Saturday, 28 March 2020

Excavated Naqada Artefact on eBay?

I have just spent the last few weeks looking into online sales of Saharan Neolithic ("Green Sahara") lithics and writing them up. It's part of my efforts to stop people referring to Collection-Driven exploitation of the Archaeological Record as "metal detecting". The Saharan material is particularly interesting for a number of reasons - not least  because post-African Humid Period desertification has meant that many of the sites exist as surface scatters on deflation surfaces. There also was an opportunity to make a number of points about "old collections" and the antiquities trade. One of the latter was the difference between the way different parts of the past of the Nile Valley (which runs through the desert) were treated in collecting. The pre-dynastic cultures of the Nile overlap with the "Green Sahara" period, yet are poorly represented on the market (apart from those luscious black-topped wares that appear in the London auction houses with an annoying regularity). There are just five items of the Naqada culture on eBay at the moment. Four of them are being sold by three dealers that... well, dealers.

The fifth is interesting. It is being sold by someone called Mocha Mika (Mocha's Estate Finds  (1119) - 100% Positive Feedback) from San Antonio, Texas, United States. The seller says: "We are a family who enjoys finding, bartering and learning about interesting vintage stuff. It's a great way for family bonding". Hooray. The things on offer range from tat to several quite nice and interesting vintage or antique items that have been curated in Texan homes. But what caught my eye was the only antiquity they are selling at the moment: Antique Naqada I Predynastic Egyptian Basalt Bracelet c3900-3500BC Rare!.
This item is in very good antique condition. This item was excavated, and said to be from the Naqada I period, beginning of the 4th millenium BC (3900-3500BC). It is made from heavy and dense basalt stone. It is still showing some evidence of original polish. It is about 4.4in in diameter and 3in opening diameter, and less than 1in thick. PLEASE SEE ATTACHED PHOTOS FOR BETTER VISUAL DESCRIPTION.

Provenance: Ownership History Available
This item came from the estate of a prominent collector from San Antonio, TX. As providence (sic!), we have a copy of an email when this collector purchased the item in 2004.

Price:US $999.90 (or $49 for 24 months) 
Looking at the attached photos (and I wish they'd not be so lazy and actually describe what they have in front of them but the potential buyer has not - and some of us use METRIC measurements, eh?) we can see that this is not 'basalt stone' because that does not have white veining. So, we really do not know what this is made of because the seller clearly does not either. I' be interested in Mika saying more about the inside of the object, those toolmarks. (Later) ancient Egyptian technology tended to use a tubular drill to make things like this, and it seems from the photos, that this has been carved out and the rough toolmarks left inside. Interesting.

What, actually does it mean "excavated"? By whom, when and how did it end up in Texas? To be legally excavated and exported, it would have to have been digging going on before the Egyptians stopped partition of finds, so that is some time before the early 1920s. Was it? Where, precisely, was it before the "prominent collector from San Antonio TX" bought it as late as 2004? Mika cannot say she (?) 'has the ownership history' without that information.

But if this was a 'grounded' pre-dynastic object, with a proper excavated provenance and proper collection history, this would be a great thing to add to a collection... IF. Has it, in fact? The price, I do not know, but suspect that if one were to look through some old Christie's and Sotheby's catalogues, they'd be selling something like this (with the proper documentation of course) for quite a bit more. So it'd pay to buy from Mocha Mika on eBay. Wouldn't it?

Here though we have the problem. Mocha Mika did not post a photo of that documentation as part of the sales offer (though precisely THAT documentation is part of that sales offer and part of what one is buying). So we do not know what that email said, who it was from, and in what capacity they were operating (dealer, consultant, manager of the excavating institution's archive?).

Because here, how and when it was excavated becomes a crucial issue.

The problem is that this arm-ring (for is is not so much a bracelet) is probably not pre-dynastic Egyptian (and this is where the credentials of the alleged 'excavator' are important).  Very similar items, of the same white-veined grey stone - Hombori marble, were produced in the ethnographic past (and possibly still today) in Burkina Faso and were worn by members of the Mossi, Fra Fra groups as well as Tuaregs. Here are three that were sold as a group by Dorotheum for half the price of the Texas example. There is also an interesting Internet Archaeology article about their manufacture and use that the family-bonding estate pickings Texan family missed in trying to find out about what they've got: Anne Garin Carmagnani and Yvan Pailler (2009), 'Stone Bracelet Production in Mali', Internet Archaeology 26. And on eBay you can get some decent examples for around 30-40 dollars, so a fraction of what Mocha Mika is offering the "Naqada" one for.

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