Friday 19 June 2009

Do not wash, dry clean only

Apparently there are two things which are limitless, the Universe and human stupidity. That is why plastic bags have writing on them to inform people not to put them over their babies’ heads (duh!), in a US fast food chain coffee cups reputedly now tell you the contents are hot and should not be spilt on your bodily parts (duh!), cigarette packets inform the user that smoking kills (duh!) and so on.

We are constantly told by the pro-collecting lobby that portable antiquity collectors are not collecting for the sake of collecting but are educated people who want to “add to their [and thus our] knowledge of the past”. Seldom however do they demonstrate it.

Coin collectors are the noisiest and tell us that only by making collections of contextless coins can they add to “numismatic knowledge”, and that collectors are much better curators of the objects they treasure than public institutions. I really doubt that one can make such a generalisation.

Yesterday on an internet auction site however I saw a sad sight, what is left after a bulk lot of archaeological artifacts (coins) has been “zapped” by a domestic corrosion-stripping numismofanatic and then the better coins picked out. What was left (and being sold on) was a pile of utterly destroyed archaeological artifacts, stripped to the bare pitted metal, and original surface preserved in the corrosion layers now gone.

Yesterday too I came across another heart-breaking example. On the Yahoo Ancient Artifact forum, one Andrea – a collector for whom English is apparently not their native language - had a cautionary tale for other collectors which put me in mind of the story of the lady who put her pet poodle in the microwave to dry it. To it was attached a plaintive question “Can someone can explain what happen?”.

Andrea apparently bought a 4000 year old cuneiform tablet “from a very reputable seller” ( unnamed originally, now we know it was David Liebert's "The Time Machine Co." from Flushing NY, apparently sold through ACCG president Bill Puetz's V-coins [sic] portal). We are not informed where it came from or what documentation accompanied it, so it is impossible to say whether or not it was freshly looted (that word “reputation” in the collecting community means something else than what the casual observer might think). All the seller says is "From a a private US collection" (no other information offered about the collector or their acquisition policy). The tablet apparently was supposed to be an "Old Babylonian Period pottery administrative ledger tablet/ Circa 1900 - 1000 BC /Containing 7 columns /Listing foods at left and names at right on two sides/ Recomposed from fragments/2 X 4 inches”. After admiring their purchase, the delighted collector then did something… well, not to put a fine point on it, utterly stupid:
after the pleasure of touch and see it in my hand as I made very often with terracotta objects I wet it with light water spray to see restoration, to taste smell.. etc, after seeing that same sand seem to go out from the break lines I put for 4-5 seconds the tablet under powerful (but however middle) flow of water...but instead cleaning the table that seems had skin literally melt down
under my eyes.
Yes, clay tends to do that in water. The first rule of the treatment of any object is to identify the material it is made from and be aware of its properties and needs. Clearly the collector had acted on the basis of a false (diasterously false) assumption without checking. Unless the archives that contained them had been burnt down in antiquity, most cuneiform tablets as excavated are unfired clay. In the early days of excavation in Mesopotamia, they were fired after excavation in order to make them durable enough to handle, but also to allow the soluable salts to be soaked from them. This process is described in some of the earliest texts on the conservation of archaeological finds (the venerable Plenderleith and Werner for example), so really should be within the radar of any collector who cares about the proper curation and preservation of the archaeological items over which they have appointed themselves stewards.

Andrea however seems not to have come across any of the literature about Mesopotamian writing materials or archaeology containing any such information. One might ask then how that accumulator will add to our knowledge. The text goes on:
How can be happen? Does this terracotta was uncompletely fired? In meanwhile was wet I try to write upon it...and it seems clay manufactered 1 minute ago...very soft, the colour of the skin seem dark than core I hope this is a sign of fakeness...but I don't think... Now in 20 minutes seems returned hard but much of the skin wrote has cleaned for ever.
Sadly the fact that clay can be softened in water even after 4000 years underground in relatively dry conditions really is not evidence that the object was fake. The assumption that if real it would have been “terracotta” is also unfounded. This collector has just completed the destruction caused by the looter’s spade, as Andrea notes now “...however remain the photos...” only of the artifacts, their archaeological context has gone for ever.

Photos: Cuneiform tablet in a private collection shown before and after its "conservation" under a running tap (photos from Ancient Artifacts forum)

Message updated 23.06.09, thanks to Andrea for pointing out I used an illustration of the wrong side of the tablet, now rectified

Postscript 23rd June: Perhaps I was a little too hard on Andrea. Look at the seller's description. It clearly says "pottery". The dealer apart from not providing proper provenence detail in the sales offer showing it was legally exported from the source country misrepresents the material from which it is made. If I were Andrea, I'd ask for my money back on two counts.


Nathan Elkins said...

Watch out Paul, you might be "stealing" the "intellectual property" of Andrea here by showing an image of the tablet he mutilated even though you link directly to the source...


Paul Barford said...

Who'd claim "intellectual" rights over what happened to that 4000 year old artefact?

Well, instead of more of that nonsense I expect we'll see another "Hooker paper" from the collectors' rights' lobby self appointed ideologist: "Only loonies dunk their cunies"....

Nathan Elkins said...

...and who would claim "intellectual property" over a bunch of "unimportant" (H.'s sentiment) coins hoiked out of Suffolk, unrecorded, and exported without a license?

Seriously though, a story like this is something that makes your stomach ache thinking about it. One can also be quite sure that the tablet was not recorded or translated before it was destroyed and so the unique information presented by this artifact has been lost.

By the way, I see that the post in question, which link to, has been deleted. Any idea what happened?

Paul Barford said...

By the way, I see that the post in question, which link to, has been deleted. Any idea what happened? Oh I guess some collectors read my blog and decided to removed Andrea's public service announcement to other collectors not to "dunk their cuneis" before any discussion broke out about that and the Yahoo ancient artifacts Code of Ethics. It's a shame that the reply by Dik van Bommel has gone from the archives too. This is all part of the efrfort to present a "whiter than white" image of the collector rather than face or tolerate any criticism which runs through the whole milieu...

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