Mo’ loot, mo’ troubles

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Archaeoporn has an entry illus­trat­ing one of the prob­lems with buy­ing illi­cit antiquit­ies. It turns out that not all crim­in­als are trust­worthy people. Take for instance the Seal of Yzbl, it’s a seal of Queen Jezebel as men­tioned in the Bible™. At least it is if you don’t look at it too closely. If you do, then all sorts of oddit­ies appear — that’s not a prob­lem it was found at… umm… oh dear.

Archaeoporn also men­tions the Guennol Lion, which I haven’t because I know noth­ing about it. David Gill in con­trast knows as much about its find spot as any­one else.

David Gill has also talked about the Bolton Princess recently. If you don’t know this story, Bolton Council had the oppor­tun­ity to buy a statue of the Amarna Princess, a 3000+ year old statue from Egypt. There was no check on the proven­ance and the sellers wish to remain anonym­ous. This is par for the course in antiquit­ies sales so far. Nothing more would have been heard were it not for the fact that the same sellers tried to sell some wall reliefs to the British Museum and some spelling mis­takes were spot­ted. An invest­ig­a­tion fol­lowed and a search revealed three more Amarna Princesses which had been knocked up over a few weeks by a bloke in a shed.

It’s pos­sible the Bolton Armana Princess is a fake.

David Gill has a sens­ible and grown-up reac­tion to the news. Me, I’m reminded of the K Foundation and want to applaud. The case sug­gests that the sting was about art rather than money. The per­pet­rat­ors were described as liv­ing in “abject poverty.” If there were a scheme to ensure the proven­ance of arte­facts for sale then maybe this wouldn’t hap­pen. I’m sur­prised that reput­able col­lect­ors and auc­tion houses aren’t clam­our­ing for such a scheme.

— and an update before this post goes live —

I write quite a few posts in advance, and this is one of them, so I can include another Greenhalgh for­gery thanks to the Cranky Professor. The Art Institute of Chicago has a Greenhalgh Gaugin. These things could become col­lect­ible. If you can fake proven­ances, then how many unproven­anced antiquit­ies on dis­play are fake?

The answer depends on the question

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Pothunters looting
Pothunters des­troy­ing a site, or a prob­lem­atic excav­a­tion? Photo (cc) gbaku

David Gill has put up an inter­est­ing blog post show­ing how the kind of ques­tions you ask lead you to cer­tain kinds of answer. It’s really inter­est­ing to see how the assump­tions are skill­fully built into ques­tions. The ses­sion he picks apart is Tainted Objects, which tackles arte­facts of prob­lem­atic proven­ance. (If you’re won­der­ing what prob­lem­atic means: The evid­ence against OJ Simpson was prob­lem­atic.) The prob­lem starts with the title, he argues. How does being smuggled, or expor­ted with a nod and a wink, taint the arte­fact? The taint as he rightly says isn’t any­where in the arte­fact, it’s with the people who are happy to handle them. And that’s just the start.

He’s also linked to an inter­view with Jack Davis in Athens News. Davis is the new head of the American School in Athens and the inter­view is start­ling from the open­ing:

At the University of Cincinnati we passed a res­ol­u­tion in our depart­ment, which is strongly focused on archae­ology, that we would not accept the dona­tion of any antiquit­ies from private sources into our depart­ment, and that we would not accept fund­ing for archae­olo­gical pro­jects from collectors.

As I recall, and North American read­ers are wel­come to cor­rect me if I’m wrong, Cinncinnati is a major uni­ver­sity which could well expect to receive this kind of dona­tion. I know it’s easy to say that you shouldn’t fuel the mar­ket by accept­ing dona­tions from dodgy ‘phil­an­throp­ists’ and val­id­ate their pur­chases. However when one col­lector, who is said to have bought arte­facts with dirt still on them, offered another uni­ver­sity up to $200 mil­lion for a new insti­tute, they took it. Saying no to dona­tions when oth­ers are accept­ing them does require huge amounts of integ­rity. (Note to the rel­ev­ant law­yers. I accept that being offered an arte­fact caked in dirt does not mean there’s any reason to assume it had been recently looted. In much the same way I’d like to reas­sure OJ’s law­yers that I have no doubt that their cli­ent was found inno­cent. I get email.)

The photo is titled “Pothunters” des­troy­ing an archae­olo­gical site on the Columbia River (Oregon, USA) and it’s one of the many put up on Flickr by gbaku. He’s been put­ting up some great images of archae­olo­gical excav­a­tion in action recently and, even bet­ter, they’re avail­able under a Creative Commons licence.

An obsession with context

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Following yesterday’s post on the roots of archae­ology, I’ve read an inter­est­ing post David Gill’s Looting Matters web­log about an obses­sion with con­text. The key quote is so good I can’t help lift­ing it:

The archae­olo­gical community’s obses­sion with con­text puzzles numismatists.”

Lest you think the good pro­fessor is writ­ing with his under­pants on his head I should make clear it’s a quote from an art­icle he read. It makes more sense if you see numis­mat­ics as an heir of anti­quar­i­an­ism and archae­ology as a pre­tender. Archaeologists are more likely study the pasts of peoples who simply don’t appeal to the wannabe-country gent. It would seem a bit odd though as not all numis­maticians are paro­chial in their studies.

Of course if you are a bit of a social dino­saur you may not have noticed chan­ging times. This might explain bizarre claims like:

Numismatists believe that all coins carry use­ful inform­a­tion about the polit­ical, mil­it­ary and eco­nomic situ­ation at the time they were issued. Indeed, numis­mat­ists derive their own con­text from the study of design devices used on coins, the num­ber and chro­no­logy of dies used to strike given series, and the metal­lur­gical con­tent of vari­ous issues. For that reason, numis­mat­ists cat­egor­ic­ally reject the claim that coins lose value as his­tor­ical objects if the cir­cum­stances of their dis­cov­ery are not preserved.”

Ok, how wrong is this? For a start a coin can con­trib­ute to his­tor­ical research by examin­ing its art and its con­text. Lose that con­text and you lose the data. You can­not tell what arte­facts a coin was found with purely from its inscrip­tions, no mat­ter how intensely you study them.

But that’s only half the problem.

At the week­end in the times there was a com­par­ison between antiquit­ies loot­ing and ivory smug­gling in the Times. It is an apt com­par­ison. The death toll in ele­phants can be dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the amount of ivory recovered. Similarly an increase in coin sup­ply from Bulgaria, sorry Thrace, ((Exporting coins from Bulgaria, as well as Greece or Turkey, the other two coun­tries which could be described as Thrace, is illegal. Unfortunately if you list the coin as Thracian then it’s extremely dif­fi­cult to find where the source is and hence can­not launch a pro­sec­u­tion. You’d have to be a pretty shady char­ac­ter to do that though so you wouldn’t expect to find any­thing if you check Ebay for Thracian coins would you?)) may be con­nec­ted with the bull­doz­ing of archae­olo­gical sites in Thrace Bulgaria. The fact that this sort of thing is illegal has led some people to con­clude that crim­in­als might be involved with the antiquit­ies supply.

It’s not a thought that occurs to all deal­ers, nor it seems all numis­mat­ists. The trade relies on deal­ers and law­yers who don’t think too hard about the con­text of their finds. Read David Gill’s thoughts on the sub­ject and laugh or cry.