Barford on the Sale of Egyptian Antiquities

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.       

Barford writes:

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.  

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4 thoughts on “Barford on the Sale of Egyptian Antiquities”

  1. Overall, I find it odd that Mr. Barford is so concerned about poor locals selling what appears to be surface finds of blue ware, when that material is likely of no use to archaeological study and likely to be literally ground into dust over time, if it were not for these enterprising locals picking it up for possible sale.

    It is also interesting that the poor are willing to take the risk of severe penalties, to make at least some money to feed themselves and their families.

    Under the circumstances, I don’t think educatonal outreach or harsh penalties is the answer.


    Peter Tompa

  2. I note the word “enterprising” there. Well, as I pointed out in a comment to my original post to another like-minded collector, the pottery in question is far from “likely of no use to archaeological study” and as for “likely to be literally ground into dust over time”, the material is still more or less in the same state as it was when dropped towards the end of the eighteenth dynasty three thousand years ago, so leaving the pottery where it is for the next couple of decades or centuries does not seem likely to be endangering it. The main danger to the archaeological record here is people walking off with bits of it. The ideologies that lie behind this are indeed a matter for concern to anyone who cares about the preservation of the archaeological record.

    In the desert of course (where there is a relative lack of processes leading to burial of finds dropped on the surface) the notion of “surface finds” (ie worthless)is meaningless, most sites in such regions are by definition composed almost entirely of “surface finds”.

    As for “the poor are willing to take the risk of severe penalties, to make at least some money to feed themselves and their families”, I dont think educational outreach or harsh penalties is (sic) the answer”, I presume Mr Tompa is saying that collectors who buy illict antiquities are helping poor people feed their families when the state does not. The state that cannot assure the poor a better livelihood deserves to lose its cultural property to foreign collectors then? (Hey, wait a minute, is that not socialism? I admit I’d never have suspected Peter Tompa of being a socialist.)

    I agree wiuth Derek Fincham, we need to make the public much more aware of the damage that is done to the archaeological record by irresponsible people buying and collecting artefacts. In Britain, a start could be made with this by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but that is too busy entering into a “partnership” with those very same artefact collectors.

    1. The materials buried belong to the people on the land. If they find something then it belongs to them and they should be able to sell it to anyone that will buy them. There are an almost unlimited number of artifacts still buried in Egypt and almost all of them are insignificant. If the archeologists would get out and do more field work they could get ahead of the people selling the materials for food money. But the major finds are usually made by people looking for objects to sell then the archeologists complain and try to have the people who found the site arrested. They are lazy and feel entitled to be the only ones to look for items of historical interest. A degree does not entitle them to rule over the land that people have lived on for thousands of years.

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