I sometimes think that one of the worst jobs in archaeology today would be to work as a curator at the British Museum. Yes, there is the prestige of researching and mounting massive exhibitions that attract international attention. But who would want to be on the receiving end of all the ire of foreign governments who want their treasures back, from Iran demanding the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Greece pressuring for the return of the Parthenon marbles? And I sure wouldn’t want Zawi Hawass lecturing me on the return of the Rosetta Stone.
Now a new front has opened up in the diplomatic war to pry loose national treasures from the British Museum showcases–and it’s not at all where you might think it would be. Last week, Scottish National Party MP Angus MacNeil called for a debate in the British House of Commons over the repatriation of the very famous Lewis Chessmen discovered in a sandbank on the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands sometime before 1831.
First a very short primer on the Lewis Chessmen, which are my all time favorite artifacts from Medieval Europe. A 12th century artist carved the exquisitely beautiful chess pieces–93 in all–mostly from walrus ivory, which could well have come from the Greenland colonies, or possibly even from the Canadian Arctic. (That’s another story I’ll save for another day.) No one knows for certain, however, where the chessmen were carved, although some scholars lean towards Trondheim in Norway, since similar chess pieces were found there. How these wonderful chessmen–one of the best preserved sets from the medieval world- came to lie in a sand dune near Uig on the Isle of Lewis is unknown.
Shortly after they came to light in 1831, however, the Hebridean finder decided to sell them. A private buyer purchased 11 of the pieces and the rest went to the British Museum, which displays several of these miniature artworks in one of its galleries.
But now people in the Outer Hebrides want their famous chessmen back. Indeed, their MP Angus MacNeil is working hard to repatriate them to the Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, the major town of the Outer Hebrides. And what has provoked this protest? It appears that the British Museum has stepped very clumsily on toes and local sensitivities in the Outer Hebrides. Its curators have been working on a major travelling exhibit of the chesspieces to Scotland and according to a recent online article in The Press and Journal, advertising for the forthcoming exhibit attributes the chesspieces to Norwegian craftsmen, completely ignoring the possibility that they were carved in the Outer Hebrides.
Is this just a tempest in a teapot? I don’t think so. The Lewis chesspieces are objects of of immense pride in the Outer Hebrides, and someone at the British Museum should have known this. I am becoming more and more sympathetic all the time to foreign governments and even local museums who want to repatriate their greatest treasures from the vaults and exhibition cases of the British Museum. It think it’s patronizing in the extreme today to think that only the big national museums in developed countries know how to take care of the world’s most important cultural heritage.