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?

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