Skip to main content

"Objects have a meaning that transcends context"


Radical collectors and dealers do write some extraordinary things. For some reason they want to belittle the importance of archaeological contexts.

Michael Ward, a New York based dealer in antiquities, was interviewed by Peter Marks for the Kate Fitz Gibbon edited volume Who Owns the Past? (2005). He came up with this:

"Context is important, but to some people, objects have a meaning that transcends context: their humanity, their expression, something that we admire and that puts us in awe of the artist. And that's what we feel is important. These objects continue to live for that reason, and play a part in our spiritual lives."

It seems to be the artistic achievement which is so important - even though it is the work of an anonymous crafts(wo)man. The archaeological context appears to be unimportant even though it would tell us about the ancient viewer of these objects.

Ward reflects on his 1993 "show" of "Mycenaean gold" which he admits was "a disaster". He claims that the Greek government "had concocted a provenance for the pieces so they could be claimed as cultural patrimony". Indeed, "the fanatical political agenda was more important than the truth".

So what is the truth? That a stunning hoard of Late Bronze Age jewellery appeared on the New York antiquities market without a recorded find-spot?

Ward belittles the objects: "the news media called the gold national treasures, and made that appear much more important than what the pieces could tell us about ancient Greece".

Ward in his interview never mentioned the topographical name of the site. However, the Greek government took legal action because archaeologists believed that the gold items "were the product of illegal excavations at the Mycenaean cemetery of Aidonia near Nemea" (in the Peloponnese).

Parallels with excavated material suggested to the Greek authorities that "the New York assemblage must have come from the chamber tombs of the rich cemetery at Aidonia, which rivals the other late Mycenaean cemeteries of the Argolid in significance and is the most important Mycenaean cemetery to have been extensively looted in the past twenty years".

Does the gold come from the cemetery at Aidonia? Can we be certain? Certainly the "New York" objects share characteristics with the excavated material. But does that mean that they were buried in the same series of tombs?

The pieces cannot tell us about "ancient Greece" - or Late Bronze Age Greece - because we do not know their archaeological context. As Demakopoulou and Divari-Valakou point out:

"illegal excavations and antiquities theft ... result not only in the illegal export of antiquities, but also in the destruction of the evidence which is indispensable for scholarly research" [emphasis mine].

Archaeological context matters. And we would understand the richness of Late Bronze Age Aegean society so much better if these tomb-groups had remained intact to be excavated, studied and published by archaeologists.

References

Demakopoulou, K. Editor. 1996. The Aidonia Treasure: Seals and Jewellery of the Aegean Late Bronze Age. Athens: Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund.
Demakopoulou, K., and N. Divari-Valakou. 1997. The Aidonia Treasure. Athens: Ministry of Culture Archaeological Receipts Fund. [Review]

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Reference
Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…

Metropolitan Museum of Art hands over Paestan krater

In May 2014 I commented on a Paestan krater acquired by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art after it had been identified by Dr Christos Tsirogiannis in photographic images seized from Giacomo Medici. Tsirogiannis published his full concerns in the Journal of Art Crime in 2014, but it has taken a further three years for the museum to respond.

The krater showing Dionysos in a hand-drawn cart was purchased in 1989 from the Bothmer Purchase Fund (details from the Museum's website, inv. 1989.11.4). The krater surfaced through Sotheby's New York in June 1989.

It is unclear who consigned the krater to Sotheby's New York.

It has now been revealed that the krater has been handed over to the US authorities after a warrant had been issued (Tom Mashberg, "Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted", New York Times July 31, 2018).

It appears that the museum did make an attempt to resolve the case in December 2016. Mashberg notes:
The Met, for its par…