Monday, March 10, 2014

Exceptions or Rules and Prevailing Trends in Archaeology?

Archaeo-blogger Nathan Elkins has accused CPO of "intellectual dishonesty" for questioning the assumption that archaeologists promptly and  carefully excavate and record everything of significance at their digs.

According to Elkins,

"The point is, Tompa, that you paint exceptions, some true and some anecdotal, as rules and prevailing trends. That's what we call intellectually dishonest. Try a broader perspective for once."

But poor professional practices are important to consider when archaeological fanatics like Elkins, David Gill and Paul Barford regularly attack the Treasure Act and PAS because they allegedly encourage "unscientific excavations" by amateurs wielding metal detectors.

And what of recent news of significant Viking and Egyptian finds not from the field but from storerooms where the artifacts in question had lain for a century or more?  Or information that coins from Roman contexts excavated over a century ago are still awaiting proper publication and study?

Are these exceptions or rules and prevailing trends?  And if the latter, perhaps reports under the Treasure Act or PAS are more "scientific" than stale information dug up a century or more ago by trained archaeologists. They are certainly more timely.


Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur Houghton asked CPO to add the following comment:

"Peter, there is more to the story than excavating and recording. The dirty secret of archaeology has always been failure to publish. Money goes to excavating and recording, and I have no doubt that responsible archaeologists do their best to act responsibly in this regard, but by comparison negligible resources are made available for the publication of finds, and many publications are both inadequate and late. It is and should be a matter of shame that across the world of archaeology, excavation storehouses are filled with material that has in many cases still not been photographed (in the digital age, too!), is not broadly known even to other scholars, and remains without examination or analysis of any kind. And the digging goes on. Some countries have begun to demand timely publication as a condition of their granting excavation permits, forcing archaeologists to divert attention and resources away from the fun of excavating to the un-fun, often tedious, but essential business of publication. As you know, some of your most strident critics are distinguished by their lack of publication (or undistinguished as a result of it). If you want to know who, go to Academia,edu and try to find what they have done. Not much, to be sure, and they are to be held in low esteem until they do. They should wake up, stop whining, and do something useful.

Warm regards,


Cultural Property Observer said...

I note Mr. Elkins now suggests he is in fact a supporter of the PAS/Treasure Act. If so, he should explain this post:

But leaving that aside, if he is a supporter good for him; CPO submits that if it were honestly tried in places like Bulgaria or Cyprus much of the mutual hostility between archaeologists and collectors and metal detectorists would be abated and we would know much more about coin finds in such countries.

John H said...

Oh indeed, as Arthur Houghton says, the dirty secret really is the 'failure to publish.'

The Middle East hemorrhages ceramics (mostly) which if reports are to be believed, adequate recording, post-excavations, and reports generally, are a good deal rarer than rocking-horse dung.

Though I don't have any specifics, I have a recollection of someone from Warsaw, Poland, 'holidaying' in Egypt (whose name escapes me for the moment) who helped catalog the contents of an antiquities storeroom down Deir El-Bahari way.

Mr Elkins (who he?) will be ecstatic to know a PAS-style system is gathering pace in the US and attracting financial backers.


John Howland

Paul Barford said...

Yes, many of the 800 or so items reported under the Treasure Act in England and Wales never get a proper monographic report with detailed analyses - just a brief interim mention in a Treasure report and nothing else. This is one of the big failures of the British system for dealing with archaeological material found by members of the public as a result of searching with a metal detector that is not discussed.

Maybe Cultural Property Observer would like to explore this issue? For example asking about the location of the full report of some of the major hoard finds made in (say) 2004, a decade ago. I am sure Roger Bland would be happy to provide a bibliography in response to a request from the public.

How can we improve this situation instead of just moaning about it?

Cultural Property Observer said...

For Mr. Barford, I've seen far more detailed reports on some of the larger hoards like Stratfordshire. But most of the material that is found is not of real cultural significance so a lsiting in the report and on-line is probably quite enough-- and as I've pointed out before it's much more than happens in countries like Cyprus, Greece etc. which don't have a similar system.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Sorry, of course I meant Staffordshire.

Paul Barford said...

I really do not see how you can say that the items the ownership of which is vested in the State by the Treasure Act are "not of real cultural significance" because it is precisely on such grounds that they are acquired and the reward paid. No, a summary "listing in the [Treasure] report and online" is not enough.

Your own organization (ACCG) goes on and on about die link studies, so all these hoards of coins on which such studies should be undertaken, where are those studies? Here's a list of just the hoards:

I really do doubt you have seen a proper report for the Staffordshire Hoard, since it is still being cleaned and reassembled (see today's Guardian newspaper). If we compare it with what the BM did for the fewer pieces from Sutton Hoo, we are talking potentially about a massive publication and major research effort, and who pays for it?

Cultural Property Observer said...

I note you must be conceding that things reported under the PAS are not typically of cultural significance (there are of course though some exceptions like that famous helmet). As for items declared treasure, I'm not sure its always the case they are of cultural significance-- it may be that a local museum just wants something to display. For coins, I'm not sure that more than a listing with information about how and where they were found is necessary in most cases.

The problem I am having is that you want to impose on PAS and the Treasure Act publication requirements well beyond those practiced at most archaeological sites (see Arthur Houghton's comments above).

Let's be happy with the great information we do get under the PAS and Treasure Act, which is I think you have to concede well beyond what we know about coin finds in places like Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and Italy.

Paul Barford said...

"I note you must be conceding that things reported under the PAS are not typically of cultural significance "
No, you are twisting my words, I am writing above specifically (as were you) about the Treasure Act. Why do you do this? Can we not focus on one issue instead of jumping around like a butterfly from one thing to another?

" For coins..."
So die link studies are (now) not actually as important as when collectors are using this technique to justify their own no-questions buying? How come?

Yes, Mr Houghton is right, excavation permits with conditions are the answer to unpublished excavations. And I wonder whether he sees the same thing appropriate for artefact hunters in countries like the UK where it is allowed, stipulating what has to be reported and in what form, and what is to happen to the recovered material?

Cultural Property Observer said...

My original blog was about both PAS and the Treasure Act.

Die studies are great, but not sure why they should be a Treasure Act or PAS requirement as they are very time consuming and rely upon finds of the exact same coin type or related types sharing obverses or reverses.

The Treasure Act already stipulates what happens for material that is covered. It goes to the State if they want it and are willing to pay for it and it is remitted to the finder to do as he pleases if not (after being properly recorded).

Cultural Property Observer said...

More for Mr. Barford given his latest blog post:

You are talking apples and oranges. Die studies are done using large groups of coins (often unprovenanced) of an identical type or where the obverse or reverse are the same. Hoards can, but don't typically contain the exact same coin types, indeed they often contain diverse types from different mints and geographical locations.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Arthur Houghton asked me to post this:

"Peter it is appalling, if unsurprising, how little your correspondent knows. He pounces upon numismatic scholarship like an amateur and wriggles and turns on the hook when it comes to the performance of archaeology in exposing without publication. At least he agrees there is an issue, and at least he agrees that conditions should be attached to excavations. I note that he is said to have 'helped" with the "cataloguing" of an antiquities storeroom. But what does that mean? Perhaps he should speak not of "cataloguing" but show us the publication, with his name attached as would be expected of any scholar.
Shame on those professional scholars who do not publish, but who take their time (and God help us, demand ours!) ranting about what others should do when they do so little themselves.

Warm regards and again thanks for your contribution.