The museums in Europe are home to a number of ancient artifacts from ancient civilizations all over the world. Among their notable exhibitions are the Rosetta Stone from Rosetta, Egypt, Elgin Marbles from ancient Greece, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from India and many more.
However, these artifacts are rife with debate regarding claims to ownership. We can see the importance of this issue from how Hollywood has capitalized on it, producing movies such as Indiana Jones and Revenge of the Mummy, where the ancient civilizations have clearly taken pains to prevent their sacred grounds from being disturbed and pillaged. These artifacts are often told to carry with them curses to whoever removes them from their original site.
Despite that, many artifacts have been on display in European countries that did not create them. Perhaps it would make sense that these artifacts should have remained in their countries of origin as a key part of their cultural heritage. These items arguably hold the greatest sentimental value to their home countries as a key part of their history, usually representing a fundamental part of their culture. To anyone else, they are probably merely an item of interest and worth, but not so much of historical importance.
In the first place, though, how did these cultural artifacts come to reside in the museums of Europe?
Most historical artifacts found in European museums were obtained by European countries when they defeated other countries in battle and plundered cultural sites some centuries ago. In those times, legality was a non-existent concept – when armies took over an enemy force, they were simply free to take whatever spoils of loot they wanted. However, people then already understood the importance of grabbing a piece of cultural significance. Many cultural artifacts that eventually made their way to other countries’ exhibits were originally looted as spoils of war.
For example, the Rosetta Stone was first acquired by the French when they conquered Egypt, and then went to the British when they defeated the French. The stone was brought to England in 1802.
The Rosetta Stone itself was not of any particular significance. It was originally a part of a bigger slab of stone, on which a royal decree about King Ptolemy V was inscribed. The slab of stone was likely one of many copies that were distributed across the temples of Egypt. However, what makes the stone interesting is that the text on it was inscribed in three different languages – hieroglyphics, Demotic and ancient Greek. While the knowledge of hieroglyphics was long gone with the civilization of ancient Egypt, some scholars still knew how to read ancient Greek. Since the scholars could match the Greek inscriptions with the other two languages, the Rosetta Stone became a significant tool in the study of deciphering hieroglyphics.
Today, the Rosetta Stone is no longer a unique artifact of interest to scholars, ever since three more copies of the same decree were unearthed. However, it has its place in Egyptology, and is regarded by many as a monumental discovery in understanding ancient Egyptian culture. However, the Rosetta Stone remains in the British Museum despite attempts from Egypt to bring it back to its place of origin.
Another artifact, the Elgin marbles, is also housed in the British Museum. Its ownership has long been in dispute between Britain and Greece. The collection of statues were taken from Athens, Greece by Lord Elgin, an early 19th century British envoy, while he was the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. It was then placed in the British Museum in 1816. Until today, the two countries are still involved in debate over who should have the statues, to the point that UNESCO has requested both countries to make efforts in resolving this dispute.
As cultural artifacts are a part of each country’s heritage, this is a highly sensitive topic. Many people from countries whose artifacts have found themselves in others’ hands believe that the artifacts should be returned to their countries of origin. In some ways, the country of origin would have more claim to the artifact than any other person, and that country’s people would also be more likely to appreciate the artifact more than anyone else. For any other collector, the artifact has no cultural meaning but is rather a piece of monetary value or an item to show off.
Additionally, the exhibition of artifacts historically looted as spoils of war may be an indirect way for a country to assert their power over other nations. For instance, Britain insisted on keeping the Koh-i-Noor diamond instead of returning it to India. This diamond, one of the largest in the world at 105 carats, was looted by the British Empire when they conquered India in the colonial era. It was presented to Queen Victoria and eventually set in the crown of Queen Elizabeth I. Today, the diamond remains on display in the Tower of London. Apart from its clear monetary value, it can also be seen as a reminder of Britain’s conquest and victory over India from the colonial days. In fact, although India demanded the return of the diamond in atonement for “Britain’s colonial past”, the British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that the diamond will not be returned as he did not believe in “returnism”.
Not all artifacts were plundered. Some were legally acquired in earlier times, such as in a purchase or as a gift from another country. However, these premises perhaps result in countries believing all the more that they have the right to possession of the item, usually as the item has been in their museum for centuries.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to get any museum – or anyone, for that matter – to give up something in their possession, regardless of how strong another’s claim is to the object. Much of it may be due to greed. It is understandable that these countries are holding something of priceless worth, even if they do not resonate with its cultural significance. In addition, these countries have also been making profits from tourism and museum visits when they exhibit such items of interest. Many of the European museums housing these artifacts have expressed their concern that these relics have been a central piece of their exhibitions for centuries, and there should be no reason they have to return it to the country of origin.
In the end, this ages-old debate comes down to who really owns the claim on the item. Should the artifact’s origins and years of being a part of an ancient civilization be honored, or should the deciding factor lie in where the artifact has resided in more recent times? If one looks at it this way, it seems as if every country is protecting their heritage by fighting for a cultural artifact – just that one possessed the artifact possibly millennia ago, while the other had much more recent contact with it.