Oscar Muscarella

About Oscar Muscarella

Oscar White Muscarella is an archaeologist and former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His specialty is the antique art and archeology of the Near East. Muscarella is an untiring opponent of robbery excavations, and some regard him as the "conscience of the industry". Dr. Muscarella received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. Among his many scholarly publications are: Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection, Bronze & Iron: Ancient Near Eastern Artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Catalogue of Ivories from Hasanlu Iran. An outspoken critic of the antiquities trade and the plunder of artifacts, he is also the author of The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Near Eastern Cultures and recently, The Veracity of “Scientific” Testing by Conservators. A prolific author, he has extensive excavation experience in Turkey and Iran.

Oscar Muscarella observes the SAFE Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection

A growing number of archaeologists have been or are becoming active in publicizing and fighting the plunder and destruction of cultural sites around the world. And most professional archaeological organizations periodically proclaim their adversity to plundering, the destruction of archaeological sites worldwide, but in fact do little to stop it. For example, the Archaeological Institute of America in its publications and annual meetings allow a small number of anti-plunder lectures—mostly concerning a specific country, but do not concern themselves full time with this crucial archaeological  issue when sponsoring lectures, or establish on-going annual sessions on these matters. Instead they promote and glorify the arch plunderer Indiana Jones as a model for students and the public. The Society of American Archaeology is the single exception that I know that fight the plunderers. As for journals, The Journal of Field Archaeology (but not The American Journal of Archaeology) single handily fight the plunderers. And some websites, such as Chasing Aphrodite, Looting Matters, and the SAFE blog, are continuously active in this activity. But the only active USA organization, a non-professional lay group (organized by Cindy Ho), Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), has singularly and continuously fought the good fight from its inception. They cite plunder wherever it occurs, naming names of the plunderers, their supporters and their opponents. That it is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs. I have been a proud member from its incipience and encourage others to join.

"Egypt’s Antiquities Fall Victim to the Mob": A Response

Alexander Joffe’s article (Feb. 2) on the, fortunately minor, looting of the Cairo Museum is misleading and, indeed, paradoxical for an archaeologist, omits to mention, let alone discuss, the sole cause for this and all other looting and worldwide plunder. It exists to acquire “treasures” to be sold to customers: no customers, no looting or plunder. This reality is the beginning and end of all discussions on local plunder and looting. Such actions are initially conducted by thieves, not the “people” (“Iraqis,” “Egyptians”), who, as Joffe unfortunately claims, should “decide whether to preserve or destroy” their heritage. Both the thieves and local plunderers (who often commit violence in their activities), are employed by antiquity dealers, who arrange the smuggling abroad, and in turn sell their goodies to, museums and private collectors worldwide. The former purchase the plunder seeking to be labeled “encyclopaedic museums,” and “Guardians of the Past,” which goal in the United states is unknowingly and unwittingly paid for (many millions of dollars a year) by taxpayers; the later for social, prestige reasons. These are the plunderer’s employers, the very sponsors of all looting and plundering. Joffe mentions the looting of the Baghdad and Kabul museums, but not the five museums looted in 1991 under Saddam Husseins’ reign, or that at Corinth: all sold to their sponsors abroad.

Joffee and I agree that plundered artifacts “must be returned,” but clearly, if inadvertently, seems to support plunder in general by assuming they will be “safer in Europe or America,” again omitting to mention how the countless thousands of plundered antiquities reached Europe and America in the first place. Joffe’s attacks on Egypt’s Zahi Hawass conflate his justified claims for return (yes, the Nefertiti head was stolen from Egypt by the German archaeologist Ludwig Burchardt) with his flamboyant claims, and, crucially, does not mention that Hawass’ demands for return were made before the present chaos in Egypt, and were in some cases not “misguided.”

Oscar White Muscarella,
New York City

Photo: Associated Press

Shelby White’s Foundation Expansion

In February 2010 the billionaire Shelby White created a selected group of individuals to function within the Leon Levy Foundation, its purpose to “make available information” from excavated sites that have not been published. But information only from nations having a partage system at the time of excavation, i.e. a division of finds between the host nation and the excavators, are eligible. But archaeologists—the Foundation’s new group excepted—knowledgeable of Plunder Culture actions are aware that they consider plundered antiquities to be a “partage,” exploiting its neo-logistic coinage by J. Cuno. An example is White’s refusal to return to Turkey half of a statue of Herakles plundered from Perge, purchased from an antiquity dealer, thus normal partage to this group. The Foundation’s statement suggests that the publication of unexcavated plundered antiquities will not be excluded from funding.

The Foundation’s new group has ten members. White is an antiquity collector, who is the Chair, determined by her financial gift. The other members include four museum Directors (T. Potts, R. Hodges OBE, J-F. Jarrige, and S. Herbert), and one ex-Director (de Montebello); one museum curator (D. Arnold); a number of “distinguished archaeologists” (Rose, Hodges, Potts, S. Heath and S. Minyaev). They will determine who gets/is denied publication funds. Four of the members are museum Directors, one an ex-Director, and one an antiquity collector: the majority of the members.

Brian Pennsylvania Rose, Deputy-Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is the President of the said-to-be Archaeological Institute of America. He is infamous for crippling the AIA, smilingly reaching out to the plunderers, proclaiming that plunderers and archaeologists have a “Common Ground.” He first linked the AIA to plundering activities by declaring Indiana Jones, an archetype plunderer, as a model “in stimulating the public’s interest in archaeology….as a benefit to archaeology….archaeologists…dig Indy.” Rose celebrated the actor who played Indiana Jones at an AIA Gala “Honoring” party, and had him appointed a Trustee of the AIA (Personal disclosure: I resigned from the AIA last year after more than 50 years’ membership). And now he has carried his goals further by becoming a supporter of White. In published photos he is posed next to White, both collegially smiling. Rose has now added Shelby to his list of those plunderers he digs Query: will he soon get her an appointment as Trustee of the AIA? Hodges has written for and advised the antiquities dealer Jerry Eisenbergs’s plunder-defender journal Minerva, which for years contained advertisements from antiquity dealers. He was quoted in the New York Times 12/6/07: 10) condemning Fordham University’s Museum for accepting a gift of plundered antiquities: “The message it sends is there is nothing wrong with looting and buying illegal objects,” the very same message he now blithely proclaims: because he digs Shelby (and her potential gifts to his Museum).

Potts abandoned archaeology to become a plunder supporter as Director of the Kimball Art Museum to “build up” its antiquity collection; he is now Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. Heath has served as Vice President of the Un-Professional Committee of The AIA. He is also a Visiting Scholar at White’s Institute. De Montebello is the group’s Special Advisor” At The Metropolitan Museum de Montebello has purchased hundreds of antiquities from all over the world, as “partage” from “source nations”. He has also named an MMA gallery in White’s name. Minayev may be an innocent bystander. No Foundation member will serve archaeology; they will defer to de Montebello and White.

Rose and Hodges have now brought the AIA and the University Museum further into the depths of the plunder culture. Query: are there any honest archaeologist members among the AIA’s Officers and Trustees who will react to this, impeach its President? Surely no member of the University Museum’s Governing Board will react to Hodges; he has an OBE. Furthermore, excavations conducted by Rose/ Hodges’ museum not under partage (its correct meaning) are not eligible for publication funding by the Foundation of which they are prominent members. Thus, sites like Gordion in Turkey that remain to be fully published will be denied Foundation funds!

My position on raising funds for publication has been stated by me for some time in lectures and publications. I have no objection, archaeological or moral, to archaeologists seeking funds from White (I even once asked her Foundation to fund an archaeological publication; she refused): provided they do not cater to her, or support her plunder activities as return payment, viz. Lawrence Stager of Harvard University. K. D. Vitelli received money from White, but never ceased to oppose her and other plunders, for which she was criticized for not supporting her in her partage activities. Further, I do not oppose the publication of antiquities, no matter where their modern provenance exists, provided that scholars disclose this information and note their unexcavated nature: one cannot ignore unexcavated objects, they exist, we cannot throw away the baby with the dirty bath water. The new Levy Foundation group will reject such disclosure. The archaeological discipline is fragmenting while too many scholars look the other way.

Oscar White Muscarella