The Looting of Sardis

The previously-mentioned video from the ASCSA begins with some upcoming events, among which is mention of a lecture by Fikret Yegül on the looting of Sardis … while we look forward to that being put online, for now we can read a coincidentally-written piece in Athens News on the same subject (advertising the talk, of course):

AT FIRST, it may not be surprising to learn that ancient Sardis, in western Asia Minor, once home to the mythically wealthy Lydian king Croesus, was the target of greedy looters; but what is unsettling is the fact that the looting occurred only about a century ago, in 1921-1922, and was encouraged by prominent American archaeological and business-world figures as well as a particularly brazen group (the Executive Committee of the Society for the Excavation of Sardis, or ECSES) determined to enrich one of the world’s most important museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (or Met) in New York. To top it off, the actions of the smugglers were publicly announced and advocated in the pages of the New York Times.

The subject of the ethically and legally dubious exportation of antiquities to the West is a familiar one in Greece, where Lord Elgin is often vilified for having run away with the Parthenon Marbles and later selling them to the British Museum. But Elgin looted Athens at the start of the 19th century, between 1801 and 1810, whereas Sardis’ American raiders were acting at a time when one might consider attitudes concerning the rightful ownership of a country’s archaeological heritage to have been rather more modern, advanced and responsible. Moreover, some of the historical riches from Sardis were carried off to New York in September 1922 aboard a US navy ship, in direct disregard of well-known Ottoman Turkish antiquities laws, in effect since 1884.

Ultimately, it was determined that the primary culprit behind the illegal action was a rogue American civil servant, George Horton, general consul of America in Smyrna, who not only sent an initial load of 56 crates of archaeological material out of Anatolia, but who also later himself carried a prized collection of 30 gold coins from Sardis to New York, where he personally delivered them to the doorstep of the Met.
Horton’s (apparently unilateral) decision to export the Sardis material was effected, however, in the weeks following the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Smyrna; perhaps even during the period of 13-22 September 1922, when the port city was burning and in a state of tragic, wartime confusion. While reprehensible, Horton’s unauthorised exportations were not isolated examples, but instead were symptomatic of a larger trend in which rapacious European and American individuals and institutions sought to take advantage of the late 19th- and early 20th-century decline of the Ottoman Empire to enrich private collections and national museums. Prominent among those figures advocating the removal of Greco-Roman and other antiquities from Ottoman lands were two Princeton professors, Howard Crosby Butler, Sardis’ first excavator, and Edward Capps, chair of the managing committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

Treasured Anatolia

Now, to provide an insider’s look at the fascinating, troubling story of the intrigue and complicity behind Sardis’ early 20th-century looting, Harvard-trained specialist Fikret Yegul, a longtime archaeologist, architect and restorer for the Harvard/Cornell Sardis Expedition and a member of Ohio State University’s excavation team at Isthmia in Greece, will speak at the ASCSA on 29 May 2012 (see box on facing page, bottom C). In a 2010 article, Yegul notes the clear statement of intentions made in January 1922 by Lloyd Warren, secretary of the ECSES (see box below), who pushed for the fruits of future Sardis excavations to be brought home to America. Yegul observes: “The sheer mendacity of this candidness may be jarring to our modern sensibilities, but for the business and museum crowd that the secretary was addressing, it was very much the culturally responsible and patriotic thing to do.”

The question that seems to lie at the heart of the looting of Anatolian archaeological sites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Yegul, is whether the moribund Ottoman Empire had any right to the rich cultural heritage that lay within its boundaries. “To cast the followers of Mohammed,” Yegul writes, “in the role of caretakers of classical culture – a culture all European nation states claimed as their own, with similar noises coming from across the [Atlantic] – was an anathema.” Indeed, the Ottomans’ “exotic” eastern empire “was seen as an illegitimate and barbaric power, especially as concerned dominion over the Greco-Roman heritage of Western Anatolia and Christian Jerusalem”.

Despite the attractiveness of Yegul’s elegantly stated assertions, which recall an anti-Muslim attitude dating back to the time of the mediaeval crusades, when western religious authorities and armies of knights sought to rid the Christian “holy places” of Turkish hegemony, one has to wonder if nothing more complicated than sheer greed was the primary motivation behind the looting of Anatolian archaeological sites. (The same might be said of the Crusades themselves.) Sardis’ respected raiders, like Elgin and others before them, may simply have been exploiting the Ottomans’ laxity, systemic corruption or current political troubles as an opportunity to benefit themselves, their employers or their favourite museums.

Antiquities law

The Ottomans’ revised antiquities law of 1884, which prohibited all cultural materials from leaving the country, had been a reaction to a host of past offences committed on a grand scale across western Asia Minor. As early as 1841 the English traveller Charles Fellows had shipped an entire Classical temple-tomb, the Nereid Monument from the southwestern town Xanthos, to the British Museum. Briton Charles Newton plundered the decorative sculpture of the 4th century BC Mausoleum of Halicarnassus for the same museum in the 1850s. Shortly after, in 1863, John Wood, an English engineer, removed whatever he could find of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, leaving only a gaping hole. Then, in the 1870s, Carl Humann spirited away to Berlin the bulky, intricately carved remains of the Hellenistic Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.

The passage of the 1884 Ottoman antiquities law was perceived as a bothersome development by foreign excavators and collectors, but it did not stop them from continuing to export their archaeological discoveries. They simply found ways to circumvent the law, even – like David Hogarth at Priene in 1905 – appearing surprised that the new regulations applied to them. Exportations carried on, with Theodor Wiegand, director of the German Archaeological Institute at Istanbul, removing the entire Agora Gate at Miletus in 1908. The Austrians, too, led by Otto Bendorf, in the years 1896-1906, packed off to Vienna nearly everything they unearthed at Ephesus.

Turkish veto

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 abruptly halted archaeological excavations in Anatolia, including Butler’s now five-season-old expedition at Sardis, which had already revealed more than 1,000 Lydian tombs. After 1918, however, the digging gradually resumed, as did illegal exportation. At ancient Colophon south of Smyrna, a joint excavation by Harvard University and the ASCSA was undertaken in 1922, according to Yegul, to enrich Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. Excavations began again at Sardis on March 3, running to July 8. That season is now infamous, since later that autumn 56 crates of antiquities, enough to fill three railroad cars, were shipped back to the United States.

Upon learning of the clandestine shipment, the cultural authorities of the newly established Republic of Turkey immediately stopped the Americans’ excavation permit for Sardis and for all other Anatolian sites. A diplomatic resolution was finally reached after 53 of the original crates – including the 30 gold coins and 122 silver coins – were shipped back to Turkey in 1924, where they were inspected and divided up. Ultimately, 12 crates containing various artefacts and four gold coins arrived back in New York by the end of August 1925 – a “gift” from Turkey.

Sardis’ first excavator, Butler, did not live to see the international skirmish over the 1922 discoveries. He died in Paris on 13 July 1922, while returning from Asia Minor. With him also seems to have died an era when Anatolian antiquities were regularly used by both Turks and foreigners as currency with which one could purchase fame, professional success and political favour. Turkey’s antiquities authorities scrambled to make up for centuries of Ottoman neglect of the country’s cultural heritage, building seven new archaeological museums between 1923 and 1926. The strictly scientific investigation of Sardis, which began anew in 1958 under the direction of professors George Hanfmann of Harvard and A Henry Detweiler of Cornell, continues today to illuminate the remarkable history of Greek-influenced western Anatolia and the golden capital of King Croesus’ Lydian empire.

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