UCL and Incantation Bowls

I’m just catching up on this story, but I wanted to highlight an excellent article by Michael Balter in Science Magazine ($) on the decision by the University College London to suppress a committee report on the investigation into the provenance of a number of Incantation bowls, like this one. David Gill over at looting matters has more on this story as well.

The article and the report it describes both raise troublesome questions over whether researchers and Universities should conduct research using objects of questionable provenance. If they do, they risk lending credibility and provenance to objects which may have been illicitly excavated.

To give a bit of background, “During the 5th to 8th centuries C.E., many people living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) buried pottery bowls under the thresholds of their houses to ward off evil demons. The bowls were inscribed with biblical passages and other incantations in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language.”

Martin Schøyen owns the bowls and had temporarily donated them to UCL for study. Though the report has not been made public, Balter reveals the report “concludes that the bowls most likely left Iraq illegally sometime after August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.” Balter indicates the report is careful not to assign any wrongdoing to Schøyen, but does criticize UCL for agreeing to store these bowls without dutifully examining how they were acquired. The investigation concludes Schøyen has solid legal title to the objects, as he has possessed them for the 6-year limitations period under the law of England and Wales, his ethical title to them is far less certain. In the antiquities trade there remains a substantial gap between the state of the law and good ethical practice.

I find it troubling that UCL refuses to release the committee report, though their reticence is perhaps understandable. They are likely wary that the committee report may lead more criticism or potential claims. The reality remains that public laws for the protection of antiquities are not working. The best option a source nation has is often to pursue private claims or a public relations campaign. Both of those are expensive and time-consuming undertakings.

Colin Renfrew, a member of that inquiry, says in the Science article that, “It is shameful that a university should set up an independent inquiry and then connive with the collector whose antiquities are under scrutiny to suppress the report through the vehicle of an out-of-court settlement.”

What UCL should certainly do is make public efforts it will be taking to avoid lending credibility to other collections of potentially illicit antiquities. Because if they had erected such a safeguard prospectively, this dispute could have been avoided.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

One thought on “UCL and Incantation Bowls”

  1. Thank you for providing context for the bowls as well as a balanced commentary on UCL’s role in studying and appraising them. I wonder whether compositional analysis can play a role in determining provenance for these bowls?

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