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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Outside the Bubble


 Sebring, Ohio: North 15th Street (August 2014)

There has been an interest since the election in geographic and sociocultural bubbles. In particular, there has been an interest in the bubble that urban liberals live in, divorced from groups such as the rural (white) working class. For a long time I was a part of this bubble. For the first three decades of my life, other than occasional travel, I lived in eastern Massachusetts. I grew up on the edge of the western suburbs of Boston, and went to college and grad school closer to the city. Then in 2007 I moved to Israel for three years. As fate would I have it, I moved not to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or their suburbs in the center of the country, but to the city of Ashkelon.

Ashkelon is a city on the southern coast, just five miles north of the Gaza Strip. Like the southern region as a whole, is poorer than the rest of country. Ashkelon is a resort town for those who can’t afford a pricier vacation in Eilat. The southern part of the country is also home to the largest concentration of olim (new immigrants), and Ashkelon is a major absorption center for these new immigrants. The city’s population – like others in the south – is composed largely of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews), Ethiopians, Russians, and most recently French and North African Jews. This is not by accident. Starting with the arrival of Mizrahim in late 1940s and 1950s, they were shunted to southern communities – and largely kept away from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and their suburbs in the center of the country, where the Ashkenazi (Jews of East European ancestry) elite lived. They were routinely discriminated against, sometimes viciously. They were trapped in these communities, and these communities were trapped in poverty. To this day these cities and towns are poorer and less educated than those in the center. I remember a friend, who taught at an engineering college in the southern city of Be’ersheva, who told me that his college was a necessary institution, serving poorer students in the south who didn’t have the grades to get into the more prestigious Technion in Haifa.

During my time in the country I often felt very uncomfortable, perhaps especially in Ashkelon, because of the massive difference in culture from what I had known. But something else bothered me too. From the moment I moved to Israel, I encountered constant bewilderment from Israelis about why I was living in Ashkelon. Sometimes it was snickering and mocking, of the city and its residents, as crass and rude, as behind the times. People I knew from the center of the country talked about the backwardness of the town. One insisted that, while things were bad in Ashkelon now, they would soon improve because the French were immigrating and they would clean it up. I was appalled by the condescension, by the classism and racism, by the mocking of the poor and uneducated.

* * * * *

I returned to the United States in 2010. For the last six years, I’ve lived in the South and Midwest. Again I’ve experienced massive culture shock. In particular, I’ve been genuinely disturbed by the number of Confederate flags, whether flying or as novelty plates. Besides the fact that the flag stands for slavery and the vilest racism, I am also struck by the inescapable irony that people who often see themselves as real Americans (as opposed to Northeast or West-coast liberals) proudly display the flag of secession.



The places I’ve lived – Fayetteville, Arkansas and Bloomington, Indiana – are college towns, where life appears fairly comfortable. This is especially true of Fayetteville, which is the beneficiary of large amounts of money from businesses like Walmart and Tyson Foods. But drive around a bit and you will see signs of poverty and urban decay here too. On the streets you can’t fail to notice the number of cars and trucks with damage, from dinged-up bumpers to missing passenger-side mirrors, broken or missing parts patched up with tape, because people can’t afford to repair their vehicles. If you go to lower- or middle-class neighborhoods you will see too many houses with peeling paint or rotting wood or other signs of disrepair, again because their owners can’t afford to maintain them. Or you may stroll through wealthier neighborhoods and suddenly stumble upon a small, broken-down house, little more than a shack, in its midst. Here you can also see, in progress, how gentrification is leading to the poorer members of the community to be priced out of them by the expanding universities.


Sebring, Ohio (August 2014)

Go a mere two miles from the center of these cities and you’re in a different world altogether. Sprawling farmland dotted by small towns. Places like Sebring (Ohio) or Hazen or Brinkley (Arkansas), with town centers deserted, shops boarded up or otherwise closed, buildings in disrepair. People with nothing to do but drugs.



The large cities are faring little better. Cities, like Memphis or St. Louis: major parts of them are hollowed-out, empty, in decay. In Memphis I was struck by the revitalized Beale Street. This consists of a few blocks that have been renovated primarily for tourists; when you step out of this zone immediately to the east you see empty lots and crumbling buildings alongside apartment houses in a residential neighborhood. (You can see the same phenomenon in smaller cities and towns, like Richmond, Indiana.)




As in Israel, I’ve been stunned by much of the reaction of people I know to these communities. I’ve watched self-described liberals laugh at the petty criminal activity of people stuck in these dead-end towns; I’ve watched them mock working-class Americans for their lack of education, pretending – for they certainly know better – that it serves as a proxy for intelligence, or even knowledge (remember, it does serve as a rough proxy for income); I’ve watched professors too eager to leave their Midwestern college towns every break for California or New York or abroad.



There are many great and beautiful things about the American Midwest and South. But there is too much of these regions marked by decay: decay of buildings, decay of institutions, decay of communities. And what of the people who live in these communities: mostly working-class Americans, white, African-American, Hispanic, and others alike? They deserve sympathy, and help. They deserve, with all of their flaws, to be treated with respect. Like anyone else.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Look at the ASOR/SBL Provenance Policy


This is the second of two posts. The first post, on the meaning and significance of provenance, can be found here.

The Society of Biblical Literature’s new provenance policy is simply an adoption of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) provenance policy. In this post I will look at some of the main features of that policy and its implications for how we deal with unprovenanced artifacts.
                      
The SBL announcement directly cites the ASOR policy, specifically sections III.D (on dissemination of knowledge) and III.E (on programs and publications). The short D section deals with things such as proper credits and permissions for publications and encourages use of Open Access repositories. The extended E section focuses on how unprovenanced artifacts should be treated. A few comments on this policy are in order:

1. The ASOR policy applies specifically to ASOR venues: conference papers at ASOR meetings; and ASOR publications. The same is true for the SBL policy. These are guidelines for the committees that oversee these venues to use in evaluating paper and publication submissions, as much as for those who make the submissions themselves.

2. The ASOR policy links provenance explicitly and at length to archaeological context, but also mentions both authenticity and illegal acts (looting and smuggling). Compare this to the aspects of provenance I discussed in the previous post on provenance.

3. It is important to recognize that the ASOR/SBL policy does not constitute a complete ban on discussion of unprovenanced artifacts; there are a few important exceptions:

a. Chronological. The policy only applies to discussion of artifacts that first appeared on the market or in a collection after April 24, 1972 (III.E.4). That specific date is a reference to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the main international agreement regulating the antiquities trade and transfer of “cultural property”: it is the date on which the convention went into effect (“entered into force”). There is no restriction on discussing artifacts that appeared before that date. (Note: the Archaeological Institute of America [AIA] has a similar provision in its provenance policy.)

b. Initial place of publication or announcement. The discussion of unprovenanced artifacts appearing after April 24, 1972 is not fully prohibited either. The ASOR/SBL policy merely states that the organizations’ venues will not serve as an “initial place of publication or announcement” for them (III.E.4). If an unprovenanced artifact is published in some other venue, there is no longer any restriction to presenting it at an ASOR or SBL Annual Meeting or in an ASOR or SBL publication. Of course, this raises the not trivial question of what constitutes an “initial place of publication or announcement”: Does it need to be a peer-reviewed publication? Can it be any sort of book or article? An exhibition catalogue? A blog post? (Again, AIA has a similar provision in its provenance policy).

c. Cuneiform exception. The ASOR (and now SBL) policy has what it calls a “limited exception” for cuneiform tablets (III.E.5-6). Tablets acquired after 1972 may be presented in ASOR venues, if their lack of provenance is noted and they are returned to their country of origin after conservation or publication. But Patty Gerstenblith reported (in 2014) that this provision had apparently never been used (presumably because mere publication of tablets in an ASOR venue is little incentive for a private owner to relinquish them to their country of origin).1

Now let’s look briefly at a specific example of a set of unprovenanced artifacts: the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments. Over the summer many scholars were concerned after discovering that this year’s SBL Annual Meeting had a session devoted to these texts. The scholars’ discussion suggested that SBL’s provenance policy allowed this session merely under a “loophole” for a “review of a forthcoming publication.” (There was also talk of organizing to remove this loophole and institute a blanket ban on discussion of unprovenanced artifacts.) With the announcement of the SBL policy, we are now in position to evaluate this concern.

First, it is to be noted that at the time these concerns were aired, SBL had no provenance policy, and the adopted policy does not go into effect until 2017 – meaning it has no bearing on this year’s Museum of the Bible session. Second, while we lack information about the chain of custody of the Museum of the Bible texts, they appear to have surfaced on the antiquities market after 1972, meaning that they would be governed by the provenance policy. Third, the discussion of a book review appears to be a misunderstanding of the provision that SBL/ASOR will not serve as “an initial place of publication or announcement” for such artifacts. As we have seen, this provision concerning initial place of publication is not a loophole, but rather a purposely-designed element that is central to the provenance policies of multiple organizations. In other words, since the Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scroll fragments were published by Brill in August, there is no restriction on presenting them in any SBL venue – or in any venue of ASOR or AIA for that matter.

It is sometimes suggested by text scholars that the AIA and ASOR policies (as well as those of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, which are similar) are very restrictive. In fact, compared to the policies of many other organizations – including a number of prominent European and Middle Eastern academic journals – this is true.2  At the same time, we have seen that the ASOR/SBL and AIA policies constitute far from a blanket ban on discussing unprovenanced artifacts, each with several exceptions that are very broad in scope.

On a personal note, I would be in favor of tighter restrictions from professional societies on the use of unprovenanced artifacts. One area to address might be ASOR’s (and now SBL’s) cuneiform exception. The exception is claimed to be a “limited exception,” but this is a strange choice of words for artifacts appearing, in the ASOR policy’s own terms, on a “truly massive scale.” In general, I would argue that we should not have exceptions for individual groups or classes of artifacts but rather work from general principles. No principles apply to cuneiform tablets that would not apply to many other inscriptions and manuscripts. It is worth noting here that while ASOR kept the cuneiform exception in its latest provenance policy (it had already been in existence for several years), the organization voted down a proposed exception for a specific set of Aramaic ostraca at the same time.

While some of us may wish for a more restrictive provenance policy, we must be clear on what this involves. Scholars work with unprovenanced artifacts all of the time. Even if we are only talking about objects appearing after 1972, this would include well-known sets of artifacts such as the Al-Yahudu tablets, the manuscripts of the so-called “Afghan Genizah,” and most of the Aramaic magic bowls.3  If we look at this year’s SBL Annual Meeting program, we will find, in addition to the Museum of the Bible session, at least two papers on the Al-Yahudu tablets and an entire session on Aramaic magic bowls.

A more restrictive provenance policy may be a laudable goal, but I want to conclude with a couple of cautions: 1. It is unlikely that most of the field (at least, the many scholars who work with these artifacts) is currently prepared to move in this direction; 2. It is imperative that scholars become more familiar with the significance of provenance and the operation of provenance policies. I hope that these posts have helped to increase awareness of the issues involved.



1  Patty Gerstenblith, Do Restrictions on Publication of Undocumented Texts Promote Legitimacy?, in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, ed. Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014), p. 224.

2  John Cherry focuses on this issue in Publishing Undocumented Texts: Editorial Perspectives, in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, ed. Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014), pp. 227-244.

3 On the problematic provenance history of Aramaic magic bowls see especially the work of Neil Brodie: for example, Brodie, The Market Background to the April 2003 Plunder of the Iraq National Museum, in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, ed. Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2008), pp. 41-54; Brodie, Aramaic Incantation Bowls in War and Peace, Journal of Art Crime 11 (Spring 2014): 9-14; Brodie and Morag M. Kersel, Wikileaks, Text, and Archaeology: The Case of the Schøyen Incantation Bowls, in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, ed. Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014), pp. 198-213. This work has also been summarized in an excellent piece by writer Samuel Thrope, Magic Bowls of Antiquity, Aeon, May 24, 2016.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why Provenance Matters



This is the first of two posts. [Update September 16: Post #2 can be found here.]

On September 7 the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) posted a newly-adopted Policy on Scholarly Presentation and Publication of Ancient Artifacts, set to go into effect in 2017. This represents the first time the society has adopted such a policy. The focus of the policy is providing standards for dealing with the issue of provenance of artifacts. However, it appears that many scholars, both archaeologists and text scholars, may not be completely familiar with how provenance policies work, or with the term or concept of provenance. This post will look at what provenance is and why it is important; a follow-up post will look at the details of SBL’s provenance policy.

Provenance is a term adapted from art history: it refers to the chain of custody of a work of a painting or other work of art, tracing it back ideally to its creation by an original artist. For archaeologists, the only truly acceptable origin point of a chain of custody is in the ground – or some equivalent (for instance, an inscription found in situ in the wall of a standing building).

Why does provenance matter for ancient artifacts? I can identify at least four fundamental reasons: authenticity; archaeological context; law; and ethics.

1. Authenticity. Provenance is the basis of determining the authenticity of an object; this is the original application of the concept in art history, going back to the origins of the term in the 19th century. In archaeology, an object that can be traced back to the ground (or which is otherwise in situ at a site) can be virtually guaranteed to be an ancient artifact. Objects that have other points have origin – which can only be traced to an antiquities dealer, or to a collector – must be inherently under suspicion. Tools such as chemical tests of material, or various philological or iconographic analyses, can also be important in determining authenticity. But good forgers are able to make use of these tools as much as any scholar; provenance is much more difficult to fake.1  From another perspective: these tools can only (more or less) prove a forgery, while provenance alone can (more or less) prove authenticity.

2. Archaeological context. When an object’s provenance is a controlled archaeological excavation, we are provided with a great deal of information about that object: its specific site of origin; its phase or stratum, which provides a date; and its location within a site, including the specific room or building it was found in and other associated artifacts. Knowing the archaeological context of an artifact is the first step in studying typology, chronology, and distribution – fundamental tasks of both archaeology and epigraphy.  We can also learn much about how an individual object was used. Even when an object is found in a secondary context (such as a fill layer), we can learn much about how that object was discarded, or reused. Lack of provenance means that we have lost all of this information

From a stratigraphic perspective, however, the basic unit of analysis is not the individual object but the archaeological unit, the locus. Put another way, what matters is not simply the information context provides about a single artifact, but the information that a group of artifacts and architecture provide about a context: a room, a courtyard, a building. If we assume that a significant number of unprovenanced artifacts are not stray surface finds but are looted – an assumption widely shared by archaeologists 3  – then lack of provenance indicates an even greater loss. Looting affects not simply a single artifact but an entire assemblage as well as the context they were in.4  Objects that are not seen as valuable, such as potsherds and animal bones – in others words, the vast majority of finds in most archaeological contexts – are simply discarded. In addition, the material above that context, the entire stratigraphic record of that area of the site, is destroyed.

Let’s consider a specific example: the Archive Complex in the Late Bronze Age palace at Pylos, Greece.5  I have chosen this example specifically because it involves texts,as it is often argued that texts have a great deal of information in themselves and that not much is lost without contextual information.6  This example may not be a typical one, but is far from unique, and indicates clearly some of the types of information recoverable about texts in archaeological contexts. About 1200 tablets were recovered from the excavation of the palace at Pylos, of which about 1000 were found in the two-room Archive Complex. From the findspots of the tablets in the archive rooms (along with occasional finds in other parts of the palace) in combination with other associated finds and architecture, and clues from the tablets themselves, we can draw the following likely conclusions about the tablets: they were mostly composed in different areas of the palace where the materials they record were stored or worked; they were transported to the Archive Complex in wicker baskets with labels indicating their contents; they were processed in the larger of the two archive rooms; they were worked and fixed, or pulped to recycle the clay (the tablets were unbaked) with water from a pithos (a large storage jar) in the corner of the larger room; they were transferred to wooden baskets and stored on wooden shelves in the smaller room; and they were discarded yearly, after being transferred to more permanent material, perhaps papyrus, kept elsewhere in the palace. We can also estimate the number of individual scribes, determine the frequency of their writing, and identify a probable master scribe who oversaw the processing of the tablets in the archive rooms. In other words, finding tablets in their archaeological contexts in the Archive Complex (and the rest of the palace) at Pylos allows us to reconstruct many elements of scribal activity that would be otherwise unknown.

If any of these tablets had appeared on the market as unprovenanced, it would mean that looting had not only ripped the contextual information from an individual text, but had also destroyed all or part of the Archive Rooms along with their contents. 

3. Law. Excavation and trade in antiquities are highly regulated activities, and there is a series of national laws and international treaties that severely restrict legal conduct. In the Middle East, most countries have prohibited both export of antiquities and trade in antiquities for decades, and all artifacts are legally property of the state. The only exception (to my knowledge) is Israel, and even there antiquities trade and ownership are highly regulated. The Antiquities Law of 1978 declares that all antiquities discovered from that date are owned by the state; trade (by licensed dealers) is only allowed in objects discovered before that time. The primary international instrument regulating trade in antiquities is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In occupied territories (for instance, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Northern Cyprus) and in cases of warfare, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is also in force, prohibiting transfer of antiquities out of occupied territory and severely restricting activities such as excavations. As a result of this legal regime, not only is forgery a crime, but most genuine unprovenanced artifacts have also likely been illegally excavated and/or smuggled from their country of origin.

Archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scholars of the ancient world deal with unprovenanced texts and artifacts all the time. To take some recent examples that have been in the news: the Museum of the Bible’s collection (such as the Dead Sea Scroll fragments just published by Brill); the Al-Yahudu tablets of Judean deportees in Mesopotamia; and the so-called “Afghan Genizah,” a set of medieval Jewish documents from Afghanistan. It is likely that the majority of these artifacts are either fake or illegally excavated and smuggled out of their country of origin. The Al-Yahudu material apparently comes from Iraq, but its exact origins are unclear: the owner of the largest collection has claimed (without providing documentation) they can be traced back to the antiquities market in the 1970s, though there are claims that they first surfaced on the market in the 1990s, after massive looting of Iraqi sites in wake of the Gulf War.7  The Afghan material appeared a few years ago, rumored to be from one or more caves in the country, but with no clear information on provenance. (The Green collection has not been forthcoming about the origins of their material, so it is difficult to comment; I have not yet had a chance to look at the newly published volume to check for information on provenance). The Iraqi Antiquities Law no. 59 (1936) with amendments in 1974 and 1975 declared ancient artifacts to be property of the state, outlawed export of and trade in antiquities, and regulated excavations. In Afghanistan, the Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties (2004) and prior antiquities law prohibited export of antiquities except by the state, while strictly regulating excavation, allowing private ownership of registered artifacts, and regulating trade in antiquities.

The legal implications are apparent in cases such as the FBI investigation of the Green family/Museum of the Bible for possible illegal importation of antiquities from Iraq. And it is certainly conceivable that scholars (at least in the United Kingdom, under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002) could be charged with a crime for working on unprovenanced material.8

4. Ethics. Even if legal issues were not a concern, we would still have to deal with our professional ethics. Antiquities are looted because there is a market for them, that is, because people collect them. When scholars work on them in the long process from authentication to publication, they are increasing the value of objects and ultimately helping to increase demand.9  As scholars, do we want to play a role in increasing looting – and creating a vicious circle that leads to further loss of information for the material we study? Do we want to be a party to smuggling artifacts from their countries of origin to ultimate destinations abroad – especially when they are often smuggled out of developing nations to more powerful ones? In this case we should keep in mind the entangled histories of archaeology, exploration of the Middle East, and imperialism.


Provenance is an essential starting point for dealing with any ancient artifact. It is the foundation for determining proper approaches to essentially all aspects of work with both individual pieces and entire assemblages. “Where is this from?” should be the first question we ask about an object, and the answer should control our course of action in multiple ways. Researchers who ignore any of these aspects of provenance do so at their enormous peril.



1 On the need to take the skills and tools of forgers seriously, see Christopher A. Rollston, Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests, Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193.

2  Christopher Rollston provides an excellent treatment with examples from epigraphy in Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic, Maarav 11.1 (2004): 57-79.

3  See the discussion in Neil Brodie, Consensual Relations? Academic Involvement in the Illegal Trade in Ancient Manuscripts, in Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities, ed. Penny Green and Simon Mackenzie (Oxford: Hart, 2009), p. 47.

4  As pointed out, for instance, by Patty Gerstenblith, Do Restrictions on Publication of Undocumented Texts Promote Legitimacy?, in Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics, ed. Matthew T. Rutz and Morag M. Kersel (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2014), p. 216.

5  On the Archive Rooms, see John Chadwick, The Mycenaean World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), chapter 2, The Documentary Evidence; Thomas G. Palaima and James C. Wright, Ins and Outs of the Archive Rooms at Pylos: Form and Function in a Mycenaean Palace, American Journal of Archaeology 89 (1985): 251-262; Kevin Pluta, A Reconstruction of the Archives Complex at Pylos: A Preliminary Report, Minos 31-32 (1996-1997 [1998]): 231-250.

6  For instance, John Boardman, “Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums,” in Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, ed. James Cuno (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 113: “To claim that an object without context is worthless is pure nonsense. Renfrew showed us a famous Greek vase in New York, the interest of which is 98 percent in its sheer existence (we know who made it, when, and where) with only a 2 percent loss in knowledge of what Etruscan grave it came from.”

7  See Daniel Estrin, Ancient Tablets Displayed in Jerusalem Part of Debate over Looting of Antiquities in Mideast, Associated Press, February 12, 2015. See also the comments by Caroline Waerzeggers, Review of Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer, Strata: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israeli Archaeological Society 33 (2015): 188.

8  See Janet Ulph, Criminal Offences Affecting the Trade in Art and Antiquities, in The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities: International Recovery and Criminal and Civil Liability (Oxford: Hart, 2012), p. 110.

9  This is a debated point, but Neil Brodie persuasively argues that the entire process of scholarly involvement with collectors and unprovenanced artifacts is much more extensive than simply a final publication, and that this process has a significant effect on the market for antiquities: see for example Brodie, Scholarship and Insurgency? The Study and Trade of Iraqi Antiquities, presentation at Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop, “Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects: Law, Ethics and Realities,” August 4-5 2011, University of Western Australia; Brodie, Consensual Relations.