Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Knee-Jerk Anti-Liberal

There is a great hue and cry echoing around American archaeology these days over two new TV shows – “American Digger” on Spike TV and “Diggers” on the National Geographic Channel. Both supposedly glorify and encourage metal detecting and digging up antiquities, so we are encouraged, vigorously, by our various professional and semi-professional societies to rise up in righteous wrath and smite their producers and sponsors with petitions, nasty letters, and other expressions of our fury.

I have demurred, suggesting that perhaps people are going a bit overboard. I’ve also expressed some bemusement with the fact that some of the people taking the greatest umbrage at the “Digger” shows are the very contract archaeologists who make their livings helping clients use archaeology to run roughshod over the interests of descendant communities.

One response I’ve received to my objections is from a much-respected Canadian colleague, who writes:

C'mon, Tom --kneejerk anti-liberal-kneejerk can get silly. The issue is that the U.S., in contrast to almost every other nation, does not protect its patrimony except on public domain, AND THE REASON IS THAT IT ISN'T "OUR" PATRIMONY, it's the patrimony of the conquered race. Granted, the outcries haven't recognized this, because it is far out of mainstream American archaeology. So how about raising the issue that racism has kept our land's heritage (not really PATRImony since only a few million citizens have paternal lineages including First Nations) largely in the possession of private persons with funds to purchase and maintain title to land.

So now I am anti-liberal; oh well, at other times I've been counter-conservative and even proto-progressive. If I work hard and apply myself, can I become the AntiChrist? The possibilities are endless. Seriously, is there no possibility of rising above labels here?

I also have to question my critic’s analysis of “the issue.” I really don’t think that the issue in the case of the Diggers shows has much to do with whether the U.S. or any other nation “protects” its patrimony on public domain lands or elsewhere. For one thing, the notion that others in fact “protect” their patrimony by imposing draconian prohibitions on its disturbance by unlicensed individuals is a pretty funny one, especially when lobbed southward by a Canadian. Archaeological sites (to consider only one kind of “patrimony”) overlying Alberta’s tar sands may be well “protected” from artifact collectors – I don’t know – but I’d be very surprised if they’re being spared the attentions of the fossil fuel industry. Here in the Lower 48, Canadian mining companies are among the most rapacious with which Indian Tribes (“First Nations,” I know, to you oh so respectful northerners) have to deal in trying to protect their cultural heritage. The whole equation of “protection” with reserving artifact ownership to the crown, or whatever a government is called, is questionable at best. Our neighbors to the south are famous for this: no messing with el patrimonio nacional, amigo, unless you happen to be the government or an industry with the government in your pocket.
And as Raimund Karl has shown in his fascinating article, “On the Highway to Hell” (See my review at, even in countries that ascribe ownership of antiquities to the government, people collect them, and keep them, and attempts to prohibit such collection and keeping tend to fail.

Turning to my critic’s broader argument, is it true that we in these Benighted States refrain from “protecting” our patrimony because it’s not that of the conquerors but of the conquered? Being Canadian, I suppose my critic can be forgiven for not knowing that the folks we call the Founding Fathers had more than a few reasons for writing a constitution that carefully protected rights to private ownership of property, and carefully circumscribed the powers of government. But they did. They’d just shaken off what they believed to be an oppressively controlling monarchy, and they were products of Enlightenment thinking with its emphasis on the rights and genius of the unfettered individual. I really doubt if the likes of Adams and Madison and Jefferson gave much if any thought to whether antiquities ought to be preserved. Private ownership of antiquities from lands other than the public domain was a minor and little-considered byproduct of the care with which the framers of the constitution sought to constrain the powers of government over the governed. So, no, I won’t “raise the issue that racism has kept our land's heritage… largely in the possession of private persons,” because I think that “issue” is a gross oversimplification.

But my main objection to the brandishing of firebrands and torches in which my colleagues are engaging is the same one I offered here back on November 1, 2007 in my post entitled “The Mob” – now available in Chapter 6 of CRMudgeoneity (, from which, with the reader’s indulgence, I’ll here insert an extended quote. “The Mob” was about a prohibition on what it called “commercial activity” that the Register of Professional Archaeologists (RPA) was at the time preparing to insert into its Code of Ethics. In other words – Registered Professional Archaeologists are to have no truck with the buying and selling of antiquities. Happily the RPA Code does not apply to me, but I still thought such prohibition a dumb idea, and said:

Prohibition is a blunt instrument, particularly when wielded by those with no power to enforce it. We all know what happened when the U.S. tried to prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Many of us have had first hand experience flaunting the continuing prohibition on the use of recreational drugs. These prohibitions have had the full force of the state behind them. I wonder what makes archaeologists think they -- with no power whatsoever -- can prohibit the commercial traffic in antiquities.

If forced to answer this question, I imagine an honest supporter of the RPA prohibition would say that it is not meant to prohibit commercial traffic, only to prohibit archaeologists from participating in it. But if that is so -- if it isn't designed to stop the practice that is actually destroying archaeological sites and data, but only to keep archaeologists from documenting those sites and data as they are destroyed, does this not suggest a degree of counterproductivity?

Nations and international organizations -- no more immune to hysteria than professional bodies -- have of course enacted laws and issued declarations against artifact trafficking, and based on their own statistics may be able to report a measure of success. A collection is intercepted in transit here; an artifact is repatriated there; a dealer or digger is prosecuted someplace else. But are these actions making a dent in the international antiquities market? Since we have no real data on that market, we cannot know, but to judge from what we see in the popular media, it appears not. We're told that antiquities looting is rife in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Peru and Chile; it certainly continues throughout North America. Those looters are not looting just for the fun of it; they have people to whom they sell the stuff, and there is -- must be -- a voracious cadre of collectors who make it worthwhile for such dealers to deal. Prohibition of antiquities trafficking, I suggest, has been no more effective than prohibition of alcohol consumption or marijuana puffing.

But who cares, really? What's important to a mob is not whether its cause makes rational sense, but how pursuit of the cause makes its members feel. In generating feelings of propriety, the imposition of ethics like that of the RPA are doubtless highly effective. Everyone can feel so good about themselves, so professional, and that's really far more important than the condition of the archaeological record, isn’t it?

When prohibition of alcohol consumption didn't work, governments re-legalized it and sought to control it through various forms of regulation. Some regulatory measures work pretty well; others don't; there's room for productive argument about how to tweak the rules and systems. The U.S. is gradually shuffling its way toward some kind of similar accommodation with regard to recreational drugs. Debate continues about how best to control access to firearms and regulate abortions. Why, I wonder, can't we try something similar with regard to the private ownership of and commerce in antiquities?

I have no way of verifying it, but I suspect that a substantial percentage of the people who collect antiquities would prefer to do so legally, and would more highly value an object with documented provenience than one without. If this is so -- and again I stress that neither I nor anyone else knows whether it is so -- then it ought to be possible, to some extent at least, to co-opt the commercial market, to dry up the market for illicit artifacts by creating one for those gathered using archaeological methods. But such a market could be created, of course, only if we actively engaged with the traffickers, rather than prohibiting such engagement.

Would engagement be a perfect or complete solution to the problem of looting? Of course not -- any more than engagement with those who traffic in booze is a perfect solution to alcohol abuse. But however shocking and saddening it may be to the moralists at the head of the mob, that's the way the world works. Even with things on whose prohibition there is broad popular agreement -- murder, rape, incest -- we find ourselves having to make nuanced distinctions in order to accommodate the shades of gray with which the real world presents us. Is it all right to kill in self-defense? In war? When is sex consensual and when is it not? How closely related can a given couple be, in a given society, and still be acceptable sexual partners? As ostensible social scientists, we ought to be able to work within such imperfect human systems to achieve our goals. But we are not; we are just as simple-minded as any other mob.

Others and I will be discussing the Diggers shows with Joe Schuldrenrein on his VoiceAmerica show this coming Wednesday, March 7 at 6 pm Eastern.  You can tune in at

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think if the archaeological community were a bit more honest and reflective it would be clear that many, perhaps most, "professional" archaeologists started by picking up arrowheads, digging glass bottles and war relics up or collecting antique stuff from personal interest and from public and private lands.
These folks are always destroyed when they find out the museums don't necessarily keep all of the precious broken rocks and bottle bases in perpetuity. Sacrilege!
While I sure hate to see people take up shovels in some gold rush to private lands, at some level it is killing interest in the field (which already self-selects for OCD types) and gives rise to negative perceptions about scholars and scientists who are already hammered by well paid lobbying and PR groups supported by industries that have lost patience with "soft" sciences.