May 3, 2006

Cuneiform tablets & archaeological ethics

Posted at 1:04 pm in Similar cases

Possibly the earliest records we have of written laws are the Code of Ur-Nammu, inscribed on cuneiform tablets dating back four thousand years. Due to the unprovenanced origins of one of the most intact version of the code, many scholars have refused to look at this version – asserting their feelings about the effect that illegal excavations & looting have on archaeology.

International Herald Tribune

Looted relics inflame scholars’ ethics debate
By Hugh Eakin The New York Times

Inscribed on Sumerian clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago, the Code of Ur-Nammu may be the earliest known recorded set of laws in the world: dozens of rules written in cuneiform about commerce and taxes, family law and inheritance.

But many scholars will not go near the one largely intact version of the code, and the top American journal of cuneiform research will not publish articles about it. The reason? The tablet was bought by a private Norwegian collector on the open market and does not come from a documented, scientific excavation. According to the ethics policies of the leading associations for antiquities scholars, that means it is off limits.

As scholars grapple with the reality that a growing number of important works – like the Ur-Nammu tablet and the recently unveiled Gospel of Judas – lack a clear provenance, those ethics policies are the focus of heated debate.

On one side are archaeologists and other experts who say that most objects without a clear record of ownership or site of origin were looted, and that the publication of such material aggrandizes collectors and encourages the illicit trade. On the other side are those who argue that ignoring such works may be even more damaging to scholarship than the destruction caused by looting.

Lending momentum to the debate is growing evidence that, amid the havoc of the American invasion of Iraq, Iraqi sites have been looted on an industrial scale. Many experts worry that the market will be flooded by vast numbers of unprovenanced cuneiform tablets and other objects: illicit finds that, in theory, should not be published.

“Its a real dilemma,” said Piotr Michalowski, editor of the top research publication for the field, the Journal of Cuneiform Studies, which adheres to the ethics policies of its parent organization, the American Schools of Oriental Research. “What do you do with this material?”

In recent days more than 100 scholars in the United States and Europe have signed a statement asserting that the publishing restrictions are forcing them to “close their eyes to important information.” The statement was drafted by Lawrence Stager, an archaeologist at Harvard University, and has been posted on the Web site of Biblical Archaeology Review, a journal that does not have restrictions on unprovenanced works.

The scholars signing the statement say that they “recognize that artifacts ripped from their context by looters often lose much of their meaning.”

“On the other hand, this is not always true,” the statement says, “and even when it is, looted objects, especially inscriptions, often have much of scholarly importance to impart.”

At issue are publication rules of the two leading professional associations for scholars of antiquity, the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading body for specialists of the ancient Near East. “If you publish, you are contributing to the illegal market,” said Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist of the ancient Near East at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who supports the restrictions.

But David Owen, a Near Eastern scholar at Cornell who signed Stager’s statement and who has drawn extensively on unprovenanced material in his own research, countered, “Who ever heard of censoring knowledge?”

Some museum directors, facing demands from Italy and other countries for the return of objects that may have been looted, have also seized on the publishing debate to defend collecting and displaying works that do not have a complete provenance.

The celebrated unveiling last month of the Gospel of Judas, a text that may shed light on the evolution of early Christianity, has widened the split. Some scholars have accused National Geographic, which published the text, of commercially promoting a manuscript that emerged from the black market. Others, including Stager, hold it up as an example of why the policies of the Archaeological Institute and the American Schools of Oriental Research are misguided.

“It’s scare tactics to ignore this information,” Stager said in a telephone interview.

Yet representatives of both associations say the statement he signed with other scholars mischaracterized their rules.

“It’s full of inaccuracy,” said Jane Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, pointing out that the institute’s policy, which dates from the 1970s, simply bans its own journals from being the first to publish unprovenanced works. “Our policy has never been totally restrictive,” she said.

Andrew Vaughn, a biblical scholar who is chairman of publications for the American Schools of Oriental Research, said, “It’s, at best, misleading.”

Many scholars stress that no single policy fits all unprovenanced objects. There is a huge difference between, say, looted sculptures, which may be impossible to identify with a specific historical setting, and objects bearing inscriptions or texts, which can yield much information even when their origins are unknown. And some unprovenanced works can easily be faked while others cannot.

There is also a broad divide between archaeologists, who generally study material from documented sites and rely on the good graces of host countries with strict prohibitions against the antiquities trade, and scholars of ancient texts, who often do not work in the field and may have no qualms about drawing on unprovenanced objects in their research.

Even supporters of the two associations’ current rules acknowledge that new approaches are needed to address the recent plunder in Iraq and other regions. As a compromise, the American Schools of Oriental Research has adopted a special policy allowing for publication of unprovenanced cuneiform texts if permission is first obtained from the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Last year the Archaeological Institute also revised its policy to allow its journals to be the first to publish unprovenanced objects and to review museum shows of such items if part of the purpose is to call attention to the looting issue.

But it is unclear how well such changes will work in practice. Members of both associations acknowledge privately that the ethics policies can encourage a two- faced system whereby scholars simply go to nonassociation journals and museum publications to publish unprovenanced works.

John Curtis, the keeper of Department of the Ancient Near Eastern East at the British Museum, argues that the only sound approach is to avoid publication of any unprovenanced Iraqi material that has surfaced since the Gulf war in 1991, the period in which much of the worst looting took place.

“The moral obligation is to impound it and send it back to Iraq,” he said.

But Curtis also acknowledged that the precarious situation in Iraq may preclude such returns. “It’s very problematic,” he said. “Sending material back to Baghdad would be possibly putting it at great risk.”

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