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.

How can you lead the Open Access revolution in the USA?

Capitol Hill. Photo (cc) Wyntuition.

If you live in the USA then Bora Zivkovic needs your help. The Senate is con­sid­er­ing the FY08 Labor-HHS Bill. It’s of interest because it includes pro­vi­sions to make NIH fun­ded research avail­able through open access 12 months after com­mer­cial pub­lic­a­tion. Currently the vol­un­tary arrange­ment means that only 5% of research fun­ded by American tax­pay­ers is avail­able without charge to those tax­pay­ers. This is why the bill is needed.

Not every­one agrees. Senator Inhofe (R-OK) believes that being taxed once is not enough and has filed to amend­ments to pre­vent open access to pub­licly fun­ded research.

Bora would like you to con­tact your sen­ator if you live in the USA and tell them that you’d like to have access to what you have paid for. It’ll need an email to be sent before close of busi­ness Oct 22, 2007. See A Blog Around the Clock for a sample email and more details.

The Archaeology of Spanish Fascism


A chan­nel I’m watch­ing more and more of is Al Jazeera. Not so much for news from Iraq, but news else­where. When the fires were raging in Greece the UK chan­nels were report­ing on the threat to sites. Al Jazeera had a Greek journ­al­ist speak­ing about the danger to people and pos­sible reas­ons why people would want to start the fires. It’s inter­est­ing to see another point of view.

The video above is fas­cin­at­ing. It’s about the recent archae­olo­gical work on the vic­tims of the Spanish Civil War. The war was, among other things, train­ing for the German sol­diers. Spain was the coun­try the allies didn’t get round to lib­er­at­ing at the end of the war. This has left a long tra­di­tion of people col­lab­or­at­ing to sur­vive. Unlike Eastern Europe, the return to demo­cracy wasn’t accom­pan­ied by open­ness but an agree­ment to move on from the past in silence. However some ques­tions will not go away and people are look­ing to see if they can find what happened to their rel­at­ives. Unfortunately the lack of dis­cus­sion hasn’t healed the wounds and old divi­sions are reopen­ing. This Al Jazeera doc­u­ment­ary puts the work of the archae­olo­gists in con­text with rum­blings from the cur­rent gen­er­als that the unity of Spain will be defended.

You can see the second half on Al Jazeera’s YouTube Channel.

Olymp*c Shames, or how to make a bad thing worse

My suggested logo for the Games I cannot mention
My logo sug­ges­tion for the games I can­not leg­ally name.

From the Guardian comes news that could ser­i­ously impact clas­sical stud­ies in the year after AD 2011. The com­mit­tee which can­not leg­ally be named, has copy­righted a word which rhymes with Molympic and the num­ber you get if you sub­tract 6,519 from 8,531. If you plan to meet someone in the England’s cap­ital city just before a quarter-past-eight in the even­ing then by law you will have to be vague.

I’m not quite sure how this is going to work. For instance what hap­pens to any­one who wants to count leg­ally. Will this mean that the count will now run 2010, 2011, umph, 2013 or will 2013 now be an even num­ber? Equally uncer­tain what hap­pens if the offend­ing num­ber occurs in a string of other num­bers. It is pos­sible that it will now only be legal to list pi to 7,202 decimal places. Continue read­ing

Religion versus Archaeology

The Red Fort
The Red Fort where faith will soon tri­umph over Archaeology. Photo (cc) dijit­al­boy.

If you’ve been fol­low­ing my del​.icio​.us feed you’ll have already seen I’ve been read­ing the archae­olo­gical news com­ing out of India recently. I’ve held off com­ment­ing, because I’m not very famil­iar with Indian archae­ology. You should bear that in mind when read­ing on. I’ve also spent a few days try­ing to pull together who believes what happened when. And today I found the post ABC of Ram Sethu at E-mc^2, which says more or less the same thing. As far as I can tell the story is this:

Around 1.75 mil­lion years ago Ravana, King of Lanka was being a pest. As a bit of foresight Ravana had ensured that he was invul­ner­able to the attacks of Gods, Demons and celes­tial folk, but left out men and animal from the list. Vishnu spot­ted the loop­hole and incarn­ated as the human Rama, to get round some legal paper­work. Ravana kid­napped his wife and dur­ing the ensu­ing rum­pus Rama built a bridge to Sri Lanka.

Around 125,000 years ago geo­lo­gical action star­ted to form a bar of rocks and shoals cre­at­ing a string of islands or shal­lows between south­ern India and Sri Lanka.

Around 2000 years ago the poet Valmiki com­posed the Rāmāyaṇa, which described the events of 1.75 mil­lion. Unfortunately he neg­lected to state whether Rama was homo sapi­ens or homo erectus, which could have helped a lot.

This sets the scene for a con­tro­versy around the dredging of a chan­nel through the Ram Sethu. In 2001 the BJP, then the rul­ing party in India decided a chan­nel through the Ram Sethu might be a good thing. At moment ship­ping has to travel round Sri Lanka. A chan­nel could cut out a day’s travel so they star­ted a feas­ib­il­ity study.
Continue read­ing

Thoughts on The God Delusion

God Delusion
The God Delusion. Photo (cc) some­fool.

I bought this a while ago when it came out in paper­back because Sainsbury’s had it on spe­cial offer. I’ve read it, but haven’t com­men­ted on it for a few reas­ons. Partly because I seem to have bought a faulty copy. The God Delusion is a vicious angry screed against reli­gion, or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know because my ver­sion is, in con­trast, polite and reasoned. By and large that makes it a more dan­ger­ous book, because although I don’t think there’s any­thing par­tic­u­larly new in it, it is presen­ted well and puts for­ward both a pos­it­ive view of athe­ism and why Dawkins thinks reli­gion is a prob­lem. To the joy of the­ists though there are a couple of dis­ap­point­ing sections.

One is use of the term Neville Chamberlain Atheist. I don’t like it. It’s inel­eg­ant. It’s used describe those who would appease rel­gious demands by equat­ing them with the British Prime Minister who ini­tially appeased Hitler, but then took a stand and decided to take Britain to war, des­pite a large num­ber of people in Parliament still favour­ing appease­ment. It’s not just the equa­tion with Neville Chamberlain that I don’t think works. There’s an unspoken implic­a­tion that fun­da­ment­al­ists are sim­ilar to Nazis. I don’t think that works either. The Nazis were openly unpleas­ant people and you couldn’t be a Nazi if you belonged to cer­tain groups. Fundamentalists are in con­trast more insi­di­ous. They have room to police every­one in their belief sys­tem. Whether or not Dawkins is to blame for the term is uncer­tain from the book, because he also cites Michael Ruse in this sec­tion so it’s pos­sible he got the term from him. I haven’t read Ruse’s art­icle because it appeared in Playboy and I’m not really will­ing to ask for it on inter-library loan. Orac has said some­thing sim­ilar (about Neville Chamberlain, not Playboy), and Saint Gasoline dis­agrees. Personally I’d argue that the term should be some­thing more like Tony Blair Atheist after someone who respects another’s beliefs des­pite the lack of evid­ence and assists them in inflict­ing dam­age on other people because of faith and polt­ical expediency.

While that was inel­eg­ant another sec­tion was truly bad. I didn’t like is the bit on God as a meme at all. He describes an exper­i­ment sim­ilar to Chinese Whispers. In one exper­i­ment a group of chil­dren demon­strate how to make a Chinese junk from paper by ori­gami to another group. This group then teaches a third gen­er­a­tion and so on. In another exper­i­ment one group of chil­dren draw a junk and pass the draw­ing along to a second gen­er­a­tion to copy and so on. He pre­dicts that by the time you get to the tenth gen­er­a­tion the ori­gami method will still be trans­mit­ted with high fidel­ity whilst the draw­ing will have mutu­ated. Similarly because reli­gion is an imit­ated series of prac­tices rather than an end product reli­gion too can be trans­mit­ted by a meme.

This sounds reas­on­able, or at least it did in 1999 when Dawkins first described the exper­i­ment in the pre­face to The Meme Machine. He hadn’t actu­ally run the exper­i­ment at the time but you can’t do everything. Moving on to 2006 and the Junk appears again. Dawkins still hasn’t done the exper­i­ment but non­ethe­less argues from the res­ults about how cul­ture propag­ates. This both­ers me deeply because I thought that one of the things about exper­i­ments is that you need to do them. I appre­ci­ate he’s a busy man and he may not have the time. But he has chosen to write on the sub­ject. Would it be reas­on­able for me to talk about hered­ity based on my thought exper­i­ment? Would it still be reas­on­able for me to recycle the same thought exper­i­ment seven years later without doing it? If a cre­ation­ist did this they would be mocked mer­ci­lessly. Thankfully the meme concept has abso­lutely no bear­ing on the exist­ence or oth­er­wise of gods, but it sticks out as a low point in what is oth­er­wise a very good book. I sup­pose this would at least indic­ate that I’m think­ing about his argu­ments rather than purely accept­ing them in his author­ity, which is just as well as the rest of his argu­ments are all sound and rational.

One of the sec­tions I par­tic­u­larly liked was on the Hitler was an Atheist / Christian argu­ment. I assumed Hitler was a Christian because he said so. This isn’t enough for Dawkins and here he goes much more deeply into Hitler’s beliefs and con­cludes that the evid­ence is shaky enough that you can’t be cer­tain he was a Christian. He may have used Christianity as a vehicle for his beliefs, but it wasn’t neces­sar­ily a belief he shared. This is where he demon­strates that he has a right to be indig­nant when people refer to him as a fun­da­ment­al­ist. This is much more rep­res­ent­at­ive of the thought in the book and the two points I bring up above cover around six pages of the four hun­dred and twenty in the book.

I’ll be hon­est it’s not rad­ic­ally changed my view of athe­ism, because it expresses a lot of what I thought any­way. However if you live in a less atheist-friendly envir­on­ment like Texas I can see how pub­lish­ing books like this and out­ing your­self can help. While Dawkins is firmly anti-religion he is also pro-human and the world might be a bet­ter place if a few more people were like that.