28 December 2008

Where do I even begin?

So it is plainly obvious to my two loyal readers out there that I haven't posted in a long time. This is not for lack of archaeology news (there has been plenty I assure you) so much as lack of time. Alas, the eternal problem. Dissertating has been keeping me busy, plus I was out doing this in the Florida everglades last week:


So here it is, the most interesting news, in brief:

  • From Reuters: Iraqis seize over 200 stolen/looted antiquities that were taken from the National Museum back in 2003 before they crossed the border into Syria. Yeah!
  • The "real" face of Cleopatra has been created through a combination of images of several artifacts including coins and a ring bearing the queen's image. The article reporting this offers absolutely no details about who rendered the 3D images, which made me not want to even post this, however I think the end result (pictured here) is quite controversial. What do you think?
  • Not archaeologicial per se, but apparently those "silly" Jews crucified the wrong person. The "real" Jesus is in Japan. He must have a real god complex..ok sorry I couldn't help it. 
  • There was a review of "Prince of Persia" in the NY Times recently that brought up some good points, namely, should video game makers be held accountable for the perceptions and attitudes that they shape in players of their games?

03 December 2008

Join the looters

Since I am completely without motivation to do "real" work, I thought I would read through some news instead. Exciting, I know, but while I have your attention I want to give a shout out to my mom (who is doing much better) and my cousin David who is now a father. Congrats!

Of all the news lately this article in the BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review) 
seemed the most controversal. Well known scholar Hershel Shanks suggests that, in order to curb illegal looting of archaeological sites, we should "join the looters." This means we, as archaeologists, should excavate sites and then sell our finds to museums and other organization so that we can earn money for more digging (a definite issue this day in age) and the objects will "be available for study and publication."

As many of you know or might guess, looting and the antiquities trade is flourishing not just in the Middle East (see photo on left from southern Iraq, courtesy of SAFE) but around the world. Current policy by archaeologists and others is to not purchase antiquities (though people ask me to "get" them objects all the time) and many organizations will not let you publish or present your research if it involves a looted object i.e. one with no provenience. Obviously what Shanks is suggesting goes completely against this general policy but you would be surprised (maybe not) how many people agree with him: museums, private collectors, Assyriologists (those are people who study cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia), etc.

Shanks of course misses several points. One is that current law stipulates objects unearthed in a certain country belong to said country. Now be mindful that this is no direct reflection on the actual current cultural group(s) of that country, no matter how much or how little they use the objects as political tools and trust me, governments do. Israel, Palestine, even Turkey looks at the remains of the ancient Hittites and draws a kind of national pride from it, even though the Turkic populations did not migrate to Asia Minor until millennia after the Hittites were long gone. Knowing this fact, does that mean that Hittite artifacts and material culture really "belong" to the Turkish government? No, but they are the designated stewards of that material.

Another missed point is the availability of artifacts once inside a private collection or museum. The statement of objects being "openly available for study and publication" made me chuckle outloud, especially when I think about interactions I have had with museums in trying to access material that I excavated. With both U.S. and foreign museums it can sometimes be a tedious political game trying to gain, no, earn access to archaeological materials as several of my colleauges have experienced. What makes Shanks so optimistic that museums will willingly open up their academic doors?

Finally I feel the archaeological community needs to set an example for how the public and the world should regard the ancient past, specifically archaeological sites. If we "join the looters" as Shanks suggests, we collectively instill a message to looters and the general interested public that it is "ok" to dug up sites and sell the proceeds. We run the risk of sounding like complacent parents: do as I say ("looting is bad") not as I do ("but my academic looting is ok").

I'm curious to know what my readership (all 2 of you) thinks about this issue... 
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