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In order to avoid the publication of suspect or looted material, and in keeping with the 1970 UNESCO convention against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, the Archaeological Institute of America’s code of ethics, and the 2007 resolution of the American Society of Papyrologists, the Center for Hellenic Studies discourages publication projects involving artifacts that lack secure origin, or at the very least, secure, documented ownership prior to 1970. Publications on our website from prior years that fail to meet this standard will be labeled as such.
The words provenience and provenance are important terms in these policy statements and what lies behind them, but the distinction between them is problematic in the standard reference works; for some these words are complete synonyms; for others, as discussed by Theo Nash in his essay called “Looting and Faking,” provenience denotes the place of origin for an object while provenance means the history of its ownership; for others still, the distinction between place of origin and history of ownership is not between the two words but simply two senses of the older word, provenance. In any case, Nash makes the helpful point that, from an archaeologist’s point of view, the place of origin of an object is crucial. An ancient object without a secure origin is both suspect and almost useless, since crucial information about its date and function cannot be asserted or verified. Since the UNESCO Convention of 1970, it has been illegal to participate, directly or indirectly, in the illegal trade in cultural property, and to buy or sell objects that have left their country of origin. Illegally obtained objects ipso facto lack a secure place of origin that would betray their illegal sources and must accordingly be suspect as forgeries in the way that objects with a secure place of origin are not. The situation is similar but not the same for papyrologists and philologists who study papyri. A papyrus without secure origin is as suspicious as any object without one, but its usefulness and therefore, as a rule, its value depends on its contents, not where it was found. There is, however, an important exception to that rule: the Derveni Papyrus, whose known origin as an incompletely burned tomb deposit is a crucial factor for the interpretation of its contents. There may be other such exceptions now or in the future. It is also worth stressing that a papyrus like P.Sapph.Obbink, even though its origin and ownership are suspect, can still be a genuine work of Sappho’s, as most researchers believe it to be.
This results in a complex situation from an ethical or moral standpoint. While the AIA has forbidden any participation in the market for antiquities and the publication of objects unearthed since 1970 without secure place of origin, the American Society of Papryologists makes the provenance of a papyrus, the documentation of its ownership, its key criterion. Papyrologists are forbidden to engage directly in the illegal market or to support it indirectly by evaluating looted objects; they are forbidden to publish, present, or exhibit such papyri without, at a minimum, a “frank and thorough discussion” of the history of their ownership. And one cannot be naïve about such a history—it must be verifiable.
The overall goal of the policies articulated by these professional organizations, which we endorse and pledge to abide by, is to prevent looting and the export of looted antiquities from their countries of origin. The people who loot sites are either just criminals or the poorest of citizens who get themselves killed with impunity by authorities or competitors. Meanwhile, their profits are small compared to those higher up in the food chain, who make huge sums of money by trading in looted objects.
As a publishing institution, CHS supports the goal of doing everything possible to undermine this evil, and it also seeks to abide by the policies that flow from awareness of its existence. Some may choose to go further than the policies and refrain completely from research and publication on papyri whose record of ownership is suspect; for others, ignoring the existence of a precious literary document whose ownership is insecure is an untenable option, despite a conflicting desire to undo looting and the market that it supports. We respect the difficulty of making such choices.