“Classics in Conversation” is a new bi-weekly article series, in collaboration with the Classical Association of Scotland, exploring some of the most pertinent issues in the discipline today. We’ve invited current and graduate students to respond to topical questions relating to the study of the ancient world in the 21st century.
7. Should we repatriate ancient artefacts to their country of origin? Do millennia old objects belong to anyone, or does the context in which they originally produced hold significance?
I believe that no single person should be able to claim ownership over any ancient artefacts. However, when talking about countries’ ownership over artefacts that is a different story, as someone has to house them and pay for their upkeep and display. In this, I believe that we should repatriate artefacts back to their countries of origin, as even though the ancient context and states are long gone, it is still more immersive and accurate to have the artefacts in their original area of production. I do not believe that artefacts belong to anyone, rather they belong to everyone, and it is unfair that some countries hoard artefacts that do not originate from within their borders. If anything, I believe that countries holding artefacts, even artefacts that originate from within the country housing them, should be seen more as taking care of and preserving the artefacts for future generations rather than ownership over them. Though this may be an idealistic view of ownership over artefacts, I do believe that it would be the most beneficial to the preservation and study of them.
– Luca Terry, 2nd year MA (Hons) History
Artifacts from antiquity particularly do not ‘belong’ anywhere other than where they were found, but some of these artifacts were discovered in farmer’s fields (like the Berthouville Treasure) or other far-flung places. Given that, the context in which artifacts were acquired should be considered before repatriating them. Take the Berthouville Treasure: a farmer found several Roman artifacts in his field and the National Library of France purchased them, where the artifacts now safely and securely sit to be viewed, looked at, and even analysed. I don’t know much about the archaeological black market, but I do know it isn’t uncommon to be able to receive artifacts from less than legal means. Artifacts which were stolen or acquired under less-than-ideal conditions, such as pillaging or even colonial seizure, should been re-examined for repatriation, especially if at the behest of the owner or governing body. Not only that, but the cultural heritage of nations belongs to those nations. With proper procedure, expatriation should be the main goal after a home country develops or builds appropriate conservation housing for artifacts. Classics personnel (researchers, archaeologists, etc.) do have a duty to uphold professional and especially ethical standards of investigation, discovery, restoration, and upkeep of artifacts, sites, and antique structures.
– Adam Aderman, 1st year PhD in History, Manchester Metropolitan University
In short: yes. When discussing ‘millennia old objects’ it is important to qualify that, for a considerable number, their history extends to the much more recent past. Many should be viewed as stolen artefacts, having been looted from their countries of origin due to colonisation or war. When displayed in museums, themselves a product and symbol of Colonialism, their original significance to those who produced them and their history within those cultures, can be lost; the artefacts now portray a history drawn from the perspective of the coloniser, in itself a continued violence. Repatriation doesn’t prevent the objects from being loaned out around the world, but it places these decisions back in the hands of those they were taken from (that said, I would agree with those who argue that the entire concept and structure of ‘The Museum’ as we know it also requires examination and reformulation, due to its above-mentioned Colonial origins). Pertinent to the ‘Classical World’ are the Parthenon marbles, which once decorated the Parthenon in Athens, and are currently held by the British Museum, having been ‘rescued’ by Lord Elgin in 1802. Despite frequent demands that the artefacts be returned, the British Museum and government have refused, claiming concern for their safety, and conveniently ignoring the purpose-built Acropolis Museum (begun in 2003) which would allow the marbles to be experienced in their original context. The frequent argument that certain countries are incapable of caring for their artefacts properly also propagates damaging and false narratives of ‘Western’ superiority.
– Hazel Atkinson, MSc (Taught) History, University of Edinburgh (2021)
There is one scenario in which I believe returning an artifact is warranted. If the original monument or location still exists and there is an active attempt to preserve or restore it. The Elgin Marbles come to mind as holding significant cultural value and would complete an entire museum dedicated to the Acropolis, its monuments, and its art. Otherwise, I’m not generally in favour returning artifacts because it would prompt museums all over the world to ask for the return of items that may never be displayed or that would serve a better purpose abroad. Sadly, many countries aren’t capable of safeguarding them. Say for example, Syria requests the return of cuneiform tablets from the Neo-Sumerian Empire. Syria today is so rife with violence and ideological conflict that I have no confidence in Syria’s ability to safeguard their historical artifacts. The destruction of lamassu statues, historical sites, and the looting of museums by the terrorist group ISIS in Syria offer concrete proof of the dangers posed to artifacts. Also, do museums need every votive statue ever found in their home country? Returning these cultural artifacts, while important finds, probably won’t significantly increase visitorship of that museum. Housing them in another country however, could spark interest in the civilization from which they originated.
– Lexie Henning, BA Classical Studies, University of Missouri (2018)
8. Is the trade in ancient artefacts, legal or otherwise, an issue? Should private collectors be allowed to procure items, or should the cultural significance of finds determine ownership?
The trade of ancient artifacts in of itself should not be an issue. Illegal and/or unethical obtainment of ancient artifacts is most certainly an issue. Ethical, private collectors do exist, but the issue is the possible erroneous upkeep/maintenance and outright distortion of such items (along with the elitism that follows owning such items). Just recently, a mosaic from one of Caligula’s ‘floating palaces’ was discovered in a New York antique dealer’s house. A NY Times article described the piece as lost, which gives credence to an illegitimate acquisition (most legal procurements have a paper trail) and the piece had been altered into a coffee table. It was recently repatriated back to Italy and now sits with other ‘floating palace’ pieces in a museum. The cultural significance definitely played a role in its repatriation, but it also helped complete the overall picture of what these ‘floating palaces’ looked like. Ethical collectors would not have seen such pieces malformed, but this un-regulation is the issue with private collectors. There is a definite balance between private collectors who appreciate the artifacts and collectors who want an ancient artifact for the privilege of ownership.
– Adam Aderman
Trading ancient artifacts is definitely an issue. Ancient artifacts are essential to the study of history. Cultural significance can also play a role in the ownership of artifacts. It is impossible to find the exact monetary or cultural worth of any item, yet we try our hardest to do so. If a small ostraka was found, should it automatically go to Greece? Greece already has thousands of similar ostrakon. Do they really need to claim ownership over yet another one? While I may not hold private collectors in the highest esteem, they are capable of doing a lot of good to help archaeologists and historians. Private collectors can help save items that might otherwise not be recovered through more traditional means. They can also boost the preservation efforts of items by financially contributing to their restoration. We should absolutely give them credit for their role, which can be done by naming a gallery after them or including them in any publications about the finds. But private collectors interested only in restoring artifacts for their benefit who would keep any artifact for their private collection is the ever-present worry. While it is impossible to divine the intentions of others, we should actively discourage private procurement efforts. How we monitor or penalize these efforts isn’t currently clear to me however.
– Lexie Henning
In a perfect world, or at least in my perfect world, all artefacts would be housed in their countries of origin, free to be viewed and studied as the common cultural inheritance of humanity. This is in the current day an impossibility, as government and private collectors are against giving away their artefacts. I am of the opinion that private collectors should not be able to purchase new items to add to their collections, as the loss of such items from the public sphere of influence is a detriment not only to the world of academic research but also to the people who wish to view and learn about them. Just the idea that a piece of history might be bought up and hoarded away not be seen unless the buyer deems it so appalls me. If there is a physical remnant of our past, it should not be placed in the hands of a single individual to do what they want with, rather it should be able to be displayed to the larger public so we can experience our past for ourselves. While it is unlikely that trade in ancient artefacts will end anytime soon, and there are likely works that only survived due to being in private collections, the damage these collections do to the study of our history far outweighs any benefits they may provide.
– Luca Terry
The trade in ancient artefacts is certainly an issue, legal or otherwise. While there may not be much harm in allowing people to purchase, say, a Roman coin (presuming its type is plentiful) of low value, the trade in more significant artefacts presents several problems. One of which is the fact that these objects often have a past darkened by their (sometimes forcible) removal from their original cultures, to whom they may be highly significant. The trade in antiquities, like museums, has observable roots in the violence of Colonialism and cultural theft. Placing high monetary value on these items can also encourage looting, which damages the ability of archaeologists and historians to situate and appreciate them within their historical contexts. Private collectors, who spend vast sums on ancient artefacts and art, also exacerbate the inaccessibility of Classics/Ancient History. Those who do not come from a wealthy background are denied access to the subject multiple times over; they are unlikely to be offered the opportunity to study it at school and are then prevented from engaging with its artefacts. I don’t believe that such historical artefacts should ‘belong’ to individuals or even institutions, but to cultures and peoples as a whole, with precedence given to their country and culture of origin. These objects have immense value in their capacity to tell stories, to inform us of the past, and they should be allowed to do so in a way which is inclusive, respectful, and accessible.
– Hazel Atkinson
Adam Aderman is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Ancient History.
Hazel Atkinson is a MSc (Taught) History student at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Columnist for Retrospect Journal and more of her work can be read here.
Lexie Henning (Twitter: @lexie_henning / Instagram: @lexie_henning) graduated from the University of Missouri in 2018 with a BA in Classical Studies. Lexie founded The Ozymandias Project which aims to make Classics more accessible through a bi-monthly podcast and Archaeogaming events (Twitter: @TheOzymandiasP1 / Instagram: @theozymandiasprojectpodcast / Facebook: The Ozymandias Project).
Luca Terry is a 2nd year MA (Hons) History student at the University of Edinburgh.