Skip to main content

Losing Knowledge: A Challenge for Archaeology


One of the greatest challenges to archaeology is the rapid loss of archaeological contexts. Archaeological sites have always been seen as a source of acquirable material: think of the Etruscan and Campanian cemeteries providing the 'vases' for the great collections of northern Europe. The construction of roads, housing and other infrastructure projects have inevitably cut into archaeological sites. One of the most imaginative responses was the creation of station museums on the Athens Metro to display the finds.

The industrial scale of looting at Mediterranean region sites from the 1970s has been highlighted by the revelations of the Medici conspiracy. Each lorryload of material that is returned from warehouse facilities in Switzerland represents 100s of archaeological contexts that have been destroyed and left (largely) unrecorded. Over 300 objects have been returned from North American public and private collections. Their acquisition in the first place reflects a passion for acquisition that was not matched by a professional desire to retain information.

In the UK there is the challenge that metal-detectorists continue to search unrecorded archaeological sites and remove the items without (always) asking for professional archaeological advice. The Roman cavalry parade helmet that was said to have been found at Crosby Garrett in Cumbria not only has no confirmed findspot, but it has now passed into private hands and is not available for regular public display. One of the most notorious recent examples was the removal of the Lenborough Hoard from a known archaeological site that appears in the Historic Environment Record (HER). Known archaeological sites are being deliberately searched, such as the Roman Saxon Shore fort at Bradwell on Sea in Essex. This is particularly tragic as part of the site has been lost due to coastal erosion.

One of the most pressing challenges is the preservation of archaeological sites in Syria and northern Iraq. The world's media have commented on the deliberate public destruction of monuments at the World Heritage site of Palmyra (e.g. noted here). At the same time there is evidence that archaeological sites in Syria are being systematically looted, and that some of this material is ending up on the market in London (e.g. discussed here). There needs to be wider public debate by archaeologists highlighting the loss of knowledge to the world's unique and irreplaceable heritage.




Bookmark and Share so Your Real Friends Know that You Know

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 …

Mithras relief from Tor Cervara

A fragmentary relief of Mithras was discovered in 1964 at Tor Cervara on the outskirts of Rome. It was acquired by the Museo Nazionale Romano.

A further fragment of the relief was acquired by the Badisches Landesmueum in Kalrsruhe in 1976. The source was an unstated Swiss dealer. This fragment has been reunited with the rest of the relief [press release].

Today a further fragment of the relief was reunited with the other pieces. This had been recovered during a raid in Sardinia.

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…