Sunday, April 19, 2009

Another Perspective on the "Status Quo"

Nathan Elkins has an interesting post where he expresses concern about the "status quo." See: For some reason, I can't open the link to Nathan's lecture, but I think I understand his drift from this post and others he has done over the past several years.

Specifically, he complains about

"an unregulated and unconcerned market, the distasteful nature of the dialogue that has developed in North America, and the urgent need for thoughtful collectors, archaeologists, and law enforcement to find common ground in the face of organized and unconcerned commercial interests."

Let me agree on some points and disagree on others. First, one must conclude that the market is hardly "unregulated." Customs officials in the US and Europe actively enforce their regulations. Nathan may think those regulations do not go far enough, but that is a different issue.

Second, Nathan wrongly discounts the contributions and views of ancient coin dealers, because like many in the archaeological community, he betrays a distrust for "commercial interests." But why are such interests any less valid than those of source countries, collectors and archaeologists? Certainly, all these groups are motivated to some extent by "self-interest." What dealers, collectors, archaeologists and source countries share is an interest in preserving artifacts, like ancient coins.

The differences between archaeologists and source countries on one hand and collectors and dealers on the other hand relate to value of private efforts to preserve ancient artifacts. In my opinion, a heavy dose of academic snobbery motivates those who constantly belittle the contributions of collectors and dealers in preserving, publishing and displaying artifacts from the past.

Nathan may or may not agree with this himself, but certainly coin dealers and collectors have been responsible for preserving millions and millions of ancient coins from oblivion. Coin dealers are also heavy contributors to organizations like the American Numismatic Society and American Numismatic Association. Without their generous funding, there would be a large void in numismatic research in the United States. In short, if coin dealers and collectors are suppressed, who will preserve, display and study all those coins? Certainly, archaeologists and source countries have difficulty handling those coins already in their charge. For example, it often takes decades for coin finds to be published, if they are published at all. This will hopefully change over time with the ability to post coins on line, but such a project is massive, and it is doubtful it will ever be mandated.

Third, as to the "distasteful nature of the dialogue that has developed in North America," I would have to agree that strongly held opinions in the area are all too often expressed in unfortunate terms. Still, it is wrong to imply that only those supporting the rights of collectors and coin and antiquities dealers are at fault or to suggest that the problem is limited to North America. Indeed, one of the very worst offenders posts from Eastern Europe and purports to represent the interests of the archaeological community.

All this raises another important point. The impact of spirited, but all too often nasty debate on the Internet between collectors and archaeologists pales in comparison to the effect of efforts to "blackball" academics who question the status quo within the archaeological community itself. Sometimes this is a none too subtle hint that speaking too strongly in favor of collectors is not good for one's career. Other times, there are more active "disciplinary measures" in the form of delays in processing excavation permits and the like.

Expressing one's opinion in negative terms on the Internet is one thing. Threatening an other's academic career is quite another. Such efforts to stifle debate within the archaeological community can only diminish any real hope for a workable compromise between the archaeological community and source countries on one hand and collectors and dealers on the other about the best way of protecting ancient artifacts. That is what is really wrong with the "status quo" in my opinion.

No comments: