The Italian Antiquities Trial – a Brief Review

During the summer of 2005, a trial began in Italy with the goal of deciding the guilt or innocence of Marion True along with Robert Hecht, Jr in conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The trial is still underway in Rome and has certainly fulfilled the 2 year prediction some gave. The result is that several museums have already returned antiquities of illicit origin to their countries of origin, pariticuarly Italy and Greece.

True, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Hecht, the descendent of the department store mogul, didn’t begin their portions of the trial until Wednesday, November 16, 2005. Hecht was implicated following the 2004 conviction of Giacomo Medici, an Italian art dealer found to be responsible for one of the most sophisticated and extensive illicit antiquities smuggling rings in the world.

Throughout the 1980s, Giacomo Medici probably sold more antiquities at Sotheby’s than any other single owner. Over the years, thousands of objects from Medici had passed through the London salesroom and millions of pounds had changed hands. None of the antiquities had any provenance because all were illegally excavated and smuggled out of Italy (Watson & Todeschini, p. 27 ).

True resigned from her position, recently filled by Karol Wight, in October 2005 under the fire of criticism with regard to her handling of acquisitions that had questionable origins. As she and Hecht began the trial in November 2006, Italy was demanding the return of 52 artifacts that were deemed to be stolen or looted and in the possession of the Getty. While Italy was also in negotiation with other museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks with the Getty were the most difficult. The Getty initially only agreed to return 26 out of the 52 artifacts and the point of most contention seemed to surround the fate of a bronze statue, known as the Statue of a Victorious Youth, snagged in the nets of an Italian fishing trawler of the Adriatic coast of Italy in 1964.

In December of 2006, however, The Getty returned several antiquities to Greece, including a funerary wreath, a kore, and a grave marker with a marble votive. And it was in this month that Marion True sends a letter to the Getty reflecting her bitterness of the museum board’s treatment of her in the media. She accuses the Getty of using her as the fall guy for a practice of antiquities acquisition that was the board’s own responsibility.

By March, however, the Italian court gets to hear the contents of a 1992 letter that True wrote to the Getty board in which she informed them that the wreath mentioned above was “too dangerous for us to get involved with.” On the surface, it would seem that her intentions are pure, but Swiss antiquities dealer, Christoph Leon, stated that she advised the board to go ahead with the purchase the following year for $1.15 million. Leon is also on trial.

One of the interesting developments of the antiquities trial in Italy is the attention that has been spotlighted on the role of the collector as well as the museum in the antiquities trade. Indeed, without these entities, there would simply be no market for illicit antiquities. In June of 2007, the Italian court turned its attention to the American antiquities collectors who have collections that include objects looted from Italy as well as other countries. An Italian archaeologist, Daniela Rizzo, named Texas oilmen Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt, both of whom liquidated their collections along with other assets after loosing their fortunes. Others were also mentioned, including Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, the art philanthropists who once loaned True $400,000 allegedly repaid at around the time the Fleischmans sold part of their collection to the Getty for $20 million.

Its worth noting that 90 percent of the art collections in American art museums are the result of private donation. The collectors aren’t simply being altruistic, the donations result in tax deductions equal to the current market value of the object being donated -often far beyond the price they paid for it. And museums struggling for funds are all-too-eager to accept these donations to increase their presence, particularly when the antiquities are top-rate. About a dozen of the 52 artifacts that Italy wanted returned was donated by the Fleischmans.

Most recently, while the trial of Marion True and Robert Hecht continues, the Getty has agreed to return some 40 artifacts to Italy, including red and black figured craters and kylixs and amphorae, statues and bronzes. They’re even returning the Cult Statue of a Goddess. Most of the artifacts are destined to be transferred in the next several months, but the Cult Statue of a Goddess will remain on display until 2010 at the Getty Villa. The agreements that have been arrived at are important. Even though the artifacts are illicit in origin, they do serve to represent a cultural heritage and cultural ties between nations is extremely important in the field of archaeology.

The fates of Marion True, Robert Hecht and the Victorious Youth remain to be seen. Italy and the Getty agreed to “defer discussions” of the disputed bronze “until the outcome of the ongoing legal proceedings which are now underway in Pesaro, Italy.”

Related Sources

Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia (2006) The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy ‘s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Great Museums. New York: Public Affairs

The Getty (2007). Italian Ministry of Culture and J. Paul Getty Trust Reach Agreement. Press Release.

Povoledo, Elisaetta (2006). Italy Expresses Dismay with Getty’s Stand on Disputed Art. The New York Times, 11/24/06, E,1.

Higgins, Charlotte (2006). Getty returns disputed works to Greece: Antiquities may have been exported illegally: Museum tightens policies on provenance of objects. The Guardian, 12/13/06, pg. 5.

Felch, Jason; Frammolino, R. (2006). Getty lets her tak fall, ex-curator says; The trust’s silence in the art looting case is taken as sign of her guilt, Marion True asserts. Los Angeles Times, 12/29/06, Home Edition, B, 1.

Avast Ye Scurvy Dogs!

Today be talk like a pirate day! Arrr!

The Bosnian Pyramid: a Brief Summary


n the Spring of 2006, the self-qualified “archaeologist” Semir Osmanagic announced that he discovered pyramids near Visoko, Bosnia. And not just any pyramid, but the largest pyramid in the world. And not just any largest-pyramid-in-the-world, but the oldest largest-pyramid-in-the-world!

And throughout the remainder of 2006 through 2007, Osmanagic and his followers pursued an incredible hypothesis regarding what geologists have previously and since regarded as hills. The core hypothesis they hold is that the hills at Visoko are man-made pyramids created between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, which they claim will “change the history of Europe and The World as we know it (Ahmetovic, 2007).”

If nothing else can be said, it must be admitted that the Osmanagic PR machine is good. The mainstream media jumped on the story, accepting at face-value what Osmanagic was claiming seemingly without consulting anyone in academia on the issue. Because of this, an interesting phenomenon occurred, one that even I fell victim to: there was tacit acceptance that something genuine was found since the media billed Osmanagic as a legitimate authority. They also implied that his methods were valid as well.

It wasn’t long before science bloggers were pointing out some of the fallacies and I quickly realized the error of my assumptions as I reviewed Osmanagic’s site and things just didn’t add up. I initially assumed that since media sources like the BBC and The Economist were giving credibility to Osmanagic’s “discovery,” that there must be something to it. But with even my first post on the subject, I noted that one should be skeptical when comments like “nature does not make geometrical shapes” are used and it seemed strange that a researcher would make a direct appeal to the public rather than publish such a find in academia. This was, of course, before I knew who Osmangic was or what his qualifications (or lacks thereof) were.

Semir “Sam” Osmanagic is a Bosnian-American and entrepreneur from Houston, TX who is also an author, having written The World of the Maya (2005), which provides for some very outlandish ideas of the Mayan civilization, placing as their ancestors the Atlanteans (yes, of Atlantis not Atlanta, GA). The Atlanteans, of course, came from Pleiades –according to Osmanagic (Osmanagic, 2005):

These beings of Atlantis are to be found in various locations through-out Mexico – from Tula (north of Mexico City) and Oxkintok to Chichen Itza […] [t]he Mayan hieroglyphics tell us that their ancestors came from the Pleiades… first arriving at Atlantis where they created an advanced civilization […] [t]he Maya inherited knowledge from their ancestors at Atlantis and Lemuria (Mu).

Even in light of the skeptical questions being asked by those of more qualified authority through science blogs and publications, and even though there were some very rational and informed criticisms being offered, mainstream media continued to present the story as if it were a valid one. On October 27, 2006, ABC’s Nightline, anchored by Martin Bashir, aired a segment in which Nick Watt reported on Osmanagic, interviewing him and allowing him to continue his PR push and his appeal to the public. In this report, Osmanigic was given several soundbites including, “If you’ve found stone blocks built by man, then it will be obvious for everyone that this is a huge man-made structure in the shape of the pyramid” (Watt, 2006).

Except that it hasn’t been shown that “stone blocks built by man” have been discovered. Geologists recognize the features at Visoko as examples of orthogonal jointing and tectonic uplift. The very systematic, “ladder-like” pattern that I’ve seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, and then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original (Bai, Maerten, Gross, & Aydin, 2002). Imagine the force necessary to break a cracker in half, then half again in the other direction. Other claims of a similar vein by Osmanagic included that there exists a man-made “pavement,” which is contradicted by the presence of geologic evidence once again. The “pavement” stones are more examples of tectonically influenced jointing and fracturing –the evidence is the presence of ripple-marks created before the tectonic events, when the sediment was just underwater. Needless to say, this sediment has been above water for millions of years –long before the evolution of hominids, much less hominids that were able to construct pyramids.

The Osmanagic team of mystery-mongers and the significance-junkies that follow them closely have gone back and forth in their efforts to “excavate” the site. Several geologists and archaeologists have visited since Osmanagic made his claim, and even before, and the professional opinions of those that are qualified to assess the site are that geology explains the curious features and that there is an archaeological significance to the region. It just isn’t one that fits the hypothesis that Osmanagic has established. The archaeology of the area is of the Roman period and in genuine danger of being destroyed by the pseudoscientific actions of Osmanagic. While it was reported in June of 2007 that government funding for excavating the site was cut (Ljubić & Barić, 2007), Osmanagic’s website ( reported in August that “excavations were fully underway,” but this is most likely on private lands using money fleeced from duped contributors.

Fraud and Deception?

There is also a hint of fraud or, at the very least, deception on the part of the Osmanagic team as they perpetuate their pseudoscientific claims. Alun Salt wrote about Grace Fegan (Salt, 2006), an Irish archaeologist whose name was initially listed as one of the professionals employed by the Osmanagic team. Unfortunately for Fegan, it appeared that Osmanagic not only drafted her name for his cause, he did so without informing her. Moreover, her email address link in the Osmanagic press release (according to Salt), wasn’t hers, leaving the rational conclusion to be that there was someone willing to answer questions of her involvement by email on behalf of Osmanagic’s team. There’s also the matter of Dr. Ali Abdallah Barakat, the Egyptologist Osmanagic “consulted” with. In a letter to Mark Rose, the online editor of Archaeology Magazine, Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, stated (Hawass, 2006):

Mr. Barakat, the Egyptian geologist working with Mr. Osmanagic, knows nothing about Egyptian pyramids. He was not sent by the SCA, and we do not support or concur with his statements.

Other archaeologists, such as a specialist in Prehistory at the National Museum in Sarajevo named Zellika, have stated that Mr. Osmanagic is giving out false information. What can Mr. Osmanagic use to show the age of the “pyramid?” No archaeological materials have been found near the pyramid.

Ultimately Barakat’s conclusions were that the site was not a man-made feature but it may be a hill that was subsequently shaped or modified by man. I don’t think I’ve seen the Osmanagic PR machine point that out, but after spending 45 days at the site Barakat was quoted to say, “they are natural, completely natural,” with regard to the sandstone blocks uncovered (Woodard, 2007).

Another possible (and probable) deception involves the rock with “inscriptions” that is claimed to be further evidence of a man-made pyramid. In an interview with Dr. Collette Dowell, Francesco Garufi quotes Dowell (Garufi, 2006) as saying:

This was the famous stone with the letter ‘E’ and other inscriptions on it. We were told by several scientists who first examined the tunnel with the stone slab, there were no inscriptions on it; they were added on at a later date.

One or two other pages at Circular Times, written by Dowell, report a similar story. I don’t know who these “scientists who first examined” the tunnel are nor when they examined it –she does say that at least one was a geologist. But I do know that I’ve yet to see any qualitative analysis done on the alleged inscriptions by experts in epigraphy, rock art and petroglyphs. What is the status of the patina within the inscriptions as compared to that of other places in the same stone; or other stones within the same context; and so on.

The list of questions that a genuine scientist or archaeologist would have for Osmanagic’s claims seems endless. Never are there details such as context and provenance. Never are there detailed analyses of phytoliths, pollens, carbonates, etc. Never are there site plans or stratagraphic sketches of the sites “excavated.” Indeed, the very word “excavation” would only be proper at Visoko if used in the context of a construction site rather than an archaeological one since Osmanagic is using a backhoe to quickly shape the hill into his preconceived pyramid rather than small trowels, brushes and dental instruments to carefully and methodically remove the matrix in the slow, painstaking manner of real archaeology.

Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology

Real archaeology begins with a research question and ends up wherever the evidence in the form of artifacts, features or the lack thereof takes it. Pseudoarchaeology, however, begins with a conclusion and only conducts that research which is guaranteed to support that conclusion. Indeed, most Pseudoarchaeologists do not excavate at all –Osmanagic, at first glance, would seem to be the exception. But as I said, he really isn’t excavating in the archaeological sense.

Politics, Nationalism and Economy

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Bosnian Pyramid debacle, which is still ongoing, appears to appeal more to nationalism and politics than it does to actual science. After all, Bosnia and Herzegovina is dealing with the double whammy of recovering from a war and rebuilding an economy. Not only are tourists desperately needed for a post-war economy in reform (the country’s GDP dropped 75% in the 1990s), but the people are also in desperate need of cultural reasons to be proud. Critics of Osmanagic are quickly labeled by his followers as political detractors, or Serbians who just hate Croatians. Osmanagic is of Croatian descent and there’s seems to be special disdain for Serbians who dare criticize Osmanagic and his followers.

The amount of information that exists on the Bosnian Pyramid debacle is enormous and could, perhaps, fill a book. There is much I’d like to have discussed such as the attempt to get UNESCO to visit and apply a World Heritage Site label to the region; the completely wrong claims about “geometric symmetry” and aligning “precisely with cardinal directions;” the local geology; the poor methodology of pseudoarchaeologists; and so on.

Perhaps I’ll leave those for later, shorter posts.

Works Cited

Ahmetovic, S. (2007, September 20). Live in New York: Presentation on the “First European Pyramids”. (The Archaeological Park: Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun, Performer) Florentine Room of the Radisson Hotel, New York, NY, USA.

Bai, T., Maerten, L., Gross, M., & Aydin, A. (2002). Orthogonal cross joints: do they imply a regional stress rotation. ournal of Structural Geology
, 24, 77-88.

Garufi, F. (2006). World’s Largest Pyramid? or Hoax? (C. Dowell, Editor) Retrieved September 10, 2007, from Circular Times:

Hawass, Z. (2006, June 27). Personal Correspondance with Mark Rose. Retrieved September 9, 2007, from Archaeology Magazine:

Ljubić, T., & Barić, I. (2007, June 11). Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun Loses Funding. Javno .

Osmanagic, S. (2005). The World of the Maya. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Salt, A. (2006, May 29). Bosnian Pyramids: Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Atlantis. Retrieved September 10, 2007, from History News Network:

Watt, N. (2006). Ancient Pyramids of Bosnia? Many are Believers. Nightline.

Woodard, C. (2007). The Great Pyramids of … Bosnia? The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53 (30), A12.

Vikings in Recent Archaeological News

A Viking ship is apparently parked at a pub near Liverpool. The pub wasn’t there when the ship was “parked,” however, since it has been there for over 1,000 years. Its now sitting about 2 meters below ground and was discovered by a University of Nottingham archaeologist using ground-penetrating radar. And in Norway, a Viking burial mound was opened on Monday by archaeologists who were hoping to learn about the tomb’s occupants who were laid to rest at least 1,173 years ago.

Ground penetrating radar creates three dimensional maps of subsurface features like pithouse floors, hearths, and Viking ships by sending radar pulses through a surface antenna which then reflects back to the surface antenna after encountering objects of a density higher than the surrounding soil. The three dimensional possibilities arise when the pulse travel time is analyzed and the results of multiple transects are organized in a grid.

The archaeologist that found the ship admits he hasn’t any hard evidence that a Viking ship is actually there -he’s basing the hypothesis on the GPR profile, and he would like to raise $5 million to excavate the site properly. The location is in Merseyside near Liverpool, but still some distance from the coast. The search for the ship began when the archaeologist obtained information that it was originally uncovered in 1938 after a previous pub was demolished.

The two women in Norway were originally excavated with different Viking ship in 1948 and their remains were reburied in aluminum caskets placed within stone sarcophagi. The idea was that future scientists might be able to exhume them once again to study their remains once technology advanced.

The mound that they were reburied in is the original mound that they were found in along with the Oseberg Viking Longboat, one of Norway’s “greatest archaeological treasures.” It was originally discovered in 1903 by Knut Rom, who dug into the burial mound on his farm, and excavated by Gotlander Gabriel Gustafson. This discovery led to Norway’s prohibition of the export of antiquities since it was realized at the time of excavation that there really wasn’t any law protecting cutural resources in the nation and the farmer could, if he chose to, sell the artifacts and the ship itself to anyone, including foreign collectors. The Oseberg Ship was a celebrity in its own right and the find created a sense of national pride -the realization that that national treasures and cultural resources had little protection under early 20th century Norwegian law created a stir. Luckily a wealthy Norwegian purchased the ship and donated it to the state. Soon after, legislation was passed to protect future cultural resources.

In Norway today, archaeology still seems to create a sense of national pride. According to various news sources, the event on Monday drew quite a crowd, upwards of 300 people, including school children. I wonder if an event like this would get media coverage and a similar turnout in the U.S.? The two women are estimated to be in their 60s and 30s, the eldest assumed to be a woman of power such as a queen. The younger may be a daughter, making her a princess, or a slave, buried with the matriarch for companionship and servitude in the afterlife. Modern DNA techniques may reveal the answer.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology provides a bit more information on the mound’s dating (834 CE) and an alternative hypothesis to the burial of the women: the barrow was actually a male grave in which the two female bodies were unceremoniously deposited after being murdered. The male skeleton never found in the site? Removed by Viking period or later relic hunters, possibly even decendents of the man buried.

Interesting stuff.

The 7th Humanist Symposium

… is up at at Bligbi. Go! Read! Enjoy with a hot cup of joe.

The next HS is at Elliptica three weeks from now so submit your entries here!