In the November/December 2005 issue, we published an article on ancient Near Eastern house shrines found in Israel, Jordan and elsewhere.a The story was culled from a manuscript written by three Israeli scholars based on house shrines in the private collection of Shlomo Moussaieff, a major collector who willingly makes his collection available to scholars. At the time, the scholars who prepared their scholarly manuscript were fearful of publishing the manuscript under their own name because of the possible obloquy that would result from the archaeological establishment, largely in England and the United States, by exposing the public and other scholars to insights obtained from unprovenanced—and probably looted—artifacts in private collections. Both the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) will not allow papers on unprovenanced objects to be published in their scholarly journals or presented at their meetings.
At least two of these scholars, we are told, have now successfully screwed their courage to the sticking point, perhaps as a result of our article, and have decided to publish their paper in a festschrift, a book of scholarly papers in honor of a particular scholar, usually on the occasion of an important birthday, but sometimes in memoriam.
The article presented in this issue of BAR, on magic incantation bowls, is another example of the fear that sometimes prevents scholars, especially younger scholars without tenure who are just starting out their careers, from going public with scholarly contributions based on unprovenanced artifacts. Much of the article here is based on a public lecture delivered by Dr. Dan Levene, which was based on his doctoral dissertation in the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Department of University College London. And his dissertation was based on examples of these bowls in the collection of the same Shlomo Moussaieff.
Levene’s dissertation mentors were Professor Mark Geller of University College, London, and Professor Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both Geller and Shaked are extremely distinguished senior scholars; they, like many senior scholars, do study and publish unprovenanced finds.b But both Geller and Shaked have been viciously attacked by name for studying and publishing magic incantation bowls that have been acquired on the antiquities market. In an article in the newsletter of the England-based Illicit Antiquities Research Center, author Staffan Lunden, after naming Geller and Shaked, states that “scholars who publish such [unprovenanced] objects become dependent upon the goodwill of the collector and … this dependency influences scholarly judgment.”1 According to Lunden, by studying and publishing unprovenanced objects in private collections scholars are complicit in destroying ancient cultures.
Nevertheless, the persevering Shaked, the world’s leading expert on these magic incantation bowls, is preparing a book based on 650 bowls in the collection of Norwegian collector Martin Schoyen. This is the largest collection of these bowls in the world, Shaked tells us. But almost none of them has been excavated professionally. The vast majority come instead from the antiquities market.
There is much to be learned about ancient cultures from unprovenanced artifacts, as is evidenced in the accompanying article. Those who so vehemently condemn scholars’ efforts to study these objects—presumably in a quixotic effort to reduce looting—would deprive the scholarly world (and the public) of the insights that can be derived from them.