I begin with a paradox:
Archaeology as a profession is the poorest of the poor; only paltry sums are available to excavate, and even less for publishing the results, and still less for preserving the sites once excavated. Yet archaeologists deal with priceless objects every day.
Let me now turn to an unsolved problem facing all of us concerned about archaeology—the problem of illegal excavation. My focus here, however, is the problem of illegal excavation in Israel, Jordan and their neighbor countries in the Middle East. I am convinced that the problem is a far different one in this area of the world than it is, for example, in Mexico, Central America or Southeast Asia. In those areas, sophisticated, well-financed plunderers are raping inaccessible jungle sites and flying out major museum-quality pieces to be sold to the highest bidder. It is perhaps unfortunate that the ancient mounds of Israel and Jordan rarely contain such major pieces. In any event, I want to focus on the Middle Eastern countries’ problem of controlling local villagers or Bedouin who dig for pottery jugs, vessels, lamps or an occasional figurine.
I would like to make an outrageous, perhaps even heretical, suggestion that would at one stroke provide funds for archaeology and reduce the amount of illegal digging in Israel and Jordan.
My suggestion is simply this: that scientific archaeological expeditions and governmental antiquities authorities sell excavated artifacts on the open market to the highest bidder. This would not only provide substantial funds for excavation, publication and preservation of archaeological sites but would also break the illegal excavators’ grip on the market, thereby decreasing the inducement to engage in illegal activities.
Should professional excavators and governments sell antiquities? Why not? The result is that professionals excavate to acquire knowledge, not money. Moreover, ancient artifacts are our cultural heritage, which should be displayed in museums, not sold to the highest bidder.
I agree. Sell nothing that is museum quality or that has scientific value.
But, you may reply, everything that comes out of the ground has scientific value. Who knows but that someday the rudest pot will provide the key to the greatest discovery.
From this argument, I must part company. Theoretically, my putative antagonist may be correct that every artifact continues to have potential scientific value. Practically, he is wrong.
I am speaking of the thousands and thousands of pottery vessels and ancient lamps that are simply duplicates of one another. People outside the profession are sometimes surprised at just how many ancient artifacts are found in an archaeological excavation, although the number varies greatly from site to site. In one small Israeli excavation in Cyprus, archaeologists recently uncovered 2,000 small jugs and juglets in a single courtyard (see photo from Athienou in Books in Brief, in this issue). Even precious royal seal impressions known as l’melekh handles (“belonging to the king”) have been found in abundance—more than 4,000 examples.
Antiquities Departments’ basements are simply not large enough to store everything that comes out of the ground. There is not enough money even to catalogue the finds; as a result, they can’t be found again and are as inaccessible as if they were once again in the ground.
I do not advocate selling any artifact that has scientific value. I am talking about common duplicates.
Indeed, with the help of a computer, sold artifacts could be more accessible than they are today in bulging government museum basements.
Prior to sale, each artifact could be photographed and a record stored on microfiche. A list of the purchasers with addresses could be maintained on the computer, and the purchaser could even be required to sign an agreement to return the piece if it should become needed for scientific purposes.
It would even be possible to restrict the sale of ancient artifacts to certain classes of purchasers—for example, to schools, churches, synagogues, museums, historical societies and archaeology societies—which would agree to use the artifacts for teaching purposes and for display. Imagine how many people this would interest in Biblical archaeology. Imagine the effect of hundreds of local displays of ancient artifacts from the lands of the Bible in settings where some of them could be picked up and handled.
Imagine the archaeological projects that could be undertaken with money produced in this way.
Would illegal digging stop if archaeological expeditions and antiquities departments sold artifacts on the open market? Obviously not. But the demand for the illicit, clandestine product would be substantially reduced. Who would want an unmarked pot when another was available whose provenance, and even precise locus, was known, and that was dated stratigraphically by the professional archaeologist who excavated it?
Finally, the alternatives are not simply to accept my proposal on a grand scale or to reject it entirely. It is possible to try it in a small way, to experiment, to see how it works. Is it worth a try?
I begin with a paradox: