Owen Matthews, writing in Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast, says, “Turkey’s government is playing hardball to repatriate archaeological treasures.” He begins with the story of the German road engineer who excavated the Altar of Zeus at Pergamum (Pergamom) and arranged for the structure to be moved to Berlin and reconstructed in the museum there.
The Turkish government is now asking various museums around the world to return artifacts that were taken from Turkey. Matthews mentions the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, along with others.
Today 30 young archeologists from all over the world work at Pergamon, uncovering new parts of the ancient city, meticulously recording, photographing, sketching, and cleaning the uncovered artifacts. The dig is considered the finest of its kind in the world. The state-of-the-art iDAI.field computer system for inputting real-time archeological data was pioneered here, along with many techniques for photographing, conserving, and mapping now considered standard across the world. In 2004 a complex of vulnerable newly discovered mosaics was enclosed in a beautiful wood, stone, and steel building designed by award-winning German architects and paid for entirely by the German government. The practice of hauling finds back to the home country was abandoned, of course, more than a century ago—today, all the finds remain in Turkey.
Despite a century of Germany’s investment in the fabric of Pergamon, the local authorities still view the Germans with suspicion. A recent mayor of Bergama ran on a ticket of returning the Altar of Zeus from Berlin, something the ministry itself hasn’t asked for (the paper trail clearly confirms that the altar was legally exported). And the DAI has come under pressure from tourism authorities to spend more resources rebuilding fallen temples to make them more photogenic to visitors rather than meticulously trowelling [sic] through ancient sewers and tombs.
Matthews says the Turkish authorities have decided “to play hardball” with various countries working in Turkey. Considering the remarkable work done by the Germans at Pergamum and Hattusha, the British at Carchemish, the Austrians at Ephesus, to mention just a few examples, this is an unfortunate situation. Read the article in its entirety here.
Turkish archaeologists have done significant work in numerous places throughout the country. But with more than a thousand archaeological sites, cooperation would be better.
Pergamum is the site of one of the churches addressed in the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse) toward the end of the first century A.D. (Revelation 1:11; 2:12-17).
HT: Jack Sasson
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The University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (which has excavated in Turkey as well) sponsored a forum last year on this very issue. Among the panelists was the then-Curator of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno (since removed to the Getty Museum in LA) whose book, Who Owns Antiquity? is a provocative read on this subject. Thanks for the link to this story!
If we’ve learned anything, artifacts removed from their country of origin are very rarely left in peace.