September 6, 2005

The benefits of surrendering artefacts

Posted at 8:32 pm in Similar cases

Amongst so many stories about looting of ancient sites that one hears about, it is heartening to read one written from the opposite perspective. In this article, the professor who discovered an ancient coin on a site in Turkey, describes how for him it was a pleasure to be able to had it over to the local museum, enhancing its collection.

Ascribe – The public interest newswire

Tue Sep 6 08:56:53 2005 Pacific Time
Art Professor Finds ‘Priceless’ Artifact in Turkey
RICHMOND, Ind., Sept. 6 (AScribe Newswire) — It turns out the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire coin that Earlham College art history professor Julia May found during her May term course in Turkey this year isn’t worth very much. Even when it was minted during the reign of Emperor Beyazid II (1481-1512), the small copper disk was roughly the equivalent of its modern day U.S. counterpart: a penny. But to May, the experience of finding the coin was priceless.

“It’s definitely one of the highlights of my career as an art historian,” says May, who discovered the coin during a visit to the ancient Roman ruins of Pergamum (or Pergamon), near the current Turkish city of Bergama. Perched on a hillside, the site is best known for its dramatically pitched outdoor theater constructed in the 3rd century B.C.E. with seating for up to 10,000 people.

“I had climbed up to the top, to the acropolis, and was just walking around by myself among these huge, solid pieces of marble,” recounts May. “I just happened to look down and see this teeny black disk, which looked a little too perfect, too circular, and not rock. So, I picked it up and thought pretty much right away that maybe I’d found a coin. It was very exciting.”

It was also the first time that a new artifact of any kind had been discovered at the site in the past 30 years – at least, that anyone knows of officially. It’s more than possible, May admits dejectedly, that in the last three decades other visitors to Pergamum have turned up historical objects that then promptly disappeared as souvenirs. In her case, the thought never crossed her mind.

“I’m a museum curator,” May says. “I understand these things are part of the archeological record of a place, and I understand the interest of the people of Turkey in preserving their culture and history. You just can’t walk off with something.”

Rather than walking off, May went running – literally, she says – to try to locate some of the other members of her group, which included 22 Earlham students along on the May term, as well as Rabun Bistline, wife of Earlham Artist-in-Residence in Photography Walter Bistline, and retired Professor of English Lincoln Blake, who was raised in Turkey.

“When I showed it to him, Lincoln said, ‘It looks like a coin to me,’ so then I was really excited,” says May, who imagined that she’d turned up a Roman coin, making the find millennia and not just centuries old. Next she took off in search of the leader of her tour group, a woman named Meli Seval, who’s been guiding visitors to the ruins for 38 years.

“I ran up and said, ‘Meli, look, I think I’ve found a coin,’ and she burst into tears,” May says. “She couldn’t believe that someone on one of her trips had found a piece of her history, her heritage. She’s very committed to her culture and I think it was a very special moment for her.”

With Seval’s assistance, May was able to make contact with Dr. Adnan Tarioglu, director of the local Bergama Museum, who rushed to the scene to examine the discovery.

At first glance, says May, Tarioglu indicated the coin might be a Roman “numi” (professional lingo for numismatic, or relating to coins) dating as far back as the 4th century C.E. The disk was badly encrusted, however, and the museum director said it would have to be cleaned before a final determination could be made. He also expressed his gratitude to May for turning in the artifact.

Far from being a loss, May says surrendering the coin was – from her point of view as a teacher – a tremendous gain.

“As a teaching moment, it was invaluable,” says May, who only minutes before happening on the coin had visited the ruins of the Altar of Zeus, another part of the Pergamum acropolis. Whatever once remained of the temple has largely been carted off by the victors of various battles fought over the territory through the centuries, though never more energetically, May informs, than by officers and members of the German army during World War II.

“Piece by piece they took whole sections of the building back to Berlin,” says May, downcast and shaking her head. “It makes your heart sick to see it (the original temple site) now. It’s just rubble and a bunch of steps leading up to nothing.”

Today, the Turkish government persists in efforts to retrieve pieces of the Altar of Zeus from various museums and art collections in Germany, just as Greece continues to try to get back the Elgin Marbles (taken from the Parthenon in Athens under the direction of the British Earl of Elgin between 1801 and 1821) from the British Museum in London. The controversies have strained relations between the respective European neighbors.

“A lot of people don’t understand the ethical problem with taking away something from another peoples’ past,” May says. “So, to have an opportunity to share that with the students and for them, in all their youthful enthusiasm, to see how something so simple as an old coin could move people so deeply – as an art history professor I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

And so, May was not at all disappointed when Dr. Tarioglu’s letter arrived recently letting her know the coin’s relatively pedestrian pedigree. Because of its generally poor condition, it will not even be placed on exhibit at the museum.

“That’s all right,” reflects May. “It’s still been an amazing experience. I mean, why me? Why, after 500 years, should an art historian be the one to find it? It’s almost unbelievable.”

CONTACT: Julia May, assistant professor of art history, Earlham College, 765/983-1403

Kevin Burke, director of media relations, Earlham College, 765/983-1323

Media Contact: Julia May, assistant professor of art history, Earlham College, 765/983-1403 Kevin Burke, director of media relations, Earlham College, 765/983-1323

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