Tales of Repatriation

Discussions of the ownership (or ‘stewardship’) of archaeological treasures such as the Parthenon sculptures, the Rosetta Stone or the portrait of Nefertiti in Berlin are well-known topics in archaeological ethics (the entire blog Elginism is devoted to these issues and excellently covers news stories related to them, for the other side of the coin see Dorothy King’s blog). Part of the attraction of these discussions is that they are very difficult and entangled in all sorts of politics and contemporary issues of identity. Thus, there are no easy answers that will satisfy all parties. In the case of the Parthenon, the on-going debate has become part of the monument’s renown and fame (see e.g. Yalouri 2001; Beard 2002). But what happens when artefacts are returned which indeed they sometimes are? I have recently come across a few examples in Egyptian and Greek museums.

Erechtheion fragment in the Acropolis MuseumThe first is a small marble fragment from the famous Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis. This temple was a lot smaller than the Parthenon, but its price of construction was much higher (which we know because of the survival of the building accounts on marble slabs). The high price tag was due the intricate details in the temple’s decoration and the expensive materials used for its construction. The small fragment was returned by Birgit Wiger-Angner of Sweden, whose family had acquired it in 1896. The return ceremony last year was attended by the Greek Minister of Culture. The exhibition of the fragment in the very last room of the Acropolis Museum (see picture on the right) with the Caryatids sends a powerful message to visitors about the stewardship of these monuments so important to Greek identity. Certainly it is meant to cause visiting Brits to (re-)consider their position on the display of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum – or indeed visiting Danes. There are two heads from the Parthenon metopes exhibited in the Copenhagen National Museum, acquired in a similar manner to the Swedish fragment (although at an earlier date). I expect the fragment to be displayed in a similarly prominent location, when the new Acropolis Museum opens later this year. The text accompanying the small exhibit is, however, rather sober. It is the fragment itself that does the talking.

The other example is the mummy of Ramses I(?) in the Luxor Museum. This was until 1999 held in the Niagara Falls Museum and then acquired by Atlanta’s Michael C. Carlos Museum (this excellent website tells the mummy’s full story). The mummy was treated to all sorts of scientific examinations and then returned to Egypt in 2003. Since 2004, it has been on display in Luxor (news report here). In this case, the General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, was present to welcome the mummy back to Egypt. Although Hawass is notedly outspoken on issues of repatriation, both the location of the pharaoh’s mummy and the didactic text alongside it is seemingly neutral. The citizens of Atlanta are also thanked for their help in restoring an important part of Egypt’s cultural heritage.

What can be learnt from these two cases of repatriation? An obvious point is that these controversial objects can still after their return be heavily politicized and used to promote issues of ownership of cultural property. But neither of these two examples are overtly polemical (there are reportedly much worse cases in Libyan museums). Maybe the most important thing to conclude from them, then, is that the frontlines of these debates over the ownership of archaeological treasures are not always as fiercely held as some want us to believe.

Eleana Yalouri. 2001. The Acropolis. Global Fame, Local Claim. Oxford: Berg.

Mary Beard. 2002. The Parthenon. London: Profile Books.

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