Wunderkammers, colonial hangovers and multivocality.

The recent Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Central museum looked at the origin of the museum in the Cabinets of Curiosities (‘Wunderkammer’ in German) of the early modern period and shows how these private collections evolved into the modern museum. In previous posts, I reviewed the exhibition, discussed the Egyptian artefacts, and considered the Alan Sorrell paintings of Nubia. Here I reflect on what lessons I have taken from this excellent exhibition.

In addition to the intersections between collecting, colonialism, and orientalism, the exhibition also reflected upon curatorial imperatives. These ‘broke down the Wunderkammer’ into new categories and developed a coherent narrative for visitors with fewer objects, dedicated display and information boards, museum trails and digital and interactive components. The exhibition notes that some museums maintained the eclectic approach to object display, first exemplified in the earliest Wunderkammer, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum which continued the ‘eccentric ordering and dense displays of its founder’. This ‘Wunderkammer style’ as I term it, persisted because ‘the appeal of miscellaneaous collections of artefacts remained’. The Wunderkammer exhibition does not interrogate this further, due to time and space constraints, but it certainly merits consideration not least because the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology also retains the Wunderkammer style of limited information boards and large numbers of objects on display.

A large hall filled with full display cases
Photo of the interior of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, showing the Wunderkammer-like display. Taken in 2015 by Geni (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43537596)

The Petrie Museum – a Wunderkammer of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology

It won’t be a surprise to anyone who has spent time in the Petrie Museum, that ‘the appeal of miscellaneous collections of artefacts remains’ as one of the information boards puts it. Like the Pitt Rivers, the Petrie Museum makes use of full cabinets and object-heavy spaces although there is an archaeological logic to their ordering. Unlike the Pitt Rivers, this is not from any ideological stance, but rather a lack of space in the present museum premises. Nevertheless, a lot of visitors seem to enjoy the museum’s style and the large number of objects that are on display. For some, this may be a nostalgic memory of childhood museum visits before many museums had shifted to sparser object displays. For others, it ensures that there will always be something on display that appeals to their specialism, no matter how niche. Object-intensive displays and more limited signage also allow visitors to enjoy the collection from their own perspective, seek out objects that interest them, and create their own narrative. Although moving the Petrie Museum to a more appropriate and larger space is a significant aim of its current management, there are those who would mourn the busy, object-intensive layout of the current premises.

A small room containing full display cases of Egyptian artefacts with a table and additional display cases in the centre
Inside the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology (Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69515822)

Colonial hangover

The Wunderkammer exhibition clarifies the relationship between collecting, the Wunderkammer, Museum, colonial power, and the racist objectification of other cultures. The eclectic and arbitrary display of Native, Indigenous and foreign objects amongst ‘curiosities’ of the natural world, contributed to the othering of their original cultures and reinforced orientalist and racist tropes. ‘Wunderkammer’ style displays, therefore, have their origins in the ‘othering’ of ‘exotic’ objects from other cultures and may be construed as a colonist hangover. The Pitt Rivers Museum has warned visitors that its much-loved displays will be changing as it addresses its colonial origins and redeploys its objects in more ethical displays. Like every museum of the 19th and 20th centuries and earlier, the Petrie Museum also has colonial origins and is named after a prominent Eugenicist who collected ancient skulls for racial profiling. Its situation is somewhat different from the typical Wunderkammer, both in terms of the sources of its collection and its organization. The typical Wunderkammer comprised a collection of objects of often unknown or uncertain provenance. The objects were considered sufficient in and of themselves. The Petrie collection is very much the opposite. Many of the objects in the Petrie collection came from permitted and controlled excavations and can be contextualised using archive data and published excavation reports. Projects such as Artefacts of Excavation contextualise the Petrie museum objects as both components of an archaeological site and products of a specific period of archaeological investigation in a colonial context (Stevenson 2019).

A pottery rectangular 'cage' with air slits, partially broken, about the size of a large brick.
A pottery rat trap, excavated from the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun (UC16773). Photograph from the Petrie Museum collection

The Petrie collection also organises itself according to modern curatorial methods, rather than the somewhat haphazard appraoch of an early modern Wunderkammer. As a teaching museum, the Petrie Museum objects are organised according to archaeological categories; pottery, carved stonework, beads and jewellery etc. Rather than ‘othering’ or treating objects as ‘exotics’ or curios, these categories normalise the objects as part of ancient Egyptian and Sudanese cultures. Many familiar and everyday objects are on display, including a rodent trap (left), emphasising the shared humanity of their creators and the visitors. Where possible artefacts from the same assemblage are displayed together, sometimes with archival documents relating to their excavation (image below), reflecting their archaeological context and the importance of artefacts and archaeology as a cohesive whole. Of course, it is always possible to criticise organisational schema. The archaeological categories are those of the early 20th century and later European archaeologists, not ancient Egyptians. A more contextual display, which reconstituted assemblages and explored the original location and findspots of the objects would be preferable in allowing the objects to ‘speak’ for themselves as cultural heritage, and reveal how artefacts are only one aspect of archaeology. Nevertheless, such contextualisation is possible for the Petrie Museum. Although the Petrie Museum is in the Wunderkammer style and susceptible to criticisms of that format, it differs from that format in certain ways, revealing how the origins, content and use of a collection can mitigate problems of style or display.

Two shelves of a museum case, with pottery vessels on the top shelf and at the back of the lower shelf. In front of them are various items of jewellery in different stones and Egyptian faience. On the wall of the display case to the left is a sign showing three skeletons with various objects located around them.
Case in the pottery section of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology, with an assemblage of objects from tomb 7578 at Qau el-Kebir, presented alongside a reproduction of the tomb card (on the wall of the cabinet to the left) showing how the objects were laid out around the burials. (Author Photograph)

Wunderkammer problem or museum problem?

The colonial hangover of the Wunderkammer is perhaps best exemplified in the series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects‘ (hereafter ‘100 Objects’). This series was a kind of modern, non-corporeal ‘Wunderkammer’ – a way of collecting ‘one of everything’, of encapsulating our understanding of the world through a series of objects from the British Museum picked by a white male curator. Its view of objects, as representative of a single historical ‘other’ interpreted by an authoritative curator figure; and museums, as repositories of these objects and sites of interpretation and control of them, have much in common with the historical Wunderkammer. Like the Wunderkammer, 100 Objects had a distinctly colonialist feel and was widely criticised for that. These criticisms reveal much more about the flaws in the Wunderkammer style. It is neither the eclecticism, nor the large number of objects ‘displayed’ (whether digitally or physically) that is the problem. Rather it is the centring of an elite, white, predominantly male, Europeanist view of the world, which extracted the objects as part of an imperialist project and now claims to have the authoritative interpretation, excluding and ‘othering’ the cultures which produced those objects.

Significantly this problem is not intrinsic or exclusive to the Wunderkammer style but can just as easily appear in a modern setting, with a carefully laid out trail of easily visible objects, informed by signage and sensitive to the visitor experience. The curator sets the narrative of the modern exhibition or gallery space, thus the story of the exhibition depends on the curator’s perspective. A curator with the same perspective as 100 Objects, will produce a similar exhibition narrative. Furthermore, since a modern exhibition or gallery space contains fewer objects, and those are specifically chosen to further the curator’s narrative, there is less opportunity for the visitor to have a different experience from that which was intended. Counter-narratives, which may reject the curator’s position, or individual perspectives, of specific relevance to a visitor’s personal experience, can be lost.

Wooden boomerang, large throwing club and throwstick in a glass case.
Boomerangs, throwing clubs and throw-sticks of Australian Aboriginal origin in the Wunderkammer exhibition. Different groups with different interests will inevitably have different experiences of an exhibition or gallery. (Author photograph)

Wunderkammer and multi-vocality

A great example of the possibilities of individual perspectives from multiple people is the ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in One Object‘ project (hereafter ‘100 Histories’). Conceived as an explicit rejection of the curatorial narrative of 100 Objects, 100 Histories provides a nexus for previously unknown and unseen object histories by communities excluded from traditional museology. With the entire British Museum catalogue at the disposal of contributors from any group or perspective, 100 Histories emphasises multivocality and interpretation by multiple individuals and communities beyond curatorial dictate. It offers the possibility of new perspectives, the inclusion of previously excluded groups, and restores the value of the personal meaning to the individual visitor. Seeing the Wunderkammer exhibition makes me wonder if the inclusion of more objects either physically or digitally displayed, could in future be a format for generating a multiplicity of stories and visitor experiences while also maintaining the integrity of the curatorial narrative.


Stevenson, A.  (2019). Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. London: UCL Press. Available open access at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/scattered-finds


The afterlife of the Prittlewell Prince

In my two previous posts, I discussed the effect of visiting archaeological tourist attractions on me and upon the public perception of archaeology. Despite the hard work of curators, managers and excavators, archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites can feel somewhat sterile to the archaeologist and generate misconceptions about archaeology amongst other visitors. These misconceptions lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology in the public consciousness. I believe that better communication by archaeologists about archaeological practice and increasing the numbers of people who are able to take part in archaeological activities can help in correcting these misconceptions and laying to rest various myths about archaeology and archaeologists. Correcting these misconceptions and laying these myths to rest certainly has important implications for the reception of archaeology, but it can also influence public policy in positive ways. The Prittlewell Princely burial offers a curious example of how misconceptions about archaeology and the myths they generate can have a negative effect upon public discourse and policy more widely.

Public policy and the Prittlewell Princely burial

Map showing the location of the Prittlewell Princely burial
Location of the Pirttlewell Princely burial. (Map by Openstreetmap contributors from Wikimedia Commons on a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license).

The Prittlewell Prince was discovered in 2003 during excavations in advance of a road-widening scheme on the A127/A1159. The burial site was crammed on an oval of undeveloped land between the cutting of the Southend to Liverpool Street railway line to the east, the A127/A1159 main road to the west and south, and further development to the north. The planned road-widening scheme would have extended the A127/A1159 into a dual carriageway, necessitating building over the oval of land where the burial was found. The discovery of the Princely burial proved a focal point for anti-road protestors, who moved into a temporary camp (Camp Bling) on the site. Local residents resoundingly rejected the road-widening proposal during a subsequent consultation. After much debate, the council reduced the scope, and later shelved the scheme. The A127/A1159 remains unaltered to this day.

Protecting the Prince

Much of the local opposition to the road-widening proposal was rooted in a desire to protect the Princely burial. The threat to the Princely burial was emphasised by media coverage. In July 2005, The Guardian asked ‘is it worth destroying the burial ground of an East Saxon king?’ After the Council reduced the scope of the scheme in 2009, BBC News noted that the new plans would ‘leave the eighth-century burial site . . . unaffected’. Archaeologically speaking, the BBC’s statement is so ridiculous as to be laughable. At the time these headlines were written, the ‘eight-century burial’ had already been affected by the road-widening scheme. Thanks to the road-widening proposal the Princely burial had been discovered, excavated and removed in 2003. By the time the BBC trumpeted that the burial would be unaffected, it had already been destroyed; meticulously, with the greatest care and most careful recoding methods offered by modern archaeological techniques. Any concerned citizens of Southend who voted against the road-widening to protect a Princely burial did so based on a false premise – that there was anything left on the site to protect. At the same time, the focus on protecting the burial detracted from good environmental, social, and town-planning reasons to oppose the road-widening scheme or propose an alternative.

Reconstruction of the Prittlewell Prince's burial chamber showing a wood-lined chamber with a body in a wood coffin in the centre and various artefacts laid out around the walls.
Reconstruction of the burial chamber from the digital displays in the exhibition. Hirst and Scull (2019, 88-89) contains the same reconstruction. (Author Photograph, June 2019 at Southend Museum).

A time to destroy and a time to protect

Opposition to the road-widening scheme based in the protection of the Princely burial, reflects another archaeological myth, that excavated sites always require protecion. Like most myths, there is some truth behind it. Unexcavated, partially excavated and sites with archaeological remains in situ do require preservation. But fully excavated sites do not because all the archaeological remains have been removed, archaeologically. This is the practical effect of the reality that archaeology is destruction! Once archaeologists have fully excavated a site, there should not be any archaeology left!

The idea that archaeology is destruction isn’t particularly common in public discourse. Understanding that archaeology is destruction can be difficult when visiting an archaeological tourist attraction. Here is a site that has been excavated, but the archaeological structures are very clearly visible. The information, guidebooks and apps may describe the excavation process and emphasise that the site has been conserved to ensure its longevity. You may hear and understand that excavation removes the archaeological deposits, but how far do you believe it when you are faced with a meticulously conserved mosaic? Does that intellectual knowledge overwhelm your sensory experience or will you mainly remember the beautiful floor? Given that most people only interact with conserved and protected archaeology, in person or via press resports, it is hardly surprising that the idea that archaeology removes what it excavates is not widely recognised.

A grassed around with a mound beside a road, with planting in the background.
The reconstructed tumulus on the site of the burial of the Prittlewell Prince. (Author photograph)


Although the ancient tumulus which originally covered the Prittlewell Princely burial was removed centuries ago, a new one has been rebuilt slightly south of the location of the Princely burial chamber to commemorate the burial’s location. It looks a little incongruous beside a busy road, but provides something of a focal point for the adjacent flower beds. Archaeologically it is harmless, but meaningless since it reveals almost nothing about the original burial except for its approximate location. Nevetheless, it does make me wonder how many of those who conceived, implemented and approved the tumulus’ recreation understand that the Prince is no longer in residence. It also raises questions of archaeological honesty. Should we encourage such re-creations? There’s nothing wrong with a memorial, but does a rebuilt tumulus, without additional context, contribute to the idea that this excavated burial is somehow still present? Are we disneyfying our environment and creating fantasies out of our past? And how might the tumulus be viewed in the future? Might it ever be assumed to be genuine? These are all difficult questions, variations on which can be asked for almost any conservation or preservation work. Whatever answers we arrive at can only be improved by a better public understanding of what archaeology entails, including its destructive aspects.


Missing the matrix: The invisibility of archaeological deposits and public misconceptions of archaeology

In my previous post, I described how visiting publicly accessible archaeological sites as a professional archaeologist can be a somewhat sterile and occasionally soulless experience because the vibrant ‘living’ deposits archaeologists work with every day have, by necessity, either been removed or covered up to protect them. That this affected me viscerally despite my professional archaeologist’s training, reveals how experience can trump intellectual knowledge. It forced me to reevaluate how the nature of archaeology constrains the visitor experience. Although site presentation boards, museums and guidebooks make much effort to explain the archaeological process and the missing phases, the deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record are not visible as part of the physical site experience. If this was true for me, a trained and experienced archaeologist, how might it affect the experience of another visitor? What misconceptions might be fostered despite the best efforts of curators and site managers? I strongly suspect that these misconceptions, fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological sites, are at the heart of several common myths about archaeology and archaeological excavation.

A black and white mosaic partially preserved on a conservation substrate with the missing section sketched in outline.
A lifted and relaid monochrome mosaic in the Barcelona History Museum. (Author Photograph)

The missing matrix

For the most part, members of the public do not see the various layers, fills and deposits that make up most of the archaeological record. The many sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display, are rarely publicly accessible during excavation, and if they are publicised in the press, are represented by plans, reconstructions and digital models. At archaeological tourist attractions, the public see in situ archaeological structures after conservation. The archaeological deposits surrounding those structures have already been removed (and recorded), the archaeological deposits beneath those structures have either been removed or are preserved in situ and invisible beneath the floors and walls of the conserved structures. Either way, many of the archaeological deposits that comprised the original ‘site’ are invisible to the public.

A reconstructed wall painting of a Roman horseman in a white tunic.
Conserved Roman fresco, remounted with modern additions showing how the surviving pieces formed part of the whole image. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Any visit to an archaeological tourist attraction follows roughly the same pattern. After obtaining entry you follow a designated (modern) path through carefully laid out archaeological structures. These structures will be original but have likely undergone conservation. Walls may be consolidated, floors lifted and relaid on conservation substrate. Wall paintings, frescoes and plasterwork will also have been consolidated. There may be kilns, hearths, fireplaces and in situ artefacts, such as amphorae. If you are very lucky and the site is covered, there may be exposed archaeological soil deposits around the structures, but your eyes are unlikely to be drawn to what amounts to dried earth.

The display and presentation boards, guidebooks and, museum contain information intended to dispel this misconception. They usually include information about the archaeological process, details of removed or invisible phases, and the archaeological and stratigraphic history of the site. But even if these sources of information are read and understood, they are unintentionally contradicted by the visual experience of visiting the site. Perceptions based on experience often live on in our minds, untaxed by intellectual interrogation, overwhelming mere information and dominating our understanding. This is why I experienced such a sense of sterility and soullessness when visiting Vindolanda. Despite my archaeological knowledge, my perception was still dominated by past experience. Excellent visitor information may not, therefore, overcome perceptions derived from the physical experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions.

Aerial view of archaeological excavations of a courtyard with a white floor and partially sunken large pottery vessels set into it.
Structural archaeology: Roman court with embedded jars for produce. Some archaeological deposits are visible where the jars have been removed, but are not particularly noticeable compared to the white court floor or surviving jars. Barcelona History Museum. (Author photograph)

Archaeological misconceptions

The physical experience of visiting an archaeological tourist attraction or publicly accessible site produces a powerful impression that archaeology is all about exposing structures (often structures of a particular period) by removing the surrounding earth while extracting suitable artefacts for display in the museum. This naturally leads to certain misconceptions in the public understanding of archaeology:

  • Archaeology is about finding and uncovering structures and/or artefacts. This is a perfectly sensible and understanable misconception. Early archaeology was all about finding structures and artefacts! And when you visit an archaeological site you normally see structures conserved in situ and artefacts in museums. The resulting impression is that archaeology is all about finding those structures and artefacts for conservation and public consumption.
  • Surrounding deposits are just earth to be removed. The invisibility of the archaeological deposit in publicly accessible sites and the domination of the structures and artefacts can make it seem that the matrix surrounding them is just spoil. This misconception is reinforced by visits to archaeological trourist attractions, where visitors see structures conserved and laid out on display, and artefacts presented in a museum, but archaeological deposits are largely missing or appear unimportant.
  • Archaeology is not a destructive process. If people believe that archaeology is all about uncovering structures and artefacts and that the deposits surrounding them are irrelevant and archaeologically insignificant, they are unlikely to consider archaeology a destructive process. After all, when you visit an archaeological tourist attraction the sturctures are quite clearly visible and the artefacts are on display in the museum. Press coverage of significant archaeological discoveries preserved in situ beneath modern buildings only serves to reinforce this impression. People have the impression that archaeology is preserved in situ, leading to the assumption that anything which is not preserved is, by definition, not archaeology.

Generating myths

These misconceptions matter because they lie at the root of most of the myths about archaeology, which drive public reception of archaeology and attitudes to archaeology and archaeologists. Myths like the idea that archaeology is ‘just legalised treasure hunting’ or ‘tomb robbery’ contain grains of truth, but also fundamentally misrepresent archaeological practice. Archaeology began with antiquarians looking for interesting objects and exposing the walls and mosaic floors of Roman villas for public entertainment. The ethical archaeologist is well aware that we are only a couple of stages removed from looters, antiquarians or grave robbers. Pop-culture representations of treasure hunters like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as ‘archaeologists’ and televisual nostalgia for historic, and often colonial, excavations bolster this myth further. But it wouldn’t be so persistent without the unintended effect of archaeological sites and museums upon visitors.

The experience of visiting an archaeological site supports the false impression that archaeology is all about finding structures and artefacts of aesthetic appeal or monetary value. It also obscures the features of archaeology that distinguish it from looting, treasure hunting or grave robbing: Archaeology involves the careful excavation and meticulous recording of fragile, plimpsest archaeological layers, with due care for all artefacts, irrespective of value or aesthetic appeal. Its goal is the discovery of information about the past, rather than valuable objects or structures that might appeal to the public. Unfortunately, too often the experience of visiting a site cements the idea that archaeology exists to provide an exciting, historical day out amongst picturesque ruins, or pretty objects for a museum to display. The public does not see the fragile, carefully excavated layers, but conserved consolidated structural remains and artefacts. Such a powerful experience, irrespective of what people might read on information panels, easily gives rise to a false perception of archaeology, as a process of extracting artefacts and structures from detritus that is surprisingly similar to treasure hunting.

A museum case with conserved gold and wood artefacts.
Many of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial were lifted as a block and excavated in the lab to ensure they were as well preserved as possible. Such care and attention for all archaeological remains, irrespective of whether they are valuable or not, is what distinguishes archaeologists from treasure hunters. (Author photograph).

Another myth fostered by the experience of visiting archaeological tourist attractions and publicly accessible sites is that sites without structures are not ‘archaeology’! Archaeological tourist attractions are largely composed of structural features and can give the impression that only structural features are ‘archaeological’. Yet many (perhaps most) of the sites excavated by commercial archaeologists in advance of development have no structures at all. The archaeological remains comprise different types of archaeological deposit (i.e. fills and layers) within various features cut into the natural geology. Given the focus upon structures and the invisibility of archaeological deposits at tourist sites and in the press, it is hardly surprising that sites without structures are written off as unimportant. A lack of awareness of non-structural archaeology probably explains why developers and even local people can view planning archaeology and pre-construction excavation as unncessary and wasteful (although money undoubtedly plays a role).

View of an excavation showing reused, upside down columns around a red soiil surface with sections through archaeological deposits.
Excavation through various deposits and floors, exposing walls and reused columns in the Barcelona History Museum. Although the image is dominated by the columns and walls, the earth deposits visible in the sections are just as important. (Author photograph)

Presenting reality

Cultural heritage professionals, curators, site managers and excavators work hard to present archaeology in a coherent and meaningful format for the public, doing justice to both historic data and archaeological practice. Yet the physical experience of seeing, walking amongst and interacting with the archaeology can provoke a powerful response that can negate their best efforts and provoke significant misconceptions. These misconceptions, often reified and mirrored by media coverage, exert a much greater power on public perception than knowledge imparted by guides, information boards and apps. Such misconceptions are not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. They are inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Nevetheless, we need to find ways to address, explain and correct such misconceptions. Blogs like this one are one possible method. Honest discussions and explanations on social and traditional media about what archaeology is and what it does are another. TV programmes like Time Team, The Great British Dig and Digging for Britain, which show the reality of archaeology can also play an important role. There are also multiple newer methods, from platforms like YouTube for showing a more personal view of archaeology, to apps for digitally reconstructing ancient sites and the excavations that exposed them. Fundamentally, however, archaeology is a practice, an activity! Allowing more of us to personally experience that activity will rapidly dispel many of the myths that surround it.


Public presentation and archaeological experience

Like many other archaeologists, I visit publicly accessible sites whenever the opportunity arises, but some five or six years after I attended my first excavation I had an unnerving experience. I was visiting Vindolanda, a fort on Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, made famous by the discovery of a series of Roman letters, written on wooden tablets, and preserved in a waterlogged ditch. I had visited the site as a child and now returned as an adult archaeologist to see the new discoveries. Although the exhibition of the waterlogged finds in the museum was fascinating, I was shocked when I walked around the fort. Although the site remained as well-presented as ever, I found it dead and soulless. As I child I had loved exploring the excavated fort structures, as an adult, I felt only emptiness!

View of the Roman fort at Vindolanda showing conserved walls, surrounded by gravel.
 Headquarters building (Principia) at Vindolanda Roman Fort as laid out for public display (Photograph Phil Champion  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Over time I have become used to experiencing varying degrees of this feeling when visiting publicly accessible sites. I have also begun to understand why these sites feel so desolate to me. It’s not due to any lack or failure on the part of the site management teams, who shouldn’t be criticised for their often exemplary conservation and display of cultural heritage assets. Rather it reflects the transient nature of archaeology and the destructive realities of excavation. By necessity, the public presentation of sites often excludes the very deposits which comprise the bulk of the archaeological record, rendering them sterile to archaeological eyes.

Into the matrix

In order to explain why publicly accessible sites can feel so ‘dead’ to an archaeologist, we need to recognise the importance of the archaeological matrix. The matrix is archaeological jargon for the earth that was excavated from around the structures you see on display at sites like Vindolanda. Before excavation, the spaces within and between the structures (walls, staircases, wells, drains, floors, silos and kilns) were filled with soil deposits of different colours and textures (see below, the image of Plaosnik Monastery under excavation). These deposits are removed during excavation, but as they represent events during the history of the site, each deposit must be carefully recorded, with appropriate samples taken as necessary. There are various different methods of excavation, but whichever is used, the aim is to identify, obtain and record as much information about that deposit (or context in the archaeological jargon) as possible. Each context is recorded visually (with measured plans and sections, sketch drawings and photographs) and verbally (on a context record form). These records include any artefacts or samples taken from the deposit and there is additional documentation for special features, such as walls and burials. The records are all cross-referenced by unique identification numbers for the site, context, drawings, photographs, samples and finds, so that they can be associated with each other during post-excavation analysis and by any future researcher working with the site archive. To the archaeologist then, a site includes a large number of soil deposits of varying types, colours and textures. The walls, hearths, drains, kilns and other structures that are conserved and presented to the public are only a small proportion of all the archaeological contexts.

View of an archaeological site showing coloured soil deposits between stone walls.
 Plaosnik Monastery under excavation in 2008. Note the varied colours of the soil deposits between the walls. (Photograph by Colin W. 18 October 2008 CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On many sites (such as the excavation of a medieval village in the image below), structures are entirely absent and the archaeology consists entirely of deposits (fills or layers in the archaeological jargon), filling various types of features (ditches, pits, post-holes etc) cut into the ground by past people. Sites without structures are almost never conserved for long-term display because an archaeological site comprising a series of excavated pits, ditches and post-holes is neither interesting nor durable. The public rarely visit such sites and if they are publicised in the press, various plans, reconstructions and digital models are used to inform the public about their original appearance or layout.

View of an archaeological site showing yellow natural with brown archaeological features cut into it. Some of the features are part excavated or under excavation.
Archaeology without structures: A medieval village under excavation (Photography Evelyn Simak  The site of a medieval village – partially unearthed  CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Living archaeology

When viewed with archaeological eyes, archaeological deposits are not only important, but they are also strangely vibrant. This is partly because they have meaning for the trained archaeologist, partly because of the various colours and textures within them, and partly because they are so transient. Archaeologists spend most of their fieldwork excavating and recording archaeological deposits. We become skilled in identifying different deposits and understanding which types of past activity produced them. Such features have intrinsic meaning for us, and we feel their importance. Archaeological soil deposits also have a visual beauty and vibrancy. Some sites are particularly colourful, with deep red burnt clay features, black charcoal features, yellow sand and greenish cess deposits (as in the image of Plaosnik Monastery above). Chalk landscapes produce a fascinating monochrome, with dark soils filling pits, ditches and post-holes cut into a white chalk background. Even the dullest soil colours take on a new significance when viewed by the archaeologist seeking subtle changes in colour or texture.

View of an archaeological site on chalk. The brown archaeological features show up very clearly on the white chalk soil.
Archaeological features in white chalk natural (Photo courtesy of Clare King)

Despite their significance for the archaeologist, the vibrant colours of archaeological deposits do not last long! Once the archaeology has been exposed it rapidly dries out, dulling the colours. This is why on many sites, pre-excavation plans of all the visible deposits are created as soon as possible after the archaeological layers are exposed. Some excavators water the ground with killer sprays or watering cans to bring out the colour before recording or photography. Careful records are also made of the soil colour using the Munsell colour system, which allows a deposit to be categorized by a precise colour, hue and chroma and ensures subtle differences in deposits can be accurately recorded. All these methods allow archaeologists to record the archaeological deposit as accurately as possible, but they do not assist in conveying its true appearance, vibrancy or importance if the site is opened to the public. Even with photographs of sites under excavation, it is all too easy for visitors to miss the significance of the soil between the structures.

View of excavations of a Roman wall in London.
Roman wall under excavation in London in 2007, the right angle of the wall has been removed where the boards are shown, leaving the remains of the wall in section beside the yellow hoe. The archaeologist is recording the deposits. Even in this low-light the vivid colours of the deposits are visible (Author Photograph)

Archaeology as destruction

It is an archaeological cliche that ‘archaeology is destruction’ and, while built structures are often more durable and easier to preserve, excavation is particularly destructive to archaeological deposits. By definition, a deposit that is excavated has been removed! The soil matrix has been recorded, extracted, sifted, sampled and dumped and the artefacts have been identified and removed for processing and recording. This is why archaeological recording is so crucial. If a deposit is excavated but not recorded, all the information about the context has been lost; its appearance, texture, physical extent, and relationship with other deposits are irretrievable. Artefacts cannot be related to their original deposit or other artefacts from the same context. This is why nighthawking (illegal metal detecting on protected archaeological sites), looting of antiquities for sale on the black market, and excavation without record are unethical. They destroy archaeological deposits without recording, depriving artefacts of their contexts and society of the scientific information that could be obtained from proper archaeological excavation and recording.

It is of course impossible to present the excavated (and thereby removed) deposits to the public alongside the structures they contained. Some publicly accessible sites have been fully excavated, down to the geological deposits (the natural in archaeological jargon). The structures which will be displayed were removed during excavation and are then reconstructed in their original positions using the archaeological records as a guide. Various efforts may be made to show the original deposits under excavation or display the information they produced, but these contexts are inevitably absent from view and therefore from the physical embodied experience of visiting the site.

View of a villa at Herculaneum showing a courtyard with partially preserved white marble tiles on red modern base.
Large villa at Herculaneum in 2012, showing features in use at the time of the eruption in 79 AD. The surviving ancient paving of the courtyard has been lifted and relaid. It is surrounded by a modern, protective (red) surface. (Author Photograph)

Other publicly accessible sites are not fully excavated down to the natural. Instead, excavation ends when a suitable level is reached and the exposed structures and underlying deposits are conserved in their original position (or in situ as the archaeological jargon has it). Pompeii and Herculaneum (image above) are classic examples of this approach. Because their destruction and burial comprise a single event, large-scale excavation stopped at the floor and street levels associated with the final phase of occupation (i.e. the floors and streets that were in use when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD), even though there are many earlier phases buried beneath these floors (Fulford and Wallace-Hadrill 1995, 77). These earlier phases are only accessible by relatively limited sondages, small trenches, carefully located to minise any impact on the structures of the final phase (more information about these sondages can be found in various blogs and recent excavation reports). At Pompeii, Herculaneum and any other site where structures are preserved without fully excavating the deposits beneath them, the conservation and presentation of the structures in position arrests the controlled destruction of excavation. Most of the archaeological remains beneath the conserved structures remain unexcavated. This is a perfectly valid and necessary archaeological approach, but one that excludes certain archaeological deposits from visitor view, whether those deposits were entirely removed by excavation or survive protected beneath the conserved structures.

Efforts to present archaeological deposits within and around the various structures produce further difficulties. Since archaeological sites comprise many phases and layers, choices must be made about which phases should be presented to the public. At Pompeii the choice is fairly easy since the final phase produces a coherent visitor experience and historic excavations rarely extended below. But at other sites, use and abandonment deposits above, and earlier features below a phase, maybe just as archaeologically interesting. Managing the presentation of such deposits can be difficult, as is the protection of exposed floor and courtyard spaces. If located outside, exposed archaeological deposits (and even some floors) are rapidly degraded by the elements and attract disturbance from vegetation growing within them. They also cannot be walked upon, meaning sites like Vindolanda grass or gravel the spaces between exposed walls and structures to allow tourists to wander freely. Indoor presentation (such as the Roman amphitheatre preserved under the Guildhall Library) offers more options, but is much more expensive and mostly used where a site is located beneath existing or proposed new buildings. Presenting exposed archaeological deposits inside can reveal more of the reality of ‘living archaeology’, but fragile deposits dry out and cannot be walked over, excluding the visitor from the closest contact. No current method can permanently preserve the vibrant living archaeological deposits in a visible format for presentation to the public, although developing technology may offer additional opportunities in the future.

The absence of archaeological deposits from the visitor experience is not the fault of cultural heritage managers, conservators, excavators or site managers. It is inherent in the nature of archaeology as a palimpsest of human activity surviving as a series of often fragile deposits that are difficult, if not impossible, to present for long-term public visitation. Out of the perhaps hundreds or thousands of years of occupation preserved in the archaeological record, decisions must be made about which phases to present and which structures to preserve in order to provide a coherent but archaeologically honest visitor experience. Later phases are excavated entirely and removed to expose the chosen phases, their presentation limited to phase plans and reconstructions in the site museum. Earlier phases may not be excavated at all, or only partially, in order to preserve the structures of the chosen phase(s) in situ above them. Archaeological deposits, those most fragile of archaeological contexts, are doubly difficult to present meaningfully in situ, while preserving the site and presenting a coherent visitor experience.

Presenting experience

When visiting Vindolanda as an adult I was unprepared for the differences between my experiences as an excavator of archaeological sites and as a visitor to them. With extensive training in archaeological methods, I should not have been surprised at the absence of the vibrant archaeological deposits that were so familiar to me and other archaeologists. I was well aware that archaeology is destruction, that sites are complex palimpsests of phases and that choices must be made about what should be displayed in situ and what should be preserved as archive. I was also well able to understand the descriptions in the museum and detailed excavation reports. Nevertheless, when experiencing the site I was still struck by the visual absence of the archaeological deposits I expected, and its visceral effect upon me. This is an important reminder that knowledge and experience are very different. A physical experience can have a much more powerful effect than intellectual knowledge. We rely on information boards, apps, museums and guidebooks to inform visitors about the archaeology they cannot see. Yet all my knowledge could not negate my visceral reaction to the experience of a, to me, sterilised archaeology. I wonder how far site visitors are influenced by archaeological information and how far by their own visceral experience? What misconceptions might be fostered by the primacy of the latter?


FULFORD, MICHAEL, ANDREW WALLACE-HADRILL, K. Clark, R. Daniels, J. DeLaine, I. Dormor, R. MacPhail, A. Powell, M. Robinson, and P. Wiltshire. “The House of ‘Amarantus’ at Pompeii (I, 9,11-12): An Interim Report on Survey and Excavations in 1995-96.” Rivista Di Studi Pompeiani 7 (1995): 77–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44291577.


I wish to thank the many folk of the Mentoring Womxn in Archaeology and Heritage Facebook group for their suggestions for images of chalk archaeology.

Provenance, fakes, uncertainty and ethics: The problems with legally purchased antiquities.

Gilded bronze statuette in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum attributed to Akhenaten by its label. Author Photograph.

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum contains many fascinating objects, some inspired presentations of Egyptian artefacts and two interesting exhibitions that further explain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. My previous post (The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona) covers the highlights of the museum but only touched on the issues my visit raised concerning the presence of possible forgeries and the ethics of creating a modern museum from purchased antiquities. This post follows on from my previous review and another recent post about black market antiquities to consider the nature of purchased antiquities and the implications of them for reviewers and researchers of museum collections.

To post, or not to post?

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a small gilded bronze statuette that is attributed to Akhenaten by its label (left). My instagram image of this particular artefact prompted a number of disbelieving comments. There are several aspects of the style of the statuette that are suspicious, such as the way the kilt drapes over the thighs. The date is also incongruous. I have yet to identify a single comparable statuette of this type from the Amarna period (so if anyone reading this can think of one, they are welcome to put a link or reference in the comments). Bronze statuettes are much more commonly associated with later periods of Egyptian history. In fact the Barcelona Museum also has a number of gilded bronze statuettes of divinities dated to the Late Period, such as a gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith (below right), that the object label attributes to the XXVI Dynasty (i.e. within the Late Period as expected).  All these aspects combine to raise doubts about the authenticity of the Akhenaten or, at the very least, its attribution. One alternative to an out-and-out forgery is that the statuette was originally of an unnamed Late Period pharaoh, later falsely identified as the famous Akhenaten by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer to raise its value.

Gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith. Identified as XXVI Dynasty. Author Photograph.

The reaction to my Instagram post about the Akhenaten statuette was my first intimation that writing a blog about the Barcelona Egyptian Museum might not be straightforward. Having read the many questioning comments I wondered whether I should continue with my intended post. Various questions bubbled up. Was it ethical to write about objects that may be forgeries? What impact might it have on my reputation? How could I be fair the museum, while writing about the possibility of forgeries being on display? And should I even consider writing about a museum when most of the objects had been purchased so recently on the antiquities market, given that I am generally of the opinion that the purchase of legal antiquities is inadvisable at best and unethical at worst?

The obvious solution would have been to leave well alone. I could not be criticised if I didn’t post anything. But that would deny me the opportunity to review the other interesting artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. It would also be cowardly. The debate my image of the Akhenaten had provoked and my reaction to it, exemplifies the difficulties we experience in working with purchased and unprovenanced antiquities. If I simply ignored the problem I would be contributing to the silence about these issues. This post is therefore an attempt to interrogate the questions and anxieties unprovenanced antiquities raise in the minds of researchers and how these influence our reactions to and treatment of such objects.

Purchase and provenance

The false door and two side panels from the VI Dynasty tomb-chapel of Iny in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. Author Photograph.

As I mentioned in my previous post, most of the object labels in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum do not give details of the provenance or the origin of the artefacts. Research on the museum’s website and wikipedia page revealed that the collection was a recent creation, with most of the artefacts purchased on the antiquities market since 1992. Further evidence of the recent origin of the collection came from the bibliographies of the artefacts from the Barcelona Egyptian Collection that featured in the Moda y Belleza catalogue of the exhibition of the same name (D’Amicone 2011). Many of the objects currently in the museum featured in the catalogues of the major auction houses from which they had been purchased from 1992 onwards.

Since most artefacts purchased on the antiquities market originate in private collections and very few come from archaeological excavations, they rarely come with detailed archaeological provenance. It is almost impossible to identify the precise house, tomb or temple context for a given object, and it may also be difficult to determine which site, region and period an artefact came from. At best the occurrence of named individuals on artefacts sometimes allows them to be associated with other objects, a known tomb, temple or site. This is the case with the VI Dynasty false door stela (image above) and reliefs of Iny in the Barcelona Museum, which were identified as part of Iny’s now lost tomb-chapel and associated with further reliefs from the same structure that are now in other museums. The multiple XII and XIII Dynasty stela now in various private collections and museums but originally from the Abydos North Offering Chapels (Simpson 1974) represent a more extensive example of the same process of archaeological detective work.

But detectival methods of assigning provenance are usually only applicable to inscribed objects and even if an object can be associated with a site or assemblage it is rarely possible to reconstruct its precise archaeological provenance to the level of a findspot or room. Even though we know that the false door and relief fragments in the Barcelona Museum come from the tomb-chapel of Iny, we do not know where that tomb-chapel was. We might suspect that it was in the Memphite region, but we cannot know precisely where. We do not know what else formed the tomb-complex or what other archaeological structures and artefacts might have been associated with it.

For most artefacts that lack archaeological provenance, the situation is even worse. Usually the only contextual information available is a rough date and perhaps the general site or region where the artefact originated, as determined by stylistic comparison with similar objects of known provenance.

Forgeries or rare artefacts?

The statue of Queen Tetisheri in the British Museum, now thought by many to be a forgery. (Courtesy of David Blogg)

Artefacts that lack archaeological provenance are inevitably more likely to attract suspicions about their authenticity. Forgers have been active as long as there have been collectors, but a number of high profile recent cases indicate that forgery is increasing in ‘growth’ areas of the antiquities market including religious artefacts, biblical archaeology (Burleigh 2008) and (naturally) Egyptian objects.

Recently purchased artefacts are not the only potential forgeries. The proposition that the British Museum’s statue of Tetisheri is a forgery demonstrates how an artefact accepted as genuine for decades can later be questioned. Given the varied origins of most Egyptian collections, it is probable that every one has at least one or two forgeries. But those with a higher proportion of purchased artefacts are likely to contain more forgeries.

While scientific testing can sometimes resolve questions of authenticity, they are more often a matter of expert opinion and can therefore provoke considerable debate among experts with different views. That there is still debate about the authenticity of the statue of Tetisheri, demonstrates the problems of discerning forgeries from genuine antiquities.

Gaudily painted pottery coffin mask with female face.  Dated to the New Kingdom according to it’s label. A similar mask has recently been offered at auction. Author Photograph.

An artefact is most likely to be accepted as genuine if it is typical of its period and material in style and execution. The bronzes of (supposedly) Akhenaten and Neith, which began this post exemplify this feature of archaeological research. Since a large number of Late Period statues of deities are known the Neith is much more easily accepted as genuine than the incongruous Akhenaten.  However, there is no archaeological reason why one should be more genuine than the other if both are unprovenanced. The only difference is that the Neith conforms to our art-historical expectations, while the Akhenaten doesn’t. Unfortunately if we always suspect the unusual, and accept the familiar we risk dismissing genuine artefacts because they are different, thereby losing the information they could provide about the variety of Egyptian art and consolidating cliched ideas about the conformity of Egyptian artefacts. It would be ironic indeed if further research and scientific testing revealed the Akhenaten to be genuine, while the Neith was a forgery.

Suspiciously poor quality or just not typical of ‘Egyptian art’?

Roman pottery coffin dating from the 3rd to 4th century AD (E-620). Purchased from Christies in 2002. Author Photograph.

Another facet of this problem is the tendency to assume that poor-quality or ‘unEgyptian’ artefacts are fake. Amongst the coffins in the Barcelona Museum are two painted faces from pottery coffins, one male and one female (image above left). These are exactly the kind of artefacts that might be written off as fakes, but an almost identical female mask was recently offered for sale at auction. There is still the possibility that all three masks are forgeries, but it would be unwise to write them off without further research just because they are a little outside the norm or do not match our expectations of Egyptian art.

An astonishingly hideous 3rd to 4th century AD Roman pottery coffin (E-620) raises similar questions and doubts (right). There is no doubt it is a truly ugly object to our eyes, but just because it doesn’t conform to our expectations does not necessarily make it a fake. It is entirely possible that the owner was satisfied that the coffin would perform its function, and utterly uninterested in its (to our minds) aesthetic deficiencies. The scientific discovery of poorly formed, badly decorated or illiterately inscribed artefacts demonstrates that the requirements of ancient Egyptian purchasers were not necessarily the same as ours. The pseudo-hieroglyphs on the Late Period coffins excavated from Iurudef’s tomb at Memphis were presumably thought sufficient by their owners, but could easily have been thought a modern forgery if they had not been scientifically excavated (Martin 1991, 144).

Genuine components, modern design?

Bead dress in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum described as IV Dynasty (E-843) by its label. Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is an artefact (E-843) described as ‘Dress composed of beads. Faience and turquoise. Old Kingdom’. There are several curious aspects of this artefact that could lead to the assumption that it is a forgery. Firstly, unlike the excavated Old Kingdom bead-net dresses in the Petrie Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Barcelona dress only appears to cover the front of the person. Given the structure of the shoulder straps and bodice there is insufficient bead netting to cover the sides and back of a human. The design of the dress, combining broad shoulder straps with a long skirt, is generally consistent  with the excavated Old Kingdom dresses, but the inclusion of a winged-scarab motif in the bodice (see feature image above the title of this post) strikes a discordant note, both because it is a funerary motif and because such beaded images are more generally associated with the Late, Ptolemaic or Roman periods of Egyptian history, rather than the Old Kingdom.

Given these discrepancies it would be very easy to write this off as a forgery, but it is much more likely to be a recreation of a dress using ancient beads, probably from several different periods, made by some antiquities dealer to increase the value of his merchandise. Indeed the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) comes to this exact conclusion, but because this is not reflected on the object label it would be easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately the uncertainty that is provoked by the dissonance between the nature of the object and the information on the label does not just affect this one artefact, but could potentially cause the viewer to question the authenticity of others as well.

The problem of uncertainty

None of the artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum which have provoked concern have been demonstrated to be forgeries, and indeed many (if not all) of them may yet prove to be genuine. However, the uncertainty that is provoked by objects like E-843 or the incongruous Akhenaten does not just affect the reception of those artefacts. By extension it can lead the suspicious researcher to question other objects in the same collection or similar artefacts elsewhere. As I experienced when considering how to write about the artefacts in Barcelona, even the possibility of reviewing fakes can lead to anxiety on the part of a researcher about the ethics of their actions, the reactions of their peers and the impact of their research on their academic reputation.

This anxiety is not without cause. There is a general sense that the presence of forgeries in a collection should be a source of shame. This might be justified if artefacts are envisioned as primarily economic assets, where the sale of a forgery is tantamount to fraud. But it seems a bizarre position to take when in almost every other aspect of archaeological discourse we emphasise the scientific and historical value of artefacts and rail against their treatment and sale as economic assets. If we truly believe an artefact is of purely scientific value, then finding a forgery is like locating an erroneous reading in a set of scientific data. It is useful to identify and exclude it from our research, but should otherwise cause minimal anxiety. This is not to minimise the risk of forgeries skewing archaeological discourse, but it does seem that our reactions to them can be out of all proportion to the risk they pose to scientific enquiry.  Perhaps more importantly the treatment of forgeries and potential forgeries as a source of embarrassment and shame precludes honest discussion of this problem amongst both museum and archaeological professionals and prevents us from exploring the impact of forgeries upon our research.

Part of this impact is the effect uncertainty has upon research. As I have demonstrated above it is incredibly easy to doubt the authenticity of unprovenanced and purchased artefacts, particularly when they do not have many obvious parallels or do not fit with our preconceived ideas about Egyptian artefacts. This has a significant impact upon our understanding of Egyptian culture and our ability to study unprovenanced artefacts. Almost any artefact that has been purchased (whether recently or many decades ago) without clear archaeological provenance might be suspected. But since the more typical an object is the more likely it is to be accepted, genuine but atypical or unusual artefacts run a greater risk of being dismissed as forgeries. On the other hand fake but typical objects might well be included in catalogues and typologies because they fit our preconceptions. Inevitably this risks skewing our research towards the ‘typical’ and prejudicing us against the unusual. At the same time anxiety about publishing or displaying an artefact that later turns out to be fake can inhibit the research and display of genuine but unusual artefacts.

Dealing with legally purchased antiquities

Silver diadem, probably of 17th Dynasty date and likely recovered from Dra Abu el-Naga, West Bank, Luxor. This artefact has an established history in a series of private collections and is currently on loan to the British Museum from the al-Sabrah collection. (Author Photograph)

One obvious way to eliminate the anxieties associated with unprovenanced antiquities is to avoid them altogether individually and corporately. This is an admirably ethical position, but like many noble ideals it also raises some practical questions. Should we just ignore collections like the Barcelona Egyptian Museum, either from anxiety that it may include forgeries or ethical objections to the recent purchase of the artefacts? If the ethical objection is foremost, then how long must an artefact have been in a museum before we can legitimately engage with it? There are many thousands of purchased antiquities that reside in museum collections around the world, including many important artefacts held by major museums. Can we arbitrarily decide that research into the Barcelona Egyptian Museum artefacts is unethical, while working with museum collections that include artefacts purchased during an earlier era?  Is it ethical to ignore artefacts that may provide important archaeological evidence to confirm or challenge our research just because they were purchased? As I discovered when visiting the Barcelona Egyptian Museum if we decide to ignore purchased artefacts then we potentially lose important evidence and ignore interesting artefacts, but when we engage with them we must wrestle with ethical concerns and fears about accidentally including forgeries in our research. I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions but perhaps it is time we began discussing these ethical and professional concerns more openly?

As we do so we should remember that all museums include purchased antiquities, that any museum or expert can be deceived by fakes and it is highly probable that every museum has at least a few forgeries hiding away in the stores (and sometimes even on display). While no-one would argue that we should accept the casual display of known fakes, we should recognise that forgeries occur and can be difficult, time-consuming and contentious to identify. The only way to manage unprovenanced artefacts and suspected fakes is to open an honest discussion about forgeries within Egyptian collections, the difficulties inherent in identifying them and the impact of forgeries and unprovenanced antiquities upon our research. Negotiating the ethical and professional questions raised  is never going to be easy, but if we can be honest about these issues we can develop productive debates and advance our research.


Burleigh, N. 2008. Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. Smithsonian.

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Martin. G. T. 1991. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. London: Thames and Hudson.

Simpson, W. K. 1974. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven.


I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, to David Blogg for the photo of Tetisheri when she was still on display and to Roland Enmarch for the reference to the tomb of Iurudef.

I am also grateful to all of those who commented about these artefacts online and especially to Luca Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club for their suggestions regarding possible parallels and dates for some of these artefacts.

I am also grateful to all the friends, colleagues and museum professionals who have engaged with me on this subject thorough constructive discussions about forgeries and the ethics of studying purchased antiquities. Long may these debates continue to inform professional discourse.

The myths about illegal antiquities and why you should never buy them!

Purchased antiquities suffer from many problems. They lack useful archaeological provenance, are often forgeries and include recently looted objects that have been ‘laundered’ with fake provenances and spurious histories. These problems affect unprovenanced antiquities whenever they were purchased, but are particularly pertinent to those artefacts currently circulating and recently obtained.

While there is a good argument to end the entire antiquities trade, at present it is legal to purchase archaeological artefacts provided they fulfill certain specific requirements. These requirements are intended to reduce the likelihood that the artefacts for sale were recently looted from archaeological sites or museums, and rely upon the stringent laws that the countries most affected by antiquities theft have enacted over the last decades. Historically (and particularly before 1950) the legality of purchasing or exporting antiquities varied greatly depending on their country of origin and thus there are ongoing legal and ethical debates about certain artefacts in museum and private collections. While these debates are illuminating, they are a large subject and do not have much bearing on the current legal framework or the myths that surround the modern antiquities trade.

‘Black market’ or ‘illegal’ antiquities are artefacts that do not meet the requirements, chiefly relating to provenance, that are intended to prevent recently looted or stolen antiquities from being sold legally. Illegal antiquities are obtained and sold against the laws of the countries that they came from and, depending upon their precise provenance and transit routes, their purchase may also contravene the laws of various intermediate countries and country of the purchaser.

The extent of the black market trade in antiquities has recently been emphasised by publicity over the US firm Hobby Lobby’s purchase of illegal antiquities to stock the owner’s Museum of the Bible. There is no dispute about the black market origin of these objects and Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay the US government $3 million in fines and forfeit the objects. The extensive press coverage of the Hobby Lobby case is due to interest in the company following an unrelated Supreme Court victory relating to their employee healthcare package. But the publicity provides an opportunity to revisit the stale arguments and myths about black market antiquities purchases. It is rare to find all of these myths deployed at once (although at least one article supporting Hobby Lobby manages to use all of these arguments, even those that are mutually exclusive), but they recur in various combinations whenever someone tries to justify purchasing or publishing black market antiquities.

Black market antiquities and the looting of archaeological sites.

It is widely recognised that removing artefacts from archaeological sites without proper excavation, recording or archaeological analysis destroys vast amounts of scientific information and the knowledge of the ancient world that this would undoubtedly produce. This destruction affects both the antiquities sold on to the open market without provenance and other artefacts, structures and deposits removed with the antiquity and then discarded, which could otherwise contribute to scientific knowledge.

Those who wish to justify the the purchase of black market antiquities often argue that their purchases do not contribute to the ongoing looting of archaeological sites in an attempt to minimise or justify their actions.

Myth 1: Purchasing antiquities improves the prospects for their protection by increasing their value, raising incentives for the protection and conservation of antiquities, museums and archaeological sites.

This repellent argument assumes that many countries won’t bother to protect archaeological sites or curate museum collections unless the objects in them have a high market value. So, goes the argument, purchasing antiquities raises their value and encourages the protection and curation of archaeological sites and collections.

The Reality

Leaving aside its patronising and racist overtones, the archaeological problem with this argument is that it completely misunderstands the nature of antiquities. It views archaeological artefacts like diamonds, precious objects dug out of base rock whose value depends entirely upon the market’s appetite for them.

Antiquities are not diamonds. They are not dug out of base rock, but out of archaeological sites. Their archaeological context contains information of general scientific value and other data that is directly pertinent to the antiquity, all of which is lost when an artefact is looted. Black market artefacts (whether originally from a museum or an archaeological site) are typically sold either devoid of provenance or with a fake provenance, and information of direct relevance to the object is lost. This includes basic information like its original location (from the general site where it was found to the specific layer, building etc), period, date and whether it was found with any other objects that might together reveal more about it.

Five Amarna letters on display in the British Museum (1: EA 29831; 2: EA 29848; 3: EA 29832; 4: EA29855 and 5: EA 29844).

The Hobby Lobby case included a large number of clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Amongst the most famous such tablets are the Amarna letters (see above). These are a group (or assemblage in archaeological parlance) of clay tablets with cuneiform writing that were found in the Egyptian city of Aketaten (the site of which is known as Amarna). Although there is some uncertainty (and dispute) about how the letters found their way into certain museum collections at the end of the 19th century, sufficient numbers of them were excavated from Amarna to provide the secure archaeological context that gives them such great scientific value. They are dated to the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty, who ruled in the 14th century BC during the Egyptian New Kingdom (in the Late Bronze Age). Their original location is known, the site (Amarna), general (administrative) area of the city and, in some cases, the specific buildings. The Amarna letters can also be associated with each other as an assemblage, making it possible to use information in different tablets to build up a better picture of Egyptian foreign policy during this period.

If the Amarna letters were found today (or stolen from museum stores) and sold individually on the black market, much of this information would be lost. They would be given a spurious provenance or no provenance at all. We probably wouldn’t know which country they came from (since many sites across the ancient Near East were involved in exchanging such letters), much less which site or building, and we wouldn’t know which of them were found together and which were found hundreds or thousands of miles away. As a result their contribution to our understanding of the ancient world would be much reduced, even though the actual artefacts would survive.

Proponents of this myth fundamentally misunderstand the nature of archaeological artefacts. Unlike diamonds a key element of the value (both scientific and economic) of antiquities is their provenance. The more precise that provenance, the more can be learned from an artefact. Those who purchase black market antiquities that have been stripped of that provenance through looting from an archaeological site or theft from a museum, are not increasing but destroying the value of those objects and any others that are removed (deliberately or accidentally) at the same time.

An additional problem of the lack of provenance associated with black market antiquities is that it leaves room for fakes to enter the market. Fakes have always been a problem for collectors and there have been a number of high-profile cases where even artefacts purchased through legal channels have been identified as fakes. Black market objects carry an even greater risk of forgery. Furthermore, antiquities with a religious theme are particularly popular with forgers and those with religious motives are often targeted by them, perhaps because the desire to believe they are genuine outweighs caution amongst certain purchasers. Recent examples include the various biblical forgeries created over decades by Oded Galan and the famous Gospel of Jesus Wife debacle. Not only have Hobby Lobby reduced the scientific and economic value of the artefacts they purchased, they placed themselves at risk of being duped by forgers.

Myth 2: Black market antiquities are not looted from archaeological sites, but only come from museums that have been destroyed or looted during conflict.

Aside from the desperate desire of some to argue that purchasing black market antiquities has no effect on looting, this myth may also be a result of ignorance of the amount of archaeological material still left in situ at sites across the world. Given the long period of research across many areas, especially in the Middle East, some people find it hard to believe there is anything left in the ground.

The Reality

It is certainly possible that some black market antiquities (including some of the clay tablets and bullae purchased by Hobby Lobby) were originally looted from museums. But one of the main problems with purchasing black market antiquities is that it’s completely impossible to know where these objects came from.

Many, if not all, black market antiquities from the ancient Near East are likely to have been looted recently from sites in Iraq and Syria. The scale of the looting that has taken place is unprecedented. This has prompted researchers like Sarah Parcak and groups like EAMENA and the Trafficking Culture group to undertake research into the extent of looting. Their work has been widely reported and even prompted the creation of the Global Xplorer platform to crowd-source the recording of evidence of looting in satellite imagery.

The Syrian site of Dura Europos in 2004, showing the city walls, grid-iron pattern of streets and some excavated areas.

You don’t have to be a professional archaeologist to see this. A quick review of a famous site in Google Earth over time can reveal the extent of the damage to anyone with a computer. The first image (above) shows the ancient site of Dura Europos, on the Euphrates river in Syria in December 2004. The grid-iron layout of the ancient streets is clearly visible, as are the city walls and a number of excavated buildings. In the second image (below) from March 2015 the pock-marks of looting are clearly visible across the entire site. And they don’t appear randomly located either, there is a systematic pattern to them like a grotesque parody of an archaeological grid, indicating that this was regular systematised looting that probably involved a large number of people. It is highly likely that some of the bullae and tablets purchased by Hobby Lobby were extracted during this type of looting, at one or many sites across Iraq and Syria.

Dura Europos in 2015, showing substantial looting in the centre of the city (just below the ‘s’ of ‘Dura Europos’) and the regular pock-marks of systematic looting across the town and in the extra-mural area to the left.

The evidence is very clear that looting of archaeological sites is ongoing and serious. Artefacts uncovered by looters are clearly selling on the black market. Although the precise origin of any individual black market antiquity is usually uncertain because it is in the nature of that market that objects are sold without provenance, or with fake provenances, it’s simply ridiculous to suggest that purchasing black market antiquities has no impact upon the looting of archaeological sites.

Myth 3: Buying looted antiquities ‘rescues’ them from the black market and from people who might otherwise destroy them (if they are inconvenient in size or location) or remove them from public appreciation.

Others accept that purchasing black market antiquities contributes to the looting of archaeological sites, but argue that it is a necessary evil . Otherwise, so the argument goes, these objects would be lost to both science and the public either through destruction or by entering private collections.

This argument is often deployed if (like Hobby Lobby) the purchaser wants to put black market antiquities on public display in a museum; if the artefact was formerly in a state with a regime disliked by the purchaser; or if the artefact was found by chance and would have been destroyed.

The Reality

Black market artefacts are not puppies. They did not stray and were not abandoned by their owners. Whether from a museum or an archaeological site they have been stolen and like any stolen property should be returned to their rightful owners.

Those rightful owners are the people of the country where the museum or archaeological site is located. It is immaterial whether you like the government of that country because archaeological artefacts are not the property of the ruler of a country (whether an autocrat or an elected government). Rulers and governments come and go, but museum artefacts are intended to be available for generations to admire, research and learn from. This is why so many individuals in the archaeological and museums community were so angry at the sale of the Sekhemka statue by Northampton Museum. The statue was sold by the local authority under whose purview the museum came and who treated it as if it was their property, when it rightly belonged to the present and future population of that town. (Ironically the Sekhemka statue was undoubtedly looted from an archaeological site in the 19th century, an age when the purchase and export of antiquities was legal and before the current stringent antiquities laws came into force).

Countries that are recovering from shattering wars are in particular need of sites and artefacts that can be used to renew social pride, teach new generations of scholars and attract tourists.

Those who have considerable financial resources and a genuine interest in ‘rescuing’ archaeological objects should work with the many archaeologists seeking to protect cultural heritage and seek out and return looted artefacts to their countries of origin. Those who purchase a black market antiquity, whether to keep in a private collection or display in a museum are not rescuers, they are receivers of stolen property.

Myth 4: Purchasing looted antiquities is a victimless crime because nobody gets hurt.

This myth is often deployed in conjunction with one or more of the earlier ones to argue that purchasing looted antiquities is a necessary evil, which does little archaeological damage and is a victimless crime.

The Reality

Tell that to Khaleed el-Asaad, the archaeologist murdered in Palmyra in 2015 because he refused to give up the location of the most valuable antiquities. Or to the two guards murdered at Deir el-Bersha in Egypt by gangsters who came looting. These are just two of the most egregious examples, but many other local people, archaeologists, guardians and site workers have been threatened, injured, coerced and exploited by those seeking to loot archaeological sites and museums.

Like any illegal trade black market antiquities attract people who are happy to operate outside the law. This is includes gangsters, mafiosi, criminals of all kinds, and terrorists. Such people do not generally respect labour or property laws so the ordinary people who find artefacts or who live and work where sites are located are often exploited and threatened. Those who do the hard and dangerous work of looting may not get paid at all and if they do it will be a tiny faction of price ultimately paid for an antiquity. Most of the money made from the illegal trade goes to the various criminals, gangsters and terrorists with the connections to sell on black market antiquities, who use it to continue their various criminal enterprises, exploitation, abuse and murder. As has been pointed out, this is not just about the group known as ISIS, although they have certainly profited from looted antiquities. Many other unpleasant groups and individuals, criminals and gangsters gain from black market antiquities all over the world. Purchasing black market antiquities is not a victimless crime, it puts money in the pockets of ruthless criminals of all kinds and encourages their continued exploitation, coercion and, sometimes, murder of ordinary people and archaeologists.

Buyer beware

Buying antiquities, whether on the black market or legally, is always a risky business. Whatever myths purchasers tell themselves, most black market antiquities are looted from archaeological sites, destroying precious scientific information. Purchasing them only encourages further looting and removes them from their legitimate owners, the people of the countries which originally contained or displayed them. And buying from criminals puts money in the hands of murders, and forgers. No matter how exciting an object is, it’s never worth buying an illegally obtained antiquity on the black market.

Does the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill matter for archaeology outside the UK?

As if war, iconoclasm, looting, antiquities theft, collecting and poverty weren’t enough of a threat to global archaeology, over the last few weeks a new danger raised its head. Having decided that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, the current government has decided to lay the blame for this on ‘red tape’, and is proposing to reduce such bureaucratic obstacles in the imaginatively titled Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill (NPIB).

Although the text of the NPIB hasn’t been written yet, indications are that the Bill will ‘ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When I worked in pre-planning archaeology (writing desk-based assessments predicting the type of archaeology likely to be present on any given development site), I saw a large number of proposals and the pre-planning changes required by Local Authority Planners. Some were sane and sensible. Others . .  less so! It’s entirely reasonable to consider whether planning conditions are always ‘necessary’.

But there is a risk to archaeology from the NPIB. Unknown archaeological material, and known but less significant remains (i.e. those that are not Scheduled Monuments), are not protected by statute in the UK. Instead, they are protected under current planning policy (and its more famous forerunner PPG16). The resulting process ensures that both planners and developers know what archaeology is likely to be on a given site, through initial desk-based assessment and subsequent onsite field evaluation, if necessary. It means that any archaeological work can be programmed into the development, and costs and delays kept to a minimum. The excavation of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare first rose to prominence, demonstrates the kind of problems, delays and expense faced by government, planning authority and developer in the days before the current system was put into place (as this post shows). The system isn’t perfect, and depends very much on the thoroughness of the planning authority and the archaeological contractor, but it works very well and has given us many exciting new finds, including the King of Prittlewell, a nationally significant find that made the headlines, and was found only a few miles from where I’m writing this.

The problem with the NPIB is that archaeological work is currently almost always enforced under planning condition. I have no doubt that even under the NPIB many planning authorities will consider archaeological planning conditions ‘absolutely necessary’ and continue to use them. The risk is that archaeology will be seen as an easy target, a scapegoat for the many other things which can and do hold up development (not least of which is opposition from local people), something planners can omit to appease developers and central government in the demand for faster housing. The Telegraph is already leading the charge to lump archaeology in the those things that are unnecessary brakes on development and should be swept away. We need to ensure that that doesn’t happen, while welcoming better planning legislation. Everything depends on how this law is drafted. So we need to show government how important it is that archaeology is protected, that reasonable archaeological work doesn’t hold up development and that the current system is far better than some ad-hoc process where development is delayed by exciting archaeological finds that were unexpected and weren’t planned for.

This isn’t just a matter for UK archaeology. Many of the techniques, skills, and the actual archaeologists, that are used around the world, have been fostered by planning archaeology in the UK.  At a time when we have unprecedented looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, how can we lobby for better protection, for more stringent laws against illegal antiquities in the UK and internationally, if the UK government is reducing protection for the archaeological sites in its own backyard? When population growth threatens archaeological sites (in Egypt for example), the type of pre-development excavation that has been employed in the UK and elsewhere could be used to record (and so extract the scientific information from) archaeological sites, while permitting an expanding population the space it needs. The reversal of archaeological protection here is a matter of wider significance beyond archaeologists, archaeological organisations and academics working with UK material.

If we do not fight for UK archaeology, if the NPIB is used to undermine archaeological protection, then it sends out the message that archaeology doesn’t really matter. This would undermine UK involvement in many of the causes that matter to archaeologists all over the world including;

  1. Efforts to improve laws against illegal antiquities;
  2. International cooperation between UK and foreign governments in the prevention of looting and repatriation of stolen antiquities;
  3. Preventing museums selling artefacts on the international market;
  4. Government protection and investment in archaeological sites across the globe.

Various UK archaeological organisations are busy lobbying to ensure their voice is heard, but there is also a a petition  (or there’s this one if you live outside the UK) to sign to demonstrate how important it is to you that future legislation continues to protect archaeology and ensure it is dealt with in a timely manner, for the benefit of everyone. If you have an interest in archaeology, no matter what type, I urge you to sign it because this is about all of our past and is a matter for everyone with an interest in archaeology, no matter what continent!