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 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.

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