By Andrew Johnson
07 October 2007
Found scattered around ancient Mesopotamia, the Aramaic incantation or devil bowls were placed upside down in homes during the sixth to eighth centuries to trap evil spirits. The spells, and information such as the names of the home owners, are not found in any other source. One collection contains the earliest examples of the Bible in Hebrew.
Anther collection is at the centre of a legal row that has divided Britain's academic community. Since the first Gulf War in 1990, Iraq has been a looters' paradise. The United Nations introduced a sanction in 2003 making it illegal to handle artefacts from the country. So when University College London came into possession of 654 bowls, the biggest collection in the world, which it loaned from a private collector, suspicions were raised.
The bowls belong to Martin Schoyen, a Norwegian collector of ancient scripts. There is no suggestion that he looted the bowls, or was aware they may have been looted when he bought them in London from a Jordanian who claimed they had been in his family for generations.
UCL set up a committee of inquiry which found that "on the balance of probability" the bowls had, somewhere along the line, been looted from Iraq.
At this point Mr Schoyen sued UCL for their return. Legally his claim is sound, because he has held title for seven years. What has dismayed academics, however, is that the inquiry report was suppressed as part of the out-of-court settlement.
Professor Colin Renfrew, a fellow at Cambridge University and a member of UCL's committee of inquiry, is angry that the settlement said the report should be withheld. A world expert in ancient treasures, Lord Renfrew said UCL had no choice but to return the collection.
UCL could not comment, but in June, said: