Volume 18 • Issue 2

Photo by Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation

Photo by Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation

Photo by Taylor Jones ’97

Thomas Howe

Sharing Antiquity Responsibility

— Thomas Howe

My work leading the large Roman archaeological project at Stabiae near Pompeii has taken me to realms that university professors rarely experience, including embassies and consulates, basement storerooms, Capitol Hill and television studios. It also has meant traveling some 150,000 miles a year in airplanes and negotiating complex, multinational budgets.

One of the most historic achievements of the Stabiae project has been the four-year touring exhibit of Roman frescoes called “In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite,” which opened at the Smithsonian in 2004 and will be at the Dallas Museum of Art July 6-Oct. 7.

This exhibit is the first long-term loan of antiquities from Italy to the United States under a January 2001 Memorandum of Understanding intended to limit the import of looted antiquities from Italy.

It is a radically different approach from the way I, as a “foreign” archaeologist, would have worked in the past. Normally, foreign archaeologists come, dig, publish and leave. But our mandate from the Italian authorities is to come up with a long-term, comprehensive development plan for the site, which is located in an economically depressed area. Italy has, literally, invited us to share management of one of its richest sites.

One of the greatest, saddest threats to archaeology is the looting of sites. A recent book by Peter Watson titled The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Collections (Public Affairs Press, New York, 2006) documents this traffic—much of which has indeed gone to great museums in the United States. Watson at one point late in the book loses patience with his story and declares that the real driving force behind this destruction has been “curatorial greed.”

My career started with many of those “greedy” curators while in graduate school at Harvard, and since that time they have been working hard to build great collections in the United States. But in the course of their careers, this world changed. In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York paid $1 million for the Euphronios krater, which had no “provenance” and was actually a looted antiquity. Ever since then, certain prime types of classical antiquities have been more valuable, hence worth looting, and the rate of destruction of sites has heated up considerably.

The damage to history has been considerable: whole categories of objects thought genuine (e.g. the largest prehistoric marble figurines from the Cycladic Islands) may be forgeries and, we may have a totally false idea of the location or dates of certain “schools” of artists.

Our Stabiae project may be the first step toward creating new ways for museums to “acquire” Italian antiquities—through organizations such as the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. Perhaps, in the near future, a few major American museums will have a “Stabiae or Pompeii gallery,” where a different set of objects is displayed on a rotating basis every four or five years.

— Thomas Howe is the Herman Brown Professor of Art and Art History and teaches courses in architectural design and art history. He also is coordinator general of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation (www.stabiae.org).