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.

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