Provenance, Provenience, Perspectives

Cover Photo via:; Funerary Sculpture of Winged Lion, 6th Century BCE, Archaic Period; Italy, Etruria, Volcanic Stone (nenfro), 28 x 34 1/4 x 17 in (71.1 x 87.43.2 cm), 1969-01 DJ, Menil Collection, Houston, TX; Photo by Hickey-Robertson, Houston.
screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-3-13-20-pmArts of the Ancient World, Menil Collection, Houston. Via:

In October 2016 I was fortunate enough to attend the Collections Analysis Collaborative: Collaborative Futures for Museum Collections: Antiquities, Provenance and Cultural Heritage event at the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Previously, my perception was that art historians and museum professionals who are not sympathetic to the threat of cultural heritage and archaeological research caused by illicit excavations (which has been directly linked to the demand for, and willingness to acquire, unprovenanced antiquities (Kersel 2006; Brodie et al. 2001, Brodie and Renfrew 2005) were the few, unethical, exceptions to the general consensus. I realized through the discourse at this event, however, that those progressive art historians and archaeologists willing to collaborate and discuss solutions to cultural heritage destruction caused by demand are a much smaller, yet very vocal faction.

Because I believe collaboration between archaeologists and art historians is vital to both the preservation of cultural heritage and the quality of academic research in both fields, I would like to share some general thoughts for anyone who is unfamiliar with the disconnect often associated between these fields.

I would first like to note, however, that this post is not intended to victimize one discipline over the other, as in many ways, both are guilty of insensitivity to the priorities and efforts of the other.

The study of ‘object itineraries’ incorporates two very distinct, yet related terms. The terms, Provenance and Provenience, do not necessarily mean different things to archaeologists and art historians, as is suggested by some due to inconsistencies and lack of specificity in defining the two terms. They are, however, prioritized in different ways within each discipline.

Provenience, as it is used by archaeologists, is most accurately described as a very specific find-spot (i.e. within a certain quarter of a meter within a specific cutting of an archaeological site) (Bankoff in Joyce 2012: 59). Provenance is the detailed ownership history of a work of art or artifact, ideally starting at the time of the object’s creation, but usually beginning with the time of recovery from an archaeological site, or earliest known existence (possession) of the item. While the provenance of archaeological material should incorporate the provenience as the term is utilized by archaeologists, many art historians do not require this information to consider an object valuable as the aesthetic qualities are not necessarily lost without this information. This is the nature of disciplinary divide, but a problem arises in the lack of respect for each discipline’s priorities, often leading to an unwillingness to collaborate in problem-solving discourse.

 It seems obvious to me than any logical, and ethical, art historian would acknowledge and appreciate the contribution that find-spot information provides to our understanding of aesthetics, taste, and artistic practice within specific historic cultures, as well as to our ability to affiliate artifacts with a culture or place by comparative analysis with collections of known provenience. However, an artifact without a documented find-spot still has aesthetic value and can be researched for its other qualities.

This mind-set is not necessarily bad, and as mentioned above, this difference is the nature of divided disciplines. For example, it must be accepted that there are certainly antiquities floating around museum collections (that were acquired legally), for which provenience information will only ever be speculated. Removing these artifacts from research pools and displays could eliminate research resources for other (non-excavation related) qualities.

Furthermore, for many artifacts, such as materials recovered from Latin American Mayan populations, the exploitation of archaeological heritage was once celebrated and comparative analysis can be a valid means of determining a (although often general and regional rather than country-specific) culture of origin. This comes with the territory of collecting and acquisition behaviors in the early 20th century, and will never be completely rectified. That being said, this does not need to be the primary mindset of acquisitions going forward.

 A key issue with the commercialization of archaeologically excavated materials is that even when legal, this drives the demand for excavating materials that otherwise would have been preserved in situ (the method preferred by archaeologists) in favor of free enterprise (Elia 1992: 110; Adams 2007: 49; Varmer 1999: 287). Art historians don’t blatantly not care about provenience. They just don’t prioritize it in the same way that archaeologists do because they have other avenues for accomplishing a meaningful research program. The damage caused to archaeological sites by undocumented excavations, which is fed by the willingness of curators, dealers, and individuals to pay top dollar for antiquities based almost entirely on speculated archaeological data, and aesthetics is undeniable.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-3-19-41-pmPhoto of looting at El Hiba via: Andy B at

But curators are becoming increasingly vocal about provenance issues in antiquities collections! And thanks to the progressive group, funding opportunities such as those afforded by the Kress Foundation have led to an increased provenance research and restitution opportunities.

Where archaeologists should respect that art historians are able to accomplish great things based solely on research of aesthetic qualities AND are working to improve the codes of ethics for antiquities acquisitions, art historians need to recognize the value in collaborating with archaeologists in their research and respect the need to preserve contextual information. I believe that collaboration is the only means by which issues in preserving provenance from the demand end of the market for illicit antiquities can be resolved.

Efforts to bridge the gap between art historical and archaeological discourse are on-going, and I hope that programs such as the Collections Analysis Collaborative will expand to encourage a mutually-beneficial discourse and discourage accusations of ignorance and disrespect for the foci of each discipline.

For anyone who is interested in details about the problems with defining provenance and provenience, or in the consistent misinterpretation of both terms, I highly recommend Rosemary A. Joyce’s essay “From Place to Place: Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology” in “Provenance: An Alternate History of Art”. I recommend the entire book, but this essay is a good place to start for anyone curious about the disconnect between art historical and archaeological disciplines. Check it out here!

P.S. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about possible museum/institutional- archaeological collaborations to prevent undocumented excavations in subsistence digging economies!

P.S.S. On March 2 there will be a conference on “Ethics of Acquiring Cultural Heritage Objects” at Washington and Lee University. For more info, visit

Works Consulted:
Adams, J. (2007). Alchemy or Science? Compromising Archaeology in the Deep Sea. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 2(1), pp. 48-56.
Bankoff, Arthur. “Context”, online source consulted 13 August 2007 at (no longer available) in Joyce, R. (2012). From Place to Place: Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology. In: G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist, ed., Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, 1st ed. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, pp.48-60.
Brodie, N., Doole, J. and Renfrew, C. (2001). Trade in illicit antiquities: the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage. 1st ed. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
Brodie, N. and Renfrew, C. (2005). Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34(1), pp. 343-361.
Collections Analysis Collaborative- Collaborative Futures for Museum Collections: Antiquities, Provenance and Cultural Heritage, October 17-19, 2016.
Elia, R. (1992). The Ethics of Collaboration: Archaeologists and the Whydah project. Historical Archaeology, 26(4), pp. 105-117.
Joyce, R. (2012). From Place to Place: Provenience, Provenance, and Archaeology. In: G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist, ed., Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, 1st ed. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, pp.48-60.
Kersel, M, (2006). From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Trade in Illegal Antiquities. In: N. Brodie, M. Kersel, C. Luke and K. Tubb, ed., Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade, 1st ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, pp. 188-205.
Varmer, O. (1999). The Case Against the “Salvage” of the Cultural Heritage. Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce, 30(2), pp. 279-302.

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