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Antiquated Ramblings

May 16, 2007

I’ve read several interesting pieces as of late on archeology, antiquities, and smuggling. Given my academic pursuits and interests this is nothing out of the ordinary. What is interesting is that several of these articles are from the New Yorker.

In light of recent discussions of Herod’s tomb by Dr Jim West (on whether the discovery was a robbery and the politics of archaeology) and Chris Heard’s ongoing review of Political Archaeology and Holy Nationalism by Terje Oestigaard (chapter 1 and chapter 2a), some of thoughts from the wider field of archeology might prove helpful.

In the April 9, 2007 issue of the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead has a piece called “Den of Antiquities.” The article deals with issues related to the Giacomo Medici arrest and seizure in 1995, its effects on the museum world generally, and the effects on the Met in particular. The author interviews Carlos Picón, the Met’s Greek and Roman curator who comes off as not overly concerned with issues related to stolen antiquities. For curators the value of the piece is as art, not as an archaeological remnant of a culture. Picón dismisses much of archaeologists’ concerns for findspots, in situ resting places and the like by saying that they are “more concerned about the dirt” than the piece itself.

In the May 07, 2007 New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe writes on the Indian antiquities dealer Vaman Ghiya in an article entitled “The Idol Thief.” Ghiya’s alledged pilferage was much more hands-on than that of Medici. According to the article, he actively sent folks out to carve up ancient temples, stealing the idols of active faith communities still using these venerable cultic sites. The idea of having actively used antiquities stolen right out from under the faith communities that rely upon them was quite disturbing. The article is also fascinating in showing the complicity of Sotheby’s in these shady antiquity deals clear up till the turn of the millennium.

As someone who has worked with texts and artifacts that are now in Boston, New York, London, Berlin and elsewhere due to the orientalism and colonialist ideals of nineteenth and early twentieth century collectors, I am sympathetic to Carlos Picón’s positions. I am glad that the Ishtar gates and the facades from Senacherib’s “Palace without Rival” are in Western museums rather than in the middle of an Iraqi war zone. I saw possible dissertation topics disappear into the night with the looting of the Baghdad museum. I have friends in the military who have sent me photos of what’s left of some of the larger monuments that are still left in Iraq. The effects of this war are staggering.

However, lest I be labeled an orientalist or a neo-colonialist, I do have problems with stealing one country’s past (or worse, their religious relics) to increase another country’s prestige. While the Assyrian Orthodox Church might lay claim to the history of Assyria as their own, they are followers of Christ, not Marduk. However, the use and abuse of archeology in the Levant might stand closer to Vaman Ghiya than Carlos Picón. With three religions laying claim to the same sites and relics, the political uses of archeology stand dangerously close to antiquity theft, regardless of which side of the green line you’re on.

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