Thursday, 12 February 2015

Debate on Ancient Tablets Displayed in Jerusalem

There is some rather desultory discussion of the exhibition of the Sofer collection of cuneiform tablets in a Jerusalem Museum discussed here earlier.
the 2,500-year-old treasures from present-day Iraq have become part of a thorny archaeological debate over how to handle historically significant relics thought to have been dug up in the fog of war by Mideast antiquities robbers [...] The tablets [...] tell a murkier story, from the present era, according to scholars familiar with the antiquities trade - a story of the chaos in Iraq and Syria that has led to rampant pilfering of rich archaeological heritage and a rush of cuneiform tablets on the international antiquities' market. Leading U.S. museums have pledged not to exhibit unprovenanced artifacts that have surfaced in recent decades, as part of an effort over the last decade to discourage illicit antiquities trafficking. But cuneiform inscriptions have emerged as a notable exception, with some arguing these relics would be lost to history if they did not make it into scholarly hands. "We are not interested in anything that is illegally acquired or sneaked out," said Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, where the tablets are being displayed this month. "But it is the role of a museum to protect these pieces," she added. "It's what we are here for." 
The museum is also "there" for preserving the other bits, the bits discarded by looters by the side of the holes because not as readily saleable as the bits the middlemen pay them for. The museum pleased to get some nice displayable goodies shuts its eyes to that side of the argument. There is the usual mention of the satellite photos (sounds technical)  the "Islamic State extremists" (shock-horror value) - but to be fair also "militants from other groups" and the "efforts of authorities worldwide have been taking action to try to stem the flow". Oh yes, falling over themselves they are, all that "activity". Ple-e-e-ase. What "flow" has anyone "stemmed"? 
What first sparked awareness of the issue, archaeologists say, was a deluge of cuneiform artifacts on the Western antiquities markets after the first Gulf War in 1991. In the years that followed, archaeologists estimate that hundreds of thousands of small clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions made their way into the hands of dealers. Many contained incrustations, indicating they were "fresh out of the earth," said Robert Englund of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. [...] The American Schools of Oriental Research [...]  in 2004, the association made an exception [to its normal policy of not allowing publication of unprovenanced pre-1970 artefacts] , allowing publications about cuneiform artifacts that have no record of how they were unearthed - under the condition that Iraqi antiquities authorities give their consent and that the artifacts are eventually returned to Iraq. The exception was made because the esoteric wedge script writings are so valuable to historical study, said Eric Meyers of the association. The policy is now again a point of contention in the field. Over the past year, scholars at the association have debated changing the policy again, with most experts leaning against publishing articles on cuneiform artifacts as these objects continue to hit the markets, Meyers said. "It is a crisis in the region," he said.
Anonymous unsupported allegations are reported in the article that the tablets on display in Jerusalem "were purchased on the London antiquities market at the time when cuneiform artifacts were flooding the market, a strong indication that the items were looted".
London-based Israeli collector David Sofer, who loaned the cuneiform collection to the Bible Lands Museum, denied any foul play. He said he purchased the tablets in the United States in the 1990s from a person who obtained them in public auctions in the 1970s. Sofer said a few tablets from the collection were displayed in a New York museum and a Los Angeles museum in 2013, and their import and export in the U.S. was properly reported to U.S. authorities. He would not name the two museums, or the person who sold them to him. "These things would be lost, and wouldn't be recognized for what they are" if he hadn't bought them, Sofer said.
That's what they all say. Collectors are not paying for the destruction of the past - they tell themselves - they are "saving the objects". So to whom would they have been "lost" if Sofer had not bought them and if the site looters had not dug them up to be sold to people like him?

Daniel Estrin, 'Ancient tablets displayed in Jerusalem fuel looting debate',  The Times of Israel  February 12, 2015.

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