Thursday, January 20, 2005

Stolen Antiquities: Bigger than the Bible

A while back, I talked about my one adventure in the antiquities trade, and stated that I had no reason to believe that the dealer who showed me his ancient weights was involved in anything illegal. Now I discover that he was involved, by his own admission, in smuggling stolen relics out of Turkey. Read all about it here. It made me realize that the forged or stolen biblical antiquities we are all interested in are only part of the problem.
"Maybe these [seized] items are worth a few thousand dollars; that's nothing in the art world," said archeologist Ricardo Elia, editor of the Journal of Field Archeology and associate professor at Boston University, where he has overseen research on stolen and smuggled artifacts. "But the scientific loss is priceless. All over the world--Greece, Turkey, Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia--thousands of valuable archeological sites are being literally ripped apart so that artifacts can be dug out and smuggled," he said. "The looting of some sites is so bad, they end up looking like lunar landscapes."
I've made an unsystematic collection of links to writings that broaden our horizons from biblical archaeology to archaeology in general.

This review discusses a book about the market in ancient Greek vases.

This article discusses the problem in a South American context and contains this great quote:
Now everyone wants [pre-Columbian antiquities], including big American museums, which are increasingly in competition with one another for the best objects. But most pieces offered on the market, archeologists note, are not furnished with information as to their origin or prior ownership—an indication they were probably looted. Alva wants to make buying archeological items with no provenance as unacceptable as wearing fur. "My slogan would be 'People who love culture don't buy antiquities.'"
This site has a rich collection of links on the overall ethics of archaeology. Check them out.

From rogueclassicism comes this news story about the smuggling of classical artifacts.

In our own field, Stephen Carlson@Hypotyposeis has an excellent post about "fence-sitting" with regard to the James Ossuary. He says:
Don't get me wrong--I fully appreciate and applaud scholars who have the humility to decline on pontificating on areas outside their expertise. I also recognize that statements in Biblical studies need to be suitably qualified that indicate our confidence in their truth. But sometimes we come a point when choosing to stay on the fence has less to do with the failure of the evidence and more to do with the failure to look at the evidence.

I would submit that enough evidence about the James ossuary inscription has been been developed such that agnosticism about its authenticity--for those wishing to move ahead with it "anyway"--is no longer a responsible position.
He's right. It can't be repeated often enough: the burden of proof lies squarely on those who wish to claim authenticity for an unprovenanced object. And the more significant an object is the heavier that burden becomes. Those who dodge or finesse this burden are not doing their job as scholars.

Finally, Jim Davila@Paleojudaica has a typically insightful discussion of the forgery scandal based on an article from the Guardian, which he links to.

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