Friday, 26 March 2010

Renfrew on the griffins of Ascoli Satriano

In the paper summarised above, Renfrew gives some reflections on seeing the exhibition ‘The Secret of Marble: the Painted Marbles of Ascoli Satriano’ at the Palazzo Massimo during the December 2009 symposium which I would like to discuss. Renfrew reflects on the "despicable role" of Giacomo Medici, the illicit dealer and middleman involved in the splitting up of this assemblage and also the "foolish irresponsibility" of those at the Getty who authorised this purchase of an evidently looted antiquity of major importance.

This exhibition contained two important antiquities returned to Italy by the Getty Museum: the marble Griffins (marble table decoration) and the painted ceremonial basin (‘podanipter’: Bottini and Setari 2009, 44 cat.1 and 60 cat. 10). Initially when Renfrew saw the marbles in the Getty Museum, so striking and unexpected was the impression they made on him that he was at the time quite doubtful of their authenticity. "That is one of the prices which one pays when antiquities are clandestinely removed from their context of discovery".
And now, at the Palazzo Massimo I saw not only the Griffins and the remarkable painted marble basin but a whole assemblage of marble artefacts, including the painted calyx crater and the splendidly severe group of marble vessels (loutrophoros, epichysis, oinochoe) which apparently formed part of the original tomb group. A single de-contextualised artwork now had an important series of accompanying pieces. These added greatly to the significance of the extraordinary Griffin piece. But in addition they themselves became of vastly greater importance. [...] Now this wonderful assemblage of objects had been re-constituted. As a result we see not just a single, perhaps rather anomalous art work, but a whole remarkable assemblage of objects: the partial reconstruction of one of the most remarkable tomb groups recovered from Magna Graecia, safely assigned to the fourth century BC and to Ascoli Satriano.

So these important finds are in process of becoming to some extent re-contextualised after the disastrous disjuncture of the looting episode. Renfrew was prompted to believe that there is hope that more can be achieved in the near future. When in future investigations the location of the tomb looted between 1976 and 1978 is found it may prove possible to find associated fragments matching those in the Palazzo Massimo assemblage. This in turn would allow a fuller (though still partial) reconstitution of the association of objects. The objects remaining in the tomb will be more 'minor' antiquities, "since the tombaroli will have taken the obviously saleable pieces, but they might include many significant artefacts and associated materials". Renfrew argues that it should be emphasised that the great academic and cultural significance of the investigations which brought the finds back to Italy is not the act of restitution ("repatriation") but the successful act of re-contextualisation through the investigation of the passage of these items through the clandestine market in illicitly obtained goods.

Post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation

This triumphantly successful episode or re-contextualisation carries wider implications. For it exemplifies a process of recovery which can be highly significant on occasions when looted antiquities are successfully returned to their area of origin. Each act of looting represents a disastrous disjuncture, a destructive episode in which the artefacts are illicitly and clandestinely removed from their original context of discovery, with its rich and informative associations. The information crucial to the effective archaeological interpretation of the excavated assemblage is lost in this process: a disaster for any attempt to increase our understanding of the human past. For the interpretive process can only work when the context of discovery can be carefully researched.

There are occasions, however, when the looted antiquities can be subjected to forensic study (in both the legal and scientific senses) in such a way as to allow the partial reconstitution [my emphasis PMB] of that original context. This is well exemplified by the case of the Ascoli Satriano Griffins. This piece and the painted ceremonial basin reached the Getty from the same dealer (Medici). But it was the forensic work (in the historical and legal senses) which led to their reunion with the other marble pieces from their original find spot. And it was forensic work (in the scientific sense, namely the study of marble and of pigments in the painted decoration) which confirmed their original association and their association with the calyx crater and the other pieces which had remained in Puglia.

It is perhaps worth recognising this process and of giving it a specific designation: ‘PDFR’ or ‘post-disjunctive forensic re-contextualisation’. This refers to the possibility, after a catastrophic episode of looting (the ‘disjuncture’) to use investigative (forensic) techniques to bring about the restoration of aspect of the original context of discovery. In this way important information can be recovered, and the catastrophe of the looting at least partly mitigated.
The same approach has been applied, although not yet with great success, to the Euphronios calyx crater returned from the Metropolitan Museum (Silver 2009). Recently attempts have been made to apply it to the Early Cycladic marble figures looted in the late 1950s from the site of Kavos on the Cycladic island of Keros (Sotirakopoulou 2005; Papamichelakis and Renfrew 2010), For there are many cases where at least partial forensic re-contextualisation can be attempted after the disjuncture occasioned by looting.
Like Renfrew, I am convinced that cases of illicit trade should not end with the mere restitution of the "out-of-place artefact" to the country in which it was dug up. In my opinion, these cases do not finish there, they should each be followed back to identify who was responsible for the items getting there, which means doing that "forensic" footwork and tracing the route of the object back to source. I am less convinced however by Refrew's suggestion that the uniting of scattered objects in itelf is "re-contextualisation". Archaeological context cannot, surely, be reconstructed, recreated just by bringing two decontextualised objects together in the same room or exhibition case. There is more to it than that.

Bottini A. and Setari E. (eds.), 2009, I Marmi Dipinti di Ascoli Satriano, Roma, Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.
Papamichelakis G. and Renfrew C., 2010, Hearsay about the ‘Keros Hoard’, American Journal of Archaeology 114, 181-5.
Silver V., 2009, The Lost Chalice, New York, William Morrow.
Sotirakopoulou P., 2005, The “Keros Hoard”: Myth or Reality? Searching for the Lost Pieces of a Puzzle, Athens, N.P. Goulandris Foundation.
Watson P. and Todeschini C., 2006, The Medici Conspiracy: the Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums, New York, Public Affairs.


1 comment:

David Gill said...

See also:
Gill, David W.J. and Chippindale, Christopher (2007), 'From Malibu to Rome: further developments on the return of antiquities', International Journal of Cultural Property, 14 (2), 205-40.
It looks as if the marbles were found with Apulian pots.
Best wishes

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