Saturday, May 28, 2016

Magic bowls of antiquity

ARAMAIC WATCH: Magic bowls of antiquity. Ancient Babylonia’s magic bowls offer a glimpse into the society of the Talmud, and today’s shadowy antiquities market (Samuel Thrope, The header phrases it "What should be donw with the magic bowls of Jewish antiquity?" A very pertinent question. This is a good article that presents some general information about the ancient Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls and then discusses the current controversy over whether possibly looted bowls should still be studied. It seems to make a good effort to visit all sides.

Colin Refrew is correct in the quotation in the first paragraph below, but ...
Colin Renfrew, now senior fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. ‘The tragedy is that all these incantation bowls would have contributed so much to knowledge and understanding if [the details of] their context and discovery had been known.’

However, Renfrew and others say that not only are these bowls not worth studying, but that they shouldn’t be studied. They argue that the study of these incantations, innocent as it might seem, is the last link in a chain of lawbreaking that begins with looting, theft and cultural destruction.
I doubt very much that Dr. Renfrew or any other specialist said that the bowls are "not worth studying." That sounds like the author of the article over-interpreting what they did say. As for what he is quoted as saying, yes, much crucial contextual and stratigraphic information has been lost, but written objects like these inscribed bowls are different from other artifacts like pottery in that each unprovenanced bowl still preserves a considerable amount of unique information. While recognizing and acknowledging the problems, I come down in the end with Shaul Shaked:
Shaked, for his part, is adamant that he will continue studying and publishing the bowls. ‘As a researcher, I won’t allow anything that has historical meaning and importance to rot someplace and not touch it, or be destroyed because someone can’t sell it,’ he said. ‘I think that it is a crime against humanity to allow this material to be lost.’
One concern not raised in the article, but worth at least mentioning, is whether some of these unprovenanced bowls on the antiquities market could be modern forgeries. As far as I can tell, this is unlikely. Manufacturing a persuasive fake Aramaic incantation bowl would require a wide-ranging expertise in late antique and early medieval Aramaic language and paleography, as well as the ability to recreate a convincing material object. It would be extraordinarily difficult to produce one that would be likely to fool specialists, and therefore forging them would not be cost effective. For now, anyway.

For many, many past posts on the ancient Babylonian Aramaic incantation bowls, start here and just keep following the links all the way back to one of PaleoJudaica' first substantive posts. Past posts on the bowls from the Schøyen Collection at UCL are here, here, and here. I was unaware of the more recently released Wikileaks document mentioned in the article.