Wednesday, 13 April 2016

"Psst, Mister, welcome to my town, wanna buy genuine ancient art? Come here, come see...."

We are currently seeing a number of items appearing in the news as "works of art sold by ISIL from Palmyra" which it seems to me are nothing of the sort.

We had the stele shown to a journalist who easily believed in the authenticity of what he was shown ('Is ISIL Sending Artefacts from Palmyra to Urfa?' PACHI 7th April 2016) - authenticated by US-based Syrian archaeologist Amr Al-Azm . In the same article we were shown two busts which the same Amr Al-Azm insists ISIL had in Raqqa and were trying to flog off reportedly at some huge markup (we do not learn if they found a buyer): 'Two Palmyra Busts Traded by ISIL?' PACHI 7th April 2016). Then we had the rubbish reportedly dug up in Palmyra itself '"Five Artifacts, Stolen by ISIS from Palmyra Museum, Recovered"...' PACHI 11th April 2016. I am pretty sure myself that the latter two cases involve fake artefacts, and I suspect the stela too is a pastiche/copy. The first two are stylistically wrong, the stela looks like a poor copy of a known object.

What is going on? Are people intent on upholding the US Department of State's preferred narrative of "antiquities sales financing ISIS terrorism" when the whole story seems to be collapsing due to the lack of any real evidence planting fakes in the public domain? Are we being deliberately and cynically manipulated? I would really hate that to be true. Or is the truth somewhere else?

I never visited Palmyra, so I do not know what the visitor's experience was. I have described here my own experiences at Luxor where dodgy characters would sidle up and try to flog "genuine antiquities found by my brother-in-law, come look". Being interested in the antiquities trade I sometimes did go-look, sometimes the objects were in my judgement real  and I beat a hasty retreat, mostly they were execrable fakes (some of the latter of which I now have in Poland). I would not think it impossible that there was a workshop in Palmyra which produced objects from local stone  that looked enough like the things in the museum and tombs down the road that were the staple of a local "psst, mister' scam on tourists. I imagine that when tourism stopped and the iconophobic Islamists came in, these were not really what you wanted to have them find in an outhouse on your property.  One might even imagine them being buried to await better times. Perhaps that is what now are being discovered in looting abandoned homes in Palmyra by people who think they have stumbled on hidden but genuine antiquities? The people who know what they were and who made them are either dead or left the town. Is thatb the explanation of the surfacing of these artefacts now?


Arthur said...

but the question is: are you an archaeologist as you state, or just an idiot? :-D

Paul Barford said...

I think one can see from what some write about artefact hunting, the one does not exclude the other.

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