Thursday, 6 March 2014

Inscribed Papyrus, clay, and the Market

Dimitri Nakassis ('Papyrus, clay, and the market ', Aegean prehistory March 6, 2014) discusses two articles about the publication of ancient texts of unknown provenance and the ethical issues of publication. The first was Doug Boin’s op-ed in the New York Times about the forthcoming publication of two new fragments of Sappho, the second is Jerry Cooper’s 'Cuneiform-exceptionalism' argument on the ASOR blog for publishing cuneiform tablets that do not have a provenance.

Commenting on the Sappho papyrus, he points out: 
it might seem a bit odd that more information about the provenance of the papyrus wasn’t provided. But actually, it’s not too surprising when you realize that most people just don’t care. Even if the papyrus were illegal, does anyone really believe that scholars would uniformly, or even as a majority, refuse to publish two new fragments of Sappho? This is not to accuse papyrologists of being unethical. They’re not. But there is, it seems to me, a sense that different rules apply to texts  [...] Why? 
Because they are addressed sources, intended in themselves to provide information, which can include to some extent some kind of context for the other information.  Jerry Cooper suggested that "it is unknown whether publications of cuneiform texts help create a market for cuneiform tablets and thus encourage looting and site destruction”. Nakassis points out that it is illogical to argue from the position of ignorance to come to the conclusion it probably does not matter it’s illogical. Doesn’t one need to have an answer to such a question?

Here, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue. Cooper doesn’t know whether publishing encourages looting, but it seems that he really doesn’t want to know, because first of all, it’s awful — “no cuneiformist could be unmoved by the moonscape images of looted sites” — but even if there were a direct and demonstrable link between publication, the market, and looting, he couldn’t bear to ignore half of the evidence that bears on his subject anyway. That hardly seems like a defensible position to me. It’s a rationalization of an established practice, which is to publish texts that don’t have good archaeological provenience.
Nakassis sees similar thought processes going on in both cases, the finds are felt by scholars focusing their attention on such material to be so spectacular, too important, for scholars to ignore. The disregard paid to the provenance of these fragments is not so much intentional, but simply reflects the traditional priorities of scholarly practice. He regards these priorities as "unfortunate".

We see very similar arguments being advanced by another large group of people concerned with addressed sources, coin collectors and numismatists which seem to be dragging their heels in contrast to the rest of the archaeological world with regard to the need to tackle the problem of the no-questions-asked antiquities trade. . 

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