Monday, April 7, 2014

Do More Restrictions Equate with Fewer Archaeological Discoveries?

Yes, according to what will surely be an unpopular study with those in the archaeological community who equate conservation with control.

According to the author of the  study,

In country after country, empirical data show that when rigid cultural property laws are put in place, major archaeological excavations and discoveries slow markedly, making source countries — and the world at large — culturally poorer.

I surveyed 90 countries with one or more archaeological sites on UNESCO's World Heritage Site list, and my study shows that in most cases the number of discovered sites diminishes sharply after a country passes a cultural property law. There are 222 archaeological sites listed for those 90 countries. When you look into the history of the sites, you see that all but 21 were discovered before the passage of cultural property laws.

On average in art-rich countries, discoveries that landed on UNESCO's list diminished by 90% after these laws were passed. To illustrate: Italy has seven archaeological sites on the World Heritage list; five were discovered before its 1909 cultural property law, but only two after.

Many variables may cause a drop-off in archaeological discoveries country by country, but statistically speaking, it's nearly impossible that the decline shown in the data isn't also related to the passage of cultural property laws.

Addendum (4/8/14):  As anticipated, the long knives are out in the archaeological blogosphere, particularly from those whose careers depend on pushing an anti-collector agenda.  Of course, holes can be poked in any study, but in the end it does raise an interesting point that deserves further attention:  Do strict laws that only allow state sponsored archaeologists and cultural bureaucrats legal access to uncovering the past actually diminish discoveries?    I suspect the answer is yes.  Monopolies have never been good in any field.  Why not instead empower all who care for the past as they do in the UK with its Treasure Act and PAS?


Paul Barford said...

This is a joke poking fun at neocolonialist attitudes, right?

Cultural Property Observer said...

I'm sure not, but I assume we will hear your thoughts about it further.

It does seem however that all the noise about the need to protect archaeological context may really be just covering up severe underperformance issues.

John H said...

This report coming hard on the heels of the stockpiling of the unclassified artifacts scandal in Northern Ireland, which by the way, the influential Mr Barford is a noted cultural crusader says is widespread in British museums, seems to point to yet more severe under-performance issues,even negligence.

Whether the upcoming report lampoons neo-colonialist attitudes as Mr Barford suggests is hard to fathom. On balance though -- and with the greatest respect to this academic colossus -- he's becoming hysterical at the exposure of a long held truth.

When one considers the number of archaeologists in the heritology circus who are private collectors -- ceramic oil-lamps being popular items as hedges against inflation and antique Japanese prints another -- then draconian cultural property laws more than hint at keeping collectibles available for a select, well-connected, elite.

UNESCO corruption? Obviously collectors don't hold the monopoly of the cultural villainy.


John Howland

Paul Barford said...

Mr Howland, could you explain to which "upcoming report" you are referring?

What evidence of "under-performance" does it in fact point to?

I think the only question here is why a text in such a form got past the usually astute eye of a LA Times editor.

It is interesting to "observe" what others, including US commentator are saying about this. Of course it could be a cover-up I suppose...

Cultural Property Observer said...

The study has actually already been published and already is the subject of some discussion in the archaeological blogosphere.

Paul Barford said...

"already is the subject of some discussion in the archaeological blogosphere. "

and you are right, it's not very "popular" there, in fact you and Mr Howland seem to be the only ones who think it has any kind of validity. Go for it, both of you accuse Dr Donna Yates and Dr Tessa Davis of not knowing what they're talking about and part of a cover-up desperate to avoid "exposure of a long held truth", I dare you.

Cultural Property Observer said...

They know what they are talking about, but they also both obviously have an axe to grind. Therein lies the problem. It's to be expected the long knives are out on a study like this from those whose careers depend on pushing an anti-collector agenda. i'm sure anyone with the level of knowledge they have could poke holes in it like any such study, but it does make an interesting point worth exploring further.

Of course, there are more archaeological sites than World Heritage sites, but his thesis corresponds with the common sense view that restrictive laws discourage the public from reporting finds and the end of partage has been a disincentive to foreign museums investing in finding new sites.

John H said...

Forgive me Mr Barford: I have apparently seriously over-estimated your level of understanding. I'm certainly not leading you by the hand through the cultural mire.

I note you side-stepped the greater question of possible corruption within UNESCO.

If you are unaware of the "under-performance" issues, or to what they refer, then you ain't quite as sharp as I imagine.

Best regards

John Howland

Anonymous said...

Peter, I think you misunderstand what my career depends on :) I just need to publish academically sound research results, no matter what those research results are, as long as they are supportable. But that is beside the point.

I agree that *IS* an interesting question and it should be explored through solid research and robust methodologies. I want to see the results! I don't agree with you on what I think they will be, but that is only think. Let's have someone bring that study on!

The problem is that, to put it mildly, this man's 'research' is a mess. His data filled with flaws (wrong dates of first preservation law, wrong destinations of known vs discovered sites) and he has some misunderstanding of basic stats. Also his question isn't asked in a way that will produce the answer that he wants. It is just simply poorly done with unusable "results".

I very recently peer reviewed a paper or a major journal that, broadly speaking, agreed with my 'stance' on the antiquities trade. However, the paper was filled with errors and methodological problems. I just couldn't believe their numbers or their conclusions so I rejected it outright. I don't want disinformation out there muddying up the waters, if if it supports my views.

I think we are all in agreement here on at least the one point: this author's paper is unusable for any purpose. If he had merely raised questions or even speculated, that would be one thing, but he claimed the weight of solid empirical data which he just doesn't have. Supporting his blatherings doesn't help either side of this debate.

Anonymous said...

I must say I feel quite sorry for this fellow. I am sure he didn't expect to be brought through the wringer. However, this is why academic peer-review exists: experts per-evaluate the validity of your research methodology and the logical consistency of your analysis before you go public with it. It keeps one from looking like a fool.

Wallwork cut the corner and this is where he has ended up. His peer review is happening publicly.

Thinking about it: Peter I have a result of stats analysis in a paper that I am working on that you will quite like. You probably won't like my discussion of the result, but the numbers will be out for all of us to use and interpret! No spoilers though: I have to have it peer reviewed first!

Cultural Property Observer said...

Donna, my apologies for my perhaps overly colorful references to "long knives" and "anti-collector agendas." Your comments to the LA Times opinion piece were quite polite.

I agree with you there are problems with the author's approach and it will interesting to see what you come up with in your own work.

Another idea for you perhaps to consider. There have been references to PAS and the Treasure Act leading to the discovery of otherwise unknown archaeological sites. It would be interesting to quantify the number and then compare that if possible to ways archaeological sites have been located in the UK and perhaps a few other countries with restrictive laws, say Greece and Italy.

Don't know if its possible, but that might make for an interesting study.

Anonymous said...

I think I was a bit harsh in my first comment actually. I regret that but the LATimes doesn't allow edits. I prefer to politely disagree with people, but I felt someone needed to point out the methodology issues with his work and quick. I don't want anyone citing that paper as sound!

Hmm! That is getting towards something that a methodology could be constructed around. On the most basic level, the comparison would be between broadly comparable types of sites, not World Heritage Sites compared to tiny, non-spectacular places. A 'before and after' PAS might even be possible...but now that gets far out of my comfort zone.

I wonder what would be possible for Latin America along these lines. Perhaps site reporting before and after the intro of major local heritage legislation. The problem I foresee is that there may have been nearly no government site recording before the legislation came into effect leaving an 'after' but no 'before'.

That said, Bolivia is creeping up on passing a new big heritage law. I'll certainly be doing some before/after work of some kind on it. I will keep this discussion in mind!

Cultural Property Observer said...

Donna, thanks. Interestingly, it looks like the BM is working on a project along the lines I was thinking, but with no comparative element: