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.)



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