I’ve been fighting it for years: archaeology as peep show. As in, “Wanna see a dirty picture?”
I thought it might be a thing of the past in this Internet age, but it’s as alive as ever: “Come to the Annual Meeting and we’ll show it to you. Yessiree. Step right up and have a look. Go back home and tell your friends and colleagues, you’ve seen it, the whole thing.”
I’m not talking about pornographic pictures, but recently excavated inscriptions of some importance. If you go to the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) or the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the excavators will get up and proudly display their finds in full color for all in attendance—in somewhat the same way as members of the exclusive Dead Sea Scroll publication team used to show an unpublished Dead Sea Scroll fragment to their astonished, obsequious and grateful colleagues in the 1980s when I first started complaining about it.a
This time it was what may be the earliest Philistine inscription, excavated at Tel es-Safi under the direction of Professor Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. When I wanted to write a report for BAR readers on what I had seen and heard at the Annual Meeting, Professor Maeir declined to give me a drawing of the inscription. He wrote that he wanted to save something for “MY article.” I’m sure his publication, when it comes out (perhaps months or years from now), will have much more to say about the inscription than I would say to BAR readers; what Professor Maeir will write is a complete scholarly report and discussion. But that doesn’t matter. He wants to have the first publication of a clear drawing of the inscription.
In fairness to Professor Maeir, he is hardly alone in this practice. Under the rules of the academy, archaeological finds belong to the excavators. They can, if they wish, withhold them even from their scholarly colleagues for years and sometimes decades, regardless of their importance to the general public or to the research projects of their colleagues.
My favorite example involves my friend Bezalel Porten of Hebrew University. Porten is the world’s foremost expert on the Elephantine papyri, documents from a Jewish settlement in the sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E with its own temple on the Nile island of Elephantine.b In addition to the papyri, some 250 ostraca (inscribed potsherds) of the community were found in French excavations in 1906. When I last looked into the situation in 1995, the ostraca still had not been published—exclusive publication rights had simply been passed from one generation to another—and Professor Porten was still not permitted to see the ostraca.c Accordingly, he could not use them in his research.
But back to the present. Another important inscription was shown to scholars at the Annual Meetings last November in Philadelphia: an early inscribed alphabet, excavated at Tel Zayit in Israel by Professor Ron Tappy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He declined to give a picture of the inscription to BAR. He managed to get The New York Times to write a story about the inscription as part of a widespread publicity campaign, but he won’t allow a picture of it to be published. If you want to see it, you can come to his lecture at the SBL meeting—or numerous other venues where he speaks about it.
Almost 30 years ago, we published a blank space where, we told readers, 078we would have published a picture of Jerusalem’s cardo if excavator Nahman Avigad had released it to us.d Professor Avigad was one of Israel’s best-loved and most admired archaeologists. He had just won the Israel Prize, one of Israel’s most prestigious awards, for his archaeological achievements. Avigad was furious at the blank space. I probably would not do this today; I am less cantankerous. But, I hasten to add, Professor Avigad and I later became friends, and I served as his agent for the publication of his highly praised popular book Discovering Jerusalem.e
It is time to get rid of this practice. It certainly should have died with the Dead Sea Scroll fiasco. It is not only bad for scholarship, it is also bad for the archaeologists who invoke the practice. If they would release the pictures, they would create more—not less—interest in their subsequent scholarly publication.
Sometimes I ask a scholar to write an article on the subject of a book he or she is writing. Not infrequently the scholar will decline to do this until the book is published and available. The scholar thinks that a BAR article before the book comes out will depress interest in a later scholarly publication. On the contrary, it would build interest. I have some proof of this. Book excerpts in the trade are known as First Serial Rights and Second Serial Rights. The former is a book excerpt that appears before the book itself is published; the latter, after. Why in the world do you think that someone like Bill Clinton sells First Serial Rights to Time magazine? The answer is clear: When people read an excerpt, they want more. In the same way, folks who read a popular article in BAR will want more; the BAR article will increase, not decrease, interest among scholars and the general public in the later scholarly publication.
Yet I know that my argument will fall on deaf ears. I grow old. I am like a donkey braying in the night.
I’ve been fighting it for years: archaeology as peep show. As in, “Wanna see a dirty picture?” I thought it might be a thing of the past in this Internet age, but it’s as alive as ever: “Come to the Annual Meeting and we’ll show it to you. Yessiree. Step right up and have a look. Go back home and tell your friends and colleagues, you’ve seen it, the whole thing.” I’m not talking about pornographic pictures, but recently excavated inscriptions of some importance. If you go to the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) […]
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