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coins in handDeconstructing some false claims by US Coin dealers and others….

We were struck by an article penned by David Welsh, a prominent US coin dealer who we understand buys and sells (inter alia) artefacts plucked fresh from the soil of Britain. He is the proprietor of Classical Coins, an online store selling ancient coins and describes himself as “well known as a collectors’ rights activist”….

Yes, US dealers and collectors assert they have rights, just like their British metal detectorist suppliers and, since their whole raison d’être is to acquire artefacts from all over the world provided they are “licit” according their own less-than-rigorous checking criteria, this assertion of rights inescapably includes an assumed right to affect the fate of the British archaeological resource. And that of everywhere else in the world of course. Even in those countries where both digging up and exporting antiquities is entirely forbidden. After all, if a seller says an article that might be from Baghdad is from Bognor or an article that might be looted is not looted what is a dealer to do? Simple! Not buy it unless he’s sure it is licit says the Portable Antiquities Scheme in its advice to buyers (else, they clearly imply, the buyer would be aiding and encouraging the process of looting and destroying the past). “No”, announced Mr Welsh recently to British archaeologists on the main Britarch archaeology discussion list. Such advice is “naive and unrealistic.” US law and the US dealers’ own self-written code of ethics (known in some quarters as the Loophole Lore) are ALL he feels obliged to follow. And on this basis alone he offers his items for sale on his website- “Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Persian coins for collectors. Authenticity and Satisfaction Guaranteed.” !

After all (Mr Welsh is clearly saying), you have to be realistic about these things, a man must make a crust, doesn’t the Portable Antiquities realise that? Telling him he ought to be sure he doesn’t sell illicit items would mean…. ummmm… he could sell far fewer items! And that’s NOT going to happen, Mr Welsh has announced it publicly to British archaeologists!

Thus, the great antiquities conveyor belt leading from soil to salon (of which Mr Welsh could hardly deny he is an efficient and pivotal part) rolls on, lubricated at every stage by money, subject to enthusiastic checking systems regarding monetary value throughout its length yet totally devoid of a commensurately enthusiastic or comprehensive checking system regarding whether objects are licit or whether they are part of a process of damage to the past. The world’s looters loot and say nothing. British metal detectorists detect, mostly don’t report what they find and declare “It’s legal innit?” and US dealers deal and tell their collector clients and British archaeologists that “if it’s allowed under US law plus if I alone say its fine then it’s fine, you can be sure, and my conscious is clear”. And everyone makes money. Which of these groups, one might ask, are the greatest moral philosophers? And is not the size and speed of the conveyor belt testament to the fact there’s actually no room for moral philosophy, when there’s money to be made?

There is room for words though, since we are dealing with humans. For who would make money out of what they do without attempting to deny it was profoundly wrong? Thus in his article Mr Welsh asks, with all apparent seriousness: “Who has authorised archaeologists to own the past?” giving the impression he actually believes such a thing has happened and that we should too and, by implication, suggesting that therefore he himself is entitled to own the past and trade it to the highest bidder.

To us, the answer to his silly question is so glaringly obvious we can’t resist supplying it: no-one has, for they don’t! The past is the past of us all, communally created and therefore indisputably communally owned. It follows, beyond reasonable denial, that no single group, whether collectors, looters, metal detectorists or archaeologists can lay claim to what everyone owns.

Of course, individual objects can have owners, people can buy or inherit coins and artefacts – or find them in the ground and persuade the landowner to cede ownership – or steal them and thus acquire illicit ownership. But none of these objects, however acquired, is “the past”. Our past is embodied not in objects but in the knowledge of the past that comes from them or their surroundings. The past can neither be touched nor traded nor held in a hand nor placed in a display case, either private or public. The past is purely cerebral and cannot therefore be “owned” by an individual through acquiring an artefact. Let us not hold our breath for the money-making moral philosophers to deny that!

Nor for them to deny the sad corollary – that even though no-one can own the past they can and do destroy it – by acquiring an object and failing to ensure that all of its associated knowledge is delivered to the public. Hand on heart Mr Welsh, by following only your self-written code of buying ethics and refusing to agree with the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s advice to buy only if you are sure you and your colleagues must have unwittingly been party to destroying quite a lot of the past.

Mustn’t you?

So Mr Welsh, you’ll now understand why we’re not at all surprised when you say “I have never really identified the ultimate source upon which archaeologists base that moral authority which they believe that they possess over ancient artifacts” because, quite apart from the fact no archaeologist ever claims such a thing, no such moral authority could ever be available for them to claim. The public could not, would not and has not renounced it’s ownership of its past to anyone. For archaeologists to claim that they had they would need to misunderstand or deny the fundamental nature of the past and the public’s absolute ownership of it. In other words, they would need to be actually (or cynically pretend to be) obtuse as well as profoundly self-serving and selfish.

They are not that, Mr Welsh. Archaeology is all about obtaining maximum knowledge from physical remains. You must have noticed that’s the central obsession of Archaeology and all archaeologists. They are primarily and overwhelmingly after the knowledge of the past, not just the physical remains, however much they glint, and they are perfectly well aware that unlike the physical objects that you buy and sell for money that knowledge cannot be individually owned by them or anyone else.

Some people believe or claim otherwise. Thousands of British metal detectorists revel in the “thrill” of holding a piece of the past in their hand, wretchedly ignorant of the fact that they certainly don’t and that the past is abstract and will inevitably have been diminished if the knowledge surrounding the object is not fully shared. Some thrill! To commit witting or unwitting historycide! Selling this invalid thrill is also the main activity of the antiquities dealer. “I can sell you a piece of Britain’s past that you can hold in your hand” is naive at best and always an untruth. How ironic that the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s advice to not buy unless you are sure an object is licit should be described as naive when the very basis of antiquities dealing is the sale of a fictitious concept and an utterly naive view which confuses physical rights of ownership with the public’s right to know about it’s past!

Some scrabble for the former at the expense of the latter. Some dig up objects and don’t share the knowledge. Some buy objects and don’t put in one tenth of the effort that they should into ensuring that the knowledge has been shared. And some seek to cover their behaviour by saying “archaeologists are as bad as us.”

Sorry Mr Welsh. They aren’t. And saying they are reflects not on them but on those who say it.

This has been a message to you not from archaeologists who you constantly demonise but from some ordinary British people who object to the careless attitude that you and any of your fellows in the States that are like-minded take towards our communal archaeological resource.


February 2009

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