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The Lie Became Great: the Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures


Review in The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Jan-March , 2002

This book is Muscarella's latest contribution to the research of forgeries that, according to the author, a field archaeologist who is affiliated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have sabotaged the study of our history (p. 22). The book is notable for its revelations concerning the forgery problem, specifically the obvious and possible forgeries of ancient Near Eastern objects. Beyond the listing of forgeries and unexcavated objects, a goal of the present study is to articulate the relationship between scholarship and commerce that facilitates the success of the forgers. The book is divided into two sections: "Introduction and Polemic: The Forgery Culture," and "Catalogue." Footnotes, descriptions, and discussions of the illustrated and non-illustrated objects, as well as bibliography and abbreviations, furnish the sources and documentation that are required to substantiate the information regarding the respective objects, sometimes in support of the author's views and conclusions.

In his introduction, Muscarella states that to understand the forgery problem, one must understand the forgery culture and the collection culture. According to the author, both cultures share the same environments and personnel (p. 1). He asserts that the forgery culture is stratified and multi-faceted, and the systematic rules may be summarized in one sentence: "use all appropriate strategies to impede discussion and exposure of both the policies to acquire plundered art and the existence of forgeries" (p. 2). What follows is an extensive report on the two cultures, a product of the author's ("excavator's") investigation based on personal knowledge and experience. The report is presented as a series of anecdotes citing specific occurrences, but without naming the individuals, museums, or other institutions involved. The anecdotes demonstrate the range of the activities of the forgery culture, showing that museum staff and scholars constitute a large component. The reader must of course trust the veracity of the anecdotal events that oftentimes disclose the tactics used to support the forgery and collection cultures; further on in the text, however, individuals are singled out in connection with publications of artifacts ("forgeries") purchased and published as genuine (e.g., A. U. Pope, P. Amiet, R. Ghirshman). Here, bibliographical references are given; in addition, the reader is presented with detailed information in the notes. The range of information and published citations seems thorough and reinforces the extensive knowledge and investigative abilities that one attributes to the author.

Another component of the forgery culture is what Muscarella describes as "bazaar archaeological methodology," the acceptance of a dealer's claim that an object came from a named site. This leads to a forgery of provenience (history or proof of origin); it is the scholar, however, who creates the fiction of false provenience and assertions about authenticity of unexcavated objects by publishing or exhibiting them as genuine (p. 15). Furthermore, unexcavated objects published with forged proveniences may be accompanied by false historical, archaeological, or art-historical conclusions; the author lists illustrative examples. Among the unexcavated objects are odd pieces, called "Unikums," and publication of these examples advances little more than assertions. Yet, Muscarella notes, artifacts sold from the dealers (read "bazaars") are accorded the same historical merit and value as artifacts excavated and recorded in a site report (p. 14).

In the Catalogue section, when an object's authenticity is challenged, it is first of all unexcavated. Every unexcavated object under review is subject to the question, "why is it genuine?" The objects are placed within six broad groups and cultures, several of which are sub-divided under specific headings, including Iranian cultures, Anatolian cultures, Mesopotamia, North Syria, Phoenicia, Syria, Levant, and Sasanian. In conjunction with discussions of the objects under review, there are photographs of over three hundred unexcavated objects, generally one or two to a page, as well as some seventy drawings of additional objects. It may be of interest to point out that a large number of metal objects--decorated and animal-headed vessels, plates, disc pins, plaques--are labeled as coming from various sites in Iran and datable to different historical periods. This contrasts with the unexcavated objects assigned to Mesopotamia, many of which are stone sculptures and bas-reliefs. The choice of materials for the un excavated objects generally replicates the materials used for the production of excavated artifacts in the respective regions.

Muscarella maintains that all "Median art" attributions have been based on subjective assertions or meaningless art-historical analyses. Elsewhere in the volume the author summarizes the tales of the Dorak Treasure, a hoard to he considered a forgery of artifacts and provenience, and the forgeries of the Catal Huyuk frescoes. The arguments for and against the authenticity of the unexcavated Gudea states are discussed at length. Much discussion is given to the recent publications of bronze helmets with alleged Assyrian scenes that are Unikums in Assyrian iconography. A stated problem related to the publications of unexcavated objects is that many students are not taught to perceive the conceptual differences between the components of a scene and its style (pp. 9-10). There is of course much more to read, learn, sort out, and ponder.

Not every reader will take kindly to this volume, in particular those individuals who believe that their activities as curators, scholars, dealers, and collectors have been challenged unfairly by the author. Nonetheless the volume serves an important purpose if one acknowledges that the material culture of "unexcavated objects" can and does distort our understanding of ancient cultures as expressed in their art, that is, in artifacts that derive from archaeological excavations. Assuredly much research, personal experience, and investigation spanning many years have made this volume possible. While not everyone will concur with some or all of Muscarella's expressed views, for this reviewer the volume stands out as an informative educational tool, especially for those who profess an interest in the cultures of the ancient Near East. The way we look at artifacts or read about them in catalogues or journals--and now on the Internet--should henceforth be determined, at least in part, by their provenience, whether "said to be from" or excavated.





 Ellen Herscher


The author of this reasoned polemic comes down hard on scholars and museums.

  • For nearly three decades, Oscar White Muscarella has roamed the intersecting worlds of archaeology and museums like a biblical prophet--confronting powerful institutions and wealthy individuals with an uncompromising message and shaking the comfortable complacency of art historical scholarship. Preaching the evils of the antiquities trade and the plunder that supplies it, his ire has fallen most harshly on museums and scholars who often use looted artifacts in constructing their interpretations of ancient cultures. Now, Muscarella presents his views with implacable passion in a new book, The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.


  • The book's argument is that scholars of antiquity have long been indiscriminate in their treatment of objects that are presented as ancient, but which appear with no concrete evidence to have been recovered from a proper archaeological excavation of a known site. Yet without such documentation, the very authenticity of the object is in doubt and any historical conclusions based upon it rest on tenuous ground. According to Muscarella, such misinterpretations permeate the cultural history of the ancient Near East.


  • A staff member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1964 and currently a senior research fellow there, Muscarella attacks this kind of scholarship not just for creating false knowledge, but because it serves to promote the illicit trade in antiquities by authenticating and enhancing the aura of orphaned pieces. The system he describes is abetted by a mafia-like code of silence within museums and academe that conceals information and impedes exposure of the underlying process of plunder, forgery, and smuggling.


  • The book has extensive endnotes and bibliography, but its content is far from the detached balance expected of academic works, and the notes tend to contain more anecdotes than substantiating sources. The shorter first section, aptly titled "Introduction and Polemic," provides the general framework, discussing in merciless detail the operations and interdependence of the "Forgery Culture" and the "Collecting Culture." Muscarella describes with fervor how the scholarship of the ancient Near East has been corrupted by the infiltration of artifacts of dubious authenticity and their use by generations of scholars in reconstructing past cultures. His view is that only artifacts excavated from proper archaeological excavations can form the basis for understanding ancient cultures, and he blames a "close relationship between scholarship and commerce" for the successful proliferation of forgeries. The evidence he presents indeed paints a sordid picture of decades of deeply ingrained symbiosis, in most cases due more to scholarly gullibility than venality.


  • The second part, "Catalogue" (actually more of a list, since none of the objects are fully described), includes entries for well over 1,000 objects (most illustrated) that have been identified as ancient Near Eastern artifacts but which Muscarella believes to be forged or suspicious. His guiding premise is that every unexcavated object that appears should not automatically be assumed to be ancient, but rather must be challenged to prove that it is genuine. The material cited comes from museums, private collections, dealers' catalogues and shops, and auction houses. (The "Concordance of Museums and Collections" at the end of the book provides a quick reference for this rogues' gallery of well known names: curiously, one of the most prominent private collections, that of George Ortiz, is not mentioned, although some highly questionable pieces from his collection have appeared in print.)


  • Various types of forgeries are discussed. The majority are of the usual type: totally modern objects intentionally made to deceive a purchaser into thinking that they are from the ancient Near East. Here Muscarella--by the sheer size of his listing, which he claims is only the "tip of the proverbial iceberg"--is trying to refute claims of many dealers and museum personnel that forgeries are a "minor" problem within the trade, and that the few that may appear can be easily detected. (Numerous objects listed come from one dealer who is well known for asserting his unerring ability to spot a fake.) Yet the Catalogue makes it clear that, without appropriate scientific analysis (rarely done), the identification of forgeries is a highly subjective process. Sometimes Muscarella provides detailed explanations for his conclusions, based on variations in style, aberrations in iconography, or anachronous manufacturing techniques, but often a piece is simply dismissed as a fake with comments such as "disturb us," "seem queer," "a horror," or "as stupid as they come." He himself admits uncertainty about many of the items, and in several cases has changed his mind since previous publications. Can all the objects in the Catalogue be proven to be forgeries? No, but neither can they be proved to be genuine--this is Muscarella's essential point.


  • Perhaps even more devastating to our knowledge of the past is the widespread practice in the illicit trade of falsifying the alleged findspot of genuine antiquities. Once certain cultures become popular with collectors, other plundered artifacts appear on the market with the same attribution, although they may in fact come from a totally unknown area. A variation of forging provenience is the dealer's claim that individual objects were found together as a "hoard" or "tomb group," thus supposedly increasing their historical significance. In one example, Muscarella describes how ten silver vessels on sale in Munich were used as evidence for an Urartian dynasty and linked (without basis) to a site in Patmos. He ridicules the ignorant notion that looters who destroy sites would scrupulously maintain the integrity of groups as the objects pass from their place of discovery through the complexities of the antiquities market. Since provenience is the essential core of archaeology, the forgery of provenience is particularly insidious, as it uses authentic artifacts to create a false picture of the ancient past.


  • Muscarella also details the common practice of adding modern embellishment to genuine (but plain) artifacts in order to increase their appeal to the serious collector. He notes the many instances when objects found in controlled excavations are plain, but items on the market, said to be from the same culture, are highly decorated.


  • Muscarella demonstrates the pervasive penchant of scholars to publish the anomalous pieces that appear without documentation in museums and collections, and their naive credulity in accepting the provenience assertions ("said to be from") of dealers. Rather than suspecting the authenticity of such unique objects, tortuous explanations are provided to give the object an exciting "history" and (perhaps not fortuitously) increase its value. As a result, much damage has been done. Entire "cultures" (such as "Amlash") are known solely from market material and have no archaeological basis. No "Median" art has ever been excavated yet many objects receive this attribution. Whole classes of artifacts, such as a group of "Mycenaean" gold plates said to be from Phoenicia, have no certain authentic parallels. Spurious iconography forms the basis for far-reaching claims, such as the motifs on forged plaques which have been used to assert that the people of ancient Luristan practiced Zoroastrianism. Alleged proveniences--such as Luristan bronzes said to have been found in Urartu, and Urartian art said to be from the Caspian area--have led to revolutionary interpretations of ancient trade. Two lapis-lazuli disks (claimed to be Sumerian) have provided the basis for sweeping reconstructions of ancient topography, heirloom traditions, recarving methods, provincial artistic style, and military troop movements. Muscarella urges archaeologists to ask themselves why it is that excavations fail to produce objects like the unprovenienced aberrations that they publish.


  • The author casts himself as the lone voice crying in a philistine wilderness populated by dupes and accomplices of the antiquities trade. He names a host of villains--most prominently Arthur Upham Pope and Roman Ghirshman, dealer-"scholars" of the mid-twentieth century--but several more recent figures are also denounced, including Thomas Hoving, Pierre Amiet, Dietrich von Bothmer, and John Boardman. Numerous other miscreants appear simply as "a museum director," "a scholar," "a major university," or "a United States collector." Not surprisingly, publications that feature undocumented antiquities (real or fake) or directly promote the trade, such as Biblical Archaeology Review and Minerva, receive harsh criticism, but so do scholarly journals that accept articles discussing undocumented objects, and even such ephemera as the Home section of the New York Times and the Nieman-Marcus catalog because they glamorize collecting. Several of the forgeries listed have appeared in the pages of ARCHAEOLOGY.


  • No one escapes Muscarella's unrelenting scorn and he frequently ignores important contributions made by others. He also seems oblivious to the fact that changes have occurred within museums and the archaeological profession over the last century. Although he repeats archaeologist Ricardo J. Elia's now oft-quoted epigram, "collectors are the real looters" (ARCHAEOLOGY, January/February 1993), he credits the wrong publication. His claim that there is "little information in print about the role that museums play in the purchase of stolen and plundered art" ignores, for example, Karl E. Meyer's fundamental work, The Plundered Past, major contributions by Clemency Coggins (1997 Archaeological Institute of America Gold Medal winner), recent investigative reports by Walter Robinson in The Boston Globe, and in depth studies by British scholars Christopher Chippindale and David Gill that also address the problem of forgeries. From the museum world came the ground-breaking Getty Kouros Colloquium, now the definitive treatment of the problems inherent in undocumented antiquities.


  • Despite his condemnation of scholarly use of undocumented antiquities, Muscarella does not oppose the publication of such pieces in what he considers the proper manner (they cannot be given the same authority as those that were scientifically excavated). This is a difficult and complex issue on which there is considerable difference of opinion among thoughtful and well-intentioned scholars. Muscarella himself admits that he "wrestled" with the decision which was "reluctant and heartbreaking." Nevertheless, he does not hesitate to deride those who have spent nearly as much time as has he reflecting on the issue, and who have reached a different conclusion. While alluding to this reviewer (not by name) as "one of the few scholars active in the good fight against plundering," he proceeds to caricature and then mock my position. He also castigates the AIA for its policies on scholarly use of undocumented artifacts, even though he played a major role in bringing about the adoption of those policies. The prophet is not inclined toward nuance or complexity, but retains his unsparing vision of black and white.


  • Despite his rhetorical excesses, Muscarella reveals from an insider's perspective a reality of which the public has too long been unaware. In one way or another, museums are supported by the public, yet many continue to operate in a veil of secrecy that would be unthinkable in any other public institution. While some forgeries (when identified) may quietly be removed from display, aggressive efforts to scrutinize questionable objects are rare, and as Muscarella shows, even known fakes are sometimes left on view for "political" reasons. And with recent increased attention to the destruction of archaeological sites from looting, museums that still acquire undocumented antiquities have even less incentive to change misleading labels that have long accompanied pieces from illicit sources.


  • Years ago, Oscar White Muscarella was the first to raise within the archaeological profession the issue of forged provenience and its effect on the discipline. His call to ethical standards and awareness of the mechanisms of the illicit antiquities trade raised the consciousness of a younger generation of archaeologists and moved organizations such as the AIA and the International Council of Museums toward the establishment of new standards. Many problems remain, and change comes slowly. Yet Muscarella may have failed to notice how much of an impact he has already had.


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