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Should Scholars Authenticate and Publish Unprovenanced Finds?

Today we know for certain that in addition to promoting illicit trade in antiquities the publishing of unauthenticated and unprovenanced material also has promoted an entire industry, namely the forgery business.

By Eric M. Meyers
Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor
Director of the Graduate Program in Religion
Duke University
February 2005

As all of you must well know, I have been very vocal in my criticism of the manner in which the so-called James ossuary came into prominence and gained instant credibility. At the SBL meeting in Toronto in 2002, I expressed my doubt about its authenticity or at least its full inscription because its provenance was unknown or unestablished, and hence nothing certain could be said of its archaeological context. Moreover, the circumstances of its rise to public attention and critical assessment in the scholarly community have become a matter of concern to religious leaders, journalists, museologists, and scholars. It is now time for the authorities in Israel to act on that matter or risk their credibility. As a result of this rather public controversy and as a byproduct of the Iraq War and the unprecedented looting of antiquities there and in the region, I have come to recognize the need for at least the societies that I work with to redefine their position on publishing unprovenanced antiquities whether inscribed or without writing on them. I have very specific recommendations to make and want first to review the position of ASOR and of the IAA.

First, to clarify my own position, I published a piece in Bibleinterp.com this past year in which I said that as long as the artifact or piece in question had been authenticated by "the responsible antiquities authority and their scholarly advisors," this phrase being the exact language used by ASOR and SBL in the form that was adopted in 1992 (Meyers 2000: 21), [1] it was OK to publish an artifact that was unprovenanced so long as it was done in a timely and responsible manner and approved or assigned by the responsible national authority. What is new since 1992 is the addition of the word "unprovenanced." In that 1992 document that was first drafted by James VanderKam and Walt Rast, the issue of how one would be assigned to write up a particular artifact or text was not clarified. The issue that prompted the drafting of this policy statement was the Dead Sea Scroll corpus, which had and has its own convoluted history of making assignments to publish without a timetable and with the issue of the jurisdiction or legality never successfully resolved. The issue was first bought up in 1990 and resolved in the 1992 resolution adopted by ASOR and later by SBL. In connection with the term "unprovenanced," we might also add the issue of "chance finds" that are reported to the antiquities authority by locals who recover objects of importance but who have only very limited knowledge of the exact find spot or context. A particularly intriguing example of this is the discovery of a unique Persian-period rhyton in Sepphoris by youngsters from the local orphanage who discovered the object in pieces after a rainstorm. The artifact was turned over to the IAA, and they assigned a scholar to publish it.

The matter for ASOR became more complicated in 1995 when the trustees called for a more comprehensive policy that was not so focused on the Dead Sea Scrolls matter any longer and that took into account the 1991 First Gulf War. Ellen Herscher chaired the special ad hoc committee, a subcommittee of CAP. The report was adopted at the November 18th, 1995 meeting of the ASOR Board. It is interesting to note that the word "unprovenanced" does not occur in the statement; the key world seems to be "illicit." Here is the key statement in III.A and B, under the rubric of "Trade in Antiquities" and published in BASOR 309, p.2:

III. Trade in Antiquities

Trade in antiquities, especially illicit trade, encourages the looting of archaeological sites and thus is a direct cause of the destruction of sites and the loss of information they contain.

A. ASOR members should not participate, directly or indirectly, in the buying and selling of artifacts illegally excavated or exported from the country of origin after 1970, the date of the adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

B. ASOR members should refrain from activities that enhance the commercial value of such artifacts and thus contribute indirectly to the illicit market, for example, publication, authentication, or exhibition. ASOR publications and its annual meeting will not be used for presentations of such illicit material.

Today we know for certain that in addition to promoting illicit trade in antiquities the publishing of unauthenticated and unprovenanced material also has promoted an entire industry, namely the forgery business. This has become evident in the past year when the IAA has accused various individuals of creating a vast underground of mafia proportions of individuals who specialize in producing high-ticket items such as the James ossuary, the Jehoash inscription, and inscribed bullae with biblical names, just to mention a few items whose authenticity has been questioned. Regardless of where one stands on the authenticity of these items by publishing them and promoting them in the popular media, their commercial value has soared while their provenance still remains unknown and uncertain. Even if we accept the reliability of the scientific data that has identified certain trace elements from known geological deposits in regard to particular artifacts, the evidence does not necessarily indicate the provenance of the object since the patina could have been applied in modern times. Shanks has repeatedly asked the question: Would this mean that ASOR would not publish the Dead Sea Scrolls if they were found or looted today? And I am of the mind that we would have certainly to say yes; ASOR would be prepared to publish them. In order to do so, the host government would first need to appoint a panel to authenticate the item in question. Then, if authenticated, the government authority would have to decide if it would appoint a foreign scholar or group of scholars to write up the material or artifact in a timely way. This is not so different from what in fact happened when the PAM appointed an international team to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls. Presumably, today any antiquities authority would do this in a responsible way and add a publishing deadline.

This principle is quite explicit in the 1992 statement adopted by ASOR and SBL, and I quote the preamble to that document in full now:

"We the members of ASOR affirm the priority of national antiquities authorities to manage and regulate cultural remains. As an organization of scholars devoted to the recovery of the cultures of Middle and Near Eastern lands, we reaffirm the principles of scholarly integrity and ethics with respect to the retrieval, preparation, and timely publication of material remains, including texts" (ASOR minutes as quoted by Meyers, 2000, idem.)

In the matter of publication, item number 1 of this same document specifically says that the assignment to publish is within the purview of "responsible authorities [be they the licensed excavator(s) or the antiquities authority] and their scholarly advisors." In 1995, ASOR did not revisit the 1992 document or else they would have found a conflict between the two statements that were adopted. ASOR in 1992 stated what I have said today and earlier this year: so long as the authorities in the host country authenticate and approve of publication and so indicate, even if the artifact or text in question is unprovenanced and even possibly looted, it nonetheless should be published. The force of the 1992 statement is that it is both the jurisdiction and obligation of the host antiquities authority to decide what is and what is not important enough to publish. This clearly takes the onus away from individuals if they accept the authority of the national antiquities authority. So when an independent publisher such as BAS hires out its own authenticator that is independent of the national authority and subsequently publishes the artifact(s) in question, it is not following either ASOR guidelines for sure or the laws of the state of Israel either.