Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Lagash and the United States Antiquities Market

Somebody claiming the rather unlikely name of "Shell Andromache" based in Atlanta, Georgia, United States was looking up Zuzim Judaea coinshop on the internet, and found this blog containing an old post of mine she did not like and decided to comment on it. Most of it's the usual self-serving no-questions-asked collecting stuff.

She claims to have dealt with two named US coin dealers in the past (Pegasi numismatics and Copper Penny/Ancient Byways) and from them bought "Sumerian and akkadian tablets both before and after the Iraq incident" ("Incident" Ms Andromache? Come now, don't be coy, it was a US-led invasion of a sovereign state). She says that "Wayne was always able to provide provenance in such cases", that is Wayne [Somebody - full name not apparent on website] of "copper penny" of Wethersfield CT... looking at their website and what they sell, I find this an odd claim. The "sold" section of the website contains just 16 items. Ms Andromache continues:
Also, anyone who knows anything about such topics should not be in the least bit shocked to realize that there are legitimately tens of thousands of such pieces in the United States thanks to the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania which lead (sic) one of the most successful archeological digs in history with the discovery of the city of Lagash in the late 1800's. It used to be that digs were funded by wealthy donors and part of their reward came in the legitimate gifting of insignificant relics such as a nail cuneiform tablets of Gudea's temple dedications (while cool they are quite common, circa 5000+ for Gudea alone) etc. Also professors often received them for their personal collection for their service in the fields and as these people sell or trade them they make it onto the market for collectors. 
 Now, that is rather convenient isn't it? As I recall, it is precisely Lagash which has been hard-hit by some of the recent looting and Lagash artefacts that are among those suddenly "surfacing" (from underground?) on the modern market. I am sure a claim that thousands of licit examples are floating anonymously around the antiquities market is jolly convenient for the smuglers, Ms Andromache.

But what is the truth behind this glib assertion by a veteran collector?  Well, despite the firm assurances of the mysterious collector it seems there are few grounds to accept this story as anything but apocryphal collecting lore which - as much of it - has no grounding in fact whatsoever. First of all anyone passionately interested in the past and engaged in its collecting as a help to self-study would be able to cite the details of the University of Pennsylvania publications of "one of the most successful archeological digs in history". In fact the only excavations going on there in the 1880s was a six-week campaign by a young Robert Koldewey in 1887 who was not, as far as anyone knows, working for the University of Pennsylvania (Robert Koldewey, Die altbabylonischen Graber in Surghul und El-Hibba, Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie, vol. 2, pp. 403-430, 1887). So it is difficult to see how he could be passing out unpublished cunies to rich US collectors. Perhaps Ms Andromache is confusing Lagash with Umma [John P. Peters, Nippur; Or, Explorations and Adventures on the Euphrates: The Narrative of the University of Pennsylvania Expedition to Babylonia in the Years 1888-1890, University of Pennsylvania Babylonian Expedition, Putnam, 1897]? (" In the early 1900s, many illegally excavated Umma tablets from the Third Dynasty of Ur began to appear on the antiquities market").

Ms Andromache suggests that sponsors of these excavations were rewarded by "the legitimate gifting of insignificant relics such as a nail cuneiform tablets of Gudea's temple dedications". According to her, the US excavation team in possession of foreign artefacts (which they told the natives they were taking "for scientific study") were instead gifted (before publication?) to "professors" who "often received them for their personal collection for their service in the fields". I wonder how many "professors" of Akkadian and/or Sumerian studies there were in the USA in the 1880s? I would say if these artefacts were being used as private property of the excavators to curry favour and not for scientific research, they were being misused by foreign guests and therefore should be returned to Iraq.

Certainly by the time of the survey of the Lagash site by Thorkild Jacobsen of the The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and Fuad Safar in 1953, partage of artefacts had, I believe, been discontinued (in the 1936 legislation?) as a result of political shifts within the country. The site was the subject of five seasons of excavation (1968-76) and 1990 by a US team (Metropolitan Museum of Art and  New York University).

So these "tens of thousands" of Lagash artefacts "Ms Andromache" claims are legitimately on the US market, how did they get there?

It's worth noting that despite the number which it is claimed are "legitimately" on the market from official US-led excavations, the British Museum never seems to have acquired any of the "nail cuneiform tablets of Gudea's temple dedications" mentioned by Ms andromache. Odd that. But there are a number of unprovenanced ones which have "surfaced" from "somewhere" and are now in several private collections discussed on Bron Lipkin's website (follow the hyperlinks down).  Where did these come from? Their present owners do not even hint at that - it's obviously not thought to be of any importance. 


Shell Andromache said...

I apologize, you are correct that I have mixed up the French expedition of Lagash in 1877-1900 by De Sarzec and the University of Pennsylvania discovery of Nippur by John Peters, J.H. Haynes, and H.V. Hilprecht in 1887-1900 (really started digging in 1889). From Nippur they acquired over 30,000 tablets etc. (See The Sumerians by Prof. Samuel Kramer p 21-32). In later years the University of Pennsylvania led expeditions to Fara under Erik Schmidt. The University of Chicago also led expeditions to Abad under E. Banks in 1903 and from 1948-1957 a joint effort was underway at various sites by the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and the American School for Oriental research( . And there was a joint effort between the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania) and the British Museum between 1922 and 1934 headed by Woolley ( As far as Lagash is concerned the French take the cake with a multitude of digs from the late 1800’s-1930’s. Later digs by the Metropolitan Museum and by New York University of Lagash from the 1960’s to 1990. Again, sorry for the mix up, I will admit my mistake there.
That said, as you can see there are several digs of Sumer that were launched by the U.S. even before the UN laws (or the UN for that matter) that brought the relics to the U.S. and allowed the Met and Penn Museum and others to have some of the finest exhibits from Sumer to be found in the world.
I am not trying to start a fight with you, and you do not need to get so offensive and try to belittle me, I am simply trying to point out that not all collectors are these diabolical fiends that want to illegally rape the world’s resources. I believe strongly that any relics of true historical value belong to the public in museums. However, I think it is a horrible waste to see the vast majority of insignificant artifacts left in boxes by museums never again to see the light of day. Far worse is to see artifacts burned for kindling or shot at for target practice by those who don’t appreciate them. I know that nothing I collect would ever be worthy of a museum or respected and appreciated by them. That is why I plan to donate my humble collection to a few well-chosen universities that would appreciate displaying them. One thing I have learned is that you can teach history classes until you are blue in the face, but nothing will instill a passion for history and archeology like passing around a Greek coin of Alexander the Great or a tablet from Ur and letting it sink into their heads that they are holding a true piece of history stamped or written down hundreds or thousands of years before the supposed birth of Christ. I am sure Mr. Barford that your heart is in the right place, but I worry that you have become so obsessed and fanatical that it has poisoned your soul and filled you full of blinding hate. I find it ironic that you claim to be a staunch supporter of the laws and yet you seem to have no issue with violating tort laws such as libel or slander.

Shell Andromache said...

I have no more time for games so just take the high road this once and either admit that you have a fanatical hatred for ALL collectors and dealers and that nothing I can say will change it, or rather than condemning all dealers and collectors give us a list of all the Mr. Barford approved dealers. If you provide such a list of trusted dealers I will go to them first and we both will win. I don’t want to buy illegal items and neither you nor I want unethical dealers to profit from such sales. If you do me that service I will be grateful, and I will see that you are not the close minded individual I currently take you for. Assuming that happens and I can learn to trust you; I might even be able to help you by notifying you of unethical dealers I run across.
If on the other hand you choose the first path and admit that you fanatically hate all dealers and collectors; I will not see any further reason to reply to you as it would be a pointless endeavor to do so. I will however see a sliver of honor in you for admitting such.
If you choose neither approach but instead continue to spew hate without regard to the truth, then I will see you as dishonest, lying, coward.
I truly hope you are willing to help myself and others find good honest dealers (it is after all why I first went to your blog). Please do the right thing and remember that you can attract more bees with honey than with salt. If you stop the defamation and start helping rather than hurting I will see you as an honorable man, the choice is of course yours.

Paul Barford said...

Mixed up indeed, the UPenn says they have only 5200 of the artefacts from the nienettenth century campaign.

Are you claiming this is the findspot of the "cuneiform nails of Gudea" which you specifically mentioned (have you one in your "humble collection" which is why you mentioned it)?

The "well chosen universities" I take it are in the USA, not the countries from which the artefacts in your "humble collection" came?

I really do not buy the ACE "coin in the hand" argument (for reasons I have explained here before).

Paul Barford said...

"fanatical hatred for....
Just stupidity in those who should know better.

You are right, I wholeheartedly dislike the whole no-questions-asked antiquities market, and current policies on artefact hunting and collecting and the total inaction of those who should be fighting both. Three things, not two.

"nothing I can say will change it"

Got it in one. I did not arrive at my position yesterday, but by a long process of watching, listening, discussion, debate. I learnt that there are a limited number of argumemnts (I call them mantras because they are not thought-through, merely repeated) and find none of them convincing and unassailable either individually or taken together.

That is what this blog is about. Read it with an open mind and just accept that others have arguments opposed to the mantras.

"list of all the Mr. Barford approved dealers"

Tescos, I buy all my meat there, and I have always found them to be honest about what it is you are buying. Good prices too.

I think you are really missing the point about those "reputable dealers". I am writing about asking searching questions about each object offered for purchase.

So no, I have no list of trusted dealers. What I can show you is a long list of dealers that rarely give upfront any meaningful assurances about the origins of the majority of their stock (and no indication that such information exists anywhere and what its quality is). I would say - personally - that these are dealers I'd not trust for that very reason.

" I don’t want to buy illegal items..."
I am not talking about "they can't touch you for it legality" but truly ethical collecting.

"If you do me that service I will be grateful, and I will see that you are not the close minded individual I currently take you for"
Oh, wow. I'll sleep easier knowing that some anonymous collector the other side of the sea who cannot get their facts straight has changed her opinion about me...

"I truly hope you are willing to help myself and others find good honest dealers (it is after all why I first went to your blog)"

So, there is no chance that you will read what I say about no-questions-asked collecting for yourself, and think through for yourself how one can identify and avoid no-questions-asked dealing?

You want it handed on a plate?

That is exactly my point about collectors and their self-centred could-not-care-less attitudes at the root of the problem.

If you are incapable of working it out for yourself, then I suggest you take up collecting something less intellectually demanding. Beer bottle caps for example.

As I have said many times, outside policing is only of limited effectiveness, what we need is truly ethical collectors demanding truly ethical items from the dealers that supply them and rejecting all others.

Where are we going to find these collectors if all of them, like sheep, want somebody else to tell them what to do?

Paul Barford said...

"spew hate without regard to the truth "

maybe the person who made up a whole series of mythical excavations which supposedly brought loads of legal Lagash artefacts onto the US market would like to say where what I write here pays "no regard to the truth"? The Truth is, Ms Andromache (if that IS your real name)....?

The bottom line what is the truth about current modes of trading artefacts, it is damaging, or it is not?

[if its not, why would your select list of dealers have any meaning?]

Paul Barford said...

This is uncanny - from Heritage Journal:

12/02/2013 at 18:43


I report my finds to PAS and so do all my colleague detectorists. Heritageaction seems to be on a blinkered mission of hate for some twisted imaginary reason. I feel obliged to observe that most of what we find would, if acquired by a museum, disappear from public view forever. I know that I give people much pleasure when I show them what I have saved from the plough and chemicals. These items would otherwise be seen by nobody. As the majority of finds are so common and mundane, they would never be displayed or enjoyed otherwise. Shame on you for for your vitriolic selfishness.

Spot the similarities... Same arguments.

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