I equate The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to today’s triple theme, in its respective order: scientific archaeology, antiquities destruction, and artifactual fraud. And I nod to the movie of that title (one of my favorites). The movie’s musical theme dwells in my bones, and I can’t help whistling when I think of it. The movie’s star actor, Clint Eastwood, is my favorite movie action hero, and one-of-a-kind standing apart from the politicized narcissists of Hollywood.
The Good: Scientific Archaeology.
True archaeology is best represented by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (OI), which has graciously provided to all of us a seemingly endless stream of scholarly videos on the artifactual record of antiquity. I’ve used many in these posts.
Today’s 2010 video, Death’s Dominion: Chalcolithic Religion and the Ritual Economy of the Southern Levant, is about artifacts found under archaeologically supervised circumstances in the southern Levant and professionally dated to the pre- and post-pottery Neolithic and Chalcolithic. The artifacts are evidence of the use of agricultural surpluses, not just to aggrandize a few wealthy farmers with ostentatious displays of wealth, or an emergent political class with equally ostentatious displays of power—yes, there was plenty of that—but also to display a deferential concern for forebears’ remains and to build places of spiritual reverence and worship.
(1) Practices of these peoples followed similar priorities to those of the Ubaid in Southern Mesopotamia (750 miles away) in the same period;
(2) Artifacts in the video were and remain provenanced i.e. meticulously identified to precise locations within an equally precise context that helps to date and culturally place them, and then remained in the hands of professional caretakers;
(3) Excavations were vulnerable to prior and subsequent pillaging of artifacts which, once removed by thieves, lost their provenance in-the-moment and in-the-method of their removal, and became items sold to collectors and tourists.
The failure to halt this thievery produces a volume of unprovenanced artifacts that vastly exceeds the provenanced. However, the value of the unprovenanced has (historically) barely equaled the sum of its physical content (precious metals, jewels) and artistic rarity, for it contributes virtually nothing about its ancient role to the sum of historical knowledge.
The Bad: Destruction of Historical Records.
Archaeology is a dangerous profession in the 21st century. Islamic State (ISIS) murdered archaeologist Khaled Asaad (see Post 63) and destroyed the ancient monuments and many of the available artifacts at Palmyra in Syria, and the ancient monuments at Mosul and Nimrud in Iraq, and much more. ISIS despises anything that doesn’t fit their Islamic narrative. They are now pillaging every museum that falls into their hands and selling the portable artifacts in the billion dollar global antiquities market. They follow the footsteps of Islamic conquerors of Egypt who removed the marble façade of the pyramids for their own building projects, and raided tombs at will. Similar sectarian behavior was also practiced by Christians. Any sighted person who has toured the eastern Mediterranean has noticed the chopped off noses, arms, heads, and hands of many statues—and systematic ruin of pre-Christian religious items. The Parthenon was used as an ammo dump by the Turks and blown up by Venetian artillery because its historic significance didn’t fit into either side’s narrative and therefore received no protection.
The beginnings of spectacular secular thievery, as a means of acquiring precious goods, is attested by tomb robberies recorded in ancient Egypt. In recent centuries, the paid acquisition of ancient art funded the beginnings of professional archaeology. Many “art collectors” as-well-as certified museums around the world are still complicit in this market, facilitators of preplanned looting and providers of liquidity to the market.
Have you ever considered the street value of the existing artifacts for sale on the worldwide antiquities market? Or how many private fortunes and “collections” were built solely upon the looting of vulnerable countries, robbery of defeated enemies, and actions of organized international crime?
Who could estimate the trillions of dollars (in inflation adjusted currency) of the cultural artifacts stripped of untraceable jewels, then melted down into gold and silver bullion, or in original forms, shipped out of the Middle East, North Africa, Central and East Asia, Central and South America, Eurasia, and even Europe–since the rise of Empires? Of Islam, the West, the 20th century world wars, Colonialism? This has been the way of the world since the dawn of time.
Here is a small sample of what’s available. Google antiquity artifacts for sale for yourself, and look at the staggering market, and the prices. Many of the artifacts are provenanced, and many of these documented for scholars, but unwanted by museums, so they are sold to the highest bidders. The clear majority of collectors are people who love the items just as you and I do, and can afford to build a collection and display them (often) in their homes. 40 years ago, while living in South America, a casual friend (whose name I’ve forgotten) showed me his staggering (at least to me) collection of Peruvian artifacts. This is a huge cultural issue that we should add to the mix of current world problems—because every destroyed or unprovenanced, hoarded, and unstudied artifact is one missing piece of the mosaic of world history.
The Ugly: Global Antiquities Market, National Narratives.
The Issues of looting and forgery are not new. But few nations (even advanced and rich ones) protect their own excavations in any meaningful way. The penalties for looting excavations and other chicanery such as forgery and selling mislabeled replicas carry miniscule penalties compared to the felony theft of a few hundred dollars in merchandise from a retail store. Thus, lacking serious lawmaking, regulation, and financial and criminal penalties, this market is a thieves’ cornucopia—and a thriving field for various countries’ jingoism, promoting or suppressing narratives to suit their political objectives.
Civil penalties will not solve the problem, just reduce the incentives. The unprovenanced item may still be priceless, for there is a longstanding conundrum about how to treat unprovenanced artifacts. If the artifact is real, you cannot simply ignore it. Today, we can determine scientifically, with rapidly growing certainty, whether it is ancient, perhaps date it, establish its mineral origin, compare it with provenanced objects etc. And we can disprove a false imputed provenance with increasing (but still imperfect) accuracy. We must remember that the legitimate object is not tarnished by its illegitimate acquisition and handlers. So, although archaeologists would prefer to ignore unprovenanced artifacts, the truth is that many want to save and do the best they can with artifacts which show up unprovenanced. The corollary to this, is that many objects in museums and their storerooms that now have high values could be debunked and devalued by modern testing.
Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) is a great magazine on the archaeology of lands mentioned in the Bible, and is the publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS). BAR deals frequently with this issue of forgery applied to actual artifacts to enhance their value, and production of false artifacts. BAR’s editor Hershel Shanks reports on these and other archaeological controversies in every issue. Virtually all archaeologists involved with the Middle East read, or keep themselves informed, about what is written in BAR. I have read BAR since the 1980s, as have many archaeological and religious (and atheistic) laymen. It will be named in the following video by a writer whose interest in the issue was piqued by the “James Ossuary” case reported in BAR, about which she wrote a book documenting the issues surrounding this case, another case, and the general problem of fraud in antiquity markets. She, as does every source, has a strong personal narrative.
Remember what I said, ignore the narrator, look at the facts. Do not be distracted by the personal narrative of a speaker. Sort out the factual evidence which is otherwise unavailable to you. Develop perspective.
Our lecture on this subject is a 2010 Oriental Institute video lecture, Biblical Archaeology, the Limits of Science, and the Borders of Belief. The narrator, Nina Burleigh, is author of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. It is focused upon a couple of forgery cases: one “modified” Ossuary and one false inscription. Please watch this video now.
Notice how the author-lecturer’s narrative (spelled out in the Wikipedia link to her name above, and confirmed by her words at the beginning of the video) links to her presumed narratives about those accused of producing both “artifacts” i.e. that they sought to prove the legitimacy of the Israeli claim to the territory of Israel. Recall the narrative of the earlier Israeli presenter in Post 119, who did not care (my euphemism) about the Bible’s spiritual narrative whatsoever—just its historicity as justification for the continued presence of Israel as a nation. Despite the personal narratives of the author-lecturer, the accused in the counterfeiting trial prosecuted by the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority), and the Gath excavator in Post 119, we learned much. Don’t get distracted by their personal narratives—or my own. Do get the gist of the archaeology.
Here’s my narrative applied to these others’ narratives.
I see these Israeli narratives trying to make counter-arguments against the Politically-Correct Palestinian narrative now propagated against the Israelis within the U.N. and in academia, and I see Burleigh’s narrative biased by her overt hostility to any form of “organized religion” and all things biblical. Here’s what I say about that U.N. narrative: there is absolutely no archaeological or historical basis for disputing that the Jews:
(1) Were exiled from Samaria to Assyrian captive states in the 7th century BC;
(2) Elite was exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon and captive states in the 6th century BC;
(3) Elite resettled Jerusalem in the 5th century BC;
(4) Struggled against Antiochus in the 4th century BC;
(5) Temple stood on what is now called “the Temple Mount;”
(6) Dominated Jerusalem and surroundings before the Roman occupation;
(7) Were a thorn in Rome’s side throughout the occupation, the rebuilding of their temple by Herod, their first rebellion (memorialized in Rome by the Arch of Titus), their second rebellion, and that Rome exiled them into the Diaspora, and prevented their returning in force. Jerusalem passed from Roman to Byzantine hands with similar policies, and remained under their control until the Muslims conquered it.
(8) The Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 AD, 28 years after Islam was formed (610 AD), and kept the door closed to Israelis’ return.
Based on historical facts, no one can justify Islam’s claim to Jerusalem or the surrounding land, since Islam did not start until 610 AD. So, we see the Jewish archaeologists and collectors forced into their narrative to historically justify that Israel was the homeland of the Jews. The Israelis face the Big Lie in the United Nations that somehow the Israelis are usurpers, that their claims to the land are a fiction—that Islamic settlers have a superior claim. Just like the Islamics claim Cordoba in Spain to this day—which they seized along with much other territory by force from Spain and lost to Spain by force in 1492. Similarly, the Islamics lost Jerusalem. Didn’t Someone important say, “Live by the sword, die by the sword?”
The victors of WWII decided where to resettle the European Jews after the Nazi Holocaust had made the survivors’ future in Europe unthinkable–because most Europeans had betrayed and handed them over to the Nazis for extermination. Folks, I lived through WWII and remember what happened, especially the U.S. Army evidence of the Holocaust brought back to the U.S. by Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower. My dad was invited to join the allied prosecutorial team that tried the Nazi high command at Nuremberg. I saw the photos in 1945-6, and they’re now well copied (backed up) and available to the public in the Holocaust museums around the world. Don’t say it didn’t happen, and don’t say the Arabs weren’t involved with the Nazis. What goes around comes around.
Chalcolithic City of Arad in Negev Desert (photo by Rick Burke)
Consider the archaeological sites shown in the first video lecture in this post (or just the above photo of the inactive site of Arad in the Negev Desert) and think about how remote, vulnerable, and unprotected these sites are. How would you protect them during the seasons when they are not being excavated? Or, even at night during the excavating season? Security at excavations is expensive and nearly nonexistent. As you heard in the first video, there are thousands of active and inactive excavations and untouched sites, just in Israel. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) could never be funded to guard every one. Backfill for inactive excavations will not do it either, but it is better than nothing. But, Arad in the above photo is an all-season National Park. Would we backfill those too? Moreover, backfill for active excavations in the off-season would not work, because it is impractical for an excavating team (meaning less excavation per donor dollar i.e. the short season’s first weeks removing the backfill). There is too much money available to the antiquities criminal gangs (much like the worldwide drug lords) to stop the piracy at the sites. So, if you headed an excavation or the IAA, what would you do?
Finally, what about the world’s museums, many of whom have been active buyers in the contraband trade in antiquities? They represent a double-edged sword. Although they collect contraband as defined by developing global laws, the world’s museums proved far safer repositories for artifacts than Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt in recent years. Museums present the artifacts to the world, through physical visitors, web visitors, lending of artifacts on tours, electronic museum tours, and scholars. Storage in elite museums with the funding to share electronically produces universal educational and protection value. Can any country protect its heritage? If they cannot protect their own people, they cannot protect the excavations and artifacts. And if they are overrun, their museums will be completely looted.
Perhaps the only answer is to digitize 3-D images of the contents of all museums and make the images (and all publicly funded archaeological research) completely available to view for free on the worldwide web. After a substantial startup expense, ongoing expenses could be reduced to the digitizing of new acquisitions and maintenance of the dedicated servers. And history could not be destroyed.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke