It’s another month and another History in the News Round-up. And yes, you read right–climate change is part of the picture, revealing artifacts frozen in glaciers and historical sites in drought-stricken lands. The stories in this installment all have a political aspect whether it’s a country petitioning another for a looted museum piece or a country’s proposals to destroy its own heritage over the objections of its citizens. We’ll start with Turkey’s troubles.
Fresh water for agriculture, manufacturing, power and human consumption is becoming a scarce resource in many parts of the world. Dam projects in Egypt, China and many other countries have sent archaeologists scrambling to investigate, preserve and, sometimes, even move threatened historical sites. This month, it’s Turkey’s turn. At least two major archaeological sites are slated for destruction by dam projects and have been making news. Recently Turkey’s environment minister stated that one site didn’t even exist.“There is no such place as Allianoi. It is just a hot spring that was recently restored called ‘Paşa Ilıcası,’” said Minister Veysel Eroğlu in response to a question about the controversial plans to bury the ancient city with sand before a dam is built.
His non-belief in the site’s existence has been challenged by archaeologists and Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry, which describes Allianoi as an ancient site that was noted for its health center. The controversy took on a new twist when Turkish pop star Tarkan Tevetoğlu criticized the dam project on his Facebook page saying the ancient city was the inspiration for a recently released song. Assistant Professor Ahmet Yaraş, head of the excavations, says “Allianoi is the most protected hot spring in the world. Some 11,000 coins, around 400 metal artifacts, 400 bone artifacts, 800 ceramic artifacts and around 400 glass artifacts have been found during excavations,” Only 20 percent of the city had been successfully excavated. (link to original story)
Local residents are protesting the construction of the Ilısu Dam in southeastern Turkey, which would flood the ancient city of Hasankeyf. Some 150 volunteers recently completed their third trip to the site in an effort to lend support for local people in the fight against the dam construction. Hasankeyf meets nine out of ten criteria to be listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Only one criterion is needed to be designated, but Turkey has not applied. If it did, it would be required to protect the site and stop the dam. So far the local populace and their supporters have held off the dam, but the future of Hasankeyf is still in doubt. (link to original story)
The British Museum was embroiled in a controversy with Iran for this past year over the Cyrus Cylinder, a sixth century B.C. clay object inscribed with an account in cuneiform of the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus the Great. The Babylonian artifact is sometimes described as the world’s first human rights charter. The Iranians began negotiations for a loan of the object in October 2009 when ties with Britain were particularly prickly and accused the Museum of turning a cultural event into a political one. They repeatedly threatened to cut ties with the British Museum if it did not loan the object. The Cyrus Cylinder arrived in Iran recently and will go on display at Iran’s National Museum for four months. (link to original story)
The British Museum has been in disputes with other countries over the years concerning several of their most cherished items. The most well-known is the on-going request by Greece to return the so-called Elgin Marbles, part of a frieze that adorned the Parthenon until 1801 when Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed it, along with a host of other treasures, when Athens was under enemy occupation. Elgin sold the frieze to the British Museum for £35,000. The Greeks want to reunite the stolen marbles with the 36 panels they retain and have built a lavish state-of-the-art museum to house them in connection with the restoration of the Acropolis. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has said that it is the museum’s duty to “preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol”. The British Museum is prohibited by its constitution from handing back its treasures. In the meantime, Greece continues to restore the Acropolis and its buildings–the most recent is the temple of Athena Nike–and leave a space in its crown jewel museum for the missing marbles. (link to original story)
The British Museum might be on the losing side of a fight to acquire one of its own country’s treasures. Actinned so it would have looked like silver, was found near the village of Crosby Garrett in Cumbria. The helmet (pictured above) used for parade, not combat, is modeled as the head of a young man with curly hair, wearing a Phrygian cap, topped with a griffin. However, the artifact is not covered by Britain’s Treasure Act (gold, silver and bronze items in hoards can be purchased by public museums for compensation to the finder and land owner.) The unique helmet, will likely be sold to a foreigner at auction. Tullie House in Carlisle would like to buy the helmet with the backing of the British Museum, but faces an uphill battle to match bidders at next month’s sale. One expert believes the helmet could go for £500,000 or more. (link to original story)
Update on this story: the helmet was sold to a private buyer for $3.6 million after a spirited 6-way bidding war. Tullie House is trying to get the new owner to allow it to be displayed at their museum for part of the year.
Speaking of artifacts, in 2003 the U.S. Army came under withering criticism during its invasion of Iraq for guarding the Oil Ministry in Baghdad and allowing a frenzy of looting at Iraqi museums and archaeological sites. Over 15,000 pieces were stolen from the Iraqi National Museum alone. The looting provided a bonanza of priceless antiquities for black market collectors abroad. But some are trickling back. So far, 5,000 items stolen since 2003 have been recovered. Iraqi officials displayed hundreds of recovered artifacts from a 4,400-year-old statue of a Sumerian king to a chrome-plated AK-47 bearing the image of Saddam Hussein in a recent exhibit designed to encourage countries and individuals to return looted goods. (link to original story)
That 4,400 year-old statue, mentioned above, is a 300-pound diorite statue of Sumerian King Entemena, originally excavated in the city of Ur. Thanks to John Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, it was recovered in a sting operation in the U.S. Dr. Russell was hired by the State Department as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s second-ranking official for cultural preservation after the flurry of international outrage over the looting in 2003. He worked with U.S. soldiers tracking stolen items, trained Iraqi curators, and lobbied successfully for the closure of a U.S. military base built on the archeological site of Babylon. In 2004, he returned to full-time teaching in Boston. When a customs official called his office in 2006 about a black market sale, he verified the item as the missing statue. Once recovered, King Entemena remained in the US, but housed at the Iraqi Embassy until it was safe enough to return to Iraq. (link to original story)
British Petroleum is in the news, not for the spill in the Gulf, but for a potential spill off the coast of Libya, with all its sensitive archaeological sites on land and underwater. BP admitted recently that it lobbied the British government to release the Lockerbie Bomber from prison to help it obtain rights to drill off the Libyan coast. It has now announced that it intends to sink a well, 125 miles deep, off the coast of Libya. An oil spill would threaten the ancient harbor town of Apollonia, in Cyrenaica–which dates from the 7th century BC and is five meters below sea level, as well as two other World Heritage Sites. Archaeologists fear that an oil spill in the region could destroy the area’s numerous ancient coastal and underwater sites. Thousands of historic shipwrecks will also be at risk from drilling activity. Work is due to begin before the end of the year. (link to original story)
Speaking of our addiction to fossil fuels, global climate change is also threatening our heritage. In just one example in Norway, specialized hunting sticks, bows and arrows and even a 3,400-year-old leather shoe have been among finds since 2006 from a melt in the Jotunheimen mountains, the home of the “Ice Giants” of Norse mythology. Exposed to air, wood rots in a few years. Feathers used on arrows, wool and leather crumble to dust in days unless stored in a freezer. Lars Piloe, a Danish scientist heading a team of “snow patch archaeologists” are concentrating on rescuing artifacts freed from the melting ice. “There are many ice patches. We can only cover a few…We know we are losing artifacts everywhere.” (link to original story)
On the plus side, an unprecedented drought in Great Britain has revealed in ghostly outlines, known as crop marks, several hundred unknown ancient sites. Crop marks show up when crops grow at different rates over buried structures and are best seen from the air. “It’s hard to remember a better year,” said Dave MacLeod, a senior investigator with English Heritage. “Crop marks are always at their best in dry weather.” Archaeologists say at least 200 new historic sites from Roman forts, to Neolithic settlements to WWII military remains, have been discovered. Hundreds of existing structures are revealing additional detail. I guess what we lose in Norway we win in Britain. (link to original story)