Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Unprovenanced Archaeologist

Archaeologist Paul Barford has been discussed in this blog several times, and it's no secret that there are significant differences between our viewpoints. He is a fierce critic of collecting any sort of unprovenanced antiquity, which includes nearly all ancient coins. According to Barford, collectors have a moral obligation to determine the provenance of any possibly excavated object they are considering acquiring, before deciding to acquire it.

Mr. Barford's rationale is that the importance of archaeological context, including that of typical coin finds [e.g. a group of coins buried in a cheap pot at a depth of a meter or less, far from any other evidence of human habitation] is so great that doing anything which in any way might detract from the archaeological record (by removing artifacts from their context without archaeological supervision) is a moral transgression. It's quite clear that he would like to see this become a legal transgression as well. I think that's a fair characterization of his perspective.

In taking this public position, Mr. Barford's claim to be taken seriously rests upon his credentials as an archaeologist. Those credentials give weight to his opinions about the importance of the archaeological context of coin finds, for example. But what are Mr. Barford's credentials?

On his blog, Barford states them as follows:

"British archaeologist living and working in Warsaw Poland. Since the early 1990s a primary interest has been research on artefact hunting and collecting and the market in portable antiquities in the international context".

That is a very brief and insubstantial account of a career in archaeology. It does not inform the reader as to his education, honors, publications, positions held nor provide any of the other details one expects to see even in the sketchiest summary of a CV. How can anyone form an intelligent opinion from this as to whether Mr. Barford is really an expert on the importance of archaeological context? This description could equally fit an expert archaeologist with a doctorate from a prestigious university and a long career of relevant and important fieldwork, or a nonentity who lacks any graduate degree and has never done anything important.

Let's now switch to Dr. Roger Bland, head of the UK Portable Antiquities Scheme. Dr. Bland is highly respected both as an archaeologist and numismatist, and in my view is one of the leading experts on ancient coin finds. He has published extensively on such finds, and several of his publications have become important resources for numismatic research.

Because of his in-depth knowledge of the subject and extensive field experience
with detectorist discoveries of coins and other artifacts, Dr. Bland can
illuminate such questions of judgment as the importance of context, which are
difficult if not impossible for an independent researcher to accurately sort
out. That particular question happens to be the very essence of the controversy
regarding the alleged link between looting and collecting.

Dr. Bland has a very impressive background, a brief summary of which can be found on the British Museum website:

The list of publications is very incomplete. Dr. Bland has published extensively and hiz volumes on finds such as the Cunetio Treasure and the Hoxne Teasure are classics of numismatic research documentation.

Dr. Bland differs sharply from Mr. Barford in his assessment of the importance of context of detectorist finds (which include most ancient coin discoveries):

"Most of the finds come from metal detectorists working cultivated land. This is significant. The archaeological context has already been disturbed and removing the artifacts helps save them from damage from deep plowing and/or chemicals used in food production."
[Presentation to members of Congress at the U.S. Capitol June 26, 2007]

So how is one to intelligently weigh the importance of Mr. Barford's assessment of the importance of context as opposed to Dr. Bland's assessment? That has to begin with understanding the qualifications and expertise of each archaeologist. Dr. Bland holds an important position and has done extensive field work relating to coin discoveries and other detectorist finds. There is nothing in Mr. Barford's account of his career that throws any light at all on his qualifications to accurately judge the importance of context.

Mr. Barford has had much to say about the iniquity of offering artifacts for sale or acquiring them, without disclosure of their provenance. He is, however, freely voicing what are clearly intended to be taken as the opinions of an expert, without adequately disclosing his own claim to be considered an expert.

It is time for Mr. Barford to disclose HIS provenance.