Originally created 11/29/97

Illegally excavated items pose dilemma for scholars



The Dead Sea Scrolls, a treasure trove of information on Jewish life 2,000 years ago, for the most part were not found as the result of carefully monitored archaeological expeditions.

In truth, many of the scrolls were illegally excavated beginning in the 1940s, and scholars went through intermediary antiquities dealers to buy some of the most important documents.

While archaeological expeditions still produce sensational finds, many artifacts are discovered by less reputable means and are offered for sale on a sometimes shadowy private market.

When collectors make artifacts with uncertain backgrounds available for observation, do scholars publicize the finds to further research in the field, without asking any questions, or do they refuse to become involved with objects that might have been obtained by unethical - sometimes illegal - means?

In a recent issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Ellen Hescher criticized Cypriot archaeologist Vassos Karageorghis for publishing privately owned artifacts obtained on the antiquities market in a catalog of terra-cotta figurines.

Dr. Hescher, chairwoman of the Cultural Properties Legislation and Policy Committee of the Archaeological Institute of America, wrote that she deplored "the role of scholars in promoting the prestige that collectors continue to enjoy despite their direct participation in a network involving criminals, smugglers and general sleaziness."

The issue of how to deal with private artifacts with unknown backgrounds arose again recently with the publication of a piece of pottery, obtained by a London collector, that may be the oldest known reference outside the Bible to King Solomon's Temple.

In an article on the pottery in the November-December issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks says no one knows where the pottery was discovered, "or at least they're not talking."

Dennis Pardee of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is one of three authors of an earlier article on the pottery in the French journal Semitica. He agreed that publishing articles about objects that might have been illegally obtained could be considered "aiding and abetting the looting."

However, he said, it's also important that information not be kept from the scholarly community.

Dr. Shanks, editor of the archaeology review, notes that some scholars "claim that the refusal to acknowledge the very existence of these artifacts is a foolish head-in-the-sand approach that does not face reality."

However, James W. Flanagan, former editor of the ASOR Bulletin, said that if scholars and museums avoided publicizing such objects, it would eventually have an effect on the illegal market.