Artifact Repatriation

In this article available via the BBC (and elsewhere), the thorny issue of artifact repatriation is in the archaeological spotlight again thanks to new documents written by Ludwig Borchardt, a German archaeologist working in Egypt nearly 100 years ago who uncovered many beautiful and important artifacts in an agreement with the Egyptian government to basically “divvy the spoils” evenly for his work in the country.  The primary issue at hand is that he was deceptive with Egyptian Customs authorities and snuck a priceless piece, an incredible bust of Queen Nefertiti (shown here in better detail courtesy of National Geographic’s website) out of the country in order to have it displayed in Germany, in what would eventually be Berlin’s Egyptian Museum. As mentioned in the article, Queen Nefertiti was the wife of the Pharoh Ahkenaten, also known as the Sun King. He was a unique ruler who defined a turning point in all facets of ancient Egypt’s history. Not only is this piece important because of who she was or its remarkable preservation, but the reign of Ahkenaten and Nefertiti also ushered in a new era of artwork and style never seen before in ancient Egypt or elsewhere in the ancient world.

As is the case with many countries who have been colonized – or merely overtaken – at some point in their history (especially the last several hundred years, when people became more interested in the possible value of works by ancient peoples), artifacts of either priceless value, national pride, or information have been removed from their countries of origin and displayed elsewhere. Now that we live in a more global society and the political winds have (and are) shifting, many of those countries feel they have been robbed or at least swindled out of incredible artifacts and are demanding that they be returned. Egypt is probably one of the best examples of this demand for artifact repatriation, as many European powers (Great Britain and Germany being some of the worst offenders) have hundreds upon thousands of ancient Egyptian goods displayed in their museums and tucked away in basement warehouses.

It might be easy to immediately say that the arrogance and greediness of past generations (who were terrible archaeologists, by the way, and rarely bothered to practice legitimate archaeology by doing things like recording context…but that’s another rant altogether) should be righted as soon as possible by the immediate repatriation of artifacts and goods, but other factors must be taken into consideration. Egypt, though relatively stable, is still at a significant risk for riotous pillaging and the destruction of its halls of arts and sciences. Whether at the hands of an outside source, at the hands of a rebellious public, or at the hands of extremist leaders who want priceless works destroyed because they consider them to essentially be blasphemous, there is still a good chance that instability in the region poses a great risk to these priceless artifacts. The wanton destruction of the musuem in Baghdad, Iraq, is the most timely and unfortunate example of this. Not only was it the fault of the U.S. forces who did not bother to make sure orders to protect the pristine musuem were handed all the way down, or of Iraqi fighters (or other nationalities, as could have been the case), but it was many citizens of Baghdad who raided the musuem after it was hit and severly damaged, pillaging goods and artifacts that were still intact. What’s more, Egypt has a terrible reputation (alongside Mediterrainian countries like Italy and Greece) of ignoring archaelogical sites that have yet to be excavated or even evaluated in order to build and develop to encourage “progess” and “economic gain”, so they themselves are guilty of some pretty wanton destruction of their own natural and human history.

Though I am not trying to suggest that the repatriation of goods and artifacts is an all-around terrible, dangerous idea, I think it is worth considering both sides of the argument.

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4 Responses

  1. This was a big deal when I was visiting Greece a few years back. The “British Museum” — which contains surprisingly little of British origin — possesses the famed Elgin marble figures, named for the fellow who chiseled them from the Parthenon about 200 years ago. The Greeks want the fuckers back, but the English continue to insist that they’re better off indoors, far from Athens’ notorious levels of air pollution.

    It’s a difficult question indeed. European historians and archaeologists in the 19th century developed a notion of “ancient civilization” and “antiquity” that was interesting to them to the degree that these civilizations could be seen as forerunners to modern Europe. To that degree, the artifacts of Ancient Egypt or Babylon or whatever were considered to be the property of all humankind. Which basically meant that they were the property of Europe, since Europeans believed they were the proper custodians of everyone else. So now you’ve got quite reasonable, pragmatic issues of artifact preservation layered on top of quite unreasonable and chauvinistic histories of empire.

    The only solution to this, of course, is an arm wrestling match.

  2. I myself would have suggested a drinking contest, but then remembered that a) alcohol consumption is frowned upon, at best, in most Middle Eastern regions and that b) I’m Scottish/Irish/German/Croatian, and such a match would be a bit biased.

    Arm wrestling is good, but if they REALLY want to get down to business it should be unsportsmanlike and definitely not masculine at all. Jell-O wrestling, anyone?

  3. i needed this for my school but i was amazing and impressive

  4. i love this i could prbbly could get an a plus

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