A recent press article in the United Kingdom (Independent on Sunday, 7 October 2007), and subsequently shortened version carried by a major news agency (UPI, 7 October 2007), suggested that the incantation bowls in the possession of the Schøyen Collection may have been 'looted'. Any such assertion is wholly wrong and unsupported by evidence. The word 'looted' was used loosely with no reference to archaeological practice.
The initial UK press coverage was clear in confirming the Schøyen Collection's title in law to the incantation bowls while the news agency item, a much shortened version of the Independent on Sunday article, did not make this clear and carried other misleading inaccuracies.
These inaccuracies were substantially corrected in a subsequent news items (UPI, 11 October 2007). However, an unsupportable connection is made between the export of the bowls and the Iraq UN Sanctions Order 2003, which was retroactive to 1990. The bowls were exported from Jordan and not from Iraq and already in 1988. The connection is therefore irrelevant.
The Schøyen Collection takes seriously any imputation that it has in any way acted unethically at any time.
The Schøyen Collection's Position
Any assertion that the bowls in the Schøyen Collection might be looted is incorrect. Like most incantation bowls in public collections, these items are mostly surface chance finds and not the result of active excavation. They were also part of an old established collection that was not put together in recent years, as has been implied, but was built over many years by two generations of collectors in Jordan well before 1965 (in the 1930s) and was granted a valid export licence by the Jordanian authorities in 1988. The Schøyen Collection rejects any imputation of wrongdoing as wrong-headed and unwarranted.
As distinct from chance surface finds in established collections, the kind of looting which is a matter of legitimate concern today and has given rise to the current debate, involves much more recent site activity often in the context of civil strife or war. This is an important point of context with respect to incantation bowls for the following historical and archaeological reasons:
- Over two-thirds of all discovered incantation bowls have an unknown original provenance, being by and large surface finds, rather than artefacts found in a particular strata or location of an archaeological dig. This is inherent to their use - they were placed with the bottom up to trap the demons at the corners of rooms or under thresholds in the houses, or at the entrances of the tents. (See also Magical Literature).
- A tribesman who decades ago - perhaps more than a century ago - found a couple of bowls on the surface of the desert in the Near East and sold it in a local market is hardly a 'looter' in the context of the debate that is preoccupying the archaeological community today. Yet this is how many incantations bowls came, 'unprovenanced', into many prominent collections in the 19th and 20th centuries, including those that have become part of the Schøyen Collection. For example, some 97 of the 142 bowls in British Museum are also without original provenance and this is normal in important collections in the public sector.
The Schøyen Collection Position on Looting
With the emergence of commercialised looting at the very the end of the 20th century in Asia, Africa and the Americas, the archaeological and scholarly community, including museums and reputable private collections, have felt obliged, quite rightly, to direct their energy and funds into protecting the world's archaeological sites. We support wholeheartedly any efforts to stop contemporary looting before further irreparable damage is done.
We consider any attempt to deflect attention to private collectors and old collections to be a major diversion of energy and effort from the real task of uniting private collectors, public institutions and legislators, national and international, in one combined effort to protect and preserve archaeological sites and artefacts and to ensure their conservation and publication.
The Schøyen Collection strongly supports a tough regime for cultural protection. It also makes every effort to comply with the law in every jurisdiction in which it operates. It is a private collection and asserts the value and importance of the ethical private collector in preserving the heritage of all mankind for future generations.
The Importance of Publication
The Schøyen Collection places a heavy duty on itself to publish as fast as possible, as well as conserve, all objects of international cultural interest and historical value in its possession. We concur with a prominent American authority, who has stated:
"Looting is the uncontrolled destruction of sites; archaeology is the controlled destruction of sites. Without publication, the net result of either is the same - loss of knowledge"
Dr. David I. Owen of Cornell University in Biblical Archaeology Review Jan/Feb. 2005, p. 65,
quoting fromScience Magazine.
The Schøyen Collection is at the forefront of scholarly publication. Like the British Museum and other reputable collections, the Schøyen Collection is keen to preserve knowledge of what has been discovered and is a pioneer of publication in its own right. As part of this commitment, the first volume on the Collection's incantation bowls is expected to be published next year by Prof. Shaul Shaked at Hebrew University (after 10 years scholarly research). In fact, 60% of the holdings of the Schøyen Collection is presently under research and publication in the Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection series.
Note to Editors:
The Schøyen Collection crosses borders and unites cultures, religions and unique materials found nowhere else. The Collection, based in London and Oslo, contains over 20,000 significant manuscripts and other artefacts of major cultural importance and is an important part of the world’s heritage.
There is no public collection that has the Schøyen Collection’s unique array of manuscripts from all the greatest manuscript hoards, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Cairo Genizah of Hebrew MSS, The Oxyrhynchus hoard of classical papyri, The Dishna Biblical papyri, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic papyri, the Dunhuang hoard of Buddhist MSS, and many others. Nor is there one with such a variety, geographically, linguistically and textually, and of scripts and writing materials, covering so a great span of time — 5,000 years of history.