Loot by Sharon Waxman


In short, the best archae­o­pol­it­ics book I’ve read since Edward Fox’s Sacred Geography. I was kindly sent a review copy by the pub­lish­ers and I have a feel­ing that they were hop­ing for a bit more than that, so I’ll add a bit more.

It’s sub­titled “The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” The ancient world here is pretty much Greece, Rome and Egypt, which means she doesn’t have a lot to say about the strip­ping of sites in Africa, the Americas or Asia. To some extent that’s a bit of a shame, but by focus­sing tightly on a few examples Waxman is able to go into the details of how the mar­ket for illi­cit antiquit­ies works. You have to keep a close eye on what’s hap­pen­ing as I get the impres­sion that one of the inspir­a­tions for the antiquit­ies trade was the three-card trick. The book is four parts. She opens by look­ing at Egypt and the atti­tude of the Louvre.
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Do you need a note from a criminal to prove an artefact is stolen?

Looks nice, but are looks enough?

This is the death mask of Ka Nefer Nefer. I can tell you she was con­nec­ted with Rameses II in some way, but not a lot else. It hard to find inform­a­tion about her lie on the web because her death mask is the big story as far as Ka Nefer Nefer goes. Or rather it’s the travels her mask has been on and the dogged determ­in­a­tion of the Saint Louis Art Museum to drag its own name through the mud.

The mask was found in 1952 in Saqqara by the Egyptian archae­olo­gist Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, as part of the exacava­tions of the pyr­amid of Sekhemkhet. After this events are dis­puted. In 1998 it was dis­covered again when the Saint Louis Museum of Art pur­chased it. They got it from Phoenix Ancient Art, who say it came from an anonym­ous Swiss col­lec­tion before them. The Saint Louis Art Museum is fur­ther claim­ing that a Belgian dealer had it back 1952. This would appear to be an object that’s been shuffled around deal­ers, like yesterday’s amphorae. If you read yesterday’s entry you’ll also remem­ber I said there was going to be a test. Here it is.

You are offered an Egyptian death mask from a site which was claimed to be the most import­ant dis­cov­ery since the tomb of Tutankhamen. The sellers claim it left Egypt in 1952 as ‘part­age’ the prac­tice where a host nation will give for­eign excav­a­tion teams some of the arte­facts it finds. Do you:
A) Say “Hang on, Goneim was Egyptian, how did part­age hap­pen? It would have been held in an Egyptian museum. I’d bet­ter con­tact the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt to check the story.
B) Say “Owned by an anonym­ous Swiss bloke? That’s good enough for me. After all if the seller’s hon­est then he wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.”

If you scored mostly ‘A’s: Congratulations! You would not be not look­ing like a prize buf­foon. The claim of part­age looks ludicrous as these couple of para­graphs from the Riverfront Times make clear.

That runs counter to everything I would expect,” says Robert Ritner, a pro­fessor at the Oriental Institute, an Egyptology research cen­ter at the University of Chicago. “If it left Egypt that early, it prob­ably left improp­erly. Any excav­ator for the Egyptian gov­ern­ment is under oblig­a­tion to provide that mater­ial back to Egypt — even in the ‘50s. It isn’t his per­sonal loot that he can then take out himself.”

It never hap­pens,” seconds University of Virginia art-history pro­fessor Malcolm Bell, who is also vice pres­id­ent for pro­fes­sional respons­ib­il­it­ies at the Archaeological Institute of America. “It sounds like the sort of thing you could say if you didn’t really know the cir­cum­stances and you were try­ing either explain or invent. But it’s not the sort of thing that happens.”

In his own writ­ing Goneim also indic­ates that it was Egyptian prop­erty. Goneim thanked the Egyptian gov­ern­ment for allow­ing him to use pho­tos of the mask in one of his books. You don’t tend to thank someone else for giv­ing per­mis­sion to use pho­to­graphs of your own prop­erty. There’s also the addi­tional prob­lem that the mask was recor­ded as being in the Saqqara ware­house in 1952 and 1959, but not in 1965.

If you scored mostly ‘B’s: Congratulations! You’re gull­ible enough to work in the Saint Louis Museum of Art pur­chas­ing antiquit­ies. This is no mean acheive­ment. The Saint Louis Art Museum say they checked to make sure the Swiss owner was a real per­son. So did the Riverfront Times, and they found she was a woman who had no idea about the mask. But she had ren­ted prop­erty to two Lebanese men, Ali and Hicham Aboutaam, who turned out to be Phoenix Ancient Art. Since selling the mask to Saint Louis, the Aboutaam broth­ers have been con­victed of smug­gling illi­cit antiquit­ies. The Aboutaams are so dodgy even the Met has con­cerns about them. Assuming the Saint Louis Art Museum isn’t inten­tion­ally abet­ting illegal activ­it­ies (and I’d like to make clear to the museum and their law­yers I am def­in­itely not accus­ing them of this), then the logical con­clu­sion is that who­ever approved the deal was com­pletely incompetent.

The defence of the Saint Louis Museum of Art is that their pur­chase was legal, there­fore they should keep the mask. I don’t know enough about American law to say whether or not someone keeps own­er­ship if they unknow­ingly receive stolen goods. Even if they do, this is con­fus­ing legal with moral. It is for instance legal to have unpro­tec­ted sex with the Saint Louis Blues while your wife has gone to the shops, but I don’t know any­one who would encour­age that kind of beha­viour. The museum’s own­er­ship of the mask is based on a shock­ing lack of curi­os­ity about the ori­gin of the piece. As for the claim that the mask leg­ally left Egypt via Goneim, the claim is legal in this sense; it only works because the dead can’t sue for libel. Goneim was not a cipher.

After find­ing the pyr­amid Goneim wrote a book and toured the USA. Sadly he gained enemies and on his return to Egypt life took a tra­gic turn. He was accused of smug­gling out a ves­sel found by Quibell and Lauer found in the Djoser com­plex. There was no evid­ence but he was repeatedly inter­rog­ated by the police and slandered. Lauer under­took to clear Goneim’s name and even­tu­ally found the ves­sel in a stor­e­room in Saqarra. By the time he found it, it was too late. Overwhelmed by the shame of a crime he didn’t com­mit, Goneim drowned him­self in the Nile in 1957. The records show Goneim didn’t take the mask for his own either. In view of his death I think the Saint Louis Art Museum’s claim is par­tic­u­larly repugnant.

Saint Louis’ insist­ence on hold­ing the mask raises quite a few unpleas­ant ques­tions. Does the slander of an inno­cent man mat­ter? Is it accept­able to gain arte­facts by any means, so long as you make sure you’re ignor­ant of exactly what those means are? Is it enough that an arte­fact is pretty? They don’t seem that bothered about answer­ing any.

I found this story via the International Herald and Tribune, how­ever the best write-up is in the Riverfront Times from earlier this year. Even older is this 2006 art­icle from Al-Ahram

From blogs, there’s pieces by Paul Barford this year and Derek Fincham from last year. I think they’re both more polite about the museum than me, which might be more pro­duct­ive. It’s just the read­ing round the sub­ject made the Saint Louis Art Museum appear more and more slimy to the extent that you won­der if they have a limit. Exactly how bad would the proven­ance of an arte­fact be before they refused to touch it? Would you actu­ally need to have a note from a crim­inal to prove an arte­fact was stolen?

I’ll try and write up a review of Sharon Waxman’s Loot for tomorrow.

Spanish police seize looted amphorae (pay attention, there will be a test)


From TypicallySpanish comes the news that two men have been arres­ted in con­nec­tion with some 1st cen­tury amphorae which may have come from the Bou Ferrer wreck off the Costa del Sol.

Seized Amphorae
The looted amphorae. Photo Guardia Civil.

If you’re like me you might have a vague idea you’ve heard of Bou Ferrer, but can’t remem­ber where. That’s because it’s not been widely repor­ted in the English-speaking world. Spanish web­log Terrae Antiquae had the details back in November 2006. The Bou Ferrer, named after a diver who worked on the wreck is poten­tially hugely excit­ing. It’s big, 30 metres long, car­ry­ing 400 tonnes of freight. It’s also extremely well pre­served. It’s embed­ded in the seabed which means the tim­bers have sur­vived in excel­lent con­di­tion. So far forty amphorae con­tain­ing garum, a sauce made from rot­ting fish guts, have been recovered. There’s about 1200 amphorae on the wreck.

Informacion​.es says the amphorae were recovered after they heard a man had a col­lec­tion of amphorae from vari­ous eras includ­ing some from the Bou Ferrer. After hear­ing this they chased round vari­ous antiquit­ies deal­ers. The typ­ical plan is to shuffle round the arte­facts until they get con­vin­cingly lost. Then you turn up with them at an auc­tion house call­ing them “Property of a European col­lector”. Trading arte­facts found after 1970 is a prob­lem due to UNESCO con­ven­tions tar­get­ting the trade in illi­cit antiquit­ies, but simply say­ing they’re part of an old col­lec­tion is good enough for a lot of deal­ers. They may well check on the Art Loss Register, but given that the amphorae have been recently lif­ted from the seabed they won’t appear on that. This is why it was imper­at­ive that the Guardia Civil hit when they did because if they’d tried fol­low­ing them through the twisty-turny deal­ing that make up the antiquit­ies mar­ket there’s a good chance they’d lose them.

To be hon­est I have trouble see­ing them as art. They’re pretty ugly look­ing and I can’t ima­gine they’ll look that much more sexy when they get cleaned up. So why are they import­ant? Well, they’re clearly of Dressel type mumble mumble. I don’t know much about amphorae shapes, but there are plenty of people who do. They’re cat­egor­ised by their pro­file, known as their Dressel type after Heinrich Dressel who cat­egor­ised vari­ous shapes of amphora and then worked out which shapes were pop­u­lar when. A large num­ber of amphorae gives you a large sample size and gives you a good chance of put­ting a date on the shipwreck.

It’s also import­ant that the wreck is excav­ated prop­erly because there’s a lot of other inform­a­tion there which loot­ers wouldn’t be inter­ested in. For instance ships com­monly car­ried things like roof tile as bal­last. Or did they? Recent work by Phil Mills sug­gests that a simple tile=ballast approach is naïve and that actu­ally people were ship­ping tile because it had value, rather than just because it made the ship more stable at sea. If that’s the case the bal­last in this ship might be inter­est­ing. It lies on the route from south­ern Spain to Rome. Was it just garum that the Romans wanted? What else is in the wreck? If it’s not valu­able then there’s a good chance it’ll be lost if loot­ers turn over the ship. The seizure is great news.

…and as I said there’ll be a test. Find out which museum fails it tomorrow.

Should we pass on the PAS?


Treasure hunter. Photo (cc) Elsie esq.

I’m slightly late to be com­ment­ing on Derek Fincham’s paper, in the International Journal of Cultural Property, A Coördinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin. There’s a few reas­ons for that, but the major one is that I’ve been read­ing round what other people have been say­ing about the paper. A large part of the paper dis­cusses the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and my own per­spect­ive on that seems to be from a dif­fer­ent view­point to a lot of other peoples.

Excavations at a Gallo-Roman Villa
The site at Goeblange-Miecher.

By and large my archae­olo­gical train­ing has been on com­munity pro­jects. My first dig was on a com­munity pro­ject excav­at­ing a Gallo-Roman villa, organ­ised by a soci­ety based in the local vil­lage in Nospelt. In the UK I was in the local vil­lage archae­ology group and did a bit of excav­a­tion and geo­phys­ics and a lot of field­walk­ing. All the pro­jects I’ve worked on have been poorly fun­ded, even by archae­olo­gical stand­ards, or more often not fun­ded at all. My exper­i­ence then with archae­ology out­side of aca­demia is of know­ledgable, enthu­si­astic people with rel­at­ively little access to expert­ise, equip­ment and information.

The great attrac­tion of the PAS from my point of view is the out­reach aspect. All sorts of little bits of inform­a­tion are being gathered by ama­teurs and rather than being cent­rally hoarded they’re being made avail­able to any­one with an inter­net con­nec­tion. It’s not that there’s been a lack of will in any of the museum ser­vices I’ve seen when it comes to pub­lic engage­ment, but there hasn’t really been the insti­tu­tional frame­work to help it hap­pen. The PAS is built around enga­ging with the pub­lic and it’s in the bones of the sys­tem. For example below is some data uploaded to Swivel. To be hon­est I can­not see myself using that par­tic­u­lar data­set, but that’s not the point. I’m used to being told there are strict lim­it­a­tions on what I can do with pho­tos from museums. Here someone is act­ively encour­aging the pub­lic to take away data and do some­thing inter­est­ing with it.

Finds and Records vs. Number of Treasure cases in England and Wales Number of Treasure Cases vs. Number of Treasure cases in England and Wales Number of Treasure Cases

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Bad news for the Christians


There’s a 1st cen­tury BC tab­let which has been found pre­dict­ing a Messiah that will rise after three days. I can’t really see this shak­ing Christianity by con­nect­ing it to Judaism. The whole concept of a Messiah is Jewish. It’s not like Judea was short of Messiahs in this period. As for proph­ecies Matthew is known to have drawn on Jewish proph­ecies for his gos­pel, hence the whole being born in Bethlehem thing. It is of his­tor­ical interest though. It seems like a mes­siah proph­ecy we didn’t know about before. That could have told us more about the devel­op­ment of Christianity.

Sadly it can’t tell us a lot, because the mater­ial is unproven­anced. Anyone who’s Christian has had inform­a­tion about tab­let of import­ance to their faith trashed and it’s inform­a­tion which can­not be replaced. It’s been com­pared to find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls.* It’s not like find­ing the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s like burn­ing them unread and sift­ing through the ashes to see what you can make out.

However as long as there’s a mar­ket for unproven­anced and illi­cit antiquit­ies there’ll be a profit to be made from other people’s beliefs.

See also: The Boston Globe and Jim West’s web­log.

*Actually in some ways it is. An awful loot of inform­a­tion about them has been lost too due to the trade in unproven­ance antiquities.

The Burglars. Photo (cc) John Carl Johnson

Illicit Antiquities linked to Islamic terrorists — Who’da thunk it?


It shouldn’t be news. I men­tioned the pos­sib­il­ity in 2005, and again late last year. When you buy unproven­anced antiquit­ies you don’t know who you’re buy­ing them from.

Now the Ashland Daily Tidings reports on the work by Matthew Bogdanos, which he says shows that the con­nec­tion between the trade in illi­cit antiquit­ies and Islamic insur­gents is undeni­able. Yes, you read that right. It turns out some mem­bers of Al-Qaeda are prone to crim­inal activity.

Despite that fair-play to Antonia Kimbell at the Art Loss Register who said that she’s seen no evid­ence of a dir­ect link. The way the Art Loss Register works is they check a data­base of illi­cit arte­facts. Obviously that means that someone needs to have registered an arte­fact as illi­cit, but that’s not a prob­lem so long as Al-Qaeda remem­ber to fill out the paperwork.

I went to look at David Gill’s blog to fact check the work­ings of the Art Loss Register because Kimbell’s com­ments seemed unfeas­ib­ily mor­onic. I can’t believe someone that cred­u­lous would be able to hold down a job at the Art Loss Register if it worked the way I described it. But it does, and David Gill is also blog­ging this story.

There’s a lot of things I’d like to see hap­pen with the Iraqi occu­pa­tion. One is that I’d like to see UK and US gov­ern­ments sup­port our sol­diers by mak­ing it harder for ‘art col­lect­ors’ to fund the enemy. If you’d like to read more about how you can fund the killing of British and American sol­diers and pick up a nice antiquity into the bar­gain then you can read Looting Matters, Illicit Cultural Property and Safe Corner.

Things that really matter can’t be stolen


When some­thing pre­cious is lost, it is well to be reminded of what really mat­ters. In the week since the theft of Victoria Crosses from the Waiouru Army Museum, it has been hard to put the crime into perspective.

Editorial: Things that really mat­ter can’t be stolen — 08 Dec 2007 — History — NZ Herald

There’s an inter­est­ing art­icle on what the theft of arte­facts can mean at the NZ Herald. In this instance it’s the theft of nine Victoria Crosses. The loot includes the double VC awar­ded to Captain Charles Upham in World War II, one of only three ever to be awar­ded. The Victoria Cross is the highest award that can be given to a sol­dier and the import­ance of Upham’s medals to New Zealand was under­lined by the gov­ern­ment barred their export.

It is a loss, but the edit­or­ial gets it right. Without the con­text of the museum all the col­lector will get will be bits of metal.