Wednesday, 14 September 2022

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting a Panathenaic Amphora

Panathenaic Amphora
formerly in the Michael Steinhardt collection
Source: HSI New York / Manhattan DA
One of my long-standing concerns about looting and the subsequent collection of antiquities is that valuable archaeological information is lost. Findspots, contexts and associations are lost, with them the ability to assign appropriate dates. 

I would like to consider the Athenian Panathenaic amphora from the Steinhardt collection that has been returned to Egypt. The Manhattan DA's statement of fact about the Panathenaic amphora points the reader to the coastal site of Thonis-Heracleion.
The style and details on the Vase from the Pan-Athenian Games are characteristic of black-figure pots recovered from recent underwater excavations at Thonis-Heracleion, off the coast of Egypt.
As far as I know, there have been no Panathenaic amphorae (or fragments) found at Thunis-Heracleion. Indeed, I have only identified five Panathenaic amphora fragments (not complete pots) from Egypt: five from Naucratis (one of which is associated with the Hellenion) and one from Hadra (i.e. near the later foundation of Alexandria). If this amphora does indeed comes from Egypt it would be a most unusual find.

Furthermore, the Panathenaic amphora shows no sign that it comes from a submerged cemetery at Thonis-Heracleion. Or have looters discovered a cemetery site on land? 

However, there are numerous complete Panathenaic amphorae discovered in Cyrenaica in Libya. (See Faraj M. Elrashedy, Imports of post-Archaic Greek pottery into Cyrenaica from the end of the Archaic to the beginning of the Hellenistic period [BAR International Series, vol. 1022. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2002]). There are complete amphorae and fragments from Cyrene, Apollonia, Euesperides (Berenice / Benghazi), Tocra, Barca, Ptolemais and other sites. Could the Steinhardt amphora have been found in one of the cemeteries of, say, Cyrene, and then been smuggled to Egypt where it was associated with Thonis-Heracleion? 

The Manhattan DA may, of course, have access to other evidence that points to Thonis-Heracleion with a little more certainty. Or was this a hunch from someone researching the Steinhardt collection? 

The association of the Steinhardt amphora with Thonis-Heracleion seems, for now, unlikely and the mention of the alleged findspot should not be encouraged unless further information comes to light or is disclosed. Indeed, one wonders if the amphora should have been returned to Libya rather than Egypt. 

The case of the amphora is a reminder of the way that key information is irretrievably lost through the looting process.

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