November 6, 2009

Caught between looting & museums

Posted at 7:31 pm in Similar cases

Archaeology is a far more complex endeavour today than it ever was in the past due to the many parties trying to get hold of the artefacts before they are properly excavated & catalogued. Most countries have legal frameworks in place to prevent this, but direct action against who purchase illegally excavated pieces will also help to reduce the demand that creates these problems initially.

The Examiner

Politics, nationalism or cultural guilt: What is an archeologist to do?
October 26, 12:42 AMArcheological Travel ExaminerGwynneth Anderson

It used to be so simple.

Come summer, head out into the field to dig. Perhaps even uncover a special something on the last day of excavation. Return home, write up the findings, apply for more grant awards. Next summer, repeat. No politics, cultural heritage issues or international arguments. Just simple digging, sifting and cataloguing followed by a cold beer once the day is over.

Some might say this was what started the problems in the first place.

However, it’s become more complicated these days, especially where Big Finds are concerned. Within the past several years, there have been a number of rumblings about which Big Find artifacts should be returned to their original homeland and why.

October 17, 2009 was a red letter day for rehashing these arguments.

Why? Because after 70 shuttered years, Berlin’s Neues Museum finally reopened to a great fanfare. It is the first time since World War II that the whole of Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been open.

Holding an honored place in that spotlight is none other than the enigmatic Nefertiti herself, making her appearance toward the end of this video.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that Egypt’s chief archaeologist, Zahi Hawass demanded the Egyptian queen be handed back, unless Germany could prove that the 3,500-year-old bust of Akhenaten’s wife wasn’t spirited illegally out of Egypt nearly a century ago.

At stake, future exhibits. “If Germany refuses the request, we will never again organize exhibitions of antiquities in Germany.”

Hyperbole or serious threat?

Possibly the latter. The Louvre is returning some fresco fragments after Hawass suspended the museum’s long-term excavation at Saqqara, near Cairo, and said Egypt would stop collaborating on Louvre exhibitions.

Just one of many on-going fights that include the Elgin Marbles, the Ishtar Gate and the Benin Bronzes.

Should these artifacts be returned due to post-colonial guilt complexes or used as diplomatic envoys to teach us more about an ancient culture? Who has the right to display these artifacts, those museums currently holding them or the original homeland that might not even exist anymore?

In Hawass’ case, he comes from a nation whose religious faith does not look favorably upon idols. Ironically, the ancient Egyptian culture is full of such graven images.

Archeology; caught in the middle.

Looting and illegal artifact selling has been an endemic problem since time immemorial. As long as there’s a buyer, there will be sellers happy to avoid questioning an object’s provenance. The laws designed to catch and deter such transactions are in place for a good reason and most people support them.

But what about today’s site excavations – those carried out by qualified research scientists?

Why go through all the trouble of obtaining permits, grants and site setups if any relics found risk becoming pawns in an international face-saving game?

Unnecessarily complicated questions for a group of people who just simply want to dig.

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