Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Provenience: The Use of the Term

I have been thinking about the use of the words "provenance" and "provenience" in relation to archaeological material. I prefer to use the terms "archaeology" and "history" for understanding how an object appears in an archaeological context ("archaeology") and then passes through the hands of collectors, galleries and museums ("history").

I noticed that the Oxford English Dictionary cites Ellen Herscher's review of Oscar Muscarella's The Lie Became Great (2000) that appeared in Archaeology 54, 1 (Jan/Feb 2001):
Perhaps even more devastating to our knowledge of the past is the widespread practice in the illicit trade of falsifying the alleged findspot of genuine antiquities. Once certain cultures become popular with collectors, other plundered artifacts appear on the market with the same attribution, although they may in fact come from a totally unknown area. A variation of forging provenience is the dealer's claim that individual objects were found together as a "hoard" or "tomb group," thus supposedly increasing their historical significance. In one example, Muscarella describes how ten silver vessels on sale in Munich were used as evidence for an Urartian dynasty and linked (without basis) to a site in Patmos. He ridicules the ignorant notion that looters who destroy sites would scrupulously maintain the integrity of groups as the objects pass from their place of discovery through the complexities of the antiquities market. Since provenience is the essential core of archaeology, the forgery of provenience is particularly insidious, as it uses authentic artifacts to create a false picture of the ancient past.

1 comment:


If you'll be in New York on November 7, don't miss the opportunity to hear it directly from Oscar Muscarella himself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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