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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