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Do not Ostracize the Ostraca: a Discussion on ASOR’s Proposed Ethics

Posted in: Annual Meeting, ASOR
Tags: Archaeology, ASOR, ethics, Ostraca
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On Friday, November 21st, members are invited to discuss the proposed ASOR ethical guidelines. We want to hear from all of our members regarding the ethics of our organization. The following is a proposed amendment to the guidelines from one of our members. We encourage discussion and welcome comments below.

Do not Ostracize the Ostraca!

By: Bezalel Porten

Unprovenanced documents invariably raise the suspicion of inauthenticity. There is not a little irony in an ancient use to which the ostracon was put and the origin of the current corpus. In the century before the dates of our corpus, ancient Athens (487-417 B.C.E) had a practice known as ostracism. To protect the fledgling democracy against the resurgence of tyranny, the citizens voted annually if they wanted to hold “an ostracism.” If the vote were affirmative, each citizen would scratch the name of the person he wished to see banished on an ostracon. The one receiving the most votes was ostracized from the city for ten years. A similar dynamic is occurring among scholarly circles in the case of the Idumean ostraca. Because they were not uncovered in supervised archaeological excavations, our ostraca are labeled as derived from an “unprovenanced” source. Some scholarly organizations will not accept publication of unprovenanced artifacts in their journals, and although they will not quite ostracize scholars who publish them elsewhere, they do not look upon their work with favor. Certainly, looting much be prevented by every possible means, but once an item or a collection has found its was to the antiquities market, it becomes a precious artifact, not a piece of broken clay to be abandoned or reinterred. In our case, we should be thankful to all of the collectors who viewed their collectibles not as art objects to be held in anonymity but as valuable documents to be made available for scholarly publication.

The Netaneh Toqef prayer in the High Holiday liturgy compares man to a broken potsherd. It should this behoove us to honor these broken potsherds that have been rescued from oblivion.

Proposed Amendment to
DRAFT –ASOR’s Guidelines on Professional Conduct–
DRAFT Version dated 9/3/2014 2:42 PM

Propose E.1.d.ii

ASOR recognizes the unprecedented phenomenon that in the early-1990s there were uncovered at (an) unknown site(s) somewhere in the general vicinity of Hebron close to 2000 Idumean ostraca. These have been scattered among nine museums and libraries and 21 private collections. The fact that they were written by scores of scribes is ample warranty for their authenticity. It is inconceivable that any modern team could have put together a corpus covering such diverse topics as commodity chits, payment orders, accounts, workers’ texts, name lists, land descriptions, as well as numerous fragmentary pieces. Virtually none of the topics and many of the personal names were previously unknown. In a period of no written sources, the texts illuminate family organization, onomastics, various facets of economic life, and land organization; and allow us to fine-tune the power struggles of the Diadochi as reflected in mundane contracts from the land of Idumea.

Study of the texts has yielded, among other things, a list of 19 chits for wheat flour written by a single scribe during a few months of 344 bce.  This list allowed us to identify and restore a text found at Maresha whose date was damaged. Written by the same scribe, this single, provenanced chit belonged at the head of the unprovenanced nineteen. The Maresha piece demonstrated the authenticity of the Idumean pieces and the latter informed us how to interpret the Maresha piece. Some thousand pieces have already been published in four different publications (Lemaire, Ephʿal & Naveh, Porten & Yardeni) and several individual studies have also appeared. Therefore, in accord with its existing policy, established in November, 2004 by ASOR’s Board of Trustees, ASOR allows this limited exception to its publication and presentation policy: The Bulletin of theAmerican Schools of Oriental Research and the ASOR blog The Ancient Near East Today may receive articles dealing with these ostraca. In all cases the author(s) should indicate that the pieces are unprovenanced and state in what collection or library they may be found.

 

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