Indiana Jones may have rescued the odd Biblical relic from Nazis for the greater good of humanity, but much of his archaeological career was spent wrecking temples and swiping sacred shiny stuff from them for his local museum. And in cinemas across the land the original Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, is embarking on a new destructive phase of messing up ancient sites in her latest cinema reboot.
But in pop culture terms the tables are turning on treasure hunters, with the release of Black Panther. Marvel’s latest blockbuster opens with the film’s villain Erik Killmonger in a fictional museum, where he (very forcibly) removes cultural artefacts looted by British troops from his homeland. So impactful is the scene that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian referenced it in a job advert for a repatriation research specialist, to help restore artefacts to indigenous tribal communities.
Return of museum artefacts to their place of origin has been a thorny issue in the UK since Lord Elgin removed the Parthenon Marbles from Athens’ iconic Classical landmark after a dubious deal in 1801. He sold them to the British government and they were given to the British Museum, where they controversially remain. The campaign to repatriate them to Athens, where a purpose-built museum awaits their return, has continued, with international lawyer Amal Clooney adding her expertise to it.
Museums around the globe are crammed with cultural objects taken from elsewhere: mummies dug out of Egypt’s tombs at the height of the international treasure-hunting craze are perennialfavourites with museum visitors. Such ancient artefacts educate us about the wider world.
Nations are asking for totemic items from their cultural heritage to be returned
But increasingly nations are asking for totemic items from their cultural heritage to be returned, especially if it was removed in a manner now considered not entirely legitimate (although returned where and to whom is itself a complex issue).
At the same time the need for awareness of the source of antiquities, and stemming their lucrative sales – estimated to be one of the most profitable illegal trades in the world – has added urgency. This is due to the escalation of trafficking of cultural heritage by terror groups, including ISIS, who sell them on the international black market.
This is where the anti-treasure-looting investigators at Trafficking Culture come in.
The team of researchers, based at Glasgow University, Oxford University and the University of Victoria at Wellington, New Zealand, identify global trafficking routes and shed light on how demand from unethical dealers and collectors feeds this illicit and dangerous trade.
Combining criminological and archaeological expertise, their dogged and determined research, in collaboration with international experts, is helping to stem the tide of global trafficking of priceless cultural heritage, and assists with the return of objects.
This jade funerary mask of a seventh century Mayan ruler was excavated by archaeologists in 1952. It was part of a haul of 124 jade and gold treasures stolen in a daring night-time raid on the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, on Christmas Eve 1984, by two veterinary school dropouts who crawled through air ducts to reach the booty. One was arrested in 1989 and 111 objects recovered, but the other moved to Acapulco and tried to sell the remainder to drug traffickers in return for cocaine. The drug dealers turned him in, he was arrested, and the mask returned a year later. Gael García Bernal plays one of the burglars in new movie Museum.
Circa 417AD this Mayan mask depicts sun god Kinich Ahaw and belonged to a ruler at famous site Rio Azul. It surfaced in a museum in Barcelona in 1999 and the Guatemalan government asked for it back, its request denied by the Spanish government in 2002. It was thought to have passed through Switzerland, rumoured to be in a private collection in Germany, and may have returned to Switzerland. But its present whereabouts
La Mina treasure
Peru > Costa Rica > Spain > Belgium > London > Peru
The extravagant golden octopus-like sea-godheaddress dating to 300-600AD is one of the most famous pieces of the Moche-period treasure looted from a high-status tomb. It was recovered in London after a £1 million sting operation and returned to Peru (it’s on loan to the Met Museum in New York). Other items found in Spain were returned, while others on a flight from Zurich to New York were seized by customs officers in the US and repatriated.
Salisbury > British Museum + USA + Germany + Japan
The hoard of around 600 Bronze and Iron Age items including swords, miniature shields and axes made over a period of around 2,000 years was buried together circa 200BC. It was illegally dug up by two metal detectorists, who excavated without permission and lied about their provenance when selling them. They were eventually arrested after a police sting in 1993. Some items were originally sold to the British Museum, whose trustees admitted it “may have been wrong” to buy them, although they later investigated their provenance. Others sold out of the country may still be in Germany, America and Japan.
Nok terracotta figures
Nigeria > Togo > Benin > Brussels > Paris > Manhattan & Virginia
1000BC to 500AD Nok culture occupied the Bauchi plateau of central Nigeria and their terracotta animals and humans are world-famous, with elaborate hair, jewellery and even physical ailments depicted. Found during mining in 1928 and collected until the 1950s, they were taken to a museum in Jos, Nigeria, but were stolen and illegally exported between the 1960s and 1990s. Fakes and genuine Nok terracottas emerged on the art market, making their way through Europe and across the West, some traced to America and Paris. The Nigerian government is still fighting for repatriation.
Greece> Italy > Switzerland > New York > Italy
This iconic pottery wine-mixing receptacle showing the son of Zeus and Greek warriors preparing for battle was made in Athens circa 515BC, illegally excavated from an ancient Etruscan cemetery in Cerveteri, Lazio in 1971 and smuggled to Switzerland. It was bought in good faith by the Metropolitan Museum, where it was on display until, after a battle over its provenance, the Italian government secured its return in 2008. It has been displayed in a museum back at Cerveteri.
Turkey > Texas/Ohio > Turkey
Occupied from circa 300BC until around 1048AD, ruins of the lost city of Zeugma were only identified at modern settlements of Belkis and Tilmuse on the banks of the Euphrates in the 1970s. At least 41 pieces of this mosaic, plus statues and other mosaics were looted from the site starting in the 1800s. Ahead of the site being partially flooded in 2000 for a hydroelectric dam, looting escalated. Parts of mosaics were identified in museums including in Texas and Ohio. Some have now been repatriated to Gaziantep Museum, Turkey.
Nepal > Berlin > Nepal
The 12th century Hindu sculpture of Shiva and Parvati was stolen from a shrine in Wotol in 1982. It was tracked to a Berlin museum and returned in 2000.
New Zealand > New York > London > Geneva > New Zealand
The carved wooden Maori panels from a high-status building were hidden in a swamp during conflict between indigenous New Zealand tribes in the early 1800s. They were rediscovered in 1960 during swamp-draining, with more found in 1972. In violation of the law they were bought and removed from New Zealand without a permit by an English antiquities dealer and offered for sale by another dealer in New York, who disputed they were illegal. They were put up for auction in London in 1978, but later removed from sale. A legal battle ensued between the British and New Zealand governments. After the owner’s death in 2013 his family said he had wanted them repatriated. The New Zealand government bought them for a reported £2.4m and they are now on display in Puke Ariki Museum, a centre for Maori culture, in New Plymouth.
Wang ChuzHi Panel
China > Hong Kong > New York > China
This marble relief carved panel from the tomb of 10th century Tang Dynasty leader Wang Chuzhi (863-923AD) was stolen in 1994 when thieves used dynamite to blast into it. Having travelled via Hong Kong, it was advertised for auction in 2000 in New York, and US Customs seized it. It was returned to China in 2001.
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