Archaeology Odyssey 1:2, Spring 1998

Editors’ Page: Repatriating Antiquities?

Gnawing on the bone of contention

By Hershel Shanks

Archaeology Odyssey

Can an issue be characterized as inscrutable? Or is the term applicable only to people? I ask the question because “inscrutable” seems to apply to an issue as persuasively argued on both sides (see “Leave the Marbles Where They Are!” and “Bring the Marbles Home!”) as whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. I have searched and searched, read and reread, looking for some principle that would lead me to one conclusion or the other. But I cannot find it.

The issue of repatriation, as it is known, arises with respect to an enormous amount of cultural property. (The famous head of Nefertiti, for example, now in Berlin, was clandestinely smuggled out of Egypt by German excavators in violation of a specific agreement relating to the distribution of finds.)

I suspect that the positions on both sides are largely emotional rather than rational. We know where we want to come out with regard to any particular object and then seek to support our conclusion with reasons. Lawyers call this a result-oriented decision.

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