Ancient artefacts and where to house them
By Georgia Lucy-Goldsmith
On 8 November it was widely reported in British papers that a group of Bollywood stars and business men had instructed lawyers to sue the Queen for possession of the Koh-I-Noor. The return of this object would be a symbolic act of a nation removing ties to its former imperial self. It could also be a precedent of the destruction of nearly every museum worldwide.
As I sit and write this article, my eyes drift to a piece of grey Iron Age temper ware on my mantelpiece: the spoils of a recent dig. At the time, the most important thing to me was ‘I found it, I did the work, and it’s mine’. My taking of this artefact insured that no other archaeologist will ever be able to recreate the pot it was once part of. The shard is forever out of context, out of place. So what is the difference between me, an excited student discovering her first find, and an Empire proudly showing its new discoveries to the world? The history of artefact ownership is as murky as any countries past.
The British Museum is a cornucopia of discoveries. For anyone to walk round it, you may feel a sense of wonder coupled with shame. The huge statues of Ramesses IV and Amenhotep III can make one feel privileged and honoured to view them. But then there are the mummies; the bodies of ancestors from thousands of years ago encased in a glass tomb. Imagine if that was your parent or child. Displayed forever. Ripped from their grave, people with the belief that this removal results in their soul being destroyed.
The Elgin marbles pose another dilemma. Lord Elgin transported the marbles from the Parthenon to the British Museum in 1816. At the time Lord Byron referred to this incident as ‘Greece being defaced by British hands’. However, the removal of the marbles has ensured their care and safety from the destruction and erosion that befell the marble left behind. Britain and Athens both have a portion of the collection enabling thousands of people to enjoy the artefacts in a controlled environment. It has been proven that if it were not for Lord Elgin, the marbles would have fallen into disrepair.
In 1526, Babur, Mughal Emperor I, laid claim to a diamond after invading the Punjab region of India. The diamond passed from hand to hand after repeated battles between factions of both Persian and Indian dynasties, gaining itself a title of the cursed diamond. It was said the diamond could never be owned or worn by a man, as the result was bloodshed and war. In 1851, it was presented to Queen Victoria as the Koh-I-Noor, or the Mountain of Light, as a gift from Punjab. Now, I use the term gift loosely here. In 1849, Britain invaded Punjab. The Diamond was affectively given in part of a surrender pact and was presented by a boy of 13. The boy’s relatives were assassinated, his mother imprisoned and he was forced to convert to Christianity – he was the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire.
After the 1947 relinquish of British rule in India, the country requested the return of the diamond. The issue is that it doesn’t necessarily belong to India. Pakistan has a stronger claim on the diamond and since 1947, 2 months after Indian independence, the two countries have had: religious tension, mass transfer of refugees, four wars and, in this year alone, 46 incidences of civilian/soldier death due to border differences. The last occurred 10 days ago and resulted in the death of two Indian soldiers. If the British return this diamond to the wrong country, they are affectively offering an item to be warred over.
The next issue is that it could set the precedent of returning all artefacts in every museum worldwide. The sheer cost would be staggering. The fights over who had what first, historical documents brandished in lawyers faces, country after country clawing each other over every gem, pot or brick. All whilst these valuable portals of our past are transported, destroyed, documented and branded. The sheer loss of material would be devastating. You can almost imagine curators sat greedily on their piles of treasures whilst others are staring at their barren walls.
So what is right? What is the correct course of action? It is my belief that at the advancement of technology we are becoming a global society. Our history is not of one nation – it is of all nations. It is our job to protect, learn and honour our past. The current war on terror has seen the destruction of ancient monuments with no sign of this stopping. The artefacts that we have in Britain, in Europe, in the World ought to be treasured and honoured for all to see.
The argument of where a certain artefact should be viewed is subjective to that particular object’s history, but as a rule, providing there is courtesy between museums and a sharing of collections, the world’s people should have an equal opportunity to view the world’s legacies.