Defending Cultural Heritage: Protecting Historical Valuables

December 14, 2012

Discovering unique artifacts in exotic lands has been the subject of countless explosive action films, adventure novels, and embellished storytelling, from the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann to those of Howard Carter. The human lust for treasure, especially gold, exists in the mind as a classic romantic adventure.  Thus, ancient sites across the world have been subject to looting and grave robbing since antiquity. Facing these challenges of theft, how do archaeologists safely continue their work of documenting ancient lives when they find more traditionally valuable materials like gold?

The goal of archaeology is to discover and preserve the material culture of human societies and to present this evidence to the public, especially through the medium of museums. In any location, the discovery of priceless artifacts (especially those crafted from gold), initially creates a local security dilemma. Since gold items have attracted (and continue to attract) human desire and envy throughout the world, these valuable items that have suddenly been unearthed need to be protected in order for them to eventually help educate the public. The experience of C. Leonard Woolley, the archaeologist in charge of the joint British and University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition to Ur, illustrates well one solution to this conundrum.

During the excavation of Ur, Woolley and his team of archaeologists discovered the famous Royal Tombs. These layers of burials for apparent Kings and Queens of Ur and many of their servants contained many lavish and ornate items, presumably for the afterlife. Among these fantastic cultural objects of study, the headdress of “Queen” Puabi, a woman of high social status in Ancient Ur, reigns quite prominently.

The headdress of Puabi as displayed in the late 1920s.   The total gold is about two kilos.

Woolley had to inform his superiors at the British Museum in London of this fascinating discovery. However, Woolley could not simply share the news that objects of great material value (not to mention cultural) were exposed and vulnerable in the deserts of Iraq. In order to solve this possible security dilemma, Woolley turned to his classical education for a stroke of brilliance; in a telegram, he broke the news to the British Museum- in Latin. Translating the text, Woolley’s employers were able to receive the news while keeping the discovery secret and safe.

The original Latin announcement (with translation) of a tomb “magnificent with jewels”, containing a reference to Queen Puabi (then read “Shubad”).

However, some credit in developing and maintaining long-term security at the excavation site at Ur must go to the local workmen themselves. In the words of Woolley, “many of them [the workmen] at least did develop a sense of loyalty and goodwill which was our best safeguard [against theft]” (Ur Excavations, volume II, page 11). For example, consider the case of Royal grave PG/580. This site was clearly a find of immense interest, as it formed a mound with a large concentration of valuable gold objects. But, because it was discovered at the end of the season, it could not be excavated until the next season. Woolley explained to the local Sheikh, Munshid ibn Hubaiyib, that he would be absent for 6 months, during which time no one was to touch the mound. The Sheikh kept his word. Without any extra guards on duty, the mound and its artifacts were left intact for further excavation. Thus, because of the cooperation of the Sheikh and his various workmen, work on Ur could continue and yield fantastic material and cultural results.

While museums preserve and store items, their main purpose is to provide appropriate shelter and care for historical objects so that they can be used to educate the public. The excavations at Ur have taught us valuable lessons about Mesopotamian social hierarchy, burial customs, trade, and many other subjects. When we see Puabi’s headdress, we know that approximately 4,600 years ago metallurgists were able to craft fantastic jewelry from gold. The Lapis Lazuli contained in this same collection indicates to us that ancient Mesopotamia was part of an already elaborate trade route stretching to Afghanistan and linking disparate cultures. And finally, it is because these items were properly protected that we can gaze back thousands of years and relate to an ancient culture on a profoundly human level.