Institutions should moderate their rule on looted objects
Upheavals, wars and civil unrest in Iraq and Syria have led to an increase in the looting of antiquities from archaeological sites. Ever since western archaeologists began to identify and excavate ancient sites in the middle of the 19th century, they have been targeted for looting, and objects of many different kinds – stone, metals, pottery – have found their way into private collections.
Public disapproval of buying from dealers, spearheaded by the United Nations, has discouraged many of the world’s great museums from buying looted objects, and the market, previously open, has largely gone underground. The situation now is that collectors buy on the black market and they are not known to the public.
Already in the 19th century it was difficult for scholars to trace the exact provenance of such objects. Details of the place where they were found add greatly to the value of antiquities for scholars, because they often supply evidence for date and context, giving meaning far beyond mere aesthetic value. Of course, that increased value has led to the careful “documentation” of fake provenances, as well as the manufacture of faked objects. Some types of fakes can be unmasked by new scientific techniques, but for certain materials no tests are yet available, and many fakes are remarkably convincing even to specialists.
Looting of ancient sites is now worldwide, and is not limited to countries that suffer unstable conditions. But Iraq and Syria are special for yielding hundreds of thousands of inscriptions impressed on unbaked clay tablets. They may date as early as 2,600BC and as late as the beginning of the Christian era, during the Roman Empire. All kinds of texts are written on them: epics, chronicles, legal contracts, trade records and the correspondence of kings with their top officials.
Because the material is unbaked clay, it has no intrinsic value, and because of the sheer quantity, individual texts do not have big value on the antiquities market. But for scholars, the value of an identified large group is great. For example, recently an archive of more than 400 tablets held in a private collection proved the reality of the Sealand Dynasty of Babylon, in the mid-second millennium BC. Its existence had previously been in doubt due to a total lack of evidence.
Until recently, many scholars were deeply disapproving of colleagues who studied looted objects on behalf of collectors and dealers, and some journals and publishers refuse to publish their work. This is still largely true of unscribed antiquities such as jewellery, sculpture, seals and terracotta. However, some of those who originally disapproved of every category have now decided that an exception should be made for inscriptions, partly because it is almost impossible to fake them, and partly because to ignore such a wealth of wonderful information is to turn our backs on the cradle of civilisation. A dictatorial refusal amounts to censorship.
Many scholars are now keen to find out who owns such collections and to contact them, to help with conservation, recording and publication. A collection in Scandinavia has already been made available for study, conservation and publication – several substantial volumes have already appeared.
Conservation is often urgent, but collectors do not always realise that this is the case. Salts in solution accumulate in damp clay, and when the tablet emerges to the light of day and begins to dry out, the salts gradually rise to the surface, crystallise and burst the surface with its cuneiform inscription, rendering it illegible. To prevent this, many tablets need treatment. One method is to bake them according to a strict procedure in a potter’s kiln, a relatively easy job that can be done locally, for which instructions can be found on the internet. The baked tablets, now terracotta, can safely be soaked in distilled water to remove the salts before they crystallise.
If the procedure is followed correctly, the tablets should emerge safely from the kiln; very rarely, the clay contains an impurity that causes disintegration, but I have never experienced this despite overseeing the baking of several hundred tablets. The risk and expense for the collector are insignificant.
To make the texts available to scholars worldwide, a new technology allows each tablet, whether baked or unbaked, to be scanned using special equipment, so study can be done on a laptop computer. This avoids the need for long stays abroad and the expense of travel. One of the major programmes for creating digital images, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), is run jointly by Oxford University and the University of California, Los Angeles.
Many museums and collectors have already co-operated, allowing an operator to perform the scanning over a few days, to the immense appreciation of scholars and to the benefit of those collectors who have a genuine interest in finding out what treasures they hold. As with conservation, collectors are not burdened with years of frequent visits and requests for access. Sometimes the original provenance can be traced from details within the texts.
Stephanie Dalley is an Assyriologist at the Oriental Institute and Wolfson College, and Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Somerville College, Oxford University. She is also the author of The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced. The CDLI, at www. cdli.ucla.edu, is keen to contact collectors of cuneiform tablets
Updated: March 25, 2014 04:00 AM