I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Handling stolen goods is a crime in most countries, so why do museums in most Western nations contain artifacts that were taken illegally from the people to whom they belonged? The scale of the theft is vast.
The British Museum's Hoard
Several countries are trying to recover treasures that are on display in the British Museum.
Thomas Bruce, Seventh Lord Elgin removed some stone carvings from the Parthenon in Athens early in the 19th century. He sold them to the British Museum where they have been on display ever since.
Elgin claimed he had permission from the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greece at the time to take the marble sculptures but the official Greek website disagrees; it says the artifacts were stolen and they want them back. But, the British Museum has so far resisted all attempts to send the Parthenon Sculptures back to Greece.
“In 1897, British troops stole some 4,000 bronze sculptures after invading the Kingdom of Benin (now southwestern Nigeria) (History.com).” The British Museum and other museums around the world now have these items as exhibits in their collections. The British Museum has agreed to loan some of the bronzes to Nigeria, but has made it absolutely clear that it retains ownership of the items.
The same bully-boy attitude that cost the Nigerians their bronzes (actually, they are made of brass) was on display more than 100 years earlier in Australia. On April 29, 1770, Captain James Cook arrived in Botany Bay and made first contact with the Aborigines whose home it was.
Some of Cook's men fired on the natives and one of them, Cooman, was shot in the leg. Cook's men took Cooman's spear and shield and for the next more than 250 years they have resided in the British Museum.
Rodney Kelly can trace his roots to the people who opposed Cook's claim that Australia was British territory. He has campaigned to get what's called the Gweagal Shield sent back to Australia, so far without success.
It's important to note that the British Museum is not being singled out here; museums in most of Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere have items in their collections that were purloined from native peoples.
The Looting of the Spiro Mounds
Back in 1933, a group of prospectors looking for gold and not finding any made a different valuable discovery in Oklahoma. By accident, they found a burial mound that had been sealed for 500 years.
Inside the tomb was a treasure trove of artifacts. The BBC describes what was found: “Hundreds of engraved conch shells, thousands of pearl and shell beads, copper breast plates, large human effigy pipes, and piles of brightly coloured blankets and robes. Newspapers would later call the find an American 'King Tut's tomb.' ”
Spiro in eastern Oklahoma was a ceremonial and trading centre for the Mississippian Culture that comprised more than 60 tribes. The people tilled the land and hunted small game, but the Little Ice Age of the 13th century brought hard times. To persuade the gods to bring back good weather, spiritual leaders filled a burial mound with ritual goods. But the gods ignored the pleas, and the people drifted away to find places where weather patterns were more favourable.
The failed prospectors robbed the mound of everything it contained and sold the antiquities. The items have turned up in 65 museums in America, Asia, and Europe.
Plunder in Sudan
Archeological looting continues today, sometimes on a massive scale. Here's ancientorigins.net: “A 2000-year-old historic site has been destroyed in Sudan by illegal treasure hunters using construction-sized excavators to search for buried gold.”
Jabal Maragha was a settlement on the eastern edge of the Sahara Desert dated from almost 2,500 years ago. Like many other locations in Sudan, it had archeological significance for those researching the Kingdom of Kush, which ruled the region south of Egypt from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE.
The destruction of Jabal Maragha was not the result of thieves looking for ancient artifacts, it was collateral damage in a search for gold.
The geology of the area is made up of sandstone and pyrite. Those looking for gold often use metal detectors that will give a positive reading if pyrite is present; pyrite is a mineral that is often called “fool's gold,” so you can see where this is going. The mechanical diggers were called and the archeological site was destroyed.
This is happening all the time in Sudan. Hatem al-Nour, is the country's director of antiquities and museums. He is quoted as saying “Out of a thousand more or less well-known sites in Sudan, at least a hundred have been destroyed or damaged.”
The Iraq War
The Mask of Warka is an artifact of the Sumerian civilization dating back to about 3500 BCE. Sometimes called the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia, the marble carving is thought to be the earliest representation of a human face. It was part of the collection in the National Museum of Iraq during the chaos of the American forces taking Baghdad in April 2003. That's when it went missing, along with more than 15,000 other antiquities.
Somebody tipped off authorities and the Mask of Warka was recovered, but thousands of the other stolen artifacts have vanished, probably into private collections.
Writing for The Atlantic, Sigal Samuel notes that “experts have noticed an uptick in the availability of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts at online retailers since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”
According to a UNESCO protocol, vendors of antiquities are supposed to provide a trail of ownership when putting items up for sale. But, it's next to impossible for buyers to check out the declared provenance of an item, and some people may not be particularly bothered that something they can add to their private collection has been stolen.
There's a large, dark trade in ancient artifacts; there's an equally shady commerce in fake antiquities.
- Eduardo Pérez de Heredia Puente is an associate of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. In 2017, he was commissioned to examine the collection at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. Of 2,000 items of pre-Colombian and pre-Hispanic art only 83 were found to be of museum quality. The rest were either forgeries or could not be authenticated.
- In June 2021, about 400 stolen antiquities were returned by countries such as Cambodia and Thailand. Their recovery and repatriation was the result of investigations by Manhattan's Antiquities Trafficking Unit and U.S. Homeland Security.
- A raid on three properties in Israel in January 2021 turned up thousands of ancient items that were being trafficked by crime gangs. Haaretz newspaper reported that “The detective archaeologists were stunned at the sheer quantity, and quality, of the artifacts.”
- “The Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Sculptures.” Robert Wilde, ThoughtCo, April 4, 2019.
- “Will the British Museum Ever Return These Stolen Artifacts?” Becky Little, History.com, December 26, 2018.
- “A shield, some Spears, and the Symbolism People Find in the Stuff the British Stole.” Mark Fennell and Nick Wiggins, ABC News, Jan 24, 2021.
- “Spiro Mounds: North America's Lost Civilisation.” Larry Bleiberg, BBC, June 21, 2021.
- “Industrial-Scale Looting Destroys Ancient Sudanese Site.” Ed Whelan, ancientorigins.net, August 25, 2020.
- “It’s Disturbingly Easy to Buy Iraq’s Archeological Treasures.” Sigal Samuel, The Atlantic, March 19, 2018.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 28, 2021:
You know what I don't get? If You have a stolen painting, or some sort of artifact,You have to keep it hidden. So, You can't really show it to your friends and family (if You know what's good for You) as something to be proud of. You have to keep it somewhere hidden in your basement, or your bedroom, or God knows where. What's the point of that?
Am I just going to sit in a room and stare at my stolen artifacts, feeling joy? I just don't get the reasoning/intent.
And I do remember seeing US soldiers, full of dirt/sand/dust, walking around those huge palaces in Iraq. Sitting on chairs I wouldn't sit on with my finest clothes but there they were, lounging like they were on some patio, drinking beers, back in the States. @#$%ing awful!
Emperor Trajan's doctor had a daily journal. In that journal there are entries about the Roman invasion of Dacia (my place of birth) but the Vatican has taken hold of that and it claims that it is "lost" in their library vaults. Well, that's just as good as looting something, if we the public cannot have access to historical artifacts, in order to learn more about our history.
Historical artifacts are more significant than just their appearance. They hold stories of the past and they should be available for everyone to see.
Thank You for your article. This is an important topic.
Best of luck!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 28, 2021:
I believe any country of the world should have a right to ask another country hoarding or displaying an artefact not local or native to it. They should return same to the asking nation or state. Thanks again.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 28, 2021:
equally intererting is the fabt that when the 2nd World Black Festivals of Art & Culture was played some four decades ago in Nigeria(. I happen to be in class3 in secodary grammar school). We students learnt among other things that the symbol of the festival was a Benin( now Edo State Bronze mask). It was searched all over the world. But at last found in the British Mesuem! We boys had a laugh then. But we hardly understand the local or native technology in making the artefec. Now we do. Much thanks for the informative and educating read.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 27, 2021:
Rupert, this is very interesting. As a student of History, it's intereslly to my likely...