Origins of the Past

Archaeological finds from digs undertaken in Mandate Palestine were divided between the government, for display in the Palestine Archaeological Museum, and the excavator. Excavators were able to send their finds to museums in England, Europe or America, or pass them on to individuals and groups who had funded the excavations. This system was known as partage (‘sharing’ in French).

Under the provisions of the Mandate Antiquities Ordinances (1920;1929) it was also legal for dealers to trade in antiquities, but they had to be licensed and keep registers of their antiquities. Despite these controls, the system was often circumvented and antiquities of dubious or illegal status could be sold by falsifying records.

These systems of commodification of antiquities have significant implications for the way that antiquities from Palestine and surrounding areas come to reside in collections such as our own Antiquities Museum. This forces us to ask difficult questions about our collections: where were our antiquities originally uncovered? How did they get to Australia? Is it legal and ethical to collect antiquities?

The Antiquities Museum has developed a series of up-to-date policies and due diligence procedures to improve the way that we acquire antiquities for our collection. However, the fact remains that an unprovenanced antiquity can tell us much less about the past than one that is fully documented.



1700-1600 BC

This juglet was exported to Australia from the University of Sydney’s ongoing Pella excavations under a partage agreement. Before 1988, the division of finds between Jordan and foreign archaeological missions was common; a relic of the Mandate era. Such divisions are now much less common.

Carinated Bowl

Carinated Bowl,

2000-1570 BC

This carinated Canaanite bowl, most likely from Palestine, has no excavation, collecting or export history. Even though the Ottoman Empire had legislation around ownership and export of antiquities as early as 1884, it is still very rare that artefacts acquired in the 19th and 20th centuries have any provenance at all.

Perfume Vase

Perfume Vase,

100 BC - AD 400

The authenticity certificate for this vase states that it was excavated in Jerusalem and was sold by a licensed dealer in Bethlehem in 1989. While the export status of the artefact is unknown, it was legal for licensed dealers to sell antiquities excavated prior to 1978. However, illegal laundering of more recently excavated artefacts remains widespread.

Christian Lamp

Christian Lamp,

AD 600-800

The sale catalogue for this lamp says that it was removed from a catacomb in northern Palestine before 1965, at a time when the archaeological laws of the British Mandate were still in use in both Israel and Jordan. Although these laws permitted trade in antiquities, and the division of finds between excavator and the state, it is unclear how this lamp came to be on the market.


Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV,

169-164 BC

In ancient Judea, Antiochus IV was best known for his persecution of the Jews and supposed imposition of the worship of Zeus on his subjects. This resulted in the Maccabean revolt which saw an independent Jewish state emerge out of Hellenistic Syria/Palestine.


Lepton of Herod Agrippa II,

AD 66-67

Herod Agrippa II was the great-grandson of Herod the Great, but ruled only a fraction of his great-grandfather’s territory. It was during the reign of Herod Agrippa II that the Jewish people revolted against the Romans and the Second Temple was destroyed.

Neither coin has a collecting history prior to the 1970s and this is a well-known issue with the trade in ancient coins.