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Subject:

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

From:

Chris Cumberpatch <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 18 Jul 2003 08:51:56 +0100

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    Somewhat ironically I am in the process of completing a study of a large
body of pottery (880kg) held in a publicly accessible collection in a local
museum and a pressing deadline precludes as long an answer to these points
as I would like - but one or two things require comment - unfortunately I
know nothing of Chinese pottery and so will not take up these particular
examples, although I would be interested to know if these collectors also
collected evidence of production techniology and whether the collections
also include kiln wasters and manufacturing evidence.

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.

    Since we are citing our own work (something neither John Hooker or
myself are shy about doing), see:
Cumberpatch, C.G.  2000  People, things and archaeological knowledge: an
exploration of the significance of fetishism in archaeology.  Assemblage 5
http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/5/tableofc.html

    Political appropriation of the past is far from the sole preserve of the
state.

> 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.

    And this reveals another drawback of the private collection - its high
degree of selectivity in what is collected and curated - which underlies my
point about needing the full range of material in order to be able to draw
robust anbd reliable inferences about the past.  Reliance on private
collections would consigen the bulk of evidence to the dustbin.
>
>
> You are using the "shiny things" and "fetishism" memes to construct a
straw man. Really! I wasn't born yesterday.

    The phrase 'shiny things' was intended to draw attention to the fact
that the contents of the website were complete or largely complete objects,
valued for themselves rather that for the fact that they constitute one
piece of evidence forming part of an assemblage or assemblages, linked by
context.  For fetishism, see the article cited above.  The valuing of
objects devoid of context can certainly be be interpreted as fetishistic.
The words were certainly not intended as straw people.
>
>
> 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.

    As anyone who knows me could tell you, I am not a socialist, have never
been a socialist and it is extremely unlikely that I will ever embrace
socialism.

> I doubt that this will be the definition of archaeology in another hundred
years.

    Come back in one hunded years and we can debate this again.

> >  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.
    Of course, but it is the primary context and the process of study
should move from this onto others - which does not imply that wider contexts
are less significant, simply that they should all be studied.  Site conext
may be unimportant to you as a numismatist, but to the field archaeologists
studying the site formation processes it is of great imnportnace.  Why
should the concerns of the numismatist be considered as more significant
than those of the field archaeologist?  They are simply different concerns
and both require incorporation ionto the various narratives to be written
about the site and its constituent parts, amongst which are the various
classes of artefcats, togeher with the structural evidence, environmental
evidence and so on and so on.

>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.

    I'd say that we could probably learn much of the way in which Rembrandt
was viewed in the mid 19th century by considering the ways in which his
pictures were hung, who owned them, who saw them etc.  Likewise with
medieval pots - which ones were in public view, which ones were restricted
to domestic contexts of use (see: Cumberpatch, C.G. 1997  Towards a
phenomenological approach to the study of medieval pottery.  In: C.G.
Cumberpatch and P.W. Blinkhorn Not so much a pot, more a way of life. Oxbow
Monograph 83.  Oxbow Books.)


> >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.

    Fine, we agree on something.

>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.

    I do agree that other discplines are also valid - I would be hard put to
do my job without people working in other disciplines - geology, materials
science, field archaeology, illustration, photography - all these contribute
more to what I do than do those who buy and sell stamped samian or
occasional medieval pots
>
> 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 am in the process of doing this for medieval pottery for north
Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.  Looking at 'bunches of stuff' is what I do
and I see no reason why that is any less useful than 'obtaining visual data
to be used in a published study' ... in fact, on reflection, by looking at
'bunches of stuff' I am 'obtaining visual data that can be used in a
published study' ... I use a camera and a computer and the services of a
draughtsperson to do so - (the quality of the photographs may not be great,
but that's my fault).
     I reiterate - I have received excellent co-operation from the staff of
the musems concerned and have never been charged for anything.

Chris Cumberpatch

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