Friday, April 22, 2005

The Schoyen Aramaic Incantation Bowls

Jim Davila has a link to this UK news article dealing with Aramaic incantation bowls in the Schoyen collection that may have been illegally obtained.

The story says, "They were exported from Jordan, but their country of origin may have been Iraq, the site of ancient Mesopotamia." I would say that it is overwhelmingly probable that the bowls come from Iraq. Although Aramaic incantations are known from many locations in the Middle East, the use of incantation bowls in magical praxis is specific to Iraq.

Aramaic incantation bowls are of particular importance for the study of Eastern Aramaic and the dialect of the Babylonian Talmud, since they they are our largest corpus of epigraphic (as opposed to manuscript) Aramaic from the Talmudic and Geonic periods. Most of them date from the 5th-8th centuries CE.

My understanding was that Shaul Shaked was in charge of publishing the Schoyen bowls. It seems likely that this legal embroilment will hamper that.

In view of their origin in the antiquities market and their lack of provenance, should these bowls be considered fakes? I think probably not, for two reasons: (1) incantation bowls are in fact not uncommon at Iraqi sites, and are usually found close to the surface, and are therefore not valuable enough to be worth forging; (2) the dialect is so esoteric that a forger would have difficulty mastering it. Nevertheless, the necessary technical protocols should be carried out on the bowls as on any unprovenanced item.

If the bowls are to be repatriated, I would hope that they would go to the Iraq Museum, which has a large (and unpublished) collection of incantation bowls. As far as I know, this collection has been unaffected by the war or looting. The Schoyen bowls, by the way, were obtained before the 2003 Iraq war, so they are not a product of the recent lawlessness there.

One of the Schoyen bowls can be seen here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The bowls might have been obtained before the 2003 Iraq war, but this does in no way prove legality - what about all the other wars?? Does it matter if they are not the product of 'recent lawlessness' ? Surely the end result is the same? - looted antiquities = a loss of valuable information gained from context and theft of cultural property.