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?
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.
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.