Monday, November 9, 2009

Incantation Bowls Story Recycled Yet Again

Lord Renfrew's efforts to shift the burden of proof to collectors in the U.K. may have failed for now, but his reference during a House of Lords debate to Jewish incantation bowls allegedly stolen from Iraq has led to yet another story about them years after the initial controversy had subsided. See

The story fails to detail the basis for the conclusion that the bowls originated in Iraq as opposed to Jordan, but the article does go onto gratuitously claim that such stolen antiquities help fund insurgents in Iraq.

This incendiary claim has also been disputed. Indeed, a New York Times reporter that has specifically looked into the issue has characterized such claims as a "red herring." See: ("Garen: I think this is an important point about the link between looting and terrorism, and I know that that was made in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, but we were actually the ones that discovered that potential link. We never published it. We were freelancing for the New York Times. We never wrote a story about it because there's no proof. And I think it was a bit of a red herring.")

The article also fails to explore the distinct irony that repatriating Jewish artifacts to a country that has systematically destroyed its Jewish culture poses. See

Is there anything else going on here? One certainly wonders if this incantation bowl story comes up over and over again at least in part because archaeologists are miffed that epigraphists continue to see value in the study of unprovenanced artifacts. See Even worse, could anti-Semitism also be part of the mix? See


chr said...

It is not anti-semitic to be concerned about the integrity of Jewish archaeological heritage. In context, the incantation bowls that are the subject of the suppressed UCL report constitute primary evidence for scholars interested in the historical geography and economics of the diaspora. Out of context, they have become an object of controversy for scholars interested in academic censorship and academic politics more generally.
It is true that there is precious little evidence in the public domain to support the link between looting and terrorism. That lack of evidence should not be taken in turn as evidence that there is no link. The trade is criminal one, and as such it is open to “taxing” by criminal organizations, including armed ones. Very little is known about the illegal trade in Iraqi antiquities, and until it is, it might be wise to avoid making pronouncements one way or another about its broader articulations.
It is worth pointing out in this context that research into the trade is extremely dangerous. It will not be easy to uncover the exact nature of criminal involvement. It is sad but true that it remains much easier to study the products of looting than it is to study the looting itself. That fact raises an important ethical question. It is an obligation of university-based academics that their work should not cause public harm. At the present time, when nothing substantial is known of the organization of the trade, academics studying looted material such as the incantation bowls can only do so in willful ignorance of any public impacts, whether positive or negative. Until they can demonstrate publicly and empirically that their work does not cause public harm, they should desist, and public funding bodies should withhold support.
Sly insinuations of anti-semitism might be good advocacy tactics (though that is questionable), but they are no substitute for systematic research and reasoned argument. The release of the suppressed UCL report into the public domain would further that process.
For the back story to the UCL report, see here:

Neil Brodie

Stanford Archaeology Center

Wayne G. Sayles said...

Dr. Brodie's view about the trade in cultural artifacts is much like EPCOT center's popular attraction "Imagination" -- it's based on Figment. As an active participant in the ancient coin hobby and trade for more than 40 years, I have never seen or heard of even one case of the sinister activity that he alludes to. For a "university-based academic", who is trained to qualify every assertion with an unimpeachable source, this is quite a departure from the ethics of that trade. He admits himself that there is a lack of evidence to support his view.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thank you for both your comments.

As to Dr. Brodie's views about the integrity of Jewish archaeological heritage in Iraq, hasn't Joffe reported that Jews were systematically erased from the archaeological record by archaeologists working under the previous Baathist regime? Under the circumstances, it is not at all certain that the bowls would have been scientifically excavated had they been found in an official excavation. (More likely they would have been destroyed-- or sold off like those at issue).

Though Dr. Brodie also states unequivocally that the trade is a "criminal one," does it not actually reflect the society in which it operates? Of course, if government fiat makes all antiquities property of the state, any trade in antiquities will be "criminal" -- at least according to the powers that be. But in countries where that is the case, like Iraq, doesn't it also follow that the law will most likely not be applied equally and the connected elites will be able to collect what they want? This was true in Iraq of Saddam and appears to be as true today in the new Iraq. See

Better to have licit markets where regulation is applied equally to all rather than illicit markets where how the law is applied depends on who you are or who you might know.

Finally, as to the issue of anti-Semitism, Prof. Gellar's post speaks for itself. For more on this topic, see


Peter Tompa

chr said...

Accusations of professional incompetence are a bit like allegations of anti-semitism – poor advocacy and no substitute for reasoned argument and systematic research. It is true, as I said, that there is no good evidence in the public domain for a link between the Iraqi antiquities trade and terrorism. I could have gone on to say that there is evidence of a link between the trade in Afghan antiquities and armed groups. I could clog up the blog with a referenced account, and will do if called upon, but suffice to say that the evidence exists. The income derived by warlords from the antiquities trade is not much compared to what they take from the drugs trade, but it is there nevertheless. It is also clear that scholars involved in the study of Afghan material, particularly texts, are responsible for authentication, translation, and establishing the criteria of rarity and interest that impact upon price formation, and thus are indispensable for the efficient operation of the market, and partly responsible for money going to warlords.

Joffe actually reported that “one wonders then where in the extensive documentation of Iraqi archaeology of the past decades, or century, one finds evidence of the 2500 year Jewish presence, aside from incantation bowls and personal names in ancient texts.” ( Presumably, the evidence of incantation bowls is fast disappearing due to the demand of collectors and academics outside Iraq. I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that Iraqi archaeologists have systematically destroyed excavated bowls. On the contrary, there are hundreds of bowls curated in the Iraq National Museum.

The “legal market no crime” argument is a tired one and has been refuted many times.

The intimation of anti-semitism in the original posting was made in the context of archaeological concerns over the incantation bowls. Geller’s allegation was made in a completely different context. While we might disagree about cultural property issues, poorly aimed slurs have no part in the debate.

Neil Brodie

Stanford Archaeology Center

Cultural Property Observer said...

Dr. Brodie- You apparently see no possible connection between the anti-Semitism of the Iraqi archaeological establishment past and present (with whom members of the Western archaeological establishment have happily and uncritically collaborated both during Saddam's time and now) and the efforts to attack the study of unprovenanced Jewish incantation bowls by Jewish academics through articles in the Guardian newspaper.

Yet, as noted in the UCL link, did not that very same paper confront Mark Geller (who was responsible for working out the agreement to study the bowls) with the allegation that he was supposedly going to go to the Museum under the protection of US forces to "spy out" other bowls of interest at the Iraq Museum? What gives? A mere coincidence?

As to the bowls currently in the Iraq Museum, do we know when they were excavated? Have they been published? If so, were they excavated before or during Saddam's time? Have any been excavated since?

As to Afghanistan, one man's war lord is another's tribal leader. Antiquities trading has a long history in Afghanistan and was done quite openly until the Communist coup in the late 1970's. The traders then decamped to Pakistan where I understand they still operate. In any event, presumably many of these same tribal leaders are associated with the government in some fashion. Yet another example of the law (presumably helpfully suggested by Western archaeologists after the fall of the Taliban) is not being applied equally.

In any event, I'm afraid I remain unmoved and feel it possible that anti-Semitism may be in "the mix" behind this incantation bowl controversy. Can you entirely discount that possibilty? Or, are you relying on the assumption that archaeologists are above reproach?

I should also note that the link you originally provided as for the "back story" on the bowl was inactive when I tried it. If there is some information on that point there, please resend it.


Peter Tompa

Voz Earl said...

Neil Brodie stated:

"It is also clear that scholars involved in the study of Afghan material, particularly texts, are responsible for authentication, translation, and establishing the criteria of rarity and interest that impact upon price formation, and thus are indispensable for the efficient operation of the market, and partly responsible for money going to warlords."

This argument is a bit like blaming the hammer manufacturer when someone uses a hammer to commit a crime. Following the "do no harm" logic, since the commission of the crime was facillitated by the hammer, the manufacturer must cease making hammers altogether?!?

Is not a translation of an ancient text of use to scholars and researchers as well? The fact that antiquities traders are able to use such scholarly output to enhance their profit does not mean that the output itself should be condemned or that those producing it should be judged unethical.

Voz Earl