I’ve just returned from a stimulating week at the University of Agder. I had loads of interesting conversations about a number of topics, many of them stemming from the Museum of the Bible’s admission that (at least) five of their recently purchased, unprovenanced “Dead Sea Scroll” fragments are fake. This admission has inspired a number of reactions in various online forums, the most interesting of which have less to do with the fact of the forgeries (which have been suspected by The Lying Pen project and others for some time) and more to do with the ethical issues involved in the purchase (by collectors) and publication (by scholars) of unprovenanced artifacts. Especially sharp is an essay by Michael Press at Hyperallergic. and an interview with Årstein Justnes in Haaretz.
There is a lot to say about this whole situation, but for the moment, I would like to look at an old quote that came to mind for me as I was reading these articles. The proximate phrase that jarred this memory was the ending of an essay by Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, who closed his thoughts on the matter in the following way:
Finally, this should serve yet again as a prime example for why unprovenanced archaeological objects should not be published and displayed in museums. The days of the black-market trade of unprovenanced Dead Sea Scrolls fragments must come to an end!
Leaving aside the issue mentioned above (the curiosity that the risk of forged material should be a “prime example” of why unprovenanced artifacts should not be published), these words immediately reminded me of another opinion expressed in the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review thirteen years ago, when the longtime Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012) enthusiastically endorsed the publication of unprovenanced artifacts, while at the same time calling for an end to the licensed sale of antiquities:
“I am indeed to be included among those who think that artifacts, particularly those bearing inscriptions, should be published whether dug up in scientifically controlled excavations or dug up by plundering antiquities dealers, collectors or their minions. Inscribed artifacts have so much—I am tempted to say most—to contribute to history and culture that they dare not be discarded and ignored. . . . To throw away inscriptional materials because they come from illicit digs (or forgers) is in my opinion irresponsible, either an inordinate desire for certitude on the part of those without the skills or energy to address the question of authenticity or the patience to wait until a consensus of scholars can be reached. It is noteworthy that those most eloquent in denouncing the publication of material from illicit digs are narrow specialists, especially dirt archaeologists.
. . .
Contrary to many, I have long urged the Department of Antiquities of Israel (now the Antiquities Authority) to shut down licensed antiquities dealers. I find extraordinary the argument, especially made by museum personnel, that having licensed dealers prevents the best finds from going abroad and channels them into Israel’s museums. Anyone who has viewed the Moussaieff collection is aware that the best pieces go abroad with (or without) licensed antiquities dealers. Far better is the proposal for the Authority to sell duplicate pieces they have in great excess in their storerooms to academic institutions that wish to have study collections and to use the profits for scientific excavation and publication.
The argument is often heard that publishing unprovenienced pieces encourages more illicit digging, since publication is felt to authenticate and so increase their market value. I am not aware of any clear evidence that this is true. In any case, illicit digging will continue unabated as long as antiquities dealers and their suppliers are active. However, the establishment of the spuriousness of forged pieces will certainly reduce their value on the open market and put dealers in fakes at grave risk.”
It is a striking statement,especially in light of the massive scale of looting happening in recent years in places like Syria and Iraq (and it should be noted that Cross’s essay appeared in 2005, when the widespread looting in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was already known). I guess in my heart-of-hearts, I must be something of a “dirt archaeologist,” because I can’t help feeling a little offended by parts of Cross’s statement. There are several things that stand out about it. The privileging of text above other forms of ancient evidence. The disregard for the damage that illicit digging causes to people who don’t happen to be professors at Harvard. But especially relevant in light of this latest development with the Museum of the Bible is the hubris of the scholar: “an inordinate desire for certitude on the part of those without the skills or energy to address the question of authenticity.” The forged fragments in the Museum of the Bible collection managed to deceive two of the most respected specialists in the field: Emanuel Tov (editor of the volume) and Ada Yardeni (the palaeographic expert who inspected each of the pieces). This fact, I think, says something about the state of the discipline of Hebrew palaeography.
But most of all, Cross’s quotation makes me wonder how much has changed in the last fifteen years. What proportion of scholars who work with ancient evidence have shifted their views on these matters? I certainly have. When I studied and published a couple papyrus amulets from Yale’s Beinecke Library as a graduate student, I didn’t even think twice about the fact that I couldn’t trace their history back beyond Yale’s 1996 acquisition of the fragments. I just knew that some scholars were preparing a catalog of Christian amulets, and I thought these pieces I had stumbled across ought to be included in the survey. I have no doubt that the pieces are ancient, but looking back on it now, I feel embarrassed at how hopelessly naive I was. And now, even when I’m working with materials acquired before the 1970 UNESCO treaty, I find myself regularly uncomfortable about issues of acquisition and provenance. The 1970 date is a legal marker, not an ethical one. I may try to spell that out further in future posts.