Tuesday, 18 September 2018

How to Spot Fake Roman Lamps

Figure 1
Inspired by a recent article on 'How to Spot Fake Cuneiform Tablets", I've decided to do the same for fake ancient lamps. Well no, that's actually a bit of a porky. The article on cuneiform tablets is quite long and I have no intention of trying to cram even a general introduction to spotting fake ancient lamps (history, motivation, case studies, manufacture, regional variation, analysis, repercussions and so on) into a mere blog post. I'll leave that for a chapter in the proverbial 'future book'. My post will be more in the nature of making a couple of very quick observations.

The finest fake lamps can be quite difficult to detect and to cover that end of the topic in the depth necessary would require a thesis rather than a blog post so I'll lower the tone and, without going into detail for fear of alerting fakers to amend their future products, simply confine most of my post to a few brief comments on some of the commonest duds (though, despite my title, not only those purporting to be 'Roman').

Although detecting fake Roman lamps is not always as easy as knowing the difference between a Roman gladiator and Robin Hood (Fig.1, top left), recognising a great deal of the rubbish churned out to flog to gullible tourists or eBay punters needs little more than common sense.

Army uniform

Figure 2

Lamps were produced in huge numbers in ancient times but, despite what some sellers would like you to believe, lamps that were made in different workshops in different areas at different periods were not all made from identical clay with identical colour and did not acquire identical patination. That observation applies to this sample of well-known fakes from the 'Syrian Series', offered, among a plethora of other spurious nonsense, by a notorious dealer in New York City (Fig.2, above).

Figure 3

The same applies to this selection of blatant fakes from the 'Bulgarian Volute Series', offered for prices ranging from $396 to $1,596 by an American dealer on both eBay and VCoins (Fig.3, above). Noting the huge variety of real Roman volute lamps (plus the plastic and factory types included here) is only a mouse-click away.

Variations on a theme

Figure 4

The uniformity of the modern items mentioned in the previous section is probably due to their production in only one or two workshops in very recent times. The situation changes when a style of fake lamp has been made over a long period. Workshops alter their methods over time and, inspired by their success, other workshops copy the style, perhaps adding a few idiosyncrasies of their own to the basic design. The clay and finish then also begin to vary quite dramatically over the years, as can be seen in such hackneyed classics as the infamous 'Hathor Type' (Fig.4, above), a fantasy produced in vast quantities to dupe credulous tourists in Egypt since Victorian days.

Figure 5

Much like the Egpytian makers of the 'Hathor Type' with its enigmatic face, a few enterprising citizens of Tunisia have also long ago recognised the irrepressible urge of tourists to buy the improbable but exotic and have been busily fulfilling that demand with items from the 'La Marsa Group' since the 1950s. This group, likewise with a variety of clay, finish and detail, includes a lamp in the form of a head with no less than three nozzles, backed up by one depicting an archer and another displaying a disproportionately huge Christian symbol (Fig.5, above).

Far from putting tourists off, their childlike crudity, artificially time-worn condition and frequently dark and dirty surface are calculated to win over a species of clientele who very often fail to appreciate that real ancient lamps were largely intended for discerning adults and typically spent most of their existence sealed from the wear and grease of human handling by being buried underground.

Swimming with the tide

Figure 6

Never one to neglect an orphan merely because its origin is obscure, I feel another quirky lamp is due for consideration. The 'Dolphin Type' (Fig.6, above) appears to be based on genuine Hellenistic lamps found in Asia Minor but the feature of an offset handle is strikingly exaggerated into an obvious fishtail shape and its body often bloats out on the opposite side so that the whole thing resembles a classical dolphin. Differences in clay and finish suggest the type was made by different makers over a long period yet, contrary to the other variations normally found in such cases, the same crude pattern of slapdash ridges adorns the upper surface of every example encountered, almost as if the manufacturers were terrified of updating, modifying or refining the moulds for fear of making the product look too sophisticated and alienating a clientele who expected it to look primitive.

Although examples of this boldly unconventional type are very common on the commercial market, where their zoomorphic design appeals to buyers, I am not aware of any example from a documented archaeological excavation, their curiously arrested development beyond an endlessly repeated basic concept gives pause for thought, and I have long been doubtful of their authenticity. They share some aspects with the 'La Marsa Group' and I suspect they may be related. Like members of that family, lamps of the 'Dolphin Type' are a crudely executed exotic form circulating for many decades and show the consequent variations in clay, finish and detail that prolonged manufacture tends to entail but the fabric of some examples is remarkably similar to that of examples belonging to the Tunisian series (Fig.7, below).

Figure 7

A touch of class

I'm nearing the limit for a blog post but in case any readers are complacent in the thought that spotting fake ancient lamps is simply a matter of avoiding those that come in identical batches and those in improbable styles, I'll end with an example of the better class I mentioned earlier. The lamp shown here (Fig.8, below) is an accurate style with a very convincing clay, finish and patination, a type that can easily fool many curators and dealers into accepting it as an ancient artefact from Imperial Rome.

Figure 8

The lamp is indeed Italian and it is indeed old - but not nearly as old as you might think. Closer examination reveals that it is a 19th-century fake belonging to the 'Naples Group', a series named after the city where they were made from about 1870 up to the First World War. Some of the most convincing fakes are those made many decades ago and the older they are, very often the more plausible they become. Time and time again I find undoubtedly old but nevertheless fake lamps proudly displayed in provincial museums or advertised in the catalogues of reputable dealers and auction houses. Thus, they can even acquire an impressive provenance over the years.

As to the gladiatorial scene shown on the discus: although an accurate copy of a genuine motif, it is always wise to be extra cautious with any lamp depicting gladiators or bawdy sex scenes. Lamps with those themes were produced in large numbers in ancient times since Romans apparently loved them but fakers are well aware that modern people love them too and pay high prices for them.

----------------
A pictorial summary of over 30 fake ancient lamps is included on my website.


Friday, 17 August 2018

Ancient Lamps updated ... finally!

Many years ago, when more than half of the UK was still on dial-up internet access, my specialist interest in Classical lychnology became known online and I found I was being bombarded with questions about ancient lamps. It was very often necessary to use images of artefacts to answer the questions properly but in those days there were very few images of ancient lamps already online to use as a reference and constantly sending scans of them illustrated in specific books or papers was taxing.

Eventually, in May 2006, I decided to compile the photographs I had taken of the lamps in my own modest collection and arrange them on a website to use as a ready-made reference (the name 'RomQ' came from a domain I intended to migrate to at the time). The website was basic but it was gratifying to note that it was being consulted by both scholars in the academic community and people who were otherwise unfamiliar with ancient history. I then occasionally updated the resource over the next four years but due to personal circumstances it remained untouched beyond 2010. 

After a hiatus of almost eight years, I have finally spent the last few weeks updating the catalogue portion. As with many other fields, eight years is a long time in the world of lychnology. Fresh research moves at a rapid pace. Old books soon become outdated in the light of new information and I have taken the liberty of writing identifications that may sometimes differ from those in established catalogues, even those of the British Museum. I therefore offer the caution that my own conclusions may also be subject to revision or correction. 

The internet has likewise moved on since I created the website. A plethora of museums and other institutions have now made details and images of their collections available online. However, although that is an excellent development, some of those resources are clearly composed without specialist knowledge of ancient lamps and the fact that care needs to be taken is perhaps illustrated by texts such as this on the archaeological museum website of a very prestigious university (name withheld to avoid embarrassment):
"The lamps in this collection, dated between the second century BCE and the second century CE, represent a common type. In these examples, a central discus contains the main decoration and the filling hole, where a wick would have been inserted to create a small flame. Lamps had one or more nozzles through which oxygen flowed, allowing the wick to burn for continued illumination."
I would have thought the terms "filling hole" and "nozzles" would offer a clue as to how an oil lamp actually functions. Nevertheless, the publication of collections is a very welcome step in the right direction and I am also deeply grateful to people who have shared information about those in private hands.

Above all, I am particularly indebted to those people who have published papers, articles, excavation reports and other material which give detailed information about the discovery of ancient lamps in situ. The place where an artefact is found is of course by no means necessarily the region where it was made (quantitative statistics, fabric analysis, workshop remains, wasters and moulds give a clearer indication of that) but it provides equally important information about its area of distribution, its potential relation to trade networks, its date of currency, its status and the role such objects played in the society that used them. By extension, such data can aid the interpretation of a range of similar artefacts where the context is unknown.

No ancient artefact is an island. In that regard, it is vital to appreciate that the ideal key to exploiting them as a learning tool stems from discovering not only what the context tells us about the object but, often more importantly, from discovering what the object can tell us about its context. Thus, divorced artefacts can be anathema to archaeologists and historians alike (my own policy is given here). Nevertheless, there is a huge number of such artefacts already stored in institutions or other collections and they are still an invaluable source of information.  

To mangle a hackneyed metaphor yet again, lamps can indeed help to shed light on the ancient world.


Sunday, 17 June 2018

Donald Bailey (1931-2014)

Donald Michael Bailey, a major force in the field of lychnology, was one of my heroes when I was a kid. I would buy Roman lamps in antiques markets and I regularly took my latest purchase to the British Museum for his opinion. You'd think he would get sick of seeing this pestering nuisance but instead he always gave me a warm welcome. Perhaps he was glad to see my youthful enthusiasm. He was gentle and modest but seemed delighted to impart some of his encyclopedic knowledge when eagerly questioned.

We were last in touch about ten years ago. I realised he was getting on and may have passed away since then. But it was still a sad shock to come across the obituary in the Guardian by sheer chance and see his death confirmed.

It gives me pleasure that I still have all the lamps that he examined for me - all apart that is from the occasional dud that he good-naturedly chided me for, saying I should have known better with a twinkle in his eye. I soon learned to discriminate and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had him as a mentor in a pursuit that has given me enormous enjoyment in my life.


Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Antiquarian book sale - Beverly Hills style

This prayer book is being auctioned by Ambiance Arts and Antiques, a flashy shop in Beverly Hills, on eBay. Although the book is undoubtedly valuable, both the sales pitch and the venue caused some amusement. It seems to be Beverly Hills at its finest. The price of $3,500,000 may seem a trifle steep. But we are advised that the book is not only "unique", it's also "rare" as well!

(I do wish people would realise that the word "unique" means 'the only one of its kind' - which makes the tautologous word "rare" a bit of a superfluous understatement.)

The description falls somewhat short of what might be expected of a normal dealer in antiquarian books but note the warning: "QUALIFIED BUYERS ONLY". In order to qualify, perhaps any potential customer must first prove: a) that he has more money than the entire economy of Switzerland and b) that he has had a full frontal lobotomy.


Although the "last page of this book shows the date", the seller seems to have trouble understanding it. The Persian year 1123 equates to 1744 in the Gregorian calendar and the Islamic year 1123 equates to 1711 in the Gregorian calendar, neither of which is "circa 1706".


The book boasts a "beautiful gold hard cover". That sounds extremely impressive but I suspect it actually means the binding is gilt morocco, which is not quite the same thing. And "70 pages" presumably means 70 leaves (in bibliographic collation a page is only one side of a leaf). And I'm guessing the baby phrases "hand writer" and "hand writing" are pitched at a semi-literate clientele who might have difficulty with the adult words "calligrapher" and "manuscript".

Curiously for an item offered for such a large sum of money, there is not the slightest hint of its condition (whether the binding is loose, whether any leaves are missing, torn, dog-eared, etc.) or, apart from its original owner, of its provenance (later inscriptions, library stamps, auction records, ALR check, etc.). A comment on Daum glassware offered by the same seller suggests an attitude to condition may be somewhat cavalier and a publicised spate of book thefts from libraries in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates that a mention of provenance would be wise. I'm not entirely sure that the generous offer of free postage offsets concerns that the seller states "NO RETURN" in big red letters.

Sadly, if "Sultan Hussain Safavi [...] used it every day for praying and keeping himself out of sickness and trouble", it didn't work very well. Eleven of his twelve sons were slaughtered and his dynasty was nearing its end when he was himself beheaded. Perhaps a bad omen ...



Monday, 20 November 2017

ACCG own goal: With 'friends' like these ...

Original research - ACCG style
An American coin dealer recently called my attention to an old paper that he helped to compose on behalf of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG) and challenged me to examine it on my blog, apparently under the impression that the paper was pretty much unassailable. He confidently assured me that it "was received with respect and interest by the Council for British Archaeology". I have now had time to read through it and my first comment is that the Brits can be disarmingly polite.

I note that this American "Newcastle Paper" was presented by the ACCG at a UK conference hosted by the Council for British Archaeology in March 2010 and has been reviewed previously. Even before slogging through its excessively exhaustive (and exhausting!) text, my first impression was not good. Its very title ("Coin Collectors and Cultural Property Nationalism") was ominous. The subsequent text deviously conflates two largely separate issues: a worthy struggle to seek a sensible and balanced solution in the sharing of international culture on the one hand, and a campaign to prolong a cavalier attitude to the destructive exploitation of foreign archaeological resources for commercial gain on the other. Disingenuously using the former to excuse the latter is not a great start.

Is the paper actually on behalf of "coin collectors" or is that term basically a euphemism for something else? Certainly, despite laboured assertions that the ACCG "is a collector organization, not a trade lobby" (p.44), its aims seem far more geared towards the mass acquisition of stock than the concerns of ethical individuals buying one or two coins. This is the organisation that declares its members "will not knowingly purchase coins illegally removed from scheduled archaeological sites" (p.45) while failing to admit the irony of simultaneously fighting against any measures (even self-regulatory ones) that would help ensure the stock of the dealers who supply them was not.

An early unwitting admission by contributor John Hooker that he hasn't got the vaguest clue what the full extent of "cultural heritage" actually is (p.5)1 sets the tone for much of the paper. It includes some valid and significant points but any overall case it tries to make to a naively miscalculated demographic is so compromised by a litany of schoolboy flaws - ranging from verbosity, waffle, repetition and tedious irrelevancies to shallow blame-shifting, inadequate denial (p.15), arrogant presumption (p.32), cringeworthy unawareness and stunning miscomprehension resulting from object-centric myopia, no conception of moral responsibility beyond the bare legal minimum, a long unsourced2 section plagiarised verbatim (!) from Wikipedia (pp.49-50), manipulated conflation, selective sycophancy and a plethora of glaring logical fallacies - that it tends to greatly diminish rather than enhance any perception of the trade as a worthwhile contributor in serious academic discussion.

A statement that "The collectors [read: US coin dealers] rights movement does not seek a confrontation, it seeks a solution" on the final page (p.61) begs a question: the "rights" to do what? To henceforth acquire stock responsibly by ensuring it does not conflict with archaeological concerns or to continue to acquire stock in the same cavalier way dealers did in the past and carry on encouraging looting until every last archaeological resource on the planet has been obliterated? The paper gives every indication that "rights" means the latter.

The paper includes not the slightest hint of compromise, not the vaguest trace of a realistic proposal to meet anyone halfway. Characteristically, it attempts to shift responsibility. An eager but wildly autoschediastic suggestion that a PAS-like scheme is a "viable model" (p.49) in countries that are incredibly rich in ancient sites reveals a simplistic object-centric approach oblivious to any potential for an archaeological catastrophe. Crucially, the paper includes not even, despite lip service (perhaps also cribbed from Wikipedia?), a real sign that the root problem is properly understood. Quite the contrary ...

The American coin dealer who brought the paper to my attention pointed out that "it was a statement of the pro-collecting point of view of the collectors' rights advocacy movement, rather than a completely impartial academic survey paper".

Fair enough, but it's one thing to display a certain amount of partiality. It's quite another to come out with daft nonsense such as holding an archaeologist up to ridicule for comparing ancient coins to "an endangered species" and then wordily pointing out how common they are (p.16) when it was blatantly obvious even from the quotation that he was talking only about coins that remained undisturbed in their context. Such silliness has a tendency to backfire - especially to an audience containing informed academics - and, instead of having the intended effect, implies that the person giving the presentation is either too thick to understand simple English or too ignorant to grasp even the most basic principle of archaeology. That impression is hardly helpful in promoting "the pro-collecting point of view".

And that's just one example of countless other faux pas in a long-winded but essentially slapdash paper that utterly drowns any valid points in a garrulous sea of uninformed blunders, contrived deceptions, plagiarised waffle and entrenched ignorance. Predictably, the end result paints an overwhelmingly negative picture of those engaged in the US coin trade.

I could very easily dismantle the "Newcastle Paper" through detailed analysis in another post but I post very seldom on my blog these days and I've already dealt with the ACCG earlier. Calling further attention to their inept propaganda merely highlights the worst aspects of a hobby I wholeheartedly support if carried out responsibly. In the interest of a balanced 'middle ground', if I post anything at all nowadays it is more likely to focus on some of the views expressed by those who oppose it. In the meantime, here's a gentle plea to the ACCG: either get your act together next time or do the collecting world a favour and give it a miss.

------------
1  In this alarming paradigm of tunnel vision, "cultural heritage" applies to objects that can be "distributed" but not to the once intact archaeological sites they are "distributed" from.
2  Wayback Machine reveals that the footnote given is just a deceptive red herring and not the real source. Perhaps the authors hoped no one would ever bother to check. Should we place a similar trust in any provenance they may give for a coin?



Friday, 10 November 2017

Understanding the 1970 UNESCO Convention

There appear to be common misconceptions about a Convention adopted at the 16th General Conference of UNESCO on 14 November 1970 in Paris. Its full - and somewhat unwieldy - title is 'Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property'. (I'm hoping to propose a 'Convention on the Benefits of Not Trying to Cram an Entire Synopsis into a Title' at the next General Conference.) Its purpose was to combat the illicit trafficking of cultural property (including of course ancient artefacts).

The Convention came into force on 24 April 1972 but it is important to bear in mind that it was just an agreement and was not in itself a law. It was left up to individual nations to implement the Convention in their own laws upon ratifying or accepting it. Since laws are not usually retroactive, compliance with them typically dates from the year each of those laws was passed, not that of the Convention. A chronological list of the years that nations ratified or accepted the Convention is published on the UNESCO website.

Although many museums and other institutions have adopted the year 1970 as a cut-off point in the acquisition of antiquities, that year is purely voluntary - based on ethical rather than legal considerations. The Convention itself (Article 7a) advises that they should be prevented from acquiring cultural property which has been illegally exported after the date that both the country of origin and the country of the institution ratified or accepted the Convention. In the case of the UK acquiring an object from Turkey, for instance, that date would be 1 August 2002 (although Turkey ratified the Convention in 1981, it was not accepted by the UK until 21 years later). It is of course up to the institution to determine if an object is likely to contravene that rule and, as said, most set a much earlier date for ethical reasons.

A similar responsibility (and ethical awareness) is placed on dealers and collectors to ensure they do not acquire illicit cultural property (Article 5e). Although nations are exhorted to keep an up-to-date inventory of their national heritage (Article 5b), that cannot of course include individual objects as yet unknown in archaeological sites (Article 1c) and it is therefore incumbent on dealers and collectors to establish that an archaeological object was legally exported.

If a nation declares that its archaeological material is under threat of pillage, other signatories undertake to control international trade in the relevant material (Article 9). In the US, such measures are normally effected by means of a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) under its implementation of the Convention (Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act 1983). A summary of that Act is published by the US government.

The Convention also seeks to prohibit the import of cultural property stolen from a museum or similar institution or from a public monument (Article 7b), and return the property to its country of origin providing that it was documented and that compensation is paid where appropriate (the latter provision subject to certain conditions in the US). The UK stipulated that, in its own case, return was subject to its rules on limitation to claims (typically six years under the Limitation Act 1980). 

Misconceptions

As said, there appear to be common misconceptions about what the 1970 UNESCO Convention is and what it is not. This was recently highlighted by the comment submitted by an archaeologist to an online article regarding the questionable collecting habits of an elderly Australian digging up artefacts in the Middle East:
“The short answer is, yes, it was illegal [...] International law sets the deadline at 1970 — the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention — for the removal of artifacts from the ground for collection. So if she began in 1967 and continued for 11 years (as the article states), then she was breaking the law.”
The archaeologist was right to be outraged but, in fact, he was wrong about the 1970 UNESCO Convention. It is not "international law". Nor is there any "deadline at 1970". Australia did not accept it until 1989. Neither of course does the Convention have anything to do directly with "the removal of artifacts from the ground for collection". As its full title suggests, it concerns import, export and transactions.

The laws that the elderly Australian was probably breaking were those of the countries she was digging in. Her blatant disregard of those laws is reprehensible but it is important to employ the correct framework to condemn its illegality. In the case of Australia, the pertinent legislation is the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, which sets no time limit for "unlawful imports".


Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Hawass to write opera about Tutankhamen

"Hawass to write opera about Tutankhamen" (Egypt Today, 12 September 2017).

It seems fitting that Hawass will "write" an opera about Tutankhamun. After all, only his profound modesty has so far curbed him from revealing that it was actually he, not Howard Carter, who found the tomb.

* The quotation marks around "write" suggest the potential use of a traditional MO: one person takes credit while another does the work.


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