James Delingpole

Give thanks for the imperialist ‘tomb raiders’

Without them, many of the artefacts now demanded back from museums simply wouldn’t have survived

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

If ever you find yourself in Berlin, there are three places you absolutely must visit. The first two are museums: the Neues Museum, to see the well-worth-the-detour head of Nefertiti; and the Pergamon Museum, so you can offer up a prayer of gratitude for the arrogance of all those 19th-century imperialist looters who understood that the treasures of classical antiquity are far too precious to be wasted on the barbarous cultures which, by geographical accident, have inherited them since.

Yes, perhaps I’m overstating it. ‘Barbarous’ certainly isn’t a term you’d apply, say, to Khaled Assad, the heroic and scholarly Syrian archaeologist who preferred to die rather than betray to his Isis killers the secrets of Palmyra; nor to the refugee from Aleppo described in the Guardian last week being moved almost to tears by the 17th–century wood-panelled interior at the Pergamon which reminded him so much of his childhood.

But what you can’t deny is that if half those ill-gotten treasures now on display at places like the Louvre, the Pergamon and the British Museum were still in situ, they wouldn’t exist at all.

Take the Pergamon Altar, transplanted in the late 19th century from Turkey to Berlin. You gaze up at it now and wonder: did the locals not mind when the Germans came along and helped themselves to such vast chunks of their architectural heritage?

And the answer is that they didn’t give a toss. When Carl Humann, a German engineer, first spotted it in the 1860s, the altar of the temple — built in the 2nd century BC for the Greek King Eumenes II — was being used by the local Turks as a quarry, with the stones pillaged for new buildings and the marble burned for lime.

The same was true, of course, for the Parthenon marbles removed from the Acropolis under the direction of Lord Elgin. As well as ‘continually defacing the heads’ on the sculptures, the Turks — who’d been using the place as a citadel — had sometimes pounded them down for use as mortar.

It’s all very well arguing that the Ottoman bey should never have granted the firman permitting their removal. But the facts are that he did, that the arrangement was perfectly legal and that the outcome for the marbles was about as good as could be hoped for because there they are, centuries on, safe in the British Museum rather than a pile of rubble and dust in Athens.

Why don’t they get this, those impeccably liberal types who argue for the restitution of ‘stolen’ artefacts to their countries of origin? Well, probably they do but like all lefties they’re wired always to prioritise emotion over empiricism, to do the wrong thing because it feels right. In the case of the marbles, it is, as Stephen Fry once put it in a debate, about ‘atonement’ — a way, perhaps, of apologising not just to the Greeks but to the whole world for the political incorrectness of the imperial era.

There are lots of sensible arguments against this wooliness, all of them outlined in Tiffany Jenkins’s brilliant and fascinating book Keeping Their Marbles. Is there really that strong a moral case — as Jesus College, Cambridge, bowing to the pressure of its wanky undergraduates, has just agreed to do with its cockerel — for sending back the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria? In terms of the fact that they were seized as war booty during the 1897 British military expedition, maybe. But probably not in the sense that Nigeria has a unique cultural claim on them. Modern Nigerians have no more in common with the bloodstained, human-sacrificial kingdom of Benin than modern Greeks do — sorry, Taki — with the Athens of Pericles.

This doesn’t stop the grievance-mongers trying it on, of course. Worst offender, at the moment, is Erdoğan’s Turkey — forever cry-bullying about its plundered heritage. In the case of non-Islamic objects, Jenkins suggests, this has more to do with power politics than cultural need: every time some gullible institution caves in and restores your lost treasure, you look like a strong man who has the puny West in your thrall.

With museums, as in so many other areas of our spineless, guilt-ridden, perma–apologetic western culture, we’re embarrassingly eager to surrender the pass. The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, had an unrivalled collection of Peruvian textiles, over 2,000 years old, called the Paracas Collection. At least it did until its curators decided to feature it in a 2009 exhibition subtitled ‘A Stolen World’, with a hand-wringing catalogue about the ‘problematical’ nature of ‘tomb-raiding’. The Peruvian government, which until then had made no claim on the collection, demanded its repatriation. Naturally, the Swedes obliged.

Apparently this nonsense started in the late 1980s and has been getting worse ever since. According to a plausible theory advanced by sociologist John Torpey, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, utopians have given up scheming about how best to change the future and have instead sought to create a better world by trying to remake our relationship with the past.

One day, perhaps, we’ll grow out of this fad but by then the damage may have been done. In a 2012 poll conducted by Museums Journal, 73 per cent of respondents said the ‘Parthenon Marbles’ should be returned. Repatriation is very much in vogue.

But it shouldn’t be, for lots of reasons. The most obvious one comprises one word: Palmyra. And if you need a few more: Bamiyan, Baghdad and — I fear — Leptis Magna.

The third thing you should see in Berlin by the way — purely for the horror of it — is the vast collection of modernist buildings in which Germany’s and by extension Europe’s new governing class house themselves. All the ambition and arrogance of their 19th-century forebears; none of their insight or wisdom.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • bufo75

    “The Parthenon without the Marbles is like a smile with a missing tooth”
    Neil (Lord) Kinnock !

    • Atlas

      Neil Kinnock is a communist Idiot, his views are not relevant.

      • Landphil

        Not so communist when he and Glenys were hoovering up large salaries and expenses from the EU. By the way – how did Stephen Kinnock ever get into politics?

    • Tom M

      Then I suggest we move the Parthenon.

      • bufo75

        It’s already here – renamed Birmingham Town Hall !

  • bufo75

    ” the time has come for these Marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica , to their rightful place, where they form a structural and functional part of a unique entity”.
    Melina Mercouri – then Greek Minister of Culture (and famous actress !)

    • Atlas

      Anyone who has been to Athens in the last 20 years knows full well that modern Greece is not a suitable guardian for the artefacts that were created by the earlier (and more impressive) civilisations that preceded it in that geographical space.

      • post_x_it

        Agreed, although they graciously added a couple of hundred million to their negligible national debt in order to build a half empty museum, just so they can point to the empty space and say, “look, this is where the marbles are supposed to be”.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Thank you for the last paragraph. Those buildings are mushrooming everywhere in the country. They all look the same. It’s disgusting.

    Reason for that is our Djihad for renewable energy. Among a million other things this means, all new public buildings today must have a zero balance on energy including warmth.

    This means, anything – literally anything – is now shaped like a bunker with tiny crenel like windows, big black surfaces on the south side, are wrapped up in a 30cm thick (flamable..) layer of Styrofoam and – at least in the green empire in the south-west – must have a green rooftop. Why ever.

    • Winston Smith

      What the halfwit Greenies don’t realise is that building in this style leads to something called “sick building syndrome” where because air doesn’t flow properly you get a build-up of funghi and other spores, thus making the people living in them very sick.

      I say very sick, I should say “sicker” because they are sick in the head for the most part to begin with.

  • Thorsted

    Gaddafi Said that “Leptis Magna” reminded him of imperialism and was alien to him. He might be right as he is of arab decent and they where not there when “Leptis Magna” was a roman City.

  • Tamerlane

    2012 poll was in 2012, I wonder how many would vote now for the Elgin Marbles to go to bankrupt Greece overrun with migrants and sinking into the Aegean.

  • Callipygian

    I really enjoyed this. And shall look up the book mentioned, as well. Thanks.

  • 1234567890

    “…about ‘atonement’ — a way, perhaps, of apologising not just to the
    Greeks but to the whole world for the political incorrectness of the
    imperial era.” I’ve never ascribed it to anything other than a crass and opportunistic ploy by the left to garner favour and votes.

  • Winston Smith

    I used to think like James here, then I thought to myself, actually, the philistine cultural vandals who want to repatriate beautiful artefacts to places that will promptly smash them to pieces don’t deserve them anyway. They don’t deserve them. They don’t appreciate them. They’re far more use to them as a stick to beat Conservatives with. So sod them. Smash them all to pieces, send ’em back, I’m done caring and protesting against these halfwits.

    • LastmaninEurope

      There should be no protesting. The answer is a polite, but firm, No.
      However given the perpetual whining I have sympathy with your view.
      Perhaps making replicas and repatriating is a way forward?
      Once the artefacts are, one by one, destroyed, desecrated or purloined by the ‘regime’ we can justifiably say to the bien pensants “told you so”
      Pity to lose the originals but, like you, I’m getting fed tired of the constant drum beat of grievance.

  • JabbaTheCat

    “The third thing you should see in Berlin by the way — purely for the horror of it — is the vast collection of modernist buildings in which Germany’s and by extension Europe’s new governing class house themselves.”

    Look no further than Holyrood for same modernist architectural carbuncle blotting the landscape on our side of the moat…

  • Skyeward

    I don’t recall who Ta-Nehisi Coates attributed the statement, “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” Regardless, the work of ancient civilizations like great literature, art and cinema belong to all of us. Sending pieces to corrupt governments who will simply plunder again and again, makes no sense.

  • Tickertapeguy

    The picture of this article is of Queen Nefertiti so I will start with Egypt. During the “old kingdom” when the royalty built Ziggurats to Pyramids for their journey after life, the tombs were looted within a few years to decades after the royalty were entombed.

    That was the case regarding the famous “Pyramids of Giza”. Mainly due to this ancient Egypt’s royalty moved their burial site to the “valley of the Kings” and yet many were looted.

    Other examples include the major discoveries in South East Asia to the Subcontinent
    -the discovery & preservation of Angkor Vat to Angkor Thom (SE Asia)
    -The discovery, reconstruction & preservation of Borobudur (SE Asia)
    -The discovery and preservation of Khajuraho, Ellora, Ajanta, Sanchi Stupa, the temple of Kornak, the Taj Mahal, the discovery of the Harrappa civilization, to even the Kapilavastu relics considered the holiest relics of Buddhism (all in the Sub continent)
    The list is extensive and covers the world that the European Colonial Empires held sway.

  • Ashley Stephens

    I heard Harrison Ford didn’t want to be Indiana Jones because he saw him as a tomb raider and, I kinda see why. It is an interesting point though.

  • mikewaller

    What drives all this nonsense is the stupid imperative to own the actual atoms that constitute any given work of art. In many fields, we now have the capability to produce perfect replicas which in cases such as the Elgin Marbles could transcend the badly beaten-up originals to which we cling by reversing the damage incurred over millennia and painting them in the bright colours the Greeks originally employed. If you want to see how it should be done, go look at the Warrior or Victory where the criterion has always been what they looked like in their prime. Who, after all, would want to look at a heap of worm-eaten wood or a very incomplete rusting hulk?

  • Garnet Thesiger

    Sadly it’s not just ancient artefacts that this applies to. We had a wonderful university library in Malawi until the early ’70’s, since then it has been comprehensively looted and the building trashed. Some of the finer books were torn apart and used for cigarette papers. Please don’t return anything unique until we can give it the appropriate care.

  • davidshort10

    Modern Greeks are Turks.