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The Antiquities Authority is considering selling pottery shards unearthed in archaeological digs on the open market. If the move is approved, it could be an international precedent - a state authority established to protect antiquities will be trading in them.

Some of the suggestions so far concern include using shards as building materials and antique glass in women's jewelry.

The Antiquities Authority says the initiative stems from acute budgetary distress. Since 2001, the authority's budget has been slashed by more than 20 percent and its income has sharply declined due to the construction recession.

A few weeks ago, the Archaeological Council, the body in charge of the authority's budget, convened and rejected the initiative. But senior Antiquities Authority officials hope the move will be approved after they modified their proposal and obtained a legal opinion that selling pottery shards is not against the law.

President Moshe Katsav, an amateur collector, says there is no point in storing up millions of items that have no research value and are not required for exhibitions. Another supporter is the director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, Professor Israel Finkelstein. He told Haaretz that he sees no point "in keeping thousands of identical objects that have no real value, while there is no money to publish dig reports." Finkelstein cautions, however, against taking steps without coordinating them with other countries. "Antiquities trading is such a sensitive issue these days that if we launch it alone, the international community may ostracize us," he said.

Others strongly oppose the initiative. Dorfman's deputy, Dr. Uzi Dahari, described the proposed move as "a national disaster" and warned that if carried out, the state would be drained of its assets within a few years.

"Archaeology is not oil; it's a cultural asset," Dahari said. "In recent years, all our neighboring states have understood this and have banned trade in antiquities. Try getting a shard out of Egypt today. You cannot renounce national cultural heritage to solve budget problems. We have no mandate to do that to the future generations."

"It's almost like letting the police sell drugs," said one university institution director.

The shards' financial value is questionable and it is not yet clear how they would be sold. One possibility is to use the huge amount of shards as building material. Dr. Gideon Avni, director of excavations and surveys at the Antiquities Authority, cited a recent excavation of his in Lod during which contractors asked him to buy shards. "I had about two million pieces I had no use for," he recalled.

The problem is that using shards in construction may have dire consequences: Future archaeologists may erroneously believe that under a villa in Shoham, for example, lies a neolithic village.

There is also a legal problem: The Antiquities Law of 1978 specifically stipulates that every antique discovered from that year on is owned by the state. Dorfman said he had a legal opinion saying they could still be sold, anyway. But it is feared that what will begin with selling worthless shards will lead to the commercialization of Israel's archaeological heritage.

"I tend to side with those opposing the trade," said Dorfman, adding, however, that he was also seriously considering the opinions of antique collectors who were urging him to open the antiquities market to free trade. "They say, rather than hide the archaeology in your stores, let it out, let it reach as many homes in Israel as possible. At the moment, I draw the line at selling whole articles."

"Money is the curse of archaeology," said Dahari. "We cannot allow this process to begin."

Until the introduction of the Antiquities Law archaeologists would sometimes sell shards left on their digs. They did not receive significant sums for them. Dorfman said only economic feasibility surveys would enable estimating the initiative's economic value. He believes the shards have an economic value. "You can take a nice shard, frame it, put a stamp of the Antiquities Authority on it and write something in English like: `Discovered in the Byzantine convent in the Shoham area.' Maybe it could fetch $2-3 dollars."

Another idea of his is to sell antique glass to jewelry makers. "Inlaying antique glass in women's jewelry is all the rage now. Today, a merchant who wants something like that has to order a robbery. If I have large surpluses I don't need, why shouldn't I supply it? What's the big deal?"