Legal – Illegal?

The Circumstances of the Excavation and Export of Archaeological Objects from Sam’al, Didyma and Samarra in the Ottoman Empire to Berlin in the Early 20th Century

The establishment of archaeology as an academic discipline led to large-scale excavation projects from the 19th century onwards, particularly in territory that at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire. The objects uncovered at these digs found their way into museum collections all around the world. Recent research has shown that the Ottoman laws and regulations concerning the allocation and exportation of archaeological objects were not always observed. In light of this, the Berlin Antikensammlung, the Museum für Islamische Kunst and the Vorderasiatisches Museum are examining three specifically chosen excavation sites, coordinated by the Zentralarchiv of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and in collaboration with the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) at Koç University in Istanbul.

Up until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the power relations between the different provinces were asymmetrical. Much of the empire found itself under the colonial rule of the Ottomans. European powers were also present in the region, pursuing their own imperial interests in a variety of ways, including through the founding of institutions that conducted archaeological excavations across the Ottoman Empire. Their goal was to expand the collections of European museums. However, the subsequent excavations and exportations of archaeological objects did not always happen legally.

The Königliche Museen zu Berlin (the predecessor to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin) was among the institutions that conducted such excavation projects, greatly expanding its collections in the process. Some of the objects were exported as part of official museum excavations, but in ways that skirted the legal partage strictures, and without official authorisation. Other objects were excavated by third parties and later acquired for Berlin’s museums on the art market. The pilot project Legal  Illegal? seeks to examine Berlin’s museums’ acquisitions from three specific excavation sites – Sam’al and Didyma in modern-day Turkey, and Samarra in modern-day Iraq – as case studies for the acquisition practices of museums at the turn of the 20th century. As the export practices concerning archaeological objects shipped to Berlin are yet to have been systematically investigated, the scope of the project will include an examination of the circumstances surrounding excavation and exportation as well as the changing and complex relations of power between Ottoman and international institutions. In cases where official contracts concerning the allocation of discovered objects exist, the project will seek to determine whether such contracts were always drafted in an equitable manner. For the first time, the Ottoman perspective on foreign excavation activities will also be systematically investigated by the project’s cooperation partners in Istanbul.

With the assistance of an international expert committee, the goal of the project is to develop guidelines that will help define when an acquisition is problematic, along with criteria and methods that can be used to investigate collections within this context. Ideally, the guidelines will support German and international museums in the future in determining the provenance of objects in their archaeological collections that stem from problematic archaeological excavations that occurred at the turn of the 20th century.

Institutions: Antikensammlung, Museum für Islamische Kunst, Vorderasiatisches Museum, Zentralarchiv Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Project management: Dr. Christine Howald 
Project coordination: Birgit Sporleder 
Research associates: Dr. Mustafa Kemal Baran​​​​​​, Dr. Nicola Crüsemann, Stefanie Janke, Dr. Artemis Papatheodorou, Dr. Laura Puritani
Cooperation partners: Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED) der Koç Universität Istanbul
Project funding: Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste
Project duration: March 2023 to February 2025