Not that one-sided

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December 17, 2009

Bureau for Cultural Property Issues and Media Contacts
Dr. Ursula Kampmann, Pestalozzistr. 35, 79540 Lörrach, Germany
Tel: +49 7621 47734, Fax: +49 7621 47737

Is there a mood swing regarding the Protection of Cultural Property?

An article in the New York Times from November 16th, 2009, raises some questions

Dr Zahi Hawass as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities seems to be feared by archaeologists – at least this is indicated by John Tierney in his article “A Case in Antiquities for Finders Keepers” published in the New York Times on November 16th, 2009.

As head of the above mentioned institution, Hawass can not only raise a hue and cry about the fact that Egyptian cultural property is stored in museums outside Egypt – he can also deny those archaeologists who collaborate with these institutes excavation licenses or even withdraw these. That is exactly what happened last October. Dr Hawass’ intention was to get a fragment of an ancient fresco back from France which the Louvre made haste to do. According to Tierney, an official representative of the Neues Museum in Berlin is currently negotiating with Egypt about the world-famous Berlin bust of Nefertiri. There really must be a deep sorrow among German archaeologists that they could get expelled from the country because Germany refuses to hand over this world-renowned sculpture to Egypt.

It is unusual that a journalist brings together the connection between the restitution of cultural property and the concern of European archaeologists that their field of activity may be endangered. But in his New York Times article John Tierney goes even further. He raises the question whether such surrender on the part of the archaeological world really does the cultural heritage of mankind a service.

John Tierney has carefully read a book published in 2009 by James Cuno, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, prestigious scientists hold a view quite contrary to that of archaeologists in general (James Cuno, Whose Culture?, Princeton University Press 2009). They protest against being the subject of censorship that is systematically exercised by some museums and universities today. Whoever dares to criticize the view that it is the trade in ancient goods that is responsible for the destruction of cultural property has to be prepared to face grave repercussions including damage to his career. Now many academic societies refuse to accept articles in their publications dealing with objects which come from private collections and which are therefore, in the eyes of the editors, of dubious provenance.

The journalist has grasped the counterargument of the scientists and put it pointedly: “There can be no doubt that the laws on the Protection of Cultural Property have turned archaeological discoveries into political weapons.” Saddam Hussein had exploited the National Museum of Iraq to glorify himself as a modern Nebuchadnezzar. This is but one example. The author states that those who support the view that all important works of art must be returned overlook that all art had originated from the interaction of different cultures. The Renaissance would not have been possible without the influence of “plundered” antiquities; similarly the Rosetta Stone, which made the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Europeans possible, has an appropriate home in Britain. Tierney makes the point that if the trilingual stone showed up on the market today any museum director acquiring it would risk international rebuke and even criminal prosecution. This despite the fact that its archaeological context was lost when it was reused as part of the wall of an Ottoman fortress.

Scholars would be forced to ignore the object since the policy of the leading archaeological journals would have placed a ban on its publication. According to Prof Cuno, that would mean that “Egyptology, as we today know it, would not have existed in the first place.” Tierney closes his article with the statement: “The Supreme Council of Antiquities would not even know what it missed.”

The article is available on the internet at

With this article, John Tierney opened a debate whether or not ancient artifacts like the Rosetta Stone should be returned to their country of provenance. Until now, 156 interested parties have voiced their opinion in his blog – fortunately, the debate is not dominated by the usual hardliners and their stereotypical prejudices. Many entries do not adhere to political correctness but discuss the real background of this debate quite frankly. Here are some reactions:

Remember the Taliban blowing up ancient statues in Afghanistan, artwork looted or destroyed from the Iraqi museum? Nations should be glad their artwork is scattered throughout the world as it keeps madmen from completely destroying an ancient culture.
S. May

Do these discoveries belong to the current nation in which they are found? Nations come and go in the pages of history, but the buried past is always there. For any nation to take the position that these discoveries or future discoveries are the exclusive property of the current nation is brazen arrogance.
The past cannot belong to a current nation. It belongs to the world. …

What you are overlooking is the fact that the current Egyptian culture has nothing other than geography in common with ancient Egypt. At least three successor cultures have come between, each destroying all they could of their predecessor.
… There’s nothing … connecting the current inhabitants with ancient Egypt. Their claim is no better than anyone’s, and much worse than that of the people who’ve done the actual work of discovery.

The Christian Copts of modern Egypt ARE descendants of the Egyptians of Pharaonic time; their liturgical language is the same as the ancient daily spoken tongue. Like other indigenous Christian peoples of the Near East, they’ve faced increased persecution and harassment. The Rosetta Stone is really their patrimony, not the patrimony of an Islamicized, pan-Arabist Egypt — why turn it over to the likes of Dr. Hawass?

In a sense, all archaeology incurs the opportunity cost of disturbing the site / artifact and losing information that might have been gleaned from less-destructive techniques that don’t yet exist. Any transportation simply removes the item from one collection to another. …
Joe Brown

Better than ask about the Rosetta Stone is to ask where would the Louvre return the Code of Hammurabi? It was certainly fashioned in what is now modern Iraq. But the French recovered it in what is now modern Iran, as the ancient Elamites took the artifact when they sacked Babylon thousands of years before “Iraq” and “Iran” ever existed.

The Rosetta stone was commissioned by a Hellenic ruler. … I don’t think the Egyptians would much appreciate the British Museum returning the Rosetta to modern Greece.
Xavier Itzmann

If you send everything back to its geographic point of origin, then hardly anyone will see it. How many people have experienced the wonders of ancient Egyptian culture by visiting the Met in NYC, for example? Sharing artifacts at museums around the world strengthens, not diminishes, that culture…

He wrote of the millions of Italian-Americans whose families came to the USA in the years before World War I. … This means that a vast number of the descendants of the people who made, used or owned those objects in American Museums now claimed by the Italians, actually live in the US. So why shouldn’t they have some claim to them?
… The English system works because it recognizes the difference between items of real national importance and the vast, vast majority of ancient artifacts: interesting and often worth studying, but not worth keeping. Honest finders receive fair market value if the item is taken by the state (there is a committee consisting of museum and trade representatives that determines the value); otherwise a declared item goes back to them to do with as they wish. If land owners and honest finders were treated properly in Italy, the amount of looting would drop drastically…
Alan Walker

…There will always be a demand for these objects, and always a black market. The only solution to reducing this destructive black market is to create a positive legal market. This could be achieved by major museums opening their store rooms to legitimate collectors, and creating a transferable title system in the same vein of gun licensing. …
Margaret L. Scott

…I always like to pose this question to self-serious archaelogists. Assume you, personally, are buried with all of your favorite things, … One day someone digs you and your things up. Given a choice, where would you rather see your things end up: a) in a dust gathering wood or carboard box in some dingy warehouse, jealously guarded by someone whose primary interest is in controlling information and publishing esoteric papers?; or, 2) on the mantle piece of someone’s home where family gatherings and celebrations, or merely quiet times, prevail? Given my druthers, I would certainly chose the latter, as would most people who seriously ponder the scenario. …

What most people fail to realize regarding this issue, is that many of our most precious artifacts today only are still in existance because they were “looted” in the past

I was once escorting a Chinese visitor around the Philadelphia museum, who was suitably impressed with the collections. When we arrived in one of the Chinese room,s and the guest saw a rock crystal globe supported by a Japanese silver stand in the form of waves, the guest declared, “This should be in China.” I retorted that if it had been in China, it would likely have been smashed by the Red Guards during their so-called Cultural Revolution. (I let go the issue of whether the silver stand should go back to Japan. …

… The Greek and Egyptian governments – and to a much lesser degree, the Italian government – often control access to their collections based on whether a scholar produces research which matches certain ideological claims. …
Chris Parmenter

All contributions can be found at