10 Ancient Cultural Artefacts That Are Wanted Back
The repatriation of cultural objects is not a new phenomenon. Laws regarding the return of cultural property to indigenous peoples can be traced back to Francisco de Vitoria in the sixteenth century (1). Yet it is only in relatively recent times that the concept has entered mainstream social consciousness, with lawyers such as Amal Clooney championing the reclamation of the Elgin Marbles (2) and Remzi Kazmaz using human rights legislation in Turkey’s test case to return sculptures from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (3). Notions of ownership remain contentious in these cases, and often the crux of the argument hinges on the value of returning an object to its original cultural context versus who is best placed to care for it and make it accessible to the widest possible audience. Here are 10 ancient cultural artefacts that are wanted back by their country of origin.
10 Lewis Chessmen
Board games are renowned for causing arguments, but very rarely on a political scale. The Lewis Chessmen have, however, succeeded in provoking an ongoing argument over where they rightfully belong, be that Britain, Scotland or Scandinavia (4). The Lewis Chessmen are intricately carved chess pieces, which were found unexpectedly on a beach on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, in 1831. Thought to be made in Norway, the pieces were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth between 1150 and 1200. Experts believe the chess pieces may have been buried by a merchant travelling from Scandinavia to Ireland (5). They were sold to the British Museum by an Edinburgh dealer, shortly after they were exhibited for the first time in 1831 (6).
The debate over the Lewis Chessmen revolves around who has the most valid claim to cultural ownership – the country from which they originated? Or the country where they were found? Or should they stay where they are so they can be part of a larger interpretation of global objects from this period at the British Museum? Since we all have different cultural references – local, regional, national and global – it is nigh on impossible to say who has the better claim.
9 The Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias
Turkey’s cultural heritage has suffered more than most countries, with ancient treasures being consistently lost over the centuries to thieves and blackmarketeers (7). In an attempt to redress the balance, in recent years, Turkey has embarked on an ‘art war’ (8) to reclaim some of these artefacts. One such object is the Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias, a 2000-year-old marble torso that currently resides in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The statue was found in 1904 by the amateur French archaeologist Paul Godin and sold in a curio shop in Smyrna to a collector from the Pergamon (9). Turkey’s aggressive reclamation tactics have included threatening to withdraw archaeological permits to visiting archaeologists from the countries involved (10).
It is thought that any artefacts Turkey successfully repatriates will be housed in a new 270,000 square ‘Museum of the Civilaisations’, due to open in Ankara in 2023.
8 The Eberswalde Hoard
The Eberswalde Hoard consists of 81 gold objects from the Bronze Age, discovered north east of Berlin in 1913. It is the largest prehistoric collection of gold objects to have been discovered in Germany (11). The objects were removed from a Berlin museum in the Second World War by Soviet troops and transported to Moscow as war booty (12). The artefacts were then discovered in 2004 in a secret depot in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. The hoard was exhibited in St Petersburg in 2013 in an exhibition entitled ‘Bronze Age – Europe Without Borders’ (13). Russia clearly took the ‘without borders’ motif literally as the exhibition marketing patter made no reference to links with Germany or the murky history of how the objects fell into Russian hands (14).
Russia have steadfastly refused to return the objects. The Eberswalde Hoard is testament to the controversy that surrounds these objects and whether objects taken during wartime can ever really be seen as legitimately belonging to the looting country.
7 The Gate of Ishtar
The shoe is on the other foot for Germany with regards to the Gate of Ishtar. The Gate of Ishtar stood at the entrance to ancient Babylon and was built in 575BC out of enamelled blue and green glazed bricks, and decorated with reliefs of 575 dragons and bulls. Built by Nebuchadnezzar II, it was symbolic of his power, status and military prowess (15). Sections of it were excavated in 1902 by German archaeologists, and following World War 1, these were eventually put on display in the 1920’s at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (16).
Iraq has urged Germany to return the section to its country of origin (17) – Germany is reluctant to do so, arguably with good reason. Just as ancient Babylon fell, following the collapse of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the archaeological site, which also contained the Processional Way and the Temple of Ninmah, was turned into a military base by Polish and American troops. Extensive and irreversible damage was done to the area which begs the question – is the Gate better off being preserved elsewhere?
6 The Benin Bronzes
The Benin Bronzes are a group of artefacts produced by the Benin Empire, which is now modern-day Nigeria. They consist of thousands of commemorative plaques and sculptures, in metalwork, created between the 15th and 16th centuries (18). The antiquities were looted in 1897 when a British military expedition moved to crush the west African kingdom of Benin (19). The situation arose due to a dispute between the then ruler of the territory and British traders, over customs duties. The argument was exacerbated when a group of officers who were sent to mediate the situation were ambushed and killed (20). In a tit-for-tat reaction, British troops destroyed Benin City and looted works of art and other treasures, which were then traded and scattered around Europe.
Nigeria has been seeking to repatriate the objects from various European museums since the 1960’s, although these institutions have raised serious concerns over insurance costs and the safety of the objects (21). Interestingly, the British Museum sold some of the bronzes back to Nigeria following World War II and as late as 1972 (22).
5 The Old Summer Palace in Beijing
The Summer Palace was built during the 18th and early 19th century for the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. It comprised a grand complex of buildings and gardens, and according to the Chinese government, contained upwards of 1.5 million treasures including delicate porcelain and elaborate textiles (23). British troops looted the palace in 1860 in order to punish the Imperial Court for refusing to allow Western embassies inside Beijing during the Second Opium War. In an odd twist of fate, the directive was ordered by the Eighth Earl of Elgin – son of Lord Elgin of the Parthenon Marbles infamy (24). The palace was completely sacked, set on fire and left as a blackened shell. The loot was sold off, as well as being sent to Queen Victoria and to France, who also partook in the plundering. Even Pekinese dogs were stolen – one was renamed Looty and presented to Queen Victoria! These treasures eventually made their way into museums, such as the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, UK and the V&A in London.
China is actively attempting to retrieve the objects when they come up at auction, but as is often the case with contentious historical objects, politics is likely to come in to play as time passes thus overshadowing the cultural value of the pieces in question.
4 Nefertiti’s Bust
The bust of Queen Nefertiti has been at the centre of a long-standing argument between Germany and Egypt since 1930. Renowned as one of ancient history’s great beauties, Queen Nefertiti was the wife of Pharoah Akhenaton, who initiated a new religion which involved worshipping the sun (25). The 3,300 bust was uncovered in 1912 on the banks of the River Nile, and has courted controversy ever since (26). In 1924 it was alleged that the value of the piece was downplayed so that it could remain in German possession, and in 2009 the authenticity of the piece was questioned by two historians (27). It also remains a sore subject in terms of diplomacy between Germany and Egypt – although so far, Germany has rejected all requests to return the bust to Egypt claiming the piece was acquired lawfully (28) and is too fragile to travel.
3 The Koh-i-Noor diamond
The famous Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) diamond has long been contested as a ‘stolen’ treasure. Currently residing in the British Crown Jewels – specifically in the Crown of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother – the diamond was presented to Queen Victoria in 1849 at the conclusion of the Anglo-Sikh War. It was included in the peace treaty inflicted on the defeated Kingdom of Punjab by the East India Company (29).
The enormous gem, which was dug from India’s Golconda mines in the 13th century, originally weighed 793 carats, although the British monarchy ultimately shaved 40% off that (30). In 2015, stars of Bollywood and Indian businessmen united to instruct lawyers to begin legal proceedings in London’s High Court to return the diamond (31), although the Indian government subsequently declared in 2016 that the diamond was given voluntarily as compensation for help in the Sikh wars and was “neither stolen nor forcibly taken away” (32).
Again, notions of ownership come in to play in this case, with some pointing out that the Koh-i-Noor didn’t actually belong to India but to the Kakatiya dynasty. As the dynasty no longer exists, the stone cannot possibly be returned to its original owners. Despite this, many still see the spoils and legacy of imperialism profoundly distasteful (33).
2 The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone was found by Napolean’s army in 1799 in the Nile delta. The 2000-year old stone’s importance was that it provided a linguistic key to understanding hieroglyphics because it was accompanied by a Greek translation. It has resided in Britain for over 200 years and has displayed in the British Museum since 1802 (34).
Egypt intensified its pressure to return the stone, amongst other renowed Egyptian artefacts, in 2003 and has remained vocal on the subject ever since. Dr Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) considers the Rosetta Stone to be stolen goods and has made it clear that the British Museum’s continued obstruction in repatriating the stone is a source of shame for the UK (35).
It is true that the story behind how the stone came to be in the UK is indeed murky. The arrival of the British in Egypt in 1801 and their subsequent defeat of Napoleon’s forces was the catalyst to its removal. Fearing the stone would fall into British hands, it was hidden by a French commander. It is then unclear whether it was seized by a British colonel and carried away on a gun carriage or passed to a British Egyptologist in a Cairo back street by a French counterpart (36).
Either way, it was removed from its original context with little or no consultation with the Egyptians. Although supporters of the British Museum point to the fact that ownership of artefacts is less significant than the ability for people to enjoy them and gain enlightenment from them (37).
1 The Elgin Marbles
The Elgin, or Parthenon Marbles, are a group of sculptures, statues and inscriptions that depict scenes from Greek mythology. They were once part of the Parthenon, which was built in Athens in the 5th Century BC to honour Athena (38). The Parthenon itself has a fairly chequered history with alterations and damage occurring over the course of the centuries in its guises as the church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, then a mosque and finally an archaeological ruin (39).
By 1800 only half of the original decoration remained. Much of it was removed with the permission of Ottoman authorities. The seventh Lord Elgin was not the first person to remove or plunder the ancient treasures of the Parthenon, but he certainly became the most well known as his was the most significant acquisition (40). In 1803, his huge collection of removed pieces was packed into 200 boxes and shipped to the UK. Notwithstanding a wrecked ship, which lead to some of the artefacts spending 2 years on the seabed, the marbles were finally exhibited from 1807 – firstly in Lord Elgin’s private residence in Park Lane, London, and then ultimately in the British Museum from 1832 (41).
Archaeologists worldwide agree that the surviving sculptures could never be reattached to the remaining structure in Athens, yet the Elgin Marbles remain one of the most highly contested antiquities in the world (42). The marbles have even been cited in the UK’s recent Brexit negotiations, with Greek authorities threatening to veto final Brexit agreements if the UK refuse to return the architectural artefacts (43).
Some parties believe there is an argument for recognising that the removal of the marbles from their original context is merely part of their historical ‘story’ and part of a process of continual change that represents a dialogue between past and present (44). Others believe the Greek claim to repatriation to be very real and without debate.
What do you think? When cultural artefacts are transported from their place of origin, is it just part of their historical story? Or are these artefacts integral to a collective sense of place and culture in their country of origin?
The debate continues…