Tuesday, 15 April 2014

University Challenged: What standard is Mercer setting its students?

"Hathor lamp"
On an online coin forum in September last year, someone living in Libya posted an image of a purportedly ancient pottery lamp he had been offered. The lamp was a very common and very well-known fake, depicting a face normally identified as Hathor on its upper surface and made in Egypt for the tourist market. Although the poster was dubious of the lamp's authenticity, he had noted another example described as "from the Hellenistic Ptolemaic period (300-100 BC)" on a university website and wondered if his doubts were therefore unjustified. After all, you can trust a university right?

The website belonged to Mercer University, a private institution based in Macon, Georgia, in the southern United States - so not quite Ivy League or Oxbridge but nevertheless ranked "in the top 10% of all colleges and universities in North America". While their example of a "Hathor lamp" was clearly as fake as all the others, even the best university can make a mistake so no big deal?

Sadly, a closer look at the website quickly reveals a more worrying picture. The "Hathor lamp" is one of four lamps in an exhibition bizarrely entitled "Sex and Violence in the Ancient World: Gender, Sexuality, and Warfare from 2000 BC - 400 AD", displayed from April 2012. All four of the four lamps are not only very likely to be fakes; three of them are basic tourist-grade fakes that should not fool anyone over the age of twelve. So far, so bad.

But it gets worse. The fake "Hathor Type" lamp was also included in an earlier exhibition (named "The Divine Image in Everyday Life: Religion in the Ancient Near East", displayed from November 2010 until January 2012) along with yet two more dodgy lamps. One of them is highly questionable; the other, a childishly crude fantasy of seven wick-holes topped by a menorah, is another well-known fake, this one recognisable as likely to have come from a certain notorious dealer in New York City and if anything even more outrageous than the lamps in the later display.

But hey, it's not all bad news. The owner of the collection seems to have struck lucky with four primitive "saucer" lamps and one Roman lamp in that exhibition; they appear to be authentic. I suppose the law of averages dictates that even the hapless collector can get it right occasionally (though what the four plain lamps have to do with the "Divine Image" is beyond me). So, out of a total of eleven lamps described as ancient, five may be real, two are extremely dubious and four are definitely utter rubbish. My expertise lies in ancient lamps and I won't comment on the other bits but my confidence in all of them being as described is not high.

I accept that it would be folly to trust the authenticity of items simply because they are being exhibited in a university. A degree in History typically has no bearing whatsoever on an ability to authenticate antiquities. But in this case, I can only shake my head in disbelief at the sheer gullibility of both the collector who loaned the blatantly fake lamps and the curator who accepted the loan for the exhibitions.

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Hosting exhibitions that could make Mercer University a laughing stock is one thing but the debacle also raises another question. The collector, Dr. Yulssus Lynn Holmes, who "has published numerous scholarly papers on ancient History",  describes how his collection of antiquities was acquired. After seriously beginning his own assembly about 1973, he bought someone else's "collection of several hundred pieces" to expand it in 1984. He states that "I [...] continue to buy ancient artifacts in Israel and Egypt each time I visit there. I also buy a few things off of eBay whenever I can find artifacts that I think are good and will enhance the collection."

Despite his involvement in archaeology, I cannot find even the vaguest hint in the online prefaces of the exhibitions that Dr. Holmes is concerned about conserving the archaeological record and that he has taken steps to ensure that his active collecting does not encourage the looting that destroys it. Admittedly, with his track record, he is unlikely to cause it much harm but even he must chance upon the occasional genuine item by sheer happenstance now and then. Bearing in mind the dynamic nature of the collection, it is surprising that neither Dr. Holmes nor Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, the curator, saw fit to include a prominent reassurance that the acquisition of pieces displayed in the exhibitions conformed with the ethical attitudes typically expected of a university.

Mercer University "embraces the historic Baptist principles of intellectual and religious freedom". I wonder if that freedom includes the right to misrepresent a large proportion of tourist tat as antiquities and to ignore valid concerns about the origin of those pieces which may be authentic.

Collector asks FBI for help - but why the delay?

Peter Tompa, a lawyer in Washington DC, has drawn attention to an American news story about FBI agents "with a team of about 100 people" descending on the home of Dr Donald Miller, a 91-year-old man in central Indiana, to investigate his enormous collection. The eclectic assembly of pieces included "Native American artifacts and relics as well as items from the United States, China, Haiti, Australia, Russia, New Guinea, Italy, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Greece, Peru and possibly several other countries".

Despite huge media hype making the FBI operation sound like a raid, I gather Dr Miller willingly invited the government to help him dispose of his vast collection and repatriate relevant items since he is old, lives alone and has no heirs. Peter Tompa asks "Couldn't the matter [have] been handled far more discretely?". Well, most law enforcement agencies are not known for acting discretely. All too often, they tend to treat almost every operation like a scene out of Die Hard. However, it should be noted that much of the team consisted of scholarly "archaeologists and anthropologists" to help catalogue the items, not all iron-jawed agents toting guns. An explanation of the large number of people involved in the operation may well be that the FBI thoughtfully wanted to process the items as quickly as possible so that they would soon be out of Dr Miller's way rather than prolonging any disruption.

I feel sorry for the elderly Dr Miller - but my sympathy is mixed with a question. Why has he left all this until he is 91 years old? Collecting entails responsibility. He clearly suspected parts of his collection might be unlawful or at least unethical. If he had dealt with this himself many years ago, this current situation could have been avoided. Now it has to be dealt with at the taxpayers' expense. At this point, we can only speculate on the reasons for the delay.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

A Tale of Three Lawyers: Views on LA Times piece

A controversial op-ed piece by Adam Wallwork, a law student at the University of Chicago, appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Monday: "The archaeology paradox: more laws, less treasure". An abbreviated version of his earlier article in a law journal, it argues that the results of his worryingly dodgy "survey" have led him to conclude that "restrictive cultural property laws" have caused a sharp decline in "new archaeological discoveries".

The piece has predictably provoked an outcry from archaeologists, most of whom point out the flaws in a study based on "factual inaccuracies and logical fallacies". However, let's take a look at the opposing reactions of two non-archaeologists, both of whom are also American lawyers.

The reaction of Peter Tompa, a lawyer lobbying on behalf of American coin dealers, was as predictable as that of the archaeologists, though of course in the opposite direction. Unsurprisingly, in view of the anti-conservationist stance of his clients, he heralded the Wallwork study as suggesting "strict laws that only allow state sponsored archaeologists and cultural bureaucrats legal access to uncovering the past actually diminish discoveries" and at one stage commented that opposition to the piece came from those with an "anti-collector agenda".

In stark contrast to that response, the reaction of Rick St. Hilaire, another lawyer and a professor of cultural property law at Plymouth State University, was utterly in tune with the disapproval expressed by archaeologists. Incisively noting an undertone in the original law journal article suggesting "archaeology is akin to a mining operation whose primary mission is to produce fantastic raw materials for consumption", the law professor questions "whether consumer-driven heritage harvesting is under discussion rather than authentic archaeology".

Rick St. Hilaire rightly quotes the AIA: the mission of archaeology is to "preserve, protect, and interpret the precious record of the human past". Archaeology is about the study of the human past by analysing material evidence; it is NOT only about finding new tourist attractions or digging up loads of pretty objects. Nor is conserving the evidence of the past inherently "anti-collector"; it just doesn't pander to those dealers and collectors who wish to exploit it without consideration for anyone else.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Son of Cuneiform Tablet on eBay - the Sequel

As a sequel to my earlier noting of eBay stupidity, Paul Barford has pointed out that just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. A lot of two fake bits of cuneiform from the same seller (and said to be from the same source) has sold for £431 - even more than the price of the previous rubbish.

The buyer may well be happy with their purchase forever and never accept the truth even if it is pointed out. I used to be on the receiving end of the incredulity (and occasional insults) of such owners when I worked as an auction house 'expert'. The typical reaction was to go into immediate denial, carefully wrap up their fake item again, and then leave shaking their head with a wry smile and a muttered "You don't know what you're talking about". I kept quiet of course but was frequently tempted to yell back "You can't handle the truth!" in my best Jack Nicholson impression.

Does he mean me?

Another bizarre twist in a bitter campaign to besmirch archaeology ("Un-Organized Crime?") implies that "shady archaeologists" are more likely to be responsible for looted pottery on the market than metal detectorists. It is stated that archaeologists and others "employed on excavations have slipped more than the odd roman oil-lamp down the sides of their Wellie boots", whereas "precisely how a metal detector will locate a ceramic bowl or lamp is never explained".

Well yes, theft has undoubtedly occurred from excavations and storerooms but I think it's blindingly obvious to everyone except the bitter blogger that the overwhelming majority of looted pottery on the market derives from plain old-fashioned common-or-garden looting by people unrelated to archaeology, typically by organised gangs.

I don't think anyone would accuse UK "metal detectorists [of being] the sole cause of dodgy stuff hitting the cobbles". Much of the criticism of them is about the damage done to context, not about the objects themselves. But most of the looted pottery on the market comes from overseas and those looters are indeed often armed with metal detectors in addition to spades - and sometimes even bulldozers. Detectors are carried not only to seek coins and other metal items themselves but also on the assumption that where there is ancient metal, there may be other artefacts too, including pottery. Explaining "precisely how a metal detector will locate a ceramic bowl or lamp" is not really rocket science.

However, what struck me as curious about the post was the recurring fixation with "oil-lamps". I have an old website about ancient lamps and I wonder if the post was aimed at me? Well, I'm not an archaeologist and Roman lamps are quite rare in the UK anyway so I doubt I can be accused of slipping one down the side of my own "Wellie boots". In fact, partly due to my concern about looting, I stopped collecting ancient lamps myself years ago but they were all openly acquired from the market at the time, are all meticulously documented, photographed and published, and until I find a place of my own, are all safely stored in a secure facility that even I cannot access. Regarding "integrity": my support for collecting is no secret but I have also been very vocal about drawing attention to the dangers of damaging a fragile resource and urging dealers and collectors to record and "date-stamp" their items so that ongoing looting will be diminished. No one can accuse me of not following my own advice.

Incidentally, I do wish people would not keep calling them "oil-lamps". It's as silly as insisting on describing vehicles as "motor cars". Most modern cars are powered by motors; most ancient lamps were fuelled by oil. I think we can safely skip redundant adjectives unless an object is an exception to the rule and describe a typical small four-wheeled vehicle found in a modern garage as simply a "car" and a typical pottery lighting device found in a Roman villa as simply a "lamp".

Friday, 4 April 2014

De Sade manuscript flogged and exposed

Donna Yates has whipped up an arousing post about a manuscript pumped out in 1785 by the Marquis de Sade, "The 120 Days of Sodom". The once tightly bound scroll has spent the last three decades tantalisingly shackled in Swiss exile while courts writhed in torment over its future but it has now been flogged to a French collector after lashing out a rumoured €7 million. There are breathless murmurs that the thrilled collector intends to expose the scroll in a private museum before manhandling it once more and humping it over to the Bibliothèque Nationale. After being tortured so long by the foreign captivity of their national treasure, the French are undoubtedly gasping a sigh of relief at its final release and ecstatic at its return. Its unveiling at the Paris library promises to be an explosive climax.

(And yes, I will tip my hat to anyone who can cram any more childish innuendos into a single paragraph!)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Bizarre twist on a "scandal"

I see John Howland, a metal detectorist who I mentioned in an earlier post, has kindly included me in distinguished company in a comment to his latest rant. The rant itself uses the recent revelation that thousands of archaeological items recovered in Northern Ireland are lying unclassified in storage facilities as an excuse to slam British archaeology. His comment concludes:
"This scandal has made utter fools of Messrs Barford, Swift, Knell, and Gill, not to mention the Council for British Archaeology I am delighted to say, and gives lie to their the slur that metal detecting damages the heritage."
Apart from a cringeworthy use of the tired idiom "not to mention" to prefix a mention, the non sequitur twist in his attempt at logic would tie a steel girder in knots. According to Howland, the fact that the storage of archaeological items has been insufficiently funded means that metal detecting does not damage our heritage. Huh? Sorry, I'm still trying to get my head round this one. I'll get back to you when I work out what on earth he's been taking.

I suspect from the BBC article that the items remain "unclassified" because museums lack the funds to process and store them but Howland unhesitatingly lays the blame on archaeology itself. His answer to the critical shortage of financial resources in the cultural sector is to starve archaeology of money altogether (he comes to the startling conclusion that the "last thing archaeology needs is more money") and instead to plough it into the PAS so that it can do a better job of "properly recording and classifying OUR heritage". The word "heritage" here of course means not the fruits of scholarly research but the decontextualised bits of metal that detectorists like Howland reap a reward from by digging them up out of the ground.

Yeah right, who needs archaeology and academic site interpretation? A whole load of recorded and classified bits of metal ripped out of the landscape is going to do our heritage far more good. I can see other countries such as Italy or Greece gasping in envy and admiration at the sheer genius of our priority.

But wait, didn't he say "OUR heritage" (with "OUR" in capital letters)? Does that mean that apart from a few thousand detectorists, the rest of the over 63 million inhabitants of the UK also get a say? You know, the over 63 million people who democratically choose to pay wages to archaeologists but not to detectorists? Those people? He might find that a large proportion of thinking people would feel that the "scandal" is that cultural institutions such as museums and archaeology are severely underfunded, and that of course was the point the BBC article was actually making.

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