Scholarly Engagement with Collections of Unprovenanced Ancient Texts

Brodie, N. (2016), ‘Scholarly Engagement with Collections of Unprovenanced Ancient Texts’, in Almqvist, K. and L. Belfrage (eds), Cultural Heritage at Risk (Stockholm: Ax:son Johnson Foundation), 123–142.

Since 1990, a series of of international, proxy and civil wars and associated episodes of civil disturbance throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have triggered a wave of looting, theft and vandalism of cultural heritage. The consequent illicit trade in cultural objects is criminally organised and considered detrimental to the wellbeing of civil society. Occasionally there has been fatal violence and there are reports of the trade profiting terrorist insurgency groups. An unprecedented feature of this looting and trade is the extent to which text-bearing cultural object have been targeted. Cuneiform tablets and inscribed incantation bowls from Iraq and Syria, birch bark and palm leaf manuscripts from Afghanistan, and most recently and controversially papyri fragments smuggled out of Egypt have all been reported for sale on the market. Most are sold without ‘provenance’. In other words, they are sold without any documentary proof of previous ownership history. Large private collections of unprovenanced texts have been assembled in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Japan.

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