, but I have never seen or heard of one before – there must be more out there, which would help us trace the distribution of this material through museums and private collections."

(Hat tip to Kyri)

Medieval synagogue latest victim of Syrian conflict

After several false claims that the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus had been destroyed in the ongoing conflict in Syria, the Daily Beast has confirmed that the building was indeed mostly reduced to rubble over a week ago. The Assad regime and rebel forces blame each other for the loss.

The synagogue, which was at least 400 years old, joins a long list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, churches, mosques and other ancient or medieval buildings destroyed in Syria since fighting began in March 2011.



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