Thursday, 4 September 2014

Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria in the Khalili Collection

The Institut für den Nahen und Mittleren Osten and The International Society for Arabic Papyrology are organizing a  Conference October 7th-10th, 2014 where one of the papers being presented will be by independent scholar Peter T. Daniels, "Aramaic documents from Achaemenid Bactria: Connections to the west--and the east--and the future" here is the abstract:
In 2012, Aramaic Documents from Ancient Bactria in the Khalili Collection was published by the late Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. These comprise 30 items on leather and 18 wooden tally sticks, all inscribed with ink and dating to the mid 4th century bce, spanning the end of the Achaemenid empire and the rule of Alexander. Their provenance is unknown; the editors believe they came from Balkh, Afghanistan (ancient Bactra), the capital of the satrapy of Bactria. Most striking is their uncanny resemblance to documents known since the 1950s as the “Driver letters”: correspondence, also on leather and in Aramaic with nearly identical grammar and similar script, discovered presumably somewhere in Egypt, from Arsames, the satrap of Babylonia, of the late 5th century bce (just under a century earlier than the Bactrian material). These documents show ...
The objects are apparently published here. Back in April 2006 this group of items was discussed on the Ancient Near East 2 Forum, forum. At that time, Chuck Jones characterised them thus:
Personally I would characterize the archive as looted from Afghanistan. Tragic that we have no archaeological context for the discovery.
Indeed, the archaeological context of this material and the "Driver letters" are fundamental to supporting the conclusions of the "Independent scholar" that they "prove" that "there was a uniformity in the diplomatics of chancery practice throughout the Achaemenid empire". What kind of academic reasoning is it that takes hearsay and story-telling (where artefacts are "believed to have been found") as a basis for their research? How did these objects surface on the market? Lisbeth S. Fried of Ann Arbor (Apr 10, 2006) says:
I tried to get UM to buy the archive, but they wouldn't touch it, citing legal reasons. I don't know how they came into the hands of the antiquities dealer. They are definitely genuine, and definitely as I reported them. I think it is weird that our laws force items to remain on the antiquities market rather than in Museums.
What? The Ann Arbor lady seems to be thinking only of US museums. The cultural property legislation of Afghanistan of the period (summarised here) is quite clear. Objects like this when found end up in a museum, in Afghanistan. That's the only law that matters. But what happened is the finder was tempted to break the law because a dealer was willing to help him break the law, knowing he could get his money back by finding a dealer who'd pay out for them without asking any questions - and he in turn knew his investment was secure as at the end of the chain there will always be a collector whose acquisitive greed to have something nobody else has will outweigh any feelings of what is right and wrong. There's always one. Thank goodness that it was not the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Mr Khalili was/is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, I've mentioned him in connection with a Christie's sale (oh, and his remarkably full Wikipedia coverage). Why is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador buying unprovenanced items suspected as being from Afghanistan surfacing on the market after 2000? Why is somebody owning such items being appointed to anything by UNESCO? Or is this a case of "do what we say, don't do what we and our mates do"?


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