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I would like to share a press release about a recent acquisition of nine early Christian mosaics from a fifth-century Syrian church by an American university and art museum. The second link is to a blog post that was written in response to the release.

Fordham University is a Roman Catholic university in New York City. http://www.fordham.edu/Campus_Resources/eNewsroom/topstories_3067.asp

Chasing Aphrodite is a blog written by the reporter Jason Felch who is especially interested in looted antiquities and corruption in the art world. http://chasingaphrodite.com/2014/01/13/fordhams-folly-some-answers-many-more-questions-about-acquisition-of-syrian-mosaics/

The biggest problem that Felch had with the Fordham Press Release is that there is insufficient attention to the problems with excavation, looting, and acquisition of artifacts from parts of the world where conflict and war make it too easy for looters to steal valuable artifacts. Felch contacted Prof. Peppard who shared as much as he knew about the excavation of these mosaics in the 1960s and sale of the mosaics in 1972.

Floor mosaic of a church dedication inscription, 463 CE, Syria (image: http://www.fordham.edu/Campus_Resources/eNewsroom/topstories_3067.asp)

I encourage you to read through the comments and unfolding debate. It includes excerpts from the Facebook page of Prof. Elizabeth Marlow who contends, “if there were no buyers of undocumented antiquities, no one would bother to rip them out of their archaeological contexts in the first place.”

Peppard is very defensive of the accusation that he and his colleagues at Fordham have acquired looted artifacts. He cites the documentation of the mosaics from 1968.

Floor mosaic with peacocks, 463 CE, Syria (image: http://www.fordham.edu/Campus_Resources/eNewsroom/topstories_3067.asp)

Regardless of when the mosaics were removed from the site, it is not clear whether they were removed legally or not. Felch concludes his post stating that even if they were removed legally, Syria has a law stating that Syrian antiquities must be held in their own state museums, which means the exportation of the mosaics in question would have needed government documentation that excluded them from this law and allowed them to be exported in 1968.

Floor mosaic with peacocks, names of church officials, name of benefactor who built the church, and date of construction, 463 CE, Syria (image: http://www.fordham.edu/Campus_Resources/eNewsroom/topstories_3067.asp)

I hope that by reading this case you can see how important it is to carefully research and critically examine the details in transactions like this. Someone I know defended the acquisition and especially Peppard’s involvement and justification of the acquisition by suggesting that perhaps the assumptions and mistakes he made are the result of what happens when someone switches disciplines. Peppard was trained as a theologian and historian of Christianity in the late antique period, not as an archaeologist or art historian. But is that enough? Is it fair to say that someone is less responsible for decisions like this because of their academic discipline and training? Or is he unfairly being targeted in a debate that should involve many other representatives from Fordham, not to mention the anonymous donor who is hiding more than his/her identity through this gift.