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Subject:

Re: private collecting by archaeologists: was in praise of metal detecting: was (no subject) private collections

From:

John Hooker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 17 Jul 2003 17:03:39 -0600

Content-Type:

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Chris Cumberpatch writes:
>    John Hooker writes:  A focused and specialized private collection is
>ALWAYS better than any public collection. The contents of private
>collections are more accessible than the contents of public collections ...
>
>    This certainly does not apply to pottery and I would doubt that it
>applies to most categories of archaeological material - animal and human
>bone, environmental material, dendrochronological samples etc etc.

It does apply to pottery. The finest and most thoroughly documented
collection of Chinese ceramics outside of China was compiled by a private
collector: Sir Percival David. In 1950 it was given to the University of
London. There are many museums that have such impressive collections that
they would be unable to compile themselves. The reasons that they would be
unable to compile these collections from scratch are fairly simple: first
there is the cost, and then there is that quality we call connoisseurship.
This is a personal relationship that an individual has with the material
that they collect. This takes many decades of eating, drinking and living
with that material in an obsessive manner. The individual combines with the
material and the collection becomes a synthesis of the two.

As is taught to every student of the subject, history is not what happened,
but an interplay between all that has happened and the questions that are
asked of this "universal" record. Ironically, importances for an individual
are often more universal than importances voiced by a state or an
institution. It sometimes happens that political concerns are allowed to
affect the reporting of history to such a degree that the resulting product
is more false than true.

A good example of this also exists in ceramics. In the recent Chinese
government exhibtion: Empires beyond the Great Wall - The heritage of
Genghis Khan, I saw not only misinformation but disinformation. A number of
provincial (you couldn't use Imperial wares because of the reign marks and
other well known documentary methods, and provincial wares often have a
somewhat archaic look about them) 16th century Ming blue and white wares
were being identified as Southern Song. The cobalt was of a high quality
and historically had been called "Mohammadan blue" because it was imported
from Persia. The native Chinese blue was of a lesser quality and was
blended with this imported blue to create a vivid pure blue colour. Used on
its own it was often too dark. Nationalism reared its ugly head in order to
make the point that China had always had good quality material and did not
need such imports. The result was that a number of fine objects had been
'back dated" to a time prior to these imports.


You do not need connoisseurship to start a public collection. take a look at:


http://www.angel.ne.jp/~mandai-museum/mmindex.html

This is a public collection of Chinese ceramics in Japan. Now I know a few
fakes can creep into even the best public collection, but this collection
is entirely modern fakes. Nothing is what it seems to be. Imagine all the
local students of Chinese ceramics that would go to this museum to learn,
or to have things identified. This is an extreme case, granted, but I
really doubt that you would find it easy to spot a single fake in the
Percival David collection. It is hard to say where the scam lies in this
example. Were the directors of this museum hoodwinked or were they the
scammers? I think probably the latter. If they hired a pottery specialist
such as yourself, the first thing this person would say on seeing the
collection is "You've got to be kidding!" or "am I on television?" (looking
around for the hidden "candid camera")

As to the other categories you mention I know of no specialist private
collections of these things at all so there can be no comparisons made.

>Archaeology is not, (in my view) about collections of shiny things (and
>certainly not about the fetishisation of specific categories of material
>culture which is an object of study in its own right) but about the attempt
>to understand human society in the past through the medium of material
>culture and data which pertains to the human use of the landscape and
>resources.

You are using the "shiny things" and "fetishism" memes to construct a straw
man. Really! I wasn't born yesterday.


see:
http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html

As to your definition of archaeology, this is fairly precise, as I see it,
to the current concerns of the subject. This is one, albeit, widespread
definition though, somewhat socialist politically, but nevertheless valid
in its narrow definition. I doubt that this will be the definition of
archaeology in another hundred years. The current has affected the past
again. Human society is driven, to a very great degree, by the "outsiders"
-- fierce individualists that change the course of history. Studying only
the effects of these individuals i.e. "society", misses out on the creative
forces that have shaped it to a great degree.

Maoist China came down very heavily on the products of the Imperial kilns
-- these were not the things of the "workers". Later, they softened this
view and said that while the patrons were a waste of skin, the products
were made by the proletariat and thus were legitimate. This, too, was
false. while humble pots were being made in provincial kilns by their
"workers" the real stars at the Imperial kilns were getting vast sums of
money for a tiny wine cup and people were travelling hundreds of miles just
to look at one of these pots. Langyao came to a halt in about 1710 when the
master was promoted to governor of a province by Kangxi.

>  This demands a focus on context (as others have pointed out) and
>the use of comparative methodologies which allow inferences to be drawn from
>diverse datasets derived from different aspects of human activity.

Yes, but "site" context is but one of the many other possible contexts. A
series of coins has the context of all of the design elements to be found
on those coins, and this can extend to other objects such as sculpture,
decorative metalwork etc. The alloy that the coins were made from has the
possible context of other items that used the same alloy type. To a
numismatist, the accident of the coin's loss among other unrelated objects
is of minor importance. The importance lies in the manufacturing process
and not so much in what eventually happened to it. Likewise, we can learn
little about a Rembrandt painting by knowing what was in the same room with
it in 1850.


>Publically finded and managed collections are essential if the bulk of
>archaeological material is to be preserved and made available to future
>generations of scholars. I very much doubt that private collectors would be
>prepared to store and curate the hundreds of kilograms of pottery that can
>be produced from the excavation of a Roman or medieval pottery workshop, yet
>such collections are of far greater value in archaeological terms than the
>occasional complete vessels or decontextualised stamped or decorated sherds
>that appear in auction catalogues.

 In archaeological terms, and by your definition -- yes. But as I said this
is but one context, no more and no less important than any other possible
context. You have to allow the possibility that other disciplines are also
vaild. Don't be like Michaelangelo and da Vinci arguing over whether
painting or sculpture is the better art form. Contexts vary sometimes day
by day. Last month I had a context that consisted of depictions of situlas
in attendance with Dionysos on Greek painted pots. The search was both
difficult and not terribly fruitful. In the context I needed, just a few
examples were adequate and I found them. If I needed all of them I would
have had to look through hundreds of these auction catalogues. The
collections of catalogues would be the context for that study so they would
have been very useful indeed. I doubt that there is a collection, public or
private that consists only of depictions of Dionysos and situlas together
on the same pot. If it were that important to me I would spend the rest of
my life looking for such. Perhaps some new knowledge would ensue from such
a search, but that is not my focus. While such a life would be a waste to
me, to someone else it might not be, and I have to understand that.


>  The museum collections that I have
>looked at have been made available to me by the curators entirely free of
>charge and without restriction - it is a gross calumny to assert or imply
>that curators (in Britain at least) see their collections as a source of
>profit.

One can always get an appointment to look at a bunch of stuff, but I am
talking about obtaining visual data that can be used in a published study
for the benefit of all who read that study. I have just finished a 15,000
word art-historical and iconographic study of the Gundestrup cauldron. I
was fortunate to find web site that illustrated all of the plates (most
books have only a sample and even if all plates are illustrated the quality
and size of these photographs is not always adequate for my purpose) The
Natinalmuseet was kind enough to clarify a small detail that I needed but a
set of transparencies would have cost me about the same amount of money as
the air fare to Denmark from Canada, hotel and food with a bit of spending
money thrown in. Considering that this item has been photographed anyway,
this seemed rather expensive to me for a set of prints from existing
negatives. I am sure that the original cost of the photography has long
been covered, and a generous profit has already been made. They did not say
how much the publication rights would cost. I can only imagine..

Compare this with the important U.S. coin dealers C.N.G. if you look at
their web site you will see that their photographic quality is of the
highest order:

http://www.cngcoins.com/coin.asp?ITEM_ID=38741&ITEM_ENLARGED=1

for example. This would give a 2:1 printed image at a very good resolution.
I wanted to know if I could use any of their illustrations. They said
"take what you need at any time and cite the source, there will be no
charge". We know that a fact  or a datum cannot be subject to copyright
when it is in alpha-numeric form. If that datum is in visual form it is
subject to copyright laws and it is a sellers market.. The photograph does
not exhibit photographic compostion or any form of creativity. It is not an
artistic expression. If the object is held by a public institution then,
theoretically, the public "owns" it. You would think that profiteering on
the image would be anathema to such a concept, especially if that use is to
promote knowledge. CNG took the high road. They had the right to charge but
they did not wish to impose an unfair legal disadvantage to study. They are
a business and not a government funded institution for the people. Who
exhibits the greater honour?

Regards,

John


http://www.writer2001.com/
Hooker & Perron, Total Project Coordination
Database-Web...Graphics...Custom Maps...Colour Suites...Expert Systems
Building the Celtic Coin Index on the Web:
http://www.writer2001.com/cciwriter2001/

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