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Illicit Antiquities in the Museum

The aim of the project Illicit Antiquities in the Museum is to explore ways to study illicit antiquities in museums. Illicit antiquities are objects with a tainted acquisition history, meaning illegally excavated, illegally exported out of their country of origin, and/or traded illegally on the art market. Due to the special character of the antiquities market, illicit antiquities transform into commodities during the process of changing hands and they end as museum objects or collector’s items. In recent years, more and more classical archaeological museum objects have, however, been identified as illicit antiquities when evidence of a tainted acquisition history appeared. The number is growing, as is the number of such objects returned to their countries of origin. These antiquities are products of criminal activities, but they are not criminal in themselves. They are important part of the evidence in criminological research. But can they also be used in future archaeological research on the past without sanctioning the criminal activities that they represent in the present?

The key research question in this project is how to study illicit antiquities and connect them to contextual archaeological research. Per definition, illicit antiquities have lost their archaeological context. The hypothesis of this project is that by investigating the illicit trade and the looting of sites and combining this with knowledge from legal excavations and research on contexts, it will be possible to recontextualise a large amount of objects that have been deprived of their cultural historical meaning through looting. It must be emphasised, that this project is not an attempt to find ways to legitimise looting and illegal trafficking in antiquities. On the contrary, it is a daring attempt to openly explore ways to actively pursue full disclosure of collection and research histories in order to prevent museums and scholars ignoring this aspect in future research.

This project takes the concepts of contextualisation and object life-histories as essential theoretical frameworks. Contextualisation is not only defining an archaeological find spot, but recognising that objects move through different contexts during a lifetime. Hodder & Hutson underline the dialectic role between object and subject: the object in itself is mute, speaking only through the interpreter. In this way, contextualisation is continuously constructed in a dynamic process where past and present cannot be separated but must be seen as timeless. This is investigated through object biographies as object life-histories. The object biography traditionally covers the birth, life, and death of an object, with death traditionally defined as the end of use in the past, whereas object life-history is frequently used in studies looking at the macro-scale objectives covering entire groups of objects. In the current project, biographical studies of selected objects begin with the period after recovery: the modern history of the museum object as a precondition to study the meaning and function in Antiquity.

Methodology: Apulian red-figure pottery as case study
The project investigate the case of Apulian red-figure pottery through the study of a large group of fragments found in the antiquities dealer Robin Symes’ warehouse in Geneva has been made available for study through a long term deposit at the Museum of Ancient Art and Archaeology, Aarhus University, by the Italian Ministry of Culture. The fragments provide a unique opportunity to investigate the processes of transformation. Because the illicit fragments have been confiscated and repatriated, they are an ethically ‘safe’ case to study in order to understand the routes of the market, establish object life-histories, and work with different methods of recontextualising them. The project uses this case study to analyse three different methods of connecting the material to the archaeological area where they presumably were illegally excavated. Each method is explored in the three subprojects respectively:

  1. The market: following objects through the routes of the antiquities market.
  2. The source: matching fragments from the market with material found in Apulia.
  3. The objects: analysing chemical compositions and technology for provenance studies.

1: The market: following objects through the routes of the antiquities market 
The material from Robin Symes’ warehouse enables a study of the routes of the objects through the illicit antiquities market through the evidence found in the warehouse: c. 1,500 fragments belonging to at least 50 different vases, boxes, wrapping material in the shape of newspapers, and polaroids showing images from the same conservation laboratory. CT has for many years carried out forensic archaeological investigations and has access to essential archives (i.e. Giacomo Medici and Gianluca Becchina) to enable comparison and network analysis. The concept of object life-histories is used as framework for the analysis. This part of the project is carried out by Vinnie Nørskov and Christos Tsirogiannis.

2: The source: matching fragments from the market with material found in Apulia 
Looting in Apulia has been extensive. Satellite mapping has recently been introduced as a tool to monitoring looting, identifying more than 1,000 archaeological sites damaged by illegal excavations.. Tombs with well-preserved objects are the most interesting targets for looters, but they often leave smaller fragments behind, that can be reconnected with fragments on the art market or in museums. The part of the project will investigate the connection between illegal excavations and the material on the art market through two methods. First, by mapping of illegal excavations in Apulia in order to understand the sources of the market during the peak period of looting in the 1970s and 1980s until today studying excavation reports and interviewing archaeologists. Second, by making in-depth contextual analysis of one or two sites chosen based on information from the two other subprojects and the mapping. No study has analysed and published the evidence for looting in Apulia, and this will be an important new study for attempts to re-contextualise the thousands of Apulian vases in museums around the world. This part of the project is carried out by PhD student Marie-Hélène van de Ven.

3: The object: analysing chemical compositions and technology of pottery from the antiquities market for provenance studies The connoisseur approach has until recently been the only method to study the production and consumption of Apulian red-figure pottery (Todisco 2012, Herring 2018), but highly significant new results have come out of context analysis and archaeometry, pointing towards complex and locally-based differences in the region (Mangone et al. 2008, 2013, Thorn & Glascock 2010, Carpenter et al. 2014, Gianossa et al. 2017, 2019). Analysing the chemical compositions of the clay, technology and surface treatment can place the objects geographically within clusters of production and consumption when combined with stylistic and typological analysis. In this subproject, analysis of surface pigments and slip (Micro-XRF) will be combined with analysis of the chemical composition of clays and thin sections. This method has not yet been used on illicit material from the antiquities market and the project breaks new ground in exploring how this methodology can be used to contextualise illicit antiquities.

3D scanning and reconstruction

Activities and dissemination

Exhibition at the Museum of Ancient Art and Archaeology

International conference Contextualizing South Italian Pottery - the case of Apulia, Accademia di Danimarca 16-17. January 2023. Generously funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

Seminar on Illicit Trade in Antiquities, Aarhus University 16th June 2023

The project is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark, 
The Carlsberg Foundation has supported the production of 3D reconstructions that will be carried out by the IT Lab Moesgaard in 2023.