By Andrew Johnson
07 October 2007
One of Britain's leading universities is embroiled in an embarrassing row over hundreds of treasures looted from Iraq.
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.
"Even if the bowls were looted it is likely that Mr Schoyen, as a good-faith buyer, could have good title to them. Even so there is a good ethical case for their return to Iraq," he said.
"UCL tried to do the right and ethical thing by setting up a committee of inquiry. Then, when threatened with a lawsuit, in my view, it gave way under pressure. How has the largest known collection of incantation bowls been in Jordan for 70 years and nobody knew about it?"
UCL could not comment, but in June, said: "Having made all the inquiries it reasonably could, UCL has no basis for concluding that title is vested other than in the Schoyen Collection." The collection also could not comment but has said that it "strongly supports a tough regime for cultural protection."