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First Person

Hershel Shanks
Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review


Biting the Hand that Feeds You
Taking ingratitude to new heights


Karen Vitelli

I feel betrayed. Her name is Karen Vitelli. She teaches at Indiana University.

     For years I have been concerned over what I call archaeology's dirty secret: Archaeologists often fail to publish final reports on their digs. The problem was (and is) endemic. I talked to several philanthropists in an effort to address the problem, but failed repeatedly to enlist their support. Then, nearly five years ago, I approached a leading philanthropist and collector of antiquities named Leon Levy. Out of those talks grew the Shelby White-Leon Levy Publications Program, named for Leon and his wife, Shelby White. To date, the White-Levy grants have exceeded $1,600,000. In addition, Ms. White and Mr. Levy have supported the Biblical Archaeology Society's publication of two scholarly volumes, Archaeology's Publication Problem, volumes 1-2 (1996-1999) (Order these volumes!), in which more than 20 scholars address various aspects of the problem.

     At one fell swoop, Karen Vitelli has done more damage to support for the archaeological enterprise than anyone in memory.

     Karen Vitelli hates looters. We all do. We want them caught and jailed. But Karen Vitelli, like the archaeological establishment represented by the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), also believes that the way to eliminate looting is to vilify collectors and antiquities dealers and to discourage collecting in general. The Biblical Archaeology Society disagrees with that position, although we, too, discourage private collecting. Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt: The AIA position has been an abysmal failure. Looting is rampant. We believe the only way to eliminate or even reduce looting is to pursue market-based solutions: Sell some of the tens of thousands of common duplicates that professional archaeologists have excavated but now lie rotting in antiquities department storerooms. In effect, compete with the looters, thus providing an economic disincentive for looting. Enlist support from collectors so that sites that are being looted can be properly excavated. Ransom the more important pieces that come on the market so that they can be studied and published by scholars. Most important of all, raise funds to stop looting at the source by increasing security at the sites and by conducting nighttime raids to nab looters in the act. We have developed this position at length in our magazines.(1)

     Our position is anathema to Karen Vitelli--and to the AIA. And if nothing else, Karen Vitelli feels passionately about her views.

Shelby White and Leon Levy

     Strangely enough, Karen Vitelli's lofty morality did not prevent her from applying for a grant from the White-Levy Publications Program to fund her publication of the Neolithic pottery from Franchthi and of the pottery and settlement at Lerna, both in Greece, even though she knew that White and Levy were antiquities collectors. She was awarded $40,000 over a two-year period. Ms. Vitelli's volume on Franchthi was recently published by Indiana University Press.(2)

     In her preface, Ms. Vitelli writes: "I have long looked forward to writing the preface to this second volume of the Franchthi pottery, knowing that doing so would mean the weight of my obligation to publish would be lifting at last." And of course she expressed her gratitude to the White-Levy Publications Program.

     At that point, however, she could restrain herself no longer. Her integrity demanded it. Her morality required it. Her passionate devotion to her cause had to be expressed. She writes: "I regret and find most contradictory that the individuals who established and fund this Program and other important archaeological undertakings are also significant collectors of ancient art. I shall continue to urge them and others to see the error of their ways, and to make clear to a larger public the damage done to the archaeological record and our understanding of the past by the collecting of undocumented antiquities ... Perhaps Shelby White and Leon Levy, who are doing so much good for archaeology, will also understand the losses engendered by their collecting."

     Talk about condescension! Talk about ingratitude! Talk about spitting (or worse) in your face! Take that White-Levy!

     Imagine how these benefactors feel. I am told that they initially considered suspending part or all of the program. But I am not really concerned about the Levys or their feelings. I know them both. Leon is a big boy, and Shelby is a big girl (although both are diminutive physically); they can take care of themselves.

     But I am concerned about the archaeological enterprise. We are all human. Are the Levys going to be as eager to support archaeology after this? And there is no way to conceal Vitelli's despicably inappropriate act of ingratitude from other potential supporters. The message is clear: If collectors and antiquities dealers support the archaeological enterprise, this can be their reward.

     That is why I feel betrayed by what Vitelli has done. Those of us who are in the forefront of the effort to raise money for archaeology know the damage this will do.

     I recently asked a prominent collector if he would allow us to publish a fascinating piece in his collection that had considerable historical significance. He's a sweet, friendly guy, but the answer was no. He was happy enjoying his collection. He didn't want to get in the crossfire. That is part of the price we pay for the vilification that Karen Vitelli and her AIA colleagues engage in.

     In her book, however, Karen Vitelli takes the campaign of vilification one step further. She is surely entitled to express her passionately held views. But to apply for a grant and grab their money and then slam them ... Well, as my father used to say, that takes the cake.--H.S.



*Click here to order any of these back issues.  

1 Hershel Shanks, "How to Stop Illegal Excavations," BAR, September/October 1996, "How to Stop Looting," Archaeology Odyssey, September/October 1999; Avner Raban, "Stop the Charade," BAR, May/June 1997.*

2 Karen D. Vitelli, Franchthi Neolithic Pottery, vol. 2, The Later Neolithic Ceramic Phases from 3 to 5 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999).

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