Athena Review, Vol.4, no.3

Editorial: The meaning of provenience

 Two similar-sounding terms with a critical difference in meaning, provenance vs. provenience, lie at the center of the current controversy over the antiquities trade and the looting of archaeological sites. This controversy often sets archaeologists at odds with museums and art dealers. In hopes of helping to clarify these matters, the current issue of Athena Review presents a discussion from several perspectives.
    Provenance (accent on the first syllable), a term used by museums and dealers, basically means the sequence of ownership of an item, while provenience (accent on the second) is the exact find spot or site location, as used in archaeology. Determining the sequence of ownership of an artifact is of prime legal concern to buyers and sellers of antiquities, since artifacts acquired from a country after it has passed laws forbidding the export of antiquities gives an artifact contraband status. Yet determining the exact find spot of a desired item has been often of far less concern to antiquities buyers across the board, from individuals to museum committees.
    Archaeologists have a decidedly different attitude toward provenience, regarding it as primary information, and a key problem about the antiquities trade. As several articles and case studies in this issue demonstrate, the provenience or exact find spot of an artifact is essential to its historical identification or interpretation. Meanwhile, it is actually in the interests of looters and black market dealers to disguise provenience.
    Thus, in the case of Maya monumental sculpture with inscriptions, as Christina Luke discusses (pp.46-54), a portion of a carved stela may be looted from a Maya site (perhaps crudely detached with a chainsaw) for sale to the antiquities market. It is normal for the looters (often local laborers who get paid little for their spoils) and the middlemen selling the item to disguise or eliminate information on the provenience, since such looting is illegal. When the stela segment reaches a museum, the fragment will likely be displayed as an integral piece, with no mention that it has been looted from a particular site, and perhaps only a vague attribution such as “Maya carved stela from the region of ___”. As various case studies in this issue demonstrate, for the museum representative or collector who buys such a piece, it is often more convenient not to know the provenience. The devious means taken by black market dealers to disguise provenience create a climate of disinformation. For the archaeologist, historian, or museum visitor, meanwhile, essential information — the provenience or source location of the artifact —has been irretrievably lost in the process.
    Others feeling the loss, of course, include citizens of the country from which the piece was illegally removed. As Michele Miller describes in her introductory article (pp.18-26) some countries including Italy and Greece have begun in the last few years to aggressively prosecute individuals — ranging from looters and black market dealers to museum curators — involved in the illegal antiquities trade. This has led, especially in the case of Italy and the ongoing detective work of its art theft squad, a branch of the police or Carabinieri, to the recovery of hundreds of artifacts in the past few years. Examples from several major museums in the US and abroad are featured in three case studies (pp.31-44). These focus on how the Carabinieri and other agencies have actually determined the provenience, or source locations, of certain celebrated artifacts with disguised sources, sold through the antiquities market in the past two decades.
    The overall problem is complex, because many local people make their living from either looting or the sale of antiquities. The latter aspect, presented in the paper by Julie Hollowell (p.55-65), is of extreme interest — the legal artifact trade in Alaska by individuals of the native cultures themselves (Eskimo and Aleut). Here, ivory carvings from as early as 1500-2000 years ago from the Old Bering Sea culture, are recovered — and legally traded — along with more modern Eskimo carvings (including more than a few forgeries). One of the underlying points of the article is that legalization of some aspects of the antiquities trade is one way to eliminate the virulent effects of the black market (such as the destruction of provenience to foil detection).
    Two other articles in this issue cover the Archaic or aceramic period in Puerto Rico, and the evolution of Greek and Roman theaters in ancient Thrace and Moesia (Modern Bulgaria). Angel Rodiguez (pp.66-71) details the use of large mollusk shells as tools by archaic coastal cultures in the Bahia las Cabezas in northwestern Puerto Rico. Stiliyan Stanimirov (pp.72-80) traces the evolution of the Graeco Roman theater from its origins as a setting for performed tragedies and comedies, to an increasingly spectacle-oriented venue in Roman times, culminating in the arena with gladiatorial contests.

   This article appears on page 1 of Vol.4 No.3 of Athena Review, and has been reformatted for internet  publication.. The complete text and original format may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine. 

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