Monday, 25 January 2010


Last night in a Luxor sidestreet on my quest for the best or the most bizarre fake artefacts, in a grubby shop I'd overlooked before, I was offered several shabtis and shabti fragments which I am pretty sure were not fakes. All the dealer offered as provenance was "here and there". After I had correctly identified the fakes he'd mixed in to test whether his customer knew his onions, he showed me a lot more. I told him that in his country there was a new law under discussion which would make merely having them in his shop punishable by up to twenty five years. I was not terribly surprised that he would not show me the "authentic scarabs" after that. Those suppliers "here and there" who sold them to him knew that these items were saleable to visiting foreigners.

The day before, I was walking across the palace site at Malkata, showing it to some colleagues, and had just replaced the cardboard "protecting" the wall paintings when a guy in a dark robe came running up. "Closed, closed, zis site he closed" he panted. He was presumably the "gafir" who was guarding this site for the SCA. Once he realised he could not make cash out of showing us the wall paintings which I'd just shown people, he then pulled out of his pocket a blue-painted sherd, the "Armarna ware" which I have seen on the Internet being sold at 300 dollars a piece and asked whether I would like to "see" it. It looked remarkably like the one I'd found there a few weeks earlier and put under a nearby bush to protect it from the sun and weather. I told him where he could put it. Interestingly this was after I had pulled out the photo-identity document issued by the SCA authorising me as an archaeologist to visit sites like this.

We carried on to Birket Habu (the remains of Amenhotep III's pleasure lake) and were soon spotted by the inevitable crowd of small boys (tourist beware, they throw stones). One of them ran up and held out two ancient blue-painted sherds. He was more direct, "you buy? Fife Egyptian pounds" he wheedled. Five Egyptian, that's less than the price of a beer here. I told him I was not a bit interested in buying from him, but I' d give him five Egyptian pounds for a photo of him holding the pottery for my blog"No, no photo" he insisted. When asked why, he said "bad pottery". "Yes", I said "twenty five years". He looked puzzled: "Twenty five Egyptian pounds?"....

What is interesing about this is Malkata is littered with pottery, tonnes of it. Most of it from the Eighteenth dynasty, including some nice red wares (lovely colours), slipped ware, fine bowls, burnished ware. Yet neither of the would-be vandors had picked any of this up, they knew their market, the blue-painted pottery is coveted by western collectors and that is what they were stealing from the site to make a bit of cash. It seems to me to be utterly pointless special pleading to deny that this sort of thing is part of the case for the proposition that current modes of no-questions asked collecting are directly contributing to the creation of the market which is the motor behind the looting of archaeological sites for saleable objects.


Anonymous said...

Very nice, telling point on the basis of one test case. What would happen without the market ? The pottery would lie around-- it would be subjet to nromal archaeological processes of wear, tear, destruction, reuse, but not mined as a resource

Paul Barford said...

Well, first of all, the pottery is not subject to any erosion whatsoever lying where it is. None whatsoever. That is the"normal process" by which means it has lain on the surface in virtually unchanged form exactly where it was dropped/thrown 3000 years ago. The place where it lies therefore is information. This blue pottery is very odd and only found in a resticted number of places, and was only made for a relatively short time. Obviously therefore it would be very useful to do a survey of the scatter (covering several hectares) to find out precisely what that pattern is. Then to interpret that.

Now actually the same cannot be said of the animal bone which was als thrown down among this midden material. This dries out and flakes in the sun. Using your argument John, if the collector wanted to "save" anything, he should be collecting the animal bone fragments, but again we'd want to know from precisely which area of this highly dispersed and zoned site the pieces had been removed. Again the patterns of food waste disposal will differ across this site as well as with time (such as when the capital moved away under Akhenaton and then came back under Tutankhamun).

So yes "mining bits of it as a (commercial) resource" even by selectively picking "collectable" material from the surface is destroying information. What is eroding this pattern are people taking away the pretty bits of pottery as collectable geegaws.

It is a shame that collectors really do not seem to grasp this elementary principle.

Paul Barford said...

This was not a "test case" but an example, anyway I mentioned also shabtis which come from the disturbing of tombs.

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