David I. Owen is the Bernard and Jane Schapiro Professor of Ancient Near Eastern and Judaic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. Dr. Owen contributed several filmed commentaries to both the CSIG (Coroplastic Studies Interest Group)-sponsored Round Table (2010)  and the SECONDARY CONTEXT I Workshop (2011) at the annual meetings. What follows is an excerpt of his conversation with Rick Hauser on the intrinsic value of unprovenienced artifacts.

Below is a transcript of the recorded SKYPE conversation between Owen and Hauser:

RAH The object torn from context—does it have value?

DIO Every object has value, regardless of whether it has context or not. The degree of value, of course, varies. Tablets inevitably have a value devoid of context—it transcends context. When you have an archive like I have published recently on Garšana (Heimpel, Wolfgang. 2008.  Workers and Construction Work at Garšana. Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 5 [CUSAS]. Bethesda, CDL Press) . . .—these provide a window on the world of the period that even archaeology cannot provide.

If you saw Heimpel’s analysis of the Gar¡ana material—every archaeologist working on the Middle East has to use that book almost as a bible. It describes in exquisite detail the building of mud-brick structures from the creation of the bricks in the ground to the water-proofing of the roofs—

RAH — in the tablets?

DIO In the tablets—in absolute detail.

RAH That’s rare.

DIO Most mud-brick sites, you don’t have much beyond the foundation. This tells you how they built the walls, how much wood they used, the reeds they put in between the mud-brick levels—I mean, everything in detail—the tools that they utilized . . .—and, most remarkably, the number of women who were involved in the construction and the making of bricks, and the carrying of bricks! Does that have value? Of course it has value nobody’s going to deny.

Yes! Would we have liked to have found them in the building in which the archives were stored? Absolutely. But—how many texts have been found in excavations that are devoid of their original context—used as fill in later periods? They have no real context in terms of the period in which they were written, but they have intrinsic value because they tell you about the period in which they were written.

So, yes, objects have value outside of context. And this bugaboo that has been promoted by a small number of archaeologists that context is everything is exactly that—it’s absolute nonsense!


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  1. I encourage colleagues to comment on David’s post on a theoretical level.

    In the meantime—

    I have received the following comments from pre-doctoral student (UCL) Maximilian Pinarello, who recently visited the ASOR Blog. As Max is not an ASOR member yet, he cannot post on the blog. I found his comments sufficiently interesting to pass them along to the membership.

    His contribution reminds us that web posts are open to the community-at-large (unless password-protected). That this is so is a responsibility and an educational opportunity.

    Maximilian Pinarello comments—

    Prof. Owen’s comments are, to my mind, quite debatable. He attributes value—without defining it, actually—to the tablets simply because they carry written information that the archaeological excavation could not retrieve, and dismisses the context as extraneous. For me, this attitude short-changes archaeology (that “science” acknowledged at the same time by both old-fashioned linguistic lovers and contemporary bio/IT-geeks).

    He seems not to recognize that contextual information comes in differing degrees, some dictated by the context itself, some by excavators (for any number of reasons). This contextual information is the one sure guide that allows our interpretation, or speculation—or, not infrequently, mere guessing.

    The pre-emptory dismissal of any information gleaned from excavation is of course unacceptable, but to say that such information is completely superseded by written textual information is an extreme position that remains very odd to me. . . .

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