Monday, October 27, 2014

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting Archaeological Material

Context helps to explain archaeological material. There is information about the specific location, the stratigraphic relationship with other objects, and the association with related material. 

It is easy for archaeologists to document the looting of archaeological sites. And the Medici Dossier, the Becchina Archive, and the Schinoussa Images have made it possible to identify objects that have entered the market.

But we also need to consider the limitations of discussing such 'unexcavated' objects. Chris Chippindale and I explored some of the issues relating to Cycladic figures, and I have published a study of the intellectual consequences of acquiring the Sarpedon krater. I will be exploring further issues at a seminar in Cambridge this week.

Among the areas that the seminar will consider are:

  • Athenian red-figured pots attributed to the Berlin painter
  • Etruscan architectural terracottas
  • Apulian cavalry armour
  • Apulian pottery
  • Classical bronze statues
  • The Icklingham bronzes
  • The 'Crosby Garrett' helmet
  • The Sevso Treasure
Do archaeologists, and especially those dealing with the classical world, need to see how little material comes from secure contexts?


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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Curator, the Fax and the Mummy Mask



I remain puzzled by the St Louis Art Museum. It seems that less than one year after acquiring the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mummy mask (the one with the name erased from the hand), a distinguished Egyptologist from a major international museum faxed a member of the curatorial team at SLAM drawing attention to the link with Saqqara.

It also seems that another museum-based Egyptologist encouraged the leadership team at SLAM to contact the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), in part because it was known that the archaeological store at Saqqara had been 'disturbed'.

The leadership team at SLAM will need to explain how they responded to this information. Or did they wait until Zahi Hawass contacted SLAM's director of February 14, 2006?


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Thursday, October 23, 2014

James Cuno Revives "Culture Wars"

I have been unimpressed by James Cuno's attempts to be a commentator on the looting of archaeological sites. I have reviewed his works elsewhere:

Now Cuno has decided to reopen the discussion with an essay, "Culture Wars: The Case Against Repatriating Museum Artifacts
", Foreign Affairs November / December 2014.

Cuno overlooks some issues that are very relevant to the debate about repatriation. What about the Egyptian material from the Tomb of Tetatki that had been acquired by the Louvre? Is the AAMD 2008 acquisition policy as tight as Cuno suggests?

Cuno limits the information about the returns to Italy as a result of the Medici Conspiracy to what was displayed in the Nostoi exhibition in Rome (and Athens).
it was the Medici scandal that eventually led the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Princeton University Art Museum to send those 69 objects back to Rome in 2007.
To that list of institutions (some linked to Gianfranco Becchina rather than Giacomo Medici) we could add (among others) the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and Toledo Museum of Art. The Dallas Museum of Art took the initiative to return material without being asked. And there are other major collections in North America where acquisitions are linked to Medici (e.g. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). And my running list from 8 major museums adds up to 326 items returned. (And then we can add in material from a private collector, auction-houses, and dealers.) It does look as if Cuno has down-played the scale of the problem. And while we talk about figures, over 60% of the objects returned from those museums were acquired in the 1990s or 2000s.

Cuno also could have discussed the loan of archaeological material from Italian collections to museums such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and to Dallas. And Princeton was allowed to retain some material although the title was given to Italy.

Perhaps Cuno needs to reflect on the lessons derived from the Medici Conspiracy and respond to the constructive comments by thoughtful museum directors such as Maxwell Anderson.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

US Government Pays $425,000 for Legal Case

It now appears that the US Government has had to pay $425,000 in legal fees and costs to the St Louis Art Museum (Jenna Greence, "Feds Lose Fight Over Ancient Mummy Mask", National Law Journal October 21, 2014).

The mask was purchased for $499,000 in 1998.

Pat McInerney of Dentons and Husch Blackwell was quoted:
"The Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer was a fascinating case that ultimately showed the extent to which the government unfortunately overreached in an attempt to literally take an artifact from the Saint Louis Art Museum using a lawsuit the court said was ‘completely devoid of any facts’ supporting their claims,” McInerney of Dentons said. “Credit really belongs to the art museum and its leadership for not caving in to the government's threats and, after winning the case, for compelling the government to pay the cost of defending a lawsuit that never should have been filed."
There are continuing questions about the acquisition that need to be resolved. The key ones are these:

  • When did curators at SLAM become aware that the mask was linked with Saqqara?
  • Did curators at SLAM contact the Egyptian SCA on learning that the mask was linked to Saqqara?
  • When was the personal name of Ka-Nefer-Nefer removed from the hand on the mask?


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Ka-Nefer-Nefer Mummy Mask: the unanswered questions

Paul Barford has drawn attention to the response by SLAM's legal team to the conclusion of the two parallel legal cases.

Patrick McInerney will need to explain when his client was first informed that the Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask was derived from Saqqara. How did curators at SLAM respond? Then there is the issue of when (or if) SLAM contacted the Egyptian SCA about the mask. And was the Director of SLAM ever advised to contact Zahi Hawass about the acquisition and the Saqqara link? Did the curator responsible for the acquisition provide misleading or inaccurate information to the Cairo Museum? How was the collecting history authenticated?

The discussion about the mask is far from over.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice


"Cultural Heritage Ethics provides cutting-edge arguments built on case studies of cultural heritage and its management in a range of geographical and cultural contexts. Moreover, the volume feels the pulse of the debate on heritage ethics by discussing timely issues such as access, acquisition, archaeological practice, curatorship, education, ethnology, historiography, integrity, legislation, memory, museum management, ownership, preservation, protection, public trust, restitution, human rights, stewardship, and tourism."


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Looting In Syria

David Kohn has a useful article on looting in Syria ("ISIS's looting campaign", New Yorker October 14, 2014). He notes damage to sites such as Apamea and Dura-Europos. Interestingly the antiquities are apparently moved through Turkey.
Once the artifacts are out of the ground, they’re sold by second-hand dealers. Daniels said that many of the looted items, which include gold and silver coins, mosaics, figurines, jewelry, cylinder seals, and tablets, end up for sale in towns near the Turkish-Syrian border.
So should we be on the look out for Late Roman mosaics that are associated with classical sites such as Apamea?

And are other classical antiquities from Syria being provided with new collecting histories in Turkey? What classical sculptures from such a source are surfacing on the market?

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Bettany Hughes on the Sappho Papyrus

I have been returning to the case of the Sappho Papyrus as I have been working on the authentification of collecting histories. It is claimed that there is "documented legal provenance" for the papyrus. So what does this paperwork comprise?

Bettany Hughes has made some interesting comments on its collecting history ("Lover, poet, muse and a ghost made real: A find in a mummy's head has brought the Greek writer Sappho to life", Sunday Times February 2, 2014).

There are several pieces of information:
a. 'find in a mummy's head'. This indicates the papyrus had been repurposed as part of a mummy cartonnage. What is the date of the cartonnage? Where was it found? Who had owned it in recent years? How was the papyrus removed?
b. 'The elderly gentleman on the end of the line had material from an ancient Egyptian burial in his possession. He'd noticed that scraps of the cartonnage (the Egyptian equivalent of papier-mache, made of recycled papyrus) bore the ghostly imprint of writing.' So we learn that the individual telephoning Dirk Obbink in Oxford was 'elderly' and male.
c. 'The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.' If the "provenance" (i.e. the collecting history) is 'obscure', how can it also be claimed to be both "documented" and "legal"? Who was the "high-ranking German officer"? When did this "German officer" acquire the papyrus and under what circumstances? What due diligence search did Obbink undertake to ensure that this papyrus had not been "confiscated" during the 1930s or early 1940s?

I presume that Obbink will release the "documented legal provenance" so that the paperwork can be authenticated.

[Paul Barford commented on this article back in February.]

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Bubon Caracalla at Fordham



I am sure that colleagues in Turkey will be interested in the way that one of the imperial statues linked to the Sebasteion at Bubon is being paraded at Fordham.

Let me quote from the Fordham catalogue: "it has been suggested that the Fordham example may have belonged to a large statue group of Roman emperors from a Sebasteion in the city of Bubon in northern Lycia, Asia Minor".

In fact there is even more reason for linking this head to Bubon.

I presume that Fordham will be contacting the Turkish authorities.

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Oxford Classics Endorses the Sappho Papyrus

Earlier this year I wondered about the full collecting history of the "Sappho Papyrus".

Dr Dirk Obbink has now published a short piece in the Oxford Faculty of Classics Newsletter. The double page spread (though the right hand page is by Dr Armand D'Angour on 'The song of Sappho') has as its flag: 'Sappho: a New Discovery from the Ancient World'.

If it is a 'new' discovery, please could somebody state where and when it was found? Who made the discovery?

What is the 'documented legal provenance'? Who has authenticated the collecting history?

Has the editor of the Newsletter considered the ethical issues over endorsing the papyrus by including this piece?

For some of the extensive discussion see:



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