Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Excavations in time of war

I have been finishing a paper, "Excavating Under Gunfire: Archaeologists in the Aegean During the First World War", and raised a question on academia.edu about objects excavated on territory acquired from an enemy. I was pointed to a discussion of the Shellal Mosaic that was recovered by Australian troops during the second battle for Gaza; it was actually excavated by the senior Australian military chaplain (see here). There has been much discussion in the Australian and Israeli press: Andrew Taylor, "Questions raised over 'looted' mosaic", Sydney Morning Herald August 14, 2011; 'Removal of Gaza mosaic may constitute war crime', Jerusalem Post August 14, 2011. The mosaic now resides in the Australian War Memorial (here).

I have reviewed the initial publication report as well as viewed the photographs of the mosaic in situ. There is little to suggest that it was "plundered".

I find the legal musings a little misleading.
A leading legal expert said the removal of an antiquity was a crime under international law. 
''In a general sense [the soldiers] could be said to have violated the laws and customs of war,'' said Emeritus Professor Ben Boer from the University of Sydney's Law School. But Australia did not appear to be bound by these laws in April 1917, he added. 
Professor Boer also said international law did not require the Australian government to return the Shellal Mosaic to its rightful owner.
The further complexity is that the mosaic was excavated in territory that was then part of the Ottoman Empire.


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