A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Working with vintage collections
Once an excavation is completed and published, what happens to all the artifacts found at the site? Normally, the most attractive, complete, or significant pieces are displayed in a museum in the country where the dig was conducted. But what about the broken potsherds, scraps of metal, fragments of sculpture, corroded coins, and all the other detritus of human life typically found during the dig? In most countries, this material finds its way to long-term storage, in either museum basements or warehouselike depots belonging to antiquities departments.
Some dealers, collectors, and their apologists suggest that this material should be sold to make more space in these increasingly crowded storage areas, and also to satisfy the craving of tourists for "souvenirs." They claim that selling these unseen and unappreciated artifacts would help stem the tide of looting and illicit excavation by providing a legitimate source of excavated antiquities for the market. And besides, they say, these objects have been studied and published. They are of no further use to science, right?
Wrong! Scholars work with "old" collections every day, asking new questions and making new connections among sites. For example, since 1988, I have been researching contacts between ancient Greece and the southern Levant by examining the quantities, varieties, and distribution of Greek artifacts--mostly in the form of potsherds--found at sites in Israel. The material I study was excavated between the early twentieth century and the present and published according to vastly different ideas of what adequate publication entails. In the best of circumstances, a final report is typically only a distillation of what is found. It may include catalogs of representative finds, and, perhaps, some indication of the quantities in each category of object. It also usually includes the excavators' interpretation of a site as understood at the time of publication. But interpretations change, and scholars' understandings of what is representative or significant about a site, or about the artifacts found there, also change. And someone like me might want to compare material from many different sites at once.
To carry out my research I had to "excavate" the basements and storerooms of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Museum, and other institutions where material from "finished" digs is housed, rummaging through dusty boxes and trays. I found far more material than had been published--more sites at which Greek pottery was found, more forms of pottery than had been known in that part of the world, and greater quantities than had previously been recognized. Although the original excavators were not particularly interested in this material, the imported potsherds had been carefully preserved for future investigation and I was able to get a much richer picture of the extent of contact between Greece and the southern Levant in the seventh through fourth centuries B.C. than I could have by studying only published sources. If this material had been sold, it would have vanished without a trace as far as the scholarly record is concerned, and its poor condition and negligible monetary value would be unlikely to help stem the illicit trade in more glamorous and costly objects. And my research would be based only on the "beautiful" pieces in museum display cases, not on the wealth of information supplied by the more humble remains in the basement.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.