The past few weeks and months there have been sad news regarding the state of antiquities and cultural heritage around the world. From reports of the destruction of the famed shrine of Jonas near Mosul, Iraq, by ISIS militants to the sale of the Old Kingdom statue of Sekehmka by Northampton Borough Council in the UK, similar stories surface every day. We are now all too familiar with these kinds of stories, yet what work is being done to protect cultural heritage around the globe?
As a citizen of Canada and resident of Toronto, Ontario, I have the privilege to live in a city with plenty of museums and amazing cultural heritage. This privilege ranges from ongoing festivals, which celebrate diversity and the multiculturalism that our city is known for to outstanding museum collections such as the Royal Ontario Museum to celebrate our past.
While we appreciate and are grateful for this privilege, there is also a certain level of responsibility that comes with protecting our heritage. In essence, we are stewards of our past, stewards of the objects and material culture, which have come down to us through our predecessors. Yet, there are many challenges that our heritage faces and are highlighted exceptionally by Colin Renfrew, who writes:
Crisis is not too strong a word to use when we speak of the predicament which today faces the historic heritage in nearly every country on earth. The world’s archaeological resource, which through the practice of archaeology is our principal source of knowledge about the early human past, is being destroyed at a formidable and increasing rate. It is destroyed by looters in order to serve the lucrative market in illicit artefacts through which private collectors and, alas, some of the major museums of the world, fulfil their desire to accumulate antiquities. (1)
Crisis. Think about it for one moment.
On our visit to Chicago last year, a visit to the renowned Field Museum was on the top of my list of things to do. Known for their specimens in Natural History, I also wanted to check out its Egyptian collection. In particular, it was the reconstruction of an Old Kingdom tomb of a private official, Unas-ankh, that intrigued me.
This post is part of my Ancient Egypt in Vancouver blog series, this constitutes part 3.
In my search to locate the Biblical Museum of Canada in Vancouver last year, I finally managed to track it down. Trying to discover it within the campus of the University of British-Columbia, where I had begun my quest, there were several stops along this journey. It finally led me to Abbotsford, B.C. to Columbia Bible College.
The College is located about an hour’s drive from Vancouver and is among the foremost Christian institutions in Canada. When I got there, I met Anne Andres, the director of the now known Metzger Collection. She kindly showed me around campus and also let me see, where the collection was housed. All the objects were carefully wrapped up in boxes, located below the College’s library. The collection consists of more than 1,000 reproductions, which Rev. Dr. Metzger had collected in his journeys. Regarding ancient Egypt, the collection has more than 100 replicas of authentic Egyptian objects. While there is no actual, authentic artifact from Egypt in the collection, its value is by no means diminished.
In our modern world, it seems to come as a shock to us that we continuously hear of reports of looting in Egypt. Sites pillaged, tombs unearthed and plundered, stories go on and on. And once in a while, we hear the good news of Egypt being able to get some of these looted objects back. Alas, this is not a problem JUST of our time. No, not so at all. Already over one hundred years ago, eminent Egyptologist, Dr James H. Breasted (founder of Chicago’s Oriental Institute) lamented the state of archaeological sites within Egypt (1):
Probably there are few Egyptologists who do not realize that the monuments of Egypt still in situ are rapidly falling to ruin. Such catastrophes as that in the great hall of Karnak have been uncomfortable reminders of the slow but ceaseless decay which is undermining them. Griffith’s timely publication of the Assiut tombs, prompted in large measure by a consciousness of this lamentable fact, was likewise an appalling witness to its truth. All who have admired in one old publication or another the transportation of the great alabaster colossus depicted on the wall of Thuthotep’s tomb at el-Bersheh, perhaps do not know that this remarkable relief scene has now perished. Its gradual annihilation can be traced in the older publications as compared with that of the Egypt ExplorationFund, the last to reproduce it. Similarly, the tomb of Khamhet at Thebes, one of the most splendid published by Lepsius, has been broken out in fragments by the natives and sold to the museums of Europe.