Friday, 20 February 2009

"Some activist archaeologists ... [are] too left wing in their approach"

I have commented before on the naive assumption that those who wish to preserve the archaeological heritage can be described as "socialists" ("Always a background of quasi-socialist sentiment"). Now Wayne Sayles has commented on the issue (quoted in Richard Giedroyc, "Cultural Patrimony Policy Still a Concern", World Coin News February 18, 2009).
Wayne Sayles, spokesman for the ACCG, told those attending the Jan. 10 meeting [of the New York International Numismatic Convention] that he is against the looting of archaeological sites, but feels the views of some activist archaeologists on how to protect the sites are too severe and too left wing in their approach.

What is his solution?

The article shows how far some coin collectors misunderstand the issues.
what do you do when a country demands the return of coins found buried within their borders but struck elsewhere (as in the case of the Decadrachm Hoard)
Are they saying that it is acceptable to loot an archaeological site in Turkey because the coins found in the hoard were not minted within the territory of the modern state of Turkey?

And if we extend the logic,would it be fine to pillage Athenian red-figured sympotic pottery from Etruscan tombs because the pieces were made in Greece not within the confines of the modern Republic of Italy?


Alfredo De La Fe said...

I have discussed various points on my blog, below I cut and paste a few, but more can be read on my blog at:

Regardless of whether or not laws exist there will always be those that break the laws. Alcohol and cars are both beneficial to society and yet people still break the law by drinking and driving and lives are actually lost.

By enforcing reasonable laws, law abiding citizens will exert peer pressure on others and society contributes to the enforcement of laws. (In the recent report on the PAS discussed in The Guardian article it shows how responsible detectorists work with archaeologists to protect sites). Expanding on my illustration in, there are no plans in the works to ban either cars nor alcohol but the penalties for drinking and driving are better enforced, the public is better educated and less people drink and drive.

People aggressively disregard rules and or laws which they feel are unjust. Just look at what happened during Soviet rule, people actively sought out antiquities and huge stockpiles of material were hoarded away. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the market was flooded with more than a decade of accumulated finds. Harsh, unjust laws did not stop “looters” from creating these stockpiles just as they will not stop them in the future, if anything it drives people to more extreme measures.

John Muccigrosso said...

Not quite sure what ADLF's comment has to do with the post to which it's attached, but...

1. I don't think anyone expects legal remedies to work alone, nor to reduce the amount of illegal activity to which they are targeted to drop to zero. even the harshest laws don't do that. So to suggest that that's the goal is to create a straw man. However people tend to avoid breaking the law as a rule.

To use the drunk-driving example more appropriately, no one suggests we should do away with laws against this behavior simply because people drive drunk. Just as no one suggests we should ban metal detectors because they are used in illegal activity. It's not the tools (cars or metal detectors) that are being legally proscribed, it's certain uses of them (operation while drunk or for "nighthawking").

2. As for "[h]arsh, unjust laws", well, that's in the eye of the beholder, no? Most European countries ban the kind of activity we're talking about, so I'd wager that most Europeans do not find these laws either harsh or unjust. The UK rather has the most liberal laws on this practice, so analogy to the Soviet Union(!) is unwarranted.

In fact, many would probably find the appropriation of cultural patrimony for the private gain - not of the person whose land it is found on but of the person who finds it - to be unjust.

To return to the topic of the post, one can also find plenty of parallels in the ownership of other underground resources, like mineral rights, that do not belong to the landowner. (For example, in the UK, I believe, the rights to most gold and silver belong to the Crown.)

Marcus Preen said...

Mr De La Fe, I see from your blog to which you provide a link above that your coins went missing and you discovered the US Postal service had auctioned them and I agree, as you say,

"The Postal Service is in the business of “fencing” stolen or lost goods on a regular basis. (I say it this way because in MY case they CLEARLY could have identified the actual owner and should have per their own rules- thus, they “fenced” stolen goods)"

I sympathise with you over the loss of your coins. On the other hand, perhaps you now understand about how we British feel about the loss of ours by precisely the same mechanism.

Cultural Property Observer said...


The ACCG web site already largely responds to the questions posed in your first part of your post. See and

As to the latter part of your post, I would be curious to learn what you think should happen to an unprovenanced Athenian Decadrachm recently accessioned by the Greek National Museum that allegedly comes from Turkey. Will you and your friends at Savings Antiquities for Everyone go on the record to state that the Greeks should return it? I anxiously await your response and the beginning of the SAFE campaign to shame the Greek government to return Greek coins to Turkey.


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...

Thank you for your comments. Would you consider Lord Renfrew to be a "socialist"?
I am always grateful for suggestions for stories but I am unable to speak for SAFE. Can I suggest you contact SAFE's officers?
But please do not be anxious.
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

Try as I might, I cannot see anywhere in the ACCG links provided by Peter Tompa to the questions posed in the first part of your post.

Is it actually only "socialists" who are interested in conservation and people obeying the law ?

Where are these mythical Left wing archaeologists in the United States allegedly "against private ownership of any antique item regardless of how it was acquired"? Can Mr Tompa provide us a few references to statements which prove this is not just alarmist overinterpretation (or simply myth-making) to persuade collectors trhat they need the ACCG to "watch their backs' for them?

Cultural Property Observer said...

David- I still await a response to my question. Should Greece return an Athenian Decadrachm to Turkey based on allegations it was illicitly excavated there?

As for Socialism and Archaeology, I suppose a case could be made that if one supports state ownership of all antiquities found in the ground, that is Socialist thinking.

For more on "quasi-Socialistic tendencies" in the archaeological community and an over-cozy relationship between the archaeological community and the US State Department see Jeremy Kahn's NYT article:

In my opionion, the underhanded doings in the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affaris are one of the main reasons the ACCG needs to "watch the backs" of collectors.

Hopefully, we will receive more information in that regard soon as the ACCG-IAPN-PNG FOIA lawsuit goes further.


Peter Tompa

Marcus Preen said...

Mr Tompa said -

"As for Socialism and Archaeology, I suppose a case could be made that if one supports state ownership of all antiquities found in the ground, that is Socialist thinking."

So Ireland, which has joyfully ridden the Celtic tiger of capitalism for the past ten years but has at the same time banned entrepreneurial prospectors from removing and selling it's history from it's fields is guilty of socialism? And the populace is enraged by this repressive law and the marxist archaeologists that brought it about? And they see it as unjust and are defying it?

No, no and no are the answers. I think you need to re-think your analysis. Recognising a need to conserve ones cultural heritage is a moral issue and quite unconnected with political convictions.

Paul Barford said...

Mote and beam come to mind here. Mr Tompa writes from Washington, the USA has a legislative system for antiquities which makes them state property. This has its origins in aa Act created by a Republican government (1906) and in actual fact as a response to looting of archaeological sites of Native American origin by collectors. Scotland has a law of this type which was created under a monarchy, not socialism. The pro-collecting lobby is keen elsewhere to portray Italy's legislation as a "fascist law" because it was written under Mussolini. The first legislation of this type in the region were promulgated in the Vatican state, hardly "socialist".

There are many reasons why states take certain scarce resources under guardianship, it is fallacious to see them all as "socialist".

Marcus Preen said...

May I add something?

I see the ACCG now has a blog and there is an article there, titled "Mandatory controls are problematic"

I thought for a moment from that title I had inadvertently logged on to but no, it is Mr Jorg Lueke on the subject of coin collecting.

One phrase struck me. He asserts that calls for greater controls are "often stated in deliberately provocative terms, seeking to unnerve collectors".

I have to confess, mia culpa, even though I'm neither a wicked socialist (well not much) nor a wicked archaeologist (at all). Since looting items for money and paying for those items with money are inextricably co-dependant actions, I would have thought it is perfectly reasonable to seek to engender a degree of discomfort amongst collectors lest how can the cycle be broken? Looters can't be relied upon to help so naturally collectors need to consider what they can do.

Who would seek to assure collectors they have no need to feel uncomfortable? No-one but dealers, I suggest, for who but they have an incentive?

Now that the frankly dotty assertion that conservationists are lefties has not just been kicked into touch but over the stand and into the street and been hacked to death by urchins, is it not time to turn the spotlight on the motivations of those who suggested it? Is not the only possible reason for wishing to provide collectors with reasons why they should not be "unnerved" a purely financial one?

What's good for the archaeologist-goose is good for the commercial gander n'est pas? Let's focus the debate not on the motivations of conservationists, which are blindingly obvious to all who don't want to avoid seeing them, but on the murky motives of those that seek to convince their customers otherwise.

Nathan Elkins said...

Hello Marcus,

I have enjoyed reading your comments on various blog posts lately. Here you raise some very good points and I think get to the heart of the issue surrounding these tactics. Last year, I made a similar discussion, which you may already be aware of:
"'Dillettanti and Shopmen': Divergent Interests in Looting and Cultural Heritage Issues."

Marcus Preen said...

Thanks for the link. I think you deal with the "scholars" claim perfectly fairly.

It is surprising isn't it how much effort some people spend upon trying to ennoble their own role in the process and discredit that of their critics when actually what really matters is the process itself - an inexorable loss of information.

I'm relatively new to the US demand-side aspect of the process, having mainly concerned myself with the UK supply-side and I am still constantly surprised by how the false claims of the consumers so precisely echo those of the suppliers that I have been listening to for years. Do they liaise? I rather doubt it - your lot are rather more sophisticated and literate than mine. I suspect it is more of a case of what society tart Christine Keeler once said about her clients' denials (long before your time!) - "Well they would, wouldn't they!"

"Archaeologists are rotters, we are heroic, no harm is done, we are providing a valuable service to mankind, our freedoms must be respected" ... it's all been said a million time in British fields. Hearing it all again at the other end is a bizarre experience, honestly.

I was particularly struck by your observation about the relative paucity of scholarly output from the scholarly world of US Collecting. It's the same here amongst detectorists - but even more so. Here there are amongst the suppliers even fewer Noel Coward types (which is the image that always springs to my mind when scholar-collectors are mentioned - that and silk dressing gowns and ebony display cases!). Which reminds me. Coward played Mr Bridger, the mastermind in The Italian Job and delivered a remarkable line -
"Charlie, there are two kinds of thieves in this world: The ones who steal to enrich their lives, and those who steal to define their lives. Don't be the latter."

Strong word, thieving. Ain't I bold and crude. But that's what the process is, information thieving. Most newly dug British artefacts (43,605 so far this year at the time of writing according to Heritage Action ) come from no-one knows where, so any scholarly study of British artefacts is mostly a study of those. And no, although knowledge can be gained from studying the fruits of thousands of non-reporting detectorists it is a complete joke to claim that this compensates for the loss of all the other contextual knowledge surrounding the objects. Most detectorists are notoriously secretive about where they find things and won't even tell each other. It is therefore inarguable that countless important sites remain unknown to any but them, aren't studied and are harvested annually until they are put beyond discovery and study - including of all other aspects of them that aren't metallic. The scholarly gain, where it even exists, is therefore pitiful compared with the loss.

agrippina said...

One thing really startles me about all the comments: Why is everybody so eager to emphasize that he/she is no socialist? If you believe that cultural heritage should be owned by the public (instead of individuals) this is of course a socialist position. It may surpise some of those who left a comment: A socialist position can be morally correct!

agrippina said...

If you believe that cultural heritage should be owned by the public (and not individuals) this is of course a socialist position.

It may surprise some of you who posted comments: Socialism can be morally correct!

Marcus Preen said...

"If you believe that cultural heritage should be owned by the public (instead of individuals) this is of course a socialist position."

But there are also states that take that broad view of cultural heritage but aren't socialist. So the "leftist" jibe has little validity (and I agree with you, using leftist as a jibe says more about the mindset of those that do so than about the issue!).

When it suits, the jibe is that conservationists are "rightist". In England metal detectorists have used the term "heritage brownshirts". In Germany we have a disgruntled dealer complaining "The Fourth Reich
has arrived and we have to defend the free market in Germany against these self-proclaimed "Führers".

I'd hazard a guess that most people in most countries feel that their past should be better protected from exploitation for profit by a few. I'd also hazard a guess that most strong dissention from that view is not powered by philosophical conviction but money. It's not hard to show the validity of that - just look at who it is that is most actively throwing the leftist/rightist mud!

Sorry if the above seems pointed and personal but it wasn't me that chose to abandon discussion of ethics and go for the "smear the other side" tactic. If that's how it's to be I'm happy to reciprocate though - I'd rather be defending myself from charges of political extremism than trying to deny I was actually mainly concerned with my own profits! Mud can be thrown both ways but will only stick to one side...

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