Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The "cultural heritage" group neurosis 10: Collective "cultural heritage" and individual cultural evolution (iii).

Did you know that Alberta is the only Canadian province where you can legally gather surface finds of stone tools and fossils? Some restrictions exist, such as in National Parks and First Nations Reserves and it does not give you the right to trespass on private property. Over the years, I had noticed a general decline in the public interest of collecting such things in Alberta and I had assumed that the laws prohibited it. The first thing I did this morning was to search Wikipedia Commons for some suitable images to make the graphic for this post. I did find an image of an Edmontosaurus (named after Edmonton, Alberta) that was not cluttered with too many extraneous details I would have to remove, but I could find no line drawings of Alberta (or even Canadian) projectile points. The Edmontosaurus, by the way, is not local but a specimen in the Yale Museum. The points I illustrate here are from New Jersey.

After that, I went searching to find out when the (imagined) laws had changed here to forbid the gathering of such things and discovered that it is still legal to do so. So why had the interest died down? The immediate thought was that people are far less interested in such things than they were fifty years ago, but that does not hold up very well to examination because there is still a great interest in the U.S. and Canadian and U.S. interests are not that different. Part of it might be that my fellow Albertans assume, just as I had, that there are prohibitory laws in existence and so have lost interest. That argument fails because any dealer in minerals and even antiques and curios would make themselves familiar with the laws of what they can and cannot deal in. I remember seeing quite a lot of artifacts and fossils at such trade shows here when I was young. Such shows (and flea markets) inspire many young people to start collecting examples of things that they happen to come across at some show.

We used to get American and British dealers setting up at local coin shows here but not anymore. The reason being that the Canadian government thought it would be a good idea to make all those dealers pay taxes on their stock and then apply for a refund later on what was not sold. There is a similar law, now in the U.S. so Canadian dealers also stay away from their shows, too. It's quite funny how bureaucrats always fail to see much beyond the end of their noses.  Of course, perhaps the actual point is to inhibit international trade for small businesses. Who knows? At  a Calgary coin show you can find dealers from other Canadian Provinces and Calgary coin dealers also set up tables at shows in other Provinces. Such trade represents quite a sizable amount of their business. People always prefer to buy something that they can examine in person.

So this situation seems to be the most likely reason that Alberta kids are not becoming as interested in collecting Canadian found fossils and arrowheads: there are few dealers from other Provinces at these shows bringing (or even owning) such things because of their laws. This difficulty does not exist with coins here, but it does in the U. S.: I know of a dealer in ancient coins from Minnesota who was forced to move away (he set up in Texas) because of a Minnesota State law that had nothing at all to do with ancient coins and was aimed at bullion traders only was so badly written that it had a disastrous effect on all collector coin dealers. the bureaucrats (who must have failed logic in school) thought that some bullion that is sold are coins therefore all coins that are sold are bullion. My friend Robert, who is a local coin dealer, missed out on exposing a very silly Calgary bylaw: All second-hand dealers here (and coin dealers are thus defined) must record all in-store purchases on an on-line police database. For coins, they have to write a description of each one. One day, a representative from Calgary Transit delivered to Robert's shop a large number of bags of foreign coins that had, over a long time, been deposited in the coin boxes on buses. There were so many bags and they were so heavy that Robert told the delivery men to stack them along the walls as he was concerned about that much weight sitting on the middle of his floor, somewhere. If he followed the bylaw, he would have spent many years just entering those coins into the police database. the coins, on average, had a retail value of about ten cents each. Assuming each coin took ten seconds to identify and enter into the database, Robert would be getting a potential $3.60 return on each hour's work. The city, of course, wanted Robert to pay them something for the coins. Really, they should have been paying him about $45 for every 360 coins he accepted as stock (if they expected the bylaw to be followed). The purpose of the bylaw was to recover stolen property and in all of the years it had been in effect, only one coin-related item was ever recovered by the police as stolen property. It was an Elvis medallion.

Apart from the sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, effect that such badly thought out laws have on people. They can also result in the extinction of certain cultural frames (such as, potentially, collectors and dealers). The public as a whole become lessened as a result of this because of the drastically reduced chance of new discoveries within the field which study the items that are collected. Not only would Sir John Evans never have come up with his major contributions to the development of modern archaeology which resulted from a quantum leap between his interests in numismatics (from an inherited coin collection) and geology, but academic systems are far too closed and intellectually regulated to allow for much original thought (see the quote from Aaron Lynch in the first part of this topic (i)). That is, other than the groupthink which marks the dull, bureaucratic mind.

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  1. "It's quite funny how bureaucrats always fail to see much beyond the end of their noses...."

    And therein lies most of our problems! Interesting post John.