The Importance of Archaeological Provenance – BAR Sept/Oct 2018

My First Person editorial for Sept/Oct 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR 44/5) is titled “The Importance of Archaeological Provenance.” I hope you can give it a read and learn about some new policies we’ve instituted at BAR regarding newly-introduced unprovenanced objects and our publication of them.

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One of the major issues facing archaeology is the issue of provenance, or specifically the lack thereof, with regard to archaeological objects.1

The word provenance (alternatively spelled provenience) comes from the Latin provenire, meaning “to come forth, originate.” Thus, archaeological provenance refers to the verifiable information regarding the origin of an archaeological object—the dig site or location in which it was discovered, its locus, stratum, dating, etc., as well as its chain of custody, that is, who possessed the object since its discovery.

Conversely, an unprovenanced object is an object whose origin and chain of custody is unknown or partially unknown. These objects may have been looted from an archaeological site, forged, or otherwise acquired, legally or illegally, by a private collector, who often keeps the objects out of the hands of scholars. Some collectors, however, do offer their collections to scholars for study, but this process often merely increases the value of the objects for the collector, who then sells the objects for a greater profit. Other collectors sell their collections but demand that their identities be kept anonymous for fear of criminal prosecution or the stigmatic consequences of dealing antiquities on the black market.

Once the archaeological context of an object is lost, it is worth far less academically, as it can no longer reliably tell us anything about the people who made it. This is because the archaeological context—the place in which it was found in the ground—offers archaeologists as much information about the object as the object itself, like clues as to who was using the object, what it was used for, how old it is, etc.

Scholars and the Israel Antiquities Authority have condemned the purchase of unprovenanced objects by antiquities dealers for decades because it encourages the looting of archaeological sites by providing a financial incentive to those who would attempt to sell them to unwitting tourists and treasure seekers. Because objects discovered in licensed archaeological excavations belong to the state in which they were discovered—the most important of which typically end up displayed in the various states’ archaeological museums—those who wish to collect artifacts often turn to antiquities dealers. And while some antiquities dealers are licensed by the state to sell legally obtained objects, many others engage in the sale of illicitly obtained objects and, in turn, often collaborate with shadowy middlemen to acquire their goods (i.e., the black market).

Claims (typically made by licensed antiquities dealers) that the purchasers of illicit antiquities often act as “rescuers,” who ransom the looted artifacts from a life of shrouded anonymity on the black market so that they can be researched and published, are unconvincing. Continued illicit purchases only fuel further demand on the black market, which inevitably encourages looting. And even if a particular object has already been looted and is already on the black market, the sale of these antiquities, both legal and illicit, drives future looting, as stock must be resupplied. Reducing the demand by banning the non-state sanctioned sale of all antiquities and obstructing their transport is the only true way to begin to curtail looting. Furthermore, the damage done to potential and excavated archaeological sites by unscrupulous thieves far outweighs any benefits gained by the research and publication of these now decontextualized objects, which have been stripped of the valuable contextual data derived from a verifiable provenance.

One might object, “But what about the Dead Sea Scrolls? They began as unprovenanced objects before they were systematically excavated!” This is true, as did many objects that are now prominently displayed in the world’s greatest museums. These objects, as well as the additional problem of the transport of cultural history objects out of their homelands, contributed to the establishment of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Simply put, since it went into force in 1972, nations of the world agreed not to trade in illicit cultural heritage objects. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered beginning in 1947, prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, but you can understand why news of the recent acquisition of scrolls by the Museum of the Bible from contractually anonymous black-market dealers caused so much furor among scholars.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have all established policies on unprovenanced antiquities that prohibit participation in the trade of undocumented antiquities and the activities that give sanction to that trade, including exhibiting unprovenanced objects in museums, publishing articles on them in their respective journals, and presenting professional papers on them at annual conferences.2 This is all done in an effort to discourage the looting of archaeological objects. By scholars refusing to participate in research, the unprovenanced objects lack the professional credibility required to authenticate the objects—authentication that enhances their monetary value. Thus, in theory, by scholars refusing to authenticate the illicit objects, their value is diminished, which results in lessened demand, leading to less looting.

It is for this reason that last November at the SBL annual meeting in Boston, I announced that BAR would no longer publish newly discovered or introduced unprovenanced archaeological objects in its pages. BAR occupies a unique place between the academy and the public. While it is our primary mission to convey the latest archaeological discoveries and research to the public, we also have a responsibility to discourage looting and the forging of archaeological objects by not promoting them in our magazine.

If and when the next sensational unprovenanced archaeological object is introduced to the media, BAR may use its position as a media outlet to explain to our readers what the claims being made are and why the unprovenanced nature of the discovery makes the discovery problematic. But as a practice, BAR will no longer publish newly introduced unprovenanced objects in an effort to play our small part in guarding against looting and forgery.—B.C.

1 A portion of this column was adapted from an earlier blog post (robertcargill.com/2017/07/19/the-museum-of-the-bible- why-are-archaeologists-and-bible-scholars-so-mad/).

2 ASOR and SBL provide an exemption for cuneiform tablets (see, e.g., www.asor.org/ initiatives-projects/asor-affiliated-archaeological-projects-2/standards-policies/policy-on- cuneiform-texts-from-iraq/).

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Dr. Bruce Wells on “Sex Crimes in the Laws of the Hebrew Bible” – ASOR Podcast

cast_outListen to the excellent Friends of ASOR Podcast interview with Dr. Bruce Wells, Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who recently authored the article, “Sex Crimes in the Laws of the Hebrew Bible” in Near Eastern Archaeology.

 

Review of Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ by Robert Cargill on ‘Friends of ASOR’ Podcast

Friends of ASORI recently reviewed Darren Aronofsky’s Noah movie for the first ever American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) “Friends of ASOR” podcast. My thanks to Andy Vaughn for hosting.

Via ASOR:

**WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Listen to Dr. Robert Cargill talk about Noah (yes, the one who built an ark).  We asked him about the biblical and ancient Near Eastern descriptions of Noah, as well as his reactions to the movie (of the same name) released this past weekend.

Dr. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at The University of Iowa. He is a biblical studies scholar,classicist, archaeologist, author, and digital humanist. His research includes the study of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, literary criticism of the Bible and the Pseudepigrapha, and the ancient Near East. He has appeared as an expert on numerous television documentaries and specials and is an advocate for social justice and public higher education. He previously worked and taught at UCLA. For more information on Dr. Cargill, check out his blog bio.

Stay tuned for a review of the movie Noah by Dr. Cargill.

 

 

Some Old Articles about Noah in Anticipation of the New Movie about Noah

In honor of the nationwide premier of Darren Aronofsky’s new Noah movie, I’m reposting some pieces I’ve written in the past about the subject.

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I’ll actually be providing a review of the movie for ASOR sometime in the next few weeks.

For the time being, allow me a few introductory remarks about some of the reactions we’re beginning to see about the movie.

Religious conservatives always freak out whenever anyone messes with their ancient myths. Well, allow me to clarify: as long as you retell the myth as it is preserved in the Bible, you’re praised as a good and faithful servant and an excellent producer/director/actor.

But should you explain the origins of the myth, or offer your own mythological interpretation of the ancient biblical myth, or vary it in any way, well then you’re a heretic destined for burning flames of hell and the movie is immediately dismissed as the fanciful ravings of a godless atheist.

Remember, a worldwide flood has been disproved time and again. It’s a myth preserved in the Bible, which was based upon much earlier flood myths that were incorporated into the biblical narrative.

So why can’t a modern director offer his own interpretation of the ancient myth? When Baz Luhrmann reinterprets the Descent of Orpheus myth as “Moulin Rouge!“, or the Coen brothers reinterpret Homer’s Odyssey as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?“, everyone cheers (including conservative Christians). But when Darren Aronofsky retells the biblical flood myth as “Noah”, religious conservatives weep and gnash their teeth. And why are biblical myths so sacrosanct?

Because many religious fundamentalists still believe the account of the Flood in the Bible is historical. They believe it really happened, regardless of what science says. The myth is to be believed over science, but only when the myth is preserved in the Bible. If it’s a myth of another religious tradition, then it’s OK to accept science, and even to use science to disprove the myth. But if the myth is in the Bible, science suddenly sucks.

Look, they are myths. And this is modern motion picture art reinterpreting ancient literary art. So relax and enjoy the movie. And trust me, there will be plenty of scholars pointing out the places where the movie deviates from the biblical text and takes artistic liberties. Just please don’t confuse those of us who do this with the religious fundamentalists who criticize the movie because they believe the worldwide flood actually happened.

Cheers.

You should be a Friend of ASOR

Friends of ASOR

The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) has begun a new program called Friends of ASOR that allows “friends” access to  The Ancient Near East Today e-newsletter and the ASOR Resource Page which is filled with archaeological content – FOR FREE!

Registration takes 20 seconds. So what are you waiting for? Become a Friend of ASOR today and get credible, scholarly, archaeological content for free.

Profs. Oded Lipschits and David Vanderhooft win 2012 G. Ernest Wright ASOR Book Award

Dr. Oded Lipschits, Tel Aviv University

Dr. Oded Lipschits, Tel Aviv University

Dr. David Vanderhooft, Boston College

Dr. David Vanderhooft, Boston College

Congratulations are in order to Profs. Oded Lipschits and David Vanderhooft on being awarded the 2012 G. Ernest Wright ASOR Book Award.

From Eisenbrauns:

We at Eisenbrauns congratulate Oded Lipschits and David Vanderhooft, who were awarded the 2012 G. Ernest Wright Award by the American Schools of Oriental Research for their recent Eisenbrauns book The Yehud Stamp Impressions: A Corpus of Inscribed Impressions from the Persian and Hellenistic Periods in Judah.

This award is given to the author(s) of the most substantial volume dealing with archaeological material, excavation reports and material culture from the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean. This work must be the result of original research published within the past two years. Read more on the ASOR web site.

We’re celebrating by offering all the books they edited or wrote for us at a 30% discount.

Congratulations to my colleagues, and let us celebrate with a toast at Azekah next summer. You’re buying. ;-)

YouTube Video: Digitally Manipulated “Fish in the Margins” Imagery on the so-called “Jonah Ossuary”

I have uploaded my latest YouTube video entitled “Digitally Manipulated “Fish in the Margins” Imagery on the so-called “Jonah Ossuary.” The video walks viewers through an illustrated version of an earlier blog post I wrote entitled, “Sins of Commission and Omission: Digitally Generated Marginal ‘Fishes’ and Overlooked Handles on the So-called ‘Jonah Ossuary’“.

The video points out 2 basic points:

  1. Digitally inked images were released to the public without acknowledging that the videos had, in fact, been inked (with ink colored to look like a naturally engraved area). (After I wrote my blog post, they later designated the image as “marked” and uploaded the “uninked” image for comparison).
  2. The digital ink does not correspond to the engraved areas, giving the illusion of a fish where none is present.
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