Archaeologist Paul Barford has an interesting post on the sale of antiquities in Egypt. He’s had a number of interesting posts on his time on an excavation there, but I was really interested in his post Monday. He talks about his quest for some fake antiquities, and was offered some shabtis. These small funerary figurines were placed in graves, perhaps as servants meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Pictured here are shabtis on display in the Louvre. Barford states the “current modes of no-questions asked collecting are directly contributing to the creation of the market which is the motor behind the looting of archaeological sites for saleable objects.” I think I agree with him that buyers are fueling the looting of sites. But there are other contributing causes: the paucity of resources in these areas for law enforcement; the desire by visitors and tourists to buy these objects; and the lack of site security when archaeologists leave. The answer is responsible scrutiny of these transactions, but also the importance of outreach and education of these buyers and the local communities about the value of responsible stewardship of these sites and objects.
Last night in a Luxor sidestreet on my quest for the best or the most bizarre fake artefacts, in a grubby shop I’d overlooked before, I was offered several shabtis and shabti fragments which I am pretty sure were not fakes. All the dealer offered as provenance was “here and there”. After I had correctly identified the fakes he’d mixed in to test whether his customer knew his onions, he showed me a lot more. I told him that in his country there was a new law under discussion which would make merely having them in his shop punishable by up to twenty five years. I was not terribly surprised that he would not show me the “authentic scarabs” after that. Those suppliers “here and there” who sold them to him knew that these items were saleable to visiting foreigners.
The day before, I was walking across the palace site at Malkata, showing it to some colleagues, and had just replaced the cardboard “protecting” the wall paintings when a guy in a dark robe came running up. “Closed, closed, zis site he closed” he panted. He was presumably the “gafir” who was guarding this site for the SCA. Once he realised he could not make cash out of showing us the wall paintings which I’d just shown people, he then pulled out of his pocket a blue-painted sherd, the “Armarna ware” which I have seen on the Internet being sold at 300 dollars a piece and asked whether I would like to “see” it. It looked remarkably like the one I’d found there a few weeks earlier and put under a nearby bush to protect it from the sun and weather. I told him where he could put it. Interestingly this was after I had pulled out the photo-identity document issued by the SCA authorising me as an archaeologist to visit sites like this.
. . .
What is interesing about this is Malkata is littered with pottery, tonnes of it. Most of it from the Eighteenth dynasty, including some nice red wares (lovely colours), slipped ware, fine bowls, burnished ware. Yet neither of the would-be vandors had picked any of this up, they knew their market, the blue-painted pottery is coveted by western collectors and that is what they were stealing from the site to make a bit of cash. . . .
I’ve had similar experiences at ancient sites as I’m sure many of you have. Pictured here is a man selling small stone ‘zapotec’ figurines at Monte Alban in Oaxaca Mexico this summer. I don’t have the expertise required to tell if these are fakes or not. I’ve always assumed, as Barford did, that these locals are selling fakes.