Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Provenance of the Jesus' Wife Papyrus Doesn't Pass the Smell Test

File this in under "antiquities: fishy provenance": The NY Times explains how it is that the fragment of papyrus containing the tantalizing references to Jesus' wife came to Harvard:

Dr. King first learned about what she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” when she received an e-mail in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Dr. King, 58, specializes in Coptic literature, and has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Gnosticism and women in antiquity. 
The owner, who has a collection of Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri, is not willing to be identified by name, nationality or location, because, Dr. King said, “He doesn’t want to be hounded by people who want to buy this.” 
When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown. The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment “the sole example” of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.

So a professor of Egyptology, now conveniently dead, told the previous owner, also now conveniently dead, this bombshell information, and the previous owner then did not announce the astounding fact to the world or try to donate the fragment to a museum or put it up on the market for millions, but instead sold the papyri privately to another owner who kept it for 13 years before asking the Harvard prof to translate it. As they say on Saturday Night Live, oh realllly?!

It would be interesting to know whether Dr. King raised any questions or an eyebrow when told this tale, but it would appear not, since she seems to be passing it on as if it were simply to be taken at face value. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The owner could certainly answer some questions by authorities that might make it possible to retrace the trail the owner describes, and perhaps eventually lead to the discovery of other pieces of the fragment. On the other hand, we might well learn that the provenance provided is a cover story. But of course, none of these questions can be posed, since the owner is remaining anonymous becausehe doesn't want to be hounded, Dr King tells us, by buyers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

This Is the Future of Archaeological Site Protection. Are Heritage Protection Advocates Listening?

40 hours, a GPS tracker, a radio transmitter, and a used video camera. Cost: about $300. Results: the equivalent of an almost-realtime satellitelike monitor's view. This is exactly the kind of cheap, individually-launchable technology that could with a bit of tweaking allow heritage protection advocates to watch over remote sites where looters dig with impunity because antiquities police have inadequate intelligence about what is happening where, or where, as in Syria today, parties to armed conflict are themselves doing the looting to fund their fights and the international community has no way to assign blame because the visual proof is lacking. (Had such technology been available and deployed in Iraq, where for several years the only way to find out what was happening on the archaeological sites was to risk being kidnapped as Micah Garen and Susanne Osthoff both were, those of us who were hearing anecdotal reports of massive looting might have been able to confront US policymakers with embarrassing visual evidence and forced the US military to address the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug.)

The supporters of heritage protection -- UNESCO, ICOM, ICOMOS, ICCROM, archaeological organizations such as the AIA, SAA, and others, foundations, deep-pocketed museums like James Cuno's Getty and the Metropolitan, and wealthy collectors with consciences, the Smithsonian, etc. -- should be focusing now on this very doable technological advancement. Why not go to Google and ask them to sponsor a contest with a prize for the best invention in the field of remote site monitoring?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Impact of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Antiquities Trade: Not Much Now, Not Much Likely Later

Souren Melikian offers a rosy-tinted view of the impact the 1970 UNESCO Convention is having on the antiquities trade. There is no doubt that the visible market is being impacted to some extent, though Melikian's evidence is purely anecdotal, and as Nord Wennerstrom points out, a glance at the auction catalogues shows that there are still a great number of unprovenanced pieces going up on the block. Mackenzie and Brodie's crew is likely to weigh in soon with authoritative statistics making clear that we have a long way to go before the auction houses have clean hands.

But even if we were to reach a point at which auction houses sold only adequately provenanced antiquities, it is far from clear that this would have all that much effect on looting, because:

a) a lot of the trade in antiquities is done privately, so that it seems very likely that as the trade cleans up its public image the more dodgy pieces will simply not be brought to auction or advertised but will continue to be bought and sold in the back rooms (as, for instance, Dr Arnold Peter Weiss attempted to do recently at the national coin convention with coins he thought were stolen);
b) Melikian's claim that "dealers are paying attention" is so weak that even Melikian offers no evidence beyond the fact that Jerome Eisenberg returned illicitly excavated antiquities (not so surprisingly, Melikian omits to add that Eisenberg only returned the pieces after being pointedly requested to do so by Italian authorities);
c) not all collectors plan to sell what they collect or to give it to a museum, at least not during their lifetimes, and such collectors are therefore unlikely to give a damn whether or not the auction house or museum is unwilling to handle the pieces they love; 
d) there are many deep-pocketed collectors in other countries where there is little concern about the Convention, and as the number of millionaires in non-Western countries skyrockets they will almost certainly take up any slack created by the reduction in demand for unprovenanced antiquities by Western collectors; 
e) as ethical collectors increasingly are willing to pay a premium for kosher antiquities, the higher prices commanded for high-end antiquities with pristine provenance will provide powerful signals to looters that similar pieces will almost certainly be worth digging up even if not quite as much as the kosher pieces (if one figurine is worth $57 million on the licit market, surely a similar illicit one will be worth at least hundreds of thousands).

The point I am trying to make is two-fold: the licit market is far, far from being sealed off from the illicit one, and even if it   could be the illicit market would continue to exist. That does not mean we should give up on the 1970 UNESCO Convention and say, "provenance be damned." It means that we need to go beyond just establishing a strictly licit market to begin thinking about how the power of that market could be used to pay for the policing needed not just to keep it licit but to crush the black market and secure archaeological sites around the world.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Protecting Cultural Heritage: The Burnham Plan

Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, has weighed in on "Protecting Cultural Heritage: Lessons from the Syrian Conflict." Her words carry added weight because they are posted on the Huffington Post and thereby are reaching an audience magnitudes of order larger than any normally available to those of us who care about protecting cultural heritage in times of armed conflict. This is an all-too-rare opportunity not just to alert the public to the terrible damage being done in Syria (there have been a fair number of media reports already about the destruction), but to offer specific, pointed, and actionable policy proposals laying out things that could or should be done to minimize future damage, in Syria and other future conflicts.

Unfortunately, this is an opportunity missed. Though Burnham does offer three suggestions, they are vague and unrealistic proposals:
The international community must do more to address the issue of protecting cultural patrimony during conflicts. Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate. The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army's famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II.
Let's take these one at a time.

"Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate."Agreed, but the passive voice leaves unclear just who should be making such contingency plans, and no indication is given of what such plans might or should include. That is all the more disappointing given that Burnham contributed a chapter to Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, a volume which includes a number of planning recommendations by a range of experts. And since that book came out, we have learned more, from the experiences of Libya (where shepherds were permitted to graze their flocks on World Heritage sites in exchange for keeping guard there) and Cairo (where Egyptians formed a human chain to protect their museum), about how local citizens might be encouraged or enlisted in advance to be prepared to come to the aid of their cultural heritage when the going gets rough.

That sort of direct action, of course, involves risks, and in Syria today it would probably be too dangerous for it to make sense to ask locals to put their lives on the line at many sites. Even in Syria, however, some sites far from any fighting are now at risk of looting and could have been protected had heritage officials in Syria, and foreign archaeologists who are now shut out from the country, managed to develop local networks to be called upon.

"The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement." That would be nice, since the enforcement mechanisms now attached to the Convention are, to put it mildly, weak. But enforcing Hague would be of little help in cases such as Libya, where the loophole of "military necessity" would get the Assad the regime off the hook for most of the damage it is doing, and where the rebels do not constitute a state (much less a state party to the Convention). The 1954 Hague Convention was designed to deal with the actions of armies battling each other on battlefields, not with irregular civil warfare conducted in the midst of population centers.

What could dissuade or at least discourage both sides in Syria from fighting each other for control of militarily advantageous sites that also happen to be World Heritage sites? Changing the Convention to do away with the military necessity loophole will never happen. Short of that the only strategy that stands any chance of success would be one that calls upon specific states that are backing each side of the conflict to use their leverage to make clear to those they support that if evidence emerges that they were the first to move onto a protected site there will be a cost to be paid in terms of reduced military assistance (and vice versa). 

Of course, such evidence is very hard to come by and evaluate. What is needed, and what Burnham and other heritage advocates should be pushing hard for, is the development of new technologies capable of providing reliable and verifiable real-time monitoring of sites. This is an area where huge advances are easily imaginable -- for example, cellphone users in Syria could be enabled to upload images that would also automatically geocode information and that could then be collated to provide a crowd-sourced dossier. It would be great if the UN could take the lead on such a program, but the funding is lacking. If I were Burnham, I would get together a posse with other heritage protection advocates and make a pitch to Google and Getty for money for that sort of thing. 

"In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army's famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II." This is one suggestion I endorse, though it would have little impact on the kinds of conflicts we are seeing now. Remember, the Monuments Men were part of a gigantic military operation that was pushing an occupier out and setting up its own occupation, not a neutral body, and they were able to protect sites from further military-related damage because they had the ear and support of military commanders. In principle, a UN-negotiated cease-fire might enable the carabinieri or other militarized cultural police to be dropped in, and developing a standing international force capable of joining in peacekeeping operations is an objective worth pursuing, especially because such a force might be able to do important work preventing looting by civilians (something else the 1954 Hague Convention did not anticipate becoming the major problem it is today). But this would have to be done very gingerly, since what counts as "neutral" to internationalists may appear very differently to nationalists, as we know from the fate of the carabinieri's heritage protection units, who were driven out of Iraq after a number of these brave souls were killed by insurgents.