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Web Letter

Britt Peterson's fine article makes it clear that James Cuno's deeply flawed argument against current cultural patrimony laws is motivated by the self-interest of museums in acquiring more artifacts regardless of provenance. But Cuno is right in one regard: the present system of laws and policies is failing to prevent the industrial-scale looting of archaeological sites worldwide. We are losing our past at an unprecedented rate to feed the demand by collectors for the one artifact in fifty dug that is of saleable quality. Protecting the sites is the problem we should be focusing on, not what to do with the artifacts once they have been ripped from the ground and their context destroyed.

Yet nowhere in the article are any realistic, concrete policy prescriptions offered to address this challenge. We cannot expect individual civilians who do value their heritage to risk their lives protecting it against organized crime networks that often corrupt the governmental agencies that are supposedly fighting them. Nor can we expect that the market demand for antiquities will die if museums adopt a more ethically pure policy of not acquiring insufficiently well-provenanced pieces; collectors will continue to buy, and museums in other countries will continue to acquire.

One possible solution is to harness the power of the market by taxing sales of antiquities and using the revenues to assist source countries in securing the sites from which these artifacts came. A 5 percent tax, for instance, would have yielded enough from the $57 million paid for a single Mesopotamian figurine recently to have nearly doubled the budget of Iraq's antiquities agency.

Other policies are imaginable as well. The important thing is to move past the sterile debates about retentionism and restitution to get at the real and still unaddressed problem of securing archaeological sites against looting.

Lawrence Rothfield

Chicago, IL

Jan 31 2009 - 11:47am

Web Letter

Ever since the looting of Iraq began, following the American occupation, I have been in total agreement with everything that has been written about the museum looting and the other looting that continues.

That being said, I would like to pose a problem that I began to face in 1977 shortly after a return to the states following a year of working for the Saudi-US Joint Economic Commission to help upgrade vocational education in the kingdom. I mention this to give credibility to what I have to say.

One September afternoon in 1976 while showing my just-arrived wife around Riyadh I noticed a small corroded metal bowl among the used camel saddles of an open-air suq. I bought it, after some bargaining, for less than $10. During the bargaining the shopkeeper used a piece of sandpaper to clear off enough of the corrosion that I could see that some markings had been incised on the bowl's copper surface. I took it home and used salt and vinegar to clean off all of the "corrosion," which the pros call "patina."

After we left Saudi Arabia in 1977 I concentrated on researching the meaning of the elaborate markings on the lip and interior of the bowl. I have written about my decoding of the marks for various publications since that time. The markings showed knowledge of lunar eclipse cycles, the length of a Venus synodic period, the retrograde motion of Venus, and, improbably, that there was a hitherto-unknown 112-year lunar (and solar) eclipse cycle, plus much more, including four incised portraits of a female who wore a horned hat.

In 1978 I asked a friend in Riyadh to pass along my letter to the minister of museums, describing what I had decoded from the bowl's markings. I received a polite "don't call us, we'll call you" kiss-off letter. Since then, nothing, although I have sent a follow-up letter through the Saudi Embassy and, most recently, an e-mail to the new museum in Riyadh. I have received no resposne from those attempts to make arrangements to return the bowl to authorities in Riyadh.

So in the last few months I have offered to give the bowl to the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. It has hundred of artifacts taken from Iraq through the efforts of Woolley. These were one-third of the items found, with the British Museum and Iraq splitting the remaining two-thirds between them. The Penn Museum politely but firmly rejected my offer, perhaps because the bowl was considered loot, with no provenance other than an open-air suq in Riyadh in 1976; but more probably because of their large collection of artifacts taken from Iraq that under present UNESCO rules are considered stolen.

So the little bowl sits beside me as I keystroke this letter. It may be the earliest known "document" that shows precise astronomical knowledge hitherto not even suspected in an era that probably is around the first or second millennium BC, yet there seems to be no interest by archaeologists, who know very little about astronomy, or by astronomers, who know very little about archaeology... or museums, which want to avoid any suggestion that they are interested in "stolen" artifacts.

The problem is that I am now 83 and I am wondering what will become of the bowl when I am gone. Will it be forgotten in all the fuss of who stole what from whom and when? Perhaps one of The Nation's readers has the answer. I welcome any help or suggestions. (chostett at verizon.net)

Clyde Hostetter

Mesa, AZ

Jan 27 2009 - 7:10pm

Web Letter

I enjoyed reading most of what Britt Peterson wrote here and strongly recommend to all who care about the debate on restitution of stolen/looted artefacts from Africa and elsewhere that are now in Western museums to adopt and ponder over Peterson's statement: "Substitute Iraq for Egypt or Benin, and the selfish oversimplifications of Cuno's defense become clear. Sometimes the best test for arguments about the past is a more thorough look at the present."

I must, however, point out that the following statement from the author is obviously wrong in many aspects: "For Cuno, however, to harp on this is to get hung up on ancient history. He reminds his readers that the Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago, London and various European cities, where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year. The idea of returning them to Lagos, one of the world's most dangerous cities, or anywhere else in Nigeria, with its poverty, civil unrest and ethnic violence, seems absurd, especially given that only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire."

I will not speak about Cuno, since his views have been widely discussed by many, including this writer, nor will I seek to downplay the chaotic nature of life in Lagos nor the existence of ethnic strife in Nigeria. However, the view that the "Benin bronzes are divided among Chicago, London and various European cities, where they are loved and cared for and seen by many thousands of people every year" requires some comment.

First, it must be mentioned that after the British invaded Benin City in 1897, they sold in that same year many thousands of looted objects to Europeans and Americans, who were aware that they were buying stolen goods. It is not out of a love of or desire to care for these looted objects that they are in the Western world. Caring for and loving stolen objects does not excuse or explain the initial wrongdoing. "Love" and "care" have been used by Europeans over centuries to convince the world that out of their nefarious acts in Africa, America and Asia, there has been some good. They learned from the Romans that "malum nullum est sine aliquo bono."

Second, it is very misleading to say that the Benin bronzes are seen by "many thousands of people every year." Most of the Benin artefacts are not on permanent display in any museum. They are shown only in major exhibitions from time to time. True, a few of these objects are on permanent or regular exhibition. Incidentally, most museums do not make available a catalogue or list of the Benin artefacts they hold.

Third, one can hardly talk about people loving objects they hardly see. Indeed, very few people in cities like Berlin, where the Ethnology Museum holds 580 Benin artefacts, are aware that these objects are in their cities. Very few Viennese realize that there are some 167 of these objects in the Ethnology Museum in Vienna.

Finally, the statement that "only ethnic Yoruba (about one-fifth of the population) claim any racial or cultural connection to the Benin Empire" is surely wrong. The people of Benin (not to be confused with the Republic of Benin), the Edo, are a living people, with a thriving culture and civilization under their king, the Oba, who is a great-grandson of the famous king Ovonramwen, from whose palace the British stole these objects in 1897. His grandsons have recently renewed their call for Western museums to return some of the looted objects.

We should not fall for the colonialist propaganda spread by anthropologists that they were collecting and saving cultural objects from peoples who were about to disappear from the face of the earth. Most of those deprived of their cultural treasures are still in existence and demand their return.

More information on these issues can be found at in the following articles, "Ten Essential Points on the Continued Detention of the Benin Bronzes by European and American Museums" and http://www.modernghana.com"Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums Now Return Some of the Looted/Stolen Benin Artefacts?"


Vienna, Austria

Jan 8 2009 - 5:13pm