Some questions about “looting matters”

I have a certain amount of time for the antiquities trade.  If it did not exist, there can be little doubt that the majority of papyrus codices discovered in Egypt in the last century would have gone into the fires of local farm-workers in that country (and some did anyway).  The fact that, in modern Egypt, even the simplest know that “antiquities” is spelled “cash” has undoubtedly preserved much ancient literature for us, from the Nag Hammadi finds to the ps.Gospel of Judas, and much else.

I can think of no rational reason why someone should not collect ancient coins or statuary (should he have room enough), and I tend to feel no urge to tell other people what they should do.  Nor do I feel that “public” collections are always the best; private owners can very often be more helpful in providing access than indifferent officials.

On the other hand anyone who looks at what happened to the four codices, including the ps.Gospel of Judas, and their dismal fate of damage and dismemberment — because the owners did not safeguard the items properly and instead handed them to a man willing to chop them up — must feel something less than pleasure at what the antiquities trade sometimes involves.  The amount of illegal digging now going on all over Egypt, in hopes of a quick profit, while archaeology is destroyed, must pain us all.

Readers of this blog will take it for granted that the material remains of antiquity should be preserved, recorded and published, both formally and online.  We all believe that destroying what remains of the ancient world costs each of us something.

But for me it is genuinely difficult to know what to think on this question.

On the one hand, now that order has broken down in Libya, local businessmen are selling the ruins of Cyrene as building land to each other; a sure indication of what happens when antiquity brings no profit to the modern inhabitants.  If antiquity is worth nothing, as it was in the middle ages, then marble has a value if we burn it for lime, and land is always in demand, building materials are desirable, and explosives are cheap.  The fate of the temple of Horus the Elder at Armant, still standing when Napoleon came to Egypt but blown up for materials to build a sugar factory by Mohammed Ali, is one that many other sites might experience.

On the other hand, the ready market for small, easily portable finds causes Italian and Greek peasants to rob tombs, and, in most of Europe, metal-detector enthusiasts to secretly destroy invaluable archaeological evidence in the hope of striking it rich.  The current recession must have provoked a boom in such activity.

In Britain, metal-detectorists are encouraged to work with archaeologists.  It’s not illegal to use these gadgets.  There are well-understood (and generous) returns to finders, who are thereby encouraged to hand finds in to local archaeological units.  A general sense of amity and cooperation seems to exist, unknown elsewhere.

One of the blogs I follow is Cultural Property Observer, which ‘champions the longstanding interests of collectors in the Preservation, Study, Display and Enjoyment of Cultural Artifacts Against an “Archaeology Over All” Perspective’.  The current article, drew my attention to some disputes in the world of archaeology.

The article mentioned a certain Paul Barford, whom I come across occasionally and whose position I find so extreme as to be very difficult to understand.  His current article is an example.  In it he attacks metal-detectorists in Britain for being pleased if they find something valuable (!), with a cartoon depicting greed, and the title jeering at them as being most likely lower-class (!).  But Mr Barford might care to reflect that his efforts are unlikely to eradicate greed from the human race.  They might however, if successful, eradicate cooperation between metal-detectorist and archaeologist.  If such a “success” is achieved, the archaeologist called out at night might find it expedient to hire bodyguards, as elsewhere in Europe; and we may as well abandon any thought of learning anything about any find by metal detector ever.  A better example of thoughtlessness and the law of unintended consequences I have yet to see.

The other item was a blog entitled “Looting Matters: Discussion of the archaeological ethics surrounding the collecting of antiquities” by David Gill.  This blog is new to me.  However I had great difficulty understanding his point of view either.  I was unable to find anything resembling an explanation for newcomers like myself on his blog.  So, inevitably, I find myself guessing his position from his posts.

Dr Gill seems to dislike western museums.  As far as I can tell, he wants to take the contents and distribute them to the modern states that happen to stand on top of whichever section of the globe the items originally came from.

For instance in this post he talks about the “return of antiquities to Italy”, meaning in this case pieces of terracotta.  By “return” he means “hand over to the state in Italy without compensation items which were sold by Italians to foreigners”.  Indeed the blog is full of apparently illogical demands that antiquities be handed over by US museums to non-US states.

To me, as a layman on this dispute, this is incomprehensible.  Whence comes this supposed right, of the officials of the modern state of Italy, to everything ever dug up in Italy?  Those who know that parts of Pompeii are collapsing through the neglect and corruption of the feckless officials of the Italian state will be less enthusiastic about this.

Similarly he apparently wants to give the Elgin marbles, bought by Lord Elgin from the then rulers of Greece and donated to the British Museum, to the officials of the modern Greek state (which he calls “return”, for reasons not self-evident).  Why he wants this I do not know, for he does not tell us.

Presumably, on the same logic, he would like everything in the British Museum connected with ancient Assyria, Babylon, Sumeria, etc, to be crated up and delivered by plane to whoever currently has the most guns in whatever is left of war-torn Baghdad.  I daresay those who destroyed the Ur harp will be equal to the task of destroying the contents of a few crates also.  But why would any rational person wish this?

Why would a professional archaeologist wish to destroy museums and cause their collections to be dispersed to Third-world states?   As I said, this position is incomprehensible to me.

Likewise Dr Gill seems to share Paul Barford’s belief that, if metal-detecting was criminalised, it would miraculously cease, and that the only people digging on farms will be then, erm, archaeologists.  Yet I believe that on farms quite a few other people have been known to have shovels and to use them quite often for other reasons.  Some, indeed, have been known to possess other implements, such as those for deep-ploughing.  Why would anyone suppose otherwise?

He also seems to believe that the antiquities trade is an evil, and without it the world will have more and better archaeology.  Yet it is in no sense obvious that this is so.  Again, I do not understand such a point of view; and I find no explanation of it on the blog.

These are the perils of writing blogs for specialists!  No doubt my own preoccupations tend to baffle newcomers also; but at least I have an “about” page.

It might be a good idea if Dr Gill were to consider those who come to his blog for the first time, and at least try to explain his position to the public.  Without it he runs the risk of alienating, by adopting a position which most people will consider elitist at best.


23 thoughts on “Some questions about “looting matters”

  1. I’ve been following Tampa’s “cultural observer”, Barford and Gill’s blogs and a few others (PhdDiva for exemple) for a few years now, and indeed all the parties are often quite overboard in their rethoric. But overall I’m more on the side of Barford and Gill than on the side of Tampa :

    – Gill’s position is mostly about the post UNESCO ’72 convention which defines international law on the topic of artifacts trade. He does indeed support some other claims (the Elgin’s marble for example) but is mostly concerned by (mostly US) museum trading in artefact excavated after 1972 and sold with fake documentation.

    – Both Barford and Gill consider that a full archeological dig is the only way to preserve all the information that a given artefact can provide to help with knowledge of the past.
    A statue or a coin dug up and sold by some traders without proper archeological work leads to the loss of a lot of data. For exemple coins sold separately means you can’t do statistics on hoard distribution and/or content (for exemple if you put all the hoards on a map and see a more dense line for coins of a given period you can expect it to indicate the path of a raid/invasion); an empty sarcophagus does not give it’s necropolis position, nor any indication on it’s (re-)use or content. etc… : today the clay around an ancient object is as important as the artifact itself because it can give information on pigments used, on the ecology of the period, on economy…
    I remember a course where chemical analysis of a barn’s ground from the carolingian era allowed statistical analysis of the animal’s dumps, thus allowing to evaluate how many animals were kept in the barn. Similar or even more interesting informations can be obtained by analysis of the artefacts (look at the news on the discovery of traces of wine, of various types of food, etc… on ceramics from the middle-east for exemple). Illegal artifact hunt destroy such information for us.

    – Barford does give quite a lot of exemple of bad cooperation between those he call’s “coinies”, metal-detectorists, and local owners or archeologists. He also points out a number of deficiences in the UK’s PAS project. Finally he denounce commercial rallyes organized by private companies or individuals, drawing people from the UK and abroad (US) to massively survey a field, sometime on or next to protected lands.
    – Those blogs also denounce efforts by Tampa and others in the US to fight against international laws and modify US legislation.

    Personally I do consider that some level of resale of properly excavated material through legal chanels should be allowed, and I don’t take an “all for” or “all against” position in the debat, but I sure feel closer to Barford and Gill than to Tampa !

  2. @Bryaxis, many thanks for clarification on this. As I said, I am very ignorant on the matter, but willing to be enlightened.

    I don’t know what UNESCO 72 might be, and I don’t believe in the concept of “international law”, rather than treaty agreements between sovereign powers. My only knowledge of UNESCO is of the endemic corruption in it, and that knowledge is probably 20 years old. If this convention is nonsense, we need to say so. It sounds, then, as if it is nonsense.

    You say: “Both Barford and Gill consider that a full archeological dig is the only way to preserve all the information that a given artefact can provide to help with knowledge of the past.” Well yes. Indeed I don’t suppose anyone disagrees with that on any side? It is certainly my own opinion also. The importance of the small finds was demonstrated long ago by Flinders Petrie himself, when he went to work at Abydos, after Amelineau had dug there. Amelineau (really a coptologist rather than an archaeologist) paid no attention to stratigraphy and went for display objects. Petrie recovered, from the wrecked-looking site, a huge amount of historical data, far more important, indeed, than the pretty-looking stuff. We need more and better archaeology. And, now that the bankers have blown all the money, we won’t get it. So what now?

    The problem, of course, is that archaeological excavation is not the only way in which antiques exit the ground, and never was and never will be. Indeed, to take an extreme example, if we walk along the beach in some places where the coast is eroding and we may have antiques literally fall out of the earth and onto us! Pretending that countries like Greece or Iraq will act like us is silly. Sending artefacts to Afghanistan is silly. Sending artefacts to Turkey might be silly, depending on how the Islamisation of Turkey goes over the next few years.

    So the question, then, is how we go, from the situation where material is coming out of the ground all the time, to the best place we can. It is entirely possible to aim for the best, eradicate the good, and end up with the worst.

  3. To make a long story short, the Unesco ’72 convention says that no artefact recorded in a collection before 1972 (and thus, presumably, dug after 1972) may be sold without the explicit agreement of the country from where the artefact originates. The goal is to protect the sculptures from the far east that barbarian cut out of monuments to sell to the highest bidder, to protect the content of the tombs from wanna be Tombarolli, etc…

    This is in fact a rather stronger version of the policies various nations have had for decades, Egypt being one of the very first to do so.

    The ’72 convention does not, on the other hand, provide a legal basis for the “historical” cases of artefact theft/smuggling/… like the Elgin’s marbles or the Beijing Summer Palace or the Nefertiti head of Berlin or the Korean archives, usually linked to 19th or early 20th century.

    In this case it’s thus a piece of legislation giving a default position to be used by all UN nations. Specific agreements can and do exist between states, especially with the USA because the ’72 convention was never signed (or signed but not validated) by the USA.

    About the bankers, yes they did bust a lot of money but archeology keeps going, be it in the fields of the green Albion or in other parts of the world including, since a few years ago, Africa. Budgets are tights, but they do still exist and the lack of money should in any case never be cause for untrained, unprofessional people to go and dig wherever they want in the name of a so-called freedom to play with a metal detector or play “Indiana Jones of the ‘hood”.

    Also those metal detectorist do say there is little value to archeological digs, saying they can make a “science” of their vue of numismatics (which is far from what academic numismats do, is almost never published and seems not to be of any true informational value outside of some morphological or typologic elements).

    Tampa’s often been ranting against archeologists and Barford has often illustrated with sourced quotes that it is common to find anti-archeological stances on the metal-detectorists and coins-collectors mailing lists, message boards and blogs.

    I know that remains fall into the sea or are uncovered by receding coastlines, be it at Caesarea in Israel or on the beaches of Bulgaria, to give but two exemples, but that does not imply that we must let everyone do his or her own collecting.

    About repatriation, I’m almost in agreement with you. While the principle of repatriation is good, it is not always advisable. On the other hand I’ve seen the collections of a major European museum rust away in shelves because their were to little funds availlable for conservation work…

    But on the other hands museum should never be buying artefact of post-72 origin, especialy not knowingly as was the case in the Getty’s case. This is true as well much for greco-roman remains than for chinese, indian or south-american artifacts.

    Selling must stop being profitable if we want to preserve and be able to study the past.

    We should also never forget that archeology is like mining : we are always working with a finite level of ressources !

  4. Thank you for the info – interesting. We’ll have to agree to differ, tho, on the remainder. “Selling must stop being profitable if we want to preserve and be able to study the past.” On the contrary, if selling is not profitable to the finders, the evidence is that Coptic codices will go straight in the fire. But I repeat myself. 🙂

  5. Roger,

    The core of your argument against repatriation seems to be (and correct me if I am wrong) that if there is no global antiquities market the artifact will end up in a fire or kiln and that the modern states that seek repatriation happen to be where the ancient state was. The first argument was probably true for most places up to the early 20th century and might even hold for parts of the world. However for many places this no longer holds. In Greece where I am from there is finder’s compensation for all finds exactly in order to discourage the sale of antiquities. An archaeological find is also very often a good vehicle for the 15 minutes of fame. Furthermore there is a sense of community pride towards artifacts, people will not destroy the remnants of our ancestors, rather they will try to display them. If the find leads to a dig in a rural area then it usually is to the farmer’s financial interest, the imminent domain price for farmland is usually higher than the real estate price and they can potentially make more money selling trinkets to tourists that they ever do from agriculture. Granted, this is not always the case for urban areas but at worst the instinct is to bury rather than destroy. Construction law allows new building to be built on top of the immobile part of ancient ruins so long the ancient remnants are to remain accessible to visits, most of downtown Piraeus has open basements, visible from the street, where passer by can see the remains of the classical city.

    As to that modern states happen to rest were the ancient state was, while true for some that were created after WWI, it is not true for several others. The preservation of ancient remnants is often part of the national ideology since the begging of the state, as a continuity of the past. One of the most famous part of the memoirs of general Makrygiannis, who taught himself to write after he had hit 40 so that he could write the story of his life and had no schooling, is the part where he discourages a soldier from selling two ancient statues during the revolution telling him that the status are what we have been fighting for. Indeed in post revolutionary Athens some actions have been quite unthinkable today, circa 25% of the old city was destroyed just so that the ancient agora could be excavated, that was the value placed on ancient ruins.

    Yes it is quite true that there is a shortage of money spent on preserving cultural affairs including preservation of antiquities, but this is true for many parts of government spending e.g. roads. But this is not excuse to remove antiquities from their host countries. The antiquities that make their way to the black market today are not random finds that would otherwise be destroyed. They are the result of systematic looting, illegal digging and the destruction of ancient sites. The second largest source of revenue in Afghanistan after drugs, before the American-led intervention of 2001, was the looting of the local sites. The warlords would send out people on the land they controlled armed with AK-47s and dig wherever something was found with no regard to systematic methods, keeping what could be transported and sold and destroying the rest.

    I agree that there are many facets to the antiquities trade and a serious question about what is moral. For that matter there are many books on the subject. I think though that the repatriation requests are well founded in morality and international law

  6. Those interested in the Barford vs. collecting and Barford vs. metal-detecting controversies may find my Ancient Coins blog ( a rewarding read — especially if one is not an admirer of the “Polish Popgun,” as distinguished numismatist Arthur Houghton caustically characterizes him.

    Mr. Barford knows certainly his subject. His well-regarded book “The Early Slavs” is probably the definitive overview of the origin and development of Eastern European Slavic nations, and their linguistic and cultural heritage.

    As listowner of Unidroit-L, I have had more experience than almost anyone else in patiently endeavoring to evenhandedly and politely moderate Barford and his anti-detectorist, anti-collecting discussion group outpourings. That eventually proved to be a lost cause.

    Mr. Barford’s outpourings have now been transferred to his PACHI blog, which I read regularly, after Barford was “seen off” the Unidroit-L, Moneta-L and AncientArtifacts lists by impromptu coalitions of listmembers (and the Moneta-L and AncientArtifacts listowners), who hotly resented his intemperate outbursts and the many unpleasant controversies they provoked.

    Mr. Barford remains a member in good standing of the Unidroit-L discussion list, with the same right to post messages on that list (without censorship) as any other member. He decided to withdraw from posting on that list after about a year, because his controversial messages were negatively (often scathingly) commented upon by many outraged listmembers.

    In his PACHI blog, Mr. Barford controls publication of all comments to his posts. He frequently takes a dim view of anything that would tend to criticize his posts.

    Mr. Barford does have a valid point, and someone certainly needs to publicly advocate the case for properly recording and documenting all finds of ancient coins and other inexpensive minor antiquities, which every reputable, ethical numismatist (including myself) supports.

    However, I for one believe that Mr. Barford would be a more effective advocate of encouraging (and ultimately requiring) documentary provenance for such finds, if he were more moderate and even-handed in his approach. Even those who largely support his goals (as I do) tend to view him as a hot-tempered, dogmatic, and too often offensive extremist.

  7. @DaveWelsh: Thank you very much for your thoughts. I don’t think that I had better take sides on a matter where I know so little! I just think of the Coptic codices and wonder how they will be preserved, if the art market were to disappear.

    You say “someone certainly needs to publicly advocate the case for properly recording and documenting all finds of ancient coins and other inexpensive minor antiquities”. Does this not happen, then?

  8. Dr Pearse, thank you for your comments on my blog. I have answered some of your points here

    and here
    I think the second answers the main point you made about what I wrote. The point is that in the UK, artefact hunters with metal detectors all insist that they are “not doing it for the money, just the interest in history”, which as you note is a tad unlikely. As for the language issue, I suggest you might care to spend a while looking at a couple of their forums, it’s an eye-opener. The point about this is the other media myth, that these are all amateur historians researching local history. Is that the impression one gets from the forums? Take a look.

    I think you are getting a bit lost, in that nobody is advocating “banning the market” or “banning metal detecting”. It is a shame you did not spend a bit more time researching that post as there are texts on my own blog (and I think David’s too) which explicitly discuss this precise issue. I suggest that your accusation of “extremity” is in fact based on a lack of knowledge of what it actually is that I advocate, where this all leads, but that is due rather to your own lack of effort before putting pen to paper, as there is quite a lot of material online to determine that with some precision.

    With regard to your main point, is it helpful to have “an” antiquities market, or would it not be all-round-more-helpful to have one which is transparent and accountable? I rather think that we should be striving in the 21st century for something that is a little better than exists at present. I hope we at least can agree on that.

    The first step towards that, surely, is combating the propaganda, weasel words, glibness and bare-faced lies that support the status quo and the no-questions-asked dealing with antiquities.

  9. Mr. Pearse I hope you will take time as well to read many of Mr. Barfords’s posts over the past few months in order to get a handle on his hatred for collectors and detectorists. His use of words is aimed at degrading and insulting them, nothing more.

    Read over his response above, and you will find subtle innuendos as to your lack of caring as well. Respond and it will only get worse….

    The British museum has banned he and his friend Nigel Swift (Heritage Action) and branded them trolls. An extremely accurate definition.

    You will regret getting involved with this individual. Mark my words.

  10. “Banned” from the British Museum, eh? Your SOURCE for that Mr Stout?

    I do indeed hope that Dr Pearse finds time to have a look at a few more of my comments on my blog rather than just that one. I expect though that he can make up his own mind about whether looters of the archaeological record are lovable or not, especially those that hound archaeologists.

  11. @PaulBarford, you may not perhaps realise that outsiders like myself cannot actually find the positions being advocated by those holding the views you espouse? This is why I wrote: I was trying to find out what Looting Matters actually stood for, and failed. My inability to find a clear, rational and accessible statement was the reason why I wrote the post in the first place.

    Of course I can find plenty of invective; and plenty of demands for this or that (which make no sense, by themselves).

    What is needed here is a great deal less shouting. I can’t imagine why you think that it is my job to compose a manifesto for your cause! If you wish to convince someone, you will need to tell them at least what it is that you want!

    I have no real interest in name-calling, whoever does it. What you need to do — and what Looting Matters should do — is have a page which clearly, simply, and rationally makes whatever case it is that you are making.

  12. @DickStout, thanks for the link.

    I think we must avoid making all this about Mr Barford, who is perhaps a “personality”, which distracts from the issues. He’s entitled to his (rather aggressive) views, of course, and others are entitled to disagree with them.

    What I really want is some understanding of those who hold the views I discuss in the post. I just don’t understand the position, viewed from the angle that I see it.

  13. Dr Pearse, Nobody is expecting you to produce a “manifesto” for another writer, but if you want to say what someone does or does not believe (your comment on my alleged notions of “banning metal detecting”) it really requires you first to try and find out what that is and give some kind of reference to where you read it.

    As for the subjects covered by my blog, it summarises on the box:
    “An archaeologist’s blog commenting on various aspects of the private collecting and trade in archaeological artefacts today and their effect on the archaeological record”.

    Then there is this right at the beginning:

    I think your own blog is an example where one cannot just leap in read a single post and say what Roger Pearse’s position is on …. [whatever]. A blog like yours presents a multitude of things possibly from a multitude of different angles, depending on what you are working on, thinking about or have just read. That much seems obvious, I do not see why you expect others to differ. A blog is a blog, its not a thesis or book. You write with indignation about a preacher being arrested, I write with indignation about something I read trying to justifying looting or the no-questions-asked trade in archaeological artefacts. Same thing. Nobody is writing to ask you to set out in a clear introductory page about your attitude to the police – a slight exaggeration, perhaps, but I hope you see the point.

    I am not writing for any particular audience, I am not writing so people will like me, I am not writing to convince. Like you here I am just reacting to things that attract my attention at a given moment.

    [@Mr Stout: that’s not “banned from the BM”. I’ve not been banned from the BM].

  14. @PaulBarford: you’ve put your finger on the problem with blogs. I try to deal with that kind of issue by having an “about” page, in which I address general queries. I couldn’t find one on “Looting Matters”. 🙁 We must always try to remember the reader who has no background and who reads a post for the very first time.

  15. I’ve had the good fortune of spending years talking with archaeologists and learning their process to apply for and receive permits in foreign countries to excavate sites around the globe. One constant was the host countries requirement as well as the archaeologists need for local indigenous people to be given work as laborers on the sites. The archaeologists, primarliy excavating during the summer when they’re not teaching at University the other nine months of the year, retain and train such “locals” how and where to dig. Isn’t it ironic than that it’s the archaeologists that train and educate potential “looters”. I know this is a sore topic for archaeologists but many have quietly admitted the possibility. Examples could easily be seen in aerial photos of the pock-marked landscapes of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, India, etc., and in the junges of Central and South America.

    Equally, I understand from archaelogists that the local official assigned to the excavation site could be offered a gratuity for allowing extra activity to occur. Such is common and almost cultural in many Asian and Central and South American countries.

    My point is the following: Everyone in the daisy chain of searching for buried treasures, from government officials, archaeologists, scholars and academics, dealers, collectors, musuems and institutions, share responsibility in the illicit trade in antiquity. When all parties admit their sins then true progress will commence toward dialogue and a shared resolution possible. But for now, mud slinging and finger pointing is as elementary and immature as most political debates and serves no good or purpose.

  16. These are good points. How they might be addressed I don’t know. But I think that, if local people in these countries can make money from tourism to archaeological sites, they are liable to preserve them. How we get that to happen I don’t know.

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