Marble Heads and Turkey

Amidst its dispute with Greece over oil drilling near Cyprus, Turkey requests for the repatriation of a 1,700-year-old marble head that British archaeologist Sir Charles Wilson had removed from the Sidamara Sarcophagus in 1882 and donated to the London Museum in 1933. Even though its political consequences will be much less dire than what may result from the oil conflict, the dispute over the artifact has still sparked serious political implications.

The marble head would only return to Turkey and be reunited with the relief on the Sidamara Sarcophagus if the officials of the London Museum agree to repatriate it. Turkey does not have any legal grounds upon which to argue for the return of the artifact because the artifact was removed from the country before the establishment of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, which obligates all the countries that have agreed to it to stop the looting of artifacts and return objects that had been illegally removed after 1970. As a result, the repatriation of the artifact would be an act of good will toward Turkey, which would strengthen diplomacy between the Turkey and the U.K.

If, however, museum officials refuse to return the marble head, then diplomatic ties between the two countries will be hurt. It is obvious that the removal of the marble head was unauthorized by the Turkish government at the time. The blatant act is a classic sign of western imperialism: the seizure and destruction of indigenous culture. Even though the marble head has been preserved well by the museum, its removal from Turkey has taken a toll on the cultural identity of the country. Even though the marble head has enriched the arts in the U.K. after being a part of the museum collection for over a century, the refusal to return it would be taken as a refusal to acknowledge the immoral seizure of a piece of Turkish cultural heritage.

Interestingly, the request for the return of the marble head is likened to that of the Elgin marbles, which are sculptures that had been removed from the Parthenon in the early nineteenth century. The repatriation of the marble head, however, appears to be more likely to occur due to the receptive attitude of the London Museum.

Some people argue that this dispute will impact relations between Turkey and the rest of the west. As relations between Greece and Turkey rapidly deteriorate, many begin to doubt the latter’s candidacy for membership in the European Union. The prospect of strengthening ties between the U.K. and Turkey through the repatriation of this artifact appeals to some as an opportunity for Turkey to retain good relations with the west and appeal to the E.U. Such improvement, however, should not be relied upon because, as discussed earlier, the situation could go either way.

Another issue raised by this dispute is the effect that the repatriation can have on other countries’ attitude toward repatriation and, in general, the collective effort to protect cultural heritage. As other countries demand the repatriation of looted artifacts, the limitations of cultural heritage protection laws, such as in this case, becomes apparent. The repatriation of the marble head will likely make other countries more receptive toward the idea of returning artifacts to their native country.

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