Wednesday, April 5, 2017

An Enthusiasm for Unprovenanced Artifacts

National Library of Israel promotional video for the “Treasures of the Afghan Genizah”

In Live Science on Monday, Owen Jarus provided an update on recent sales of 28 unpublished, purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments to American institutions. I say purported because the fragments are unprovenanced, and therefore it is difficult if not impossible to say if they are actually authentic. Several scholars have already suggested that at least some of these fragments are forgeries. But among the several interesting pieces of information in Jarus’s article is that Ada Yardeni (an Israeli epigrapher) has proclaimed all of these fragments to be authentic.

Seeing Yardeni’s name, I was immediately reminded of my recent reading on the so-called Hazon Gabriel, or “Vision of Gabriel” – a stone inscribed with ink, dated by several experts to the late first century BCE or early first century CE. It too is unprovenanced, although the owner has stated that he bought it from a Jordanian-British antiquities dealer (and that it might possibly have come from the eastern shore of the Dead Sea). The initial publication of this unprovenanced stone was by Ada Yardeni and Binyamin Elitzur.

Provenance is very important in scholarship on ancient artifacts. It is most often cited as a way of proving the authenticity of an artifact, but perhaps even more important are the major ethical and legal issues involved with unprovenanced material. So it is noteworthy that, just in the last year, there have been several stories about unprovenanced inscriptions and other artifacts (purportedly from the greater Middle East) championed by scholars:

* Besides the unpublished purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments described by Jarus, others from the Museum of the Bible collection and the Schøyen collection published last year.
* Naama Vilozny’s study of demons on Aramaic magic bowls. (Most Aramaic incantation bowls are unprovenanced; it is unclear which bowls are the subject of the study.)
* The Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) unveiling of a papyrus fragment purportedly from the Iron Age, which if authentic would be the oldest mention of Jerusalem (the “Jerusalem Papyrus”)
* The National Library of Israel’s purchase last year of about 250 manuscripts, part of the so-called “Afghan Geniza”. (Besides the NLI itself, many Israeli scholars have worked on these, even authenticating them for dealers: Matthew Morgenstern, Shaul Shaked, and others.)
* The widely-heralded publication of an unusual Greek epitaph from Egypt (c. 300 CE) in the collection of the University of Utah
* Reporting on the problematic provenance of the notorious Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment
* Palestine Exploration Quarterly’s publication of an article by Shlomo Guil arguing that the Shapira strips, a notorious 19th century forgery of a supposedly ancient copy of Deuteronomy, were in fact authentic.

One observation: despite a series of recent high-profile fiascos involving unprovenanced inscriptions that were revealed to be forgeries, there is continued scholarly interest in objects without provenance. (Just from the list above, the scholarly consensus now is that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a fake, while serious questions have been raised about the Jerusalem Papyrus and many Dead Sea Scroll fragments.) As Årstein Justnes puts it, “the scholarly community continues to receive unprovenanced material with enthusiasm” (if anything, that enthusiasm is increasing). Christopher Rollston referred to the situation (in 2005) as a “crisis.”

Another observation: much of the championing of these unprovenanced artifacts and their authenticity happens to come from Israeli scholars. (Consider the case of Shaul Shaked, highly respected professor emeritus of Iranian Studies at Hebrew University: his cv includes publications on unprovenanced Aramaic magic bowls, unprovenanced Aramaic documents from Bactria, and unprovenanced so-called “Afghan Geniza” manuscripts.) One reason for this: per capita, there is a relatively high number of perfectly competent Israeli epigraphers to read these inscriptions and archaeologists to analyze these artifacts. But why such enthusiasm for unprovenanced artifacts? And why, at the same time, is so much careful work on provenance and ethics in archaeology and epigraphy being done by scholars in the Europe and the United States? (Although there is enthusiasm for unprovenanced artifacts – at least those with an apparent biblical connection – among scholars at seminaries and Christian schools in the U.S.) Thinking about this recently, I’ve wondered about a couple of possible connections.

One: Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that has a legal antiquities market. In all neighboring countries, trade in antiquities is illegal; all antiquities are officially considered property of the state. In Israel, too, all antiquities are considered property of the state – if they have been found since 1978. By law, objects with a known provenance before that date may be legally owned and sold by private citizens. There are a legal antiquities trade, though (in theory at least) very restricted, and licensed antiquities dealers. The decision to have a legal antiquities trade reflects a certain attitude toward ancient artifacts: perhaps the special connection that Israel has attempted to forge with the ancient Jewish past? The Zionist concept of yedi‘at ha’aretz (“knowledge of the land”) in material form? At the same time, the process works both ways: the existence of this legal trade must affect how people, including scholars, view antiquities. It is not so surprising that unprovenanced antiquities might be considered acceptable in such an environment more than in others.

Two: There is a marked lack of critical theory in Israeli archaeology, and in biblical archaeology outside of Israel. Israeli archaeology is “pure science for the purpose of studying the past through its archaeological finds,” the deputy director of the IAA tells us. There is a pervasive scholarly narrative that archaeologists and epigraphers are objective researchers whose scientific work is threatened by outside influences, misunderstandings, and misuses: by donors, politicians, clergy, news media, the public. Or that archaeologists used to be biased but are no longer so. As a result, working to understand bias in scholarship is largely “trivial” and a waste of time. This conveniently allows archaeologists to avoid any consideration of their own role in the production and reception of knowledge. The result is, ultimately, less concern for issues of ethics and provenance. So perhaps it is not a coincidence that my biblical archaeologist Ph.D. adviser spearheaded a defense of scholarly use of unprovenanced artifacts in 2006, in response to ASOR and AIA ethics policies. These fields encourage the belief that scholars can and should focus only on “the data” and that critical theory is therefore unimportant – in fact, consideration of ethical violations is seen as unprofessional because it deals with things other than the data. Unprovenanced artifacts are championed in the name of making all of “the data” available, in the name of academic freedom.

These attitudes reflect not merely naivete or credulousness, as Jusntes and Rollston rightly point out; they reflect more than enthusiasm for such artifacts. They also reflect arrogance. They reflect the arrogance that of course we scholars can detect a forgery; and that we scholars are somehow above the law or can be ignorant of it. “None of the experts who have spoken publicly on the matter of the Afghan documents appeared to be too troubled by unanswered questions about their origins, seeming to accept such things as the cost of doing business in ancient artifacts,” as Ben Harris of JTA noted for the case of the so-called Afghan Geniza. Shaked cavalierly discusses his authentication of documents for dealers: “So in a way I am guilty of having driven up the prices.” In the UK at least, working on unprovenanced material could lead to criminal prosecution. Elsewhere, it is still a matter of working on (likely) stolen property, and of risking the encouragement of further looting or forgery. Many scholars appear to feel privileged enough to ignore all of this.

Provenance is a fundamental issue. If we want to change scholarly approaches to it, we need to understand the attitudes and laws that feed into them.

Friday, March 31, 2017

ISIS Isn't Saving Anything in Mosul

 Ruins of the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah”) in Mosul, January 2017 (VOA)
Over the past few months, Iraqi army forces have retaken much of the city of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). With the capture of much of the city– where stories of liberation and horror compete for our attention – these forces have also captured the mounds of Kuyunjik and Tell Nebi Yunus. These two artificial hills (or “tells”) and their surroundings form the site of the famous ancient city of Nineveh, now in eastern Mosul. From the end of February, news outlets started reporting the discovery of an ancient Assyrian palace at Tell Nebi Yunus, in tunnels that ISIS had dug into the mound. News reports about the discovery have varied immensely in quality, and it is often difficult to sort through the many discrepancies. We have also had our share of sensational-sounding headlines: Previously Untouched 600BC Palace Discovered under Shrine Demolished by Isil in Mosul (the Telegraph); “Jihadist tunnels save Assyrian winged bulls of Mosul” (Agence Presse-France); “Iraqi troops find Assyrian treasures in network of Isis tunnels” (the Guardian). Fox News unsurprisingly emphasized the biblical connection of the palace. But what do we really know here? Let’s take a step back and sum up the situation to date:

Map showing the location of the shrine of Jonah within the ruins of ancient Nineveh, in eastern Mosul

On July 24, 2014, ISIS detonated the shrine of Nebi Yunus (“the prophet Jonah” in Arabic), standing on the top of Tell Nebi Yunus. The shrine is one traditional site of the tomb of Jonah, revered by local Muslims and Christians alike. After Iraqi forces retook this mound in the middle of January, archaeologists surveying damage to the site discovered that ISIS had dug a series of tunnels through the mound. These tunnels were apparently designed to loot artifacts for sale in order to fund their activities. The effort was successful: while the tunnels were mostly empty, a handful of important stone relief sculptures and an inscribed slab were found in them by the archaeologists – presumably because they were too heavy for ISIS to remove them easily through the tunnels. It is thought that many smaller artifacts of lesser value were removed from the site: a cache of more than 100 artifacts discovered in an ISIS commander’s house in eastern Mosul back in January might have come from these tunnels. Archaeologists now warn that there “cave-ins in the tunnels every day,” with danger of collapse of the entire tunnel system.

 Tell Nebi Yunus (with the shrine of Jonah on top) in 1932 
(Matson Photograph Collection, via Library of Congress)
 Shrine of Jonah in 1999 (by Roland Unger via Wikimedia Commons)

Now to the sensationalist headlines: First, despite the claims of several media outlets, ISIS did not “save” anything. ISIS looting does seem to have uncovered artifacts from a palace or other royal building – but, if they hadn’t been uncovered, they would still lie perfectly intact beneath the soil of the tell. Instead, ISIS has looted a number of artifacts from the site, with the exact number unknown. Many of these may be lost, many may be illegally removed from the country. In addition, looting operations are massively – let me repeat, massively – destructive. Any artifacts not deemed of sufficient value on the market (and most artifacts found at sites generally fall into this category) are discarded or destroyed. On top of this, we lose not only the objects themselves, but also their archaeological contexts. Artifacts found in contexts can tell us how they were used by people, the functions of buildings, and all sorts of details of everyday life at a settlement. All of this information is now gone from these tunnels.

Second, it is unclear if ISIS discovered a previously unknown building. As British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) chair Paul Collins told Fox News, previous excavations on the mound of Nebi Yunus have uncovered remains of Assyrian royal buildings. Are the new discoveries related to one of these buildings? Note also the discrepancy between the claim that this is a newly discovered palace and the detailed history given of this palace (which kings founded and renovated it) in several reports. Such a history would be difficult or impossible to reconstruct if without scientific excavation. How do we resolve these discrepancies? The history given in the news accounts actually seems to describe what we know of an Assyrian royal building partially excavated at the site in the past, a “review palace” or royal arsenal. The new discoveries could be part of this building, but we cannot be certain without more information.

Third, are the reliefs left in the tunnels in danger from collapse? This concern appears to be exaggerated in news accounts. It is unclear if the handful of large stone slabs would be seriously damaged by collapses of dirt above, especially since the condition of the tunnels is little understood outside of Mosul. In AFP’s story on the palace, Iraqi archaeologist Layla Salih is cited as follows:
“‘We fear it could all collapse at any time,’ entombing the treasures, said Layla Salih.”
The word “entombing” is not a direct quote from the archaeologist; it is the journalist’s paraphrase or interpretation. Is this in fact what Salih is worried about? After all, “entombing” is not a danger to the artifacts themselves; once again, buried artifacts are relatively safe. They can be dug out again eventually. (Contrast the National [UAE] version of the AFP story, which is simply wrong in stating that “[t]he tunnels could collapse at any time, meaning the treasures would be entombed forever.”

The greater danger from the instability of the tunnel system is the collapse of a significant portion of the mound itself. Paul Collins has made a similar observation, emphasizing that the threat is even greater since the hill was already damaged by the demolition of the shrine of Jonah. Archaeologically, there would be significant loss of information from the dirt above the tunnels. This material is stratified – that is, it records the history of how buildings and dirt layers were deposited at the site, with artifacts in the contexts where they were abandoned or discarded in ancient times. When stratified material is excavated properly, the amount we can learn, about individual artifacts, groups of objects, buildings, and the entire history of occupation of the settlement for hundreds and hundreds of years, is nearly limitless. As was already the case with the looting from the tunnels themselves, all of this information would be lost in case of collapse.

Beyond this, Tell Nebi Yunus is still an important part of the living city of Mosul today. The shrine of Jonah is still a holy place even in its ruined state. A collapse of a significant portion of the tell would be a major loss, and a setback to any attempt to restore the shrine.

There are other problems with the news reports: The British tabloid the Daily Star seems to have invented some details, as we hear not only of stone sculptures but also “coins, jewelry and mosaics found in the palace” (Not only have no such small finds have been reported, but more significantly, coins and mosaics did not exist in Assyria at this time.) Even in Josie Ensor’s generally good report on the discovery in the Telegraph, we read (in connection with the inscribed stone slab) that there are “only a handful of such cuneiforms recovered from the period,” when Neo-Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions are quite common. Several new stories refer to these stone reliefs in the tunnels as “treasures.” This is a poor choice of words, since it presents archaeology less as scientific study of the past than as treasure hunting. The New York Post describes a “race against time to save the archaeological treasures”; compare Maev Kennedy’s “race against time to save artefacts” in the Guardian. Gone are the realities of the war. What we are left with is a romantic image of something exciting and adventurous – like an Indiana Jones film.

Our knowledge of what has actually happened here is partial and provisional. As Iraqi archaeologists continue to study the tell and the artifacts left in the tunnels, as more and better reports are received from Mosul, we can get a much clearer picture of what has actually been found at Tell Nebi Yunus. In the meantime, these stories show that, as usual, we must read news reports on archaeology in wartime with great caution.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Growing up with Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry was never my favorite musician growing up. As I’ve written before, the first musical artist I really loved was the Beatles. As I’ve also written before, the first musical artist I really loved was actually the Monkees, but I’m a revisionist when it comes to this aspect of my history. But Berry’s music was always around: in my parents' music collection. Or Michael J. Fox’s homage to Berry in Back to the Future. Or listening to oldies stations, back when “oldies” meant late 1950s and 1960s – including generous portions of early rock ‘n’ roll. It is fair to say that I grew up on Chuck Berry.

In reality, only a handful of Berry songs were regularly played on oldies stations (“Rock and Roll Music,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine” and “No Particular Place to Go”, “School Days,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and of course “Johnny B. Goode”). Instead, I learned much of his output through the Beatles. The Beatles officially released covers of only two Berry songs during their time together: “Rock and Roll Music and “Roll Over Beethoven.” But they had many other songs of his in their repertoire. They recorded several of these in their many live sessions on the BBC between 1963 and 1965. Judging by these recordings, almost all included in two Live at the BBC releases, their setlists included more songs by Berry than by any other artist. I have fond memories of listening to Beatles’ programs on the weekends in my junior high and high school years, hearing many of these Berry songs for the first time, taping them (with other BBC recordings) long before Live at the BBC was released. In a very real sense, I grew up with Chuck Berry through the Beatles.

The Beatles, too, grew up with Chuck Berry: his songs clearly played an important role in their formative years. Their performances on BBC programs make for an interesting measuring stick against one of their musical idols. I’ve always preferred Beatles’ version of “Rock and Roll Music” to the original. For the simple fact that a song titled “Rock and Roll Music” should, quite simply, rock – unlike the Beatles’ version, Berry’s swings more than rocks (the Beach Boys’ hit cover a decade later, their “comeback” hit, also fails to rock). I also like the Beatles’ version of “Too Much Monkey Business” better – perhaps for the same reason, or perhaps simply because it was the first version I heard.

On the other hand, the Beatles do not do “Johnny B. Goode’s” seminal rock real justice. Then there is “Memphis, Tennessee”: a well-constructed song, and surprisingly tender for Berry and his usual teenage tales of school and jukeboxes and cars. The Beatles’ version fails to capture that tenderness as well as Berry – though not as badly as the recording I was most familiar with growing up, the hit version released a year later by Johnny Rivers, who turns it into a dance number.

Given the importance of Berry to the Beatles’ development – and given that he was still active (and producing hits) during his comeback in 1964 – it is surprising to note that the two apparently never met during the Beatles’ lifetime. John Lennon first met Berry only in February 1972, when Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted the Mike Douglas show for a week. It is fascinating to watch the footage of the two performing together, Lennon torn between performing for the camera and watching his musical hero.

The irony is that, at the time of this performance, Lennon was being sued for infringing the copyright of one of Berry’s songs. The tale is really unbelievable: When John Lennon wrote “Come Together” in 1969, he began it with a near-quote from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”: “Here come a flat-top, he was movin’ up with me”. In the early 1970s, Lennon was sued by Morris Levy, the notorious  “Godfather of the music industry”, who owned the publishing rights to “You Can’t Catch Me.” (Berry himself was not involved in the suit.) Levy and Lennon settled out of court in 1973, with Lennon agreeing to record three songs owned by Levy on his next album. Lennon’s oldies album Rock ‘n’ Roll was recorded in part to fulfill the terms of the settlement – until an increasingly unstable Phil Spector, the album’s producer, disappeared with the master tapes. As a result, Lennon’s next release was Walls and Bridges, which violated the terms of the agreement. Lennon explained the situation to an increasingly anxious Levy, and later gave him a rough mixes of the recordings (after resuming in New York without Spector). Levy proceeded to release the mixes as an album on his mail order label. Levy sued Lennon for breach; Lennon countersued for unauthorized use of his material and damaging his reputation. (In 1977, after Levy’s appeal was finally ruled on, Lennon prevailed.)

In an interview in September 1980, Lennon dismissed the importance of Berry’s influence on his song:

“Come Together” is me – writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in “Here comes old flat-top.” It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to “Here comes old iron face,” but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anybody else on earth. (interview with David Sheff, September 8, 1980; emphasis in original)

But Lennon appears often to have used others’ composition as a way to start writing songs. His borrowings appear regularly at the beginnings of songs: besides the opening words of “Come Together,” there’s the intro to “Revolution” (from Pee Wee Crayton’s “Do Unto Others”); and the opening lines of “Run for Your Life” (lifted from Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House”). As with these other songs, “Come Together” might never have been written (or might have been written quite differently) if not for this inspiration.

This was certainly not the only legal action involving Berry’s songs. Berry’s regular music publisher Arc Music (owned by Philip and Leonard Chess from Berry’s label Chess Records along with Gene and Harry Goodman, younger brothers of Benny) threatened to sue the Beach Boys along with their label Capitol Records in 1963 over their hit “Surfin’ USA.” The song consists of new lyrics to Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” including a list of beaches where Berry has a list of cities, down to the phrase “all over x” (not to mention that the guitar intro is taken directly from Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”). Here too there was a settlement, though this one wasn’t violated: the song was assigned to Berry’s publishing company, and Berry was eventually given a songwriting credit.

Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys were greatly influenced by Berry. There is the intro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” based on Berry’s guitar intro to “Johnny B. Goode.” But here the irony is that this, perhaps Berry’s most famous riff, was actually lifted by Berry from Carl Hogan’s intro to Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman.” In interviews Berry made a point of singling out the importance of Hogan and Jordan in influencing his music. “If you can call it my music,” as Berry once said, before continuing, “but then there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Berry had his own influences, which he sometimes lifted. But he stole most often from himself. There was the intro to “Maybellene,” recycled in his very next single, “Thirty Days”; the identical guitar solos in “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Roll Over Beethoven”; the melody and instrumental track of his Christmas song “Run Rudolph Run” reused in “Little Queenie”; the two best-known hits of his 1964 comeback, “No Particular Place to Go” and “Nadine,” reusing the melodies of “School Day” and (a slowed down) “Maybellene.” When listening to Berry’s music it is Berry’s own licks and tunes we hear more than anyone else’s – Berry was really an original after all. Or, to put it another way, everyone grew up on Chuck Berry . . . even Chuck Berry.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why I Write about Palmyra

  Modern town of Palmyra (Tadmur), Syria, c. 2006
photo by Soman via Wikimedia Commons

About 3 years ago, I started to be very concerned about how we talk about the Syrian war. News consumers, academics, all of us. It seemed that we – and scholars of the ancient world in particular – might care more about ruined buildings than we did about human beings, even as their lives were being snuffed out by the thousands. I was moved to start writing about cultural heritage then, trying to highlight how its importance is completely tied up with its role in people’s lives.

A year ago I returned to this topic. At the time, Palmyra was in the news, and I saw the same pattern repeating itself in how we discussed that city. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Palmyra. I was unaware that its Arabic name was Tadmur; unaware that the site had been constantly inhabited up to the twentieth century; unaware that the modern village was demolished in the early 1930s to allow archaeologists to dig the Temple of Bel; unaware that there was a modern town of tens of thousands there today.

I began to write the archaeology and history of Palmyra. I focused on two topics: the post-classical history of the city; and the history of modern Western exploration of and interaction with it. I felt – and still feel today – that we do not discuss these topics nearly enough. Instead, we are far too concerned with the classical city, because, I suspect, we see it as part of our own heritage in Europe and the United State, unlike the more recent Arab history of the site. In this way our interactions with the site today disturbingly echo the three centuries of modern Western interaction with it, and this is something I desperately want to see changed.

Why don’t I focus on the inhabitants of the modern town and the war itself? These are very worthy topics for discussion, but they are not my areas of expertise. I don’t know Arabic, though I plod through it slowly when necessary for research. My training is in archaeology. Beyond this, I have spent much time over the last few years looking at accounts of European and American travelers to the Middle East, and so Modern European and American accounts of the site were a natural area of focus. When it comes to the present-day people of Tadmur and Syria, I have tried to highlight work by others, especially by Syrians themselves.

In my writing, I try to focus on issues about which we are often uninformed or even misinformed. I hope that in some small way it will affect (for the better) how we think and talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants. But it would be foolish to make changing how we talk about Palmyra and its inhabitants a goal in itself. Talk, after all, is cheap. The real problem for Palmyra and Syria is not the attitudes that we in the U.S. or Europe have, or the attitudes of Bashar al-Assad or ISIS or Al Qaeda or various rebel groups. The real problem is the actions these people and groups are carrying out. In short, the war is the problem. Ignoring the suffering of human beings in Syria (or anywhere in conflict) can make us indifferent to the horrors of war or even help us to rationalize them. Seeing their cultural heritage as actually belonging to us, and seeing that heritage under threat from “barbaric” groups (like ISIS) in the Middle East, can provide a warped justification for those horrors.

I worry that we are often more concerned about symbols and words than we are with actions; I sometimes worry that I am more concerned with them myself. Symbolism is important, but only as much as it leads to action. We must always be aware of this. And so I am ultimately writing to change actions. More precisely, I am writing to change our attitudes towards Syria and Syrians in order to change actions. Our attitudes play an important role in leading towards actions, or (even more) in justifying actions. In justifying death and destruction, theft of resources. In justifying war itself.

To be clear: I am not suggesting my writing will have any significant effect on these problems. My audience is small and my influence on it smaller still. I hold few illusions about my occasional writing on this subject and the impact that it has. But I do hold a few. Illusions can be useful things if they are constructive. Why else would we write, or try to do our own small part to make the world a better place?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Requiem for a Forger

Chanan Tigay, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World’s Oldest Bible (New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2016)

The tone for Chanan Tigay’s book is set by the cover: a colorized photograph of Jaffa Gate (Bab al-Khalil) of Jerusalem’s Old City in the late 19th century. Looking back at the camera, while the other figures in front of the gate go about their business, is Moses Shapira, the Jerusalem antiquities dealer and Tigay’s main character. Except there is one problem: Shapira did not appear in the original picture. Our cover photo is a fake.

Inside the covers we find the lengthy tale of the “world’s oldest Bible” in Tigay’s subtitle – not a complete Bible, but merely the purported original version of the book of Deuteronomy, with which Shapira showed up in London in summer 1883. Shapira asked the British Museum for a million pounds to acquire his Deuteronomy strips; instead, they were declared a forgery, with Shapira leaving the country in disgrace and committing suicide six months later. The manuscript itself was lost within a few years of the incident, but has been the subject of recurring interest since. This notorious incident has been retold many times, in both scholarly and popular versions, but journalist Tigay combines the tools of investigative reporting with some recent scholarship in this account of his attempt to find the strips and determine whether they were authentic.

Tigay’s version is a popular version, and it can be difficult to review a popular book as a scholar. The criteria to judge by and even the goals of popular books vs scholarship can be quite different. But this book, however broad an audience it’s reaching for, is still a contribution to our knowledge of the past – and it is this contribution in which I’m most interested. So let’s consider each aspect separately.

As a popular book: The Lost Book of Moses makes for fairly quick reading. It is engaging, other than a tendency to provide unnecessary or unwanted details. (These include several odd passages focusing on his and others’ undergarments or bodies.) In the end, though, the book is simply anti-climactic: (spoiler) Tigay doesn’t find the manuscript he spent four years looking for, and on top of this he concludes that it’s a forgery anyway.

As a work of scholarship: It is well-researched – both in terms of extensive investigative reporting and library research. Tigay uses most of the known (and some previously unknown) sources that are relevant to the strips. I’m glad that I read this book: I learned several things about Shapira and the Deuteronomy strips, even as someone who has researched and written on them before.

There are many minor errors, most of which do not affect the main conclusions or the course of the narrative. But there is one major exception to this: a cluster of errors around the influential Orientalist scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau.

Clermont-Ganneau makes two climactic appearances in Shapira’s life, and for each one Tigay has badly botched the sequence of events: Clermont-Ganneau’s announcement of Shapira’s Moabite pottery (the infamous “Moabitica”) as a forgery in 1873-74, and his announcement of the Shapira strips as a forgery a decade later. In both cases the effect is to make Ganneau appear to have rushed ideas into print, without care or “scooping” other scholars, or even “poison[ing] the well” (p. 250). In both cases Tigay cites and even quotes from the documents that provide the correct timeline and prove Ganneau mostly innocent of the charges.

Tigay also presents a series of cases in which he charges that Ganneau stole ideas or discoveries from others. It is true that Ganneau emphasized his role in the recovery of the Moabite Stone and neglected to mention F.A. Klein, the missionary who was the first Westerner to see it, in his publications on the stele. But in general the evidence for theft in these cases is flimsy or even nonexistent.

One claim deserves special attention: that Ganneau stole credit for the discovery of the first Gezer boundary inscription from Charles Tyrwhitt Drake, a scholar with the Palestine Exploration Fund’s Survey of Western Palestine. This is a remarkable claim, since that discovery (and its connection with the identification of Tell Jezar as Gezer) is one of the most important and famous of Ganneau’s achievements and is universally credited to him. Tigay’s sole source here is John Moscrop’s Measuring Jerusalem, which itself has a large number of errors (as noted in Rachel Hallote’s review in Religious Studies Review, 2004.) Moscrop in turn relies on a letter of Claude Conder, but the actual text of that letter – contra Moscrop and Tigay – makes clear that this claim of theft is merely a false rumor spread by Ganneau’s enemies in Jerusalem, and Conder declared it baseless.

These cases then set up a final charge, that Ganneau stole his proof for revealing the Shapira strips as a forgery from Christian Ginsburg. Here, the only evidence, besides the similarities of Ganneau’s and Ginsburg’s points – which Ganneau put into print before Ginsburg – is the recollection of Ginsburg’s son thirty years later. Looking at each of these charges on their own, there is little to no supporting evidence; so Tigay must present them together in order to suggest a pattern of bad behavior (to poison the well?).

Ironically, for someone employed in the French consulate, Ganneau was a remarkably undiplomatic person. He was apparently a difficult man to get along with. He emphasized his own role in discoveries and scholarship repeatedly, deemphasizing or ignoring the roles of others. He made many enemies. But Ganneau also had friends among scholars. And almost everyone respected him immensely for his abilities and his work. The PEF tried for two years to hire him before they were successful, and even after he resigned his commission they still promoted him publicly and published new articles of his for decades.

So, why does Tigay consistently make these errors?

Accounts of the Shapira affair typically present it as a contest between Shapira and Ginsburg (see Fred Reiner’s excellent contribution), or Shapira and Clermont-Ganneau, with the latter as Shapira’s long-term nemesis (from the Moabite pottery days). Tigay adopts this frame, but then does something astonishing: he makes the forger Shapira his hero.

Shapira is not presented in a wholly positive light – we see his sometime neglect of his family; his apparent affair – but Clermont-Ganneau’s presentation is almost completely negative, except for brief references to his skill and knowledge as a scholar. This presentation of Ganneau includes the most ungenerous readings, and even misreadings, of his work and the circumstances surrounding it. To be clear: I do not imagine that this treatment of Ganneau is intentional. Presumably, through his search for his strips Tigay has come (understandably) to identify with Shapira, and therefore casts Ganneau as the main villain – and this naturally but unfortunately leads to things like the use of unreliable sources without due diligence and sloppy analysis that consistently cuts against Ganneau.

Meanwhile, Shapira, in Tigay’s account, is “brilliant,” a “genius,” a “virtuoso forger,” and compared to Mozart. But there is little concrete evidence to support these praises beyond the much more subdued assessments in a trade school evaluation (p. 42). In fact, I think it is pretty clear Shapira was not a virtuoso forger. Certainly he was good enough to make money off some of them (the Moabitica, the Philadelphia scrolls). But I am aware of seven Shapira forgeries or groups of forgeries that have been identified: all were detected during his lifetime; they were all revealed during his lifetime too (except the Philadelphia scrolls that were first declared forgeries by Isaac Hollister Hall, not Cyrus Adler as Tigay has it, two months after Shapira’s death). Most of those who were qualified to judge his material were easily able to detect them as forgeries – if Adler is to be believed, an undergraduate did in one case. This is especially true with the Shapira strips: every single scholar who considered them (Ginsburg, Clermont-Ganneau, Conder, Sayce, Neubauer, Guthe, etc.) concluded that they were forged. The one possible exception is the German scholar of Semitics Paul Schröder – but here we only have Shapira’s word; Schröder later denied that he ever claimed them to be authentic. Compare Shapira’s record to actual virtuoso forgers whose work goes undetected for decades and fools multiple scholars.

Here we hit on the real problems with the book: romanticizing a forger and his frauds, with all of the ethical problems that result from this; and sensationalizing the study of the past, treating it as a whodunit to be solved (when instead scholars typically look at their work as trying to improve understandings of a never fully recoverable past). This involves the need to provide a sufficiently engaging plot, with a strong enough central conflict. Taking 300 pages to pretend that there is a real question about the authenticity of the strips when the overwhelming scholarly consensus has always been that they are obvious forgeries. Insisting that we need to find the strips, or conduct a multi-year search for them, to find out what kind of a person Shapira truly was, when we already knew that he built a career on making and selling forgeries and stealing manuscripts from Jewish communities in Yemen (pp. 195-197).

But this type of sensationalism is typical of public presentations of scholarship and the study of the past. Is this inevitable? Or can we do better?

Thanks to Felicity Cobbing for valuable assistance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflections on the Mycenaean "Griffin Warrior" Tomb at Pylos

This month, Smithsonian magazine has a long article by Jo Marchant on an important Mycenaean tomb at Pylos, dubbed the tomb of the “Griffin Warrior.” In light of this article, I believe it is very much worth looking at the details of the tomb, as well as at how scholars and journalists are presenting it.

The Tomb

(Note: the most accurate and detailed source of information on the tomb and its finds is an academic article by the co-directors of the excavation, Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker of the University of Cincinnati: “The Lord of the Rings: The Griffin Warrior of Pylos,” in the journal Hesperia [85 no. 4] from October 2016.)

The tomb was discovered in May 2015 at Ano Englianos, the site of ancient Pylos. This was the first season of renewed excavations in the area of the palace at Pylos (the famous earlier excavations by the University of Cincinnati, led by Carl Blegen, had discovered the palace and its archive of Linear B tablets). The 2015 excavation carried on past the scheduled season until the tomb was fully cleared (late October). In 2016, a second season of excavations including digging trenches alongside the tomb in order to clarify the sequence of its construction.

The tomb contained a single body with a wealth of finds: cups, pitchers, and basins of gold, silver, and bronze – no ceramics; four gold seal rings and 50 seal stones carved with intricate designs; bronze weapons with hilts of gold and ivory, and a helmet made of boars tusks; hundreds of beads of gold, glass, and semi-precious stones; an ivory plaque showing a griffin; six ivory combs; a bronze mirror with an ivory handle; and a bronze bull’s head, originally topping a staff. Most of the material is related to Minoan Crete, whether coming from Crete itself or made in Cretan style. It is still unclear exactly how many objects were buried with the deceased, though the number is certainly many hundreds. Some reports have said 2,000+, but this refers to the total number of registration numbers given out, and many objects were broken and have a registration number for each fragment.

The tomb is a large shaft dug into the ground and lined with stone slabs and rubble. Shaft graves are best known from Mycenae, where two grave circles (Grave Circle A and Grave Circle B) with incredibly rich shafts were found by Schliemann in the 1870s and Greek excavations under Papadimitriou and Mylonas in the 1950s – again with large amounts of material related to Minoan Crete.

While there was no pottery among the grave goods deposited with the body, the tomb could be dated by pottery in the fills deposited during its construction. Late Helladic (LH) I-IIA sherds were found in the fill laid to make the floor of the tomb as well as in the fill along what was once the coffin and along the outer walls of the tomb. We can therefore date the tomb by the latest pottery found in these fills: LHIIA, c. 1500 BCE. This places the tomb at the tail end of the Grave Circle phenomenon known from Mycenae, c. 1650 or 1600 to 1500 BCE.

This is one of the richest Mycenaean tombs found since Schliemann’s Grave Circle A. And, because of improvements in excavation and recording techniques, and because the Griffin Warrior tomb was a single burial (unlike most of the Mycenae shaft graves), we can learn still learn a great deal about shaft graves and burial practices from this discovery.

The Publicity

The initial set of stories on the tomb waited until the grave was fully excavated, in late October 2015. A second set of stories followed almost a year later (early October 2016), marking the publication of the first academic journal article on the tomb and presenting some of the findings from that article. The Smithsonian followed with a longer piece at the beginning of January 2017.

In these stories we see a progression from more reserved to less reserved claims. We also see this trend in the progression from academic article to popular news reports.

The first crop of news articles made relatively understated claims, with several qualifications: “could be,” will “help” understand the emergence of Mycenaean palaces, will “deepen” our knowledge of the relationship between Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean mainland. A year later, after the initial analysis and preceding publication of first scholarly article: the grave “throws light” on how Minoan culture spread to the mainland, and “offers evidence that Mycenaean culture recognized and appreciated Minoan culture more than previously believed.” There are changes after the analysis: Archaeologists “now believe” the rings and gemstones of the Griffin Warrior were “possessions from his culture” and not “loot” from Crete; the analysis “points to the exchange of ideas and goods” between Crete and the mainland. But the discussion is still fairly restrained.

With the new Smithsonian article, we see something very different. This starts with the headline: the tomb “upended what we thought we knew about the roots of Western civilization”. (Compare the earlier headlines: in the first round, the tomb “could be a gateway to ancient civilizations”; in the second round, the rings “connect two ancient Greek cultures.”) Based on no new evidence beyond what was known in October 2016, there is a massive difference in both tone (definitive, and even past tense) and scope (“upended,” and not just two cultures but the roots of all of Western civilization). Of course, headlines are often meant to be attention-grabbing, but this tone and scope is matched in the text of the article. We read, for instance, that the tomb “offers a radical new perspective,” not only on the two cultures but through them on “Europe’s cultural origins” (though we read in the rest of the paragraph that the finds match those from the shaft graves of Mycenae and on Crete). We find the archaeologist Davis speculating that the relatively “egalitarian” society (strange when considering the massive wealth of this individual man’s grave) of Mycenaean Greece might have laid the foundation for the emergence of Athenian democracy a millennium later, and for all democracies.

Compare this to the academic article in Hesperia from October: The boldest claim made is in the conclusion: “These and other associations that we will explore in future publications promise to open new doors to our understanding of the Mycenaean belief system. . .” But mostly we find something much different: the tomb provides “new data about Minoan/Mycenaean iconography and Mycenaean burial customs.” The four gold signet rings “confirm” a more intensive relationship at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age between Pylos and Minoan Crete than thought before. In general, the statements are less absolute, much narrower in scope, and instead of something radical the discovery “confirms” something we knew before, just with “new data.”

So what is the evidence on which the new Smithsonian article bases its major claims? It is mostly the same evidence provided in the academic article: the analysis of the four rings and the arrangement of the grave goods. Weapons were placed on the left side of the body, rings and seal stones on the right. Davis and Stocker suggest that individual items in the burial were matched to those depicted on the gold rings: a mirror, a bull’s head from a staff.

Based on this, Marchant writes in the Smithsonian article: “In their [Davis and Stocker’s] view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. ‘The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says [British archaeologist John] Bennet. “They know what these objects are.’”

In Hesperia, Davis and Stocker are very cautious – and rightly so – with the conclusions they draw. They introduce their analysis with a skeptical quote from Emily Vermeule from the 1970s: “Most prehistoric art is not really understandable. There is no convincing way to relate designs on gold to burial rites or to religion or community symbols of belief.” This is entirely correct: How can we know if the Mycenaean Greeks understood Minoan symbolism, when we don’t understand much about Minoan (or Mycenaean, for that matter) symbolism ourselves? If anything, we should be even more cautious than Davis and Stocker are in the Hesperia article. They believe that the people who buried the Griffin Warrior matched specific items (a bull’s head from a staff, a mirror) to objects depicted on the gold rings. Yet they use language that indicates the identification of those objects on the rings isn’t certain: “seemingly horns”; “which we interpret as a mirror.” So we must raise a question that Davis and Stocker do not: If the mirror and the bull’s head had not been buried in the grave, would they have interpreted the objects on the rings in the same way? That is, to what extent was their interpretation of the rings guided by those finds? Even if Davis and Stocker are correct about the matching of grave goods to the images on the rings, it is possible that the Minoan craftsmen originally intended to represent other objects, but that these were reinterpreted by the Mycenaean buriers as a mirror and a bull’s head.

Either way, nothing justifies the suggestion by Marchant that the people of Pylos understood Minoan iconography. Davis and Stocker suggest otherwise in the academic article: they write that Minoan gold rings on the mainland “were recontextualized in graves like that of the Griffin Warrior” –new contexts, and therefore new meanings.

The Smithsonian article does introduce one new piece of evidence for its dramatic claims, but not from the tomb itself. The 2016 excavations at Pylos revealed fragments of wall paintings at mansion houses (that the palace was later built over) – these are suggested to be the oldest wall paintings found on mainland Greece. The paintings show strong Minoan influence, with nature scenes including papyrus flowers. According to Marchant: “Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture. . . This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage.”

But does the evidence, and Davis and Stocker’s conclusion, really “upend” our understanding of how Mycenaean culture developed? For most of the last two centuries, there have been perhaps two major understandings of this emergence:

1.    Mycenaean culture is simply Minoan culture spread to mainland Greece; it was brought Cretan colonists. This was the view of Arthur Evans, and was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century.
2.    The Minoan-related wealth of early Mycenaean culture is elite emulation: mainland Greek elites adopting the trappings of the then-dominant culture, Minoan Crete. This view became more popular in the second half of the twentieth century, after the decipherment of Linear B (the writing of the mainland Greek palaces) showed it to be used to write Greek (as opposed to Linear A, the earlier writing of the Cretan palaces).

How does the new evidence – Minoan-style wealth in the Griffin Warrior grave and Minoan-style wall paintings on the early houses of Pylos – not fit into either of these two reconstructions?

The reality is that the new idea that Davis and Stocker favor is not all that new. As Marchant describes it, it is a form of what is called “entanglement.” Entanglement is the idea that the interaction of two cultures leads to a blending of those cultures, not the imposition or adoption of one over the other (especially in the case of colonialism). This idea has been increasingly influential in the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age over the last several years. Marchant even hints at this: immediately after presenting it as a new idea, she writes that it “fits recent suggestions” about the end of the Minoan palaces on Crete.

Reading between the lines, we see that the new evidence plays little role in the adoption of the theory of entanglement here. (This is even more evident when we remember that the Griffin Warrior tomb does present “the Mycenaean belief system at the moment of its creation,” as Davis and Stocker write in Hesperia, but comes roughly a century after the start of the Shaft Grave phenomenon.)

Entanglement, like colonization and emulation, is a model. The goal of scholarship is generally not to determine what actually happened in the past (which is often impossible), but to improve our understanding of the past – to come up with the best models possible.
As we see in this case, models are often driven not so much by new evidence as by new scholarly developments, the emergence of new theories. New evidence may be the immediate catalyst, but the process of change is much deeper.

Entanglement, at least in many cases, is probably a better model than what came before: it is a more sophisticated approach to understanding how cultures interact than simply asserting the dominance of one culture over another. But it is still a model, an imperfect explanation. Thirty or forty years from now, few scholars will be talking about entanglement; we will have new models, presumably better models, or we may even be asking different questions entirely.

All of this means that the interpretations we make are driven as much by our own beliefs as by the evidence of the past – as much by the present as by the past. Far from timeless, our models are very much of our time.

For evidence of this, we need to look only at the end of Marchant’s Smithsonian article. There we see Davis and Stocker tying their discovery to the emergence of democracies –that is, to us. We see the journalist tying entanglement in with rise of nationalism and xenophobia today. And we find a British archaeologist (John Bennet) looking at the interaction of Mycenaeans and Minoans and seeing the European Union. All of this reflects much of the current response of liberalism to Brexit, anti-immigration policies, and the election of Trump, projected into the past. The specific models and analogies used here seem forced and stretched.

Of course, it is good that scholars try to relate the past to the present. This is essential work, and an essential reason why scholarly work is relevant. But – and this is a huge caveat – we should be suspicious when we look into the past and see a reflection of ourselves, as if in a mirror.