Friday 11 November 2016

Is protecting the archaeological record simply "political correctness"?

Dave Welsh, an American dealer in ancient coins, has expressed his hope that the recent US election will lead to a relaxing of measures designed to protect cultural heritage. By regulating the international transport of ancient artefacts, those measures help to protect the archaeological record by making items looted from it more difficult to smuggle abroad, including those potentially traded by coin dealers who turn a blind eye to where their stock comes from. He sees those measures as "political correctness" ("Political Correctness Loses", 9 November 2016).

His blog post is rather long but the last sentence sums up the thrust: "... their primary loyalty is not to the interests of the American people, but to the interests of archaeology".

Let's have a look at the "American people" ...

Welsh clearly loves ancient coins and I can easily understand that - ancient coins are fascinating - but let's get real, the vast majority of American people have zero interest in either dealing in ancient coins or collecting them (about 50,000 ancient coin collectors is a rather minute fraction of over 324,000,000 Americans).

Conversely, a large proportion of American people do have at least a passing interest in history and archaeology. That is reflected in the media. There are countless TV programmes devoted to that interest. But I'm scratching my head trying to remember the last TV programme I ever saw devoted to ancient coins.

Since archaeology and its contribution to our knowledge of history are clearly of interest to so many people, it seems to me that protecting it from destruction (such as that potentially encouraged by tiny minorities fixated by coins) is not a matter of "political correctness"; it is simply common sense. It is respect not only for "the interests of the American people" but for people all over the world.

--- UPDATE ---

Dave Welsh has responded to my blog post by saying:
"The 1983 CCPIA does not refer to or in any way seek to address the "archaeological record" or its protection. It instead describes the detailed steps required to process requests from foreign governments for import restrictions upon specific types and classes of artifacts."

The 1970 UNESCO Convention (and the 1983 CCPIA which implements it in the US) was designed to protect "cultural property" and the archaeological record of a nation is undeniably its cultural property. Protecting that archaeological record by seeking to prevent bits and pieces of it being smuggled out of that nation is well within its remit.*

But I think Welsh is missing the point I was making in both the title and the content of my blog post. My post was about his use of the phrase "the interests of the American people".

Far more American people are interested in archaeology and its contribution to our knowledge of history than they are about dealing in ancient coins. Regardless of Welsh's own opinion that more weight is given to academic pressure than that of the coin trade in implementing the law, the interests of the huge majority of American people are being given primary importance.

That is NOT "political correctness". That is fairness.The law takes the interests of both the majority and the minority into account. It does not seek to ban the collecting of ancient coins; it merely seeks to stem the enormous flow of recently looted or otherwise illicit coins being illegally smuggled into the US by encouraging dealers to check and document the source of their stock.

(* Which is why I pointed out the futility of trying to define which specific 'bits and pieces' of an archaeological record meet the criterion of "cultural property" in a previous discussion. They are all part of it.)

Monday 3 October 2016

Who owns my land? Heritage as a shared resource

Since many people recoil in indignation that anyone can dare to tell them what to do on their private land, I thought it might be interesting to examine what "land" actually is. Leaving aside the niceties of legal semantics, I'll have a brief look at the issue from a broader perspective.

For those who detest the very concept of communism, it may come as a nasty shock that a tiny element of it (common property) has already been almost universally accepted for a very long time. In Britain and most other countries under common law, land is regarded as a shared resource and, in the strict literal sense, there is seldom any such thing as a fully private landowner. Almost all land in the country - every square millimetre of it, no matter if built upon or empty - is ultimately owned by the government (aka the 'Crown' in Britain). With few exceptions, no other entity - no matter how rich or how poor - can truly own land in an absolute sense (unconditionally allodial). A clue to the true status of land lies in terms such as 'freehold' or 'leasehold'; in other words, we hold the land rather than actually own it.

If you really think that no one has a superior claim on your land than you, try telling that to the government when they want to build a road through it.

Generally, when we think we own land, what we actually own is an "estate in land", i.e. not the land itself but the right to use it. Moreover, even that right is subject to overriding powers (such as taxation, compulsory purchase, police power and escheat). There are also likely to be certain restrictions: not only on such things as form of usage (agricultural, residential, etc.), mineral rights and water rights but on whatever structures are built on the land. New buildings typically require planning permission and, in countries such as Britain, old buildings may be protected by 'listed' status. In other words, no matter who currently owns the old building, it is regarded as part of the shared heritage of the entire country.

Thus, it should really come as no surprise that since the government owns the actual land, they may also lay claim to whatever lies buried beneath it. While some landowners (in the popular sense) may have contracted certain underground mineral or water rights and so on, in many countries with a rich archaeological heritage such rights seldom extend to buried archaeological remains. Much like listed old buildings, the remains are regarded as part of the shared heritage of the entire country.

Any individual who assumes that anything found buried on their land automatically belongs to them, and bristles at the notion that the government should have any right to intervene, would do well to ponder what "their land" actually means. Assumptions can be very misleading.

Friday 19 August 2016

Art vs Artefact: a deceptive distinction in approach

I note a rather sumptuous guide to the treasures of the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait (billed as "one of the world’s most spectacular collections of eastern Hellenistic and pre-Islamic precious metalwork") has recently been published under the title Arts of the Hellenized East (Thames & Hudson, December 2015). I also note that the collection has received some criticism for the lack of attention to its provenance. Perhaps that flaw is reflected in the title of the guide.

I do cringe at the use of the word "arts" to describe ancient objects. The word can have a wide meaning but it is popularly associated with fine craftsmanship and is much beloved by certain museums that restrict their holdings to only the flashiest examples of any type, perhaps because it is well suited to that pompous, selective and superficial approach to history. By definition, it focuses attention on the objects themselves - almost as if they existed in a vacuum to be admired for their beauty and artistry alone - and thus tends to sideline their deeper historical and social significance. In such "arts" centric frameworks, the objects are very often presented as though even their wider context were worthy only of a mere label or footnote and their immediate context were of no interest at all.

Small wonder then that, unless it entails the name of an impressive former owner, the concept of provenance typically holds little meaning to the people who form collections largely predicated on treating objects in that manner: primarily as "arts" in its narrowest sense rather than their role as artefacts in a much broader picture. The production of a scholarly guide comes a bit too late to rectify that concern; the objects have long been divorced from firm contexts which could have told us so much more than retrospective conjecture or how "spectacular" they are.

* Hat tip to Paul Barford for drawing my attention to the guide,

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Dispatches and the Missing Evidence

Having been approached by a member of the production team for a Channel 4 Dispatches programme for my input last year, I watched the final outcome with interest on Monday night ("ISIS and the Missing Treasures", Radio Times, 18 April 2016). For those who missed the first showing there are repeats and a streaming video. And Channel 4 has issued a summary.

The amount of preparation for a TV documentary is impressive and the team must find it painful that the project ultimately has to be ruthlessly edited to cram it into only 30 minutes. Although such programmes may draw on scholarly research, it is of course inevitable that their paramount objective is to attract as large an audience as possible within that short span. Thus, they tend to focus on 'popular', 'topical' and 'compelling' - sometimes even favouring the pull of being 'sensational' at the risk of overlooking a mainstay of true scholarship: impartial objectivity.

The catchy title - ISIS and the Missing Treasures - had an Indiana Jones ring to it. The programme did indeed promise to be sensational. However, I am not entirely convinced that the two main "treasures" featured had much, if any, connection to ISIS (also known as ISIL, IS or whatever other acronym is used to denote an organisation currently calling itself the Islamic State).

A carved stone lintel being offered by a minor dealer in Grays Market, a London antiques arcade, was discovered to have been documented as having formed part of a ruined Jewish building at Nawa in Syria in 1988. The lintel had no provenance and it is almost certain that it was stolen and smuggled - but the question is when and by whom.

The programme's title - plus strategic footage of Islamist forces - inferred the culprits were ISIS. But Nawa was captured by al-Nusra Front and other rebel factions, most recently in November 2014, and al-Nusra Front had already split from ISIS by the end of 2013. So, were the real culprits al-Nusra Front?

It is certainly true that civil strife fosters conditions that encourage and often facilitate looting but pinning the blame on any specific group can be difficult. In the absence of more information, all we can safely say is that the lintel was removed from Syria sometime after 1988 and it is quite possible that those responsible were simply part of one of the looting and smuggling networks that have existed in that part of the world for many decades.

The second "treasure" was a Quran advertised on eBay by a seller using the username 'london_oriental'. A team met up with the seller to examine the book in Copenhagen. A fragment torn from the top of an endpaper suggested that a previous owner's seal or inscription had been removed to hide the fact that the book had been stolen. Although the book was advertised as "Persian", an expert identified it as 19th/20th century and "suspect[ed] it was originally taken from a Syrian library". The freshness of the tear on the endpaper caused another expert to speculate that it had been "probably removed quite recently" (though in fact paper tears can remain fresh-looking for decades).

The book may well have been stolen from a Syrian library - but again the question is when and by whom. Objects stolen from various places have been filtering onto the black market for centuries.

The programme's caption on the Channel 4 website - "A battle to stop the Isis cashing in on looted antiquities is being waged in the UK" - expresses a noble aim but, even leaving aside the notion that a modern Quran is an "antiquity" in the first place, the documentary failed to track down a single object in the UK that had definitely been looted from Syria or Iraq since civil unrest began in 2011, let alone one that had definitely helped to fund ISIS.

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme was quite right to emphasise that buyers must insist on a provenance when considering the purchase of any object they even vaguely suspect may have been stolen, and it made attempts to give a balanced view of the situation. However, we are still left wondering why the media is fixated only on ISIS (it is far from being the sole reason for Syria's appalling loss of its heritage both before and during the crisis) and, despite wild claims, just how much money that organisation is really making from the sale of antiquities. And how many of those antiquities are really reaching the UK.

Even only one object is one object too many and we must be utterly vigilant but this programme did nothing to dispel the suspicion that the involvement of the UK market in ISIS loot may be greatly exaggerated. If it is not exaggerated, that omission is counterproductive. If it is, we are largely left tilting at windmills for the sake of sensationalism.


Images are screenshots from a named TV programme used for the purpose of review.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Simples! A quick response to a response to a response ...

Dave Welsh, an American coin dealer and member of the ACCG, remarks that 'decontextualisation' is "an obviously coined word that, along with many other coined words which are employed in a sort of archaeocentric doublespeak, has repeatedly been uttered ..." and suspects the whole subterfuge is all part of some sinister Marxist plot hatched by evil commies. (Before 21st-century readers pinch themselves to check what era we are in, I think it only fair to suppose that his part of California may be trapped in some sort of 1950s McCarthyesque time-warp beyond his control.) At any rate, his blog post ("Decontextualization", Ancient Coins, 4 March 2016) is a response to Paul Barford's response to a blog post by another ACCG member.

Yeah, these little reciprocal blog posts can go back and forth like farmhands slinging pats in a cowshed sometimes. But, never one to be discouraged, I thought it might be worthwhile to add a few pats ... er, words ... of my own. I'll address them to Dave Welsh ...

No, Dave. No matter how you want to spin it, conservation of archaeological resources has nothing whatsoever to do with Marxism nor even solely with decontextualisation. ('Decontextualisation' - yes, it is a proper word - mainly concerns only the divorced objects themselves; the notion of conservation involves preserving entire sites, where those objects come from, so the totality of evidence can provide a means of interpreting history.) Conservation is just a matter of having respect for the rest of society. Most people don't collect ancient coins but most people do have at least a basic interest in history.

A genuine provenance is a guarantee that an item was not recently looted. Every time you deal in an ancient coin with no regard for where it came from, you are encouraging others to do likewise and encouraging looters to continue destroying the evidence on which history is built in order to supply more of them. That continues in a never-ending cycle until every undisturbed site has gone. It really is that simple!

No amount of fluff and no amount of flannel can alter that fundamental fact. It really is that simple!

If Dave Welsh seriously wants to protect the future of ancient coin collecting as a socially-acceptable hobby, I suggest he opposes those who would ban it altogether with sound arguments and rational compromise rather than expose the trade to ridicule by consistently flying in the face of common sense. As it stands, he is in danger of being one of the coin trade's own worst enemies.


Note: For those outside the UK, I should clarify that the image refers to an old British TV ad in which a rather bright meerkat exclaims "Simples!" (he has a theatrical Russian accent) after he explains an obvious truth.

Friday 19 February 2016

The problem with binary terminology

Dr Donna Yates has called attention on her blog (Anonymous Swiss Collector, 18 February 2016) to an event to be held on 1 March in New York: "Rethinking Antiquities: Restitution and Collecting in the Time of ISIS". She comments: "This should be an interesting event, clearly promoting an alternate view to the one that you’d usually see on this list: some pro-collecting, anti-regulation, anti-repatriation ideas."

I'm sure Dr Yates used those three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) merely as shorthand and is well aware of their shortcomings but, for the sake of argument and with apologies to Dr Yates, I'll examine them at face value.

Personally, I am not unreservedly pro-collecting, anti-regulation and anti-repatriation. On the other hand, neither am I unreservedly anti-collecting, pro-regulation and pro-repatriation.

Confused? The problem lies in a temptation to dumb-down a complex issue into a series of only two diametrically opposed attitudes, an attempt to reduce reality into binary thought. The process is akin to saying something is either 'hot' or 'cold' while ignoring the countless gradations of 'warm', 'cool', 'tepid' and so on in between.

Applying binary thought may work nicely at football matches or other fantasy conflicts. I hope Dr Yates would readily agree that it doesn't always work quite so well when applied to real life; it typically forces a false dichotomy. Simply put: in reality all three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) are far too broad to either support or oppose unconditionally.

My own reaction to those terms all depends on factors and parameters such as how those terms are defined, how they are qualified, how they are implemented and, very often, the circumstances of different cases and situations. Much of the danger in debates between those fighting for heritage conservation and those fighting to preserve a trade in artefacts lies in polarisation, a tendency to misunderstand, stereotype and sometimes demonise those holding a divergent viewpoint. At its most extreme, a debate can become a myopic impasse of binary thought - with no allowance for nuances and moderation.

I thoroughly agree with Dr Yates that this event should prove to be interesting. And I see it as an opportunity to openly consider and accommodate views from various perspectives - without any baggage of preconceptions and stereotyping. I wish I could attend.

Assemblage 23: Binary

The world isn't rendered in black and white
Other shades lie between
Don't view the world with binary eyes
We are human, not machine

Thursday 4 February 2016

Are US Customs officials issued with crystal balls?

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the United States has passed a bill (HR 1493) that is designed to "protect and preserve international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters, and for other purposes". The bill is largely in response to UN resolution 2199 (2015) which seeks to prevent trade in archaeological and historical artefacts removed from Iraq since 6 August 1990 and from Syria since 15 March 2011, thus providing a disincentive to loot in those countries.

I note that Peter Tompa, lobbyist for the American coin trade, has posed an apparent conundrum on his blog:
"The major remaining concern deals with how such restrictions will be implemented.  Will the State Department and US Customs revert to standard operating procedure and restrict items solely based on them being of a type manufactured in Syria hundreds or thousands of years ago? Or will the governing UN Resolution and statutory intent be honored so that restrictions only apply to artifacts illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war?"
I'll pose another set of questions to Peter Tompa: how does he expect officials in the State Department and US Customs to be able to distinguish between artefacts that have been "illegally removed from Syria after the start of its civil war" and those that were removed before it? Is he under the impression that officials in the State Department and US Customs are issued with magic crystal balls as part of their standard equipment?

Or, despite his earlier reluctance to acknowledge the obvious solution regarding restrictions on Egyptian antiquities, will he finally be urging his trade clients to recognise common sense this time and ensure that they only import and deal in Syrian antiquities with at least some kind of documentation to show the items were out of Syria long before March 2011? (It is wise to bear in mind that the old principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is not implemented in civil cases in quite the same way as it is in criminal ones.)

Royal advisers and government officials may still possess all sorts of powers but I think even Peter Tompa will have to accept that their powers of divination have been severely curtailed since the days of Merlin.



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