Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 2018
Zeynep Çelik About Antiquities: Politics of Archaeology in the Ottoman Empire Middle Eastern Studies: Art and Architecture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. 282 pp.; 12 color ills.; 89 b/w ills. Paperback $27.95 (9781477310618)

Who owns antiquity? Opening with this deceptively simple question, Zeynep Çelik introduces the core project of her complex and wide-ranging book: to investigate the question from the origins of archaeology as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century. A historical perspective on this question then informs its continued invocation in current international debates regarding ownership of antiquities. More than merely passive witnesses of past human achievement or economic resources to be levied, “antiquities, the material artifacts of the discipline [of archaeology], became charged with meanings associated with empire building, global relations and rivalries, power struggles, definitions of national and cultural identities, cross-cultural exchanges, cooperations, abuses, and misunderstandings—often influenced by the underlying element of money” (1). This analysis implicitly acknowledges the critical role antiquities, particularly those from ancient Greece and Rome, and archaeology, the discipline that unearths them, played in the establishment of national identities. Çelik’s project is concerned with the politics of archaeological processes and products, exploring complexity and nuance in the role that archaeology and antiquities played in the late Ottoman Empire, often framed by a comparison to these same issues as they played out in Europe and the United States. Like the discipline of archaeology itself, which draws on several interrelated fields, Çelik’s detailed and interdisciplinary examination draws on, for example, architectural analysis, urban planning, ethnography, art history, and literary criticism, in an attempt to untangle the web of connections among national museums, archaeological expeditions, international scholars, and state governments. With a focus on the late Ottoman Empire, but with an eye also keenly trained on the present, Çelik traces the interrelationship between material remains of the past and national governments, proving that the question about who owns antiquity is as fraught today as it was in the nineteenth century.

Chapter 1, “Beginnings: The Nineteenth-Century Museum,” explores the complex relationship between the burgeoning field of archaeology and the role of antiquities in establishing national identity through a comparison of the Imperial Museum in Istanbul and Western institutions, in particular the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The comparison between the Met and the Imperial Museum “frames some new questions about a role of the museum, its universality, and its sociocultural specificity in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, with ramifications that continue to echo in today’s debates” (22). The origins of these two institutions and their differing missions articulate fundamental differences in their aims and orientations, differences that echo into the present with the persistent question, who owns antiquity? The Met was established as a public and democratically oriented institution, with a mission to make its collections accessible to all classes of the community. In contrast, the Imperial Museum was founded with a protectionist ethos in direct response to Western interests in antiquities, particularly those found within the empire’s boundaries. Thus, the establishment of the Imperial Museum was directly linked to legislation on antiquities passed in the 1860s through the 1880s aimed at controlling the activities of archaeologists and keeping antiquities within the empire. In particular, the Ottoman law passed in 1884 declared all works of antiquity, defined as “all the vestiges of ancient peoples in lands that today form the Ottoman Empire” (24), to belong to the state.

Chapter 2, “Scholarship and the Imperial Museum,” explores the conflicting attitudes about the Imperial Museum expressed by the Western scholarly community. These scholars’ simultaneous praise and resentment for this institution articulated the underlying belief that classical antiquities didn’t belong to the culture and history of the Ottoman Empire but rather were the foundation of European civilization (43). As such, many scholars presented arguments against the 1884 Ottoman law and described Osman Hamdi, the director of the Imperial Museum, in such charged terms as a “dog with many bones, [who] refuses to share what he cannot eat with the hungry archaeologists who are gathered around” (46). As a case study, Çelik demonstrates how scholarship on the Alexander sarcophagus found at Sidon, one of the prize pieces in the Imperial Museum’s collection, expresses both the central role antiquities from Ottoman lands began to occupy within the scholarly landscape on Greek art and the simultaneous reluctance of the West to accept material culture from the Ottoman Empire as on par with that of other European nations.

In chapter 3, “The Imperial Museum and its Visitors,” Çelik aims to assess the changing audience of the Imperial Museum. Taking a creative methodological approach, she surveys novels, guidebooks, and travel accounts by Westerners, in addition to the postcards on which the Imperial Museum began to appear, and the museum’s own publication plan. Through this analysis, Çelik argues that the Imperial Museum started out as an exclusive institution that primarily addressed foreign scholars and visitors, but its mission gradually broadened to encompass a local audience and an emphasis on its educational mission. A by-product of this expanded audience was an increased awareness of the value of antiquities among laypersons.

In chapter 4, “The Ottoman Reading Public and Antiquities,” Çelik shifts focus to the role of antiquities in Ottoman identity and the perception of the archaeological expeditions that produced them. Following the model of Europe and the United States, the Ottomans took part in the connected world through an awareness and acceptance of antiquities as part of the package of modernity. A network of formal and informal channels—for example, museums, public transportation, textbooks, curricula, literature, travelogues—nourished public interest in antiquities. In particular, the popular press reported on the wealth of antiquities in the empire, providing accessible and richly illustrated information about the important sites and objects, thus increasing public awareness and pride in its rich ancient heritage.

Chapter 5, “The Landscape of Labor,” investigates the methodologically complex issue of labor within archaeological expeditions, an often unacknowledged aspect of archaeological projects and unwritten element within official histories. Using field notebooks, official reports, and photographs, Çelik addresses issues such as the size of the workforce, organization of labor within projects, attitudes of archaeologists toward local workers, and the tools and techniques used on expeditions. Much of this analysis reveals underlying truths, as Çelik writes: “The social, cultural, and ideological mind-sets of the era, shaped by imperialism, colonialism, and Orientalism at their peaks, reflected on the arrogance of the Western archaeologists, confident in their status as representatives of progress and civilization” (157). While this study takes as its focus the state of archaeology in the late nineteenth century, the dynamics between Western archaeologists and local labor force will be familiar to anyone currently practicing archaeology, particularly in former Ottoman territories. Despite significant changes in Western attitudes toward the peoples and cultures of the East, the structural outlines of the relationship established at the beginning of the discipline continue to operate on archaeological projects.

Continuing her analysis of the politics of the practice of archaeology in chapter 6, “Dual Settlements,” Çelik focuses on the architecture of dig sites, particularly the contrast between archaeologists’ housing and the accommodations for the local labor force. As Çelik notes, “the glory of the past civilization, associated with the foundations of European civilization, and the misery of the current village, inhabited by backward people, presented a dichotomy that would be described repeatedly by others” (175). As archaeological projects became more established at certain sites (e.g., Sardis), dig leaders invested in permanent architecture to house their teams. With improvement in living standards, which included comfortable housing and high-quality food for the foreign teams, the psychological and physical distance between archaeologists and locals increased. Members of current archaeological expeditions often live in the dig houses built in this early period of the discipline, thus perpetuating the structural dichotomy and social dynamics implied between the palatial dig house and less opulent local settlements.

An epilogue, “Enduring Dilemmas,” focuses on a frequently acknowledged but not fully unpacked undercurrent that runs through the book: the present debates about the possession of antiquities, particularly between “source” countries and Western museums. This book provides a critical historical perspective that informs the current framing. As Çelik demonstrates, the Republic of Turkey’s protectionist ethos with respect to antiquities dates from the foundation of the Imperial Museum and the Ottoman laws of antiquities that restricted the activities of foreign archaeologists. That tension plays out in the present, in the Turkish republic’s aggressive pursuit of claims to repatriate antiquities held in Western museums and, although not addressed in this book, in the increasingly restrictive permit requirements for Western archaeological research. While Çelik offers no answer to her central question, who owns antiquity?, she does hope that “understanding history from different perspectives and casting a wide net can destabilize unilateral claims and provoke further questions” (220).

In About Antiquities, Çelik successfully accomplishes her aim to add nuance to the debates about and claims to the ancient past, both those occurring during the Ottoman Empire and in the modern world. She provides a rewarding exploration of complexity in the rich history of archaeology and nation building, often from creative and unexpected angles, with acknowledgment of the echoes of these relationships in the fraught present. What each chapter, including the epilogue, and the book as a whole lacks is a summarizing section or concluding paragraph. Due to the scope and depth of this analysis, each chapter would have been stronger with a concluding section that provided more framing and emphasis on the threads that run from one chapter to the next. In an overall well-researched, compelling, and innovative book, these weak conclusions are a missed opportunity to emphasize the power of archaeology and material culture in local, national, and global identity politics.

Cecelia Feldman
Acting Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Programs, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College