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.