Thursday, September 8, 2016

SBL Policy on Scholarly Presentation and Publication of Ancient Artifacts

The Society of Biblical Literature sent out an email yesterday to its members announcing a new SBL Policy on Scholarly Presentation and Publication of Ancient Artifacts. Essentially, the SBL Council has voted to endorse and enforce the The American Schools of Oriental Research Policy on Professional Conduct. SBL will no longer allow the initial publication or announcement--in any of its venues--of textual artifacts of unknown or illicit provenance, unless they can be documented to have been discovered and removed from the countries of their origin prior to 24 April 1972, when the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property came into effect. To some, this may be a welcome change; to others, an annoyance, to say the least. For me, it is bittersweet. I appreciate the need for greater involvement in this important ethical conversation and agree with much in the statement, but I remain skeptical of some aspects and continue to worry about oversimplifying complex issues and prematurely absolutizing short-sighted policies.

While it has been clear that a number of professional associations have been moving this direction for a while now, the decision to adopt the relatively strict ASOR policy represents a fairly hardline position in the provenance debate. For instance, the 2007 American Society of Papyrologists’ (ASP) Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri suggests that its members not participate directly or indirectly in the illicit trade of antiquities by doing anything “that adds significantly to the commercial value of the [illicit] papyri,” such as authenticating illicit material “for the benefit of antiquities dealers or other sellers.” The definition of “significant” commercial value and the “determination of appropriate behavior” are left to the prudent judgment and consciences of individual members. Recommendation 12 of the Association Internationale de Papyrologues’ (AIP) 2010 Recommendations of the Working Party on the Commerce in Papyri states only that scholars who confirm that a given papyrus was stolen from an Egyptian museum should inform the owner, request him or her to return it to Egyptian authorities, and “not assist in the marketing of such [stolen] material in any way.”

The ASOR/SBL policy III.B.10 similarly states that members should "refrain from activities that contribute directly or indirectly to the illicit markets for antiquities and to the value of artifacts in such markets through their publication, authentication, or exhibition." Probably few scholars today would feel comfortable consciously authenticating and valuing illicit materials for the financial benefit of black market antiquities dealers. This is, to put it bluntly, to be an accomplice in illegal activity. The complete prohibition of the publication of any illicit artifacts, however, is a much more uncompromising stance. Is it really wrong even to document the existence of such artifacts?

But the really controversial parts are in III.E.4:

"the publications and presentation venues of ASOR [and SBL] shall not serve as the initial place of publication or announcement of any object acquired by an individual or institution after April 24, 1972, which is the date of entry into force of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, with the following exceptions:

"a. the object was documented as already being in a collection before April 24, 1972; and further, if that object is no longer in its country of origin, it must have been legally exported;
"b. the object was acquired after April 24, 1972 but it is considered to be a forgery and is published as a forgery;
"c. the object’s publication or announcement serves primarily to emphasize the degradation of archaeological heritage."

Undoubtedly, scholars wishing to publish unprovenanced artifacts will simply publish them elsewhere. The statement says nothing about citing such publications of unprovenanced artifacts, so nothing will really change, besides ensuring an even longer delay before artifacts make their impact in the field of Biblical Studies. But still, the principle is important, since the SBL Council wants to make this policy the standard of professional conduct for its members. Therefore, even though I agree with much of it, I would like to express several reservations about the statement:

1) It oversimplifies the legal status of artifacts. The ASOR/SBL statement assumes that any unprovenanced artifact without documentation before 1972 was illicitly excavated and exported. In fact, documentation is frequently sparse or non-existent, even in some legitimate collections. It may very well be that the large majority of newly appearing artifacts are of recent (illegal) provenance, but can we really assume this across the board? Should artifacts be considered guilty until proven innocent? I'm not so sure.

2) It fails to distinguish different situations with regard to ownership and complicity. For instance, the ASOR/SBL statement disallows the publication of unprovenanced and undocumented artifacts, even if they are kept in public, non-profit institutions. Refusing to consult for the black market I understand, but refusing to publish publicly accessible primary source material that is already off the market? That is much harder for me to agree with. The two are simply not the same thing, and I would like to see much more nuance from this perspective in future discussions.

3) It makes seemingly arbitrary exceptions. There is a glaring inconsistency in the ASOR/SBL statement in the so-called "cuneiform exception." The ASOR statement makes an exception for cuneiform tablets on the basis that they have been looted on a massive scale, are relatively easily authenticated, and offer information independent of known provenance. None of these justifications are unique to cuneiform tablets, however, and many sub-disciplines could easily make the same case. This suggests to me more a political compromise to placate internal discontent than a nuanced principle, and it betrays significant weaknesses in the general statement. It may very well be that some artifacts are simply too important for historical study to be ignored, and we need carefully formulated principles to account for these exceptions. At very least, we need to find a way to factor the importance of individual artifacts relative to the potential costs into our ethical principles in a more coherent and pragmatic way.

4) It disempowers SBL members. The ASP statement "acknowledges that indirect participation is a complicated matter with varying degrees of complicity; it therefore leaves the determination of appropriate behavior to the prudential judgment of its individual members." The ASOR/SBL statement seems a significant step back towards an absolutizing tendency that fails to admit the complexity of the issues and to value the independent judgment of competent professionals. If there were near-universal agreement within the field, one could make a case for codifying professional conduct standards. But many conversations with scholars over the years suggest to me that the question of publishing unprovenanced artifacts is far from settled within the scholarly community. I sense a general discontent, both from those want to see stricter stances and those who (usually more quietly) see it as their job to document even unprovenanced material. I, for one, do not have all the answers figured out, but I do worry that the powers that be may be providing pat answers to difficult questions that might better be addressed by conscientious scholars on a case by case basis. Drawing an absolute line in the sand may (or may not?) encourage systemic change, but what do we lose in the process? It may be more than just information...


  1. This topic often surfaces in BAR articles, concerning the publication of privately owned, unprovenanced artifacts. As you indicated in point 1) because an artifact is unprovenanced, does that automatically mean that it has a checkered history? Of course not. It seems as if we are retroactively placing our modern values on those who collected these artifacts in the past. A terrible side effect of these types of policies is that many collectors of these artifacts are afraid to allow scholars to study them. It makes me wonder as to the number of priceless historical artifacts, manuscripts, and books that remain hidden in private collections, never to be studied. All because of the (sometimes self-righteous) crusading against the alleged illegal trade of artifacts.

    1. I agree that it is a problem if scholars come to be perceived as the enemies of collectors. Many collectors are conscientious about their materials and generous in allowing access. We should be in the position of advisers, not enforcers. The issues are complex, and we haven't really figured out yet how best to resolve them, but I'm sure an ethical collaboration would be more effective than open hostility.