Using Inscriptions from the Antiquities Market: Polarized Positions and Pragmatic Proposals

Dr Christopher Rollston writes:

Archaeological sites in the Middle East have been ransacked, pillaged, and plundered for many decades. The motivations of the actual pillaging are normally economic: the pursuit of marketable artifacts. That is, the pillagers wish to find objects that can be sold to collectors. Of course, the motivations of the collectors who purchase these pillaged antiquities range from the desire to possess a piece of ancient history to having putative proof for a cherished belief. Among the artifacts most prized by collectors are ancient inscriptions.

Think briefly about scientific archaeological excavations. Complete pots and potsherds are carefully collected, catalogued, documented, and analyzed, while broken pots are often restored. Organic materials are meticulously bagged and tagged and sent to be carbon dated. Animal bones and seeds are studied to learn about animal husbandry, agriculture, and ancient diets. Grinding stones, needles, and pins are photographed and studied carefully to shed light on aspects of daily life. Metal objects are sent to laboratories for scientific analyses. Stone tools such as arrowheads are sent to specialists for analysis. And inscriptions are sent to epigraphers to be read and analyzed. The result is that knowledge is gained about ancient languages and dialects, and about ancient social structures, and religious practices and ideas. The final result is that scientific excavations yield an enormous amount of information about the ebb and flow of ancient lives.

In contrast, those pillaging sites for marketable objects do not have the resources, time, desire, or the training to do any of these things. This is despite the fact many looters have experience working on excavations, sometimes as skilled laborers. Rather, looters rifle through sites and collect nothing except the most marketable of objects. The rest are disturbed, broken, and ignored. After all, the primary goal of the pillager is finding something that will sell, something that will satisfy the appetite of the black market in pillaged antiquities. What then about inscriptions found by looters?

Read on at the ASOR Blog.

 

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