Cultural Witch Hunt
Witches, Warlocks and Trolls
by Wayne Sayles
Nothing in the human experience quite equals the fervor of self-righteousness. And, nothing is quite so dangerous to the progress of society. The years between 1692 and 1970 were far from devoid of that scourge, but events of those two dates stand out in social history as extraordinary examples of errant thought. The former witnessed the apogee of religious extremism in America and the latter of cultural extremism in the world. Sadly, both the Salem Witch Trials and the UNESCO convention were conducted under the auspices of righteousness and were led by persuasive fanatics that lacked common sense and foresight. The underlying tenets of thought behind these social outrages may have appealed to the sensibilities of some, but they totally ignored the basic rights of individuals. Neither religious thought nor culture can legitimately be regulated in a free society. The preservation of either is a function of personal acceptance, not universal mandate, and the stewardship of that preservation is not a fitting topic for government intervention.
Between 1970 and 1983, the United States government was reticent to intervene in cultural issues and wisely so. Eventually, pressure from the archaeological community led to U.S. legislation implementing the UNESCO convention's resolution regarding import, export and ownership of cultural property. The U.S. law, however, did not give carte blanche to the warlocks of self-righteousness. Specific protections within the law provided barriers to excess. The ink was hardly dry on the UNESCO resolution before the crusade against private collecting began, but in America it really did not turn into a hysteria of ideological excess until a decade later. Since then, any opposing thought has been ruthlessly ridiculed and attacked with increasing hostility. Today, the level of attacks against those who oppose national control of their personal cultural freedom has seriously escalated and that "crusade" is being led by ultraists. Not the least of these are a group of internet trolls who suffer from acute personality disorders and lack any other purpose in life.
The impact of UNESCO 1970 has not been to "save the past", as all adversaries in the cultural property war seek to accomplish in their own way. It has been to drive a deep and perhaps permanent wedge between archaeology, museums and the private sector of collectors and independent scholars. All of the advocates in this confrontation suffer from the breakdown of interchange in ideas and knowledge that the pre-UNESCO world enjoyed. Whether the radical opponents of individual cultural freedom will prevail or not remains to be seen, but in any case the damage done in the past four decades may take a century to overcome. The U.S. government has used UNESCO as a political tool that has virtually nothing to do with cultural preservation.
There is indeed a witch-hunt going on and US antiquities collectors (including collectors of ancient coins) now face immolation. Many have devoted much of their lives, even their life savings, to their studies. Destruction of the science and avocation of numismatics would be a terrible catastrophe for them.
When pressure from the archaeological community led to U.S. legislation implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention regarding import, export and ownership of cultural property, the CCPIA implementing that convention in the United States did not authorize extreme measures. What were then considered to be amply sufficient safeguards were included to protect the interests of museums, collectors and the trade that supplies them. Without that assurance, the United States would not have ratified the Convention. The 1983 CCPIA legislation implementing the 1970 UNESCO Convention established a CPAC committee responsible for judiciously and evenhandedly weighing requests for import restrictions, whose direction was then entrusted to an archaeologist of Greek ancestry who desired a close cooperative relationship with Greek cultural authorities.
It did not take long for zealots viewing preservation of the archaeological record as preeminent over all other social interests to begin a campaign against private antiquities collecting. They sought to influence the CPAC process and gain support from the State Department bureaucracy. For two decades this campaign was on the whole thoughtfully and effectively conducted in a rational and intelligent manner that did not descend into hysteria or ideological excess and did not give overt offense.
More recently, opposing perspectives have been bitterly assailed with increasing hostility and willingness to seek confrontational, provocative coercive measures. Adoption of unprecedented restrictions on importing ancient coins occurred as a result of this confrontational approach on July 13th, 2007, and a cultural property war broke out [ http://classicalcoins.blogspot.com/2007/07/black-day-for-numismatics-import.html ]. Since then pro-collecting advocates have sought judicial review of these restrictions and disclosure of what in their view has been inappropriate, unethical and in some respects illicit behind-the-scenes collusion between the Cultural Heritage Center and the American Institute for Archaeology.
Whether a crusade by zealots may be thought of as a just cause depends upon one's ideological point of view, and whether innocent citizens suffer loss of their freedom and property. When Constantinople was stormed by a Crusader army in 1204, Genghis Khan and Attila would have been awed by the terrible fate of the Queen of Cities which was sacked with appalingly atrocious barbarism far eclipsing anything the Turks or Saracens ever did.
There is commendable zeal in a possibly worthy cause. There is however also such a thing as excessive zeal, and finally there are outright atrocities in which uncontrolled and irrational zeal becomes empowered its without restraint by legal and societal traditions.
The destruction of the ancient science of numismatics [far older than archaeology] by archaeologist zealots would in this observer's opinion be an irrational, unjustifiable and evil social atrocity.
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