Saturday, January 03, 2015

Acceptable Practice for Metal Detecting Excavations

Archaeological Snobs Criticize Significant Reported Find
by Peter Tompa

While the rest of the world is celebrating the discovery of a large hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins that was excavated with the help of a trained Portable Antiquities Scheme finds liaison officer, the archaeological snobosphere is going full out criticizing everything about the find. Yet, the finders were detecting on private land with the permission of the landowner. It's highly unlikely that any British archaeologists would have ever surveyed the site on their own and if the find were made in a country like Greece it's also highly unlikely any such find would ever have been properly reported much less recorded.


In this observer's opinion, it is unwise to arbitrarily dismiss archaeological criticism of the methodology of this excavation as "jealous resentment."

I believe that it would instead be valuable to have ongoing discussion of how excavations could best be conducted to preserve as much archaeological context as possible, whilst still addressing the realities of metal detecting practices.

I do not believe that Gill and Barford are arbiters of acceptable practice, but surely British archaeologists with an open-minded practical perspective could and should be consulted as to how important finds such as this ought to be excavated.

If a cooperative international approach to managing discovery and disposition of artifacts is ever to emerge, it is vital to have ongoing communication and serious discussion between detectorist, collecting and archaeology interests.


The above was submitted as a comment to Peter Tompa's blog. To further pursue these thoughts, I believe that the interests of all parties would best be served by cooperative monitoring (and constructive criticism) of metal detectorist excavation practices by trained field archaeologists.

No one can be expected to achieve optimum practices in any field of endeavor immediately without helpful monitoring and coaching.

Gill and Barford have raised a point worth considering in their criticism. Whether it is valid and ought to become part of an effort to improve metal detecting practices can, in this observer's opinion, best be determined by involving field archaeologists who have established relations with detectorist clubs, and can constructively communicate suggestions for improvement in a manner that will be understood and respected by detectorists. When approached in a constructive and helpful manner, detectorists are likely to demonstrate a desire to cooperate with archaeology interests.

This observer views confrontational, repressive attitudes and policies as the enemy of progress toward resolving problems of illicit excavation, smuggling and trafficking in antiquities and other archaeological artifacts. Cooperation is a far more effective approach, and ought to be pursued to the maximum extent humanly possible. Once that has been done, the limits of the cooperative approach will be clear and whatever confrontational, repressive attitudes and policies are still needed can then be cooperatively agreed upon.

The New Year

2014 was a difficult year for many, especially for Classical Coins and the Welsh family due to our difficult relocation to Temecula ( see ). These difficulties are now behind us, and Classical Coins had a successful holiday season. Many orders, however, were shipped late (although before Christmas) and we sincerely thank our loyal customers for their patience and understanding.

Among those who had a difficult year were both sides of what Wayne Sayles has described as the "Cultural Property War" [ ]. Collectors' rights advocates were once again disappointed when the ACCG's efforts to bring State Department officials responsible for the flood of US import restrictions on ancient artifacts (including coins) into court to explain their actions were frustrated [
unmoved_by_extralegal_seizure.aspx ], by another judicial decision based upon arcane legal technicalities.

It is inexcusable that the State Department Cultural Heritage Center has secretively and deceptively conspired with the archaeology lobby (and cultural officials of foreign governments) to suppress importation of minor antiquities including ancient coins into the USA, without respecting the clear legislative intent and spirit of the 1983 CPIA authorizing such restrictions, or the legitimate rights of collectors and firms engaged in the antiquities trade. It is still worse that the State Department Cultural Heritage Center has subsequently compounded this unjustified conduct by resorting to every possible legal stratagem in order to prevent the actions of its officials from being subjected to judicial review. That is not fair play or ethical conduct. Putting the private agenda of individual bureaucrats ahead of the intent of the law is shameful, and neither "cultural heritage" nor preservation of the "archaeological record" are nearly as important as the inherent obligation of government to treat all citizens fairly and equitably.

The result has become an outrageous example of government by regulation, rather than by legislation. Bureaucrats of the State Department Cultural Heritage Center have a bias against private collecting of antiquities and the international trade in these objects, and are doing everything in their power to strangle it by regulation, without consideration for the legislative intent of Congress -- that collectors and firms engaged in the trade should be protected from arbitrary decisions of this sort by open public hearings held before a panel of experts representing all points of view.

That this odious conduct is being allowed to continue by the judiciary without review clearly indicates that the US government is gradually being transformed into a government of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats and for the bureaucrats.

Meanwhile "preservationists" opposed to private collecting of antiquities and the antiquities trade also had a difficult 2014. Looting of artifacts continues unabated in many areas, notably those controlled by Islamic fundamentalists who have no interest in preserving relics of pre-Islamic civilizations. Although most Western societies consider this attitude unacceptable, there is no real possibility of stopping this looting by police action. It is, in fact, very difficult to prevent looting by police action even in "source nations" committed to preserving the relics of past civilizations.

"Preservationists" opposed to private collecting of antiquities and the antiquities trade however believe that the evident failure of repressive policies to control looting should be addressed by even more stringent restrictive measures aimed at "protecting sites from damage and destruction due to collection-driven exploitation." The basis of this belief is the delusion that if collecting antiquities by Western European citizens and those in English-speaking nations can be suppressed, looting will cease because there will be no market for antiquities. No one who really understands the antiquities trade believes that this would actually be the outcome. There will always be a market for such antiquities somewhere, even if only through their destruction to obtain valuable metals as bullion and gemstones that are not traceable and can be sold without hindrance, or converted into salable articles.

This anticollecting perspective has become a tenet of archaeological ideology rather than an objectively considered, realistically assessed viewpoint. There is no evidence that it would ever work, and the "collateral damage" inherent in violating legitimate property rights and the personal freedom of numerous citizens for the sake of attempting to preserve the interests of archaeology by such unproven methods, is completely ignored. Those objecting to such unreasonable treatment are criticized in pejorative and misleading language which seeks to portray them as "wealthy people [desiring] to have an ancient piece of culture to boast about."

This observer does not believe that Europeans and Britons (including citizens of other British Commonwealth nations) are likely to go nearly as far as extreme "preservationists" wish in implementing stringent restrictive measures upon the antiquities trade. That approach is having more success in the U.S., where it is unclear whether the ACCG and other collectors' rights advocates can ever succeed in having their day in court. Penetration of the State Department and de facto control of its cultural affairs officials by the archaeology lobby has been effective. In this observer's opinion that is primarily due to the efforts of CHC director and archaeologist Maria Kouroupas, who is now approaching retirement.

2015 brings new possibilities to change old problems and old attitudes. It does not seem likely to knowledgeable observers that presently strife-torn areas of the Islamic world such as Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan will soon become pacified to an extent that would permit policing of imperiled archaeological sites. Nor does it seem likely that extreme demands for repressive measures against the antiquities trade will soon be enacted.

Meanwhile there is a genuine success story in the effort to preserve cultural heritage, while respecting legitimate property rights and the personal freedom of citizens - the British approach embodied in the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It has significant accomplishments to its credit and in many respects has revitalized British archaeology, giving archaeologists new resources to draw upon. The PAS has harmonized with longstanding British traditions of local archaeology interest groups and antiquarian collecting, and has offered important guidance to British metal detectorists on how detectorist clubs can educate their members to practice their hobby responsibly.

One would think that an objective observer would not have very much difficulty in drawing the conclusion that a cooperative approach such as this is far more likely to get results than the confrontational methods advocated by "preservationists," which are in effect in most source nations and are embodied in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Whether common sense and a practical approach will eventually prevail remains to be seen.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Archaeomania in Action

In an earlier post,
I described Paul Barford as being a sort of caricature of the archaeomaniac - an archaeologist to whom a rigid, doctrinaire approach to archaeology transcends common sense and normal human values, leading to the delusion that his warped vision of "archaeology" is the most important thing in the world.

The reader can find this clearly illustrated in these recent posts to Mr. Barford's blog:

These are only the latest examples of a ceaseless flood of complaints against the cooperative interface between the hobby of metal detecting (which Mr. Barford hates more than the Devil hates holy water) and British archaeology, which overfill his blog.

As I earlier observed in "Archaeomania," I am not among "the legion of Barford-haters. I actually believe that this Hyperbolos of archaeology has become a very useful expression of what I will term archaeomania, the compulsive delusion of thinking that archaeology trumps all other human activities and concerns in its importance." 

I have previously observed that Mr. Barford is not by any means a lightweight. He is very knowledgeable, and has authored a well-respected book, The Early Slavs

Unfortunately his knowledge and abilities became part of a confrontational, abrasive personality that could not have helped his career in British archaeology, and might perhaps have something to do with his decision to leave Britain for Poland in 1986 -- where he was briefly employed by the Communist regime prior to its fall three years later. Mr. Barford's employment and achievements as an archaeologist have not been the subject of a curriculum vitae or any other public document so details are unclear, which is evidently how Mr. Barford desires they should be.

In my view Mr. Barford does perform a public service as a notorious advocate of an extreme point of view. His blog is a sort of lightning-rod attracting charged attention both from supporters and opponents, which in this observer's perspective highlights the collision between compulsive archaeocentrism and the practical, common-sense approach beneficially adopted by most British archaeologists.