By: Benjamin R. Foster
Editor’s Note: One of the leading dilemmas in Ancient Near East Studies is the publication of unprovenanced antiquities. Here, Benjamin R. Foster, curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, one of the largest collections of Mesopotamian texts and artifacts in North America, offers his thoughts.
The Yale Babylonian Collection will not purchase, accept as a donation, or authenticate any Mesopotamian artifact that the curator has reason to believe was acquired by its current owner in violation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. I consider the burden of proving the legitimacy of an artifact to be on the owner. This Collection has acquired only a few objects under my curatorship. I have given far more attention to conservation, cataloging, and publication of our present holdings than to additional acquisitions.
Few are aware of the great number of tablets in the United States, imported prior to 1970, dispersed in small institutional and private collections. The late Albrecht Goetze and Ferris Stephens devoted much effort to identifying such collections and compiled a file of over 60 of them in the 1940s and 1950s, comprising hundreds of tablets, seals, and other Mesopotamian objects. Goetze’s volume in the Yale Oriental Series (number XV) published well over 200 such scattered tablets, an appreciable number of which have since disappeared or passed into other collections. Using the 1970 UNESCO Convention as a guide, such tablets would, in my opinion, be legitimate acquisitions for any American museum.
In my experience, publication of most cuneiform tablets, such as routine administrative texts, substantially reduces their commercial value. I would gratefully accept for the Yale Babylonian Collection legitimate, previously published tablets, but I would not purchase them at the same market rates as legitimately acquired, unpublished tablets.
Forgeries increase on the market with the increased availability of authentic tablets. Forgeries have been around since the beginnings of Mesopotamian exploration; even Claudius Rich owned some. Whereas most forgeries are produced to deceive unwary buyers, some have been made by Assyriologists for their amusement and can be quite well done.
Some forgeries are meaningless marks on clay. Some are casts of real tablets, and so can be deceiving. Some are bizarre: I was recently showed a bronze cast of an authentic, unpublished tablet from Drehem in southern Iraq, dug up near an old metal workshop. One never knows to what purpose a tablet may be turned. Some forgeries are laborious copies in clay or even stone of authentic texts, but with improper word divisions, misunderstood signs, and the like.
Occasionally fragments of genuine tablets are embedded in a forged clay matrix and surrounded with meaningless wedges. Since the sale of the Erlenmeyer collection of proto-cuneiform tablets, numerous forged “archaic” texts have appeared, since these have the advantage of large, easily reproduced signs compared to some periods of cuneiform writing. The staggering prices realized at that sale encouraged increasing the supply.
As a curator of a major collection, I do not publish tablets or other objects I have reason to believe were acquired in violation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. As an Assyriologist, I do not judge my many colleagues who publish such materials, as I consider this a personal decision for which good arguments can be made for one side or the other.
As an educator, I expect my students to familiarize themselves with antiquities and cultural property issues as part of their training. I have considered it my professional duty to write and lecture on these issues and to include them in my historical surveys of ancient Iraq for the general reader.
Benjamin R. Foster is Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection.
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