EAA: Deploying the Dead & Art Crime

Last week, the European Association of Archaeologists conference was held in Maastricht. With over 400 sessions, and (I heard) over 1500 papers given, it was a huge conference.

I meant to go earlier in the week, but my work schedule prevented me. Instead I went for the last day of the conference, Saturday.

I managed to make it to Maastricht in time for a session that really intrigued me: Deploying the Dead: Interdisciplinary Dialogues. Right now, I’m working on issues of memory as it relates to funerary culture, and so this session sounded right up my alley!

In this session, I heard talks about Swahili tombs, data mining to understand funerary archaeology, bone use in ossuaries, amulets, and organ burials. It was truly an interdisciplinary conversation, and I walked away having learned a great deal about cannibalism and Shakespeare as an archaeological source: two things that I hadn’t expected to think about at an archaeological conference!

challenging our notions of cannibalism by thinking about 18/19th century mummy-tonics

Though some of the case-studies weren’t immediately relevant to my work, there were some themes that strung through the talks that I thought were worth further contemplation: the difference between bodies, material culture, objects, and talismens (or the difference between object and personhood) is one. I was intrigued by the idea that, in some contexts, bones are treated as being part of a person, and in some other cases (in some museums for instance) they are treated as objects–as material remains of the past.

Which is something that actually threaded into the session that I was at the conference to co-organize (but I’ll return to this in a moment). The session was: art crime and stolen heritage: towards an archaeological consensus.

Previous posts in this blog have eluded to my interest in fakes and forgeries, but I’m ¬†learning more about the art crime in a larger sense including such important and timely issues of looting and smuggling.

So, this session was a wonderful opportunity to hear a variety of scholars address a relevant and immediate issue in archaeology. The papers given ranged from art history to criminology, and the conversation following the presentations was lively and focused largely on practical solutions: how do we document objects before they disappear, how can we impress upon others the importance of heritage objects, how can we address issues like sustainable digging, how can we change how people think about archaeology and how they value the past?

All in all, an interesting conversation and, I think, a successful session!

I mentioned earlier that I noticed was a link between these two very different sessions. What struck me, going from one session to the other, is this theme of the treatment of objets in different contexts.

To explain, many looted artifacts–especially from Syria and Libya–are objects that are funerary in nature. Some are literally portraits of the deceased. And they are taken out of context (tombs), and sold off as expensive art objects (or sometimes even as souvenirs). In the case of Palmyrene portrait sculptures, which were thought to encase part of the soul, this act of removing it from its context and selling it on is similar to this idea of treating a body part as a material object. It’s, in some ways, turning personhood into a commodity. When we talk about the looting of these objects, we (as archaeologists) sometimes also seem to distance the problem stolen art from the problem of disrupting the dead.

This of course, is beside the point that looting and art crime are serious problems that need immediate action. And this interesting issue of the nature of the pieces can’t be properly addressed until the illicit trafficking stops. This¬†is simply something that struck me going from one session to another: an interesting thread to connect two separate fields.

And that’s something that I think is really important about going to interdisciplinary conferences, it helps you to make connections between different fields of study, often in surprising and unexpected ways.

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