Secondary Context II Announcement

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

ANNUAL MEETING 2012 (Chicago)
Considering Theory and Method for The Study of Objects of No Known Origin

Having examined the complex issues involved in research ethics and the study of unprovenienced material in 2011, we focus on Theory and Method in 2012.

Rather than asking “Should we?” or “Shouldn’t we?” study, present, publish, or exhibit objects of unknown origin, we look forward to considering how best to determine guidelines or suggested practices in an arena where opinions are admittedly complex and often contested.

In 2012, our presenters address the conscientious treatment of unprovenienced artifacts, corpora and collections. New, responsible ways to exhibit and/or publish such works are also considered.

Discussion is key.  These provocative, well-considered position papers  aim to contribute to collegial dialogue about these difficult issues and perhaps provide a blueprint for change.

If you have any further questions about the session, please contact any of the co-chairs by email.

Christina Brody (
Rick Hauser (
Christopher Tuttle (

We are anxious to work with the ASOR membership in order to craft a session that will provoke thought and stimulate meaningful exchange about the issues.

The Unprovenienced Object In Canonical Texts
Ann Shafer, American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt

It was relatively recently that our first histories of the ancient Near East were written.  In the early years of scholarship, unprovenienced finds played a central yet unproblematized role in the construction of sweeping narratives.  As such, these objects have unconsciously remained at the core of what we perceive to be ‘Near Eastern’, and still form the basis against which we gauge new finds and theories.  This workshop presentation proposes that in order to assess fully the phenomenon of the unprovenienced object – including how we publish or display such objects – we must first excavate our own intellectual history and thus the presence of these objects in our canonical texts.  As an example, this paper deconstructs one such text, The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient by Henri Frankfort.  Now in its 5th edition and still used widely in graduate training, this book might have told a different story if the unprovenienced objects had been omitted.  This paper identifies the role of such objects in the text, and then speculates on the possible ways that various new versions of this text - with or without the unprovenienced objects - might read.  This paper then invites for discussion the pivotal role of other canonical texts and their objects.  Ultimately, it is hoped that a more critical awareness of our own academic history might lead to more creative solutions for our current dilemmas.

Defining Principles, Determining Value
Sarah Kielt Costello University of Houston, Houston, TX, USA

            ASOR has, at present, a fairly clear and unequivocal statement regarding the treatment of artefacts illegally excavated or exported from the country of origin after 1970. A clear statement, yet objections are raised that it leaves too many objects “orphaned.” Despite our efforts, objects continue to “surface” without provenience. It is argued that we cannot ignore these pieces; they have too much aesthetic, intellectual, or cultural value. It has been argued that we should make exceptions for tablets, for inscriptions, for ostraca, for material that is now in museums, and isn’t going away. Shouldn’t we deal with it? There are many compelling arguments to be made in favour of “dealing with” these pieces.

Ideally, we would find a way to extract information from an artefact without adding to the object’s financial value, so that we don’t inadvertently encourage further looting. I believe that has been the principle guiding us in recent years, and the root of the many exceptions people seek to make to the principles behind our organization’s guidelines. However, I argue that a conciliatory approach will never stop the looting. We lose too much from looting to justify any compromise. Some material may go unstudied as a result. But those losses would be offset by the gains in knowledge if we could stop further looting. We must send a clear message that unprovenienced artefacts will find no harbour.

Beyond Provenience and Towards a Post-archaeological Practice: an Example of Prehistoric Figurines
Douglass W. Bailey San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, USA

            Does artefact provenience matter? This contribution presents a case-study of interpretation that succeeds without recourse to artefact provenience: a study of prehistoric figurines from southeastern Europe and Jōmon Japan. While not encouraging or validating work with looted or illegally obtained material, the argument presented here is that provenience does not matter. The important dimension is context, though context is not to be found in the precision of recording methods or the detailed mapping of artefact associations.

The question to address: what is it that we intend to produce when we construct archaeological interpretations and explanations? My suggestion is that we should explore new forms of archaeological output. These alternatives (possible supplements to traditional forms of archaeological publication and presentation) move the debate beyond zero-sum arguments over “should we / shouldn’t we” and into a new territory of post-archaeological practice.

Guidelines from the Museum Field: An Assessment of Ethical Standards for the Acquisition, Study, and Display of Unprovenienced Artifacts from the ICOM, AAM, and other Museum-Oriented Institutions
Helen Dixon University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

            As ASOR works to establish new guidelines and suggested practices with regard to presenting, publishing, and working with objects of unknown origin, it may be useful to examine the policies already in place within the national and international professional organizations of the museum field. The guidelines put forth by various committees of the American Association of Museums (AAM), the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and other organizations have already struggled with these issues and have crafted a series of policies to guide museums in navigating international legislation (from UNESCO / UNIDROIT), establishing “best practices,” and in making case-by-case decisions about acquisition and display.

Examining these museum-oriented policies will assist not only in crafting our own guidelines for academic “best practices,” but will also highlight the dangers of relying on decisions made by museums in determining what “should” or “shouldn’t be” fair game for study and publication. As we continue to wrestle with the questions that came up in last year’s workshop - Do museum catalogues count as a “first publication”? Are items on permanent loan from private collections subject to the same ethical standards as other museum collections? Is “public access” to artefacts more important than their “cultural patrimony” or the integrity of the archaeological record?

A closer examination of how the museum field has envisioned and articulated its own ethical role seems a crucial next step.

The Afterlife of Commercially Salvaged Underwater Cultural Heritage
Elizabeth S. Greene1, Justin Leidwanger2, Richard M. Leventhal3, Brian I. Daniels3
(1Brock University, St Catharines, ON, Canada, 2Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, NY, USA, 3Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Philadelphia, PA, USA)

            The rise in commercial shipwreck salvage, particularly in waters beyond the reach of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, has created a problematic category of artefacts: those that may have been legally—but not archaeologically—recovered. What principles should guide the study and display of such objects? The duty of museums as public stewards requires extreme caution in treating artefacts as shipwrecked treasure, rather than as markers of heritage. We strongly advocate against museum displays of commercially salvaged material unless they are explicitly framed within the context of responsible heritage management, collaborative research, and local community interests. Such displays should offer a primary experience to viewers about the history lost through salvage, and the intellectual meaning of responsible archaeology over aesthetic appreciation of objects.

The 2001 UNESCO Convention and the 1996 ICOMOS Charter for the Protection and Management of the Underwater Cultural Heritage stipulate against the disturbance of archaeological sites for commercial exploitation. Such activity, which profits few at the expense of many, is “fundamentally incompatible with the protection and management of the heritage” (ICOMOS 1996, Introduction). Article 2.4 of the International Council of Museums’ Code of Ethics for Museums (1986, rev. 2004) states: “Museums should not acquire objects where there is reasonable cause to believe their recovery involved unauthorised or unscientific fieldwork.”

No profit-driven activity based on the sale of objects can satisfy requirements of scientific fieldwork, nor should museums salvage the reputation of such heritage and implicitly legitimize commercial exploitation through exhibition.

Provenience Research and Methodology—Don’t Forget the Laws and Ethics!
Christina Brody San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA, USA

            Studying unprovenienced archaeological objects can be tricky.  As the objects by definition lack reliable contextual information, traditional archaeological research methodologies may not be the most appropriate.  Stylistic approaches do not place enough emphasis on the object’s role and use in society. Given their unique concerns, unprovenienced objects also require legal and ethical research.  This presentation offers an abbreviated methodology for use in studying unprovenienced archaeological collections.

The presentation will highlight a model for 1) recontextualizing an unprovenienced archaeological object; 2) researching appropriate legislation to determine the legality of the objects; and 3) studying relevant ethical codes to note the stance of professional organizations on the subject.  A material cultural model develops a secondary context for objects to determine which laws and ethics are appropriate to study.  The legal and ethical model outlines specific questions to note when examining legislation and ethical codes so that relevant information can be applied to unprovenienced archaeological material.  Asking these questions teases out the vital background necessary to determine the legality of the objects and to highlight the ethical concerns with regard to archaeological objects lacking primary contexts.

The nature of unprovenienced archaeological collections requires that legal and ethical research be an integral part of their study.  This research is paramount in determining whether or not the work should be published and or exhibited.


The Fly in the (Epigraphic) Ointment: A Palaeographer’s Reflections on Market Inscriptions
Christopher Rollston Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, TN, USA

            Although some have protested loudly to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that Northwest Semitic inscriptions from the antiquities market are a serious problem.  This problem has been compounded by the fact that some scholars have deemed some modern forged inscriptions to be ancient, and some scholars have deemed some ancient inscriptions to be modern forgeries.  Obviously, the epigraphic dataset is corrupted by such proclamations.

Building on some of my previous publications on this subject, this paper will emphasize the methodological procedures necessary to protect the purity of the dataset.  Furthermore, some attention will be given to the use and the misuse of laboratory testing of epigraphic objects.

Caveat Eruditus.

From Judah to Berkeley:  Pillar Figurines on the Move
Aaron Brody1, Benjamin Porter2, Stephanie Brown0
(1Pacific  School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA)

            In the fog-brushed hills of the San Francisco East Bay, caches of Judean pillar figurines have been discovered in ritual curation contexts that are nominally classified as ‘museums.’  What does their presence in these conspicuous zones of twentieth-century consumption tell us about their use and associated meanings?  The authors consider two different figurines, both associated with remarkably different and complex storage facilities. The object in the Bade Museum of Biblical Archaeology (M1608) was found with other artefacts whose provenience documents suggest is linked to a now-ruined Levantine settlement called Tell el-Nasbeh.  The other figurine (n=1), located in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, has no associated written sources, but was found adjacent to other objects from Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mediterranean societies.

These different find-spots of similarly fashioned figurines, only blocks away from each other in space, give rise to different narratives of curation.  The guardian curators of these figurines will decipher the strange and exotic disciplinary practices that led to their deposition.  They will also consider the limits and possibilities of interpreting these figurines given what is known of their circulation from Judah to Berkeley.


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