Home World Knowledge Provenance Research as History of Knowledge: Archaeological Finds from the Syrian-Turkish Border at the British Museum

Provenance Research as History of Knowledge: Archaeological Finds from the Syrian-Turkish Border at the British Museum

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The British Museum is one of the most popular museums in the world. The free permanent exhibition provides information about two million years of human history from a cross-cultural perspective. Since its founding in 1753, the museum has had a clearly universal ambition: It has aimed to explore and exhibit the history of the world through material legacies. Neil MacGregor, who was the director of the museum from 2002 to 2015, exemplified this intention in his groundbreaking book and radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010). With such a focus on providing an all-encompassing cultural history, the museum has tended to leave the question of how the knowledge it presents once emerged more in the background. Yet, this question is of interest to provenance researchers, who concentrate on the “biographies” of objects after they have been discovered and, thus, reveal how the knowledge entangled with these artifacts came into being. Thereby, archaeological provenance research deals with the momentum of the emergence of new data and the distribution of finds. In doing so, it also focuses on the extent to which the creation of knowledge is dependent on the broader political and cultural context of its production but also on the specific beliefs and actions of various individuals in these social frameworks. Furthermore, the role of coincidence in the integration of finds into collections as repositories of object-based science becomes apparent.

With its rich collection, the British Museum is an ideal starting point for showing this historical embedding of archaeological research and underlining the complexity of social processes in the formation and circulation of knowledge. I will do so by focusing on some of the British Museum’s exhibits that were acquired at the time of the later Ottoman Empire along the present-day Syrian-Turkish border. In particular, I will spotlight objects deriving from Deve Hüyük, Tell Halaf, and Carchemish to demonstrate how significantly the social frameworks for transferring archaeological objects from this specific region to foreign museums changed in just one decade. This also fundamentally altered the distribution of finds, which has affected their accessibility for researchers as well as the general public up to today.

Strict antiquity laws applied in the later Ottoman Empire. They generally prohibited the export of antiquities but could not be fully enforced by the authorities. This is illustrated by the history of a collection from Deve Hüyük, a site now located north of the Syrian-Turkish border. In 1913, not long after a section of the Baghdad Railway had been opened in the area, British archaeologist Thomas Edward Lawrence, who was working in nearby Carchemish, was informed by an unnamed Circassian about recent illicit digging in Deve Hüyük. Lawrence immediately sent a colleague over. Martha Koch, a German active in the antiquities trade and in contact with the Berlin museums, had also already arrived there. As she did not, apparently, have any interest in purchasing bronze spears and axes from the Hittite tombs, they were partially destroyed and carelessly left behind. The excavation leader in Carchemish, Leonard Woolley, finally succeeded in arranging for the recovered objects to be transported directly to Carchemish. The purchase took place on the excavation site, behind the back of the Turkish commissioner Fuad Bey, as Woolley explained decades later:

After sunset there would arrive a little train of men with loaded donkeys, we would send Fuad Bey to bed and then in our sitting-room the antiquities would be unpacked and carefully arranged by the finders into the respected tomb-groups … and then I would fix the price, which no one was allowed to dispute, and the objects would be stowed away out of sight. This went on for weeks, and at the end we had a large collection of great scientific value.

British Museum, Permanent Exhibition, Objects from Deve Hüyük, 2023.

Woolley was aware of the Ottoman law but generally saw the transfer of antiquities as a competition or – as he described it: “My smuggling became a recognized game.” Lawrence had already commented on the whereabouts of comparable objects before, which made his attitude towards the Turks at the time evident:

[W]e have in hand ten packing-cases of Hittite tomb-pottery … all brought from villages near at hand, and all going to the British Museum and the Ashmolean. None of it comes from the digs of course, and add insult to injury, we have presented all our duplicates and inferior pieces to the Turkish government.

The rule to divide acquisitions between the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum also became decisive for the Deve Hüyük collection. Anything acquired within a 10-mile radius of the excavation site fell to the British Museum, which was responsible for the excavation. Purchases from more distant sites were to go to the Ashmolean, according to Lawrence’s wishes. Lawrence reflected on the division in a letter to the Assistant Keeper of the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean:

[Y]ou have divided Deve Hüyük: serpent, but I am glad, because it maintains the ten mile limit. Behold virtue. We hear of native digging close by, and full of zeal for outraged science we tell our Commissaire, and the police put on the cork thereof. We hear of native digging more than ten miles away… and full of zeal for Oxford’s nakedness, we send over sundry Arabs upon horses to fill their saddle bags. Consider your plunder, and the B. M.’s … I hope you rook Berlin.

This last remark seems to refer to the artifacts from Deve Hüyük that reached Berlin. Already, Lawrence had announced to the keeper of the Ashmolean, David George Hogarth, that Koch would surely contact him. In October 1913, the Near Eastern Department of the Royal Museums in Berlin succeeded in purchasing over a hundred objects from Deve Hüyük for 600 marks from Hogarth. The museum’s register notes that objects were acquired from illicit excavations and were given cheaply to the department.

British Museum, Permanent Exhibition, Exhibits from Tell Half, 2023.

The British Museum’s collection from Tell Halaf shows that the political balance had shifted decisively with the beginning of the Great War. There was no longer any talk of an agreement between British and German museums neglecting Ottoman law. The excavation in Tell Halaf was started in 1911 by the German Max von Oppenheim. While von Oppenheim sought permission for the transfer of archaeological artifacts, the Ottoman authorities wanted to keep them in the country, either at the excavation site itself, in the region, or in the Imperial Museum in Constantinople. Von Oppenheim ultimately decided to transfer his purchases and some of the Tell Halaf finds to Berlin, bypassing the authorities. This export involved the German consulate, as well as a leading engineer of the Baghdad Railway’s construction company, as recently traced in detail. However, one of Oppenheim’s shiploads did not reach the German Reich but was confiscated by British forces at the beginning of the war. The goods were retained as booty. In 1920, these pieces were acquired from the prize court by the British Museum. Today, a part of this collection is exhibited in the museum’s gallery dedicated to the Ancient Levant.

After the war, Syria was under French occupation, so the political conditions concerning the movement of antiquities changed again: The concrete course of the border was defined in the Franco-Turkish Agreement in Ankara after the Turkish War of Liberation in 1921 and was confirmed in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The route of the Baghdad Railway became the national border between Turkey and Syria. Thus, Carchemish, where the British had briefly resumed their excavation, was on Turkish territory. Further excavations turned out to be unthinkable. Nevertheless, the Carchemish Exploration Fund was maintained for new purchases in the area. In 1924, archaeological remains of the excavation site were transferred to the new national capital of Ankara, where they are still on display in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. The British consul William Hough in Aleppo reported to Woolley that the excavation site was not being properly preserved, as Woolley wrote to the director of the British Museum:

[T]he Turkish guards are deliberately smashing up the remaining pieces with iron bars and lumps of rock, breaking of heads, etc., and using the slabs for rifle practice.

British Museum, Permanent Exhibition, Samsat Stele, 2012.

The extent to which these accounts are accurate is uncertain. However, they seem to have given Woolley additional motivation to secure exhibits for the British Museum. Accordingly, he was committed to moving the pieces out of the country and informed Consul Hough in detail about his plans:

I have seen the Haut Commissaire about the project of removing stones from the Jerablus ruins, and he quite approves and has given his formal consent. The French will of course be officially ignorant of the smuggling of the objects out of Turkey, which is exclusively my affair; but when they are once on the Syrian side of the frontier they will permit of their transport.

Woolley’s acquisition policy at the time was also discussed in the case of the so-called Samsat Stele. Woolley acquired the piece in 1927 through the Carchemish Exploration Fund, which became the subject of a reparation claim by Turkey.

The cases of Deve Hüyük, Tell Halaf, and Carchemish underline that a better understanding of the genesis of collections makes it possible to explain the distribution of finds and to discern gaps in our knowledge about them. In addition, by analyzing the historical processes of knowledge production, provenance researchers can help frame the achievements of the relevant actors as representatives of their institutions and their disciplines. In view of the Turkish reparation claim for the Samsat Stele, it becomes also apparent how the accessibility of finds as one of the prerequisites of archaeological research cannot be described as an exclusively scholarly affair but as entangled with politics even in the present day.

Anna Georgiev is a provenance researcher at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie in Mainz, Germany. This essay is based on research conducted for the project “Glass from the Tracks: Archaeology of the Baghdad Railway in a Colonial Context,” funded by the German Lost Art Foundation. The author wishes to thank the British Museum’s curator James Fraser for his advice.

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