Saturday, August 5, 2017

Questions on a Bell krater and Certainty in Forensic Archaeology


YOU ARE THEREFORE COMMANDED, between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m., to enter and to search the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028 (“the target premises”), for the above described property, and if you find such property or any part thereof, to bring it before the Court without unnecessary delay.
So reads a search warrant for
A Paestan Red-Figure B 11-Krater (a wide, round, open container used for holding wine at social events), attributed to Python from the 360 to 350 B.C., approximately 14 1/2 inches in diameter, and depicting the Greek god Dionysos in his youth with a woman on a cart being drawn by Papposilenos on one side and two youths standing between palmettes on the reverse side.
A New York court issued the warrant on July 24 to the District Attorney for New York County. The warrant seems to have been based on “photos and other evidence sent to them in May by a forensic archaeologist in Europe who has been tracking looted artifacts for more than a decade. The museum said that it hand-delivered the object to prosecutors the next day and anticipates that the vase, used in antiquity for mixing water and wine, will ultimately return to Italy.” 1/

The archaeologist, Christos Tsirogiannis, lists himself on LinkedIn as a research assistant at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Glasgow, and a forensic archaeologist and illicit antiquities researcher at the University of Cambridge. He contacted the New York district attorney’s office after the museum previously had notified Italian authorities, with no apparent effect, of the evidence that the Bell krater, as this type of container is called, had been looted from a grave in Southern Italy. Dr. Tsirogiannis compared photos on the museum’s website to “Polaroid photos shot between 1972 and 1995 that he said were seized ... in 1995” from storehouses of an Italian antiquities dealer convicted of conspiring to traffic in ancient treasures” to conclude “that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters.” 2/

Dr. Tsirogiannis was asked about how he could be certain of his photographic identification in an interview on NPR's Morning Edition. His answer was “that’s my job” -- I've done it over a thousand times.
Transcript (excerpt), Morning Edition, Aug. 4, 2017, 5:07 AM ET

AILSA CHANG, HOST: So how did you first discover that this vase in the Met was an artifact looted from a grave in Italy in the 1970s?
CHRISTOS TSIROGIANNIS: I have granted official access to a confiscated archive of a convicted Italian dealer convicted for antiquities trafficking. And the archive is full of photographs, among which I discovered five depicting this particular object. And by comparing these images with the image that was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I identified that it is the same object.
CHANG: How can you know for certain?
TSIROGIANNIS: That's my job. ... I'm a forensic archaeologist, and I am doing this for more than 10 years now, identifying 1,100 of antiquities in the same actual way.
CHANG: Eleven hundred stolen antiquities you have identified?
The response is reminiscent of testimony heard over the years from forensic analysts of many types of trace evidence -- things like fingerprints, toolmarks, hair, shoeprints, and bitemarks. In those fields (which should not be regarded as equivalent), such assurances are much less acceptable today. The identification here could well be correct (although the previously convicted antiquities dealer staunchly denies it), but would it be objectionable because the procedure for comparing the photographs is subject to cognitive bias, lacks well-defined standards, and is not validated in studies of the accuracy with which forensic archaeologists match photographs of similar vases, and so on?

The vase surrendered by the museum certainly "vividly ... depicts Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, riding in a cart pulled by a satyr" and is attributed "to the Greek artist Python, considered one of the two greatest vase painters of his day." 3/ Are there be statistics on the distinctiveness of the designs on the various Bell kraters in use over 2,000 years ago or is each assumed to be visibly unique? How should the photographic evidence in such a case be presented in court?

  1. Tom Mashberg, Ancient Vase Seized From Met Museum on Suspicion It Was Looted, N.Y. Times, July 31, 2017 (printed as Vase, Thought to Be Looted, Is Seized From Met., N.Y. Times, Aug. 1, 2017, at A1).
  2. Id.
  3. Id.

No comments:

Post a Comment