The Secondary Context Workshop: A Report

Site ravaged by looting, SE corner of the enclosing walls of the inner city, Al Resafa, Syria. Image, courtesy of the photographer, Thomas Schutyser

Site ravaged by looting, SE corner of the enclosing walls of the inner city, Al Resafa, Syria. Image, courtesy of the photographer, Thomas Schutyser

A Report

In the waning days of November, 2011, colleagues in archaeology and related sciences with special interest in research issues centering on the Ancient Near East gathered in San Francisco for their annual meeting. Over 800 of some 1300 members were in attendance; and of these, fully ten percent attended our workshop!

This is, by any accounting, astonishing; and testimony to the concern that continues to be generated by the prospect of scholarly research on unprovenienced artifacts.

The Workshop came to be thanks to the encouragement and support of CSIG administration and members.

For the record, it was Christopher Tuttle (Associate Director, ACOR, Amman, Jordan) who suggested that the topic “might generate some heat”, as he put it; and Christina Brody (Assistant Registrar, SFMOMA) who lent us a name she assayed in an article on the responsibility of museums to bring unprovenienced collections in their possession to light of day. Rick Hauser (IIMAS staff, Archaeological Expedition to ancient Urkesh) brought his Hollywood production experience to the mix, and it was he, with the support of CSIG President, Jaimee Uhlenbrock, who suggested that a Round Table might be in order.

This was in preparation for the 2010 ASOR Annual Meeting.

The Round Table was surprisingly well-attended. Controversy was the order of the day. We proposed a Workshop format to ASOR administration for 2011. It was they who suggested that the idea “had legs” and that we should propose instead a series of three workshops on the matter, one a year for three years.

This we did.

A compte-rendu of this year’s Workshop (I) follows.

SECONDARY CONTEXT FOR OBJECTS WITH NO KNOWN ORIGIN  A Workshop (I) about the Ethics of Scholarly Research

This Workshop will consider (in a three-year series) how the field should deal with controversial issues of study, exhibition, and publication of artifacts whose origins are contested or unknown.


International conventions and policies have been promulgated in an effort to stem if not curtail the trade in looted antiquities. As the CSIG-sponsored Round Table at ASOR 2010 demonstrated, there are deep-seated feelings regarding the interpretation of these legal measures. Some scholars feel that what we are able responsibly to do is unfairly circumscribed should our research require study of artifacts without context.  Is there a way research can go forward, given present injunctions prohibiting publication or exhibition? We aim to provide a forum for responsible discussion and dissemination of information regarding ethical issues related to study of artifacts without known origin; contribute to a clearer understanding of researcher responsibility both in the field and in the laboratory; investigate strategies for how we can collectively and as individuals combat illegal trafficking in archaeological objects of study; develop a “situational” approach to publication and display of unprovenienced artifacts; and document our collective wisdom regarding this matter as a basis for further discussion with colleagues.

NOTE: Due to the nature of this event and a volatile world situation, the participant list was subject to change. Such proved to be the case.


We adopted a somewhat unusual format. Presenters were each allotted around three minutes to pose an issue, reference a case study or otherwise from their perspective address the issue of whether or not scholars should study the unprovenienced artifact. The interventions are in no manner the final word on any given topic; they are meant rather to pose issues and to stimulate discussion.


Co-Chair (2011 Program Design) Rick HAUSER Research Associate, IIMAS International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies.  THE COMPELLING NATURE OF “VALUE” Since the inception of the enabling legislation, one concept, that of the “value” of looted artifacts, has received varying emphasis; whereas another, that of a national “culture” worth preserving, has emerged to take center-stage.

Co-Chair (Moderator) Christopher TUTTLE Associate Director, American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR). REDEFINING CONTEXT Some of you are saying that the actual place—in the soil—where the object fell, its final deposition, is not necessary to give an artifact contextual meaning. So, instead of a carte blanche policy that applies in each and every instance, perhaps what we need is a—situational—approach to context and meaning when dealing with artifacts of unknown origin.

Co-Chair Christina BRODY Assistant Registrar, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. RECONTEXTUALIZATION While recognizing the challenges of studying unprovenienced archaeological collections, I envisage a framework through which these collections may be given “secondary context”. The efforts and resources of museums directed towards acquiring questionable material are better spent researching those already owned, and shedding light on the skeletons in the closet.


I should say this year’s presentations were provocative in the best sense of the word. I myself introduced the workshop with a comment on the changing nature of “value” in the Conventions. Kevin McGeogh, member of ASOR’s Committee on Publications and Editor of the Archaeological Reports series, keynoted the session and presented the ASOR position on publishing unprovenanced materials. Bezalel Porten showed us his unprovenanced ostraca in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Christina Luke talked about the “wiggle room” in Article 2. David Owen posed several issues that by rights should be addressed by archaeologists. Patty Gerstenblith offered a number of ways objects with no known origin might be profitably and responsibly studied. Elizabeth Stone touched on the root cause of looting. Giorgio Buccellati presented one response to site presentation that addresses the issue from the point of view of an engaged local populace. Zahi Hawass stated with no equivocation that we must study all excavated materials. Not to do otherwise is a dereliction of scholarly responsibility.

Chris Tuttle, as moderator, governed  the ebb and flow of discussion, just as he did last year at our CSIG Round Table. Christina Brody introduced Luke and  Gerstenblith, positioning their remarks in the discussion. Rick Hauser introduced other filmed presentations.

We are convinced this format is a dynamic way to address complex issues that may demand close and measured examination. So it did prove, as the discussion was lively, not to say heated.

A number of issues were raised, most centering on the responsibility of researchers and how it might be possible to determine when or not a “law” (or, more to the point, an ethical stance) might be violated by the researcher. Opinions ranged from the whimsical and provocative statement by McGuire Gibson that we should “flood the market with fakes!” to Sarah Costello’s anguished statement that she might rather give up knowledge than abet the illegal antiquities trade. Various practical proposals were vouchsafed by Eric Cline, who proposed a fundraising strategy; to Herschel Shanks (“Search out every loophole! Publish!”); to Elena Corbett, who denounced the “colonialist” perspective of much of the legislative action regarding artifacts of no known origin.

It is hoped that the proceedings of all three “Secondary Context” ASOR Workshops will be made available in an up-to-date reference volume.


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2 thoughts on “The Secondary Context Workshop: A Report

  1. This was a fantastic session during the 2011 ASOR meeting. Unfortunately this type of discussion is overdue in archaeology. Most importantly the organizers presented a variety of opinions and views by different specialists, but the conversation is just starting and there needs to be more input from various specialists. As a conservator, I am often faced with a similar ethical dilemma in whether to preserve these types of materials. While the archaeologists can debate about whether or not to publish on excavated material, the objects still require stabilization to survive while the debate continues. While this is becoming a common discussion among archaeological conservators, we haven’t reached the level of organization and conversation that you are currently pursuing. I look forward to hearing more from panellists and presenters at ASOR in Chicago. I feel that conservators can work more closely with archaeologists on this issue since many times there is possibly evidence on objects that could identify the context of some materials. Sanchita Balachandran has been a supporter of these discussions among conservators and has published a few items on the topic. I think the strategy and format you have used so far is a good way of creating something that can cause change. I see ASOR as setting the example for future conversations among allied professionals.

  2. Dear Ms. Grieve, as a conservator aware of objects that “require stabilization to survive”, I’m curious how many objects (or percentage of objects) have been brought to you in irreparable condition that could’ve been preserved had they been brought to you sooner, or handled better by whomever originally found them.

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