‘black archaeology’ in Eastern Europe: metal detecting, illicit trafficking of cultural objects, and ‘legal nihilism’ in Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine

I’m happy to say that Public Archaeology has published my article on ‘black archaeology’ in Eastern Europe: metal detecting, illicit trafficking of cultural objects, and ‘legal nihilism’ in Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.

There is an open-access postprint copy, as well as the paywalled official publication. You can also contact me.

Abstract

Across Eastern Europe, professional archaeologists and metal detectorists testify that some archaeological sites have been emptied of metal objects, despite significant efforts to combat illicit trafficking of cultural objects. Yet there is little empirical evidence in relation to the scale of the problem within countries or its comparative scale between countries in the region.

This paper presents open-source analysis of membership of online forums and social networks, as well as other empirical indicators, such as sales and ownership of metal detectors. It identifies and contradicts speculation and propaganda from archaeologists and detectorists, then offers empirical evidence in their place.

It suggests the activity of at least 14,910 illicit detectorists in Belarus (around 1 in 638 residents), 54,066 illicit detectorists in Poland (around 1 in 702 residents), 26,377 illicit detectorists in Ukraine (around 1 in 1,706 residents) and 75,158 illicit detectorists in Russia (around 1 in 1,921 residents).

It suggests that, in many of the worst-affected communities, above and beyond the technicalities of permissive, restrictive, or prohibitive regulation, the most important factors in the preservation of archaeological knowledge may be the economy and the rule of law.

Positive note

I want to thank my friends in Ukraine, who do inspiring work on human rights and mental health and more, who hosted me for most of my time there last summer. That research is still a work-in-progress. This article, and an accompanying article on the systematic seeding of fake accounts in online communities for metal-detectorists (in Ukrainian Archaeology), are an academic down-payment on my debt.

I also want to thank my colleagues in Ukraine, who were so very welcoming, especially Yakov Gershkovich, whose work on illicit trafficking has been instructive. Several years ago, he even helped me to understand an enigmatic monument to museum workers – ‘museum rats [музейным крысам]’ – and ‘the Fellowship of Museums [Музейне братство]’ in Odessa.

Negative note

Despite patient private explanations, Raimund Karl has publicly insinuated that I performed ‘intentional manipulations’, ‘cherry-pick[ed]’ and ‘manipulate[d]’ convenient and ‘inconvenient’ data and data sources, in another quantitative analysis of metal detecting, in order ‘to arrive at a preconceived conclusion’. Part of his “reasoning” is the ‘curious’, ‘dubious’, ‘remarkable’ absence of Germany, which he supposedly finds ‘difficult to imagine’ as ‘chance’.

He asserts that it demonstrates, possibly, a desire for an ‘exciting’ result, probably, a ‘strong bias’ towards the ‘obviously preferred’ option of restrictive regulation rather than permissive regulation. I will address two points here.

Germany

My proof-of-concept study eventually covered Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

As I had privately explained to Karl on 13th April 2017, the incomplete draft article (which covered the existing data set) had originally encompassed Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, China, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Moldova, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and Ukraine as well.

Running to more than 40,000 words, it was simply unpublishably long. When he made his allegations, Karl knew that Germany had “curiously” been cut along with 28 other countries.

Bias

When he made his allegations, Karl also knew that I had and was ‘look[ing] forward to publishing’ data that demonstrated that I did not have any bias towards restrictive regulation. On 13th April 2017, I informed Karl that, while I was still processing the data, ‘it appear[ed] to identify numerous territories with higher rates of metal-detecting’ than the territories for which he alleged that I had ‘inflated’ the data, ‘including territories with nominally stricter regulations’.

Some parts of the ever-growing data set have been processed and are now emerging. Happily, the editors of three forthcoming chapters approve of the sharing of preprints on South Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia.

Notably (and, naturally, noted in this article), all of the Eastern European countries in this article appear to have higher rates of metal-detecting than any of the Western European countries in the other article. It entails a possibly exciting discussion of post-communist transition, probably unexciting discussion of the economy and the rule of law.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not favour permissive regulation, either. I agree with Suzie Thomas that caution is key in any interpretation of any of these (and other) data. Different factors have different power, and different combinations of factors have different outcomes, in different places.

For instance, as demonstrated in this article, evidence consistently indicates consistently higher rates of metal-detecting in Eastern Europe than Western Europe, which correlate with significant differences in legal regulations, economic conditions, internet access and political conditions between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. Yet rates of metal-detecting in Eastern Europe do not correlate directly with differences in legal regulations, economic conditions, internet access or political conditions within Eastern Europe. In other words, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

(And that is why I am trying to gather enough evidence across enough territories to identify trends, despite the factors that affect activity and visibility of activity, within and between territories and regions.)

Again, there is an open-access postprint copy, as well as the paywalled official publication. You can also contact me.

Citation

Hardy, S A. 2016: “‘Black archaeology’ in Eastern Europe: Metal detecting, illicit trafficking of cultural objects and ‘legal nihilism’ in Belarus, Poland, Russia and Ukraine”. Public Archaeology, Volume 15, Number 4, 214-237. [postprint/official]

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