Aramaic incantation bowls


Aramaic incantation bowls date to the 7th and 8th centuries AD. They are hemispherical or flat-based pottery bowls with Aramaic inscriptions written in ink on their inner surfaces. Each inscription, usually spiralling out from the centre, records a magical incantation intended to ward off malevolent spirits. There are analogous bowls written in Mandaic and Syriac, though the Mandaic and Syriac bowls often adopt other arrangements of text (Hunter 2000). The bowls were first reported in an archaeological context by Austen Layard, who had discovered them in 1850 at Babylon and Nippur, though two had already been acquired by the British Museum in 1841.
The best reported archaeological contexts are for bowls that were excavated at Nippur (Peters 1897). Exploratory work during the second University of Pennsylania expedition to Nippur in 1889 exposed houses immediately below the surface. Each house contained one or more incantation bowls, together with more routine domestic artifacts such as pottery and grindstones. The bowls were found under door thresholds or under the floor in room corners and are thought to have been placed there as apotropaic charms.
By 1990, fewer than 1,000 Aramaic bowls were known. There were about 300–500 bowls outside Iraq, and an estimated 600 more in the Iraq National Museum. Although something like 240 had been published, only a few had been recovered in verifiable archaeological circumstances, and they had all been found in Iraq. Thus when many hundreds of previously unknown incantation bowls began to appear in private collections during the 1990s, it was generally believed that they must have derived from looted archaeological sites in Iraq, where widespread looting had broken out after the 1991 Gulf War.
The Norwegian collector Martin Schøyen is known to own 654 previously unknown bowls, and there is an unspecified number of bowls in the collection of Shlomo Moussaieff (Shanks 2007) – 20 have recently been published (Levene 2003). It is also rumored that a large consignment of bowls reached the United States towards the end of the 1990s, although this rumor has been hard to confirm. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly common to find incantation bowls with the spiral inscriptions characteristic of Aramaic appearing for sale on the Internet, though the findspot of bowls on the Internet is rarely given unequivocally as Iraq. On July 27, 2009, for example, Barakat Gallery of London and Los Angeles was advertising for sale 84 incantation bowls with a provenance statement that “in addition to the heartland of ancient Mesopotamia they have been discovered in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and even Egypt and Uzbekistan”. “The heartland of Mesopotamia” is, of course, Iraq, but Barakat provides no evidence or reference to validate its belief that bowls have been found outside Iraq.
In September 2004, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) television documentary “Skriftsamleren” revealed that since 1996 the Schøyen bowls had been held in University College London (UCL) for study and publication by scholars at the university’s Institute of Jewish Studies (Lundén 2005). NRK claimed to have evidence that the bowls had been discovered in Iraq by clandestine digging in 1992 and transported by road to Amman, and on to London, before being sold to Schøyen. On October 10, 2004, in response to those allegations, UCL announced that it had informed the Metropolitan Police of the incantation bowls in its possession, but that the police had advised that no further action would be necessary and that the bowls could be returned to Schøyen. It also announced that, in view of “new principles and policies” that had emerged in the post-2002 era, it was to undertake a review of the university’s future policy as regards the acquisition and study of such material. What the “new principles and policies” were, or what had changed in 2002, were not made clear. (In fact, UCL’s own Institute of Archaeology had already adopted a policy in 1999). UCL expected that the review would be conducted with the full cooperation of lenders and donors (Schøyen had agreed to lend his full cooperation) and that the conclusions of the review would be published.
The significance awarded to the 2002 date was probably because it was in that year that the UK Government had acceded to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Article 7(a) of the 1970 UNESCO Convention requires that:
The States Parties to this Convention undertake:
To take the necessary measures, consistent with national legislation, to prevent museums and similar institutions within their territories from acquiring cultural property originating in another State Party which has been illegally exported after entry into force of this Convention, in the States concerned. Whenever possible, to inform a State of origin Party to this Convention of an offer of such cultural property illegally removed from that State after the entry into force of this Convention in both States.
The 2002 adoption of the 1970 UNESCO Convention had no retrospective force in British law, but by then in Britain both the Museums Association and the British Museum had formulated acquisitions and loans policies based on the principles enshrined in the UNESCO Convention that prohibited the acquisition of any object that could not be shown to have been exported from its country of origin before 1970, or exported legally after that date. Thus if UCL wanted to adhere to what had by 2004 become best practice in British museums and other collecting institutions (which would include UCL), it would have to consider the implications of holding material that did not meet the 1970 requirement.
But, UNESCO Convention aside, there was one possible legal impediment to UCL’s continuing possession of the bowls. Article 8 of the United Kingdom’s Statutory Instrument 2003 No. 1519, The Iraq (United Nations Sanctions) Order (SI 1519), implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1483, which came into effect on June 14, 2003, deals specifically with illegally-removed Iraqi cultural objects. Article 8(2) states that:
Any person who holds or controls any item of illegally removed Iraqi cultural property must cause the transfer of that item to a constable. Any person who fails to do so shall be guilty of an offence under this Order, unless he proves that he did not know and had no reason to suppose that the item in question was illegally removed Iraqi cultural property.
This law is back-dated to August 1990, when trade sanctions were first placed on Iraq by UNSCR 661. Thus if the bowls were shown to have been illegally exported from Iraq after August 1990, UCL would be obliged to transfer them “to a constable”.
Thus these two dates were of central importance: 1970, the ethical threshold adopted by the British museums’ community; and 1990, the legal threshold established by SI 1519.
In May 2005, UCL followed up its initial announcement with a press release stating that it had established a committee of enquiry to investigate the provenance of the Schøyen bowls, from 1970 to 2005, to consider the legal and ethical implications of UCL’s possession, and to establish future policy as regards such material. The Vice Provost Michael Worton was quoted that “we need to be absolutely clear about the provenance of these bowls, and to satisfy ourselves that they were not removed illegally from their country of origin” (UCL 2005). The committee included internal and external experts, and submitted its report to UCL in July 2006.
On March 9, 2007, the Schøyen Collection announced on its website that it had been forced to commence legal action against UCL for recovery of the bowls, expressing frustration over “the waste of time and money caused by a lengthy and inconclusive enquiry into their provenance” (Schøyen Collection 2007a). It was also concerned about the impartiality of the enquiry and claimed that “The focus of enquiry into the incantation bowls seemed designed to deflect attention from the provenance of UCL’s own permanent collections, including the ethnographic collections and other collections that may contain unprovenanced material”.
On March 23, 2007, UCL responded to what it called “unfounded allegations” in the Schøyen press release, and announced that “certain passages” had been removed from it (UCL 2007a). The re-worded March 9 Schøyen press release had in fact dropped its allegations about UCL’s own collections, but confirmed that legal action had been initiated.
On June 26, 2007, in a joint statement, the Schøyen Collection and UCL announced that “Following a searching investigation by an eminent panels of experts, and further enquiries of its own” UCL had “no basis for concluding that title is vested other than in the Schøyen Collection”, that UCL would return the bowls to Schøyen, and that UCL had “agreed to pay a sum in respect of its possession of them” (Schøyen Collection 2007b/UCL 2007a). The size of the sum was not revealed, and nothing more was heard about the legal proceeding initiated by the Schøyen Collection in March 2007, so presumably payment was made as part of a settlement in resolution of the Schøyen Collection’s litigation.
This June statement is problematical, because according to UCL’s own 2005 press release, the committee of enquiry had not been set up to establish the status of Schøyen’s title to the bowls, which was not in question, but rather to ensure that the bowls had been removed from their country of origin before1970, or legally after that date. The joint statement made no reference to country of origin, nor did it mention the legality or otherwise of the bowls’ export from their country of origin.
By June 2007, the report of the committee of enquiry had still not been published. Two months earlier, on April 10, 2007, one of the committee members, Colin Renfrew, had addressed an open letter to Worton expressing his dissatisfaction that although the report had been submitted to UCL on July 28, 2006, it had still not been published in accord with UCL’s initial announced intention, and that the recommendations of the report had not been acted upon. Renfrew revealed that the committee of enquiry had not rejected Schøyen’s legitimate title to the bowls, but had also concluded “on the balance of probabilities” that the bowls had been exported illegally from Iraq. Renfrew also expressed concern about the impartiality of UCL, pointing out that although a copy of the report had been sent to Schøyen, nothing had been sent to the Republic of Iraq or the Kingdom of Jordan. Renfrew attached to his letter the conclusions and recommendations of the report. On June 28, 2007, just over two months after Renfrew’s letter had been circulated, but only two days after the joint UCL/Schøyen announcement, UCL’s lawyers sent out letters to possible recipients of Renfrew’s letter, stating that UCL retained copyright of the report, and that no part of the report or any information derived from it should be published.
Publication soon followed. On October 26, 2007, an article in Science confirmed that the committee of enquiry believed that the bowls had most probably been taken from Iraq illegally some time after August 1990 (Balter 2007). The Science article also reported that Chris Martin, a London-based antiquities dealer, had sold Schøyen 444 of the bowls – 300 of them acquired by Martin from Jordanian dealer Ghassan Rihani, who died in 2001. Martin also claimed that Schøyen had acquired a further 174 bowls directly from Rihani. Finally, the Science article also stated that non-publication of the report was part of the June settlement made by UCL in response to the Schøyen suit.
Stung by press criticisms that the bowls had been “looted”, on October 14, 2007 the Schøyen Collection had already issued a further statement, this time focusing on the provenance of the bowls (Schøyen Collection 2007c). It strongly denied allegations that the bowls had been looted, and claimed that they were probably “surface finds”. It said that the bowls had been exported from Jordan prior to 1988, they had not been exported from Iraq after 1991. The statement went further to state that the bowls were part of a private collection built up in Jordan in the 1930s, and that the collection had been granted a valid export license by the Jordanian authorities in 1988. This Jordanian collection was listed on the Schøyenwebsite as the Rihani collection, Irbid and Amman, Jordan (before 1965–88) and London (1988–).
                                       Rihani export license
Although the bowls were exported from Jordan, the statement provided nothing to suggest that they hadn’t originally been looted in Iraq. Nevertheless, in principle, the Jordanian export license is an important document, not because it provides a legitimate provenance for the bowls, but because it establishes a date by which the bowls must have been outside Iraq. But the export license issued by the Jordanian authorities in 1988 that the statement referred to is, in fact well known. It has been seen before in connection with Jordanian antiquities on the London market, and been criticized on several counts. First, the Arabic original is not signed, nor is it authorized by an official stamp. Second, the English language translation is dated to October 1992, which might imply that even if the export was authorized in 1988, it did not proceed until 1992. Finally, the license refers to 2000 ceramic objects and 50 stone objects “as shown by the attached pictures”. No photographs have ever been produced to validate this license, and, in consequence, it could refer to anything.
                             English translation of Rihani export license
Schøyen himself sometimes seems confused about the exact provenance of objects in his collection. A statement on the Schøyen Collection website regarding the provenance of its cuneiform tablets and incantation bowls states that “The holdings of pictographic and cuneiform tablets, seals and incantation bowls in the Schøyen Collection were collected in the late 1980s and 1990s and derive from a great variety of collections and sources. It would not have been possible to collect so many items, of such major textual importance, if it had not been based on the endeavor of some of the greatest collectors in earlier times”. The statement goes on to list 17 old collections. This statement of provenance was reproduced at the beginning of a book publishing more than 100 cuneiform mathematical texts from the Schøyen Collection (Schøyen, in Friberg 2007: xi). The book’s author, however, Jöran Friberg, contradicts the statement when he lets slip that “the great majority of the mathematical cuneiform texts in the Schøyen Collection are new additions to the corpus, probably emanating from relatively recent excavations in Iraq” (Friberg 2007: 142). Friberg’s opinion seems sound, given that none of the texts he was referring to had previously been published, but it does raise questions about Schøyen’s earlier statement of provenance, and perhaps also poses a broader question about the reliability of Schøyen’s statements of provenance more generally.
Mark Geller, who was director of UCL’s Institute of Jewish Studies at the time the bowls were received for study, wrote soon after the 2003 sack of the Iraq National Museum in defence of his department’s possession of the bowls that “Many of the sites in Iraq have Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls” and that “Within the past decade [ie 1993–2003], hundreds of Aramaic incantation bowls have appeared on the antiquities market, collected from archaeological sites; there is no evidence that these objects have been stolen from a museum” (Geller 2003). Thus Geller, while trying to convince his critics that the bowls are not stolen museum property, and were found by chance, seems in fact to have confirmed the committee of enquiry’s belief that the bowls had been taken illegally out of Iraq after August 1990.
In July 2007, UCL turned down a request made under the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act (2000) to release the report into the public domain. Its refusal of the request stated that the content of the report was subject to a confidentiality agreement made as part of the 2007 settlement with Schøyen (thus confirming suspicions voiced at the time). As such, it would not be in the public interest for UCL to release the report, because it would open UCL (a publicly-funded institution) to litigation by Schøyen for damages and costs, and so ultimately the public purse would suffer. It also stated that much of the information in the report is already in the public domain, thus seeming to confirm claims made in the Science article referred to above. 
            There are at least three serious issues arising out of the refusal of UCL to publish the report:
  1. The Science article suggested that the committee of enquiry interviewed three dozen witnesses, including Schøyen and two London-based antiquities dealers. Presumably the producers of the NRK program “Skriftsamleren” were also amongst that number. Thus the report would seemingly contain much original information about the trade of the bowls prior to their acquisition by Schøyen, and about the circumstances of their acquisition by Schøyen. This type of information is of potential interest to a range of scholars, from archaeologists concerned about loss of historical knowledge to criminologists investigating the social contexts of such trade. As such, the report constitutes a scholarly resource, and in agreeing to suppress it UCL has acted to obstruct scholarly research. A strange action for a university to have undertaken.
  2. The committee of enquiry was diligent within its remit, but ultimately the scope of its enquiry was limited by time and resources. Thus the investigation of provenance conducted by the committee must be considered as preliminary. If the report is made public, other researchers or interested parties might come forward with supplementary information that confirms or conclusively disproves an Iraqi provenance.
  3. UCL has argued that it is not in the public interest to open UCL to possible litigation by Schøyen. The public might think otherwise. It might equally be in the public interest for the circumstances of the UCL loan to be made more widely known, so that other institutions will be better able to avoid any mistakes made by UCL that precipitated the costly out-of-court settlement made in June 2007. The public might also have an interest in reflecting upon the desirability of publicly-funded institutions acting as censors for private individuals.
Balter, M., 2007. “University suppresses report on provenance of Iraqi antiquities”. Science 318: 554-5.
Brodie, N., 2008. “The market background to the April 2003 plunder ogf the Iraq National Museum. In P.G. Stone and J. Farchakh Bajjaly (eds), The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq. Woodbridge: Boydell, 41-54.
Friberg, J., 2007. A Remarkable Collection of Babylonian Mathematical Texts. (Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection Cuneiform Texts I). New York: Springer.
Geller, M., 2005. “Spies, thieves and cultural heritage”. Availble at
Hunter, E.C.D., 2000. “The typology of the incantation bowls: physical features and decorative aspects”, in J.B. Segal, Aramaic and Mandaic Incantation Bowls in the British Museum. London: British Museum, 163–88.
Levene, D., 2003. A Corpus of Magic Bowls. Incantation Texts in Jewish Aramaic from Late Antiquity. London: Kegan Paul.
Lundén, S., 2005. TV review: NRK (Norway) Skriftsamleren [The Manuscript Collector], Culture Without Context, issue16, 3–11.
Montgomery, J.A., 1913. Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Peters, J.P., 1897. Nippur, or Explorations and Adventures on the Euphrates. Volume 2. Second Campaign. London: Putnam.
Schøyen Collection, 2007a. “Schøyen Collection sues University College London for recovery of incantation bowls”. Press release 9 March.
Schøyen Collection, 2007b. “The Schøyen Collection of Aramaic incantation bowls”. Press release 26 June.
Schøyen Collection, 2007c. “Correction of media innuendo concerning alleged ‘looted’ provenance of incantation bowls”. Press release 14 October.
Shanks, H., 2007. “Magic incantation bowls”. Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February, pp. 62–5.
UCL, 2005. “Incantation bowls: statement by UCL (University College London)”. Press release 10 October.
UCL, 2007a. “Incantation bowls and UCL”. Press release 23 March.
UCL, 2007b. “Aramaic incantation bowls – joint statement from UCL and the Schøyen Collection”. Press release 27 June.