National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Morag Kersel

Affiliation: DePaul University

Morag M. Kersel is an archaeologist who works in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age periods. Morag is associate professor of anthropology and director of the Museum Studies Minor at DePaul University. She earned a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. She also holds a Master of Historic Preservation (with Distinction) from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Classical Studies from Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. In addition to participating in archaeological excavations and surveys in Egypt, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, and Turkey, Morag is interested in the relationship between cultural heritage law, archaeological sites and objects, and local interaction. She has published a number of articles and is the co-author (with Christina Luke) U.S. Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology: Soft Power, Hard Heritage (2013) and co-editor (with M.T. Rutz ) of Archaeologies of Text: Archaeology, Technology, and Ethics (2014).


Jordan has a demand driven looting problem rooted in the illegal and legal trade in Middle Eastern cultural material. The looting phenomenon is not new, nor are the varied responses attempting to protect the past. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) is intended to combat the illegal trade in cultural materials thus curbing theft of artifacts from archaeological sites and the collections of cultural institutions. At the same time, the Convention is used to build bridges, foster good relationships, and to right past colonial injustices. To enter into a cultural property agreement under the U.S. implementing legislation, the requesting country must address a series of determinations and the accompanying dossier should include extensive documentation of looting activity. Demonstrating the pillage of archaeological sites has never been easier. Remote sensing data in tandem with big data gathered through oral histories and ethnographic interviews provide comprehensive evidence on the looting and movement of illegally excavated and stolen artifacts for countries wishing to pursue bilateral agreements with the U.S. Using the Jordanian request for a cultural property agreement as a lens, I will illustrate the power of big data in diplomacy.

Early Bronze Age (3600-2000 BCE) pots buried with ancient ancestors along the Dead Sea Plain in Jordan have long held a fascination for locals, pilgrims, and tourists. Demand for these archaeological objects has resulted in decades of illegal excavation, the destruction of the archaeological landscape, and subsequent movement. As artifacts travel from the mound to the mantelpiece, recent research has shown they pass through many hands, crossing borders, traveling in hand luggage, shipping containers, diplomatic cars, and sometimes disguised as fruit baskets. Tracking the movement of these EBA pots is an important aspect of understanding the legal and illegal trade in antiquities in the region. Law plays an important role in the movement of artifacts. In the Holy Land (Israel, Jordan, and Palestine) legislative bodies, legislation, and policy facilitate and discourage the movement of objects. Situated in the debates over artifact agency, the social lives of things, and object itineraries, this paper is an examination of the diachronic relationship between law, movement, and pots. Archaeological evidence, archival documents, interviews, and aerial surveys using unmanned aerial vehicles all provide valuable insights into how these pots go from the burial mound to the mantelpiece or museum vitrine.

Between March and September of 2014, the Israel Museum displayed what curator Debby Hershman described as “a small, rare group of 9000 year old masks – the oldest masks known to date”.  Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World (Israel Museum, 2014) was the culmination of nearly a decade of research by Israel Museum curators and other archaeologists. The exhibition marked the first time that a group of masks from the Neolithic (7600-6000 B.C.E.) was displayed together and the first time that most of them were publicly accessible. Two of masks included in the exhibit have known archaeological find spots and are part of the permanent collection of the Israel Museum. Ofer Bar Yosef recovered the Nahal Hemar mask from controlled scientific excavations; the other mask purchased by noted military figure Moshe Dayan from a farmer after a chance discovery during agricultural plowing and then donated to the museum. The remaining 10 masks have no known associated archaeological information; all loaned from the private collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt, all purchased from the antiquities market. In November 2018, The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of another mask, although the circumstances of the recovery are murky, at best. This is a discussion of the object-based research into the hidden histories of the Neolithic masks and the consequences, intended and unintended, of esteem for ancient artifacts.

How is it possible in this moment of museum “decolonization”, critical examination of museum ethics and practice, calls for repatriations and reparations, and restorative justice, that a brand new museum is embroiled in controversy over the acquisition, study, and display of archaeological artifacts? Museum aversion to addressing complex issues of provenance, documentation, fakes, and archaeological site destruction caused by looting results in distorted displays and inaccurate interpretations of the material record and injustice and bias in the contact zone (sensu Bennett, Boast, Clifford, and Pratt). The exhibition of archaeological artifacts from the ‘Holy Land’, specifically the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at the Museum of the Bible, offers a compelling case study. The Dead Sea Scrolls as contact zone (writ small) allow for the consideration of curatorial decision-making, visitor engagement, honesty, untold stories, and the potential for redemption at the Museum of the Bible.

This work sits at the uncomfortable intersection of legal, and right? A recurring theme in many of the talks in this series of webinars. It is legal to sell artifacts in licensed antiquities markets such as Israel, but is it right when artifacts may have associated misleading origin stories, deceitful market participants, and willfully blind buyers? Moving from the mound to the mantlepiece, objects leave local sites, cross borders, and are laundered, ultimately ending up legitimately available for sale. How does the average academic researcher gather data on this movement? How do they know when interviewees are telling the “truth” or telling them what they think they want to hear? How do they traverse the often intractable divide between “doing no harm” to their informants and providing information to local, national, and international agents charged with protecting sites and objects? How do they navigate gatekeepers met along the way? How do they carry out ethical research when there are as many illegal as legal elements in this type of inquiry?

support Us

The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.