Studying unprovenanced antiquities: The question of Schøyen's incantation bowls

University College London has set up an inquiry to examine the origin of “looted” bowls on loan from a Norwegian collector



University College London (UCL) has set up an inquiry into the provenance of 650 incantation bowls on loan from Oslo collector Martin Schøyen, following claims that they were looted in Iraq. The bowls, mainly dating from 400-700 AD, were used by Mesopotamian Jews to place on doorways as a form of spiritual protection. Most are in Aramaic, with a smaller number in Mandiac and Syriac.

The Art Newspaper has established that the incantation bowls were borrowed from Mr Schøyen in 1996 by Professor Mark Geller of UCL’s Institute of Jewish Studies. It appears to have been a relatively informal arrangement with Mr Schøyen, probably the world’s greatest private collector of manuscripts and texts. Professor Geller said that “it happened spontaneously—the bowls were in London and it seemed a good idea to have them catalogued”.

Professor Geller is delighted that a major collection of incantation bowls should be available outside of Iraq, since he alleges that Jewish and Israeli scholars have been barred from publishing on the examples in the Baghdad Museum—a claim rebutted by other specialists.

Cataloguing of the Schøyen collection was handed over to Professor Shaul Shaked, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who comes to London periodically. Nearly a decade later, it is unclear when his research will be published, although he hopes that in the coming months it will be “brought closer to completion”. In the meantime access to the Schøyen bowls has been barred to most other scholars.

Jordan or Iraq?

In 1996 little was known about the provenance of the Schøyen examples, although they were accompanied by Jordanian export papers. The bowls might possibly have been discovered in Jordan, but the main area where they are found is in present-day southern Iraq, and also in adjacent areas of Iran (although Iranian bowls would have been unlikely to have passed through Jordan). Critics believe that the Schøyen bowls were taken from archaeological sites in Iraq, probably shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, when serious looting began.

Professor Shaked told The Art Newspaper last month that he has “no clear idea of the ultimate provenance” of the collection. “Bowls of this kind have been found most often in excavations in Iraq, but also sometimes in Iran. I have heard that these bowls, or most of them, were acquired from Jordan, but it is impossible for me to reconstruct their recent history beyond that.”

Whatever the provenance, Professor Shaked believes that scholars are “duty bound to investigate anything of historical significance” within their field. “Some scholars hold the view that no scholarship should be conducted on unprovenanced objects. I do not agree with this position.”

Mr Schøyen told The Art Newspaper that “solid and verified information on the provenance has been made available to the UCL inquiry”, with which he is co-operating. The bowls are currently being stored at a UCL warehouse near Euston.

The investigation is chaired by lawyer David Freeman and its two other members are Cambridge archaeologist Lord Renfrew and Sally MacDonald, manager of UCL’s Petrie Museum. Its terms of reference are about to be announced, but the key issue will be to examine the evidence on the provenance and if this is unclear, then consider whether academics should work on unprovenanced antiquities. The implications will therefore go way beyond the arcane study of incantation bowls. It is hoped that the UCL inquiry will be completed later this year. Martin Bailey

Major discovery on eve of obelisk’s return

An important discovery has been made by Unesco archaeologists who were sent to Ethiopia to prepare for the arrival of an ancient obelisk finally returned by Italy after years of delay. At the ancient site of Axum, underground chambers and arcades were found near the original position of the obelisk, beneath an area converted into a parking lot in 1963. The Unesco team, headed by Neapolitan archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, found that the site had been a royal necropolis for several dynasties before the kingdom adopted Christianity in around 325 AD. Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura announced that some of the tombs appeared to be intact. “Archaeological excavations would now be required to uncover possible vestiges of major historical interest”, he added. Axum, which dates from 100 BC, was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1980. The discovery, announced last month, was made in the central area of Axum, where the obelisk removed to Rome originally stood. It had been seized by Mussolini in 1937 and its return has been a long-running saga. The 25-metre-high obelisk was finally flown into Axum in three sections, between 19 and 25 April, and was greeted with major celebrations (above). The hope is that it will be re-erected by October.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'To study or not to study?'