Saturday, October 12, 2013

Griffins Attack a Fallen Doe
Looted Greek table stand (4th c.BCE)
The graduate school of Art History at St. Thomas, which is hosting a symposium this weekend, began their event with a lecture by the investigative reporter Jason Felch, co-author of the book Chasing Aphrodite; The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum

This was a fascinating look at the system of antiquities looting, from the night-time workers who raid archaeological sites to the fairly wealthy middle men and, finally, to the fabulously wealthy collectors and American museums who knowingly purchase illegal antiquities.  

The Euphronios Krater (6th c. BCE)

Felch's investigation has uncovered dozens of very reputable museums who had illegally-obtained antiquities in their collections.  The purchases made by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles may have been the most egregious, although the Metropolitan Museum in New York may be the most well-known.  They eventually repatriated the looted Euphronios Krater, a beautiful 6th c. BCE wine bowl, a highlight of their collection.

Felch has begun to organize a crowd sourcing website to help uncover more unprovenanced antiquities in public collections. WikiLoot is designed to allow the public to help comb through photos of looted objects, files that document transactions, contribute information they have about their local museums and other activities to build an open source data bank regarding the provenance of antiquities.  

This type of work, if not this project in particular, should be a high priority for biblical scholars.  Aside from the simple ethical issue, that these antiquities belong to the people of the nation in which they were excavated, looters do an incredible amount of damage to archaeological sites.  While objects are very useful for understanding a site, it is actually the location of an object that really provides the most information.  Once an object is removed from its context, a great deal of its potential for helping the archaeologist to understand the site is lost.  The Greek and Roman sites that seem to be the focus of Chasing Aphrodite are very important for understanding the context of Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament and early Christianity but, as the book points out, they are being destroyed at an alarming rate.  This is also happening to sites that are more helpful for better understanding the Hebrew Bible, particularly in countries with weak or no government control, such as Iraq and Assyria. 

The Sumerian site of Umma (Iraq), with looters' pits

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