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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A 10-Foot Marble Zeus in Nineteenth-Century Gaza


 Zeus statue in Istanbul Archaeology Museum, 2006 
(photo by Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons)

It would have been a day much like any other in Gaza towards the end of the summer in 1879: hot, rainless, cloudless. Local workers were quarrying stone in one of the sand hills south of the city, as they often did. They would find antiquities periodically, usually without attention, selling them or throwing them away. But none of that would have prepared them for the over-life-sized marble statue, preserved to a height of 10 feet, they found lying in the sand on this day. The sculpture depicted a seated figure with its left arm and legs sawn off, the right arm broken at the elbow – Zeus, though no one would have known this yet. News of the find spread quickly. An English-language newspaper in Constantinople, the Commercial Advertiser (remember, Gaza was then part of the Ottoman Empire), carried a notice, picked up soon after by the New York Herald. “Discovery of a Colossal God of the Philistines at Gaza,” the headline proclaimed; and the article boasted the report of what it claimed was an Arab eyewitness. Via the Herald, the report was soon carried in papers throughout the English-speaking world (and beyond) – from the Aberystwith Observer to the Ouachita Telegraph to the Wallaroo Times and Mining Journal. The Pasha of Jerusalem, whose administrative territory for the Ottomans included Gaza, heard too – he sent soldiers to guard the statue, which legally belonged to Sultan in Constantinople.