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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Highway to Hell: Worth Reading

On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschultzgesetz. Raimund Karl, The Historic Environment Policy and Practice 2:2:111-133, 2011

Particularly if you’re a government employee and think yourself involved in “heritage management,” or if you’re an archaeological, historic preservation, or environmental activist thinking to promote better laws to protect the cultural environment, you need to read this excellent article. It’s about Austria, but the lessons it embodies are relevant to any country.

As Karl details, Austrian law includes a scheme under which people who find antiquities are required to report them to the National Heritage Agency Bundesdenkmalamt (BDA). The BDA is also responsible for licensing excavations for archaeological material, and under its current procedures (circa 1999) can issue licenses only to formally qualified archaeologists.

Giving a little thought to the matter, one might predict that this policy would drive artifact collecting underground (as it were). Karl rather elegantly demonstrates that this has precisely been the result. Collectors do not stop digging or collecting; they simply stop reporting, because to do so would be to pre-emptively admit to breaking the law. Karl’s paper features a comparison of finds reporting statistics from Austria with equivalent data from England and Wales – where the much more liberal Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is in effect, and from Scotland, whose policies are more like Austria’s. The results are impressive: reported finds have increased dramatically under the PAS, while they have remained flat or declined in Austria and Scotland; moreover the absolute number of reports in England and Wales, adjusted for land area and population – is vastly higher than in Austria since institution of that country’s restrictive policies. Karl also reports his research into the actual behavior and perceptions of metal detector-using collectors in Austria, which indicates that they are extremely active, have substantial collections, do not for the most part sell them, often keep excellent records, and would like to cooperate with archaeologists if they wouldn’t be thrown in the slammer for doing so. He also shows that most metal detectorists do not dig very deeply, instead collecting mostly from the plow zone – which is routinely scraped away by archaeologists as a first step in the conduct of controlled excavations! There seems to be a lot of room for cooperation between archaeologists and collectors in Austria, but as the law is currently construed, it can’t happen legally.

I feel sure that Austria is in no way unique in this regard. Certainly my informal experience with collectors in the U.S. suggests a similar conclusion about the potential for cooperation and its suppression by restrictive regulation.

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