Monday, August 25, 2008

Archaeological remains "ripped from their context"

David Welsh, "a tireless defender of ancient coin collecting", has recently commented on looted antiquities (BritArch, August 18, 2008; see also Paul Barford's "Ethical Dealing" [August 24 2008]).
Artifacts that have been "ripped from their context" are of no further use to archaeology, according to what I have seen on this list. They might as well be in the hands of collectors who will study them as artifacts, as any other place.
I was interested in the phrase "ripped from their context" and find it comes in The Medici Conspiracy (2006) in a discussion of looted Roman frescoes.
The frescoes ... had been rudely and crudely ripped from their context and sold off to people ("collectors") who might profess to care about archaeological objects but obviously had no interest in the original and proper context.
(Three chunks of the wall-painting indeed passed into separate North American private collections; two have now been returned to Italy.)

The phrase also appears in the "Statement of Concern" for the Biblical Archaeological Society.
We also recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning.
Welsh has perhaps unwittingly acknowledged that there are indeed intellectual consequences of looting. Looting removes the archaeological context.

Welsh effectively asks, should private collectors retain objects derived from looting?

But the issue, demonstrated by the Italian government and the returned pieces in the Nostoi exhibition in Rome, is this: do returning antiquities provide a disincentive for collectors of recently surfaced antiquities?

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