Friends or Villains?

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Why do archaeologists insist on alienating collectors, when in fact they are the only true allies we have in an apathetic world?

The current issues of The SAA’s Archaeological Record, of Antiquity, of Archäologische Informationen and others carry long and strained discussions on what to do about collectors and local amateur historians. Almost the most positive thing said about them is the wish they’d go away and leave us alone or at least knuckle down and do the drudge and grind under our direction.

Why do archaeologists insist on extorting money from the indifferent and apathetic taxpayer, a strategy bound seriously to misfire in times of austerity, when rich and committed collectors abound, freely offering serious sums of ready cash far in excess of what funds-strapped institutions have available now?

Collectible finds are, as a general rule, boring and meaningless. Those finds, that mean most to an archaeologist, are charred, identifiable, and datable seed kernels, not ornaments that, once recorded, have nothing more to offer. A complete and perfectly preserved vase has no more interpretive content than a single rim shard and none compared to a statistically evaluative pit of them. Their interests being so very disjunct, why can’t archaeologists and collectors work together? The results of the former are what gives value and meaning to the objects collected by the latter and their interest and contribution is what makes scientific work possible in the first place. It is no coincidence, that science used to be the prerogative of wealthy autodidacts. Only when these collectors first began to employ specialists did a career and occupation in science become possible. Why bite the hand that has fed and nurtured us and allowed us and our science to prosper and become accepted by the public?

Committed collectors are a fact of life and have been around for centuries. They won’t go away through an act of our wishful thinking. Every collector wants and loves to display his collection to the public and his peers. He emphatically does not want items of dubious provenance to hide and to be ashamed of. Given the choice, he will shun the robber and seek out the excavator, who can imbue his find with background and meaning. By not shutting off their alternatives, the collectors may well be made our strongest and most effective allies yet in our so far doomed, unsuccessful, and hopeless fight against the destruction of our irreplaceable heritage.

And as to the argument of museums being more open in making their depots available to scientists than private collectors do, that is not how the many, why applied in vain, tend to tell it.

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