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K. Kris Hirst

Provenience, Provenance, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

By May 16, 2006

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After my poll concerning whether one uses 'provenience' or 'provenance' to refer to the origin location of a particular object, I've received a fairly interesting response. The evidence is a little confusing: art historians and geologists use these terms differently than archaeologists do; and Webster's New World Dictionary says they are synonyms. My poll currently shows a dead heat. But I think we're at the point where we can come up with a couple of clear definitions, courtesy of some contributors.

Provenience: The precise location where an artifact or archaeological sample was recovered archaeologically.
Provenance: The detailed history of where an artifact has been since its creation.

Take as an example a Roman coin. The provenance of that coin could include its creation in a mint in Italy, its loss in a shipwreck off Alexandria, its recovery by shell divers, its purchase first by an antiques dealer, then by a tourist who left it to her son who eventually sold it to a museum. The artifact's archaeological provenience would be the location in the shipwreck where it was found.

When archaeologists lament about the loss of provenience from a looted art object, what we really mean is that part of the provenance has been lost--we are interested in how the coin got from the Roman mint into the museum; while art historians don't really care, since they can generally figure out what mint a coin came from. "It's a Roman coin, what else do we need to know?" says an art historian; "The shipping trade in Roman era Mediterranean Sea" says an archaeologist. I should have known: it all comes down to a question of context. It's interesting, don't you think? Because provenance for an art historian is important to establish ownership, but provenance is interesting to an archaeologist to establish meaning.

As reader Eric P so elegantly put it, Provenience is an artifact's birthplace, while Provenance is an artifact's resume.

Think I'm full of it, or have a different opinion? Join the discussion on the bulletin board.


June 4, 2006 at 1:24 am
(1) Karen Mack says:

I resent the statement that art historians don’t really care about provenience, although I must admit most art historians are unfamiliar with the term. The provenience of religious sculpture and paintings in Japan is crucial for reconstructiing the history of temples and shrines detroyed during the persecution of Buddhism in the 17th century. Also, when the provenience of such works is lost it is often impossible to identify the local deities depicted in these works. Often art historians trace the provenance in an effort to recover the provenience.

April 21, 2008 at 3:07 pm
(2) Science says:

I think you are dead-on in your definitions of the two words. A great resource for clearing up many misconceptions for the public. I am often “corrected” when I use the word provenience (correctly) and told the actual “real word” is provenance. Now I have somewhere to send these well wishers for clarification. Thanks.

May 11, 2009 at 9:57 am
(3) Kris Hirst says:

James Burton of the Laboratory for Archaeology Chemistry at the U Wisconsin in Madison, thinks I’m wrong, and says:

“I use provenance for archaeological context – from where the object was recovered.
I use provenience to mean where the item was made – where it was from originally.”

I guess it’s best to define your terms specifically or ask to make sure you know what is being said.

August 28, 2009 at 1:55 pm
(4) Suzanne Eckert says:

I use the two terms in the exact opposite manner of James Burton. Provenance is where an item was produced; provenience is where an item was found by the archaeologist.

so when I do a provenance study through geochemistry, I am determining where the item was originally produced regardless of its eventual provenience.

So, yup, it is best to define your terms.

August 28, 2009 at 2:17 pm
(5) Kris Hirst says:

Now that is darned interesting. Both of you archaeochemist types see both words as single locations, but I was interpreting only provenience as a single place, and provenance as the sequence of events or places in an artifact’s history.

You are definitely right (pun intended) about needing to define our terms. Thanks!


February 12, 2014 at 8:54 am
(6) Claudio says:

Operationally defining terms is important. Etymology provides clarity about the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

provenance (n.) Look up provenance at Dictionary.com1785, from French provenance “origin, production,” from provenant, present participle of Middle French provenir “come forth, arise, originate,” from Latin provenire “come forth, originate, appear, arise,” from pro- “forth” (see pro-) + venire “come” (see venue).

provenience (n.) Look up provenience at Dictionary.com1881, a Latinization of provenance, or else from Latin provenientem (nominative proveniens), present participle of provenire “come forth” (see provenance). “Preferred to PROVENANCE by those who object to the French form of the latter” [OED].

In conclusion, both can be alternatively used to refer to the origin of artifacts, their uniqueness and the way in which their ownership and meanings have changed throughout history. This is turn will assist in determining the object’s importance and value in a wide variety of levels.

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