Returning cultural artefacts

This week has seen some extraordinary events here in Tripoli, at the centre of which are three extraordinary people: Ken Oliver, Jeanne Hugo and Liz Barnett. In the last few years, these three have come to possess artefacts from Libya’s Roman past of great historical value. The appropriate time having arrived, all three have taken the decision – some would say it is a momentous one – to return these objects to their original location in Libya. Various news media have picked up on this including the BBC, and no doubt others have followed suit. Some years of negotiation and logistical planning have led up to this week’s handover of the artefacts to the Libyan authorities in Tripoli, supported by numerous people and organizations both in the UK and in Libya. The handover itself was marked last week by a ceremony in the Museum of Libya presided over by Mr. Saleh A. Abdalah, the Chairman of the Department of Antiquities. This was followed by an exhibition of the artefacts in the Museum’s soaring atrium, and a day-long archaeological workshop to which I and others from KCL contributed.

The artefacts include the ‘Belgammel Ram’, which was returned by Ken. It is a bronze alloy battering ram from the prow of an ancient warship, found on the seabed near the mouth of the Wadi Belgammel (‘River of Lice’) in the 1960s. The ram is a magnificent, beautiful piece of metalwork engineering: one can readily see how it must have captured the imagination when it was discovered. Extensive scientific analysis was carried out on it in the UK prior to its return to Tripoli, and the ceremony included the presentation of reports on this work to Mr. Abdalah by Paul Bennett of the Society for Libyan Studies.

The other artefacts, mainly domestic objects, are being returned by Liz and Jeanne, whose family have owned them since the 1950s when their father was a headmaster at a British army base in Libya. They include an assemblage of coins, mainly from the Christian period, but with at least five Islamic examples, some fragments of Roman glass including a blown flask with a separately attached neck and handle, terracotta figurines including two wrestlers, a gaming counter, miscellaneous beads, several small oil lamps, a larger lamp in the shape of a follower of Bacchus, and several chunks of floor plaster with mosaics attached. All of these will now go the the museum at Leptis Magna, the site from whence they originally came.

The Museum of Tripoli itself is well worth a visit – we had a chance for a good look round in the hours before the ceremony – housed in a palatial building of the early twentieth century. It comprises two floors beneath three great polychrome domes, blue and white glass on the inside, blinding gold on the outside. Outside on the street, posters proclaimed the return of the artefacts. The collection is a varied cross-section of Libyan society and history, starting logically enough with a prehistoric room, proceeding chronologically across two floors to rooms devoted to contemporary Libya, and also to its future. Whole rooms on the ground floor given to Leptis Magna and Sabratha, with statuary the main focus. Interesting to be reminded of the contrast between the solid soldier forms, and the more feminine draped figures… the old Mars and Venus thing, I guess. Much use is made of The Digital in this museum. Interactive 3D displays, some of them based on projecting lasers into vapour, monophonic chambers where you can stand under a sort of plastic umbrella and be the sole audience of a commentary (in Arabic) of the display in front of you, and a CAVE-live room with a floor on to which is projected an image of water, which moves as you walk across it. Very nice.

The ceremony with which the artefacts were received this week, and the many conversations we have had about them, has given us a chance to reflect on the whole vexed issue of the return of cultural and archaeological objects to their ‘source countries’. Outside Libya, objects are detached from their human and cultural contexts. There must be many people out there – Libyans and non-Libyans – who have come to own such artefacts over the years. Hopefully this week’s events will raise wider awareness that there is both a practical model and a powerful intellectual argument for their return to Libya, and their public display there.

Statue at Sabratha

Author: Stuart Dunn

I do various things, but mainly I am Professor of Spatial Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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