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. (more…)

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7 Comments for : Using Inscriptions from the Antiquities Market: Polarized Positions and Pragmatic Proposals
  1. Thank you Christopher for your constructive suggestions. Two observations: I will exchange the term "from the market" with the term "unprovenanced". Also, the genuine unprovenanced material labeled (iv)-(v) is not to be included in the same group with the forgeries labeled (i)-(iii).

    • Robert Mathiesen (Br
    • April 3, 2013

    On occasion, even an artifact obtained in the course of a scientific archaeological excavation has turned out to be a deliberate modern forgery (even a forgery planted by the principal archaeologist), e.g. the shrine artifacts from the Grimes Grave excavation in England. So one also needs a category something like "provenanced modern forgery."

    • namshitamubidug
    • April 4, 2013

    "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. " From the perspective of cuneiform this is a very foolish statement. Of course full context is ideal and tells us much. I very much wish we had it all the time. But for most of what's currently out there, whether in museums or still on the market, its too late. Should we ignore the hundreds of thousands of third millennium administrative tablets, nearly all of which were looted in the early 20th century? Furthermore, generally all the best preserved and unique tablets literary tablets come "from the market," ever since the beginning of the field. Tablets of this type, unlike late alphabetic inscriptions on paper, are nearly impossible to forge. I'm at loss to come up with a single example that every convinced anybody, cuneiform "forgeries" are always crude and obvious. Relegating looted tablets to "tertiary status," which would never happen anyway, would effectively result in cutting the field of Assyriology in half or more.

    As scholars our duty is to rescue the information on these documents from perdition, in spite of the sad modern history of the land from which they come. If that means retrieving them from the looters, preserving and publishing them, so be it; anything less is a diservice to the ancients. Treating this stuff like contraband just adds insult to injury. What good does it do to shun and persecute scholars who do the imporant work of preserving and interpretating the information on looted documents? (i.e. the Cornell tablets?) How about instead implementing the structure and economy to prevent such looting in the future (yeah right though). And who's fault is it that Iraq and Syria went to hell in the first place? (HINT: America and Israel). Lord knows what sort of informational treasures are sitting around in some warehouse in Dubai, crumbling from neglect because they're too "hot" to even try to sell. It sucks that 2003 happened, and I wish it didn't, but we have to salvage what we can, and then hopefully prevent it from happening again.

    The problems which cause looting and the existence of super rich jerks who buy this stuff just to satisfy their egos and flaunt their wealth run much, much deeper than anything having to do with scholarship. Indeed they run to the very core of our very troubled modern times: central banking, pernicious internationalist families, Bilderberg, etc etc. I don't expect any of this to change any time soon. The world is like an archaeologist's sieve and the sands of death run faster every day, as ancient historians we can only cup our hands and catch what falls, trying to delay what is, anyway, all our inevitable fate.

  2. You listed 3 principles: Flagging, Separation, & Categorization. Each of these distinguishes scientifically excavated artifacts from the antiquities market, but there's also a gray region to which Robert Deutsch alluded. Into which of these would you categorize artifacts found on the surface by tourists, or kept by volunteers during early excavations? They are provenanced, but not scientifically documented (the converse of Robert Mathiesen's "provenanced modern forgery"). Sometimes they're mentioned by archeologists in excavation reports; other times they appear at museums as donations from estates, or at estate auctions. For example, Vaughn & Barkay have documented some inscribed jar handles in the possession of families that helped excavate Lachish in the 1930s. At the Kelso Museum in Pittsburgh there's a similar handle on display found by a visitor to Tell en-Nasbeh in the 1950s. Similarly described objects have been listed on eBay.

    • André Lemaire
    • April 9, 2013

    With some nuances, I generally agree with the positive orientation of this article and should like to emphasize that the appreciation of the authenticity of the unprovenanced inscriptions (and sometimes of the apparently provenanced inscriptions!) is, first of all the responsibility of the experienced epigraphers since it is a well known problem in the history of epigraphy.

    With that, I do not agree with the way this article quotes Frank Moore Cross as a kind of 'Bible’ in epigraphy. With due respect to his memory and his work: with good palaeographical and factual arguments and after several detailed examinations, I cannot agree with his non argued and changing opinion about the inscription of the ivory pomegranate. At the opposite, for instance, I have serious doubts about the authenticity of the so-called "marzeah papyrus" which he accepted. In the same way, M. Lidzbarski suspected a few small inscriptions (for instance alphabetic inscriptions on seals) to be fake but later discoveries reveal that they were genuine. There are cases when time (and not the momentary fashion) will tell the truth.

  3. My sincere thanks to Robert Deutsch and Robert Mathiesen for the comments. Yes, Robert (Deutsch), I think that your suggestion to further subclassify the inscriptions from the market is entirely acceptable. Thank you, my friend. Moroever, Robert (Mathiesen), I think your point is well taken…I've thought in the past that it would be worth adding that category, but I didn't want to broach the subject (as people can become particularly defensive about it), but you're absolutely correct. It is an issue….indeed, Frank Cross once mentioned to me that someone brought him an inscription, putatively from a Tel(l), and asked him if he would translate it….the letters were heh, resh, waw, resh, dalet. He smiled and handed it back, and said, yes, I can translate it….it says "Harvard." Of course, this was simply a humours gesture and all got a good laugh out of it, I'm sure. But you are absolutely correct that people can salt, and have salted, things in a tel(l) and so one must be vigilant about this as well. In short, my thanks to both of you for your notes.

    As for the comment from someone (anonymous) who refers to the principle of relegation as "foolish" for "cuneiform"…..well, I would note the following: First and foremost, as an Ausgangspunkt, here is the full form of my sentence which was cited in trucated form in the comment: (1) "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." (2) In short, a primary reason for the principle of relegation is the presence of forgeries. Moreover, as asute readers will have noticed, the focus of this article is NWS, a field which has had a serious problem with forgeries for at least 150 years.

    (3) For certain fields (Assyriology is one of them), the problem of modern forgery is minor. Indeed, Robert Biggs and I have corresponded about this in the past and he has emphasized that there are modern forgeries of Mesopotamian cuneiform, but these are normally readily detectable. Thus, for Assyriology, this is not a major problem. But, again, the principle of relegation is about protecting the dataset from modern forged data; therefore, I would hasten to add that the future may witness some very fine cuneiform forgeries. In fact, I am confident that very fine forgeries of Mesopotamian cuneiform can be produced, even now. It's mostly about economics….and cuneiform from the market simply doesn't bring the sorts of prices which NWS inscriptions do. Should this ever change, then Assyriologists can expect to start seeing high quality modern cuneiform forgeries. Furthermore, it is prudent for all scholars to remember that economics are not always the sole reason for the production of a modern forgery….someone could go to the trouble to forge a very fine, sophisticated cuneiform inscription in the modern period for reasons that are not economic (e.g., a Witz, to dupe scholars, or in order to articulate this or that historical or religious datum so as to fortify some cherished assumption with hard evidence in cuneiform itself).

    (4) Furthermore, I would note that the "protocol section" of the article has the following statement as a point of departure: "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." That is, I note that there are "exceptions," even in NWS. In other words, I certainly do not state that there are no exceptions, but rather quite the reverse.

    In any case, the main point of the article is to suggest that scholars be vigilant, that we also be honest about the archaeological context, or the lack thereof, that we are candid about the fact that the loss knowledge about archaeological context is a net loss (in terms of the potential knowledge that might have been available, had the piece not been pillaged). I am hopeful that the field is moving, or will move, in good directions in all of these things.

    With all best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

    • Michael Welch
    • April 12, 2013

    Dear Dr. Rollston, Hi!!! I enjoyed reading your article. When Professor Frank Moore Cross, Jr., was a teenager, a jealous girlfriend hit him on the forehead with a golf club. Luckily for us it only left a scar and did not affect his gifted epigraphical mind. He went on to work with the unprovenanced Dead Sea Scrolls, he raised money and he and Dr. Lapp purchased the Samaria Papyri from the Bedouin. He was very interested in the publication of the Aramaic Ostraca from Idumaea that Professor Naveh, Professor Porten and others, like Dr. Andre Lemaire, perhaps the world's leading epigrapher, have been publishing. The percentages and history show that the field of NorthWest Semitic Inscriptions has a rate of about 10 percent provenanced and 90 percent unprovenanced. If you look at a specific corpus, say the Ammonite Corpus published by the fine Canadian epigrapher Dr. Walter E. Aufrecht, two inscriptions out of 147 are possible forgeries. This is a .01% forgery rate. Isn't this about normal for our entire NorthWest Semitic Inscriptions Corpus, and wouldn't it be a lot easier when listing an inscription to put the letter p for provenanced and and no letter for everything else with the knowledge that everything else is unprovenanced. Thank you for all of your efforts. With Much Gratitude and Admiration, Michael Welch, Deltona, Florida

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