Monday, February 4, 2008

Why Context Matters: Learning From Raids in California

I have been following the raids on Museums in Southern California with some interest. Today's report by Matthew L. Wald ("Tax Scheme Is Blamed for Damage to Artifacts", New York Times, February 4, 2008) shows the implication of the collecting pattern.

He interviewed Joyce C. White, director of the Ban Chiang Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. She is reported as saying:
the items smuggled and sold in the United States tend to be those that are intact, and that for each intact item removed there were doubtless many broken ones. When properly excavated, she said, the ensemble of items establishes the date of the intact artifact and yields countless details about historical and social context.

The looting of “any one piece of intact pottery represents the huge complete erasures of books and books and books that would have, could have, been written had the research been done,” she said in a telephone interview.


“Intact artifacts tend to come from burials,” Ms. White said. “What you’re seeing is the remains of graves from all over Southeast Asia being commercially passed around, with all the knowledge about human remains — race, sex, age, genetic makeup, the animal remains that tell what food was eaten, the crucibles that show you how they were making the metals — all thrown out.”
These comments could be made for complete Greek figure-decorated pots removed from Etruscan tombs as much as for south-east Asian ceramics.

Looting has both material and intellectual consequences.

The question should now be asked, 'Who is destroying antiquity?'

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