One of the things I love about the ‘blogspot’ site is the statistics page. I check it obsessively at least twice a day to see who’s reading me, what country you live in, and which of my posts attracted the most attention. Interestingly, the page which consistently receives the most visits is one I wrote more than two years ago, entitled ‘Where are the Ancient Treasures of Turkey?’ Well, I was very new to the blogging business in those days. In my attempts to create an identity for my blog, and to be provocative, some of my implied criticisms may have been a little unfair. It has been suggested to me that modern nations with ancient treasures weren’t looking after them properly – and anyway, the governments of those nations gave permission to foreign archeologists to carry off their finds.
Those claims may in fact be true, and I don’t intend to examine them here. What I do want to do is bring to your attention, in case you may have missed them, three recent instances where a major museum in a western country has decided to return an important artifact to its place of origin.
Some years ago I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It was a marvelous experience, to see those fabled statues and relics of ancient Egypt that I was so familiar with from pictures and films. There was the eleven-kilogram solid gold mask of Tutankhamun sitting in a glass case. More interesting, though, for me, was a statue representing a gentleman by the name of Seneb, with his wife and children. This Seneb was, apparently, head of the royal weaving factories in the Sixth Dynasty (around 2200 BCE), and he was a dwarf. His wife, however, wasn’t.
Perhaps you haven’t had an opportunity to visit Cairo, but you may have done the next best thing, and toured the Egyptian section of the British Museum, which is also pretty impressive. I haven’t actually been able to establish which of the two museums houses the greater number of mummies – but my impression was that the prize might go to the institution in London. Now it may be, as my critics suggest, that these mummies were all legally obtained, and anyway, they were just rotting away back there in Egypt. Nevertheless, I was heartened to read, in a New York Times article that the Metropolitan Museum in New York has decided to take a lead in returning some disputed artifacts to their place of origin.
The British archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Most of his major finds can be seen in the Cairo Museum, but it seems he did retain a number of nice pieces for his own private collection. On his death, these were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum which, at the time, maintained an ‘expedition house’ in Egypt. When this was closed in 1948, the pieces were, it seems, ‘transferred’ to the New York location. Discussions have, according to the report, been continuing for some time, but in July, the director of the ‘Met’ announced that nineteen artifacts, including a miniature bronze dog and a sphinx-shaped bracelet ornament, would be sent back to Egypt.
Well, pretty much everyone knows something about Ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Tut and his tomb’s discoverer Howard Carter. It’s a high profile case, and not altogether surprising that the dispute received international media attention. Less well known are similar disputes between the government of Turkey, and other renowned museums holding priceless antiquities found within Turkey’s borders. Just a week before the Met’s gesture, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced that it would return the top half of a statue known as the ‘Weary Herakles’. Apparently the MFA had bought the piece in 1982 without thoroughly checking its provenance. Turkish authorities had finally convinced them that it was a perfect match for the lower half unearthed in Perge in Southern Turkey in 1980 – not so difficult given that the two halves of the statue were broken cleanly on a diagonal line.
Two months prior to this, the Prussian Cultural Foundation agreed to return a 3000-year-old Hittite sphinx. The sphinx was found by German archeologists excavating the Hittite capital of Hattusha in 1907, and had been in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin since 1934. It was one of a pair of sphinxes forming part of the gate of Hattusha, dating from the 2nd millennium BCE, and will now be reunited with its mate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum.
It’s a vexed question whether antiquities are better left in situ or taken away for safekeeping. Few would argue that irreplaceable relics of ancient civilizations should not be taken to museums where they can be restored and preserved by experts. Further, not everyone has the opportunity to travel to distant parts of the world to see the original locations, so it is undoubtedly desirable that exhibitions of relics should be presented elsewhere. It is also true that not all nations are equally interested in preserving their historical and cultural heritage. The Buddhas of Bamiyan received international coverage when the Taliban government of Afghanistan dynamited them in March 2001. The missing genitals and breasts of classical Greek and Roman statuary are more a result of the prudishness of early Christians than the ravages of time. Similarly, the picturesque ruins of monasteries and abbeys dotted around the English landscape have been that way since Henry VIII, in his reformist zeal, decided to ‘dissolve’ them.
However, these days, most civilized countries recognize the need to restore and preserve their antiquities, and to build modern museums in which to house them. Museums and art galleries all over the world are part of a community that organize sharing and exchange of relics, artifacts and works of art for local exhibitions which are well publicized and well attended. It is undoubtedly best that five Caryatids on the porch of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis in Athens should be plaster copies, and the real ones displayed in the Athens Museum. More debatable is whether the British Museum itself might make do with a plaster copy, and return the sixth one to its true home.
Anyway, hats off to the Americans and the Germans for making a start!