Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Hershel Says The Obvious


1st things 1st, full disclosure - I have been a longtime fan of Hershel Shanks and a subscriber of his flagship publication BAR Magazine since the mid-1980s.

Hershel Shanks has long taken heat for at least indirectly advocating the private ownership of antiquities (the magazine sometimes carries ads from antiquity dealers) but now he just says it plainly:

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First Person: A Radical Proposal
Why don’t the archaeologists join the looters?
By Hershel Shanks


“Profits are phenomenal, and looters are running riot,” says Giorgio Gligoris, head of Greece’s police squad set up to combat antiquities trafficking. He’s right! That’s one thing on which all agree, whether it’s the Mayan jungle, Etruscan tombs, Iraq’s cuneiform tablets, Mediterranean coastal waters or sites in the West Bank.

But that’s about as far as agreement goes: Antiquities looting is rampant!

The archaeological establishment’s principal suggestion that will supposedly stop the looting is—well, not to put too fine a point on it—stupid. “Don’t buy looted antiquities” is the strategy. Admittedly, if there were no market for looted antiquities, looting would stop. If the looters could not sell their loot, they would discontinue looting.

But the only effect of this policy is to send the looted objects to buyers who will put the loot in their living rooms instead of in museums—so we, the public, will never see it.

The second strategy adopted by the archaeological establishment is even stupider: Forbid study by scholars of looted objects. This policy is not enunciated directly, but is carried out by scholarly organizations that will not allow articles about looted objects in their publications and will not allow papers on looted objects to be presented at their scholarly conferences. This is the policy, for example, of the Archaeological Institute of America, the major American organization of archaeologists. It is also true of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the major American organization of Near Eastern archaeologists. This policy was recently adopted by the Israel Exploration Journal but was promptly abandoned when a paper on an exciting new looted inscription was submitted to it.1

I call this the avert-the-eyes strategy. Don’t look at it. Needless to say, this strategy has had absolutely no effect on looting, although it makes a major contribution to the self-righteous feeling of those who adopt it. It also has the additional effect of depriving the public (including scholars) of the valuable information that even looted objects can impart. As I like to say, looted objects may be worth less because they were ripped from their context, but they are not worthless. Indeed some of them, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, have actually transformed our understanding of aspects of history.

So here is my radical proposal. It may not solve the problem completely, but at least it makes economic sense.

Compete with the looters. Professional archaeologists should professionally excavate areas subject to looting—and fund their excavations by selling the “loot.” After all, we are assured by Giorgio Gligoris, “profits are phenomenal.” The “loot” from these professional excavations must, of course, be available for study and publication. And we will always know where they are in an open market—just as we know about the location of a Renoir painting.

Moreover, much of this professionally excavated loot will end up in museums. Indeed, museums will be some of the prime purchasers—with money provided by their benefactors. Other pieces will later be donated to museums by private purchasers. Such gifts provide the donor with a tax deduction in many countries—a nice inducement.

I recall a conversation I had with the current president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Brian Rose (before he became president). He had just given a paper decrying the looting of a rich tumulus in Turkey. There were several other tumuli at the site, so I suggested to Brian that professional archaeologists should excavate these other tumuli before the looters got hold of them; finance the dig through the sale of the artifacts to museums, where they would be available for study and publication. I’m sorry to say the suggestion had no appeal.

Even if my suggestion would not substantially reduce looting, it would be good for human knowledge. We would have more wonderful artifacts to study and to interest the public in the past. Isn’t that what we’re about?

But I am under no illusions. My suggestion here will no doubt fall on deaf ears.

1) A paper by Yuval Goren on the recently surfaced inscription variously called “Gabriel’s Vision” and “Gabriel’s Revelation.” See Ada Yardeni, “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone,” BAR 34:01, and Israel Knohl, “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” BAR 34:05.

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No doubt about it Hershel.


Jim McGarigle
Polymath Numismatics

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Ed Snible said...

I agree with Hershel that undercutting looters makes economic sense.

An archaeologist I respect, Sebastian Heath of the ANS, blogged that he doesn't want the objects he studies to be sold into private possession (even institutions). He seems to believe that objects thus sold will not be appropriate and available for future study.

What do you think of Heath's opinion? Heath's opinion isn't one I've heard much of elsewhere and it's worth discussing.

Jim said...

Greetings Ed,

I know this will sound like a reactionary cheap shot to some, but I think Heath is probably another Chardonnay-sipping, New York elitist. The current ANS is a shadow of it's former self. I am sure one reason for it's decline is it has taken stances that are more pleasing to anti-collecting academics than the hobbyists it is supposed to serve. I have told ANS staffers several times that if there are no coin collectors or dealers - there will be no ANS either. They seem to be completely blind to that fact.

I am sure that ACE, the ANA & the ACCG will outlive the ANS because they are outreach organizations that build the hobby. Outside of New York, the ANS is invisible.

The ANS is sounding more and more like the AIA than a numismatic organization. I don't think that is a healthy direction to take - I think it is akin to slitting one's own wrists or biting the hand that feeds you at least.

As for items no longer being available for study, that is blarney. I have a slow-moving project to publish a book on Nabataean coins and a number of private collectors have offered to loan me their coins.

I think this all gets back to the point frequently made by Wayne Sayles, Peter Tompa and myself that scholars care more about control than anything and independent scholarship (which numismatics is full of) poses a threat to them professionally.

Probably a longer answer than you were looking for but that is where I am at with the ANS and Heath.

Best Wishes,


Sebastian Heath said...

Dear Jim,

Bourbon is actually my preferred drink. Come to Brooklyn one day and we'll visit http://www.lenells.com/features/features_bourbon.php . I've recently been enjoying Noah's Mill, but usually for special occasions as it's a little pricey.

I am a part-time employee of the ANS and have no role in setting policy. But I can say that the Society's presence outside of New York is very substantial by way of its website at http://numismatics.org/ . I can only take a little credit for where it does contribute to the global community of numismatists, though please do look to me for further work on its shortcomings.

I also note that Wayne Sayles is an ANS fellow and that Peter Tompa is a board member. I see no imbalance towards either side of this debate.

With best regards,


Jim said...

Dear Sebastian,

If I'm in the neighborhood, visiting my sister some day I may take you up on the offer although I am more of a specialty beer enthusiast.

Over the years I have been invited to (and seen many photos of) cocktail parties and events that all happened in NYC. The only time I see the ANS in the Midwest is at the CICF but I see the ANA represented at even the smallest coin shows in my home state of Wisconsin and the same was true when I lived in Minnesota and never saw an ANS table at any show I attended in either state.

I viewed the ANS website and saw (as I have in the past) a list of events all in NYC. Enough said there.

As for Wayne and Peter, I am well acquainted with them and know how they feel about the ANS both positive and negative. I won't speak for them but I will say we have shared common frustrations with the ANS and I will leave it at that.

Best Wishes,