Calls to return stolen artefacts home

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Hundreds of thousands of stolen artefacts are on display in esteemed Western institutions: from the British Museum in London to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. More than simple relics, these artefacts are prized treasures carrying immense spiritual, cultural and religious meaning for their original owners.

In most cases, these artefacts were taken during colonial occupations in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia. Others are spoils of bygone wars.

Speaking on Curtin University’s The Future Of podcast, Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, an expert in epistemic violence and decolonisation, says it’s past time these artefacts are returned.

“From the point of view of the people whose spiritual identity was taken away, there has been a constant grief. Repatriation is a recognition that an injustice was done, and that we recognise these items are owned by the people they were taken from,” Woldeyes says.

The importance of an artefact

For the past four years, Ethiopian-born Woldeyes has been campaigning for the return of stolen artefacts through the Australian, Ethiopian, South African and US media.

Of particular significance to him are the 11 tabots of Ethiopia stored in the British Museum’s archives, which were seized during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868 by the British Empire. These wooden plaques replicas of the Ark of the Covenant – are sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The remaining tabots are located in churches across the country.

To his fellow Ethiopians, tabots also represent the country’s long-time struggle against Western colonisers.

Twenty-eight years after the Battle of Maqdala, the Ethiopian army defeated an invading Italian force at the Battle of Adwa. They were supported by the clergy from the holy city of Axum, who carried the tabots of Mary and St George into battle.

The victory, considered to be an act of God, halted Italy’s expansion and subsequently, Ethiopia was one of only two African countries to remain uncolonised.

“People organise their lives and social interactions on the basis of these spiritual treasures. We persisted against the Italians because we carried them to war. And yet many tabots still sit in Britain. The British refuse to repatriate them,” Woldeyes says.

Priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carrying wrapped tabots above their heads.

Priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church carrying wrapped tabots above their heads. Only a priest can see, touch or be close to a tabot (image: supplied).

Nature of the repatriation debate

In recent years, there has been increased demand to return stolen artefacts, with governments in France, Germany, the Netherlands, UK and US taking positive steps.

But resistance still occurs – particularly over concerns the artefacts could be sent to politically unstable countries and destroyed. Others argue the institutions can better preserve the artefacts and make them more accessible to visitors.

“We need to stop this claim that artefacts should only remain at institutions with good facilities and make people aware of why repatriating is important. It’s a question of cultural survival. You cannot maintain your culture without the existence of artefacts representing that culture,” counters Woldeyes.

“And it’s not just artefacts – it’s human remains, body parts, taken from people who were struggling against colonial invasions and sent for scientific studies in the West.”

Beyond a matter of justice, Woldeyes is concerned that keeping these artefacts in Western hands is creating a dangerous colonial interpretation of historical events.

Woldeyes has researched The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros, an award-winning English translation of a stolen, 17th century manuscript written in the ancient Ge’ez language on one of Ethiopia’s female saints. As part of winning a Humanities Travelling Fellowship in 2019, Woldeyes consulted Church scholars about the accuracy of the translation.

“I discovered the Western professors had not only disregarded the testimonies of local scholars who had studied the language for more than 30 years: they had sensationalised some of the stories to make their translation more popular.

“Keeping these treasures with professors who don’t have adequate training not only strips away the original culture, it allows them to produce misrepresentations that mislead the entire world.”

Dr Yirga Woldeyes meeting traditional Ge'ez teachers.

Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes (centre) conducting research on Ge’ez manuscripts in Lalibela, Ethiopia with traditional teachers (image: supplied).

What’s the future of stolen artefacts?

The looting of artefacts is a practice that still continues today. Last year, thieves pillaged archeological sites in North Africa and the Middle East during Coronavirus lockdowns, attempting to sell the treasures they had discovered on Facebook.

Woldeyes says it’s a “sad reality” there’s still a market for stolen artefacts, but is hopeful that the growing calls for repatriation will lead to a crackdown on looting and encourage further reconciliation between the current and original owners.

“While not every artefact can be returned, acknowledging where they came from could have a tremendous healing effect. Alternatively, institutions could form a partnership with the original owners and keep the digitised copy of the artefact, while returning the treasures to their homes.

“We need to have a perspective that honours the ideals of all cultures and I think that can only be created through public pressure.

If we are guided by that spirit, repatriation will not be a question of competing nationalisms: it will become a matter of nurturing diversity, dialogue and reimagining colonial, war-like understandings of the past.”

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Researcher profile

Dr Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes has been campaigning for the return of artefacts stolen from his home country of Ethiopia and other countries on the continent during the European colonisation of Africa. In 2019, Dr Woldeyes was awarded a Humanities Travelling Fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities for his project “The Politics of Saving Endangered Knowledges in Africa: A Case from Ethiopia”.