From Larry Stager (firstname.lastname@example.org). Any response should goI think there's a lot of good sense in this, but I haven't decided yet if I'm going to sign it. Some thoughts:
Below is a Statement of Concern for which I am collecting signatures expressing the importance of publishing unprovenanced archaeological materials and inscriptions. Please read the Statement and, if you agree with it, let me know if we can list you as a signatory.
When emailing me, kindly give me your
Area of interest.
If you know of colleagues who would be willing to be a signatory, please have them write or email me to this effect.
We have no specific plans at this time concerning how we will publicize this Statement. Surely we will provide a copy to ASOR and AIA. The Statement and signatories will also be published in BAR. And undoubtedly it will get some press and internet coverage.
With best regards,
Lawrence E. Stager
STATEMENT OF CONCERN
We are archaeologists and scholars who deal with archaeological materials from the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean basin. We wish to express our concern at a movement that has received much publicity lately that condemns the use of unprovenanced antiquities from consideration in the reconstruction of ancient history. On the contrary, a history of this region cannot be written without the evidence from unprovenanced antiquities.
1. We are strongly opposed to looting. We encourage governments to take all necessary steps to stem, if not eliminate, looting at the source by increased surveillance at archaeological sites, involvement of local communities to increase pride in their heritage, vigorous prosecution of offenders and by the use of modern scientific advances such as motion-sensing and satellite-based technologies.
2. We also recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning. On the other hand, this is not always true, and even when it is, looted objects, especially inscriptions, often have much of scholarly importance to impart.
3. It is true that many unprovenanced antiquities have been looted. Other unprovenanced antiquities, however, are the result of chance finds either by people on their own property or by others on public land. Still other unprovenanced antiquities on the market come from old family collections.
4. The list of important unprovenanced and looted antiquities of value is long: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Codices, the recently reported Gospel of Judas, the Wadi Daliyeh papyri, to name only a few. Hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets, the basis of our understanding of Mesopotamian history, are unprovenanced. Almost all ancient coins and stone seals that reveal so much about ancient society come from the antiquities market. It has been rightly said that the history of the ancient Near East as we know it could not have been written without the use of unprovenanced, often looted artifacts and inscriptions.
5. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) have adopted rules (without a vote of their memberships) prohibiting the initial publication in their journals of unprovenanced artifacts. Similarly, papers at their meetings are not permitted to be read if they are based on unprovenanced antiquities. We strongly oppose these restrictions. Scholars cannot close their eyes to important information.
6. The opposition to the publication of unprovenanced antiquities is supposedly based on the view that their publication encourages looting. Yet it is almost universally recognized that this prohibition on publication has had little or no effect on looting.
7. We do not encourage private collection of antiquities. But important artifacts and inscriptions must be rescued and made available to scholars even though unprovenanced. When such objects have been looted, the antiquities market is often the means by which they are rescued, either by a private party or a museum. To vilify such activity results only in the loss of important scholarly information.
8. We would encourage private collectors of important artifacts and inscriptions to make them available to scholars for study and publication. Too often collectors who do make their objects available to scholars are subject to public obloquy. As a result, collectors are disinclined to allow scholars to study their collections, and the public is the poorer.
9. Our interest is scholarship. If we had to decide between ignoring vital information and encouraging looting, we would have a difficult choice. But, fortunately, that is not the choice we are faced with. Studying and publishing important looted artifacts has no demonstrable effect on the extent of looting.
10. The real objection to the antiquities market and unprovenanced material is that it somehow sullies our hands by participation in an illegal enterprise. But we believe a more refined judgment is called for. Yes, it would be nice if we always had professionally excavated materials to study and publish. But that is not the situation. Our choice is either to study unprovenanced material or ignore it. Given that choice, we prefer to study unprovenanced material. The sweeping exclusion of unprovenanced material from scholarly consideration results only in a loss to scholars, to scholarship and ultimately to the public.
11. The questions we deal with here are quite apart from the issues currently engaging the media and the public regarding patrimony laws and repatriation. These issues are complex and separate from the issues we are concerned with here. On the repatriation issues, we express no view.
(1) I'm not sure what evidence there is on whether scholarly involvement with looted artifacts encourages further looting. Intuitively, I would guess it does, but I don't know and I don't know how this could be proved or disproved. How would such evidence be gathered? Are there objective data either way? The question is one of degree too, and we really need a costs-benefits weighing of whether it's a little extra looting as the price of saving data from lots of critically important artifacts or much additional looting to save data from only a few artifacts of dubious genuineness (see next point). Or something in between.
(2) The Statement does not mention the problem of antiquities forgeries, which clearly has been encouraged by scholarly involvement of unprovenanced artifacts. Certainly both popular and scholarly interest in biblical-related artifacts encouraged the forgery scandal in Israel. Indeed, some of those forgeries seem to have involved altering actual ancient artifacts (the James Ossuary, the Ivory Pomegranate, etc.).
(3) I think there's a qualitative difference between Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of Judas on the one hand, which would be horrendously difficult to forge and which are of enormous inherent value even if their archaeological contexts are lost and, on the other hand, ostraca, bullae, many lapidary inscriptions, inscribed and uninscribed seals, and various other artifacts, which are much easier to forge and some of whose value depends considerably more on having an archaeological context. It would be ridiculous not to study the Gospel of Judas (once properly authenticated), and if the AIA and ASOR really forbid papers and publications on it, I think that's a mistake. But nevertheless, the field of Hebrew-and-related epigraphy has been badly damaged by all the fakes poured into it from the 1980s on, and this is in no small part due to the antiquities trade and scholarly involvement with it.
Perhaps the third point can be addressed on a sliding scale, on which the use of a looted artifact is contingent on the degree to which its authentication is robustly reliable. But the danger of encouraging both looting and forgeries remains a problem to which I have no ready solution. I do agree that we should not ignore highly important and fully-authenticated, very-hard-to-forge artifacts even if they are looted. I will continue to study the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of Judas but I will also continue to be suspicious of unprovenanced (often looted) ostraca, bullae, and the like that appeared from the 1980s on unless I have extremely good reason to think they are genuine.
What do you think? Comments enabled. (Click on the time-of-posting link below.) Be nice and to the point. Please give your right name. Irrelevant and rude comments will be deleted.
UPDATE: For technical reasons involving my search engine, I've had to shut down the comments function, which has only been used on this page. Here are the comments that were left:
Jim, you are correct in seeing a difference between things like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of Judas and ostraca, bullae, etc. But I'm far from clear where the demarcation line is. And in the history of scholarship, some fairly lengthy documents have turned out to be forgeries.
I'm also afraid that the current policies actually give cover to the forgers. Their work no longer needs to face the scrutiny of the scholarly community.
You are also correct about being "suspicious of unprovenanced (often looted) ostraca, bullae, and the like that appeared from the 1980s on" unless one has "extremely good reason to think they are genuine." To me this is a matter of where the burden of proof lies and that tends to follow the evidence even in cases were the artifact was well provenanced. There have been cases of salted artifacts.
# posted by Duane : 3:45 PM
I for one believe thay any materials that may have valuable information for scholars should be analyzed. Unprovenanced items are most definitely a problem and I agree that forgeries have been an issue. However, I would think that upon close scrunity by various experts, forgeries can be identified. I wish I new exactly certain papyri, scrolls, and inscription came to light, but the bottom line is that we have them and should try and figure out if we can learn anything from them. So much of our knowledge of Near Eastern antiquity has come via chance discoveries (and shady black market dealings: unfortunately, that's life! As my Ancient Judaism prof. often iterates, "we must play the ball as it lies."
Michael Helfield (M.A.)
# posted by Anonymous : 4:51 PM
First, thanks for sharing this with us. I will shortly post my own thoughts about the matter in fuller depth at my blog, but for now, here's some thing I have in mind.
I too agree with most of the statement, especially on the points concerning government crackdown. Actually, I don't think "vigorous prosecution" would adequately describge the loathe for these spineless leeches. Looters, and their equally vile counterparts forgers, need at the minimum financial ruin.
In Africa, if poachers are carrying weapons, they are shot by the military protecting the wildlife. That should put things into perspective a bit.
HOWEVER, I do recognize that unprovenanced artifacts can still have serious worth. What needs to be done is to devalue the artifacts so that no money can be made from it, if possible, and to perform rigorous tests to verify authenticity.I would support a statement that nothing can be published until it has undergone the tests necessary for validation. Otherwise, we *are* encouraging these people to continue to loot, plunder, and forge to get make money off of stolen goods.
And with that, we really need to bear in mind that they are indeed stolen.
# posted by Chris Weimer : 11:14 PM