Ethnographic Arms & Armour

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fearn 29th June 2008 05:08 PM

Permanently identifying weapons
Hi All,

This is inspired both by an idea I posted in the Keris Warung Kopi on the future of the keris and the thread on the Origin of the Mindanoan kris

Basically, it's a question of how to permanently date and authenticate weapons.

The prediction I posted in the keris thread was, 30 years: "Biotechnology and advances in isotopic chemistry will allow keris owners to cheaply authenticate their antique keris as antiques, and to store that information in a way that travels with the keris. Antique keris, particularly those made of materials like ivory, will re-enter the international trade."

How to do this? I'm not too worried about the precise technology. That's going to change fast enough that our blades may actually get retested as technology improves.

No, the bigger issue is: what part(s) of the weapon get tested, and how the information gets stored in a way that travels with the weapon. The issues we need to think about are how to minimize the damage to the artifact by sampling, and how to make sure that the information is associated with that artifact only, and not moved (or copied) to a fake or weapon of lesser quality.

Now biotech and isotopic samples are going to be destructive. Part of whatever gets tested will have to be sacrificed. In one way, this isn't so bad, because if the material removal is mindful and esthetic, the mark of material removed actually serves as part of the permanent record. Material can be cut off with a hacksaw, or it can be carefully removed, leaving a distinctive but minor mark that can be pointed as evidence of authenticity. "See, that's where they removed the metal for the 2015 test." Or "See, that's the core they removed to date the ivory." Obviously such marks can be faked, and that's where an artistic job of sampling is useful. The harder it is to fake the sample site, the better. If the sampling hole is an irregular heptagon with precisely measured faces and angles, a forger probably won't bother trying to copy it precisely.

The second question is how the information would travel. Alam Shah suggested embedding a microchip in the keris, and that's not a bad idea. It's also an easy thing to hack, both in the sense of copying the information and hacking the microchip out and embedding it elsewhere. My thought was, again, somewhat destructive: engraving a code (potentially machine readable) on the tang of the blade, and saving the information on the web, preferably in multiple locations. If there's a complete description of a weapon, complete with code, sampling marks, isotopic and biochemical markers, etc., that's readily available to anyone with web access (including a customs agent), then a weapon can travel freely from collector to collector. The issue is how to do it.

This applies to all of our collectibles, not just keris, and one obvious problem is that many blades have multiple dresses (different scabbards, hilts, etc). Does each piece get authenticated, or only the blade? Should it vary, with (for example) katanas getting different treatment than European antiques?

What I'm trying to do is figure out a minimally destructive way of authenticating antique weapons, storing the information where everyone can access it, it would take the collapse of civilization (or similar) to destroy that informaiton, and it would be relatively easy to confirm that an antique is what is recorded without doing further destructive tests to the antique.

What do you think? Comments? How would we go about setting this up? Or is something like this already in place, and could it be expanded?


David 29th June 2008 05:42 PM

Frankly Fearn, this kind of ultra-specifoc information just isn't that important to me that i would be willing to allow even the slightest bit of damage to a keris or kris in my own collection. I consider them kinda like my children, not a commodity that i need to prove any authenticity in order to establish value on them. I personally would be less inclined to buy such a "damaged" piece even if it assured me of it's date of origin.
Are all my collection what i believe them to be. For the most part i think they are. I buy mostly from reputable people who tend to know what they are talking about. And most of all i buy a keris because i like it, not because of when it was made. That doesn't mean i don't like to know, but that knowledge is secondary. For me, art is art is art..... :shrug: :)
.... just my 2 ....

ward 29th June 2008 05:49 PM

I feel this is a terrible idea. There are enough restrictions on ownerships of weapons. Now you want basically to have a seizure list compiled. Also many weapons are marriages. Indian swords have routinely had hilts changed from the original blade. Afghan pieces have pieces that are hundreds of years mixed with parts from recent history back to 19th century. Are you going to test every one. I do not see letting a lab tech cut into any of my ladder blades.Weapons collecting is not like coin collecting where you can look in a little book and go yes this is from 1820 and is in fair condition and comes from this country. It takes skill and research to collect in this field.

fearn 29th June 2008 06:09 PM


I'm glad for these responses. The tension I see here is between the perfectly reasonable desires to
--Have perfect and complete antiques (which I think is wonderful),
--To know the history of objects, especially how old things are and how they've changed (see the arguments in various threads, notably the Mindanoan kris thread currently),
--To be guaranteed that what you're buying is genuine (see the various recent threads about eBay fakes and cons, for example)
--For genuine antiques to move between international collectors, especially when they contain materials (such as ivory) that are governed by CITES. This last one is problematic because old ivory, feathers, etc. can't be exported without proof of age and provenance (see various posts on ivory-hilted keris staying in SE Asia, for instance)

I don't think we can meet all these desires, because they contradict each other. To me, the important thing is to start arguing about it, as much as to come up with a solution. My proposed solution is ugly to some, but is it worse than some of the other things that could happen, such as frauds, cons, and needless antique destruction in the name of modern conservation?

While I also think that a trustworthy network of contacts is one way to get authentic antiques, it is also remarkably easy to hack into (think of how many con men come across as wonderfully trustworthy and honest).

I also think that one way to protect things is to control the information yourself. It's quite possible that, in 20 years, Vikingsword archives will be an important source of authentication for artifacts that have been discussed here. Perhaps we should start thinking about how information moves?

One thing I'm *NOT* suggesting is that a government body should control permanent information about our collections. Personally, I'd rather that, if there was a registry, we controlled it ourselves. After all, we care a heck of a lot more than any bureaucrat (or hired consultant) possibly could. There's no reason we can't start keeping track, if we want.


CourseEight 29th June 2008 06:27 PM

I don't know that any such autentication system will take hold within the collecting community at large for precisely the reasons stated above. That said, I do believe the time will come when these sorts of autentication will be done with virtually no loss to the piece. In many ways, phycists already have the technology to answer such questions, but the real problem is what question precisely to ask (c.f. this thread ). This is a realm where collectors within the scientific community could be of great value to the community at large.

Were a noninvasive cheap (enough) test ever developed, it could simply be repeated on each sale. Short of that, I don't see any but the most contravesial pieces being submitted for destructive tests (the "Shroud of Turin" standard if you will).

My two tenths of a penny,


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