Thursday, May 26, 2011

Smithsonian magazine published looted artifacts

The May 2011 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the Maya site of El Mirador (Brown, Chip,  2011,  Lost City of the Maya. Smitsonian 42(2 (May)):36-49.). The article includes photographs of several spectacular Maya polychrome vessels (p. 45) that apparently are not from the site. In fact, we have no idea where these vessels are from; they lack provenience. In a post on the Aztlan listserv today, Karen Bruhns identifies these vessels as unprovenienced, looted, objects.

In a subsequent email, she notes that at least one of the vessels are from the notorious "November Collection" of looted Maya art that caused a stir when it was exhibited in a number of U.S. museums in 1998 (New York Times article). This collection was featured in the very interesting and enlightening paper on archaeologists and looters by John Dorfman:

Dorfman, John   1998    Getting Their Hands Dirty? Archaeologists and the Looting Trade. Lingua Franca 8(May-June):28-36.

One might expect that magazines by and for wealthy art dealers might publish looted objects without a second thought. But Smithsonian Magazine is supposedly a legitimate source of news about natural history and related topics, associated with the premier museum in the U.S. Their inclusion of photos of looted objects is deplorable, a real ethical lapse.

For some context on the antiquity trade and its negative impact on the archaeological record, see these blogs:  Looting Matters blog, Illlicit Cultural Property blog,  or some of these works:

Atwood, Roger
2004    Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Brodie, Neil, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke, and Kathryn Walker Tubb (editors)
2006    Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Brodie, Neil and Colin Renfrew
2005    Looting and the World's Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:343-361.

Renfrew, Colin
2000    Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. Duckworth, London.


Carey Winfrey said...

There are three photographs on p. 45 of the article about El Mirador, in SMITHSONIAN’S May issue, representing, clockwise from top left, a vase, a detail of a drawing from a photograph of a vessel, and a plate. According to Dr. Richard E. Hansen, chief archaeologist at El Mirador, the vase, vessel and plate are all from the Mirador Basin. A photograph of the vase was supplied to us for publication by the Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation, a non-profit organization working to repatriate archaeological artifacts to Guatemala. The foundation’s stated purpose is “to rescue, conserve, preserve and study these artifacts while increasing public interest and regard for the Mayan and Mesoamerican cultures through education and publications.” (Both the vase and the plate are part of the foundation’s collection in Guatemala.) The drawing, which was commissioned by Dr. Hansen and photographed by our assigned photographer, Christian Ziegler, hangs on a wall in a bungalow at El Mirador. The plate was photographed for publication by Mr. Ziegler in Guatemala, under the direction and supervision of the Ruta Maya Foundation and archaeologist Claudia Quintanilla.
Carey Winfrey, editor, SMITHSONIAN

Michael E. Smith said...

As the references I cited indicate, the key question for archaeological ethics is not what region the objects are from, but whether they were likely looted or not. Although I am not an expert in Maya pottery or the antiquities market, it looks to me like these pots were probably looted -- that is, obtained by illegal excavation.

When looted artifacts are published in a magazine like Smithsonian, their commercial value is increased, and the commercial value of other, similar pots, also goes up. This can have the effect of stimulating more looting and more illegal trade in looted objects. When archaeological sites are looted, the damage to the sites, contexts, and objects, cannot be undone. It is permanent.

As explained by the sources I cited (and many other works as well), the publication of looted objects like this is harmful to the archaeological record. It also violates Principle 3 of the Principles of Ethics of the Society for American Archaeology:

Karen Olsen Bruhns said...

As i originally pointed out, there is no doubt that these painted vessels, wherever they are from and there is absolutely no archaeological evidence as tot heir provenience, were looted. That is the only way pieces enter the international art market. The Ruta Maya people may have good intentions, but they are still collectors and hence encouraging the destruction of archaeological sites and Guatemalan history for profit. However, my point was, and is, that NO journal should tart up articles with looted artifact. This is an appalling lapse of intelligence and ethics. These pieces are looted. Hence they were acquired by illegal actions. To publish such pieces is to tacitly acquiesce to looting, smuggling, and the vending of stolen goods. That Smithsonian should do it, and offer such puerile excuses, is not defensible.

Karen Olsen Bruhns

Michael E. Smith said...

I think Smithsonian magazine is going to publish Karen's letter to the editor on this matter. Perhaps the editors can come up with a more appropriate reply than Carey Winfrey's above comment.

David Gill said...

For the issue of publication:

Brodie, N., and D. W. J. Gill. 2003. "Looting: an international view." In Ethical issues in Archaeology, edited by L. J. Zimmerman, K. D. Vitelli, and J. Hollowell-Zimmer: 31-44. Walnut Creek (CA); Oxford (UK): AltaMira; Society for American Archaeology. (esp. pp. 39-40 where Mayan pottery is specifically mentioned.)

Michael E. Smith said...

I forget to put a link in to a post from a couple of years ago about publishing objects of questionable provenance:

Following those guidelines, the balance is clearly AGAINST publication of these pots by Smithsonian magazine.

Adam Sellen said...

I think this is a very interesting and timely discussion but at the same time I’d like to point out that there are more than a few wrinkles in these ethical issues. I am in agreement that the Smithsonian should not have published those vessels, but this view only evidences my own experience in the matter, that I will now put out there for consideration.
Through FAMSI (a site heavily visited and patronized by archaeologists) I maintain an online catalog of Zapotec effigy vessels, with over 500 examples currently in the database. The catalog came about because there were so few examples of this type of ceramic effigy from controlled excavations that I deemed it necessary for my dissertation to add objects that were in museum collections from around the world. The majority of these artifacts are from nineteenth-century collections (Looted? Maybe. But keep in mind that the meaning of that term has changed over time), while others are from twentieth-century private and public collections. Basically, I was attempting to document everything I could for the purpose of broadening the comparative base, and then I felt this would be a useful tool for specialists. So I published it. An important issue for me was to identify, as far as possible, the collection history of these objects in an attempt to reveal provenance and provenience. Using a historical method and a great deal of archival research I have been successful in reconstructing the archaeological context of some of these objects, and have even uncovered certain individuals who were involved in illegally exporting materials out of Mexico. (They are duly named in the database.) Furthermore, the objects are presented as line drawings and not photographs, but perhaps this does little to mitigate the overall ethical issue.
In contrast, on the FAMSI site I share the same “resource” tab with other online databases. For example there is the Justin Kerr Catalog of pre-Columbian material, that presents a diversity of ancient objects from Mexico with excellent color photography and spectacular roll-out images of Mayan vases. Much of this material has dubious provenance and the database lacks specifics regarding their collection history, presumably to protect the collectors involved.
I would like to think that the treatment my database gives the materials compared to the Kerr example is significant: mine fully documents and can track the movements of illicit objects over time, while the other emphasizes the esthetics of the objects and does little to reveal their origin or even present location. However, I can see how a criticism could be raised that despite my attempts at transparency and an interest in fostering an awareness of illegal collecting, one could still argue that I am publishing unprovenanced artifacts. So, are there not specific cases where one can, in clear conscience, publish this material?

Michael E. Smith said...

Adam- As you point out, this is not an area of black-and-white actions. I talked about some of the considerations involved in a posting in May 2008:

To me, the current location of pieces (e.g., private collector vs. a museum) is a big factor for deciding whether to work with pieces that may have been obtained without scientific and legal procedures. And I find a difference between using materials for serious research purposes (which you do) and publishing them merely to illustrate something in a commercial magazine.