Monday, 28 September 2020

Stela from Saittai (Lydia)


A Roman period stele from the sanctuary of Apollo at Saittai in Lydia, modern Turkey, has been recovered in Italy ("1,800-year-old artifact delivered to Turkey from Italy", Anadolu Agency 23 September 2020). It was seized in 1997 from an undisclosed antiquities dealer. The stela, inscribed in Greek, has now been returned to Turkey for display in Anakara. 

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Monday, 24 August 2020

Suspected illegal metal-detecting at Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill © David Gill
Silbury Hill © David Gill

There are reports from the Wiltshire Constabulary of "illegal metal detecting" at Silbury Hill, part of the Avebury prehistoric landscape. How can such activity be considered to be acceptable? 



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Thursday, 13 August 2020

Illegal detecting on Hadrian's Wall



This intentionally significant Roman frontier system needs to be protected.

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Protecting archaeological contexts ... or not?

Tim Loughton, the MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, has tabled a question (15 July 2020):
To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what requirements are placed on organisers of commercial rallies to (a) report Treasure, (b) follow best practice, (c) ensure that in-situ archaeology is protected and (d) ensure that archaeological finds made on their events are lawfully exported.
Note that there are themes here: reporting, best practice, preservation of archaeological context, and restrictions on the movement of cultural property of national significance.

There is a parallel question on the same date:
To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, what in-situ (a) hoards and (b) other archaeological finds found on metal-detecting rallies and club events have been excavated without archaeological support in 2020; what assessment his Department has made of the level of loss to knowledge of those excavations.
Note this is a question specifically about hoards and other archaeological finds, as well the monitoring of the intellectual consequences of such activity.

The response from Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport, is telling:
Guidance for both individual metal detectorists and organisers of events operating during the covid-19 lockdown was published on the gov.uk page Guidance on searching for archaeological finds in England during COVID-19 on 9 July 2020. The guidance points organisers to directions on operating inside and outside events and also advises organisers and finders what to do if they discover a new archaeological site. The page also directs finders and organisers to the National Council for Metal Detecting guidance on best practice when detecting. 
Rallies and club events are legally permitted and take place on private property with the landowner’s consent, The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport does not currently monitor or record activities at these events. 
Responsibility for reporting possible treasure finds and arranging for an export licence lies with the finder and owner of the cultural object. Guidance on reporting treasure and applying for an export licence during the present situation is included on the gov.uk pages Guidance on searching for archaeological finds in England during COVID-19 and Export art, antiques and cultural goods: special rules. Anyone not reporting a potential treasure find or not obtaining an export licence where necessary can be subject to legal sanctions.

Dinenage, no doubt informed by someone within DCMS, ignores the issue about hoards and archaeological contexts and instead talks about 'a new archaeological site'. 

But essentially her answer appears to be: 'DCMS has not made any attempt to assess the level of loss to knowledge of those unscientific diggings to remove hoards and other material from archaeological contexts'.


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Monday, 27 July 2020

Knowledge destruction, confusion and collecting

Suzie Thomas and Bonnie L. Pitblado have written a 'Debate Article' for Antiquity: 'The dangers of conflating responsible and responsive artefact stewardship will illicit and illegal collecting'. They create a 'straw-man' suggesting that some archaeologists assert 'all private owners of cultural material ... have ill-intent or engage in illegal behaviour'. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical millionaire Sir Henry Wellcome whose collection of Egyptian antiquities form the core of the Egypt Centre at Swansea University. The collection is drawn, in part, from his share of finds from the archaeological excavations that he sponsored, as well as from purchases on the market, often from old (and named) collections. Thomas and Pitblado do not provide any evidence to support their (flawed) assertion (made in the abstract for their article). Which archaeologists have made this universal claim?

Their opening paragraph suggests that 'early archaeological expeditions purchased artefacts for museum collection to complement material from their excavations'. Their citation points to excavations in Egypt but does not specify a time period. If we look to Greece, the early excavations of the British School at Athens (from its opening in 1886) would not support this claim. There is somehow a lack of clarity in what Thomas and Pitblado are trying to assert.

The focus of the paper is about the relationship between 'private artefact' collectors and archaeologists, and specifically 'to counteract the damage done by stereotyping all members of the collecting public and the archaeologists who work with them'.

Let us imagine a largely unexcavated archaeological site with a Roman component in a rural part of England, say East Anglia. For the sake of argument let us say that the site was 'investigated' by metal-detectorists. Did they have permission from the local landowner? Was any damage sustained to the archaeological record? Was any contextual information lost?

But let us take this a step further, imagine that a set of impressive Roman bronzes was found and then removed from the UK. These bronzes were then sold by, say, a Manhattan gallery to a private artefact collector who keeps the figures in their apartment and occasionally loans the objects for an exhibition in, say, a university museum. Would Thomas and Pitblado commend the private collector for 'saving' and 'sharing' the bronzes? What if the collector claimed to have purchased the bronzes 'in good faith' through the 'licit market'? Would Thomas and Pitblado find such an explanation acceptable? Would they feel able to include the bronzes in an account of Roman East Anglia? How would such a scenario relate to their claim, 'we do not condone either the illicit trade in antiquities or the collection of artefacts in violation of any law'?

Would Thomas and Pitblado suggest that this rifling of this (imaginary) Roman site was acceptable because those conducting the search were taking exercise 'outdoors', 'socialising', and taking an interest in the latest technology? (These specific examples are taken from the section, 're-nuancing motivations'.)

Who, in this fictional example drawn from eastern England, are the individuals 'contributing to archaeological knowledge'?

Thomas and Pitblado go on to cite the SAA statement encouraging the recognition of 'the importance of privately held collections as potential sources of information about sites, and the irreplaceable loss of this information when responsible and responsive stewards are ignored or treated disrespectfully'. As it so happens I am writing about a high profile private collection that contains material that I suspect comes from a specific site: but the information either has been lost or has not been disclosed. The result is that the objects are not a potential source of information about a specific site. Indeed the conclusion is that there has been an 'irreplaceable loss of ... information'. This aspect of knowledge destruction is left unaddressed by Thomas and Pitblado.

Thomas and Pitblado conclude: 'When we work with and listen to others, it is better for everyone—and it is better for archaeology'. Are they listening to those, such as Sam Hardy, who are raising genuine concerns about the destruction of the archaeological record?

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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Septimius Severus from Santa Maria Capua Vetere

It has been reported (by ARCA) that a portrait of the emperor Septimius Severus that had been stolen from the Antiquarium of Santa Maria Capua Vetere in November 1985 has been seized at Christie's New York (June 2020) after being offered at auction by them on 28 October 2019, Faces of the Past: Ancient Sculpture from the Collection of Dr. Anton Pestalozzi.

According to the stated history, the head first passed to Jean-Luc Chalmin, London. Chalmin also supplied antiquities to the Stanford Place collection and to the Fleischman collection (apparently the fourth most important supplier). The Severus then passed to Galerie Arete in Zurich in 1993. (The same gallery appears to have handled ex-Becchina material.) It was then sold to Dr Pestalozzi.

How did the portrait appear at auction when it had been reported as stolen? Was the history of the piece checked? What was the due diligence process?


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Thursday, 25 June 2020

Selinous at the Getty

Lex Sacra from Selinous
My next column for 'Context Matters' has appeared in the Journal of Art Crime vol. 23 (Spring 2020). It reviews the range of material from Selinous on Sicily that was acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum. One text, acquired from Dr Max Gerchik, has been returned to Italy. Previous publications accepted that some of the objects were derived from "clandestine operations most probably at Selinous".

Other pieces include stelai, architectural elements, as well as other hexametric texts.

Gerchik's other donations to the Getty are considered including material from Italy that appears to have passed through Switzerland.

At least one of the Selinous pieces, a lionhead spout, passed through the Summa Galleries.

For some of the texts:
Faraone, C. A., and D. Obbink. Editors. 2013. The Getty hexameters: poetry, magic, and mystery in ancient Selinous. (Oxford).


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Stela from Saittai (Lydia)

A Roman period stele from the sanctuary of Apollo at Saittai in Lydia, modern Turkey, has been recovered in Italy (" 1,800-year-old art...