Monday, 29 August 2016

The "cultural heritage" group neurosis 17: Objectivity

Skala Sykamias, Lesvos island, Greece.    photo: Ggia
Sometimes, the media can be very obliging. Last Thursday's episode discussed a number of photos of fakes that I had seen in an article about looting in Syria. The article said that the "articles had not been evaluated as to their authenticity" So much for journalistic fact-checking and due diligence. Perhaps the journalist suspected they were fakes but thought "If I get that confirmed, I do not have a story. So, on Sunday, I was looking through that day's issue of Explorator where I came across two articles featuring Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. The first was from The Art Newspaper and the second was from Herald Scotland.

In the first article, Abdulkarim says "that while 7,000 objects have been seized by authorities in Syria since 2013, the proportion of fakes has risen from 30% to closer to 70%, both inside the country and in neighbouring Lebanon." there is not a word about this situation in the second article but he says “All people who buy should understand that if they collect objects supplied by Isis they are helping terrorism.” The article also speaks of "subsistence looting" and says:
 “Islamic State or Isis did not start the looting. They came across a pre-existing situation and institutionalised it,” says Dr Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee University when we spoke in April . “At first there was a casual arrangement to loot whereby Isis applied an obscure Islamic tax of 20 per cent payable to the Caliphate’s treasury but since the beginning of 2015 this has been formalised. Now you now have to have a licence issued by the archaeological administration office with punishments if you are caught digging an area where you are not allowed. Isis are knowledgeable about the value of the antiquities, they check the Internet and we suspect some are archaeologists.”
"Subsistence looting" is perhaps not a very good term as looting also includes raising money to secure the means to escape from an oppressive regime. There are vast numbers of Syrian refugees who are fleeing to Europe in boats and we can recall a similar situation with the Vietnamese "boat people" when Saigon fell to North Vietnam. I knew a young woman who escaped with her family from Saigon at that time, but she was part of an extremely wealthy and prominent Saigon family who was lifted out by a U.S. military helicopter. Over the next several years, she sent money back to other relatives who wanted to leave and a large percentage of that money went to bribes to officials to "look the other way". That did not include the costs of the passage out of Vietnam, it just provided the opportunity to negotiate for such passage. She adapted to her new life very well, but it was far from the usual refugee situation: she no longer had her own chauffeur and servants. She told me that her aunt had to learn how to tie shoe laces because the servants had dressed her and she showed me a painting of her grandfather wearing his dragon robe and holding his jade sceptre. Her family had originally been part of the Anamese Mandarate at Huế. Her mother had run the family factory in Saigon and her father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army. Refugees can come from any level of society, but they all have to pay to escape in one way or another. Her family, too, had to live in a U.S. internment camp for a long time, before they came to Calgary as immigrants.

There are multiple layers to any refugee situation and it presents great difficulties for any country who gives them sanctuary. At the top of the scale are professional people and others who will contribute greatly to the economy of such a country and at the bottom of the scale are violent criminals who see a refugee situation as an opportunity to escape arrest. Every level of society is included. But what also happens is a transmission of culture and a greater understanding of different societies within any population. This understanding also aids in the prevention of future wars. One of the unusual features of ancient Celtic culture was fosterage. Celtic culture was far more localized than what we are used to today and below national, tribal and civic levels were family or clan affiliations and in Gaul, all were split into two factions with Druid (judges) representation at each level. Fosterage, where sons were always raise by a foster father and also the "private" issuing of coins cemented allegiances and lessened the likelihood of warfare in a society where status was determined by the size of your private army or membership in the Druid elite.

I very much enjoy the benefits of multiculturalism here. Our Mayor is Islamic although the population of the city is only 5.2% Islamic. He is also the world's most popular mayor; a couple of blocks away from where I live I can buy (according to what they advertise, and they might well be right) Calgary's best Vietnamese subs. When I needed a very ancient Chinese poem translated, two Chinese men worked very hard (with much debate) to provide that for me as a favour. One had been in the country for a very long time, the other was a recent immigrant. Now, I cannot experience anything of ancient Greek culture at any museum here, I can experience modern Greek food, music and even dancing, but if I want to see some ancient Greek coins I can see quite a good selection at  a friend's coin shop, including many from Syria. Syrian coins were very common when I started collecting Greek coins at the age of 13. I'll be 67 in another month. Many of those coins had left Syria hundreds of years ago. So the next time you are enjoying a cup of Vietnamese iced coffee, think about the strange circumstances of what made that available to you; if you track it all back you will encounter more than just one war and one other culture. There is a lot of history in that cup.

A meme is a phrase that passes from person to person like a virus. Often completely untrue, the only cure for it is to look at it critically. We see people who say that "cultural heritage belongs to everyone" and then seek to restrict peoples access to it, often by supplying false or misleading information in a deliberate manner because they, too, are infected by the virus and it has taken over their consciousness. You are experiencing what might be described as a "intellectual zombie". There is no real life in the statement and it actually does not really mean anything. Culture can only be primarily received as a thought. Multiculturalism is an accumulation of many such thoughts and their material consequences and it reduces the "strangeness" of different cultures and promotes global understanding. thus anyone who would seek to restrict such transmissions is either evil or has been infected by collections of memes. In the latter case they are not thinking at all. The Dalai Lama promotes understanding and good will between Tibetan and Chinese people. Many people know this. Fewer people know that he is also very interested (and active) in quantum physics, especially in the subject of mind/matter.

This brings us back to objectivity: We have the subject (you) and the object (what you are looking at), but in quantum physics, you cannot separate the two:
"Our story begins in 1967 AD, when a young graduate student arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, to study physics. He had studied quantum theory and was impressed with its insistence that the observer could not be taken out of theory, as was the case in classical physics. In practice, however, he found that the interpretation of Schrödinger’s wave function as probability amplitudes allowed physicists to simply substitute probability orbitals for independent objects and still leave themselves out of the theory. He decided to propose a Ph.D. thesis that would allow him to study himself doing the experiment in order to address this deficiency. The experiment he chose was the spectral classification of promethium....
"After presenting the self-inclusion idea at his oral examination, the thesis was rejected. Our candidate was furious and considered leaving the program. One of his thesis advisors, Nobel Laureate Charles Towns, intervened, and a compromise was reached. The student was to split the thesis into a conventional experiment on the spectrum of promethium and write whatever he wanted on the object-subject integration theme in an appendix, which would not be formally evaluated. In addition, he was to read a standard text on quantum theory and report on his agreement and acceptance of the theory described to the department chair. After that, the standard thesis was finished in record time. His feeling of being a sellout was mollified by his ability to record a picture of his breakthrough insight in the annals of a permanent institution."
The Physical Foundation of Consciousness by Wolfgang Baer, Ph.D., in: Brain, Mind, Cosmos: The Nature of Our Existence and the Universe (Contributions from Notable Scientists and Philosophers), ed., Deepak Chopra, 2013, (Kindle Locations 174-189).
Reality consists of not just what you are looking at, but also the fact and interactions of you looking at it. To deny that is to deny that you, too, are part of reality.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. John;

    Speaking of objectivity, an objective person might read the Art Newspaper and Herald Scotland articles cited above and assume that poor fact checking or professional convenience has somewhat distorted the nature or even the veracity of the "news" being presented. Someone who has followed the subject in question for at least the past decade might take a more cynical view and wonder if false information might have been purposely fed to the press by supposedly reliable sources. Of course everyone distrusts a cynic, so on balance the press typically goes unchallenged in cases like this. After all, why would anyone fabricate a claim that Syrian looters are intentionally sending fakes to the western market?

    One possibility that occurs to my admittedly cynical mind is that this could be a misguided attempt to intentionally undermine credibility of the legitimate market in antiquities. Would this do grievous harm to museums, private collectors and legitimate trade? In truth, probably not, because most serious collectors, dealers and curators are knowledgeable enough to make their own intelligent and informed decisions. So is my cynical possibility just a straw man? Your readers can decide, but I would remind them of a statement attributed to controversial archaeologist Joe E. Zias and published on the Unidroit-L Discussion List. He is quoted there as saying: "I would encourage the art of forging antiquities to the point that it would be impossible for dealers, collectors and scientists to distinguish between the real and the forged. In the US, archaeologists concerned with looting of American Indian sites for pottery and lithics, taught students in the 70s the art of flint knapping to the point that many became quite adept. Not only did they teach the flint knapping skills required but encouraged the students to pawn the high end artifacts off to collectors and dealers in hopes of relieving a few of their money which in turn would teach them a lesson about trading in unprovenanced and at times looted items." (Joe E. Zias, Science and Archaeology Group - Hebrew University -- As quoted on Dr. Zias is now retired, but the view he espoused is certainly not unique. BBC reported some years ago that Israeli Archaeologists "have now concluded that everything that came to market in the last 20 years without clear provenance should be considered a fake."

    In Archaeology magazine, an article "Forging Ahead" by Charles Stanish appeared in the May/June 2009 issue. The author talks at length, and clearly without remorse, about the negative affect that offerings of artifact forgeries on eBay has had on the antiquities market. Like the Israeli archaeologists mentioned above, he sees virtually everything on the market as fake.

    An article in the Art Newspaper (February, 2012) titled "Police raid criminal gang suspected of faking antiquities." The report by Tina Lepri and Ermanno Rivetti revealed that "The gang was allegedly led by Edoardo David, a renowned archaeologist who often worked as a consultant for the archaeological division of the Soprintendenza for the Lazio region (the local arm of Italy's ministry of culture)." That revelation gave me pause to reflect once more on the Zias statement.

    Is it possible that this latest "news release" was at least in part an orchestrated attempt by archaeologists to undermine the antiquities collecting hobby and trade?

    1. Hi Wayne,

      I think there is a combination: the press seems to get so much wrong these days, even false statements that would not benefit anyone. They also try to serve popular opinion (which can also be false), and I would bet that they are also fed wrong information deliberately. It is quite a mess.

      The most fakes that I see on the market are with art prints: reproductions being sold as original prints. There are some fake coins and antiquities (mostly on Ebay) but they are not even the majority of the Ebay listings. Almost all of them are easy to spot if you know the material. Beginners are far better off dealing with established, reputable dealers. "certificates of authenticity" are virtually meaningless in an Ebay auction and even positive feedback might sometimes mean that buyers have been happy with the fakes because anyone who knows how to spot a fake would not be bidding anyway. The biggest problem to beginners is the lack of expertise on the selling end where things are not identified properly, and that is not exclusive to Ebay, it can happen with some mainstream dealers, too with lesser studied subjects. I have bought a number of things that were misidentified, but to my advantage: the third recorded British Celtic shield handle mount (about 200 BC) came to me as a "Roman saucepan handle" and I bought my dekadrachm of Syracuse at a London auction as a "nineteenth century forgery". It was subsequently authenticated by David Sear. I knew it was genuine when I saw the photo. Only two other examples from that pair of dies were known and mine was the only one that had the complete Nike on the obverse die. One of the other two was in the Danish royal coll. and the other one was ex Arthur Dewing (now in the American Numismatic Society Museum).

      I started learning about Greek coins when I was kid from looking at the photographs in Seaby's catalogues and Barclay V. Head's Guide to the Principle coins of the Greeks and a few other publications. Now, anyone can look at a lot of Greek coins in CNG's internet research archives -- far more than are shown in books or at museum web sites. That's another advantage of the trade, many dealers archive their sales. If the odd forgery appears on a major dealer's site it would have to be a really good one like a pressure cast fake. They handle far more coins that any archaeologist would see, even after a lifetime of excavating. I see a few misidentified things in museums, too! As you well know, it takes many years to become very knowledgeable about ancient coins. Many more years than it takes to get PhD! So the suppression of the trade also equates to a severe decline in expertise as well. Perhaps some of the fakes that we see in newspapers labelled as looted from archaeological sites have actually fooled archaeologists too. I see quite a number of news reports about archaeological sites where wrong information is given, as well.

      It gets difficult, sometimes, to distinguish between deception and just plain stupidity. I'm cynical too. Sometimes I think we are entering a new Dark Age with what we see written about the past.

  2. Well said, John. I agree that the difference between deception and stupidity may be hard to measure, but even though stupidity is easier to forgive neither should be allowed to pass for professionalism.

    1. Thanks, Wayne. The sort of stupidity that I have a hard time forgiving is the intentional variety where people just refuse to look at a subject from many different viewpoints. A lot of the deception comes from people using
      such prejudice to their own advantage.