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.
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.
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.
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.
- To advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales by systematically recording archaeological objects found by the public
- To raise public awareness of the educational value of archaeological finds in their context and facilitate research in them
- To increase opportunities for active public involvement in archaeology and strengthen links between metal detector users and archaeologists
- 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.
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:
- Portable Antiquities According to Derek Fincham by Paul Barford at Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues
- My Article on the Portable Antiquities Scheme by Derek Fincham at Illicit Cultural Property
- Fincham’s solution to the Portable Antiquities Crisis by Paul Barford
- An Unkind Response to my PAS Article (LATE UPDATE) by Derek Fincham
- “There aren’t ANY intellectually honest arguments” by Paul Barford
- A Small Step Toward Synergy: Fincham’s PAS Article by Kimberley Alderman at The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog
I’d also recommend reading the comments.