Wednesday, April 5, 2017

An Enthusiasm for Unprovenanced Artifacts

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

In Live Science on Monday, Owen Jarus provided an update on recent sales of 28 unpublished, purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments to American institutions.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

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

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

* Besides the unpublished purported Dead Sea Scroll fragments described by Jarus, others from the Museum of the Bible collection and the Schøyen collection published last year.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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