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.