Daniel Silas Adamson has an outstanding longread which lays out the 19th century history of the three figures who were largely responsible for rediscovering Assyrian civiliztion: George Smith, Hormuzd Rassam, and Austen Henry Layard. He also puts the current destruction of art by the so-called Islamic State in context. Here’s a terrific account of the emergence of the epic of Gilgamesh:
Morag Kersel, an assistant Professor in the Anthropology department at DePaul has published an article in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies titled “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?“. She has posted the piece online at academia.edu. From the abstract:
Whether sponsored by academic institutions, governments, international agencies, or private landowners,the results of archaeological investigations are the same: the production of knowledge and an accumulation of things. The material manifestations (artifacts and sam-ples) and the accompanying daily notes, digital records,maps, photographs, and plans together comprise a comprehensive record of the past. Once these items havebeen amassed, they are deposited in dig houses, maga-zines, museums, repositories, storage containers, andsometimes in personal basements and garages to be heldin perpetuity. Across the globe, storage (here implyingcuration and permanent care) is one of the most pressing issues facing archaeology today. Te following examines the curation crisis and some of the traditional and inno-vative solutions to the storage wars, arguing that rather than something that is viewed as a time-consuming,costly afterthought; curation should be an integral part of archaeological praxis.
The IAL blog has a terrific preview of an upcoming interview with Kathryn Morgan, a PhD candidate and archaeologist who has dug at the ancient site of Gordion in Central Turkey. Nina Nieuhaus asked Morgan what can be done, from an archaeologist’s perspective to stem looting of sites. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Education and economic incentives are probably the two most effective anti-looting “measures,” if they can be called measures. Education, because if people value the past for itself and think that it’s important, they don’t want to loot; and economic incentives, because if they are reliably prosperous without relying on looting, they don’t have to. Alternatively, you can try to foster the idea that an excavation itself and/or the tourism that it brings is a more sustainable long-term alternative source of income than a quick loot-and-sell operation. As far as I understand it, looting often isn’t that profitable a business for the looter: he’s giving whatever he finds to a middle man, who may be giving it to someone else, and him to someone else, until it finds a legitimate seller and a legitimate buyer who hasn’t dirtied his hands with any of the illegal activity. So, for the little guy, it’s dangerous – because looting is of course illegal – and he’s not making that much money off of it; he’s not going to do it unless he has to. If you can foster a good relationship with locals – providing them with employment opportunities, buying food for the project from within the village, some projects get students to teach English or organize pick-up soccer games with the workmen – those personal relationships are key to the long-term success of your project. But that’s kind of a warm and fuzzy answer that doesn’t deal with all of the complicated motivations that real people have in the real world.
Realistically, what do we do? What can we do? The Gordion project employs a site guard year round who checks on the site. We give a map of the area to the local Jandarma, the police force, of the “most sensitive” areas archaeologically, that they need to keep an eye on. Also, in Turkey, sites that are looted or in danger of looting can be eligible for special “salvage excavation” permits. Near Gordion, several tunnels were dug into a large tumulus, looking for the burial chamber, over the past few winters. Last year, the Turkish authorities decided to excavate the tomb themselves, in a careful, scientific fashion with conservators on call – rather than allowing looters to make another attempt. The Gordion project was invited to contribute to the effort, which we did gladly. So, sometimes pre-emptive excavation is a necessary solution.
And there are other interesting insights, so I look forward to reading the whole exchange. Practical change is slow in coming to the antiquities trade.
Museums and the field of archaeology often have an uneasy relationship. Archaeologists deal in context, unearthing the history with careful study. Museums have varied missions. Some display fine art, some focus on amassing as many masterpieces as possible, others attempt to teach, or aim to give an overview of a certain period of art, or even all of human history in the case of the massive “universal” museums. But few museums grapple with archaeology in a meaningful way; and few archaeologists, apart from those who work to prevent the illicit trade in antiquities, concern themselves with museums.
That is a shame I think. The preservation of archaeological sites needs financial and material support from governments and non-governmental organizations. That support must be demanded by an interested public. Archaeologists cannot simply work in isolation without engaging the broader public in what it is that they do. Forward-thinking archaeologists would be wise to examine a powerful exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology.