The Problem with Unprovenanced Objects

Looting Pits Unprovenanced Items

Destructive looting pits at an archaeological site near the southern end of the Dead Sea. Photo by Hershel Shanks.

There are many problems associated with artifacts and objects that lack a secure archaeological context. As Biblical Archaeology Review readers know, we typically describe such objects as “unprovenanced” (or, more accurately, unprovenienced). Since they were not found through controlled scientific excavation and often enter collections through the antiquities market, unprovenanced objects present serious practical, ethical, and even legal issues that scholars must consider when discussing them.

Authenticity: When there is no scientific record of where an object was found, it becomes much more difficult to prove, beyond any question or doubt, that the object is genuine. As such, unprovenanced objects, especially ones with sensational inscriptions or content that is of great public interest, are susceptible to claims of forgery, which often, upon further examination, are confirmed. Furthermore, when unprovenanced objects with doubtful authenticity are presented as genuine, they ultimately compromise the integrity of the scholarly study of the past.

Damage to Archaeological Sites: Unprovenanced objects, if not proved to be forgeries, are almost always taken, stolen, or looted from archaeological sites through unauthorized excavation or illicit digging. These activities damage and destroy archaeological sites and their surrounding landscapes, but also cause the irrevocable loss of critical contextual information that can help archaeologists determine where, when, and how the objects were used in the past.

The Antiquities Trade: Unprovenanced objects, whether looted or forged, typically appear on the antiquities market, where after being laundered, they are bought and sold like any other product. Since 1970, the international trade in antiquities has been widely recognized as illegal, in an attempt both to safeguard archaeological sites from looting and destruction and to prevent the theft of national cultural property and patrimony.[*] Even before 1970, however, the trade in antiquities was a highly questionable enterprise, where objects of dubious origin were routinely purchased for foreign collections, with little regard for how they were acquired, where they were taken from, or the people who might claim the objects as their own heritage.


See UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property

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