Friday, 27 June 2008

Partage: Some Preliminary Thoughts

James Cuno has put the issue of partage back on the agenda. He explains in Who Owns Antiquity? how it worked:
For many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, archaeological finds were shared between the excavating party and the local, host country through partage (p. 14).
He then provides examples including:
  • The Gandharan collection (from Afghanistan) in the Musée Guimet, Paris
  • The Assyrian collection (from Iraq) in the British Museum, London
  • The Lydian collection (from Turkey) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (but not to be confused with the "Lydian silver" in the same museum)
  • The Egyptian collection in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Cuno then states, "With the surge in nationalism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it has become almost impossible to share archaeological finds".

While it may be true that fewer finds are shared with the excavating sponsors, the notion of partage has continued beyond "the middle decades of the twentieth century". Let me give two examples, both from Egypt, and both now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

One is the archaic Greek bronze griffin protome from a cauldron excavated in north Saqqara along with Egyptian bronzes of the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. Is this evidence for East Greek mercenaries in Egypt? Did Greeks living in Egypt place this distinctly Greek object in an Egyptian context? [JSTOR; no. 4]

The second is a 6th century BCE Carian funerary stela (with Egyptian elements) from Saqqara that was reused a 4th century BCE votive pit. Is this evidence for a long-standing and established community of Carian mercenaries? [JSTOR; no. 26]

Both these are significant finds that shed light on the Greek communities of Late Period Egypt. The use of partage has allowed these pieces to be shared with the international academic community.

Cuno makes a strong point about the care and protection of archaeological material. The impact of the theft, loss or destruction of objects from museums in Baghdad and Kabul has been lessened because finds from excavations of previous generations had been shared with museums outside Iraq and Afghanistan. Sharing the objects had spread the risks.

But can these archaeological "treasures" be shared with the international community through partage alone? (Cuno seems to like partage because it will allow museums to "own" excavated objects.) What about long-term loans?

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