Good collector finds bad feeling

Public Archaeology
October 26, 2001

Do not imagine that this new journal with its innocuous title is simply about how archaeological research is made accessible to the public, or how archaeology should be "conducted or conserved for the general good by public authority". That is how its editor, Neal Ascherson, describes "public archaeology" before the term exploded during the past two decades to include the social and political responsibilities of those who claim to recover, manage and educate others about the past. Ascherson defines the ground in his first editorial: public archaeology is about the problems that arise when archaeology moves into the real world of economic conflict and political struggle. In other words, it is about ethics. He lists some of its concerns: the sale of unprovenanced and frequently looted artefacts, the symbiosis between the emergence of nationalism and the profession of archaeology, the privatisation of the profession, the representation of archaeology in the media, the ethical dilemmas posed by historical theme parks and re-enactments of the past and so on.

As Ascherson notes, archaeologists themselves talk obsessively about these matters. The social and political implications of their work have been a consistent and often dominant theme at the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in the United Kingdom and have been prominent at the four World Archaeology Congresses since 1986.

The discipline has, however, lacked a home for published debate. Public Archaeology seeks to provide that home. It is designed to reach beyond the core archaeological community to heritage managers, politicians, lawyers, tourism executives and commercial developers. All are invited not just to study its contents but to submit their own views.

This is, therefore, that rare thing - a new journal that fills a niche. The early issues are terrific; reading them has provided an excellent overview of the complex issues that public archaeology entails, presented in a series of high-quality editorials, articles, forum discussions and reviews. Layout is neat and traditional, there are useful biographic summaries of the authors and a concluding diary that lists forthcoming events. My only niggle is that I found several minor errors that should have been corrected: an error in a contents list, a couple of incorrect names in reviews and incorrect page numbers in a reference list.

Contributors do not mince their words. The first issue alone contains three contributions that provoke replies in later issues, one claiming "ignorance", another "dismissive polemic" by the original authors - who happen to be the editor of the journal and its regional editor for the United States. The latter is Francis McManamon, who made an impassioned plea for professional archaeologists to engage in "public outreach". He was roundly taken to task by Cornelius Holtorf (one of the editorial board) for being prescriptive and for proposing that non-archaeologists should be indoctrinated with one view of the past, that of the professional archaeologist. McManamon replies, claiming misinterpretation of his article.

Ascherson, on reviewing the displays in the new Museum of Scotland, questioned whether David Clarke, the museum's head of exhibitions, had been right to adopt a "nervously anti-nationalist approach" by displaying objects without an accompanying narrative of "Scotland's story" when the opening of the museum had all but coincided with that of the new Scottish Parliament. Clarke defends himself robustly.

Both of these exchanges are informative, but are overshadowed by the forum discussion of whether there could be such a thing as a "good collector" of antiquities. This was engineered by Ascherson who invited Susan McIntosh to make the case, after he heard her doing so in conversation at a dinner during the 1999 World Archaeology Congress in Cape Town. The central issue is the trade in illicit or unprovenanced antiquities, and how this can be stemmed. McIntosh argues that archaeologists have failed to recognise that there can be good collectors who "collect for the love of the culture they collect and who wish to use some of the benefits they have received from their collecting activities to further knowledge of the culture". Rarely have I read an article of such naivety. Colin Renfrew responds in the only appropriate fashion by stating that so far as illicit antiquities are concerned, the only "good collector is an ex-collector". He denounces institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, that sanctify collectors of unprovenanced antiquities by promoting exhibitions of such artefacts. In her response, McIntosh claims that the lambasting she received from Renfrew was undeserved and that she really is in complete agreement with him. I too would have shrivelled under his onslaught. The debate continues with contributions from Steven Vincent, correspondent of Art and Auction journal, and James Ede, a director of a firm of London dealers in ancient art. Both are at best complacent, at worst purely self-interested, proposing that the only solution is further to develop the market in antiquities.

Ascherson also contributes. In an editorial, he reports on the outrage from American archaeologists and heritage managers when the collector Shelby White was appointed to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in the US in the summer of 2000. He goes on, like the good journalist he is, to note that the "campaign records show" White paid large sums into the election chest of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was White's sponsor for that position.

I greatly enjoyed these exchanges, and hope that such robust dialogue continues as a key element of the journal. They complement the main articles that have already addressed many key issues in public archaeology and lived up to the international claims of the journal.

Three articles have examined the relationship between archaeology, politics and nationalism in Europe. Przemyslaw Urbanczyk provides a fascinating argument about the development of Polish archaeology in the postwar years. He claims that a coincidence of interests between archaeologists and the communist state allowed archaeologists to work without compromising their professional values or unduly exploiting the system. Ulrike Sommer explores the relationship between archaeology and the evolution of regional identity in Saxony from the early 19th century to the modern day, while Oliver Gilkes and Lida Miraj examine the Italian archaeological mission to Albania in 1924-43.

Current practices in archaeology are represented by four articles, all of considerable interest. Two are concerned with excavation and provide a platform for voices that might not otherwise be heard in an international journal. Neil Faulkner has a tirade against what he calls the BPT in British archaeology - the bureaucratic professional tendency, by which he means the attempts to impose standardised fieldwork methods, the requirement to develop project designs, and the scheduling procedures of English Heritage. The BPT, he claims, works to exclude non-professionals from participating in archaeological work. He likens English Heritage to a Stalinist regime. He writes as director of a community archaeological project, run as an exercise in "democratic archaeology". Many archaeologists will sympathise with some of his arguments as bureaucracy is indeed rife within the discipline. Unfortunately, Faulkner's solution is one of anarchy: the total removal of English Heritage's scheduling and preservation policy, the removal of centrally imposed standards of fieldwork, the provision of official funds to "independent" archaeologists - which in many cases will mean very bad collectors indeed.

Community involvement in archaeology is also the theme of an article by Judith Field and her colleagues working at Cuddie Springs, New South Wales, one of the most important Pleistocene sites in Australia. The article explains how effective cooperation has been achieved between archaeologists and the local community. It also presents Aboriginal views about the archaeological work.

Two articles deal with conservation: one with that of the Temple of the Tooth relic, the most sacred Buddhist site in Sri Lanka, after it was bombed in January 1998 by Tamil terrorists, and one about Norwegian rock art. The former, by Gamini Wijesuriya, is a fascinating case study of the challenge that restoration presents: how conservators worked with the two high priests of the temple and its lay guardian; the role of the media and government; the dilemmas posed by the limited supply of skilled craftsmen and timber in Sri Lanka; and the nature of authenticity. Eva Walderhaug Saetersdal takes the problems posed by the weathering and deterioration of Norwegian rock art as a case study on which to base a general commentary about the ethics, politics and practices in rock art conservation. She feels that the absence of indigenous societies in Norway claiming direct descent from the makers of its rock art, in contrast with Australia or South Africa, has prevented reflection as to how research on Norwegian rock art should be practised. I suspect that many others are relieved that they can study Norway's rock art without the ethical dilemmas that would otherwise exist.

Themes raised in these articles are formally addressed in a striking piece by Patrick O'Keefe on archaeology and human rights. Written by a distinguished specialist in heritage law and management, this is in essence a warning to archaeologists about the simmering clash between property rights and cultural rights over access to the material remains of the past.

I have referred to most of the main articles editorials, reviews and forum discussions in the first three issues simply because they all deserved to be mentioned. As individual pieces that are consistently worthy of publication and are joined by a suite of excellent reviews of exhibitions, books and the World Archaeological Congress of 1999. Together they make Public Archaeology a significant development. It deserves to be immediately recognised as a key journal for the discipline.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, University of Reading.

Public Archaeology

Editor - Neal Ascherson
ISBN - ISSN: 1465 5187
Publisher - James and James (four times a year, www.jxj.com)
Price - £30.00 (individuals) £60.00 (institutions)

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