Should we pass on the PAS?

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Treasure hunter. Photo (cc) Elsie esq.

I’m slightly late to be com­ment­ing on Derek Fincham’s paper, in the International Journal of Cultural Property, A Coördinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin. There’s a few reas­ons for that, but the major one is that I’ve been read­ing round what other people have been say­ing about the paper. A large part of the paper dis­cusses the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and my own per­spect­ive on that seems to be from a dif­fer­ent view­point to a lot of other peoples.

Excavations at a Gallo-Roman Villa
The site at Goeblange-Miecher.

By and large my archae­olo­gical train­ing has been on com­munity pro­jects. My first dig was on a com­munity pro­ject excav­at­ing a Gallo-Roman villa, organ­ised by a soci­ety based in the local vil­lage in Nospelt. In the UK I was in the local vil­lage archae­ology group and did a bit of excav­a­tion and geo­phys­ics and a lot of field­walk­ing. All the pro­jects I’ve worked on have been poorly fun­ded, even by archae­olo­gical stand­ards, or more often not fun­ded at all. My exper­i­ence then with archae­ology out­side of aca­demia is of know­ledgable, enthu­si­astic people with rel­at­ively little access to expert­ise, equip­ment and information.

The great attrac­tion of the PAS from my point of view is the out­reach aspect. All sorts of little bits of inform­a­tion are being gathered by ama­teurs and rather than being cent­rally hoarded they’re being made avail­able to any­one with an inter­net con­nec­tion. It’s not that there’s been a lack of will in any of the museum ser­vices I’ve seen when it comes to pub­lic engage­ment, but there hasn’t really been the insti­tu­tional frame­work to help it hap­pen. The PAS is built around enga­ging with the pub­lic and it’s in the bones of the sys­tem. For example below is some data uploaded to Swivel. To be hon­est I can­not see myself using that par­tic­u­lar data­set, but that’s not the point. I’m used to being told there are strict lim­it­a­tions on what I can do with pho­tos from museums. Here someone is act­ively encour­aging the pub­lic to take away data and do some­thing inter­est­ing with it.

Finds and Records vs. Number of Treasure cases in England and Wales Number of Treasure Cases vs. Number of Treasure cases in England and Wales Number of Treasure Cases

Why is archae­olo­gical law a problem?

Derek Fincham’s paper looks at the PAS as being part of the admin­is­tra­tion of the treas­ure trove law for England and Wales and com­pares it to Scottish law. This is to exam­ine whether or not the English and Welsh approach to archae­olo­gical remains can provide a model for other coun­tries. The reason you’d want to do this is because of the antiquit­ies trade. The trade is based on the sale of antiquit­ies, but places no value on its archae­olo­gical con­text, bey­ond a basic interest in authen­i­city. Even that might be dubi­ous because no-one wants to dis­cover the Cycladic fig­ur­ine they were going to sell is a fake. This lack of interest in proven­ance means that it’s com­par­at­ively easy to shift illi­cit mater­i­als. By easy I mean that between 1985 and 1995 about three quar­ters of Apulian vases appeared from nowhere onto the antiquit­ies mar­ket. All in all about 95% of Apulian vases seem to have been dug up with no archae­olo­gical work.

Diagram of how illicit antiquities were fenced through the London Antiquities trade
Want to fence illi­cit goods? It’s not that dif­fi­cult. Diagram by I.M. Stead from The Salisbury Hoard.

It seems that the antiquit­ies trade is doing to archae­ology what the ivory trade has done to the rhino­ceros. Fortunately rhi­nos repro­duce so we might save some of the spe­cies driven near extinc­tion. Archaeological sites do not grow back. Once a site is plundered it stays plundered. If that site was unique then it’s a win for the traders but a loss for the rest of human­ity. Another sim­il­ar­ity with big game hunt­ing is that it’s very hard to kill one ele­phant, because other ele­phants take excep­tion to it, so you need to be pre­pared for large scale slaughter. Similarly loot­ers might be selling some­thing small, but to get to it they may well demol­ish most of a site des­troy­ing what they con­sider worth­less mater­ial in the pro­cess. Planting dynam­ite on the sea-bed and see­ing what comes up is not an archae­olo­gical tech­nique, but it’s been used in the far east. Once you have your goods you need to get it into the tar­get coun­try. For this you need a smug­gler. Smuggling is a trans­fer­able skill. Antiquities, drugs, weaponry, it doesn’t mat­ter so much what the cargo is. It’s just a mat­ter of get­ting the mer­chand­ise from A to B without let­ting the author­it­ies C. Working with illi­cit mater­ial means work­ing with some very unpleas­ant people.

It also means exploit­ing some very poor people. Talking about the Northern Black Rhino, Douglas Adams said the ivory, by the time it had been turned into a fash­ion item went for thou­sands of dol­lars. The money made by the poacher, the guy tak­ing the risk, was a lot less. About $20 a horn. For antiquit­ies again it’s the people tak­ing the risks who make the least from the crime. The profit is fur­ther down the line.

What’s the solution?

Now we’re at the bit the paper is about. How do you legis­late to pro­tect the archae­olo­gical her­it­age? A com­mon answer is that the state declares that it owns all undo­scovered antiquit­ies. Fincham is pro­pos­ing that the model the rest of the world might want at the sys­tem used in England and Wales, the treas­ure trove law. A find is declared treas­ure if it’s one of the following:

  • Objects other than coins that are at least 300 years old and have a min­imum
    pre­cious metal con­tent of 10%
  • All groups of coins from the same find at least 300 years old
  • Objects found in asso­ci­ation with other treas­ure objects
  • Groups of pre­his­toric base-metal objects from the same find

I’ve cut ‘n’ pas­ted that list from the paper. If you find some­thing which qual­i­fies as treas­ure the find is assessed at mar­ket rates and a reward is given. This means that, so long as you’re not dig­ging a sched­uled site, you can archae­olo­gic­ally dig or dig for treas­ure without being an archae­olo­gist or hav­ing spe­cial per­mis­sions on your own land. If it’s someone else’s land then you need to come to an agree­ment with the landowner. Treasure is usu­ally repor­ted to a cor­oner through a Finds Liaison Officer attached to the PAS, which is how this gets into the paper and where a lot of the dis­agree­ment over the PAS that’s been going on in blog posts starts. While I look at the PAS as a source of inform­a­tion, a lot of people see it as the start of a chain which encour­ages the antiquit­ies trade. If that’s the case then Fincham’s pro­posal that the PAS model could be used in other coun­tries would encour­age the dig­ging of archae­olo­gical sites rather than pro­tect­ing them.

In the other blogs there seem to be two related argu­ments going on, one which is in the paper and one which isn’t. Potentially it could get messy so I’ll limit my com­ments here to the things Derek Fincham has writ­ten about, namely could the PAS be trans­ferred to the rest of the world? The quick answer is prob­ably not, but that doesn’t end the discussion.

Is archae­ology universal?

Fincham lists four aims of the PAS.

  1. To advance know­ledge of the his­tory and archae­ology of England and Wales by sys­tem­at­ic­ally record­ing archae­olo­gical objects found by the public
  2. To raise pub­lic aware­ness of the edu­ca­tional value of archae­olo­gical finds in their con­text and facil­it­ate research in them
  3. To increase oppor­tun­it­ies for act­ive pub­lic involve­ment in archae­ology and strengthen links between metal detector users and archaeologists
  4. To encour­age all who find archae­olo­gical objects to make them avail­able for record­ing and pro­mote best prac­tice by finders

Aims 2, 3 and 4 are all based on the assump­tion that the finds have some value in addi­tion to their mar­ket value. I’m not con­vinced this is the case in many coun­tries. In some cases the destruc­tion of her­it­age may be wel­comed. You could hold up the alleged destruc­tion of Palestinian archae­ology by Israelis as an example or, if you prefer, the alleged destruc­tion of Jewish archae­olo­gical remains by Palestinians. Much as I would like an interest in archae­ology to be uni­ver­sal, it’s fre­quently tied up in the myth of national ori­gins. There is also the argu­ment that archae­ology is a lux­ury. If so, it’s a lux­ury that not every­where can afford.

Fincham’s answer isn’t a simple graft­ing of the PAS onto every­where else, though he does spec­u­late about a trans-national PAS. I thought that he wandered into the realms of a global PAS, but re-reading I think I was mis­taken. He cer­tainly pro­poses the pos­sib­il­ity of a EU-wide scheme. It’s an optim­istic idea. I can’t see it get­ting much sup­port from the UK, where the response would more likely bring out the national xeno­pho­bia, even if the scheme were solidly based in the PAS model. I think it also dis­tracts from his main argu­ment which is about the pro­tec­tion of her­it­age — which might bene­fit from an Anglo-welsh style treas­ure law. He pro­poses a two-pronged approach. Rewarding people who report chance find (actu­ally “true chance finds” as he puts it) and out­reach pro­mot­ing good prac­tice and the import­ance of her­it­age and context.

Rewarding people is expens­ive but, as he points out, the reward scheme does not have to out­bid the auc­tion houses — only the middle­man who is sup­ply­ing them. His pro­posal that coun­tries could sell long-term leases of arte­facts is not one I’ve seen before. It’s an inter­est­ing idea and I’ll have to give more thought to it. There are prob­lems with a couple of places. Elsewhere in the paper he focuses on what is hap­pen­ing now rather than an ideal world where every­one obeys the law and acts nicely. The concept of “chance” finds doesn’t work in this sys­tem. There are always ways to improve your chances of being lucky. The second place I stumble is that assump­tion that people will value her­it­age if suf­fi­ciently edu­cated. For example Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ists can be intel­li­gent and edu­cated people. I struggle with the concept that they’d value early-Christian sites if told of their import­ance. Instead they may just ran­sack them in more eco­nom­ic­ally effi­cient man­ner. Again if your polit­ics prefer you could use an example of Christian fun­da­ment­al­ists in North America deal­ing with nat­ive sites.

Compromising ideals?

While I dis­agree with those pro­pos­als I think Derek Fincham is right in explor­ing the pos­sib­il­ity that the answer is eco­nomic. The ques­tion is how do you make a con­served her­it­age more valu­able than an sold her­it­age? I know the idea of pay­ing people as part of enfor­cing the law is unpal­ate­able to some people, espe­cially Paul Barford. I’m not keen on it. The dif­fi­culty is that rely­ing on legis­la­tion is as likely to be as suc­cess­ful as ‘abstinence-only’ sex edu­ca­tion. It’s a great idea if every­one does as they’re sup­posed to, but it does require crim­in­als to act in a moral way.

I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing more by Derek Fincham. His ideas are pro­voc­at­ive. The way he’s pro­pos­ing to deal with the illi­cit antiquit­ies trade reminds me in some ways of pro­pos­als to tackle the prob­lems of sur­round­ing pros­ti­tu­tion by leg­al­ising it. Prostitutes and peas­ant loot­ers in the third-world are engaged in activ­it­ies you might dis­ap­prove of, but is it bet­ter to see them as vic­tims rather than the prob­lem. It’s not a per­fect ana­logy but it high­lights the culp­ab­il­ity of the people who take advant­age of the situ­ation. It also addresses the other issue which Fincham doesn’t talk about in his paper. It’s the issue some other blog posts are arguing around. Is com­prom­ise or legit­im­isa­tion mor­ally acceptable?

For other opin­ions you may want to read:

I’d also recom­mend read­ing the comments.

2 thoughts on “Should we pass on the PAS?

  1. It also addresses the other issue which Fincham doesn’t talk about in his paper. It’s the issue some other blog posts are arguing around. Is com­prom­ise or legit­im­isa­tion mor­ally acceptable?”

    Ethics/morality is alto­gether out­side the pur­view of Fincham’s paper. There are so many dif­fer­ent view­points on what is ethical/moral in the con­text of archae­olo­gical excavation.

    IMHO, loot­ing is not, in every case, under all cir­cum­stances, uni­ver­sally, uneth­ical. It hap­pens to be uneth­ical the vast major­ity of the time, but I do not think this is as tied to its illi­cit nature as most seem to think.

    I don’t see the PAS as com­prom­ise or legit­im­iz­a­tion. It is a tool. It can either help achieve the goal of pre­serving more con­text than it wastes or not. But per­haps I am not being ideal­istic enough.

    Thank you for the shout out. And I appre­ci­ate your detailed dis­cus­sion of the work.

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