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. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Psalms_Scroll.jpg

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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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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