Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Chasing Aphrodite authors propose WikiLoot, a crowd-sourced initiative to address the illicit antiquities trade

Polaroid seized from Giacomo Medici's warehouse
Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, authors of Chasing Aphrodite, are two of the most tireless voices in the fight against the illicit antiquities trade right now. In addition to their fantastic book and their presence on Twitter and Facebook, they have just proposed WikiLoot, an entirely new initiative that, if successful, could revolutionize how we approach the illicit antiquities trade. The idea behind WikiLoot is that it would be an open source web platform for "the publication and analysis of a unique archive of primary source records and photographs documenting the illicit trade in looted antiquities." The wiki would use social media "and other tools" to bring together YOU plus a big network of experts (journalists, researchers, dilettantes, etc.) to collaborate on the analysis of a collection of photos of unpublished and missing artifacts that do not come from a known collection. Right now, Jason and Ralph are applying for funding, specially from the Knight Foundation, from which they've requested $250,000 to contribute to their $350,000 goal.

My own first impression of this is HOLY CRAP THIS IS WHAT WE'VE NEEDED ALL ALONG. One of the biggest problem with addressing the illicit antiquities trade has been the question of how to involve the general population. For such a global issue, the problem-solving has so far been limited to a relatively small network of police, academics, and lawmakers. Opening the problem-solving up to EVERYONE could be the kick in the pants that this fight really needs. However, there are admittedly a lot of issues that accompany this kind of proposal, so Jason and Ralph have created a Facebook group for people to discuss their questions, work out kinks, and come up with some creative ideas to make WikiLoot more than just a concept. The conversation itself is already super interesting; I don't know anywhere else on the internet right now where you can watch the experts/major reporters in this field (so far featuring Jason Felch, Larry Rothfield, David Gill, James Grimaldi) discuss together the pros and cons of an initiative like this. Read more about Jason's proposal on the Chasing Aphrodite blog, definitely "like" or comment on the proposal on the Knight Foundation Tumblr to help WikiLoot to get funded, AND join in the conversation on the WikiLoot open Facebook group!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dig Ventures' outside-the-box method to archaeology could revolutionize the economics of excavation

Dig Ventures, a British organization that provides "seed capital for archaeology projects worldwide", just launched a whole new kind of funding initiative that promises to change the way we think about funding archaeology and I can succinctly describe as "kick ass". In order to excavate Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire, England, a Bronze Age site that is being threatened by extensive drainage and climate change, Dig Ventures is using Sponsume, the European equivalent of Kickstarter, to reach out to the public for funding. The thing is, they're providing everyone with the incentive to back the project with the opportunity to be involved in the actual dig. £10 gets you "exclusive backstage access to daily content on our website in the 'Site Hut', a PDF of the final report, plus an invitation to our end of site party!" while contributing up to £1,300 or more gets you master classes and evening lectures.

The BBC just published an article today about the venture, in which Lisa Westcott Wilkins, the managing director of Dig Ventures, was quoted:
"Most of the archaeology outside of universities happens in advance of infrastructure or building, so when the market for that slows down, we don't get to dig very much," explained Mrs. Wilkins. "We've been thinking for a long time that things need to change, that there's not the kind of outreach that we feel really could be happening. There are lots of good people who are held back by the traditional way of doing things."
This crowd-sourced, crowd-funded approach to excavating important sites and engaging/educating the public in the process is, frankly, so brilliant that I think we all just want to shout, "DUH." This is an amazingly hands-on approach to a problem that all of us here in the States have been bitching about ever since we discovered that Spike TV and the National Geographic sold their souls for shows like "American Diggers" and "Diggers". Television programs like this are obviously very frustrating for archaeologists and individuals who love responsible archaeology. However, I think that on a quieter level, they have also sparked the realization that the archaeological community has not made the kind of aggressive motions they need to make in fixing a widespread misunderstanding of the ethical differences between responsible archaeology and treasure hunting. Pop culture and reality TV shows with "digger" in the title are just inflating this misunderstanding, and encouraging people to volunteer at professional digs is not proving to be enough incentive for the general public to support responsible archaeology. I see Dig Ventures project as a very clever way of addressing two big issues: first, it's a brilliant way of engaging and education people in archaeology. Second, it's a very creative way of getting funding in an economic environment that generally has little to no funding for archaeology. But I think there is a third, hidden advantage to this kind of initiative: it is a brilliant way of communicating the economic value of keeping heritage intact.

When people outside the archaeological community can see the cost of what it takes to excavate and preserve historical sites (versus what they might spend on a single artifact that was commercially exploited and illegally obtained), it might very effectively drive home the fact that it is cheaper, safer, and more productive to support archaeology and preservation than it is to engage in the illicit art market. The numbers of archaeology are not nearly so scary as the numbers behind the illegal sale of cultural property. £25,000 ($39,837.50) to excavate an entire Bronze Age site versus the $1 million paid by the Met for the Euphronius Krater? Not to mention all the jobs, training, and educational opportunities provided by a mere £25,000 excavation versus the asymmetrical distribution of money and incomplete information provided by a cool $1 mil for a single object without a reliable provenance? Bitch, please. These are the kinds of numbers that could mobilize people on the ground, not just in academia.

Good luck to Dig Ventures in achieving all they've set out to accomplish!