Between science and empire: the diplomatic struggle over Mesopotamian antiquities in Lisbon (1914-1926)


MEDITERRANEAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, vol.31, no.2, pp.165-180, 2016 (SSCI) identifier identifier


A powerful curiosity to discover the ancient world - reaching its peak in the nineteenth century - led to British, French, and German museums to enhance their collections with a great number of Mesopotamian antiquities. Most of these were the product of excavation work, which took years, followed by a shipping process fraught with hurdles and delays - much as when Babylonian and Assyrian antiquities were stranded in Portugal over the period 1914-26. In that case Portuguese officials seized the hoard of Babylonian and Assyrian items due to be sent to Germany at the beginning of the First World War by the German Oriental Society, which had carried out excavation works in Ottoman territories in the name of Kaiser II Wilhelm. The extensive British efforts and diplomatic exchanges aimed at bringing the pieces to London after the war, presents us with important clues regarding ownership disputes over antiquities, and the imperial struggle to acquire the cultural heritage of the near east. This study reveals that, under the existing legal framework, the items eventually taken to Berlin actually belonged to the Imperial Museum in Istanbul, and analyzes the discourse of scientific concern' constructed by British diplomacy.