As I have said in previous posts, when I have mentioned to people that I’m doing a project on eBay – however small and experimental – the usual response has been a smirk and a shake of the head. It’s clear to me that eBay is seen as a problem, or at least as something not worth engaging with, but I have struggled to pin people down on exactly what kind of problem it is and why. Two main potential problems spring to mind.
The ethical minefield
Perhaps the obvious problem, the one that turns archaeologists off straight away, is that eBay contains a lot of metal-detecting finds. It also, potentially, contains objects acquired in even more problematic circumstances than that. There is much written on this and I don’t need to go into details myself here. Paul Barford for instance has written extensively on the subject on his blog Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues and has even written specifically on eBay. Also of interest is Kurt Montgomery’s work on the influence of the internet on militaria collecting, which highlights many of the same issues, among much more.
It is a real problem. It is a problem that means valuable information is lost to analysis and to databases like the PAS. It is also a problem that created and now sustains the particular monetary values attached to archaeological material and therefore needs to be addressed.
As my unsuccessful attempt to speak to eBay sellers shows, there’s also a problem with the forum itself. It is, of course, understandable that people using eBay to quickly and easily sell a few things don’t want to talk about what they’re doing. It becomes even more likely when those people are selling metal-detecting finds and it’s an archaeologist asking them about it. Understandable, but a bit of a shame. It’s partly the silence from eBay sellers and from eBay itself that makes it look like the problem it does.
Is thinking eBay is a problem a barrier?
There are real problems with eBay, but what is the difference between the forum being problematic and those problems becoming a barrier to engagement? My admittedly small sample data scrape of six artefact types suggests that when it comes to the objects that would usually be considered to have higher monetary values and to hold more ‘archaeological data’, eBay contains only minuscule amounts compared to, in this instance, the PAS. Is it then more the idea that eBay sellers are disregarding others’ desire for the information their objects would provide or the notion of monetizing historic artefacts that is the problem? That must be part of it, but how many sellers are aware of these problems? We don’t know because it’s really hard to talk to them. It’s almost a Catch-22.
My proposed solution to this issue is to stop approaching eBay as an insurmountable problem. When we take a start point that eBay is bad and that its sellers are bad and that its defining characteristic is the loss of archaeological material, we create a barrier that it is really hard to see past. I know that is a real problem. I know that eBay don’t help themselves by refusing to engage. However, if we take a different start point – of eBay as a group of people interested in historic objects who we don’t currently talk to, but who we could learn new things from if we could engage them in some way – the onus would then be on us to try harder, to move past or lay aside our reasons for negativity and to keep trying.
EBay and eBay sellers are just another hard-to-reach group. There is huge scope for the aims and methods of public and community archaeology to change the relationship between them and the wider discipline.