Sunday 3 May 2009

Publication of Artefacts from the No-Questions-Asked Market of Unprovenanced Antiquities

The second part of Jame's Cuno's new book (Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities 2009) comprises three texts called “The Value of Antiquities” which in effect seems intended to be an attack on the fundamentals of archaeology - though I cannot see why anyone would be so philistine to do that. So it starts off with a text by James C.Y.Watt the head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Department of Asian Art (sic) who makes known the extent of his knowledge and personal views on the value of archaeology. This is followed by Sir John Boardman about "archaeologists, collectors, and museums”. The third is a text by David I. Owen from Cornell called “Censoring Knowledge: The Case for the Publication of Unprovenanced Cuneiform Tablets”. In this it turns out he argues that archaeologists who do not publish unprovenanced cuneiform records lead to us "losing" a lot of information, and claims that this is in effect “censorship of knowledge”.

The author is one of the signatories of the 2006 statement of Harvard University archaeologist Lawrence Stager in the Biblical Archaeology Review urging the abandonment of the ethical stand of US archaeologists against adding to the value of unprovenanced items in the no-questions-asked trade by sanctioning them with an official publication (interestingly the link to the BAR page on this initiative is a dead one).

I wonder if apart from the inscribed and pictured goodies, these signatories would be so keen on publishing the vast numbers of other unprovenanced items dug out of their archaeological contexts in order to find and extract those cuneiform records – the tens of thousands of artifacts without writing or pictures on them? Once again we see the argument for toleration of archaeological destruction focusing on so-called “addressed sources” (items which by their nature were made in themselves to convey information, like coins and inscribed objects of various kinds). The vast majority of archaeological artifacts are non-addressed sources (i.e., were not primarily made to convey information). Of course in digging artefacts in general (and so of both kinds together) out of the archaeological record ‘blind’, archaeological evidence is destroyed without any returns whatsoever, and there is no way for the artefact digger to only disturb "addressed sources" without destroying in the process the context of the far more numerous non-addressed sources - not to mention seriously damaging the stratigraphical record of a site.

Objects without information about the context of finding are not just items which have lost their provenance. Their recovery and commodification in this manner has actively destroyed that information. The case that certain items with "writing and pictures" on them like coins, shabtis, cuneiform tablets, papyri can produce "some kind of information" is by no means justification for turning a blind eye to the utter destruction caused by the no-questions-asked antiquities market. Those who from the narrow viewpoint of their own discipline (numismatics, sfragists, cuneiform philology, papyrus studies) urge that we should turn a blind eye are simply refusing to accept their part in encouraging this type of trade.

The AIA publication ban has a point, it is argued that academic publication lends spurious legitimacy to these no-questions-asked purchases, it adds value to the objects. A good example of this is the willingness with which, in his desire to see new and previously unknown artefacts, Prof Wilfred Lambert (former professor at the University of Birmingham) will examine and comment on artefacts shown him by the antiquities trade (some turning up in the USA with documents contaiining his opinions). His handwritten or typed (sic) 'opinions' are seen in the trade as valuable documents, allowing clients to know what the writing or scenes represent, as a guarantee of authenticity, but also adding an air of legitimacy to an otherwise wholly dubious commodity. It is not true therefore that achaeologists as a whole are unwilling to examine such items. There are some who will. Personally, I have my doubts about the ethicality of what Professor Lambert is doing with these items, and wonder to what degree he is aware of how he is being utilised by the dealers with whom he has collaborated.

Owen’s seems a case of special pleading based on the specific characteristics of one small group of archaeological artifacts – it cannot serve as a pars pro toto argument to be applied to the whole issue of unprovenanced artefacts on the market. There is of course nothing stopping Owen from publishing the material which interests him in an English, German, Polish, Australian or Zimbabwean archaeological series. He can do it under an assumed name if he is afraid of the AIA "thought police" (or would that mean he cannot put these publications of "unknown sources" on his CV?). He can always join the IFA or EAA if he's worried about being kicked out of the AIA.

1 comment:

Marcus Preen said...

" is argued that academic publication lends spurious legitimacy to these no-questions-asked purchases, it adds value to the objects."

I would have thought the point is inarguable. And not just in the case of publication by academics.

The breakaway British detectorists' group, UKDFD, has recently announced it will provide and host a database of illicit finds dug up illegally by French detectorists.

Who can seriously doubt this will not enhance the value of the items and encourage the digging of more, just as publication in academic papers would?

What next? Are crooks to be praised by academics for their valuable contribution to knowledge? The Nighthawking corpus?
Academic papers on "Numismatics and Criminality: mutual benefits"?

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