Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Problem of Cultural Patrimony

From Agent Presse France 
via Al-Arabiya online here 
On February 18, 2015, news services (Reuters here) reported that a group of amateur undersea divers from Israel found 2000 gold coins from about 1000 CE, off the coast of the ancient city of Caesarea which is now in the modern state called Israel.  The coins were struck during  the Fatimid Caliphate.  Speculation by archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority included the suggestion that the coins were taxes collected for the ruling center of the time at Cairo in Egypt.  An alternate theory is that the coins came from a private merchant ship moving from port to port.  No article cited the problem of patrimony.
Fatimid dinars feature the names of the caliphs they were minted under, as well as the date and location where they were minted. "They're first-class historical documents," explains Robert Kool, curator of the IAA's Coin Department.  […] A cursory study reveals that the earliest coin from the hoard was minted in Palermo, Sicily, while the majority came from official Fatimid mints in Egypt and other parts of North Africa and date to the reigns of Caliphs al-Hakim (A.D. 996-1021) and his son al-Zahir (A.D. 1021-1036).  -- National Geographic News online here.
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) has a broad mandate.  In the past fifteen years, it has arranged with national governments around the world – chief among them, the United States of America – for the passage of laws requiring that “cultural patrimony” be returned to the country of origin.  The Boston Museum of Fine Art and the Getty Museum are among the most newsworthy victims. Several problems haunt the laws. The problem of patrimony is multidimensional. The claims of UNESCO and their allies suffer from internal contradictions because they have no objective basis in epistemology: no standard of value exists for identifying right from wrong.

First, modern nations did not exist in ancient times.  The Boston Museum returned to Turkey a statue called “The Weary Herakles” from 200 BCE. But there was no “Turkey” in 200 BCE.   They called it “Helliades” – and you need to understand what that means.

In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Greeks called themselves “Achaeans.”  About 400 years later, during the Hellenistic Era, they called themselves “Hellenes.”  Hellas is the modern Greek name for Greece.  But grammatically Helliades is much wider than Hellinike. 

Hellenike would be any Greek city with ties to the old homeland.  Tarentum in Italy was Taras; Naples (Napoli) was Neopolis.  Marseilles in France was Marsalla.  Benghazi in Libya was Berenike.  They were Greek cities.  Greeks built them; Greeks inhabited them.  Sicilians are not Italians.  Italy is a peninsula. Sicily is an island. They are different places.  The people of eastern Sicily are Greeks. In the west, they are Carthaginian.

However, after Alexander the Great, many cities of diverse ethnicities came into the Greek sphere. The orator Demosthenes said, “The name ‘Hellene’ no long applies to a race, but to a state of mind.”
 
Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (here)
lobbies for the rights of private citizens
On that basis, should not every coin from Pakistan to Spain, from Egypt to England go back to Athens? In truth, as the laws are applied, coins from Greek cities of Sicily do not go back to the government museums of Greece: they go to the government museums of Italy. 

Consider the Roman Empire.  In addition to the central mint, coins were struck in what are today Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, France, and England.   Moreover, Roman legions came from all across the empire, but could be stationed anywhere.  The legion name (cognomen) could reflect where they were drawn from or where they won a battle.  We have epigraphic evidence to show that Legio IX Hispanica served in England from 65 to 120 CE. Legio III Cyrenica (modern Libya) served in what are today Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Legio III Italica was stationed in what is Regensburg for 200 years, from 165 CE.  Galba reorganized former marines into Legio I Adiutrix (“Rescuer”) in 68 AD, and stationed them in what is today Mainz.  However, for most of the second century (106 to 198) their base was in a town later known for many years as Szőny in Hungary, but which is now called Komárom on the border with the Slovak Republic.  So, when a hoard of coins found in England contains the product of a mint from Croatia to pay Roman troops from Spain, whose patrimony is it?

Second, the assumption of UNESCO and the co-operating national governments is that the national public museums have a moral right to first claim.  Private collectors are rebuked as looters of protected sites. 

Old World traditions acknowledge the ruler as the owner of all property. The king could grant a title and land to go with it because all of his realm was his to dispose of as he saw fit.  In America today, that continues as eminent domain: the state can take what it needs.  So, when a farmer in Egypt or England finds an ancient coin on his land, it is not his at all: it belongs to the national government.  (England relaxed its “treasure trove” laws; but even that granting of latitude was from the rulers down to their subjects.) The governments of Turkey, Greece, Italy claim that these artifacts were "looted" from "historic sites" but it is easy to make any place historic if other people ever lived there before you did.  Historicity is just an excuse.  In their minds, private property does not exist.
“I’ve been reading only about the Italians and Greeks 
and how they’ve succeeded,’’ said [former Turkish 
cultural official Engin] Ozgen.  “This will show the world 
that the Turks are not ignorant anymore, that they will fight 
for their past and their heritage.’’ This statues is attributed 
as a Roman copy of a lost Greek work.  
It comes from the city of Antalya in modern Turkey.
The town was founded by Attalus II of Pergamon in 180 BCE. 
 Seljuk Turks entered the area about 1500 years later. 
The Boston Museum of Fine Art returned this 
statue of "The Weary Herakles" to the city of Antalya. 
Read here.
Third, why is a museum in Rome more entitled to these artifacts than I am?  It is my patrimony as well.  And, like most Americans, I have a lot of patrimony.  In addition to the Sicilians (Greeks), my mother’s side of the family was loosely identified as “Hungarian.” However, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Croatian.  The family just moved up the river inside of a large, multi-ethnic empire in central Europe.  My maternal grandfather’s immigration records identify him as German-Hungarian.  Are not the artifacts of the legions also my cultural inheritance?

Fourth and more to the point, I cite Demosthenes above: “Hellene” is a state of mind.  UNESCO and the national governments couch their claims in the language of race, ethnicity, and genetics.  The fact of the matter is that we are creatures of intellect living in a planetary society.  Seiji Ozawa (Japanese; born in China) and Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese; born in Paris) have as much right to buy Beethoven’s belt buckle as do any of the current inhabitants of Bonn.  

Fifth, national borders are fluid.  Economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and his brother, mathematician Richard von Mises (1883-1953), were born in a town called Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Treaty of Versailles put the town in the Ukraine, where today it is called L’viv.  According to the UNESCO theory of culture, the people there lost their patrimonic right to enjoy the artifacts of one milieu, but were given the consolation prize of another matrix of icons and exemplars. 

Coin of Sinope in modern Turkey, struck about 375 BCE 

when Diogenes the Cynic was mint master.  

Accused of debasing the coinage, he moved to Athens 
and became a philosopher. 
Under the eagle's wing DIO below the dolphin, SINO. 
The test cut shows that the coin was suspected 
of being false.
The ANA measured the specific gravity and found it 
to be only 
90% pure silver, acceptable to us, 

but debased to the ancients.

Ultimately, the ideological nationalization of museums contradicts the fundamental intention of a museum.  Every leading institution seeks to own and display as broad a collection as possible. That motivation derives from the liberal Enlightenment theory of humanity.  Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I benefited from time spent at the Cleveland Museum of Art. It seemed to me then – and is still supportable today – that the entirety of human culture was housed there. 

A hundred yards away, the Natural Science Museum displayed meteorites and dinosaur fossils.  Those, too, are arguably someone else’s patrimony. One of the displays about Humans was a panel explaining Culture. I do not know if the Jivaro would be culturally enhanced by the return of their shrunken heads, or if the Inuit need another old canoe; but I certainly am better for having studied them without trekking to Peru and Alaska.


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