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Provenance or Provenience?

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  • Provenance or Provenience?

    Provenance or Provenience – Is There a Difference?

    The answer to that question depends a bit on where you come from and what field you work in, since the distinction is less about what the words originally meant and more about the way in which they are used today. The short definitions from the Oxford Dictionaries are:

    Provenance: the place of origin or earliest known history of something. A record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality. [Late 18th century: from French, from the verb provenir ‘come or stem from’, from Latin provenire, from pro- ‘forth’ + venire ‘come’.] (The full Oxford English Dictionary further clarifies this as: the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.)

    Provenience: US term for provenance.

    Those definitions are supported by Webster's New World Dictionary, which regards the words as synonyms that may be used interchangeably. Webster further notes that ‘provenience’ is an American alteration of ‘provenance’ derived from the present participle of the Latin ‘provenire’, and that it didn’t come into usage until the late 19th Century (1880-1885).

    The term ‘provenience’ was first used mostly in relation to works of art, but is now used in archaeology and palaeontology, as well as to refer to archives, manuscripts, books and also in other fields.


    Modern Usage
    The primary purpose of tracing provenance of an artifact is normally to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history - especially the sequences of its formal ownership, custody, and places of storage. The practice has a particular value in helping to authenticate objects. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used for these purposes, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation. Art historians and geologists for example may use these terms differently than archaeologists. Provenance for an art historian has particular importance in establishing ownership whereas for an archaeologist it has more importance in establishing meaning.

    In the world of archaeology, not everyone agrees about the terminology or whether there is a distinction to be made between provenance and provenience. The two terms may be used differently depending on the context and discipline of the user. Some archaeologists use the terms interchangeably; others make a distinction between the place where an artifact was manufactured, the precise source of the raw material used to make it, and the exact location where it was recovered in an archaeological context.
    Those that do make a distinction generally align to these definitions:

    Provenance: the detailed, documented history of an object since its creation, from its site and country of origin to where it was recovered in modern times, plus its history of ownership (private collectors, dealers, museums, etc.)

    Provenience: The precise location where an artifact, archaeological item or sample was recovered in an archaeological context.


    An archaeological item can therefore have both a provenience (where it was found) and a provenance (where it has been since it was found). In some cases, the provenance may include a history that predates its burial in the ground, as well as a history after its rediscovery.

    Let’s take an obsidian arrowhead as an example. The obsidian might be identified as originating from Arizona but the arrowhead might be identified as Hopewell culture, having been excavated from a mound in Ohio; then purchased by a museum in California and later de-accessioned to an antique dealer in New York who made it into a pendant and sold it to a collector in China. All of that represents the provenance of the artifact. The provenience is represented by its archaeological recovery from the mound in Ohio.

    In simple terms, it might be said that ‘provenience’ is an artifact's birthplace, while ‘provenance’ is its resumé.


    [References: About.com Archaeology; Wikipedia]
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.
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