Saturday, October 13, 2007

UCL and the incantation bowls

UPI reported over last weekend ("Iraqi antiquities center of British battle", October 7, 2007) that the UCL inquiry concerning the incantation bowls from the Martin Schøyen collection took a new direction.

Colin Renfrew, a member of that inquiry, is quoted as saying in response to a decision to withhold the report:

"UCL tried to do the right and ethical thing by setting up a committee of inquiry. Then, when threatened with a lawsuit, in my view, it gave way under pressure".

No doubt the signs were there last March when The Times reported, "Tycoon orders university to return his ‘magic’ artefacts" (March 22, 2007). The 654 bowls has been loaned to UCL "for academic research purposes" back in 1996.

In 2005 The Times ("Museum inquiry into 'smuggling' of ancient bowls" [archived]) reported that the bowls "were exported from Jordan, but their country of origin may have been Iraq, the site of ancient Mesopotamia."

Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost, was quoted as saying:

"until recently, most universities have taken a relaxed approach to the acquisition of such objects, with academic staff acquiring and publishing research and teaching collections. To restrict such activities would have been seen as restricting academic freedom. However, in the 21st century new principles and policies are emerging. In 2002, the UK signed up to the 1970 Unesco convention on illicit cultural trade and in 2003 the UK implemented the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act. Intelligence on the pillaging of archaeological sites has greatly increased and attitudes are changing."

If attitudes are really changing why has UCL really taken the decision to stop the report from being made public? And is it a little misleading to suggest "in the 21st century new principles and policies are emerging"? Staff at UCL have made their views known on archaeological ethics since the last millennium. (A copy of Antiquities: Trade or Betrayed. Legal, Ethical and Conservation Issues [1995] is sitting on my shelf.)

Not only does the report appear to have been buried, but money seems to have changed hands. A Joint statement from UCL and the Schøyen Collection: Aramaic Incantation Bowls issued on June 27, 2007 [mirrored] recorded:

"UCL has no basis for concluding that title is vested other than in the Schøyen Collection. UCL has now returned the bowls to the Schøyen Collection and has agreed to pay a sum in respect of its possession of them."

The Schøyen Collection website makes the interesting observation:
"Over two-thirds of all discovered incantation bowls have an unknown original provenance, as they are usually surface finds, rather than artefacts found in a particular strata or location of an archaeological dig."

In other words, over 65% of the all the known incantation bowls --- some 2000 --- do not have a recorded find-spot. (Conversely, and by implication, less than 700 have some kind of find-spot.) What are the intellectual consequences for their study?

Then it struck me that the case of these texts is not unlike the debate around "unprovenanced" texts and inscriptions which fall into the broad sphere of "biblical archaeology" (see "Intellectual Consequences for Biblical Archaeology?").

There is a petition concerning the "Publication of Unprovenanced Artifacts" sponsored by the Biblical Archaeology Society. I quote two of the points here:


7. We do not encourage private collection of antiquities. But important artifacts and inscriptions must be rescued and made available to scholars even though unprovenanced. When such objects have been looted, the antiquities market is often the means by which they are rescued, either by a private party or a museum. To vilify such activity results only in the loss of important scholarly information.

8. We would encourage private collectors of important artifacts and inscriptions to make them available to scholars for study and publication. Too often collectors who do make their objects available to scholars are subject to public obloquy. As a result, collectors are disinclined to allow scholars to study their collections, and the public is the poorer.

I notice that one of the original signatories is Professor Shaul Shaked.

And to complete the loop, the Schøyen Collection website informs us:

"Since 1995 Professor Shaul Shaked at the Hebrew University, the world’s foremost authority on incantation bowls, has taken on the Herculanean task of publishing the bowls in the Schøyen Collection ... The Schøyen Collection’s 654 incantation bowls have been housed at University College London for the convenience of Professor Shaked".



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