2016: The year in Authenticity and Provenance

2016 was a big year for issues of the authenticity and provenance of antiquities. Below are some of the highlights as they seemed to us. There were many others of course, such as many reports of art forgeries and deauthentication; or Matt Sheedy’s leveraging of his reading of Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity into reflections on ‘Trump and the Tyranny of Authenticity’. There were also many other excellent commentaries on the events we discussed below in addition to what we link.

Locally, our Markers of Authenticity seminar series had an excellent year – you can read a summary here. Watch out for the new book by one of our 2016 presenters Margie Borschke, This is not a Remix: Piracy, Authenticity and Popular Music, in 2017. Elsewhere, the ‘Lying Pen of Scribes’ project based at the University of Agder in Norway held two outstanding conferences, on ‘Manuscript Forgeries and Counterfeiting Scripture in the Twenty-First Century’ in April and ‘Fragments of an Unbelievable Past? Constructions of Provenance, Narratives of Forgery’ in September (read Roberta Mazza’s report on the latter here). As well as the Macquarie-Heidelberg project ‘Forging Antiquity’ (funded by the Australian Research Council 2017–2019) and the Norwegian ‘Lying Pen of Scribes’ project, other concentrations of research of the forgery of antiquities became apparent, such as the Rice University Seminar program for 2017–2018 on Forgery and the Ancient: Art, Agency, Authorship. Alongside Christopher Rollston’s forthcoming book Forging History in the Ancient World of the Bible & the Modern World of Biblical Studies, the study of forgeries is progressing very well in many places.

Isis, the antiquities trade, and digital replicas

The trade in looted antiquities, the destruction of cultural heritage, and the replication of destroyed heritage, was kept in the news by ISIS’s occupation of Palmyra until March, when they were driven out by the Syrian and Russian armies (as they were by the Iraqi army from Nimrud, which also suffered heavy damage); yet by December, ISIS had regained control of the city. Much of the media coverage reproduced the hyperbolic assessments of the financial scale of ISIS’s trade in antiquities, (see the discussions by Chris Jones and Fiona Rose-Greenland), and occasioned debate over whether the West cared more about ancient ruins than living people (see e.g. Michael D. Press here and here). Alongside the trade in looted antiquities (often attributed to ISIS regardless of whether that was chronologically plausible or not), a large upsurge in the production of forgeries coming from Syria was also reported.

In response to the destruction of iconic Palymyrene artefacts such as the monumental arch, a replica, created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, was displayed in London and New York. While many praised the potential of such replicas to restore destroyed cultural heritage (for another initiative see here), others questioned the ethics of the industry of recreating lost heritage (see the article by Sarah Bond here). Earlier in the year, digital replicas had been in the news when two artist released a 3D scan of the head of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum Berlin which the artists involved, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, claimed had been ‘scanned … clandestinely … without permission of the Museum’. Yet it soon became clear that what had been distributed was the Museum’s own high resolution scan, raising issues about the ownership of such digital reproductions.

Here too, in the realm of looting and the antiquities trade, dedicated academic interest is heartening, such as the Past for Sale and MANTIS projects at Chicago.

Unprovenanced and forged papyri

Roberta Mazza continued her focus on papyrological provenance, including a presentation at the International Congress of Papyrology in Barcelona. There were also some excellent contributions on the post-2002 ‘Dead Seas Scrolls’ by Eibert Tigchelaar, Kipp Davis, and Årstein Justnes. By far the biggest splash in the year was Ariel Sabar masterful unmasking of the owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ wife”. Sabar focused his investigations not on the authenticity of the papyrus itself, but on the provenance, demonstrating that – as a number of people had suspected – at least one of the documents attesting to the acquisition history of the papyrus appeared to be itself a forgery. Much more remains to be told of this story (see our thoughts on the implications here), and we were pleased to learn Sabar is working on a book about the whole affair.

In October, a sensational papyrus was publicised, which purported to be ‘the earliest extra-biblical source to mention Jerusalem in Hebrew writing’, dated by the editors, by palaeography and C14, to the 7th century BCE. No sooner had it been made public, then its authenticity was questioned. The papyrus provided scholars with many of the elements which not uncommonly (but not always) point to forgery: an obscure and contradictory provenance story (which was promptly problematised further), sensationalist claims in the media (including its immediate use in controversy over the UNESCO resolution on Occupied Palestine, illustrating the continued and troubling use of antiquity in modern debates), language which was at points unexpected, and oddities in the layout of the text on the papyrus. These suggested to a number of commentators, notably Christopher Rollston (here, with follow-up here), that it could be a forgery.

Late in the year we saw the return of the ‘Jordanian Lead codices’, who most academic commentators had assumed were forgeries when they were first publicised in 2011. They certainly seemed to have many of the same hallmarks of forgery pointed to on the ‘Jerusalem’ papyrus, though here, the relationship with previously known text and images seemed even more clear. Yet the reemergence of these texts in the media drew forth comment from those who had been studying the codices at the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books, in particular a statement by Samuel Zinner which accused David Elkington (the source of the media coverage) of both sensationalism and plagiarism, and set forth a case for authenticity for at least some of the codices (the statement was posted on academia.edu, but has now been removed; a cached version may be viewed here). Notwithstanding the new testing of the lead, it’s fair to say some remained to be convinced (including us), but we should await (hopefully not for too long) the outcome of the proper investigation of the material.


In policy terms, the big news was the signing by the US and Egypt of a Memorandum of Understanding on cultural property protection in late November, which placed limitations on the import of a large range of antiquities (listed here) dating from the Predynastic to the incorporation of Egypt into the Ottoman Empire (1517 CE). While it was (predictably) decried by antiquities trade advocates, the MOU constituted an important limit on the trade in illicit antiquities, and those who advocated for it deserve thanks. This overshadowed the passing of a new German law on the protection of cultural property, which had implications for the trade in antiquities.

Over the last three years, Malcolm has had the privilege of sitting on the Society of Biblical Literature’s Task Force on Unprovenanced Artifacts, which had considered how the SBL should respond to this issue: in September, the SBL announced that it was endorsing and adopting the American Schools of Oriental Research Policy on Professional Conduct, which includes sections on the stewardship of archaeological material and unprovenanced artifacts. The statement distributed by the SBL focused on moveable artifacts, and noted that section III, parts D and E were to be applied to SBL’s Programs and Publications in the future: yet sections III.B and C, on Stewardship and Discovery, also contain very important principles which it is hoped members of the SBL will follow in the future. The SBL policy will be reviewed in two years, and there are many aspects to ponder in that time, including the degree to which the Stewardship and Discovery sections of the ASOR policy will observed by members of the SBL, and whether or not anything like the ‘cuneiform exception’ in the ASOR policy would be considered for textual artefacts commonly discussed at the SBL, especially papyri: without wanting to telegraph our position or pre-empt the debate, we are not clear on what grounds such an exception could be credibly argued. As Michael D. Press noted in two excellent posts on the SBL policy (here and here), it is unlikely that the SBL community will move quickly (if indeed at all) to totally restrict the presentation of unprovenanced artifacts in SBL venues: but if the policy helps (as it seems to be doing already) to promote awareness of the problems associated with the use of such artefacts (especially those which have appeared on the market recently) then that will have been a very useful outcome.

The adoption of this policy by the SBL means that most professional associations and societies for the study of ancient world have some form of statement which regulates their members’ interaction with antiquities. An exception has been the International Association for Coptic Studies, but at the July meeting of IACS, Malcolm and Paola Buzi were charged with developing such a policy for future considering by the membership.

It’s been a big year of developments in discussions around authenticity, forgery, provenance, and the antiquities trade, and we look forward to seeing what emerges in the New Year. See you all in 2017!

Malcolm, Rachel, and Lauren.

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