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  • Introduction
  • Ann E. Killebrew and Sandra A. Scham

The heartrending conflicts and economic privation we see in Eastern Mediterranean countries today has made archaeologists keenly aware that sites and material culture that have miraculously survived millennia are all too vulnerable to twenty-first century looters, inept governments, and self-appointed obliterators of idolatry. It has also caused museums in more fortunate (and peaceful) nations to feel increasingly less comfortable with the idea of returning artifacts to their countries of origin even as requests by those nations for repatriation are intensifying. The question of who owns the material evidence of the past has always been a complicated one for archaeologists and museums. Now it has become a contentious argument between nations of origin and nations of residence involving a deep dive into archives by museum professionals and a complex legal examination of the trail of artifacts from their original homes by lawyers.

In reality, during the more than two centuries of archaeology in the region, artifacts have variously been considered the property of, respectively, archaeologists, their sponsors, the country where they were found, the communities that live near them, the world, the living cultures whose past is represented by them, museums which house the artifacts, and even the collectors who purchase them—legally or illegally. In the course of the final decades of the twentieth century and first years of the twenty-first century, the acceptance of international treaties and conventions by governments and professional organizations have been key in facilitating the return of objects to their regions of origin (see e.g., La Follette 2016; Gerstenblith 2013; Roehrenbeck 2010). Italy (Green, this issue) and Turkey in particular have successfully campaigned for the return of some of its most prized treasures, including the Trojan Gold (Rose, this issue), the infamous Lydian Treasure (Fig. 1; Letsch 2012) and the top half of the “Weary Herakles” statue to the Antalya Museum (Fig. 2; Gates, this issue; Chechi, Contel, and Renold 2011). In light of the current flooding of the international antiquities market with archaeological heritage looted from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere, new cultural agreements between governments are resulting in the repatriation of thousands of objects in record numbers to their countries of origin (see Lehr, this issue). These include the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “Operation Mummy’s Curse” that over [End Page 1] the last six years has resulted in the repatriation of thousands of archaeological artifacts (Figs. 3 and 4;

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Fig 1.

Silver oenochoe and gold earrings from the Lydian/Karun Treasure, on display in the Uşak Museum, Turkey.

(Photo by F. Tronchin [].)

While more artifacts are being repatriated, new questions are being raised regarding the ability of war-ravaged regions to conserve, protect, and exhibit archaeological treasures. The aforementioned political turmoil has led to re-evaluations of repatriation requests, especially the disposition of artifacts obtained prior to the creation of international conventions. Several recent publications advocate for the retention of legacy collections and against repatriation of objects from the Eastern Mediterranean region on display in some of the world’s most famous Western museums. Among the most controversial of these publications are Keeping Their Marbles:

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Fig 2.

Complete statue of the “Weary Herakles” from Perge on display in the Antalya Museum, Turkey.

(Photo by I. Mehling. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons [].)

How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums … and Why They Should Stay There (Jenkins 2016). Two additional volumes, Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate Over Antiquities (Cuno 2009) and Museums Matter: In Praise of the Encyclopedic Museum (Cuno 2011) also raise questions regarding curatorship of the world’s heritage and repatriation efforts. These publications have revived the debate over the role of museums, ownership of archaeological heritage and repatriation concerns, but have also provoked strong criticism (see e.g., Hanink 2016). Ironically, several countries who aggressively pursue repatriation are being challenged for refusing to...


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