April 20, 2006

On Unprovenanced Artifacts

Jim West and Chris Heard both have posts on Larry Stager's "Statement of Concern" about the publication and study of unprovenanced artifacts. You can read Stager's statement on Jim's site. The American Schools of Oriental Research and Archaeological Institute of America both have restrictions against publishing artifacts that were acquired by private individuals or institutions after December 30, 1973. I've reproduced their policy statements below. These restrictions are often applied more broadly to include any object whose archeological provenance and context is unknown: in other words, illegally excavated or stolen artifacts many of which appear on the antiquities market and end up in private hands. The goal of these policies is two fold: one, to restrict the pilfering of other countries national treasures and, two, to reduce or eliminate the looting of antiquities. Many also hope that these kinds of prohibitions would also restrict the market for forgeries.

But, as Stager's statement says, "Yet it is almost universally recognized that this prohibition on publication has had little or no effect on looting." What the restriction does is delay, but seldom prevents, the publication of potentially valuable material. The recent publication of the Gospel of Judas is a case in point.

And the funny thing is that not all stolen artifacts that appear in the antiquities market are truly unprovenanced even when they are clearly stolen. I personally know of several published artifacts whose find spot is reasonable reconstructable to within centimeters and, therefore, whose archeological context is as well known as any find from that particularly site.

Chris worries about the extent to which publishing unprovenanced artifacts may promote forgery. This, of course, is a legitimate concern. Certainly, the main driver behind forgery, like looting, is economics. And restricting the forgers market would be useful. However, I'm not so sure how much limits on publication and study actually restrict that market. Rather, I'm afraid it may increase the market by protecting the forgers from the scrutiny of scholarly debate. Remember, rich people, not scholars, tend to be the market for forgers. True, some museums have been duped from time to time but they are learning and do not make up the major portion of the market. I think Frank Moore Cross made this point somewhere or other (in BAR?).

There is no doubt that something needs to be done to reduce the economic benefits of looting and forgery. But I am sure that restricting publication, if it does any good at all, does less good than the harm done by keeping important unprovenanced artifacts out of their other important context: scholarly study and debate. I agree with Stager that these policies need revision if not illumination. As Stager correctly says,

Yes, it would be nice if we always had professionally excavated materials to study and publish. But that is not the situation. Our choice is either to study unprovenanced material or ignore it. Given that choice, we prefer to study unprovenanced material. The sweeping exclusion of unprovenanced material from scholarly consideration results only in a loss to scholars, to scholarship and ultimately to the public.

The Policies:

The American Institute of Archaeology Policy:

In keeping with the revised (2004) policy of the Archaeological Institute of America, the AJA will not accept any article that serves as the primary publication of any object or archaeological material in a private or public collection after 30 December 1973 unless its existence is documented before that date or it was legally exported from the country of origin. An exception may be made if, in the view of the Editor-in-Chief, the aim of the article is to emphasize the loss of archaeological context.

The American School of Oriental Research Policy:

Authors are reminded of an editorial policy instituted by this journal in 1978: BASOR will not serve as the initial place of publication or announcement of any object acquired by an individual or institution after 30 December 1973. This policy is in full accord with that established by the Archaeological Institute of America for it publications . . . .

In both cases there is an exception for an object that was legally exported.

Update April 21, 2006

Jim Davila has a post on this issue. I have left a comment there.

Further Update April 21, 2006:

Jane C. Waldbaum, President, Archaeological Institute of America, has a response to Stager's "Statement." It provides an interesting prospective that should not be ignored.

Again via Jim West

Posted by DuaneSmith at April 20, 2006 07:29 PM | Read more on Archaeology |

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