Friday, October 31, 2008

Context Lost-- So What?

My last post has evidently struck a nerve. Three blogger/archaeologists associated with Saving Antiquities for Everyone responded, two with multiple posts addressing the same issue. You can find them all through this post from Nathan Elkins:
I may not always agree with Nathan, but at least he generally makes a real effort to be polite!

Anyway, all seem concerned by the alleged loss of context of this find, which apparently sat upon an ancient midden or garbage dump. But what would have that context really told us other than someone deposited bronze nummi out with trash?

I'm sure Messrs. Gill, Barford and Elkins will come up with something, but certainly all context is not created equal. Here, for example, the follow up investigations by a professional archaeologist apparently did not come up with anything more of real signifcance or we would likely have heard it by now.

All this actually points to the genius of the British and Welsh system. Treasure Trove and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in effect put amateurs into a partnership with professional archaeologists. The amateurs may be in it just for the money(as at least Messr. Barford insinuates) or they may be in it because they truly love history-- but the effect is much the same. Trained archaeologists are few in number and no one can expect them to spend much time roving the countryside in search of promising sites. This is where amateurs come in. Most of the time they find little of archaeological significance, but sometimes they lead archaeologists to important discoveries. There may be some loss of context along the way, but isn't this a price worth paying when an otherwise unknown archaeological site of significance comes to light?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reported Treasure Find Prompts Catcalls Rather Than Congratulations

The British Press is reporting another large find of Roman coins declared under that country's treasure trove law. For more details, see:

I think the finders should be commended for following the law and declaring their hoard to the authorities. Two bloggers associated with the advocacy group "Saving Antiquities for Everyone" evidently disagree. See:

They appear to be griping because they claim archaeological context was disturbed. However, both seem to miss the point that the find-- like most in Britain and Wales-- was made on ploughed land where the archaeological context was already disturbed. For more, see: Presumably, their concern is based on the fact that the coins were recovered at a depth of 1 meter (approximately 3 feet), but the fact that the coins were found with broken pottery (presumably the remains of the container that initially protected the coins) still argues that earlier ploughing operations already damaged the context of the find.

In any event, I find all their focus on context in this circumstance to be a bit laughable. Does anyone seriously believe that archaeologists would have been visiting this field any time soon to do a full scale investigation that would have come upon this hoard? If anything, this find should prompt local archaeologists to investigate the site further to see if there is anything really worth excavating nearby. If so, the price of disturbing the context of this hoard (if it was in fact disturbed) will likely be greatly outweighed by the value of any larger find.

One final note. I have spoken to several classical archaeologists (with no axe to grind against collectors) that have told me that large hoards like that found here are not typically found at archaeological sites (in contrast to much smaller purse hoards). As there appears to be a difference of opinion on this point, I think it is best to focus on the fact that most hoards found by detectorists are found on ploughed land where context has already been disturbed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Good Read: Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet"

I don't get to read "for fun" as much as I would like to. One good thing about train trips is that as long as there is no work that needs to be done, it is a good time to read a good book. Thomas Laird's "The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama" is such a good book.

Through Laird's interviews, the Dalai Lama himself recounts Tibetan history. That history unfolds as an expression of the Buddhist version of "Divine Provenance." Along the way, one learns about the long alliance between the Mongols and Tibetans. One can easily imagine that long memories about Mongol subjugation of the Chinese perhaps helps explain China's uncompromising efforts to subjugate Tibet. China may have lost out on controlling much of the Mongolian homeland based on Russian support for the Mongols in the 1920's, but Tibet lacked strong foreign support against the Chinese invasion in 1951. At the time, world powers most likely to help were busy fighting off China's efforts to dominate the far more strategic Korean Peninsula.

For those interested in cultural property issues, the book provides a stark record of China's efforts to destroy Tibetan culture by destroying most of its monasteries and temples along with thousands and thousands of ancient religious artifacts. The Dalai Lama himself recounts a particularly poignant story:

The Dalai Lama said, " A large clay statue of Chenrizi [a Buddhist savior for Tibet] was made in Jokhang [the site of the first and most important Buddhist Temple in Tibet], and that wood statue of Buddha from Nepal [associated with an early Tibetan king, Songzen Gampo] was put inside the bigger one." These two statues, a tiny wooden one nested in the larger clay one, sat in the Jokhang undisturbed for thirteen hundred years... "The large statue, like nearly all of those in the Jokhang, were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. When they destroyed the larger clay statue, they found the small wooden statue at the center. Some Tibetan kept it after the larger one was destroyed and then sent it to me, which is very good."

Laird, supra, at 40. No wonder the Dalai Lama himself has praised Western collectors for their efforts to help preserve Tibet's past. Why, then, have members of the archaeological community supported China's efforts to seek import restrictions on virtually all Chinese archaeological and ethnological items, including those from Tibet? Could it be that the prospect of cooperation with Chinese archaeologists silences any inclination to speak out? If so, such archaeologists are little different than many of the "foreign policy experts" that appear in the media. Id. at 365-66. Laird reports that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stressed that one of the main targets for its external propaganda were foreign experts as "propaganda created by foreigners is more powerful" than propaganda produced by Chinese. Id. at 366. I suspect the same can be said for the efforts of some members of the archaeological community to plead China's case for control over Tibetan cultural artifacts reaching this country.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grand Opening of New ANS Site: Good News, Bad News, Good News

The American Numismatic Society has opened its new headquarters and has updated its website. For more, see:

The Executive Director, Ute Wartenberg Kagan, and the staff should be commended for all their hard work in making the new headquarters a reality.

Of particular interest should be a small but wonderful exhibit of coins from members of the New York Numismatic Club. These range from ancient coinage to early U.S. coinage and medals.

Overall, the annual meeting of the ANS I attended in conjunction with the opening offered a bit of good news, bad news and good news. The good news is that the move is completed and the ANS finally has excellent facilities which have a finished look about them. The bad news is that like many not for profits, the ANS has seen its endowment get hit in a big way with the recent downturn in the stock market. On the bright side, however, all the money received for the sale of the old building has been held in cash so it has not evaporated like other funds in the endowment.

Over the near term, ambitious plans for expansion of programs will need to be put on hold and more than ever the ANS will need to rely on the generosity of its members to not just survive but grow. Unlike the Smithsonian and many institutions in Europe, the ANS is highly dependent on its members (chiefly academics, collectors and members of the numismatic trade) for funding. Anyone who supports repressing private collecting of artifacts as common as coins should realize this can't but also impact the continued vitality of one of the few places in the United States where coinage of all eras is not only preserved, but studied on an academic basis.

The benefits of the academic study of coins is evident to most numismatists, but it should also be noted that such study has real world benefits as well. Edmund C. Moy, the Director of the U.S. Mint, spoke at a dinner I attended in conjunction with the opening. He made clear that he hopes to reinvigorate our present day coinage, not by directly copying historical coinage, but using some of its design precepts to guide how we can make our own coins reflect the best of our own society of today has to offer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Police Posse to "Raise Awareness" About ICOM "Red List of Afghan Antiquities at Risk"

The Metropolitan Police in the London have announced a special initiative to warn off art and antiquities dealers from purchasing "looted" Afghan artifacts:

As the article states,

12 volunteer 'ArtBeat' special constables drawn from the art world, including one at the British Museum, will help the Met's Art and Antiques Unit police the industry. On Monday they started visiting art dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors across London to "raise awareness" about the stolen Afghan items.

Its not clear whether these "ArtBeat" special constables will mainly concern themselves with potential violations of the U.K.'s Cultural Objects (Offenses) Act of 2003 see:, or whether they will instead act as some sort of posse for ICOM and its "Red List of Afghan Antiquities at Risk."

More about the Red List can be found here:

If the latter, I fear any such operation could quickly degenerate into some sort of witch hunt that assumes a holder of an artifact of potential Afghan origin is "guilty" until he proves himself innocent to the satisfaction of those not necessarily friendly to the concept of collecting.

Certainly, the breadth of the definitions of the "Afghan Antiquities" supposedly at risk should should give one pause. Here, for example is a how the list describes Afghan coins:

Antique coins, of bronze, silver and gold, are hand stamped. Pre-Islamic coins usually include the portraits of the king on one side and the divinities on the reverse. Islamic examples are decorated only with Arabic script.

Finally, note that both the State Department’s ECA and such activists as SAFE are partners in the larger ICOM effort: One certainly gets the feeling that ECA and groups such as ICOM and SAFE work hand in hand to encourage cultural bureaucracies in source countries to take the hard line against collectors. In any event, it should also obviously concern anyone interested in fair play that our State Department is acting in concert with activists who in theory at least are supposed to appear before the ECA's Cultural Property Advisory Committee on equal footing with everyone else.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Iraqi Cultural Heritage Project Addresses one of Archaeology's "Dirty Little Secrets"

The Iraq Cultural Heritage Project will evidently include funding for publishing old site reports. See: Iraq Cultural Heritage Project Fact Sheet at ("Complementing this professional capacity building will be: a) The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq Archaeological Publication Project (TAARI). In consultation with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and Iraqi archaeologists, TAARI will publish heretofore unpublished archaeological excavation reports prepared by Iraqi archaeologists.").

I have heard the failure to publish site reports characterized as one of archaeology's "dirty little secrets." I suppose some might be tempted to blame the failure to publish the results of past excavations in Iraq on the effect of Saddam era international sanctions on the Iraqi archaeological establishment. But, of course, sanctions did not stop Saddam from spending money to build palaces in places like Babylon. In any event, I've also read about the failure to publish site reports or even properly record finds elsewhere, in places like Egypt and Cyprus. See: (quoting Zahi Hawaas as follows: "A full scientific report must be published within five years, or the project will be suspended. This is very important. There are many expeditions that have been working here for 20 years, and have never published their work. Scientific results that are not available to scholars are useless and contribute nothing to our knowledge of the past.") and ("Demetriou said the association was alerted to the fact that scientific means were not always used, when a retired archaeologist on a recent dig admitted to not keeping a daily diary, which under archaeological rules is sacrosanct and is a requirement of law.").

The fact that site reports are not published or that digs may not be properly documented is relevant to the debate over import restrictions. Archaeologists often justify import restrictions by claiming that such restrictions limit demand for artifacts and thereby ultimately discourage the destruction of archaeological context by clandestine diggers. But doesn't the failure of the archaeological community to police their own colleagues when it comes to properly recording and publishing site finds seriously undercut this claim? If archaeologists themselves don't always properly record and publish their finds, how can they then claim preservation of archaeological context as a major justification for the imposition of import restrictions on cultural artifacts?

In any event, I am glad that the State Department has included funding for publishing site reports, but even when site reports are published, they are not usually easily accessible to the public. Hopefully, the State Department will also insist that at least some of the information is put "online."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Bush Administration has announced a substantial $13 million grant to help Iraq's museum and archaeological infrastructure: Laura Bush helped roll out the program at the Iraqi Embassy: This money is in addition to millions already spent to date on the Iraq Museum and archaeological establishment courtesy of the US taxpayer.

With American museums and cultural institutions hurting due to collateral damage from the meltdown on Wall Street, I am a bit mystified why authorities like Larry Rothfield have anything to gripe about, particularly when his own University of Chicago's Oriental Institute will share in the government largess. See

I take it that Rothfield wants the State Department to pay for site security in Iraq, but hasn't the US already spent hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars building up Iraq's security forces? It is for the Iraqi government to decide how those forces are deployed. And, although Rothfield apparently continues to deny it, others believe that any looting of Iraqi archaeological sites has declined greatly along with the general decrease in lawlessness in the country.

Monday, October 13, 2008

SAFE "Campaign" Against the Appointment of Brent R. Benjamin to CPAC

Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE") and a number of its members have started a campaign of sorts against the recent appointment of Brent R. Benjamin of the Saint Louis Art Museum ("SLAM") to one of the two museum seats on the Cultural Property Advisory Committee ("CPAC"). See: I initially covered Benjamin's appointment here:

I think SAFE and its members are missing an important point. They claim Benjamin's appointment "sends the wrong message" because he has refused to bow to Egyptian demands for a funerary mask of a nineteenth dynasty noblewoman named Ka Nefer Nefer. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the publicity seeking Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, has laid claim to the mask with his usual bravado, complete with threats of legal action and even a call on “all schools in St. Louis to ban visiting the SLAM as it contains an Egyptian stolen piece.” See:

While it might be "politically correct" to roll over to such demands, the fact is that Benjamin and SLAM's Trustees have a fiduciary duty to the museum not to give up the piece without satisfactory proof that Egypt has proper title. In this regard, SLAM has asked Hawaas to document the claim further, something he has apparently failed to do. See:

Under the circumstances, Benjamin and SLAM are to be commended and not criticized for saying "No" to Pharaoh Hawaas and his authoritarian Egyptian government. This experience should help Benjamin discharge his duties on CPAC. CPAC members should base their recommendations on whether and to what extent to impose import restrictions on the application of the governing law to the facts. Under no circumstances should CPAC members bow to requests for import restrictions just because foreign cultural bureaucracies and their allies in the archaeological community and the State Department demand them as a matter of right.

Brent R. Benjamin and SLAM have shown some backbone in their dealings with Egypt. I for one appreciate President Bush appointing someone who can stand up to such bullying to this important post.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Another Diversion from Italy's Serious Problems

The New York Times has reported on an exhibit in Rome celebrating the upcoming 100th anniversary of Italy's 1909 Cultural Heritage law:

Funny, there is no mention of Mussolini's part in expanding and extending that law in 1939, but perhaps the Fascist overtones would put an unwanted gloss on the story.

In the meantime, the Chicago Tribune has reported on the real state of Italy's cultural heritage in an article about a decision to open Pompeii, one of the country's best known archaeological sites, to private ventures:,0,5021224.story As the article states,

The opening of Pompeii to private ventures comes as the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, pinched for cash, has slashed state funds for arts and archeological sites. Archeology restoration funds for Pompeii suffered a deep cut, reduced from $75 million last fiscal year to $15 million this fiscal year, the top archeologist there said.

Given these stark financial realities, Italy needs fewer exhibits designed to pump up nationalistic impulses, less government control over everything and anything "old," and more of an effort to focus limited resources and to engage the populace as has been successfully done in the UK with its Treasure Act and PAS. During its last time in power, the Berlusconi government pressed to modernize Italy's laws, but with little success against the country's entrenched archaeological bureaucracy. Hopefully, the government's initiative at Pompeii is just the beginning of other, more successful efforts.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Lara Logan of CBS News: Cultural Property Criminal?

Those who do not like Lara Logan's reporting, her politics, her personal life or, perhaps her notoriety are making a big deal about the fact that she has displayed some portraits of Saddam Hussein from Iraq in her office. Now, apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") is gettting into the act. See: It is not helping Ms. Logan's cause that the Feds earlier came down hard on a Fox News engineer for smuggling similar paintings from Iraq. Apparently, questions are being raised about "double standards."

Hopefully, ICE will close the books on its investigation soon. It should be clear to anyone who has actually read the governing legislation authorizing import restrictions on Iraqi cultural artifacts that it was not really meant to apply to modern artifacts, despite the fact that the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (("ECA") has, in its infinite wisdom, applied import restrictions to modern Iraqi art. (The governing statute, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, only provides for restrictions on archaeological objects over 250 years old and ethnological objects, which are typically not the products of modern societies.)
I suppose that ICE could also be making the claim that the portraits taken from bombed out buildings were stolen "Iraqi Government Property," but before doing so, one would hope ICE agents would first search all the offices in the Pentagon and State Department to make sure no similar souvenirs are hanging on the walls.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Italy Seeks Chief Curator

Italy is looking for someone to oversee its multitude of museums:;_ylt=AmzNl9u.vrhSEsw3uS3hcRpFeQoB

This will be a big challenge. Italy is blessed with an unparallelled inventory of cultural artifacts and sites. Unfortunately, Italy is also cursed with a choking cultural bureaucracy and little apparent appetite for investing sufficient funds for upkeep let alone making these cultural institutions world class.

Only those with considerable intestinal fortitude and an innate ability to navigate the vagaries of the Italian bureaucracy and political system need apply for this post.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Market Meltdown Impacts Museums and Others

I am no economist, but it stands to reason that the recent stock market meltdown cannot but hurt museums and archaeological organizations alike. Guidelines for not-for-profits suggest that endowments be held in high quality investments. However, in troubled economic times like these, even "blue chip" investments have suffered substantial declines in value. Although such declines may be made up in the long term, the trend must certainly be worrying for trustees and staff of any cultural institution. Another worry is that donations come from discretionary income. When a supporter's net worth falls, the first place to cut will be donations. Finally, given the current political and economic climate, cultural organizations cannot count on government handouts, particularly if they are in the form of Congressional earmarks.

Recommended Reading: Derek Fincham's Take on the Treasure Act and PAS

Derek Fincham, a teaching fellow at Loyola New Orleans Law School and a blogger on cultural property issues (see:, has argued that the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has been quite successful in the UK and Wales and should be considered elsewhere. Fincham's article is entitled, "A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin." It can be found in Volume 15, No. 3 2008 of the International Journal of Cultural Property at page347.

Here is the flavor of Fincham's work from his abstract: "The domestic legal framework for portable antiquities in England and Wales is unique and differs from the typical approach. Coupled with the PAS this legal structure has resulted in better cultural policy, which leads to less looting of important archaeological sites, allows for a tailored cultural policy, and has produced more data and contextual information with which to conduct historical and archaeological research on an unprecedented scale. Compensating finders of antiquities may even preclude an illicit market in antiquities so long as this compensation is substantially similar to the market price of the object and effectively excludes looters from this reward system."

It's nice to finally see an academic like Fincham getting beyond the largely punitive approach favored by "authorities" like the Archaeological Institute of America ("AIA"), Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute ("CAARI") and Saving Antiquities for Everyone ("SAFE").

For more about the Treasure Act and PAS see: