Institutions Featured

Repatriation of Artefacts: A Recipe for Disaster

Benin bronzes
Elizabeth Weiss
Written by Elizabeth Weiss

The Benin Bronzes are slated to return home to Nigeria. In their new home, they’ll likely encounter theft, neglect, or destruction — like so many other lost treasures of Africa.

The famous Benin Bronzes are to be repatriated from a London museum to Nigeria; this is being heralded as a victory over Western colonialists and is likely to lead to further calls for the repatriation of the world’s prehistoric and historic treasures. Regardless of whether one thinks these artifacts were stolen from Nigeria or were acquired legitimately, their future looks bleak. Let me explain.

In the summer of 1996, I had the pleasure of attending Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, along the Great Rift Valley – the region that is famous for many Leakey family discoveries, such as one of the earliest fossils of a Homo species, robust australopithecines, and early African Homo erectus. During my time in Kenya, we were taken to a multitude of field (also called site) museums. Although some sites, such as the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site of stone tools dating from 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, were well-maintained and preserved, other sites were bereft of the artifacts, displays, and protective barriers – they were basically empty plots of land! This was due – I was told – to the rampant theft of materials that were considered of any value, be it Oldowan artifacts dating to nearly a million years ago, or chicken wire protecting the artifacts. As an American who has traveled to museums throughout my life in Europe, the US, and Egypt (I lived in Cairo for a year prior to attending Koobi Fora Field School), this was shocking. Nevertheless, loss through theft, neglect, and destruction of archaeological materials is common in Africa and the Middle East.

Theft is rampant throughout Africa. Centuries-old gold artifacts that were loaned to the Thulamela site museum in Kruger National Park from Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria were stolen, highlighting the severe lack of security at small local museums.  The tea set used by President Kruger disappeared from the Kruger House museum in South Africa. Also in South Africa, 14 Jean Doyle sculptures were stolen from public parks. But, it is not just the smaller museums that are affected. In 1996, thieves raided the National Museum in Bloemfontein and in 1997 eight major thefts occurred in South African museums. In the Gauteng province between 2006 and 2011, over 2,660 items were reported lost or stolen from museums, including five bronze sculptures. Further evidence of the theft problem includes: since the 1970s, Kenya and Tanzania had hundreds of Vigangos (which are carved wooden grave markers) stolen from sacred sites; the 1991 ransacking of Somalia’s capital museum; most of Mali’s archaeological sites – including graves built into caves – have been looted, and in 2011 the National Museum of the Ivory Coast was raided of gold jewelry, masks, and statues, with 80 objects being stolen.

Nigeria, where the Benin bronzes are headed, is one of the worst locations for artifact security. In Nigeria, looting of sites that contain Nok terracotta heads dating between BC 500 and AD 200 has been occurring for decades. Hundreds of the most valuable items have been stolen from museums – both small and large. In 1987, nine objects were stolen from the Jos Museum, which was founded in 1952 by British archaeologist Bernard Fagg, and it was considered the best museum for prehistoric Nigerian culture prior to the 1970s. In that same year, 1987, 429 items were stolen from 33 museums nationwide. The problem continued in the 1990s. In 1994, after drugging the watchman, thieves smashed 11 display cases to get to 12th and 13th Century brass and terracotta heads at the National Museum in Ile-Ife; this was the third burglary of the year at this very museum. At the Owe Museum in 1992, robbers killed a night watchman. And, in 1999, the museums of Nigeria experienced a long string of thefts.

Theft in the Middle East and North Africa is nearly as bad as in sub-Saharan Africa; often, the proceeds of the theft go to fund terrorism. Since the 1989 departure of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, museums throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa were ransacked and archaeological sites were looted and destroyed; these thefts helped to fund a variety of terrorist acts during these years of civil strife throughout the region. In Iraq, for instance, the National Museum of Antiquity saw the theft of 13,000 objects during the Gulf War.

Of course, theft has occurred in museums outside of Africa and the Middle East; for instance, in a brazen inside job, an Australian museum employee stole over 2,000 artifacts between 1997 and 2002. Yet, thefts in Western Institutes are rare; usually the thief or thieves are caught, prosecuted, and materials are recovered.  This is not the case in Africa.

Beyond theft, problems of neglect also arise. In Tanzania, the field museum of Isimila has experienced severe soil erosion. And, in Ethiopia, artefacts in the hands of the Orthodox Church hadn’t been maintained, allowing for termite and other insect activity to destroy delicate materials. In Nigeria, the ancient Benin and Kano city walls have been illegally excavated for construction works, which exposes the walls to erosion. And, most distressing, a section of the moats in both walls has been turned into a garbage dump, by people living around this historic site. In Tanzania, after Mary Leakey returned to Kenya in 1984, the Olduvai Gorge site – home to the million-year-old stone tools named after the location – has deteriorated due to vandalism, looting, and neglect. The famous Laetoli footprints that date to 3.6 million years ago are eroding away and never got the museum that was intended to be built around this famous site. Neglect, of course, is not unique to Africa and the Middle East — who can forget the fire in the Brazilian museum that led to the destruction of South America’s oldest skeleton Lucia — but as with theft, it is far more common there.

The final issue in Africa and the Middle East revolves around intentional artefact destruction, especially by religious zealots. In this region of the world, it seems that some religious extremists – be they Islamic or Christian – cannot appreciate the beauty of understanding the past. For instance, archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria were destroyed by Muslims for propaganda purposes. In Mali, Timbuktu and Gao sites and materials experienced sustained demolition by religious converts; for instance, they destroyed over 2,000 13th century handwritten manuscripts. The most infamous example of all, of course, was the destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Thought to date from the 6th century, these architectural masterpieces were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

The causes for the lack of preservation – whether theft, neglect, or destruction – seem to be in part explained by poverty, societal unrest, and ignorance. Yet, even if one of these ills is resolved, it is unlikely that the African and Middle Eastern museums will be able to curate and preserve the past. Harvard Historian James Cuno has argued for treating artefacts as scientific facts or data rather than belonging to a culture. Thus, he suggests that these materials serve humankind, rather than a specific group. Cuno puts forth that to treat these materials as cultural properties invites sectarian violence.

For the reasons mentioned above, and adhering to the concept of museum collections’ universality, precious archaeological materials should be held in responsible Western institutions rather than be repatriated to Third World countries – where there’s greater likelihood that they’ll be lost forever.



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About the author

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).