The Uncanny Parallels Between Israeli Archeology and Innovation Challenges

I recently caught three interesting episodes of Simcha Jacobovici’s Naked Archaeologist on History International:

  • Episodes #5: “Real or Fake?”
  • Episode #6: “Fame & Forgery”
  • Episode #7: “Accidental Archeology”

Israeli ArcheologyEpisodes 5 and 6 are about the Israeli Antiquities markets where each player strives for the right to participate in a free market of goods within the context that the goods are authentic and that the sale was legal, or allowed by the authorities. Archaeologists are shackled by protocol and the need for proper financing. Targeted claims about forgeries can make or break a collector, archaeologists, or exhibit. Episode 7 covers the construction projects that discover ancient ruins and the chilling effects that jealous archaeologists cause when they discredit discoveries are made accidentally by non-archaeologists.

These topics are interesting because there are many parallels to the challenges facing business; in particular, the ones that rely on intellectual monopoly in the age of digital abundance and the success that can be had by amateurs. Producers of text, music, film, business methods, systems, and apparatuses are still at odds with where they want the market to be, and where it is today.

Bureaucracy Slows Progress, Maybe on Purpose
Archaeological excavations on new sites sponsored by the state or by western universities need to do everything by the book, and in accordance with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). As a result, the excavations never find anything worthwhile. There must be funding, and it must come from the right sources. Permission must be granted, official documentation must be made, and so on. The cynical may believe that the excavations that are permitted will be fruitless, planned so there are fewer pieces in the marketplace.

Keeping the Marketplace Artificially Small
There is a perceived right by some to stifle the market. Dealers and private collectors such as Oded Golan, owner of the controversial James Ossuary. His collections rival the IAA’s own collection. The IAA, in its position as the authority, does not want such rivals. So, it goes after the best private collectors and their collections by claiming that some artifacts are either forgeries, or artifacts were purchased from tomb raiders who’s digs were not authorized by IAA. The IAA website goes at great lengths to document their victory in catching and apprehending unauthorized excavations like this man found using a metal detector in the middle of the desert. Such publications seems like a simple scare tactic. In any case, the IAA is taking moral authority over their competition in the name of propping up monopolies.

Unauthorized and Accidental Discoveries
If a tomb raider (particularly Palestinians) are caught on the streets in Israel, they can be punished. However, there is some sort of strange exemption they receive if they make into a dealer’s shop without getting caught by the authorities. Perhaps the Israeli dealers are covering for the tomb raiders who my be bringing them valuable items the dealer can resell. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by accidentally by a goat herder, and for this reason, we ignored by the larger archaeological community at first. Similar things are happening with companies that innovate in digital distribution who are at first blown off by incumbent content industries, and then sued instead of creating alliances, and then insist on doing it themselves.Siebenberg house

Jealous archaeologists discredited the discovery that are not made by one of their own, such as the 2nd Century BC mansion found under a home in Jerusalem known as the Siebenberg House. Without much interest from the archaeological community since it was not discovered by one of their own, the Siebenbergs conducted the excavation themselves over an 18 year period. Now their home rivals some museums.

With the rapid commercial development, there is a cat-and-mouse game between archaeologists and contractors. Contractors are sometimes quick to secretly destroy ancient ruins so that projects are done on time. Discoveries that do get reported usually hold up new construction projects indefinitely, such as a the construction of new walkway for the Temple Mount which uncovered remains of the first temple.

Pirates” Push the Boundaries
As with the artifacts that are sold by tomb raiders, forgeries also compete for prestige, sales dollars and attention in the Israeli antiquities scene. Corrupt officials could deem an artifact as a forgery in order to simply take it away from or to discredit a dealer. The irony is that some older forgeries themselves are now artifacts. In the 1880’s, Moses Shapira, an entrepreneurial antiquities dealer, knew that there was a great demand in antiques for Holy Land tourists but not enough authentic pieces to go around. He and his associate, Salim al-Kari manufactured thousands of fake antiques, selling hundreds of pieces to German museums. He was eventually caught by investigative journalists and outed in London newspapers when he tried and failed to forge a piece of parchment with Bible passages. In shame, he killed himself soon after. However, this is not a cautionary tale, since today’s pirates that push the boundaries are not claiming to pass originals. The irony is that this rich history now accounts for a demand in original Shapira forgeries, as they are shown at his one-time historic home, the Ticho House in downtown Jerusalem.

The market for antiques is abundant. The ability to discover them and fill voids is natural. Authority and protocols keep the rights to discover and sell antiques scarce, thus creating even greater scarcity of antiques themselves. The more abundant new discoveries become, the lower the value for pieces currently owned by museums and dealers.

Anyone can think up ideas and digital technology makes it easier to execute on ideas. Unnatural limits emerge to keep incumbents in control of the marketplace, and this is a danger to us all because it limits our liberty and ability to innovate. It is not the privileged that innovate. It is the “pirates,” early adopters, and amateurs who break the rules and forge ahead by breaking barriers disguised as rules.

(top photo by heatkernel)

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