The following letter by Archaeology Odyssey editor Hershel Shanks is part of a continuing dialogue with the distinguished British archaeologist Lord Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University that began in our
July/August 2002 issueand has alternated in issues thereafter.
Dear Lord Renfrew,
“J’accuse, Mr. Shanks, Je vous accuse.” So you write in your latest public missive to me on the problem of looting (Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 06:02). Accusing me in French, you invoke the famous letter “J’accuse” written by the novelist Emile Zola in defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who had been convicted of treason by an in camera military court and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in a blatant act of anti-Semitism.
In short, my position regarding looting is, you suggest, immoral to the point of justifying a comparison to anti-Semitism.
We began this exchange of correspondence when I wrote an open letter to you saying that I disagreed with your published position, but that “you sound like a very reasonable fellow, although quite impassioned … I thought we might engage in a reasoned, if perhaps impassioned, exchange” (Editors’ Page, AO 05:04). At first, the editors characterized your response as “a model of respect and thoughtful ideas” (The Forum, AO 05:06).
Almost immediately, your attitude toward me began to descend. In your first response to my open letter you said that you might have to be “discourteous” to me—to be precise, to give me a “discourteous answer” to my question as to whether you believe me when I say that I abhor archaeological looting (Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 05:06).
Then in your most recent letter you suggest that my behavior requires a “J’accuse.” What I thought had begun as an exchange between two people who differed, but who respected each other and their arguments, has now deteriorated to the point where my position is simply evil. And you play the part of the preacher who will teach me the difference between right and wrong, between moral and immoral. Well, I am sorry for that.
But let me turn to substance. With all due respect, you simply repeat the tired old argument that paying any attention whatever to looted artifacts simply encourages looting. You don’t ask whether this campaign of yours (and of other well-meaning, like-minded people) has had the intended effect—whether it has reduced looting in the slightest. I shall not respond directly to this argument because I have done so at length previously in our exchange of views.
What I will address is your charge that “magazine editors and journalists like yourself [meaning me] … promot[e] looting … by publicizing looted antiquities.” You refer, in particular, to the now-famous “James Ossuary,” as published by Sorbonne scholar André Lemaire in Biblical Archaeology Review, of which I serve as editor. This ossuary, or bone box, from the first century A.D. is inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The inscription may well be the first appearance in the archaeological record of Jesus of Nazareth. And you tell me that I should have refused to publish this article submitted by a world-class Semitic scholar for the reason that the ossuary was not professionally excavated by lettered archaeologists but instead surfaced in a private collection?
I find that just amazing—that you would suggest I am evil and immoral for not refusing to publish this article!
But I find it even stranger that you discharge all your artillery against me. Why not make the same charge against the New York Times, the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, all of which featured the ossuary on their front pages? Aren’t they just as evil as I am for reporting it? And what about that immoral Time magazine, which devoted four full pages to the story?
Well, you will say, if I hadn’t published Lemaire’s article in Biblical Archaeology Review, the media would never have known about it. But isn’t the real culprit then Lemaire? If he had never told me about it, I would never have known about it. Why not attack him for submitting the article?
And while you’re at it, why not attack all your fellow scholars who publish unprovenanced inscriptions about which no more is known than about the James ossuary? In case you don’t know who I mean, let me tell you: Frank Cross of Harvard, Kyle McCarter of the Johns Hopkins University, Dennis Pardee of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the late Nahman Avigad also of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Pierre Bordreuil of the Collêge de France, Felice Israel of the University of Genoa, W.G. Lambert of the University of Birmingham, Mirjo Salvini of the National Research Council in Rome, and Ada Yardeni of Jerusalem, author of The Book of Hebrew Script. All of these people are academic superstars who have published unprovenanced inscriptions. Have you ever written condemning them—accusing them—of immorality for publishing these looted inscriptions? Or are you simply too embarrassed to accuse your fellow academics of immorality? Or is it that there are simply too many of them and they are the world’s leading scholars in their fields?
And what about all the numismatists who must deal in unprovenanced coins if they are to be numismatists because over 90 percent of the coins they study are unprovenanced. Have you ever condemned them?
And what about the 70 or so scholars who have published looted Dead Sea Scrolls. Have you ever condemned them in your cascade of words on the subject of looting?
You write of “unscrupulous museum curators,” but not 013of “unscrupulous academics” who expose these artifacts to the public.
You mention some museums by name—the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Met in New York, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But you never point your finger at the scholars who provide the public with knowledge about important unprovenanced finds. It seems your moral posturing applies only to museums and journalists (especially one in particular).
I call this moral posturing quite intentionally, for you prefer this stance to really dealing with the problem. You care more about being morally good than reducing looting.
Let me ask you this, Lord Renfrew: Have you ever pursued an area of research and come across a relevant and important but unprovenanced inscription or artifact that could materially assist you in your research—and then nevertheless ignored it because it was unprovenanced? It’s easy enough to tell the other guy, “Don’t make use of that unprovenanced item; if you do, it will encourage looting; so please just avert your eyes; pretend it doesn’t exist.” Have you ever done that yourself? Or is it that from your empyrean heights you can only tell the other fellow what to do?
You denigrate the James Ossuary because “there is a high risk that [it] may be [a] fake.” How can you say this without addressing the fact that no experienced paleographer (someone who has published inscriptions from this period) has questioned the authenticity of the inscription on paleographic grounds? How can you say this without addressing the fact that a leading Aramaic linguist (Father Joseph A. Fitzmeyer) has placed his imprimatur on the genuineness of the inscription? How can you can say this in the light of the scientific report from Israel’s Geological Survey that the patina (or film that forms on stone after hundreds of years) in the incision of the inscription is the same as the patina on the side of the ossuary?
You say, “We have no way of judging whether [the ossuary’s] inscription is original or fake.” That is demonstrably untrue. Please see the authorities cited in the previous paragraph.
It is true that sometimes it is difficult to determine whether something is authentic or a fake, but not in this case. Your doubt in this case stems solely from the fact that the ossuary is unprovenanced. So you contribute to the swirling jealous rumors that it is a forgery, although there is not a scintilla of evidence of it.
About some unprovenanced objects there is a serious doubt as to forgery. In such cases, this must be kept in mind in evaluating their usefulness in scientific research. The possibility of forgery is just one more uncertainty that often adheres to an archaeological find—the date, the interpretation, the reconstruction of missing parts. Uncertainty abounds in archaeology, including objects uncovered in professional excavations. Whether an unprovenanced item is a fake is one more uncertainty to consider in using it in research. But this doesn’t mean that in every case we should ignore an unprovenanced object. Instead, we should rationally explore the question of authenticity to see how much confidence we can place in the object. In the case of the James ossuary, there is very little, if any, doubt as to authenticity. If some researchers disagree, they can refrain from using it in their research, and they can say why. That is what I call reasoned discussion. Reasoned argument does not involve hurling charges of immorality at those who disagree with you.
You go on and on about how much more we would know if the James Ossuary had been recovered in a scientific excavation by professional archaeologists. I agree. But that is not our choice. We either take it as it is or ignore it. Learning what we can from it is surely better than pretending it doesn’t exist.
You seem to think that ignoring unprovenanced objects will somehow stop looting. If only you could convince the entire world to ignore finds like these … if only you could convince scholars not to write about them and journalists not to report them … if only you could convince museums to stop buying them and collectors to stop collecting them … if only you could change human nature … Wake up, Lord Renfrew. You are dreaming. As John J. Miller recently wrote in the National Review (November 25, 2002), “Demonizing collectors as a class simply increases the incentives for the good ones to turn bad and the bad ones to stay that way … Scorn for the antiquities trade may actually complicate the problems archaeologists want to address … The real answer is not simply to tolerate the market but to embrace it by permitting the direct sale of
artifacts to the public. This is apostasy to many professional archaeologists, but the benefits would be enormous. If they were allowed to sell some of what they dug up, they would have more money for the protection of existing sites and the exploration of new ones. Most looters are peasants trying to earn a little extra money; they might be just as glad to be hired as diggers at excavation sites.”
This admittedly is no panacea, but it is a start. It is just one idea among many that needs to be forthrightly explored and then perhaps supported by the archaeological community. So let’s talk about how, realistically, we can reduce looting and the incentive to loot, instead of calling each other names.
The long history of amateur interest in archaeology has left today’s professional archaeologists in something of a bind. Archaeology has benefited more than any other scientific field from the energy of amateurs and collectors. Yet those non-professionals who continue to collect, buy and sell artifacts confront increasingly vehement objections by some archaeologists who decry the very notion that artifacts should have a monetary value. In my view, this is an illegitimate objection.
It is certainly true that the high value of artifacts has led to the destruction of sites for profit, particularly in places with weak or corrupt governmental oversight, such as South America and Cambodia. Looting of sites is a critical, worldwide problem. But to demand a world in which objects of beauty and rarity have no monetary value is to demand a world that will never be.
Looting will never be controlled by trying to squash the market in legitimate artifacts, but it can be curbed by educating collectors and dealers, protecting sites, prosecuting looting and alleviating poverty in the Third World, where much of the looting occurs. It would be far better for professional archaeologists to ask how amateurs and collectors can help the profession, rather than to scold them for not keeping to an unreasonable standard of conduct that is contrary to the way of the world in general.
After all, professional archaeologists are themselves not free of sin. Many have been responsible for the destruction of important sites by excavating them and then failing to publish the results. Eventually their notes become mislaid and artifacts dispersed, their provenance confused. Such sites are as effectively lost as if they had been bulldozed by a pothunter.
Santa Fe, New Mexico