The following letter by the distinguished British archaeologist Lord Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University is part of a continuing dialogue with Archaeology Odyssey editor Hershel Shanks that began in our
Dear Mr. Shanks,
When you published your open letter (see Editors’ Page, AO 05:04) and my reply (see Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 05:06), I did not realize that I was to be in receipt of a further open letter from you (see Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 06:01). However, since in many ways I admire Archaeology Odyssey and its informative range of articles, and since I feel that your position on the illicit traffic in antiquities is a dangerous and misguided one, which can only serve to promote the looting of archaeological sites, I think I must give you a direct response. I shall try to follow your very appropriate approach of speaking plainly and, I hope, of avoiding discourtesy.
J’accuse, Mr. Shanks, je vous accuse. I accuse you of giving comfort to unscrupulous museum curators (and misguided private collectors) who buy looted antiquities and thereby promote the looting process. In this process archaeological sites are destroyed, and with their destruction we lose the precious opportunity to learn more about the past of humankind. That knowledge should be part of the heritage of every one of us: It is our common inheritance. If an ancient site is destroyed without careful excavation and full publication, then that knowledge is lost forever—that is the consequence of looters and their work.
The comfort you give, despite your protestations of abhorring looting, appears in your letter to me, when you refer to the Euphronios vase, purchased some years ago by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You say of such “extraordinary objects”: “They are accidental finds. That they do in fact surface from time to time is not a serious incitement to looting …” Mr. Shanks, as the Duke of Wellington said, “If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.” Entire Attic Red Figure vases are rarely found by accident. They generally derive from tombs, in many cases from Etruscan tombs, and they are keenly sought by the tombaroli, whom the Metropolitan Museum’s wealth has once again rewarded. Of course the Euphronios vase required restoration, but surely no one doubts that it was looted from a tomb: Certainly Thomas Hoving, then the director of the Met, admitted this. (And yet you accuse me of “vilifying” museum curators.) You will find the even more scandalous case of the Met’s acquisition (and enforced restitution to Turkey) of the Lydian Treasure outlined on pages 42–44 of my book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership (London: Duckworth, 2000).
You are right that a looter cannot predict finding a Euphronios vase or an ivory pomegranate. As you reasonably say: “They were digging for pedestrian pots, juglets and oil lamps.” But the point is, They were deliberately looting an archaeological site and thereby doing their bit to destroy what remains of that diminishing resource, the world’s archaeological heritage.
The question is, as you rightly say, how to reduce, if not eliminate, archaeological looting. The only answer is not just to make it illegal, which it already is in most countries. The answer is not only to help poorer countries look after their archaeological heritage better, although such help is sorely needed. The urgent solution is to make museum curators and collectors realize that it is not a matter for pride when they acquire a handsome object that lacks provenance. It is a matter for deep shame. It is time now to end the tax breaks rewarding the acquisition of loot or its donation to public collections. It is time for public collections to decline to accept the stuff, as the International Council of Museums recommends and as some museums, like the British Museum, now do—albeit a shade belatedly. It is time for magazine editors and journalists like yourself to stop promoting looting, as you do for instance by publicizing looted antiquities (I refer, in particular, to the “James Ossuary”) and by publishing advertisements offering “Fresh out of the ground … Uncleaned, Unidentified Ancient Roman Coins!”
Your promotion of the so-called “James Ossuary” in Biblical Archaeology Review, Bible Review and Archaeology Odyssey inadvertently brings out another danger of dealing with artifacts that lack a secure archaeological provenance. There is a high risk that they may be fakes, and, even worse, there is no real way of being sure that they are not. Objects found in controlled archaeological excavations come with a secure provenance—although there have been hoaxes and “plants” even on serious digs. As Oscar White Muscarella has shown in his revelatory book The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Near Eastern Cultures,a unprovenanced antiquities very often turn out to be fakes. How sad it is that this potentially informative object along with its inscription should itself be open to questions of authenticity as, lacking provenance, it undoubtedly is. Its potential value as a source of information has been totally compromised. Your own action in organizing its shipment to Canada for exhibition at the recent conference (and, indeed, that of the Royal Ontario Museum in agreeing to exhibit it) seems to me questionable. The British Museum under its current policy would not put it on view, whether 011as a loan or as a gift, and I feel that the American Schools of Oriental Research are right to have a policy of excluding such dubiosa.
Just think what has been lost. Imagine the interest of finding a genuine casket with a genuine inscription of this kind in its archaeological context, with other associated goods. How much might we learn about the immediate social and family circle of Jesus if the accompanying grave goods had also been preserved, along with secure information about the circumstances of burial? Moreover, what if the bones of James had indeed been preserved within such a casket in a secure context? Mitochondrial DNA examination of the ancient DNA might have been interesting. You will probably recall that all descendants in the same maternal lineage share the same mtDNA haplogroup. Now that would be an interesting research project: to determine which mtDNA haplotype was selected by the Almighty for use in bringing about the Incarnation. But the policy of tolerating looting, which I think you adopt by promoting the “James Ossuary,” hardly gives much scope for biological anthropology. For in most cases, all human remains are discarded by looters as unsalable.
You may have arranged for the transport of the “James Ossuary” to Toronto with the best of motives, but by partaking in the promotion of this object you have unwittingly sided with the looters. Like antiquities dealers and some collectors, you focus on the object rather than upon the information a controlled excavation can provide. Precisely because the “James Ossuary” is looted and hence unprovenanced, it is damaged goods. We have no way of judging whether its inscription is original or fake. We have lost the wealth of information that the authentic object in its context could have provided. It is just a curiosity—albeit one with a commercial value that your “market-based” approach guarantees. And this commercial value was very probably increased by the publicity attending on its Toronto trip.
Above all, Mr. Shanks, I accuse you of missing the bigger picture. The bigger picture that our increasing knowledge of the past has to offer is available only through a respect for the material remains of that past and a willingness to disturb them as little as possible, and only then with the intention of learning from them, so that we may all be the wiser. That is why your suggestion of commercially led excavation is flawed. The purpose of excavation should be to yield knowledge: The objects themselves are secondary and only acquire meaning from their context and the knowledge that comes with it (including proof of authenticity).
That is why the Israel Museum strikes a blow against scholarship and against the future of our heritage by paying $500,000 for an unprovenanced ivory pomegranate. This could have been one of their great treasures, had it been found in a context that guaranteed its authenticity and provided further information. As it is, by purchasing this object of doubtful authenticity, the museum has made a gesture that encourages looting. Its trustees have committed a grave error. And you, by promoting the “James Ossuary,” are simply hastening the day that the next potentially valuable discovery will appear on the market, deprived, like this one, of all meaningful context—a fittingly empty symbol of the knowledge and insight lost to us through the continuing looting process.
I have been a collector of antiquities for the last 65 years, residing in England and Israel, and I agree with the sentiments expressed by Professor Renfrew in the November/December 2002 issue (see Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 05:06). But my experience “on the street,” rather than in the ivory towers of academe, suggests that solutions to the problem of looting need to be expanded.
Today, archaeologists, museums and researchers do not have the necessary funds or budgets to carry out all needed excavations. Many new sites, for example, are accidentally discovered in the course of construction projects. In building new roads or hotels, contractors might “rationally” prefer to smash through and destroy ancient sites rather than to inform local archaeologists—as this causes delays and costs money, especially if the contractors are expected to fund the salvage excavations. Such costs inevitably provide an incentive to illegally sell uncovered objects to antiquities dealers.
In Israel, most excavations are funded partly by collectors, and I have been willing to help on many occasions. Last year a leading Israeli archaeologist asked me to fund his excavation, saying that he could not get a grant from the government. He was now reduced to begging funds from private individuals like me, which made him feel like a prostitute. I helped him out, but why should I continue to do so if I am considered nothing better than a looter by Professor Renfrew and his like?
There is a market for antiquities and there always will be. Instead of trying to dam it up with laws that won’t work, why not try to control its flow? Why not engage collectors and dealers to fund excavations in which “looters” are paid to man the excavations? Why not encourage collectors and dealers to provide funds in return for a share of the finds after they have been properly recorded, as was the norm in the 19th and early 20th centuries?
Many excavations remain unpublished, with their finds left languishing in storerooms for years. Why not allow collectors and dealers to fund publication in return for some of these objects? Is there something wrong with collectors enjoying the beauty of ancient art?
As a collector, I am interested in increasing rather than decreasing our knowledge, especially in biblical archaeology. We collectors are frequently approached by 058museums and other institutions to help fund exhibitions or to help construct or renovate new galleries. And when we die, we tend to donate our collections to museums, where all kinds of people can enjoy their common inheritance (not just the archaeologists). Just look at the names on the galleries in many American museums, or at the names of museums themselves (such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, for example, or the Frick Collection in New York). If these generous benefactors are now to be labeled looters, will they continue to give financial support at a time when government funding is being reduced?
I am currently in the process of publishing my collection in a series of catalogues—not an inexpensive task. To this end, I employ independent researchers and scholars, specialists within their fields, who would otherwise be working in museums if the jobs were available. I try to encourage scholarship and discussion and have always made my collection available for study and publication by scholars from around the world. Indeed, pieces from it have been the basis for a number of Ph.D. theses, both in Europe and the Near East.
I would like to invite Professor Renfrew to meet with looters, dealers, collectors and academics to explore possibilities of cooperation. By trying to ostracize us, he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. His sentiments are very noble but they do not reflect reality: The antiquities trade will not stop, it will just go underground, and scholars will no longer be afforded access to private collections.
In addressing the controversies surrounding the antiquities market, why not cite parallels from the trade in ivory? Here the debate is split between those countries that try to protect the elephant by banning trade in ivory—notably Kenya—and those countries that want to legalize such trade and use the profits to protect the elephant—notably South Africa.
In Kenya, the numbers of elephants are falling. In South Africa, on the other hand, elephant populations are increasing—so much so that they need to be culled. In South Africa, the natives “farm” their elephants; they are allowed to sell hunting licenses to foreign hunters and to sell the ivory and the hides—to say nothing of eating the meat! The elephant population is thus a cash crop that is very dear and carefully tended.
This has been so successful, in fact, that the United Nation’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has agreed to allow resumption of the sale of ivory.
The same is true of archaeological artifacts: If trade in antiquities were legal and local “farmers” could benefit from the sale, looting would cease. This is the knock-out argument: We can prove that trade works and banning trade doesn’t!
Editor, Current Archaeology