Skip to main content

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".



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 …

Sardinian warrior from "old Swiss collection"

One of the Sardinian bronzes of a warrior was seized from an as yet unnamed Manahattan gallery. It appears to be the one that passed through the Royal-Athena Gallery: Art of the Ancient World 23 (2012) no. 71. The collecting history for that warrior suggests that it was acquired in 1990 from a private collection in Geneva.

Other clues suggested that the warrior has resided in a New York private collection.

The identity of the private collection in Geneva will no doubt be telling.

The warrior also features in this news story: Jennifer Peltz, "Looted statues, pottery returned to Italy after probe in NYC", ABC News May 25 2017.

Attic amphora handed back to Italians

The research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis has led to the return of an Attic red-figured amphora, attributed to the Harrow painter, to Italy (Tom Mashberg, "Stolen Etruscan Vessel to Be Returned to Italy", New York Times March 16, 2017).

The amphora is known to have passed through the hands of Swiss-based dealer Gianfranco Becchina in 1993, and then through a New York gallery around 2000 (although its movements between those dates are as yet undisclosed).

During the ceremony, Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the District Attorney stated:
“When looters overrun historic sites, mine sacred spaces for prized relics, and peddle stolen property for top dollar, they do so with the implicit endorsement of all those who knowingly trade in stolen antiquities” More research clearly needs to be conducted on how material handled by Becchina passed into the North American market and into the hands of private and public collectors.