Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cline on the looting of antiquities

YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT: Do You Get to Keep What You Find? (Eric Cline, The ASOR Blog).
There is one question that I am asked all the time, which has a short answer but is long on associated implications. The question is simply “Do you get to keep what you find?” The answer is very short: “No.” Whether you’re working in your own country or in a country other than your own, that nation’s antiquities department will have a set of rules. The best discoveries might go to a national or regional museum, as has been true throughout the history of archaeology, but most of the material will be put into bags and boxes and stored at the local university, museum, or some other place where graduate students and other scholars can come in and study the material during the months (or even years) after the excavation. A six- or seven-week field season can yield enough material for two years or more of study and published findings.
Most of the essay is devoted to the issue of the looting of artifacts rather than whether volunteers at archaeological digs can keep some of them. Excerpt with interspersed commentary:
The appearance of one-of-a-kind looted objects can cause a dilemma for archaeologists committed to limiting the trade in illegal antiquities. Such seems to have been the case in 2011, when the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq was advised by an Assyriologist in Britain to buy a group of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform that he had been shown by an antiquities dealer. In this case, among the tablets was one that turned out to contain a previously unknown section from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It fills in a large gap within the fifth tablet in the poem where Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu are heading for the Cedar Forest to get timber; this is usually thought to be the same general region where the famous Cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible were located. The new lines describe the noises that they hear upon entering the forest, including birds, insects, and monkeys
More on the new Gilgamesh fragment is here.
Lost for three thousand years, this tablet filled in an important piece of one of the classics of world literature. The dilemma for archaeologists, of course, is that we don’t want to encourage looting, but also cannot allow such a tablet with valuable information to go into the art collecting market and disappear from public view without making some effort to save it and allow scholars to study it. Discussions on the issue have been prompted by the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which were purchased from the Bedouin who had illegally found them in the caves around Qumran; it is frequently asked what would happen if such scrolls appeared on the antiquities market today?
New scroll fragments are appearing on the antiquities market and at least some of them appear to be forgeries.
In fact, there is something similar that has happened with more than a hundred—or perhaps as many as two hundred—clay tablets that apparently come from an archive that documents the daily life of Jews who were moved to Mesopotamia during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE and remained there into the fifth century BCE. The tablets appeared on the antiquities market at some point, reportedly after the 1970s, though exactly when is debated. At least half were eventually purchased by a private collector and then published by a pair of scholars, after which they were displayed in an exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem in early February 2015, from which came a second publication by a different set of scholars.
For more on the Babylonian-Jewish cuneiform tablets, start here and follow the links.
Even though it is not clear from which site they came, the tablets give its ancient name as “al-yahudu,” which, roughly translated, means “Judah-town.” They are among the first textual evidence from Mesopotamia confirming that the Babylonian Exile reported in the Bible and elsewhere did take place and what happened to those who were exiled. The tablets are extremely important, but they have no known context and were obviously looted—perhaps from southern Iraq, according to some reports. Should they have been published? Should they have been put on display? In this case, the importance of the texts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls to which they have the best parallel in terms of circumstances of discovery, persuaded at least some scholars that they should be published and displayed, despite the fact that they were apparently looted and acquired illegally. Not all scholars agree; in fact, the Archaeological Institute of America’s policy is to refuse to publish articles that describe objects that cannot be clearly demonstrated not to have been looted; same goes for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR).
More here and links on the issue of when, if ever, scholars should make use of unprovenanced artifacts (especially inscriptions, each of which is potentially unique).