Wednesday 11 February 2009

Wenneb on the Bay

On this blog I’ve recently been discussing the 'Wenneb.. shabtis' which several top UK dealers are now refusing to handle because they are of highly dubious origin, and there is at the moment a strong suggestion that they are possibly from a recently-looted tomb. But that is just one part of the trade in portable antiquities. At the other end of the scale are petty and often ephemeral dealers who offload through internet auction sites various real and pseudo antiquities, primarily nowadays those that come from metal detecting. Nobody these days blinks an eyelid as Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are emptied onto eBay alongside material shipped (smuggled) en masse from the Balkans and Edwardian watch fobs. The trade in locally derived artefacts however acts as a cover for various types of abuse.

One seller (his first name is “Rob”) with a veritable Aladdin’s cave of varied metal detected tat (who buys this stuff?) and artfacts calls himself “ antiquebottledigger”. He has an online store called “digthatbottle” and he hails from Nottingham in the United Kingdom. Among the 473 “misc antiquities” he is offering today is a Wenneb… shabti, still with some soil on it. Two members of the AncientArtifacts Forum asked where he got it, apparently he replied: “I bought this about 6 months ago from a dealer who I believe bought it in France from a French auction of Ushbtis but I don't have further details of when and where it was held”.

This is a good illustration of one of the totally undesirable effects of treating the commercial exploitation of the archaeological resource by artefact hunters as in some way a socially beneficial phenomenon carried out by "unsung heroes of the UK heritage" and "partners" of archaeology. It is in fact none of these things (and it beats me why my colleagues over in Britain say such things, it must be something in the water).

Whatever the actual status of the 'wenneb-shabtis', we see here clearly the problem with (or for) the small dealer who is not bound by any professional codes of ethics and so do not have the need (and anyway do not have the resources) to do a proper due diligence check on this sort of item. He bought it from a bloke who got it from a guy and where he got it from... well, he does not seem to have been too interested. Now if the suspicion that these come from a freshly-looted tomb are correct, Mr Rob Bottle-digger could be in breach of the Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act of 2003, but that need not worry him, as from past history that turns out to be about as effective as a dead haddock in fighting culture crime in the UK .
Whatever the actual status of the Wenneb-shabtis, this well illustrates how looted stuff will be moving through the UK market alongside masses of other antiquities generated by the exploitation of the British archaeological resource for pleasure and profit. There is no reason why this gentleman should be too concerned about establishing provenance and legitimacy of the items he is selling, in a few days the auction will end, by which time he might find someone who will give him 85 quid for it (it is quite unusual and collectable), and he’ll go back to selling old bottles, knocked-about flint flakes and metal detected tat.

While there is absolutely no regulation of the market in antiquities in the UK, it will continue to serve as the laundry for illicit antiquities that it is... while British archaeologists largely just watch on.
Photo: not a bottle, but a 'wenneb-shabti' on eBay.

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