Saturday 17 December 2011

Another Volume of Schøyen Cunies Published

Some 107 cuneiform texts, most of them previously unpublished from the collection of Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen have recently been in the news (Owen Jarus, 'Ancient Texts Tell Tales of War, Bar Tabs', Live Science Online, Dec 16, 2011). The texts by officials of ancient Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Elam, and Urartu from Sumerian to Achaemenid times are published in "Cuneiform Royal Inscriptions and Related Texts in the Schøyen Collection" (CDL Press, 2011 CUSAS 17, Editors: A. R. George, with contributions by M. Civil, F. Frame, P. Steinkeller, F. Vallat, K. Volk, M. Weeden and C. Wilcke).
Texts are presented in transliteration, translation, copy, and photograph with commentary on each text's historical significance. These new texts add significantly to our ability to reconstruct the history of ancient Mesopotamia. Among the many notable new texts included in this volume are "The Tower of Babel Stele" of Nebuchadnezzar II, a new and more complete text of the Law Code of Ur-Namma (with a complete new edition of the entire law code by M. Civil), and new copies of the Antediluvian King List and the Sumerian King List.
Those whose first reaction is to equate these with a recent controversy around a certain group of inscribed bowls might be relieved to see that the volume (pp viii-ix) is preceded by a reassuring "Statement of Provenance (Ownership History)" from the collector. It turns out he bought cunies which are accompanied by a collecting history which if they can be verified places them firmly outside that dodgy "freshly surfaced" category, and the scholars working on them (I would say) beyond criticism:
The holdings of pictographic and cuneiform tablets, seals, and incantation bowls in the Schøyen Collection were collected in the late 1980s and 1990s and derive from a great variety of collections and sources. It would not have been possible to collect so many items, of such major textual importance, if it had not been based on the endeavor of some of the greatest collectors in earlier times. Collections that once held tablets, seals, or incantation bowls now in the Schøyen Collection are: [list of a few dozen institutions and collections from the 1890s onwards, though some much later]. These collections are the source of almost all the tablets, seals, and incantation bowls. Other items were acquired through the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, where in some cases the names of their former owners were not revealed.

The sources of the oldest collections, such as Amherst, Harding Smith, and Cumberland Clark, were antiquities dealers who acquired tablets in the Near East in the 1890s to 1930s. During this period many tens of thousands of tablets came on the market, in the summers of 1893 and 1894 alone some 30,000 tablets. While many of these were bought by museums, others were acquired by private collectors. Some of the older private collections were the source of some of the later collections. For instance, a large number of the tablets in the Crouse collection came from the Cumberland Clark, Kohanim, Amherst, and Simmonds collections, among others. The Claremont tablets came from the Schaeffer collection, and the Dring tablets came from the Harding Smith collection. In most cases the original findspots of tablets that came on the market in the 1890s to 1930s are unknown, like great parts of the holdings of most major museums in Europe and the United States. The general original archaeological context of the tablets and seals is the libraries and archives of numerous temples, palaces, schools,houses and administrative centers in Sumer, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, and various city states in present-day Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Many details of this context will not be known until all texts in both private and public collections have been published and compared to each other.
In the same vein is the comment in the introduction by David I. Owen (Cornell University, Ithaca, New York):
These contributions will surely take their place among the essential sources for all present and future study of Mesopotamian, Achaemenid, Elamite, and Urartian history. They once again highlight the importance that the publication of texts, even without archaeological context, holds for the fields of Assyriology and Near Eastern history and archaeology.
Sadly it has to be said that in two places of Schoyen's text the sources of the "and incantation bowls" is not in any way differentiated, reminding us of the earlier controversy (which as I recall, was based on doubts whether the bowls really were from identifiable old collections), leading us to the question of verification of claimed collecting histories...

If, however, as is stated here, the cunies in question come from diggings in the 1890s to 1930s (or even 1940s) however regrettable - even upsetting - that may be, from the ethical view, as long as the collecting history is secure, I personally see nothing wrong with them being bought and sold or studied (even though they lack precise information on findspots). Quite unacceptable though is to treat any loose cuneiform tablet or seal or whatever that happens to surface on the market as of equal status because "lots of them came on the market in the 1980s to 1930s". That is quite a different matter.

Certainly the whole assemblage of verifiably kosher old collection artefacts should be inventorised and published (as in the volume discussed here). What to do about the rest is a difficult problem. I would not like to see either them or the collectors who purchased them no-questions-asked legitimised in any way by their publication and exhibition. Archaeologists have a lot to gain by collaborating with responsible collectors of kosher material, and more harm than good will come from collaboration with moral midgets.

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