Thursday, April 19, 2018

Destruction at the Ancient Site of Mari in Syria

Mary Shepperson writes in the Guardian (Thu 19 Apr 2018) of 'Destruction at the ancient site of Mari in Syria':
' The ancient city was one of the first archaeological sites to be occupied by Islamic State. Now new photos are revealing the fate of this important site as archaeologists continue to count the cultural cost of Isis
and so it goes on. Yet the actual evidence (highlighted by myself in this blog, and Sam Hardy elsewhere) is that the looting here did not begin under ISIL.
When Islamic State emerged, the part of Deir ez-Zor province in which [the already-looted PMB] Mari lies was one of the first areas to fall under its control in early 2014. Under IS, the site suffered an immediate explosion of looting; satellite images revealed the change from archaeological site to lunar landscape in a matter of months. More than 1,500 new looting pits were recorded at Mari between 2013 and 2015, likely representing the removal of a huge quantity of ancient objects, sold into the illegal antiquities market to fund Isis and its war. 
New looting pits identified at Mari between March and November 2014.
 Dense areas of disturbance can be in the central and northern areas of the site.
Photograph: Courtesy of the Mission Archéologique Française de Mari 
The damage was also caused by neglect:

Mari was home to an extraordinary palace. The earliest major structure dates to around 2500-2300 BC, and part of this early palace was restored and preserved at the site, providing a unique opportunity to walk through a third millennium BC Mesopotamian palace, standing almost to its roof beams. This palace area is now very badly damaged. Its protective roof was compromised by a sand storm in 2011 [which of course was in no way connected with ISIL], and the security situation at that time left it impossible to make repairs, but the recently released photos show that large parts of the palace’s 2m thick walls have now collapsed. Prof Pascal Butterlin, who directed excavations at the site up until 2010, believes such a level of destruction suggests that explosives, either ground based or more likely from air strikes, were probably involved, adding to the damage caused by looting for financial gain.
Butterlin gave a paper detailing the plight of Mari at the International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East conference in Munich two weeks ago, to general dismay.

The palace of Mari as  it was in 2008, with walls standing 5m high  under a protective roof (left),  and the

 palace as it appears in the new photos released by the Syrian  Directorate-General of Antiquities and
Museums, showing a pile of mudbrick rubble and the remains of the collapsed roof (right) .
Photograph: Mary Shepperson / Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums website 

The author points out that the later palace at Mari built in around 1800 BC by the Lim dynasty  has provided the most complete picture available of the life of a royal palace and the functioning of a Bronze Age city state. It is very important for the archives of (25 000)  cuneiform tablets of this period that its ruins contained, but these too seem likely (note: she offers no proof) to have been looted
The texts preserved on the tablets have left us the names of the rulers of Mari, provided a wealth of detail about the city and its people, and opened an exceptional window on the politics and diplomacy of the ancient Near East through the preservation of royal letters between the kings of Mari and the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms.   [...] It’s impossible to tell how much more of this history may have been hacked out of the ground by the IS-sponsored looters, written on tablets which were sold to fund the fighting.  
Of course cunieformists will point out that because the isolated objects that they study are addressed sources (made specifically to contain information transmitted to the viewer/handler) 'the names of the rulers of Mari' and the textual aspects of that 'wealth of detail about the city and its people', are still available to those who study the looted items in the copious private artefact hoard of Arthur Avarice the property developer and artefact collector. The question is should ethical academics be stooping to handle such items in the first place?

Shepperson ends:
Given the wonders of the palace of Mari and the importance of this site, it’s disappointing that the destruction of the palace and the plundering of the site in search of tablets and other saleable objects hasn’t received more attention. The first explanation is that cultural destruction in the Middle East has been so widespread in recent years that it’s ceased to be news-worthy in all but the most extreme cases, which is a depressing thought. A second disadvantage Mari has over more high-profile sites, such as Palmyra, is that its buildings were made of mud, and not the classical stonework which produces photogenic ruins and screams its artistic worth to a general audience. Nevertheless, Mari deserves to be considered as a loss on the same scale as any of the more celebrated sites to have suffered during the Isis conflict. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Turkey seeking the return of more than 150,000 objects from Foreign Collections

Turkey is seeking the return of more than 150,000 objects, some exported hundreds of years ago, that are currently in museums and collections in Europe and the United States.
 A lot of items from Turkey have been stolen, now located in museums in the United States, England, Portugal, Denmark, France, Germany and Greece, one of the leading members of the repatriation commission, Serdal Kuyucuoglu, told Al-Jazeera Monday. [...]  In recent months, the Commission's members have visited museums and collections that contain items from Turkey.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Berlin Museums Chief Calls for Rules on Restitution of Colonial Artefacts

Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), has called for international guidelines to help museums handle collecting history research and repatriation of illegally acquired colonial heritage in public collections (Catherine Hickley, 'Berlin Museums chief calls for rules on restitution of colonial artefacts' The Art Newspaper 16th Feb 2018) . These guidelines would be the equivalent of the Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art.* He postulates that international organisation such as UNESCO or the International Council of Museums (ICOM) should take the lead in organising conferences to devise the guidelines. The issue of colonial art in European collections is becoming increasingly uncomfortable in western Europe, for example in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has pledged “a temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” over the next five years.

There has also been much debate on  the collecting histories of non-European artefacts from former colonies in Berlin, prompted by the construction of the new Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2019. The building will provide a new home for the SPK’s ethnographic and Asian art collections, the ethnographic collections of the former Prussian state.
Bénédicte Savoy, an art historian and member of the advisory committee of the Humboldt Forum, abruptly resigned from the board last July complaining about a lack of attention to provenance research. The German culture minister Monika Grütters agreed, saying that “we have for a long time paid too little attention to the subject of colonialism” and that the debate over provenance research “was absolutely necessary”. She pledged government funding for such research. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its potential coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, have agreed that investigating and coming to terms with the country’s colonial past is a priority for the new government. Parzinger, a founding director of the Humboldt Forum, says the new museum will seek to provide full information on the provenance of its exhibits for visitors who are interested. The SPK received funding last year for a project to transcribe and digitise all its acquisition documents for the Ethnological Museum from 1830 until after the Second World War. “This is an important step towards transparency,” he says. “The project has been approved for three years but it will take many more. Our collections of world cultures will keep us busy for many years to come.” The foundation is also working with curators and scholars from Tanzania on an exhibition of objects that were removed from the country at the time of the Maji Maji War, an 1905-07 rebellionof against German colonial rule in German East Africa. “If you are conducting provenance research, then you also have to expect that you will come across objects that came into the collection illegally, and you have to be willing to hand them back,” Parzinger says.

The Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art were endorsed by 44 countries in 1998. They call for “just and fair solutions” to be applied to art in public collections that is claimed by the heirs of Jewish collectors who were allegedly robbed by the Nazis. They provide guidelines on provenance research on art in public collections and establishing processes to deal with disputes over claims. 

A Restitution Revolution Begins?

Bénédicte Savoy (professor at the Collège de France in Paris) has an opinion piece in Le Monde, reprinted in the Art Newspaper ('The restitution revolution begins ' 16th February 2018) arguing that France's President Macron is ushering in a new era for the return of displaced heritage
In two minutes and 33 seconds, on 28 November 2017, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, swept aside several decades of official French museum policy. He did it publicly, in the crowded lecture theatre of Ouagadougou University, in front of several hundred students, under the gaze of Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Kaboré, and the cameras of the news channel France 24. He did it in the name of youth—of his own youth, evoked seven times in the speech. “I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history, he said, adding: “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.” There were whistles and applause. On Twitter, the Elysée (the presidential office and residence) drives the idea home: “African heritage can no longer be the prisoner of European museums.” 
She hails this as the beginning of a revolution. The move has delighted those who have long called for the restitution of displaced heritage from Africa. In Berlin, Macron’s speech has added power to the 'heated debate about the colonial amnesia that seems to have afflicted the planners of the Humboldt Forum'. 'In a letter to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, 40 organisations of the German African diaspora asked her to react to “the historic initiative of the French president”...'.
Although it concerns Paris and its prestigious collections of African art first of all, the Ouagadougou speech also implicates Europe and the colonial or missionary basis of all its ethnographic or “universal” museums. From the British Museum (which has more than 200,000 African objects) to the Weltmuseum in Vienna (37,000), the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium (180,000), the Humboldt Forum (75,000) and France’s leading ethnographic museum, the Quai Branly in Paris (70,000), the history of African collections is a shared European history—a family affair, if you wish, where aesthetic curiosity, scientific interests, military expeditions, commercial networks and “opportunities” of all kinds contributed to the justification for domination and national rivalries. The museums of our European capitals are brilliant conservatories of human creativity, but they also derive from a darker history of which we are not sufficiently aware. 
In the museum world, the mere word “restitution” 'sparks an almost kneejerk defensiveness and withdrawal'. Curators feel a certain unease, what if such acts become commonplace? Calls to repatriate items stolen in military actions and colonisation in the past  have been hotly contested by museums eager to hang on to such items:
No one in France has forgotten the trench warfare conducted by curators at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in 2010, when, as a corollary to trade negotiations, the then president Nicholas Sarkozy ordered the return to South Korea of nearly 300 precious manuscripts deriving from a bloody French army expedition in 1866. No one in Italy has forgotten the 50 years of negotiations it took before the return to Ethiopia of the Axum obelisk, seized by Benito Mussolini in 1937. And no one in Berlin wants to return the massive fossilised skeleton of the world’s biggest dinosaur, Brachiosaurus brancai, to Tanzania, where it was taken in 1912 from territories then under the protectorate of the Reich.
She discretely fails to mention the Parthenon Marbles, mainly because, shamefully, they still have not been returned to Greece.

The time seems right for such a move. Interestingly, Macron’s proclamation in Ouagadougou —contrary to expectations— has not sparked the institutional outcry that we have been used to in recent years.
On the contrary: the president of the Quai Branly museum, Stéphane Martin, was pleased to bend in Macron’s direction, stressing that “nowadays we cannot have an entire continent deprived of its history and artistic genius”. So a second revolution, an institutional change, has taken place.
In the final part of her text she outlines how consensual restitutions of such artefacts should be 'motivated by the dual interests of peoples and objects' and in which the stake would be neither purely strategic nor political, but cultural. She urges a multi-sided dialogue, in which the parties listen to each other. There is no place for the object-centred lobbyists of the market countries dictating to the source countries how they should treat their own heritage, even if they do so masking their smokescreen as due to concerns for the 'safety of the objects':
we must listen to each other. And then we must be careful not to interfere in the decision-making remit of others. After Waterloo, when France returned the works removed to Paris during the Revolution and the Empire from other countries in Europe, it did not dictate to the pope and the sovereign states of Germany, Austria, Spain and elsewhere the proper way of looking after their collections. It often takes decades and much debate for “modern” heritage policies and suitable infrastructure to develop. In Berlin, for example, it was not until 1830 that the works France had returned 15 years earlier were displayed in a public museum. We must give time to those who recover works to find solutions that suit them. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Paracas Textiles Returned to Peru

'Peru recovers 79 pre-Hispanic textiles illegally kept in Sweden', The Local Sweden, 15 December 2017
Peru has recovered 79 pre-Hispanic textiles that have been illegally located in Sweden since 1935, the ministry of culture said. In 1935, Swedish ambassador to Peru Sven Karell acquired the fabrics hailing from the Nasca and Paracas cultures and took them to Sweden illegally – anonymously donating them to The Museum of Gothenburg, according to the Peruvian government. [...]  In 2008, the Gothenburg Museum of World Culture held the exhibition "Paracas: A Stolen World," prompting Peru to begin investigations and in 2013 begin the process of recovering the items. The recovered goods will be kept by the Ministry of Culture's General Directorate of Museums for conservation, and displayed in 2018.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Turkish lawmakers to go abroad to probe smuggled artefacts

Daily Sabah, 'Turkish lawmakers to go abroad to probe smuggled artifacts', November 6, 2017
The parliamentary investigative committee on Turkey's stolen cultural artifacts will visit countries holding such items, the body's head announced Monday. Mustafa İsen told Anadolu Agency the committee is tracking artifacts smuggled out of Turkey during the last 130 years. "We plan to carry out an inventory of the smuggled items during our visit to the countries," the Justice and Development (AK) Party lawmaker from northwestern Sakarya province said. İsen added that Turkey aims to show the world how seriously it takes the issue of smuggling. "We are working to protect our cultural properties and to prevent our artworks from being plundered," said İsen.
The article says that 'several objects stolen from Turkey are now on exhibit at museums throughout Europe and the United States'. The article is illeustrated by a photo of 'Two Sphinx of Hattusa that were smuggled from Turkey on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Turkey has been demanding the return of the figures since 1934'. Other examples cited include:
the ancient Altar of Zeus, found in Turkey's western İzmir province and now on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany. Another smuggling case which has drawn international attention is the stolen pieces of Gaziantep's famous Zeugma mosaic, purchased by U.S. Bowling Green State University in 1965, where they are still on display. Turkey has made several attempts to reclaim the artifacts from the American university.
I think somebody needs to look moree closely at the use of that word 'smuggled'.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Western Museums try to Forge Deal with West Africa to Return Benin Bronzes

The British Museum will take part in a European summit to discuss the return of art seized from the Benin kingdom, now part of southern Nigeria, by a British punitive expedition in 1897 as “reparations” after it defied the British empire by imposing customs duties. The museums taking part in the Benin dialogue group hope to establish a permanent display in Benin City, Nigeria, using items rotated from a consortium of reputable institutions. The negotiations involve authorities from Nigeria and the neighbouring country of Benin. [...] The fate of hundreds of [...] “Benin bronzes”, housed in institutions such as the British Museum, will be discussed by curators when the group meets next year at the Netherlands’ National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. [...] European curators and their west African counterparts are also keen to establish a legal framework that would guarantee the artefacts immunity from seizure in Nigeria. [...] the largest collection of antiquities from the 19th-century looting of Benin was in the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, while the second largest was in the British Museum.
Ben Quinn, 'Western museums try to forge deal with west Africa to return the Benin bronzes', Guardian 12 August 2017