Articles to 2020-10-03

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First the link to this week’s complete list as HTML and as PDF.


To be able to deal with a crisis effectively you must first understand what exactly is going on. Thomas et al. confirm what I’ve long said: National or other amalgamated statistics are a mixture of entirely different trends and hide the most important parts. Acting locally will also ameliorate the most important side effects.


Thomas & Pitblado et al. take another stab at untangling the relationship of heritage, science, collectors, looting, and destruction. Unfortunately they too miss the obvious. When they write “they do so to make money, to launder money or to engage in other nefarious activities” they entirely fail to ask where that money driving the perpetrators comes from.

Rich collectors want to own beautiful things. It has always been such. The whole pursuit of science goes back to the curiosity cabinets of the landed gentry.

Collectors too prefer a provenanced item with a story to tell to some beautiful but anonymous bauble. Today, once archaeologists get their hand on a find or a site, it is lost to them. How did Howard Carter get financed in Egypt? Today’s Lord Carnarvons are forcibly driven to the looters. They despise them, just like everybody else, but nobody else out there is left to cater for their desires.

The interests being so entirely complementary – once it is fully examined, described, and published an archaeologist has little interest in the find itself and only wants some museum storage to take it off his hands – collectors and archaeologists could be the ideal symbionts. Unfortunately today’s archaeologists are all cogs in an arrogant and ruthless administration apparatus with all the power of the state behind them (or not as the case may be) and little interest in forging outside alliances.

What few people realize is that archaeologists’ finds definitely do not “go to a museum”, not in the sense most would understand the term. Where they do go is into magazines and warehouses, quite often under bad or at least suboptimal conditions detrimental to their preservation.

Although this is definitely not what editors seek out and like to print, I have seen several instances in the peer reviewed press, hidden in articles as an aside, where scientists went to reexamine long published finds and all they could find was either an unlabeled mixup or a small heap of dust. On the other hand all those who ask are usually full of praise for the help and assistance they received from collectors open to share their treasures. The example I remember best is Svante Pääbo’s autobiography and how he was spurned by all museums when asking for tiny bits of their specimens.

As Kersel puts it: “For the most part, they do not want to break laws and, like stewards, they love to speak with archaeologists about the artefacts in their possession.”. Watkins makes the correct observation but fails to take the conclusion from it: “As archaeologists, we teach our students that it is archaeological context rather than the object itself that has value. If (and this is a very big ‘if’) we can effectively communicate that point more widely, we stand a good chance of being able to create strong working relationships with a wider array of people whom we can trust—not just collectors but the general public as well.”

When Lord Elgin arrived at the Acropolis the locals were busy collecting marbles for their lime burning kilns. A friend, who is a collector himself, keeps telling me about the museum in Athens where the remaining original reliefs stand side by side with copies from London. While the former are weathered down to total unrecognizability, the latter shine in pristine beauty. Only the rich collector has the will and the means to preserve these things. In the long run the already squeezed and overburdened tax payer will turn to other, more pressing interests.

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