Thursday, 19 July 2007

Who are the radical archaeologists?

A new term, ‘radical archaeologists’, appears to be emerging for those opposed to the destruction of archaeological sites by looters.

It apparently originated with the journalist Steven Vincent (since killed in Iraq) in his 2002 article 'Exposing the radical archaeologists':
'In numerous interviews with radical archaeologists, I've detected a kind of aesthetic tone-deafness'.
(The piece appeared in Orientations, 'the magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art'.)

Who is using the term now? Alan Walker (a former member of the Numismatic Department of Bank Leu AG in Zurich) in his review of Roger Atwood’s ‘Stealing History’ (2004) asserts,
‘it ought to be obvious that every time one of the radical archaeologists attacks collectors and the antiquity trade in America and in Western Europe for being the primary cause of looting, he may be sincere, but he is neither unbiased nor honest.’
Wayne Sayles of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild in his ‘Ancient Coin Collecting’ blog (‘Open Letter to CNN’, December 2006) makes a series of comments: ‘Any individual who collects such objects (what else is there?), is considered anathema by the radical archaeological element that drives media coverage today.’ He suggests that there is some sort of a lobby group: ‘Sensationalized news coverage is used as a platform from which radical archaeologists lobby legislators and government agencies for restrictions and controls that would effectively make collecting of even minor objects like coins and stamps from other countries impossible.’ Yet Sayles himself supplied the term (quoting Walker’s review) in his submission to the US Committee of Ways and Means (September 2005)

But Walker and Sayles are not the only ones. In March and April 2006 Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, responded to ‘a small group of "radical" archaeologists who say museums' acquisitions of antiquities contribute to the looting of ancient sites’ (New York Sun, April 2006; but similar quote in USA Today, March 2006).

The phrase resurfaces in the published proceedings, ‘Who Owns Objects?’ (2006), based on the Oxford seminar series of 2004. Ursula Kampmann, formerly of Münzen und Medaillen AG Basel, commented, 'The case of Switzerland shows how difficult it is to find a compromise between the unrealistic demands of radical archaeologists and the requirements of competitive profit enterprises.' The editors present Sir John Boardman's position as 'the radical archaeologists have closed down museums' opportunities to collect according to their needs'.

‘Radical Archaeologists’ is a misleading phrase. It was applied to a specific group – whose members were not engaged specifically in discussing archaeological ethics - that emerged in 1996. So an alternative needs to be found. How about ‘archaeologists with integrity’?

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