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Are Fakes So Bad? -page 2-

The spectacle of scholars authenticating and publishing unprovenanced artifacts is not simply pathetic but pernicious.

But fakes must build on what is already known. Recall the fraudulent Philistine leather scrolls of the late 1960s, which attempted to capitalize on the then still new Dead Sea Scrolls. These particular fakes also generated a buzz and were authenticated by respectable scholars, before coming apart under the weight of their own crudity: it was shown that the letters were derived from the Siloam Inscription, only written backwards. Some commodities such as Cycladic or Benin figurines have an aesthetic appeal that is relatively constant, as do cute little cylinder seals. Aniconic or otherwise, tiny objects such as inscriptions or bullae, however, likely appeal to a smaller subset of collectors with intellectual pretensions.

The politics of fakes attempting to ingratiate themselves into established, political, social, and religious traditions must balance innovation with conservatism. They must be familiar but not radical. Benjamin suggested that performances in film achieved greater effect by "acting as little as possible." Supremely opportunistic product fakes run the risk of being too good to be true or not very interesting so the market ignores them. Joash and James show this product placement logic at work. Inevitably, the question of fakes cannot be separated from that of unprovenanced artifacts and the marketplace.

Walter Benjamin's description of reproductions fits precisely with the problem of fake antiquities. But Benjamin was a sort of kabalistic socialist, and his real problem was with capitalism. This is our problem as well, and at this point, it might as well be stated that we are unlikely to do away with capitalism any time soon.

Capitalism, I would argue, simply doesn't care about archaeology in an intellectual sense, what it has done or can do. It's in it for the fun, and if it doesn't have fun, it is going to take its checkbook and go home. Part of the fun, of course, is tangible, the sense of possession and participation provided by collecting and, less directly, in excavation. Professionals underestimate this at their peril, especially when a dramatic example is played out every summer as laypeople flock to Israel in particular to pay good money to join in the fun. Collecting, again, might simply be a cost of doing business, both in terms of garnering support and for living in a free society. Fakes are therefore like any other curse on the marketplace, from "Bolex" watches or the thousands of emails we all get from Mrs. Sese Seko regarding the $30 million her late husband deposited in a Nigerian bank but she can't get out of the country without our help.

Archaeology wants to claim exemptions from the rules of capitalism by outlawing trade in antiquities. Such legal distortions to the market are common; witness the requirement in the West that government projects allocate a percentage of funds to archaeological investigations. In some senses, these legalisms are highly positive; they represent the end of a foolish romantic era of archaeology, the era of great discovery and enlightenment (ex oriente lux in our case), that was followed by a pretentious science-serving-humanity phase (in which we learned to make irrigation canals like the ancients). Legalism marks the advent of a proportional role for archaeology as a service industry, like library science. Fake artifacts here are not epic disasters, merely frauds, subjects of misrepresentations, broken contracts, and protracted litigation. Fakes, then, are not really so bad. They may not be real, but they'll keep the lawyers in business. But to suggest that antiquities should be exempt from capitalist regimes of value requires better arguments than we have thus been able to muster. Our disciplinary selfishness and unwillingness to share the past with others is, rightly, seen as an illegal if not immoral "taking" and infringement of property rights. Carping about the public interest and misapprehensions created by Indiana Jones and Lara Croft prove further that the discipline is selfish and even unable to share fantasy worlds or to communicate what it really does effectively.

Therefore, the fear expressed by Israel Antiquities Authority director Shuka Dorfman regarding the commodification of archaeology, in response to an interesting proposal to sell surplus sherds, is entirely correct and entirely beside the point. In the real world, money makes everything go, and commodification has been there all along; archaeology could not exist without it since at the very least we sell an image of ourselves as romantic explorers or dispassionate scientists to an unsuspecting public and expect them to pony up their gift or even tax dollars. Commodification is a means of disseminating the real, and what could be more real than a body sherd in lucite. Reality could thus be disseminated in bite-sized pieces. If we don't entertain such notions seriously, then we become much like ancient Egyptian mortuary temples or the modern European social welfare system, condemning future generations to care in perpetuity for body sherds that we excavated without a clue as to how or why.

For those who pronounce categorically on the problem, to the effect that sales are anathema, a small comparison might be in order. In one season at Megiddo, I would reluctantly throw away more Early Bronze Age sherds from bad contexts than have been collected in 150 years of New York State archaeology, sherds numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands. There was no place to put them, nothing to do with them, and it pained me to do it. In the New York State Museum, however, every prehistoric sherd has its own custom-fitted foam slot in custom-made metal shelving, and to examine these sherds, one must run a gauntlet of curators and don white cotton gloves in the presence of watchful minders . Now, there is not enough shelving in the known world to hold even one season's sherds from one decent-sized site in Israel, much less a sherd hell like Rome. And there are not enough graduate students in this quadrant of the galaxy to lock in basements with orders to analyze even the sherds from good contexts.

We should, therefore, be realistic about our embarrassment of riches. A legalized lucite sherd paperweight trade would share the wealth, provided that the absurd fiction of a legalized market in complete items were eliminated, at the pinnacle of which are the beautiful, the rare, and the fake, things seen only by collectors, their fences, and compliant scholars. Opening up the bottom would only work if the top were shut down, something that might be a political impossibility. In that case, the entire market should be shut down. That too is an impossibility, given political realities, not the least of which involves Israel with its open rather than closed society like its neighbors. But professionals must realize that by making idealistically sweeping and categorical judgments such as these, that have no bearing on the real politics much less the economics of things, our viewpoints are going to be immediately dismissed.

If the only choices we can come up with for our excess body sherds are for them to be recycled as road fill, reburied in the manner of sacred objects, or treated like drugs – pick up a sherd, go to jail – then we have reached a laughable point. If we can't even figure out what to do with the real stuff, then we should stop excavating so damn much of it and worry about the fake stuff later. If we cannot even slow the destruction of archaeological sites, most supremely the continuing evisceration of the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem by the Waqf, then we should not waste what energy we have kvetching about fakes. The 21st century will see an unprecedented global archaeological extinction event, especially in the Middle East. In the real world, fakes are a red herring.

In the end, we have little else to do to justify our existence as a discipline than to defend the real. We are not sociologists or social historians, trained to look carefully at how the past interacts or is used by the present. We should not presume to become social activists, in thrall to some ideology whose justification we find in our personal temperament and corollary reading of the past. We should strive to be the best excavators, analysts, and teachers we can be. This isn't much, but maybe it is more than we think. To do so is to strive for the real, to peer through fakery and ideology, to stress the reality and even beauty of what was (or some of it) and the incomplete, hubris-defying nature of human self-knowledge.

Defending the real means acts as the advocate for the past, not because it teaches or reveals but because it pleases us and helps us situate ourselves, in personal, aesthetically driven processes of creativity. Fakes should be opposed because our first and only responsibility is to the past, recovered and presented as impartially and dispassionately as possible.

But what are the moral dimensions of defending the real? It may be all we have, but to make such claims requires a moral standing. This is the legitimacy acquired by adopting a consistent moral standpoint that paradoxically, at the very least and in the final analysis, puts the needs of the living ahead of those of the dead and our merry band of necromancers. It is a question of the bottom line. Here Near Eastern archaeology, and indeed archaeology as a whole, runs into a problem; in my view, it has no moral standing whatsoever.

The lack of a moral standing today does not result from the altogether well understood alliance, indeed, foundation, of archaeology in imperialism. Archaeology would be nothing without imperialism; it would never have come into being without the practical and intellectual codependence with Western imperialism, for which, at this late date, we should feel no guilt whatsoever, or at least none in particular. Archaeology is imperialism, a form of extending the Western systematic understanding of past and present to everywhere else. Still less is the putative shame brought about the archaeology's alliance with nationalism, that is to say, yesterday's identity politics. This is a commonplace, and in any case, the sooner we realize that most of our colleagues would sell their mothers and children for funding and for access the sooner we can put this particular bit of post-colonial guilt behind us.

Archaeology, particularly in the Near East, has no moral standing because of its wretched record of tolerating and embracing genocide and totalitarianism in the present, from Sudan to Syria, and most lately in the form of Saddam Hussein, as a means of facilitating its own petty prerogatives. We should not be happy about having benefited from the more dreadful consequences of colonialism, which in a few places included mass murder. But that was then and this is now. Our present complicity in the murder of between 300,000 and 1.3 million Iraqis taints, or should taint, any claims to moral standing and practical funding made by the profession as a whole, on questions of funding, looting, markets, fakes, and to be sure, culture, society, and politics at large. Not a peep of protest, indeed, the most shameful excuses and justifications were offered, CNN-like contortions were employed to maintain or regain access, and the global profession looked the other way as people were slaughtered.4

No amount of USAID pity funding, heralding a new golden age of Mesopotamian archaeology, can wash away this stain (a golden age in which we might ask whether Jews will be welcome to participate once again). Limits were reached and exceeded as a profession dedicated to necromancy averted its gaze from the necrotizing of an entire population. Only a tiny handful of professionals, namely a group called Archaeologists for Human Rights, has now tried to reclaim our morality by working for the excavation of mass graves in Iraq, the only type of ethical archaeology that should go on for the foreseeable future. Fascism and mass murder should be the tipping point after which we no longer pursue the past but rather address the present. Fake antiquities, indeed, any antiquities, are utterly irrelevant after this point.

So, in the end, our pursuit of the fake and defense of the real run into insurmountable obstacles, external and internal. The real world of capitalism isn't going to go away, and neither, I suspect, is the ideal world of our own minds, where, like the Iron Chiefs, we have the people's acclaim forever and a credit line to go along with it. Internally, our own shame will probably be pushed into a secret place deep inside; we nevertheless wear it like the mark of Cain on our foreheads. In defending the real against the onslaught of the fake, we might consider ways to save our own souls before complaining about others' desires to share the past with us. And we should figure out what to do with all the real stuff we've managed to squirrel away. Until then, the question of whether fakes are bad must be answered with greater caution than has been the case thus far.

* This is a slightly modified version of a talk presented at the session "The Ethics of Collecting and Communicating the Near Eastern Past" at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Atlanta, GA, 20 November 2003.

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