45th Annual Meeting – Luncheon, May 30, “Protecting the World’s Cultural Heritage: Identifying and Protecting Looted Artifacts” by Oya Topçuoglu, L. Burgess, and Dawn Rogala

Looted or stolen artifacts are a concern all over the world. The speakers at this luncheon focused on looting in the middle east, cases of illicit imports, and notable museum thefts. As a curator and conservator of Native American artifacts, however, I found much of the talk was relevant to the looting that happens right here in the U.S., albeit on a smaller, less industrial scale.

The first talk, by Oya Topçuoğlu, was riveting. For one thing, the demonstration of the sheer scale of looting happening in the middle east was incredible (see photo below).


On 4 August 2011 (left ), the soil at Dura-Europos is relatively undisturbed both inside and outside the walled city. On 2 April 2014 (right), however, very high-density looting is present inside the ancient city wall, while portions of the archaeological site beyond the city wall have been covered with thousands of individual pits. A number of vehicles (circled in red) are visible within the walls of the site. Coordinates: 34.74 N, 40.73 E. Image ©DigitalGlobe | U.S. Department of State, NextView License | Analysis AAAS. -https://www.aaas.org/page/ancient-history-modern-destruction-assessing-status-syria-s-tentative-world-heritage-sites-7#Dura-Europos

The scale of looting and tracking of antiquities is virtually impossible to quantify, partly due to the dangers of getting people on the ground in areas of conflict, but Oya and her colleagues have begun to address some key questions in the quest to put an end to such activities, including: Where does the looting happen? How do we identify it? Who is involved in looting, trafficking and sale of antiquities? Where do looted artifacts go, how do they get there? Who are the buyers? Where do sales take place? What is sold for how much? What can we do from the safety of our offices, universities, museums, etc.?

She noted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) is not the only party doing the looting but that such activities are most prevalent in IS controlled areas. Sales are conducted through online auction sites and the dark web. Documents are often falsified and regularly contain a stock phrase such as “Property of (or from the collection of) a London (German, Swiss, etc.) gentleman. Acquired in the 1980’s.”

The question I was really interested in was “What can we do?”. For tracking artifacts stolen from museums, for example, new substances are becoming available like “smart water,” an invisible polymer than can be traced back to a certain batch. She notes it is also important to adequately train law enforcement, both local and international, to recognize antiquities. Finally she discussed a project called MANTIS (Modeling the Antiquities Trade in Iraq and Syria) about which more details can be found here: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/mantis

Looting at American archaeological sites is on a much smaller scale and probably does not fund major terrorist organizations but this talk made me think about how important it is to track the sales of antiquities and do whatever we can, including training law enforcement, to halt the illicit trade of the world’s cultural heritage.

The next speaker L. Burgess, was a lawyer who discussed issues that lawyers deal with like title, authenticity, and provenance. She highlighted some of the more famous art heist and illicit import cases. Again she pointed out the issue of falsified documents such as in the Steinhart case from the mid 1990’s in which a million dollar 3rd-4th century BC Sicilian gold phiale from Italy was claimed to be from Switzerland and worth only $150,000. She also talked a bit about repatriation and mentioned that she feels institutions are moving toward long term loans rather than transfers of ownership.

Finally, Dawn Rogala talked about some of the things to think about if you are approached to work with legal cases dealing with repatriation, art theft or forgery. She discussed what it means to be a subject matter expert, for example, you must be willing to testify. She mentioned questions you should ask yourself like, are you even allowed to testify or do job restrictions, for example, prevent it? Are you actually qualified? She says you must ask agents what is expected of you. And of course, ask yourself do you have time to do this? She also went over what language to use, how to write reports, and general things to be cognizant of.

Overall the themes of the luncheon were crucial for many people in our field. It was odd to juxtapose the discussion of war-zone looting with the delicious lunch we were eating in the comfort of a plush conference room but the luncheon format did allow some good open discussion and, frankly, kept me from getting too depressed when thinking about the vast scale and impenetrability of the illicit antiquities trade.




44th Annual Meeting, Objects Session, May 17th, “The Use of Gums and Resins in Archaeology and Microchemical Tests for their Identification,” by Christina Bisulca

Christina Bisulca presented a fascinating paper that not only described the source of and uses for pine resins and insect lacs but also detailed various methods of testing for these substances in the lab. The Arizona State Museum is home to a collection of 35,000 objects representing every major cultural group in the southwest from Paleo-Indian to the historic period. As part of a conservation and rehousing project made possible by a Save America’s Treasures grant, conservators hoped to analyze and identify adhesive resins present within the collection.

Map showing regions mentioned in the talk

Certain plants and insects are found only within particular regions of Arizona due to the huge range of elevation and environmental biomes within the state. Since three of the most prolific cultures, the Hohokam, Mogollan, and Ancestral Puebloan occupied very different biomes, it was assumed their use of natural adhesives would vary according to location. Creosote lac
The Hohokam, for example used creosote lac, a polyester resin derived from an insect on the creosote bush found in desert lowlands. On the more northerly Colorado Plateau, where the Ancestral Puebloans lived, piñon pine was a plentiful source of diterpenoid resin. In general, Bisulca and her team assumed insect lac was used in the south and pine resin in the north.
Initial analysis was done with Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) but researchers had trouble gathering reference plant material. They also realized these high tech, expensive tests are not readily available to many archaeologists, so they used microchemical tests in addition. Since no reliable microchemical test existed for shellac the team developed one based on the pH dependency of color in anthraquinone dyes, which are extracted from lac insects in Asia. In alkaline conditions the dyes turn from orange to purple. The test worked 80% of the time even in their archaeological collection. Where it did not work the resin had likely been charred or highly heated. The results of the tests challenged their assumptions about pine resin being used primarily by the north. In fact the team found more insect lac in the Ancestral Puebloan collection than pine resin. The lac would only have been available to these regions through trade. The researchers also investigated the use of each material. Bisulca used arrows, common to all three cultures, to highlight the different uses for each adhesive. Insect lac is stronger and less brittle so was used by each culture, regardless of location, for hafting the arrowheads to the shaft.
lac ballPotbiface
Overall, Dr. Bisulca’s talk was extremely informative and used excellent images to portray her ideas. The images she used of the lacs and resins as they are found in nature and on ethnographic objects helped to clarify the differences between the source and use of each. I have to admit I had not considered the significance of these resins in terms of their use in tracing trade routes and cultural practices. I am curious to know what similar substances would have been used by Eastern and Plains area cultures and how well such resins would be preserved in damp archaeological environments. This will certainly change the way I approach native material at my own site.
All images are from a poster on insect lac by Christina Biscula available here.
Information about the authors is available from The Arizona State Museum’s website.

41st Annual Meeting – Wooden Artifacts Session, May 31st, “The Gordion Table Circa 2011” by Rick Parker

The Gordion table is one a multitude of artifacts, including more than fifty pieces of furniture, excavated from Phrygian tumuli in the 1950’s. The wooden objects were almost immediately warped and damaged by a large influx of moisture within the tomb. In the 1980’s a large scale conservation project began in Ankara to rescue the table and associated objects. The first time I read about the Gordion Table, and saw images of it conserved and reconstructed, I began to wonder how it might have looked when first entombed in the Phrygian Kingdom 2,700 years ago.

The original Gordion table after conservation and reconstruction. Reproduced with permission from Elizabeth Simpson.
The original Gordion table after conservation and reconstruction. Reproduced with permission from Elizabeth Simpson.

Luckily for me, Rick Parker has taken it upon himself to replicate the table based on original drawings and literature. A number of difficulties were encountered along the way and occasionally artistic and creative liberties were taken, for both technical and aesthetic reasons. The wood, for example, was sourced from Kauri logs from New Zealand which were 40,000-60,000 years old. He later used resin from this wood to varnish the table. This decision seems to relate more to personal taste as the original table was carved from  boxwood, juniper and walnut. Additionally, while doing the work he found modern era power tools to be virtually useless and had to fabricate more appropriate tools. The way the table was constructed meant it was very difficult to join the components and get them all to stay in plane. Interestingly, the original table has a hole in one of the legs that has been drilled and then plugged above another hole where the strut is attached. Rick found, when making the table, that his original measurements led him to attach the strut higher on one leg which then kept the table top from being able to sit flat on the legs. Like the original maker, he also had to fill this hole, drill another, and move the strut down.

Based on his own knowledge of ancient craftsmanship Rick believes the original makers must have had more skill, and more complex tools, than are currently attributed to them. To him, Simpson’s assertion that an adze was used to carve the legs is a point of contention. He also debates the idea that the table would have been portable, his reconstructed version being very awkward to move. In some ways the ability to handle this modern replica is one of it’s greatest assets. It also stands alone as a unique and beautiful object. Rick thinks of the original table as a work of art and while his version may not be an exact replica it lends a sense of reality to an otherwise mysterious object.

The replicated table. Photo courtesy Rick Parker.

For more information about the conservation of the original table see:
Payton, R. (1984) ‘The Conservation of an Eigth Century BC Table from Gordion’, in N. Brommelle, E. Pye, P. Smith, and G. Thomson, (eds.), Adhesives and Consolidants: Preprints of the Contributions to the Paris Congress, 2-8 September 1984, pp. 133-137
Simpson, E. (1983) “Reconstructing an Ancient Table: The ‘Pagoda’ Table from Tumulus MM at Gordion.” Expedition25, no. 4: 11 26.
Spirydowicz, K. (1996) ‘The Conservation of Ancient Phrygian Furniture from Gordion, Turkey’ in A. Roy and P. Smith (eds.), Archaeological Conservation and its Consequences: Preprints of the Contributions to the Copenhagen Congress, 26-30 August 1996. London: IIC. pp. 166-171
For information on the Gordion site and the artifacts in general see the wikipedia page which has excellent references:
The University of Pennsylvania also has a very in depth website detailing the site, the furniture, the tumuli and their associations with the historical King Midas: