During the past several months we have had an extended discussion in these pages as to whether BAR should accept ads from dealers in Near Eastern antiquities. This discussion began in
BAR will henceforth accept advertisements for Near Eastern antiquities. We have conscientiously tried to weigh the pros and cons, and this is where we come out.
There are, as far as we have been able to discern, two reasons for not accepting antiquities ads in BAR. First, it is wrong, as a matter of principle, because we thereby become a participant in a process of distributing illegally excavated artifacts. Second, to some small extent the acceptance of antiquities ads actually increases illegal excavations because this creates a demand for the illegal product and therefore encourages illegal digging that might otherwise not take place.
These are the reasons for refusing to accept advertisements for Near Eastern antiquities. Were these the only considerations, we would not accept such ads. But this is not the whole story. Let us look at the other side.
First, antiquities dealers make a market in legally acquired and owned antiquities. There is nothing wrong, per se, with buying and selling antiquities that were excavated half a century ago or more when there were no laws regulating the subject and when even scholars did not realize the scientific damage that was being done. The artifacts to which this classification applies include a substantial proportion of the antiquities that are displayed in the world’s major museums. The only reason to object to dealing in these antiquities is that it is sometimes difficult to tell which artifacts were illegally excavated and which were not.
Perhaps it will be argued that it is wrong even to own and therefore to deal in antiquities excavated before laws were passed making their excavation illegal. If that were the case, we would have to empty our museums and return all these artifacts to—where? To the country of origin where they may or may not be accessible? to be reburied? Perhaps, in particular instances, such artifacts should be returned to the country of origin as a matter of politics, diplomacy or cultural respect. But obviously this will not be done wholesale. If it is proper to own these artifacts, it is proper to make a market in them. Such a market serves a legitimate purpose. There may be collateral reasons for not allowing this market to operate—like the fact that it inevitably encourages some illegal digging—but this consequence, illegal digging, must be weighed against the legitimate service that dealers in antiquities perform.
We also need antiquities dealers to recover major artifacts now being unearthed. This service is even more important than the market antiquities dealers make in antiquities uncovered long ago. We refer here to accidental finds, in contrast to illegally excavated finds.
Today it is illegal to dig without a permit. But not all recently uncovered artifacts are acquired as a result of illegal excavations. We do not refer here to finds legally excavated by professional archaeologists who have government permits. We refer rather to accidental finds. History is full of such finds. A Bedouin shepherd tosses a rock in a cave, hears pottery break and, on investigation, discovers the Dead Sea Scrolls. A farmer in northern Syria plows a new field and discovers a buried statue containing the oldest substantial Aramaic inscription.a Not all accidental finds are of such major significance, but they are of considerable importance nevertheless. No one really knows whether the antiquities market in Israel and Jordan is fed principally by illegal diggers or by accidental finders. A world-famous epigrapher explained to BAR that if there were no market for these accidental finds, they might never see the light of day. A piece of pottery with writing on it or an inscribed seal might simply be tossed away as valueless but for the antiquities market. The antiquities dealers make the market in these finds and encourage the accidental finders to sell them on this market. Without this market we might never recover these accidental finds.
A recent article in The Atlantic describes 007what can happen without this market. In 1952, Egypt under President Nasser enacted a law declaring all objects made before 1850 to be the property of the state; henceforth it was illegal to sell such property. According to the article:b
“Nasser’s law ended an informal nationwide system of collecting antiquities, in which peasants could sell for a few piasters objects they came upon in the fields; the objects eventually turned up in marketplaces from Alexandria to Aswan. ‘The system was primitive, but absolutely nothing was lost—not one tiny mummy bead,’ says Bernard Bothmer, a former curator of Egyptian art at the Brooklyn Museum. ‘Today, if a farmer finds something, he becomes nervous and just pitches it into the nearest canal. The loss has been incalculable for the history of Egypt.’”
The article goes on to state:
“Within several years museum storage rooms [in Egypt] were jammed with countless objects that had been found during excavations but had not been permanently registered. ‘Stuff got lost or disappeared,’ says Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Moreover, the new scarcity of Egyptian art on the international market increased its value, producing a wave of tomb and temple marauding.”
Perhaps it may also be appropriate to mention that non-professionals—local people searching on the surface (not illegally digging)—have made a number of important discoveries that have eluded the professional. Thus, after the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, both archaeologists and local Bedouin searched inaccessible caves for additional inscriptions. As Frank Moore Cross has observed, “In the competition between clandestine Bedouin diggers and archaeologists, it must be confessed that the laurels have gone more frequently to the intrepid and patient shepherds.” It was they, for example, who discovered the famous Wadi Daliyeh papyri written hundreds of years before the Dead Sea Scrolls.c Speaking of the Bedouin who were able to find Dead Sea Scroll fragments that professional archaeologists alerted to their existence in this area were nevertheless unable to discover, one scholar has stated “Nobody in the world knows that desolate area like these people, and it is certain that if it had not been for them the Dead Sea Scrolls would still have remained undiscovered. If the prices are high, the work is tedious and back-breaking in the extreme, and certainly no member of a scrolls expedition who has scaled the cliffs and combed hundreds of caves, sifting the dust between his finger-tips for days on end, in a stifling atmosphere which is just indescribable, would begrudge the Ta’amireh [Bedouin] a penny of their gains.”d
Thus, the antiquities market performs a legitimate function not only for finds uncovered before it was illegal to dig them—finds with which our museums are filled—but also for finds uncovered accidentally and for legally recovered surface finds. Is the gain in bringing onto the market accidentally discovered finds and legally recovered surface finds greater than the loss in encouraging illegal digging? It may well be.
Another charge often made is that dealers sell to private collectors as well as to public collectors. Some say only museums and universities should be permitted to own important antiquities. And antiquities dealers will sell their wares to the highest bidder. There are several answers to these charges:
1. It is elitist. Who is to determine who is a public collector and who can purchase antiquities?
2. Museums and schools have not always handled their antiquities responsibly. (This is an understatement.)
3. Many prominent dealers try to steer important pieces to public collections.
4. Most significant, as is well-known in the scholarly community, important finds even in private collections are almost always exposed to scholarly scrutiny eventually. This may take some time, but it happens. A collector wants the pedigree of his piece established. Or, because of tax laws, the finds are eventually contributed to a public institution.
These then are the pros and cons. On this basis alone, the decision to accept antiquities ads or not might still be a difficult one. But there is another factor that, to my mind, tips the balance.
An easy, simple step could be taken to reduce illegal excavation substantially. It was suggested in our January/February 1985 issue (see
We have talked to many archaeologists about this proposal. Most enthusiastically support it. But not a single one—even the most enthusiastic—has written BAR to register that support publicly. It is still a taboo subject.e
When there is such an easy, sensible way of controlling a good deal of the illegal excavating that is now going on, it smacks of too much self-righteousness to condemn antiquities ads for the relatively insignificant encouragement they provide to illegal diggers.
When professional archaeologists and government departments of antiquities begin selling the thousands of duplicates inaccessibly stored in their bulging basements, we will reconsider our decision to accept antiquities ads. But until then, we will accept them.
Several other magazines, including The Sciences, the magazine of the New York Academy of Science, accept antiquities ads.
We do not intend this to be the end of the discussion. In future issues, we will be exploring other aspects of collecting, of illegal excavating, of the function of dealers, of the need to raise funds for professional archaeology, and more. Of one thing we are certain: Public discussion of the issues is the only way to bring more light to these important questions.
During the past several months we have had an extended discussion in these pages as to whether BAR should accept ads from dealers in Near Eastern antiquities. This discussion began in “The Verdict on Advertisements for Near Eastern Antiquities—Dubitante,” BAR 10:06, which concluded “dubitante”—in doubt. There followed the expression of views from our readers and extensive discussion with many archaeologists, museum curators, scholars and dealers. As a result, we believe our thinking on the subject has now been clarified, and we are ready to announce our decision. BAR will henceforth accept advertisements for Near Eastern antiquities. We have conscientiously […]