Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Archaeological Blather Obscures Rational Approaches to Metal Detectors

The archaeological blogosphere has been filled with rather colorful denunciations of metal detecting in response to popular TV shows about the practice in both the US and the UK.

Though metal detecting has been widely popular since the 1970's, apparently some archaeologists still can't accept that reality or perhaps the fact that the devices make it easier for amateurs to encroach on their turf.

There is even some real question whether metal detecting really harms archaeology at all. In the UK at least, most metal detecting takes place on ploughed land, i.e., land where the archaeological context has already been disturbed. Second, though metal detectors are becoming more accurate, most metal detectorists still only excavate items found quite near the surface, i.e., an area that archaeologists would in any event likely dig through on their way to far "juicer" strata below.

The issue of metal detectors is also relevant to the State Department's process for imposing import restrictions on coins. Coins can typically only be found with metal detectors. This begs the question why we are imposing import restrictions on all coins of a given type coming here to the United States when it would be far more effective (and fair) to regulate metal detectors at the source. The CPIA is quite clear that self help measures like effective regulation of metal detectors should be tried first before import restrictions, but the State Department regularly reads this requirement out of the CPIA (as it does with most every other requirement).

What does effective regulation look like?

Look no further than Ireland, Scotland, Britain and Wales.

Ireland has banned the use of the metal detector, and critically it did so before the use of the metal detector took off in that country.

In contrast, Scotland has a common law system of treasure trove and Britain and Wales have statutory requirements of the Treasure Act along with the voluntary Portable Antiquities Scheme.

I much prefer these systems to that of Ireland as they encourage the discovery of coins that would otherwise never be found by archaeologists (who are limited in number and who are only interested in relatively few sites) their recordation into a database accessible to all (in Britain and Wales), and depending on the circumstances, their display in museums or their return to finders who can then sell them to collectors who will cherish them.

Yet, I must acknowledge that the Irish system is at least a coherent one.

And what does ineffective regulation look like?

Look no further than Cyprus and Bulgaria.

Each country has laws on the books that in theory at least limit the use of metal detectors, but in practice they are widely used, often right under the nose of the authorities.

In Cyprus, they even turn a blind eye to British tourists bringing them to the Island on holiday.

And to exacerbate the problem, both countries have few, if any incentives for metal detectorists to report their finds, or any coherent system to record them even if they were reported.

Yet, some archaeologists still hold up such countries as some sort of model.

And what of the United States? Here, our Constitution protects our liberty to exploit our own land, but you would not know that from the AIA's indictment of a popular show on Spike TV. I do think that historical artifacts should at least be recorded, but American archaeologists should work with American detectorists to create a system of voluntary recording, rather than making wild claims about their supposed "rights" to control what people do on their own land based upon their self-appointed status as stewards of the past.


kyri said...

"in cyprus they even turn a blind eye to british tourists taking them on holliday"
who told you this? this is not the case peter,they would get arrested as soon as they start detecting if seen.

Paul Barford said...

But do metal detectors write export licences? "the State Department's process for imposing import restrictions on coins" applies to those without documentation of legal EXPORT, not digging up. Why can you and your fellows not accept this fairly simple distinction?

The 1970 Convention is on the "Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property". There are other international documents about the digging up of antiquities, aren't there? Delhi 1956, London 1969, Valetta 1992.

Cultural Property Observer said...

For Mr. Barford, see 19 USC section 2602 (c) (ii).

For Kyri, see what Robert Korver said at the CPRI seminar on Capitol Hill, and see if you still think that. You can find it on their website.

Cultural Property Observer said...

For Mr. Barford, sorry, the correct citation is 19 USC Section (a)(1)(C) (ii).

Paul Barford said...

19USC 2602 refers to "AGREEMENTS TO IMPLEMENT ARTICLE 9 OF THE CONVENTION" which is about import and export of cultural property, not about controls over the manner in which culture criminals get their hands on it. The Convention is about the "Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property".

Re Cyprus and Korver: It is not the possession of metal detectors that is illegal, but certain activities involving their use. They are legitimately used by builders (to seek hidden cables and pipes under plaster and concrete paths), can be used for a whole range of recreational activities which do not involve breaking heritage laws. There is no reason why anyone should confiscate a MACHINE at point of entry, any more than a spade or archaeological guidebook.

So what you are saying is that there should be one set of procedures for the brown skinned people over the other side of the sea, but collaboration of US archaeologists with the ones over in the US? Who do you propose should pay for this US recording and maintenance of the records? From which budgets do you propose setting aside (what by PAS standards would amount to) several million dollars annually - and why? Why not just "regulate" them in the same way as the Greeks, Bulgarians and all the others? Because they are on private property? So where do you think Europeans do their detecting, in the sky? No-man's land? How many areas of Europe do you imagine, after thousands of years of human settlement, have no owners?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Mr. Barford- You really are impossible, with your changing of the subject and your allegations of racism, which of course really don't stick, particularly when we are talking about Cypriots and Bulgarians-- are they the "brown skin people" you are talking about?

As my initial post indicated, self help with metal detectors should be a prerequisite before a country asks the US to impose import restrictions on its behalf with respect to coins.

As for Cyprus and Korver, its a bit unrealistic to invite people to use their metal detectors, but then expect them to turn over what they find to the state with no realistic hope for a fair market award.

As for the situtation in the US, a university setting up a program that encourages recording artifacts that are found would be a positive step, compared to all the griping from the AIA about what people do on their own property. Perhaps the EU will offer a grant for that; it would be a better use of money than to use it for a study by academics with an axe to grind against collectors.

In any event, you've had your say on this post, and I will publish no more from you.

Voz Earl said...


This may be off topic, but having just read Korver's Celator article from last year I have the following question: Are there any "pro-collector" members left in CPAC and do you see any potential for a boycott? In other words, how bad would things need to get before even museum types would refuse to serve on the committee?

Voz Earl

Cultural Property Observer said...

Rather than heed the concerns raised by Mr. Korver and others at the CPRI Open Forum on Capitol Hill, the State Department has instead ensured that CPAC is now packed with archaeological supporters-- including in slots meant to represent other interest groups.

Prof. Gerstenblith, the current Chair, is a well respected academic, but she certainly has an extreme archaeological view, that shows which direction the Committee has now been put on.

I guess the State Department's thinking was that CPAC was a bit too independent previously and had to be brought in line with the State Department's prejudged view that everything and anything must be restricted.

Dave Welsh said...

I would agree with Peter's comment regarding the appointment of Patti Gerstenblith.

I did not, and still do not, regard her appointment as being well judged, consistent with the purpose of the CPAC, or consistent with the intent of Congress in creating that organization.

My opinion of this appointment is not directed toward the principles of any individual. I believe that Patti Gerstenblith has every right to hold her principles and to advocate them in every manner consistent with law and ethics.

Now we get to the really thorny and difficult part of the matter: is this appointment itself consistent with law and ethics?

I have exactly the same right of opinion that Patti Gerstenblith does, and my answer is that the manner in which the Cultural Heritage Center is being managed is not consistent with law or ethics. There are very solid grounds for this opinion in the historical and legislative record.

Now we arrive at a thorny question: should a moral, ethical individual such as Patti Gerstenblith accept appointment to such a position under circumstances in which there is significant controversy as to the propriety of the appointment in the context in which it was made?

If, as the pro-collecting advocacy alleges, the CPAC has been turned into a venue for carrying on a campaign against "looting" according to the unproven and logically indefensible theory that the existence of a free market supplying collectors encourages "looting," was the appointment itself ethical?

My own answer to that is that an appointment to a position whose activities clearly contravene the intent of Congress in enacting the authorizing legislation, and whose proceedings are being carried on in a manner inconsistent with fundamental principles of our democracy, can be criticized as being inherently unethical. That criticism has nothing to do with the appointee, rather it is directed toward those involved in managing the process over which the appointee presides.

Now we arrive at a really thorny question: should a moral, ethical individual accept such an appointment? Or does the acceptance of that appointment become involvement in and endorsement of the manner in which the process itself is managed?

In my view there is no such thing as innocent acceptance of such a position. Whoever does so cannot escape involvement in and endorsement of the manner in which the process itself is managed.

That perspective has led two past CPAC chairpersons to reign in protest over the manner in which the process is managed. I share their views.

My own perspective is that "working from within" in the hope of ameliorating an indefensible process inherently involves accepting reponsibility for the management of that process.

There is a definitive precedent establishing that responsibility in international law, however its citation in a forum such as this would require a fundamental understanding that the principle involved has nothing to do with the personalities, the process, or the circumstances involved or what the process led to.

In the case definitively establishing that precedent, the personalities, the process and the circumstances were such that that the required understanding does not and will never exist, and I therefore cannot venture to cite details of the case without provoking a firestorm. The precedent however still stands and governs the law, and if anyone feels a need to examine it from a dispassionate legal perspective I will help that individual to do so via private communication.

The general issue in this case was that personal innocence of intent and obedience to orders do not excuse or mitigate involvement in an indefensible process. Any action taken in the furtherance of an indefensible process inherently becomes culpable.

Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner