Using Inscriptions from the Antiquities Market: Polarized Positions and Pragmatic Proposals

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, Antiquities Market, ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property, Dead Sea Scrolls, Epigraphy, Inscriptions
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By: Christopher A. Rollston

Archaeological sites in the Middle East have been ransacked, pillaged, and plundered for many decades. The motivations of the actual pillaging are normally economic: the pursuit of marketable artifacts. That is, the pillagers wish to find objects that can be sold to collectors. Of course, the motivations of the collectors who purchase these pillaged antiquities range from the desire to possess a piece of ancient history to having putative proof for a cherished belief. Among the artifacts most prized by collectors are ancient inscriptions.

Think briefly about scientific archaeological excavations. Complete pots and potsherds are carefully collected, catalogued, documented, and analyzed, while broken pots are often restored. Organic materials are meticulously bagged and tagged and sent to be carbon dated. Animal bones and seeds are studied to learn about animal husbandry, agriculture, and ancient diets. Grinding stones, needles, and pins are photographed and studied carefully to shed light on aspects of daily life. Metal objects are sent to laboratories for scientific analyses. Stone tools such as arrowheads are sent to specialists for analysis. And inscriptions are sent to epigraphers to be read and analyzed. The result is that knowledge is gained about ancient languages and dialects, and about ancient social structures, and religious practices and ideas. The final result is that scientific excavations yield an enormous amount of information about the ebb and flow of ancient lives.

In contrast, those pillaging sites for marketable objects do not have the resources, time, desire, or the training to do any of these things. This is despite the fact many looters have experience working on excavations, sometimes as skilled laborers. Rather, looters rifle through sites and collect nothing except the most marketable of objects. The rest are disturbed, broken, and ignored. After all, the primary goal of the pillager is finding something that will sell, something that will satisfy the appetite of the black market in pillaged antiquities. What then about inscriptions found by looters?

The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea scrolls. Hebrew transcription included.
June 1993. Photograph: the Israel Antiquities Authority 1993; photographer not named.

Although I believe there are some exceptions (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Wadi ed-Daliyeh Papyri), inscriptions that have been pillaged and sold on the antiquities market are less useful to epigraphers, historians, and archaeologists than those found during scientific expeditions. The archaeological context for inscriptions from the market will (normally) never be known with certainty. Some counter that inscriptions intrinsically contain so much information that the archaeological context is of no great value. But knowledge about the site at which an inscription was found is undoubtedly useful. What is the overall history of the site and the region? What is the putative chronological horizon in which the inscription was found, its architectural context, and the associated artifacts? Is the context residential or monumental? Are there more inscriptions? Was it found with cultic vessels or palace furniture or more prosaic settings and objects? Questions of context are vital for reading inscriptions in the broader sense beyond their letters and words.

Some contend that simply attributing an inscription to a site is sufficient. But simply knowing the name of the site from which an inscription is pillaged is not the same as knowing its precise archaeological context. Furthermore, it must be emphasized that both looters and buyers of pillaged inscriptions have numerous reasons not to reveal the name of the site. This could, at the very least, alert the authorities to the pillaging and prompt efforts to protect the site (e.g., fences, guards, etc.). I consider any information provided by a pillager, dealer or collector about the putative origins of an inscription to be suspect, unless there is accompanying empirical evidence.

Second, and at least as importantly, it should also be emphasized that modern forgers are becoming better and better at producing high quality modern epigraphic forgeries, replete with patinas that mimic or even replicate ancient patinas. This has been true of recent modern forgeries such as a number of the Moussaieff Ostraca and the notorious Jehoash Inscription. Moreover, the late Frank Moore Cross made it clear several years ago that he believes the Ivory Pomegranate to be a probable forgery as well. Naturally, it should be emphasized that epigraphic forgeries were produced during previous decades as well, that is, the problem is not something that has cropped up just within the past decade or two. Some showcase examples of epigraphic forgeries include the 20th century Hebron Philistine Documents, which turned out to be basically some words from the Siloam Tunnel Inscription written backwards. Famous 19th century forgeries include the Brazilian Phoenician Inscription, shown to be constructed from knowledge of the Phoenicians available during the period, and which duped more than one distinguished scholar, and the Shapira Fragments, which appeared conveniently in 1883, the year after Wellhausen’s magnum opus on the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch. In short, the production of forgeries has been going on for some time; indeed, it has been going on for many centuries, largely in response to market needs and using scholarly materials as guides.

It seems to me that there are two basic responses to this problem. One could argue that artifacts pillaged from a site and then sold on the antiquities market should be: (1) embraced warmly within the academic community (e.g., scholars in the field, academic societies), based on the assumption that even though these objects were pillaged, there is still some data that can be garnered from studying these objects, even without an archaeological context; or (2) repudiated more or less entirely within the academic community, based on the assumption that they were not obtained legally and so for legal, moral, and ethical reasons, they should not be used in respectable academic publications by trained scholars. I have respected friends and colleagues in the field who embrace both positions. But at the end of the day, I am a pragmatist and so for around a decade, I have suggested in presentations and print that there should be a middle way.

Of course, I would like to believe that antiquities collectors and antiquities dealers will see the myriad problems they are creating, cease to collect and to sell, and thus decrease dramatically the pillaging of sites. I would also like to believe that those producing modern forgeries would cease doing so because of the harm they are doing. But I am a pragmatic and realistic scholar and so I do not believe that these things will cease. To be sure, some academic societies have attempted to demonstrate their moral, ethical and legal concerns by forbidding the publication (or at least the publication of the editio princeps) of market antiquities within their journals. I think that this is a fair and reasonable response. On the other hand, the fact remains that inscriptions from the market will find scholars willing to publish them and they will find venues for such publications. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I should state that although I have never published myself an inscription from the market and have exposed a number of inscriptions from the antiquities market as modern forgeries, I edit a journal that does not have an explicit policy against publishing an inscription from the market. Of course, ours is not alone in that regard. In any case, I think that, at the very least, the field absolutely must put some methodological controls in place.

First and foremost, it seems to me to be important to flag every inscription that comes from the antiquities market in all publications. Something such as the linguistic sign for zero, namely Ø, is quite reasonable. Thus, “Ø Jehoash Inscription” would signal immediately to someone reading about this inscription that it is from the antiquities market. For me, it is a “truth in advertising” issue. I first proposed this in presentations at the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature (after reading something about the practice in the late Bruce Metzger’s autobiography). I emphasized it in print in publications written around a decade ago and refer to this as “The Principle of Flagging.”

It also seems prudent for scholars to separate in publications those inscriptions from scientific excavations and inscriptions from the antiquities market. Thus, within handbooks of inscriptions that include those from the market, there should be at least two major divisions, namely, “Excavated Inscriptions” and “Inscriptions from the Market.” This is very easy to do and informs the reader immediately that an inscription is from the market. I refer to this as “The Principle of Separation.

The presence of epigraphic forgeries causes me to believe inscriptions from the market should also be relegated to a secondary or tertiary status in discussions of ancient society, religion, history, linguistics, and so on. It also seems imprudent to base sweeping statements on history, social structure, politics or religion on the basis of any Northwest Semitic inscription from the market. I refer to this as “The Principle of Relegation.” Finally, it seems to me that, because of the growing presence of modern epigraphic forgeries, Northwest Semitic scholars must make a concerted effort to categorize inscriptions from the market, using categories such as these (i) Modern Forgery; (ii) Probable Modern Forgery; (iii) Possible Modern Forgery; (iv) Probable Ancient; (v) Ancient. I refer to this as “The Principle of Categorization.”

Putting these sorts of methodological protocols in place will be useful and allow more “truth in advertising” than has been the case in the past. My ultimate hope is that we can collectively stem the tide of pillaged archaeological sites, but in the mean time I believe that it is reasonable and wise to begin with prudent methods.

Christopher Rollston is currently Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.  He is the editor of the journal MAARAV and the author of Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (2010), which received the American Schools of Oriental Research’s “Frank Moore Cross Prize for Northwest Semitic Epigraphy.”

For Further Reading

Christopher Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

______. “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic.” Maarav 11: (2004): 57-79.

_______. “Navigating the Epigraphic Storm: A Palaeographer Reflects on Inscriptions from the Market.” Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005): 69-72.

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