Should Ancient Artifacts be Returned to Their Country of Origin?
Updated: Jul 11
Countries are demanding that their cultural property and history be repatriated.
Many countries agree that illegally trafficked artifacts should be returned.
But should artifacts stolen during colonial rule be returned?
Just a few weeks ago, a Houston museum returned an ancient wooden sarcophagus known as the "Green Coffin" to Egypt.
The US authorities discovered it was stolen and trafficked years ago.
In September 2022, the New York Metropolitan Museum returned 16 illegally trafficked antiquities to Egypt.
Cairo authorities tracked down 5,300 stolen artifacts in 2021 that were returned to Egypt from around the globe.
The Rosetta stone is the key to understanding Hieroglyphs.
The bust of Nefertiti symbolizes ancient Egypt's most beautiful queen.
Both were stolen from Egypt during colonial rule, and they are two of the most recognizable artifacts in the world.
Should they be returned to Egypt?
People often joke that the Pyramids aren't at the British Museum because they couldn't be carried there - they may be right.
Famous artifacts are a massive draw for tourism
More than one million tourist flock to Berlin's Neues Museum every year to see the 3,400-year-old bust of Nefertiti.
I will travel to Germany with the sole purpose of seeing it!
How did Germany end up with Nefertiti's bust?
It was discovered by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt south of Cairo in 1912.
Zahi Hawass insists that the bust was deceptively described as an "unimportant find" by Borchardt to Egyptian officials at the time and says that the bust belongs to Egypt.
Germany has no intention of returning the great Nefertiti bust to Egypt.
The Neues Museum insists it was acquired lawfully, and Egypt has no legal claim.
President Professor Hermann Parzinger of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Neues Museum, says of the Nefertiti bust:
“She is and remains the ambassador of Egypt in Berlin.”
The beginning of Egyptology
While the bust of Nefertiti is undoubtedly one of the most famous works of ancient art, the Rosetta stone may be the most important.
The Rosetta stone is the key to understanding Hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian language.
It ushered in the beginning of Egyptology.
One wonders… should it reside in Egypt?
The removal of the Rosetta Stone from Egypt happened during wars between Britain and France.
Monica Hanna, dean of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, said:
‘’The British Museum’s holding of the Rosetta stone is a symbol of Western cultural violence against Egypt.”
Hanna says seizing the stone was"an act of plunder" and a "spoil of war."
She has the support of Zahi Hawass and 4,200 signatures on a petition to back her claim.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former minister for antiquities affairs, has collected more than 100,000 signatures on a petition that argues Egypt had no say in the 1801 agreement.
The British Museum maintains that the 1801 treaty included the signature of an Ottoman sultan who briefly ruled Egypt during Napoleon's invasion insisting that he represented Egypt.
The Egyptian government is on a mission to prevent the trafficking of ancient Egyptian artifacts.
But individual citizens like Hawass and Hanna, not the Egyptian government, demand the return of artifacts stolen during colonial rule.
What does the law about stolen artifacts and cultural property?
Unesco regulations only require the return of artifacts removed from their country of origin after 1970.
Furthermore, this law only applies to museums or like institutions, not individual owners.
They maintain that artifacts appropriated before this date are legal and permissible.
Repatriation of artifacts removed before 1970 is an uphill battle, to be sure.
There were no laws to protect artifacts stolen before international law was established to preserve cultural history.
Countries struggle to reclaim their cultural history as they demand the return of artifacts.
Although many museums maintain that the artifacts they acquired were done so legally, colonialism tells a different story.
Cultural property was doled out like candy only one hundred years ago.
Treasure seekers like Howard Carter, who discovered King Tutankhamun, gifted pieces from Tut's tomb.
He most certainly kept select Tut artifacts for himself.
Ancient Egyptian artifacts are found in personal collections and museums all over the globe.
Will they find their way back to Egypt?
Many, like the famous bust of Nefertiti and the Rosetta stone, likely will not.
Cultural history is continuously appropriated around the world.
Time will tell the tale of stolen, looted, plundered, and trafficked treasures.
Until then, the world is watching.
Let me know what you think in the comments!
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