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Arthur of Arabia 

How a local man may have found millennia-old antiquities in his mom's garage

click to enlarge James D. Guinn and Georgia Bonny Bazemore - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • James D. Guinn and Georgia Bonny Bazemore

Georgia Bonny Bazemore has spent her life in the field, in pursuit of one thing. For 22 years, she’s meticulously cordoned off swatches of land on the small but historically rich island of Cyprus — people’s back yards sometimes — combing through dirt and rock, looking for evidence of a culture that died two thousand years earlier.

The work has made her the world’s foremost scholar of the Cypriote syllabary, a writing system used in Cyprus from the Bronze Age until the time of Christ. Because so few examples have been recovered, Bazemore has spent her career, hunched over in the earth, looking for it.

James D. Guinn didn’t know when he picked up the phone to call Eastern Washington University’s Department of History, but the woman he would talk to was exactly the person he needed to reach. There was no one better in the world. Bazemore couldn’t have known that taking the call would lead to one of the most significant finds of her career.

The timing was perfect. Bazemore had taken the job at Eastern only months earlier.

Their conversation would lead Bazemore 40 miles north of Spokane to a town nestled in a gap between the highway and train tracks. Clayton, Washington. Home to a post office, a gas station, Guinn’s house, and not much else.

On his dining room table, Guinn had carefully laid out dozens of items. They seemed to be from all over the world. Many weren’t old, but others might be.

Then Bazemore saw it. “I knew what it was immediately,” she recalls. It was a small scarab carved out of what looked like a semiprecious stone. Scarabs are dung beetles, basically, symbolic of the cycle of life for Ancient Egyptians and important in the iconography of many early Mediterranean civilizations. “This wasn’t just any old scarab, though” she says. On its reverse, two symbols were inscribed. One — a crude-looking hourglass — was unmistakable. It was part of the Cypriote syllabary. Which made the piece between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Moreover, the stone it was carved from made it the possession of an incredibly rich individual.

Bazemore couldn’t immediately recall, in all those years sifting and digging, a more significant single piece of Cypriote history than this.

Her attention was diverted, though, to a statuette that, at 10 inches tall, cast a long shadow over the table.

The object didn’t come from Bazemore’s area of expertise, but her eye was drawn to certain elements of the craftsmanship. The grooves hadn’t been cut with modern tools; she was sure of that, which would date it to the Stone Age. And the carving was meticulous. Both her training and her intuition told her the statuette was not only authentic and ancient, but that it was incredibly rare. Guinn says he now believes this object to be potentially worth “tens of millions of dollars.”

The Cypriote piece had filled Bazemore with a kind of academic glee. The statue stirred up a more primal emotion. Bazemore says she looked hard at Guinn, so that the man would have no doubt of her seriousness.

“I said, ‘J.D.: People will kill you for this.”

It wasn’t a surprise when J.D. Guinn found artifacts in Texas. He’d gone there looking for them. He knew where they were. Boxes of them.

The records and detritus of Guinn’s maternal ancestors, stretching back generations, sat stacked above his head in the garage of his mother’s “typical Texas red brick house.” Guinn considers himself the family historian, and in the summer of 2004, he had taken his truck down to Navasota, 70 some miles northwest of Houston, expecting to haul the collection all back north.

Guinn was hoping the boxes of keepsakes and records would take him back well into the 19th century, and that’s mostly what he found. The boxes eventually got him back as far as 1800, he says: the documents of “my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandparents and my great-great-great grandparents.” A boon for any family historian.

He began finding other things as well. A set of beads that appeared to have Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the back. A number of old-looking curved knives — one that looked Arabic and another that turned out to be from the area around present-day Tajikistan. There was a little medallion that looked like a dung beetle, and dozens of other things.

These boxes belonged, his mother told him, to his third cousin Art Nichols and his wife Peggy. Guinn had never met them but he knew the two had lived overseas and traveled a lot. Peggy had passed on in the 1990s. Art had died some 20 years before that. These things had been in boxes at least since then.

Guinn had grown up in the Bay Area reading National Geographic and was interested in the ancients. He packed the Nicholls’ boxes up too, promising his mom he’d look into them.

Saudi Arabia in the 1940s was swarming with Americans. Art Nicholls had been one of them. Two months after Adolf Hitler solidified his control of Germany in 1933, Standard Oil had signed a concessionary agreement with the Saudi government, allowing the American company to poke around the vast, arid country. Eventually, Standard Oil took on partners in other oil companies to defray costs. The resulting amalgamation was known as Aramco. The expedition was a failure for years. Then, in 1938, engineers hit on a 1,500 gallon-per-day spurt of crude just north of Dharhan on the Persian Gulf. The Arabian Peninsula, even its dusty interior, was suddenly a hot commodity, and Aramco had the rights.

Nicholls and his wife Peggy had come to Saudi Arabia in the midst of this black gold rush. Art was a tall, thin man, gregarious by all accounts. He worked for Aramco as a power and utility manager. Peggy was petite, with a wide-mouthed smile. With Art’s income, Peggy spent most of her time homemaking and scrapbooking. It was through these scrapbooks that Guinn was able to piece together, with astonishing clarity, the Nicholls’ life in the Near East.

While in Saudi Arabia, their main diversion was travel. The couple never had children, and they seem to have spent every free moment during their years in the Middle East jetting off.

One particular scrapbook page, from November 1944, bears an image of Art, 18 other men and 10 camels, standing and squinting in the late-afternoon sun with the Great Sphinx and a pyramid in the background. A note from Peggy that came packaged with the Egyptian beads that Guinn found reads, according to Guinn, “Art found these in the sand by the pyramids.”

The scrapbooks are meticulous, but in an odd way. They aren’t diaries and they say almost nothing about the awe the Nicholls experienced in these foreign lands or the problems they encountered. They do, though, paint a mind-numbingly detailed picture of the things the couple did.

Literally everything.

During the Christmas holiday of 1949, for example, the couple visited AY Tilbian & Sons Kodak Dealer in Nicosia, Cyprus, on two separate occasions. They ordered 12 photos on Christmas Eve and picked them up on Dec. 26. Two days later, they went back and had a single 6-inch-by-9-inch enlargement made. That New Year’s Eve, on the way back to Saudi Arabia, Art visited a dental surgeon named A.S Shatila at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was prescribed Amosan Powder, used for treating oral wounds.

It was presumably during this trip that Art bought the scarab seal that would prove so important to Bazemore.

Cyprus was known for copper. From the Bronze Age well into the time of Christ, Cyprus was for copper what Pittsburgh was for steel and Saudi Arabia is for oil — the nexus of one of the world’s most important industries.

The copper on Cyprus was so important to the ancient world that it affected the way entire languages evolved. In church Latin, copper is cuprum, which stems from ancient Latin’s aes Cyprium — “the metal of Cyprus.”

This virtual monopoly gave the island incredible wealth. It was a joke how rich the people of Cyprus were, says Bazemore: “They were compared to Midas.”

Of course, having such an important metal in such quantities and so close to the known world’s centers of power — Greece, Egypt and later Rome — created serious drama for the Cypriotes. Despite their great wealth — or perhaps because of it — the island never really unified behind a single noble or government the way the Greeks and Romans did.

The people of Cyprus were fiercely independent. Though the ancient Cypriote and Greek cultures mixed when Greeks began migrating to Cyprus after the Trojan War, Cypriotes remained a stubbornly proud people with their own language and one of the world’s more unusual writing systems.

In a syllabary, symbols don’t represent single sounds the way they do in our alphabet. They represent entire syllables. A word like “baby,” wouldn’t have four letters. It would have two symbols, corresponding to the sounds “Bay” and “Bee.”

The prevailing academic belief is that the Cypriote syllabary flowered around 1400 BCE and was violently stamped out roughly a thousand years later. In the fourth century BCE, the Greeks under Alexander the Great had occupied the island, and when Ptolemy I came to power, he killed every noble-born Cypriote male on the island. When that didn’t quell nationalistic fervor, he stamped out the language as well.

Bazemore thinks it survived later, and her initial research suggested that Guinn’s seal dated to around 0 AD, which would have helped prove that, 400 years after it should have died, important people were still displaying, in showy fashion, the writing system of ancient Cyprus.

Wealthy natives keeping it real.

Having discovered an engraving from 1050 BCE that looks “nearly identical” to Guinn’s piece, though, Bazemore now says that the piece might also be a thousand years older than that. “It’s going to seem like an extreme difference — a thousand years,” but there’s a reason for that. Because of the mixture of symbols, it’s the kind of inscription you find “either at the beginning of literacy or at the end.”

Bazemore admits that dating the seal to 1000 BCE isn’t quite as exciting as proving that there was still a defiant noble class in Cyprus around the time of Christ. But anything that dates to the Trojan War is a specimen of immense significance. Her next step is to compare the shape of Guinn’s scarab against others that have been definitively dated.

The Nicholls’ travelogue might also be able to help. Peggy’s scrapbooks are such an immaculate record of her and Art’s travels through Cyprus that when Bazemore returns to Cyprus this summer, she plans to track down the descendants of the antiques dealers who operated in the area in the late ’40s. “I know them all,” she says, rattling off some names, “They kept records of everything.” If those records still exist, Bazemore will be able to track the purchase back to the person who sold it to the dealer, back perhaps even to the family’s plot of land.

While Cyprus was once a place of immense wealth, in the 1940s it was a place of staggering poverty. An Englishman might spend a pound sterling on an artifact and think nothing of it, she says — but for the Cypriote he bought it from, Bazemore says, “that would buy you land and build you a house.”

Tracking the dealers’ records might connect the scarab to an existing archeological dig — which would further aid in dating it. Or perhaps, it could point her to a new site altogether.

“I said, ‘J.D., do you have a-a-a-any idea what you have?”  Bazemore’s voice still betrays an incredulous surprise when she tells the story of first laying eyes on the statuette.

The answer was “kinda.”

Guinn knew he had something, but wasn’t “sure of the value.” He almost, though, had nothing at all.

The statue wasn’t part of the original haul he brought from Texas. It wasn’t until after Guinn got home that his mom remembered something else had been in Peggy and Art’s boxes. The way she described it, it didn’t seem Greek or Egyptian or from the Old World at all.

Guinn asked his mother where the figure was. Why hadn’t he seen it? That’s the thing, she said — she didn’t have it any more. She’d driven it 30 miles northwest to Bryan, Texas, and dropped it off at Corner of Time, an antiques mall.

She had put it on consignment. Nine months earlier.

Guinn is a cautious man, given to long pauses in conversation searching for precise trains of thought. He tells stories in a tone so dry that you sometimes wonder if he has emotion at all.

This is one of the rare moments, though, when he can’t hold it in. His mouth still drops retelling this story. His mother couldn’t even remember what they’d set the price at.

“I said, ‘Hang up the phone, Mother, and go get it and come back home and tell me you have it,’” he recalls. It was a tense two-hour wait, but the phone eventually rang. His mother had it back. His next instructions were equally clear: “I said, ‘Wrap it up real good, put it in the mail and send it to me.”

It arrived four days later. He was no expert, but he’d seen figures like this before, in National Geographic. This stone figure looked Mayan. Guinn’s jaw dropped again. “I can’t believe I let her put it in the mail.”

Bazemore’s initial reaction was similar. “Now I do not do Mesoamerican archaeology, and I do not pretend to do Mesoamerican archaeology,” Bazemore says, “but I am a lithics expert … so I know stone. And I knew enough to look at that and know that it was not made by modern chisel.”

The world of Mesoamerican archaeology is rife with forgeries. The flow of people and goods from Mexico to America is and always has been looser than the flow from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Take with that the sheer amount of tourism between the two nations, and forgery naturally follows.

But forgers are profiteers, Bazemore says, and nothing more, so forgery always carries a cost-benefit analysis. Authentic Mesoamerican antiquities have sold for millions of dollars, a good fake might fetch a few hundred grand. The majority of fakes go for far less, sold to dupe tourists. “It’s price minus effort” with forgers, Bazemore says.

When the ancient Mayans carved these things — generally out of jade (Guinn’s piece is green serpentine, which is in the jade family) — they did so painstakingly. “These are offerings to their deities,” Bazemore says. “Forgers are trying to turn a quick buck.” Guinn’s piece has toenails, for example — forgers generally don’t do toenails.

“It’s just beautifully done,” Bazemore says, concluding, “If that is a fake, it’s a gorgeously made fake by somebody who spent more time than any money they got out of it.”

With the Cypriote seal, Bazemore’s word would stand with anyone’s. “My credentials are f---ing golden,” she says, and it’s not an idle boast. She has been asked to write about the Cypriote syllabary for the second edition of The World’s Writing Systems, an authoritative tome published by Oxford University Press. She was recommended to Peter Daniels, the book’s editor, by Eric Hamp at the University of Chicago — “one of the greatest living linguists,” in Daniels’ words — and by Tom Palaima of the University of Texas, a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant.

Men whose credentials are, in short, f---ing platinum.

But Bazemore doesn’t have the background to authenticate Mesoamerican antiquities. With the Mayan piece, Bazemore told Guinn he would need to reach out to true Mesoamericanists. That wouldn’t be a simple task.

Archaeology is a science, subject to the same rigor and peer review as chemistry or physics. And really, in some ways, archaeology is actually harder.

When Galileo wanted to prove that the sun was the center of our solar system, he didn’t first have to convince his peers that the sun wasn’t an elaborate sham that only appeared to be giving our planet light and heat. Darwin had a hell of a fight on his hands over evolution. None of his detractors ever asked, though, “Hey, has anyone checked to make sure his finches are even real?”

The authenticity of objects is a first step in any archaeological theory, and that means studying them often gets hung up before it even begins.

This has been Guinn’s sticking point. Establishing authenticity is a pretty straightforward game when the artifacts in question have been pulled out of 10 feet of soil that’s laid undisturbed for thousands of years. When an object’s journey can only be tracked as far back as a garage in east-central Texas, the job’s a little tougher.

In five years, despite dozens of reach-outs and three particularly painful encounters with scholars who thought the figure was real but refused to put their name to it, Guinn has gotten exactly one person to speak to the authenticity of the piece, a Mesoamerican scholar named Dr. Ed Barnhart, director of Austin’s Maya Exploration Center.

Imagine an episode of Antiques Roadshow, where the show’s experts disagreed wildly not only about an item’s heritage, but whether it was even real or a forgery. My final interview with Guinn felt something like that.

I had spoken previously with Barnhart, and the man was enthusiastic. “It’s something that’s an elite object,” he said, his voice rising a bit with excitement. “And this is a big piece, too. I mean … this is a piece that’s bigger than pieces found in even the richest Maya tombs.”

Sure as he was, however, Barnhart suggested that the piece be shown to an expert in stone. His work is primarily with Maya calendar systems. “Lithics … are not my specialty,” he said, “so I defer to people who have spent more time looking at the subtleties of iconography and stone type.”

The Inlander located two such lithics experts. We sent them the same high-resolution photographs Barnhart had seen. Their reactions, though, were less enthusiastic.

Dr. Joyce Marcus, of the University of Michigan, had been recommended by Bazemore. Speaking via e-mail, Marcus was skeptical. “I have seen some Postclassic fakes that are generically similar,” she wrote, adding in a later e-mail, “Have more people see it.”

When we reported this to Guinn, he was visibly glad to hear Barnhart’s words and dismissive of Marcus’. “That doesn’t surprise me,” Guinn said. He had heard those kinds of opinions before.

With good-natured resignation, Guinn has accepted that some of the items have proven to be fake. (Those Egyptian beads? Knockoffs. The hieroglyphics? “Gobbledygook.”) He displays a degree of tone deafness toward the detractors of the Mayan piece, though, likely due to a combination of factors: the potential worth of the statue; Bazemore’ belief in the authenticity of the piece; and the amount of time and money that Guinn has devoted to tracking its origins.

When we talk, the only negative opinion that seems to mar his armor of certainty is that of Dr. Michael Coe, emeritus professor at Yale University and former curator of anthropology at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Coe has spent the better part of five decades in the field and is a leading scholar studying the Olmec and Maya interaction in the area around Izapa — a best-guess location for the source of Guinn’s piece.

Guinn was excited to hear we had talked to Coe. Guinn has a printout of the professor’s Wikipedia page in his research materials. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of him for years,” Guinn says.

I read Guinn the e-mail that Coe had sent from Guatemala, where he was on a diving trip. The man’s words were unequivocal:

Sorry, but that figurine is a modern fake, meant for sale to tourists. When I say “modern,” I mean that it could have been made at any time in the past 150 years. It’s certainly not either Maya or Olmec.
        Best,
        Michael Coe

Guinn momentarily hung his head, a rare betrayal of disappointment.

After a long pause, I asked, “How do you feel about that?”

He looked up and, choosing his words carefully, he said, “I think if they saw it in person, they’d feel differently.”

Like Guinn, Bazemore remains hopeful about the Mayan figure. She says the skepticism of Marcus and Coe isn’t surprising, especially in Mesoamerican studies. “Professional archaeologists are very, very hesitant to say anything is real, in case somebody says, ‘I gotcha.’”

The more august the name and the more time spent at dig sites and in back alleys, the more that reluctance grows — if only because the more time you’ve spent making your name, the more reluctant you are to risk it.

“Once we get the ball rolling, and one person says it’s real, everybody will come onboard. That’s how it goes,” Bazemore says. She considers Barnhart to be the first Mesoamerican scholar on the bandwagon. How quickly the wagon picks up speed is dependent, to a degree, on who gets a chance to look at it.

When Guinn and I first talked, I asked him what his next step would be. He sighed, “Patience.” Which doesn’t come easily for him. He wants this over with, partially because it’s been an exhausting pursuit and partially because he’s in the midst of a move. Guinn and his wife are retiring to Hawaii, a resettlement 10 years in the making. If all had gone to plan, the statue’s authentication would have been far enough along that he’d have been able to move and leave the statue in Spokane, in a bank vault, letting the cards fall as they might.

That hasn’t happened. Now Guinn contemplates having to fly back to Spokane every time a scholar wants to see the thing — or just taking it with him. He doesn’t like either option. I ask if he’d be willing to speed the process up by schlepping it around to the seats of Mesoamerican academic power — to Brown University or to the University of Texas at Austin. Or maybe to Coe’s majestic home in New Haven, Connecticut — stowing in an overhead compartment the thing that, nearly six years ago now, Bazemore said could very well get him killed.

“I will if I have to,” Guinn says, betraying a big sigh. Traveling with the thing is clearly his idea of hell. “But I’d like to be able to sleep at night.”

One gets the sense that, traveling or not, until the figure is proved either definitively Mayan or definitively a knockoff, he won’t be getting much sleep anyway.

Dr. Georgia Bonny Bazemore will speak about her work in Cyprus at the Rantidi Forest site on Thursday, April 22, at 5:30 pm at the Davenport Hotel. Free. Write brettjordan[at]mail.com or call 954-0513.

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