Sunday 13 July 2014

Context Matters: the Buenavista vase

The cat's got the lobbyists' tongues
Collectors, dealers, museums and so on maintain that information recovered from trafficked cultural objects aids our understanding of the past. Donna Yates ('What we’ve lost: the two stories of the ancient Maya Buenavista vase', Anonymous Swiss Collector 12 July 2014) has a fantastic example of what happens when objects are looted. On her blog she presents two stories about the same Maya vase: what we would have thought if the vase was looted and what we know because it was excavated archaeologically. This is a significant example because the vase has both pictures and writing on it, so exactly the characteristics which allow naysaying collectors to suggest that artefacts can be used to tell a story independent of their archaeological context and that there is still a lot of academic value left in such looted antiquities. This vase shows very well that this is simply not an assumption one can make.
When an artefact is looted its archaeological context is lost and, thus, our ability to learn about the ancient past from the piece is either greatly reduced or totally obliterated. When scholars try to reconstruct contextual information about looted artefacts, they risk making up stories that have no ties to reality. Looted artefacts introduce false information into what we know about the past and rob us of our ability to learn about our heritage.
Well worth a read and thinking about. Yates finishes her exposition of this fascinating story with the words:
We would have none of this if the vase had been looted. Remember how I said thousands of looted Maya vases exist in international collections. Imagine all that we have lost.
We look forward to the usual rebuttal of the lobbyists for the dealers and the collectors of what the archaeologists have to say. Well, let's hear it.

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