Wednesday 21 September 2022

The Intellectual Consequences of Collecting an Attic Black-Figured Amphora

Source: Manhattan DA

Among the returns to Italy from the Michael Steinhardt collection was an Attic black-figured amphora showing a Maenad. The amphora is known from the Almagià archive (Exhibits 33A and 33B).

The Manhattan DA Statement of Facts notes:
Almagià’s Green Book lists one “Attic BF [Black-Figure] Amphora” purchased from a tombarolo for $6,500, and then sold for $13,000. Almagià’s day planner lists “Steinhardt” on March 18, 1997, preceding a note on April 2, 1997, “prendere vase da [sic] Steinhardt” (take vase of Steinhardt). Although Steinhardt’s records note that there is “no record of purchase,” the records also indicate that Steinhardt accessioned the Attic Black-Figure Amphora in 1997 from Almagià.
Essentially all we know is that Steinhardt acquired this amphora in 1997, and that Almagià had purchased it from a tombarolo.

The mention of the tombarolo suggests that the find-spot was somewhere in Italy: the Statement of Facts suggests both Etruria and Sicily as possibilities. Note that we cannot be sure of the part of Italy where the amphora was found, let alone the specific place or cemetery. That information has been lost for good.

The relatively complete nature of the amphora suggests that it was discovered in a substantial tomb. But what other objects were found alongside it? Was there a single burial or multiple burials? What was the gender of the main person buried in the tomb? If the tomb was in Etruria, were there decorations on the wall? Would other associated finds have helped with the dating? Could it have been older that other pieces in the tomb?

Vasologists may be even now seeking to provide an attribution for the amphora. Perhaps they will note that it has certain characteristics in the potting. Will it be placed in a particular class of pot? But what about the parallels? Where were they found? Or were they, too, without context? 

The looting of this unusual amphora has stripped it of its useful archaeological information. That is one of the intellectual consequences of collecting newly surfaced material.

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