Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects

On Thursday and Friday, I was in Virginia–specifically at Washington and Lee University in Lexington–to attend a conference on the Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects.

It all started on Thursday evening with a keynote lecture delivered by Neil Brodie, archaeology professor at Oxford whose research concentrates on  the illicit antiquities trade. In his talk, Dr. Brodie mentioned that the network and system of laundering antiquities has changed significantly in the last 10-20 years. The old system, which comprised rare and spectacular objects, suave art dealers, famous auctions houses, wealthy collectors and large museums, is dying out. The heart of the new system continues to be stolen antiquities, but these are much smaller, portable and easily concealed (which makes them easy to miss by authorities). Promotion of these illicit objects is made via social media and traffic occurs on the websites of small, unscrupulous  merchants  or via eBay.  Prices are much lower, but the quantity of available artefact is much greater. Unlike big auction houses whose reputation is at stake in looted antiquities claims, smaller merchants simply reinvent themselves after paying a piddly sum if caught, and continue their illicit business under another name! (Seriously, something needs to be done about this!)  What a fascinating lecture that was!

Friday’s programme offered several lectures by specialists in various fields such as archaeology, anthropology, art history as well as economics and criminal justice.  The focus was primarily the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, the prey of various types of looters and terrorists. I would have liked to see more presentations concerning unprovenanced objects that have been in museum collections for more than 30-40 years, acquired when lack of provenance was not an issue. These objects are the ones that conservators of my generation have to contend with on a daily basis. These objects bought on the art market are found in most museums, especially those that have never conducted archaeological excavations in the late 19th or early 20th century and benefited from partage (the division of finds between the host country and the excavators).  Only the presentation by James Cuno mentioned the merits of partage (which he believes should be reinstate with various modifications and for a variety of reasons); he also talked about the continued role of the museum in the protection cultural heritage.

Working away from work is always fun, especially when participating in great discussions of relevance to today’s chaotic world.

Tomb of the Griffin Warrior

An article I was reading this morning replaced at the last minute what I had planned for February’s ARCHAEO-Crush.  Yes, this Mycenaean treasure is super cool…

TOMB OF THE GRIFFIN WARRIOR

Type: burial (intact, no less!)
Civilisation: Ancient Greece, Mycenaean civilisation, circa 1600-1100 BCE
Date: circa 1450 BCE

ARCHAEO-Crush: The Tomb of the Griffin Warrior (so-named because of an ivory plaque featuring a griffon found between the man’s legs) was discovered at Pylos (Greece) in May 2015 and excavated during that summer by a team from the University of Cincinnati, led by archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker.
Situated in an unexplored field near the Palace of Nestor (erected later), the tomb has remained undisturbed for 3,500 years, from the day the warrior was laid to rest until today. The discovery came as a surprise to the archaeologists, who were flabbergasted at the richness of the tomb’s contents.  Surprisingly amongst the numerous pots, cups, pitchers, and basins deposited into the grave, none are actually made of ceramic. They are all made of metal–bronze, silver or gold–speaking to the power and wealth of the man buried therein. There are several weapons, various pieces of jewellery, including hundreds of gold, carnelian, amethyst and amber beads, combs and mirrors as well as hundreds and hundreds of other objects. (More than 1500 artefacts were discovered in this tomb alone!) What most impressed me, however, were the perforated wild boar’s teeth that were part of the warrior’s helmet–just like the one given to Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad! (I don’t recall ever seeing one before, but there was a drawing that struck me in the article and you can actually find real examples in museums. A Google search led me to this one at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.)
Because of the early date of the burial (this is the beginning of Mycenaean civilisation), it is interesting to note that most objects are in the Minoan style, the previous Bronze Age civilisation of ancient Greece (circa 3650 BCE –1450 BCE). There are many other very interesting things to learn about this tomb and its fabulous contents, but it is too much to present here. I will leave the reading to you: you can find several articles here. The write-up I was reading this morning is this one.

Bucket list status: It’s a treasure I have yet to see with my own eyes. I have been discussing Mycenaean art with a colleague the last couple of weeks and when he sent me an article about the tomb this morning, I remembered that I had only glanced at the announcement of this discovery. As I actually read in depth the article, I thought it would make a great ARCHAEO-Crush post.
Additional information:  There is an official website entirely dedicated to the ‘Grave of the Griffin Warrior.‘  You can find out more about the discovery and the project, and find great shots of the excavations as well.

Back into the ancient groove

After having spent most of the past year being buried up to my neck in Art Deco automobiles and motorcycles, I was more than delighted to get back in to the ancient groove in November and December, even though I worked evenings and weekends to make sure everything was done in time. This involved mostly lectures, talks and PowerPoint presentations, but it was all related to ancient things…

On November 19,  I taught my Egyptology Seminar (it had been rescheduled from the spring because of the various deadlines for the exhibition). Also, due to this same lack of time, it was only a half day event instead of a full day affair, but it was very well attended nonetheless. The theme (well, title, really) was “Taking Care of Business at Pharaoh’s Court” and I  presented with short lectures a number of important individuals who helped shape Egypt during its long history–Imhotep and Hemiunu (both from the Old Kingdom), Ahmose son of Ibana (New Kingdom) and Mentuemhet, the mayor of Thebes during the Third Intermediate Period and the Late Period. Luckily, Dr. Bonnie Sampsell—the author of the Geology of Egypt, who happens to be not only a geologist but also an amateur Egyptologist—kindly helped by giving one of the seminar talks. She presented Senenmut, Queen Hatshepsut’s trusted architect and royal nanny. That gave me some time to breathe…

On November 21 I spent the whole day at North Carolina State University as guest speaker, invited by Dr. Dru MgGill, archaeologist at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.  I presented the scientific methods used in museums to study ancient ceramics for the students taking Special Topics in Anthropology, Pots and People: Ceramics Analysis in late morning. Then, after a tasty lunch with my colleague, I spoke to two groups taking Unearthing the Past: Introduction to World Archaeology.  I introduced them to the archaeology of ancient Sudan (Meroe and Dangeil) and mused the work of an archaeologist employed in a museum.  Few students actually think of this option when considering jobs related to archaeology and material culture.

These were intense and very tiring months, but at least I was back into the ancient groove!!

Is archaeology a dangerous job?

Ah! A question about the dangers of archaeology.

Is archaeology a dangerous job?

Madaba5Yes and no. It depends on the country in which you work. Digging in a third world country where there is a civil war or harsh living conditions: yes, it is dangerous. Digging a First Nation site north of Toronto, barely half an hour away from your home: no, it is not. Still, like with any other job, you have to be careful and aware of your surroundings and take medical precautions to avoid illness.

Symposium on digital pedagogy and research

Today, I attended at Duke University’s Nasher Museum a symposium on Digital Pedagogy and Research in Art History, Archaeology & Visual Studies.  It was actually quite interesting (all the speakers were great) and there were presentations on mapping, apps for the study of ancient monuments (Hidden Florence) and works of art, 3D scanning of historic monuments, photogrammetry, the use of drones for imaging archaeological sites (notably at Aphrodisias) or the creation of algorithms for the removal of cradles on x-rays of paintings (a plugin called Platypus created by mathematicians and the conservators at the NCMA!) On top of that, we were well fed!

At the end of the day, I dropped by the Nasher’s galleries to take a look at their new interpretive app used to colour stone reliefs of four apostles–the colours were projected onto the reliefs.  It was actually quite fun to select portions of the figures and ‘paint’ them… and there were no restrictions about which colour to be used for the skin, hair, garments…  (The Met has something like this on the walls of the Temple of Dendur although I don’t know how interactive it is).

The NCMA is developing digital applications and 3D related distance learning opportunities.  I can’t talk about those right now, but just know that they involve my collections, so you’ll find out soon enough what we’re up to!  In the meantime, enjoy the pictures of today’s symposium.

 

Investigating Agatha Christie

Are you looking for a little something archaeological to do with the family during the Holidays? If yes, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History is presenting an interesting exhibition about Agatha Christie and archaeology.  Indeed, the Queen of crime is intimately linked to archaeology: not only did she used several important historical and archaeological sites in a number of novels, she also was married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she accompanied on excavations in Mesopotamia.

Excerpts about the exhibition from the Museum’s website:

Pointe-à-Callière is mounting Investigating Agatha Christie, an original exhibition focusing on an exceptional woman whose unusual life and compelling novels left their mark on international literature. The exhibition, to run from December 8, 2015 to April 17, 2016, will look at Agatha Christie through her work, her imagination and her world, including archaeology. It is one of the major international events planned to mark the 125th anniversary of the famous novelist’s birth, on September 15, 1890.

Christie drew heavily on archaeology and history as inspiration for many of her famous novels, including Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came to Baghdad, Appointment with Death and Death Comes as the End. She also described daily life on dig sites in a fascinating little book entitled Come, Tell Me How You Live. She wrote that an archaeologist and a detective have much in common: both must come to understand an event (recent or in the distant past) using their observation skills and clues that are brought to light, piecing them together and relying on a bit of luck, too!

No wonder many archaeologists are fans of Christie’s novels!  Indeed, I count myself amongst them: I am quite fond of Hercule Poirot (slowly but surely, I have been re-reading all the Poirot stories in order). I’m very much tempted to go see this exhibition. Perhaps I might have time during the holiday…

Musing about film canisters

When I did laundry earlier this week, the ribbon from my pyjama bottom came out of the waistband. As I threaded it back on, using a safety pin, I mused about the little container I use to store all my safety pins: a photo film canister.

obsoleteDigital cameras having replaced the film ones, the little canister is now an obsolete object, a rare thing. Strangely enough, film canisters were rather useful archaeological digs back in the day. Team members would “collect” them during the year and bring them on the dig each season. We had tons! What were the film canisters used for, you ask? Well, they came in really handy to store the small tiny objects like beads and amulets, which were carefully placed inside with a label and cotton batting so they wouldn’t rattle around. Nowadays, small objects get placed in mini Ziploc bags, but they aren’t quite as protected as in the film canisters. Small objects now need to be placed in baskets separately from the big artefacts because the latter can crush the small items. In this day and age, there are probably very young archaeologists who have never used a film canister on a dig…. Heck, maybe some of them have never used film cameras!