Monday, October 17, 2016

Archaeologists Question Media Sensationalism

Ancient coin collectors in the United States had good reason to smile this past weekend.  Archaeologist Paul Barford in his blog Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues joined a growing list of critics who believe that U.S. government officials are being swayed by false information.  Specifically, Mr. Barford cites major media reports regarding ISIS funding as tainting a recent Congressional Homeland Security Committee Report with "outdated information, misrepresented statistics, and discredited figures."  He goes on to suggest that congressional staffers who authored the report "...searched for reports published in major media outlets without critically examining them.  "Much of the media coverage of archaeological looting in Iraq and Syria has been driven by sensationalism."

Ironically, the day following Mr. Barford's blog post, a segment of the U.S. television show "Madam Secretary" included some of the very same sensationalism.   In this episode, a "fictional" political upheaval in Algeria, and supposed destruction of monuments, is portrayed as a cover for the theft and sale of antiquities to raise funds for Jihadists.  The TV episode was obviously inspired by the same major media reports that swayed Congress. 

The popularity of this sensational journalism and media entertainment is easy to understand.  One can even see how it becomes believable to those with limited background in the issues.  However, the process is not without victims.  Certainly, the loss of history and culture is devastating to all of civilization—but the victimization of honest and thoughtful individuals who legally own and enjoy objects from the past is not a rational nor ethical weapon in the fight against that loss that we all suffer from.  I think Mr. Barford and I might agree on that point.

For ancient coin collectors who are reading these words, there can be little doubt that we need to be proactive in helping to reduce or eliminate the looting and illegal export of coins from source countries.  Although provenance has never been a concern in past centuries, it is one of the few ways that legitimacy can become an element of due diligence.  As collectors, we need to create and maintain better records of provenance—at least for objects of significant value.  That will, over time, help protect the "orphans" from old collections.  At the same time, both the public and the guardians of public interest need to follow the path of truth and the laws that govern our union.  The sensationalism that drives our moment is not helping.