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From the President: Untold Stories Volume 59 Number 4, July/August 2006
by Jane C. Waldbaum

Looted objects are robbed of meaning.

The Euphronios krater is a Greek vase that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought in 1972, paying $1 million for it to Robert Hecht, an antiquities dealer now on trial in Rome (see "Raiding the Tomb Raiders"). After three decades abroad, the vase is now scheduled to be returned to Italy, where it was likely robbed from an Etruscan tomb at the site of Cerveteri, north of Rome. But because it was looted we know only a fraction of what we might have learned had the krater been properly excavated.

Astonishingly, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, doesn't think much information was lost because the Euphronios vase was looted. "Ninety-eight percent of everything we know about antiquity we know from objects that were not out of digs," he told The New York Times, "How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole [it] came out of? Everything is on the vase." Nothing could be further from the truth.

The krater does provide valuable information. It was signed by both Euphronios (its painter) and Euxitheos (its potter), so we can place it with precision in an Athenian workshop. It is a particularly fine example of the early red-figure technique of vase decoration from the late sixth century B.C. Its main subject illustrates the death of Sarpedon, one of the heroes in Homer's Iliad. We also know that vessels of this shape were used to mix wine with water at drinking parties. So what could we learn if we knew more about its original context?

Context refers to the entire assemblage of things found together in a particular setting. Knowing this provides crucial information and allows us to ask further questions. For example, who was the owner? The Euphronios krater was imported from Greece, and its Etruscan owner thought enough of the vase to include it in his or her burial. Was he a local warrior who identified with the hero depicted on the vessel? What else could have been found with it? Was it part of a set of related vessels? If so, were they all made and decorated by the same artists or by different ones? Had they been used in a ritual meal or other funerary ceremony, as indicated by other artifacts or traces of organic materials found in the tomb? Were there paintings on the walls of the tomb and did they relate to the funerary scene on the vase?

More broadly, although many hundreds of "the best" Greek vases have been found in Italy, we know very little about the nature of Greek trade with Etruria and why this style of pottery was so popular there. This is because the looting of Etruscan cemeteries that began centuries ago is still going on and the contexts provided by individual tombs and by entire cemeteries have been destroyed, obliterating precious evidence of how and why two ancient peoples interacted. We are left with many beautiful objects, like the Euphronios krater, decorating the shelves of museums, but robbed of their larger stories.

Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

* See all letters from Jane C. Waldbaum and past president Nancy C. Wilkie.

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M/J 2006
President's Letter
S/O 2006
© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America