Thursday, January 13, 2011

It Beggared all Description

Archaeologists are generally very concerned about the antiquities trade. And I get it: there are yawning gaps in our knowledge of the the ancient world, and most of our new knowledge comes from careful excavation, where the details of the dig can tell us as much as the artifacts themselves. When an illicit digger just pulls artifacts out of the ground as quickly as possible and sells them piecemeal on the international market, irreplaceable information is destroyed forever. I might wish the archaeological community would stop trying to address this situation by pushing heavy-handed, turf-protecting laws that give honest independent diggers more incentive to keep their finds a secret, but we're definitely on the same page valueswise.

What I'm less sympathetic to is the related idea of "cultural property", and the push to repatriate artifacts from the countries that currently own them. And a perfect example is the picokerfuffle around Cleopatra's Needle in Central Park. It's undeniable that the monument is suffering in its current location, and that something should be done. It's somewhat more debatable that the proper response is threatening to stir up a movement to ship it back to Egypt. Of course, repatriation cheerleaders are dancing on their desks at the thought that somebody will "take the necessary steps to bring this precious artifact home and save it from ruin".


The Needle was set up almost 3500 years ago by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III to glorify the Egyptian city of Heliopolis. Two centuries later the pharaoh Ramesses the Great repurposed it to glorify his own military conquests. 1200 years after that it was moved by a Roman governor to the Greek city of Alexandria to decorate a temple built by the Greek pharaoh Cleopatra to glorify the Roman dictator Julius Caesar. It stayed there for 1900 years, in the subsequent custody of the Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Mamluks, and Ottomans until an Ottoman governor gave it as a gift to the United States*, where it's stood for over a century and a quarter...

Which means it's the rightful property of the modern Arab Republic of Egypt?

Objects change ownership and purpose, and that change is a part of the object's history, not a crime against the sanctity of its origin. Insistence on repatriation of significant objects like the Needle is an implicit assertion that we're observers of history rather than a part of it.

[* - To glorify the United States, for its proud history of keeping its nose out of other people's business. Ahh, the good old days.]

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