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The clay Gilgamesh tablet at the Museum of the Bible - thoughts of a museum collections worker.

Earlier today, we learned that a clay tablet containing part of the ancient Epic of Gigamesh held at the Museum of the Bible, founded by the Hobby Lobby people, was smuggled illegally out of Iraq and must be turned over for repatriation.

This came with a lot of comments to the effect that such things belong in the countries where they were found.

I agree, in principle. But as someone who has spent his entire career working in museum collections, I want to explain why “it belongs where it was found” isn’t always such a simple thing.

First, some acknowledgments:

Acknowledgment 1: this case involves not just principle, but law. If a specimen is illegally taken somewhere, it needs to go back, and those responsible for the illegal exportation and sale/purchase of the object should be punished. Simple as that.

Acknowledgment 2: I’m a paleontologist and herpetologist whose direct work includes neither human artifacts nor human remains. The issues surrounding these are somewhat different from those surrounding non-human remains – there are levels of cultural sensitivity I don’t generally encounter, except in the abstract. And although all fields of natural history reflected imperial attitudes historically, they were arguably more acute when man-made artifacts or human remains (bones, mummies, etc.) were involved.

That being said, I actively collaborate with paleoanthropologists. In grad school, my partner at the time worked on an archaeological site that became the source of protest. One of my closest friends at the large midwestern museum where I did my post-doc was the liaison responsible for repatriating Indigenous American materials to the tribes from which they came. (This meant I once met the grandson of a Cheyenne warrior who fought at Little Bighorn. It was an educational experience I will never forget.). So although I’m not directly involved in archaeological issues, neither am I ignorant of them.

So here’s what I think –

It was very common, at least until the mid-20th century, for natural and cultural objects from the developing world to end up in European or American museums. Most of my work these days is on the evolution of crocodiles in East Africa over the past 20 to 25 million years. This means I visit lots of museums in Africa, but it also means time spent in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and other capitals of the old European empires. Fossil and modern crocodile specimens collected in the former colonies often ended up back in Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the US).

Does this reflect imperialistic attitudes toward other people? In part, yes. The idea that the people living where they were found might want to play a role in their preservation and study was rarely, if ever, taken into account.

Moreover, some of the expeditions that collected the material included racist justification. For example – the American Museum of Natural History in New York led several expeditions to what are now Mongolia and north-central China during the 1920’s. These are famed for having discovered the first nests of dinosaur eggs. They also discovered some of the dinosaurs the general public might know about, including Velociraptor, though it only became widely known when Jurassic Park came out in 1992. But the actual purpose of the expeditions was to find human ancestors.

The rationale here wasn't entirely racist. One of the curators, William Diller Matthew, believed all mammalian groups had Asian origins, and that humans would be no different. He was working from a theoretical framework that suggested close links between North American and Eurasian animals, with the likeliest dispersal corridor being the Bering Land Bridge. But one of the museum higher-ups, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was another matter – he dismissed an African origin as unacceptable because of its racial implications. As he saw it, our ancestors had to be Asian because an African origin (from black people) would be beneath him.

It gets far worse when cultural materials and human remains are part of the equation. It can legitimately be said that modern archaeology arose from what would now be described as grave robbing. Indigenous graves in North America were routinely dug up, and their contents were routinely shipped off to New York, Chicago, Washington, or Pittsburgh, among many others. Anthropology shares some of this; it wasn't rare for the bones of Indigenous Americans or African Americans to be collected for study. That these were the ancestors of living human beings who didn’t want their relatives exhumed, much less treated as mere objects and put on display in a far-away museum, never seems to have crossed anyone’s mind at the time. It was an atrocity that we still trying to make right.

But as a museum collections worker, I have to point out that imperialism and racism were not the only reasons these things were done.

In many cases, specimens were shipped back to the cities not because they were seen as treasures of the empire, but because no museum existed anywhere near where the materials were collected. “Keep them where they’re found” loses some of its punch if there’s no facility on hand to properly care for the materials in perpetuity, assuming that’s what we agree to do.

(This is why fossils from South America were looted to a far lesser extent than from other parts of the world. There have been natural history museums on that continent since the 19th century. Not saying things were never removed improperly – only that it was less frequent.)

Moreover, much of it was done at a time when travel was far more expensive and time-consuming than now. A scientist studying biological or paleontological specimens from what is now Indonesia would find it far easier to visit London or Leiden than Batavia (present-day Jakarta). It was also considerably more dangerous - much of this was done before antibiotics or antimalarial drugs, for example, or even before anyone knew what actually caused tropical diseases. And since the colonial territories generally didn’t have the kind of educational system set up to train professional scientists who could work on the material locally, it made sense to send the specimens to the scientists.

I’m not saying removing the material was morally right – only that it was often logistically rational, given the assumption that these items were going to contribute to scientific knowledge.

The present situation in former colonies is uneven. Some now have world-class museums with modern conservation facilities, and they are staffed by professional scientists who are from those countries. In many cases, the specimens - especially some of the fossils - are considered national treasures. I can say from direct observation that “Lucy,” an Australopithecus afarensis skeleton from the Afar region of Ethiopia, is kept under better security in Addis Ababa than the US Constitution is in DC.

But that’s not always the case. I’ve been to museums in those parts of the world that give new meaning to the word "squalid." Pest and climate control are nonexistent, staffing is uneven and driven more by politics than expertise, and the facilities are so poorly funded that much of the work is done on a volunteer basis. Museum records may not have been computerized, and the catalog books are slowly deteriorating. Over time, specimens that aren't lost or damaged lose their scientific value.

A few years ago, the main part of the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro burned to the ground. It was caused by an aging electrical system. Everyone knew it needed a major upgrade, but the museum was never given enough support to address the problem, nor was it given the support to photograph or copy some of the most vulnerable material. Nearly all of its collections were lost.

I took this loss personally. I’d visited those collections. Some of the material I studied is now gone. (Indeed, I may have been the last person to study some of these fossils.) I watched curators – some of them personal friends – dash into the fire in a futile effort to save specimens, notes, data sets, and anything else they could grab in their arms.

"Keep them where they were found" and "keep them safe in perpetuity, so all can learn from them" do not always lead to the same conclusion. It's one thing if we're dealing with objects looted from a grave with direct links to a modern community, but not necessarily if cultural links to the present day are more tenuous, or if the specimens have no particular cultural significance in the first place.

There are massive gray areas here. Kinnewick Man is a good example of the issue. In 1996, the skeletal remains of a man who died about 9000 years ago were found in what is now the state of Washington. The material is unusual for its great age and completeness, and early work suggested physical features more typical of ethnic groups living outside North America. Together, these made Kinnewick Man central to figuring out how and when people began to settle the Western Hemisphere. We know Indigenous groups in the Americas moved around quite a lot over the millennia, and that the tribes encountered in a given location by European explorers weren't necessarily the tribes one would have encountered in previous centuries. There was thus no scientific reason to expect Kinnewick Man was directly ancestral to anyone in an Indigenous community known to have lived there during historical times. But according to the belief system of the Indigenous tribe that claimed that land, the tribe was created right in that place. To them, Kinnewick Man was one of their ancestors pretty much by definition. This left anthropologists with a serious dilemma - how to balance respect for the rights and beliefs of people who had every right to not trust scientists with the compelling scientific argument that careful study of Kinnewick Man might shed a powerful light on a critical phase of human history, all while treating the remains with reverence.

I can only say this - I'm glad I wasn't involved.

I'm not trying to be arrogant or imperialist here - I'm merely stating the complexity of the real situation.

(Acknowledgment 3 – not all squalid museums are in the developing world. I’ve seen some horrible examples right here in the US. And disasters like the fire in Rio can happen anywhere. The Second World War devastated many European cities, causing many important museums to be damaged or destroyed. The original specimen of Spinosaurus, for example, was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. To this day, the exterior of the Humboldt Museum in Berlin is pock-marked with divots from Russian and German bullets. In 1995, the curator at the Naturkundemuseum in Stuttgart continually pointed me to one or another place where “one of your bombs” hit the museum. I kept my mouth shut, not explaining that [1] that was decades before I was born, [2] you guys started it, and [3] I did my homework and know that the bombs hit at night, meaning it was a British bombing raid. The US bombed during the day.)

Indeed, this has become a reason to support the argument that spreading materials around to different museums can be a good thng, even if it means taking them out of the home countries. That way, a disaster befalling one museum doesn’t result in a universal loss. It also supports the notion that efforts to duplicate should be given priority. That the insects and mammals at the museum in Rio were lost is bad, but they can be replicated. The audio recordings of indigenous people speaking languages that are now extinct, and which were never copied, can not.

Just thought I’d share a few thoughts. Yes, fossils and artifacts should be kept within their regional context, and they should be repatriated whenever possible. But there are other variables that should be considered. And in this case, although I fully support returning the clay tablet to Iraq as a matter of both principle and law, I worry that it isn’t the wisest practical decision, given how unstable the region is.

Currently reading Burroughs et al., Forget the Alamo

It's definitely worth reading. I learned about the Alamo as a kid in the Northeast, and heard plenty more when I lived in Austin for graduate school. But I'd also read books like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, who put the struggle over Texas in the broader context of expanding territory where slavery was legal.

I learned from my father, who served in Vietnam, that one can honor the service of someone even if one thinks the cause was wrong. So I can see some of the Alamo defenders as courageous, can acknowledge that not all of them were pro-slavery activists (indeed, some were abolitionists), and can understand that Texas was one of several regions in Mexico that tried to gain independence because of the federal government's instability, and yet still understand that the main push within the US for annexing Texas came from the South and was based on free state-slave state politics.

Anyway - Forget the Alamo is a good book. Although it talks about the siege, it's really about how the event came to be mythologized in the US as an example of American fortitude and righteousness against oppression, and how it (and the Texian revolution as a whole) came to be isolated from political struggles in both the US (slavery) and Mexico (instability).

I wanted to reach out to the authors, but don't have their email addresses. It's because I wanted to share the picture below with them.


I took it in the Bay of Pigs area of Cuba about 10 years ago. I was there as part of a group working on the natural history and conservation of Cuban crocodiles, but I did get to see some of the surrounding region. I had a great time.

Cubans call the Bay of Pigs incident the Battle of Playa Girón, after the closest town to where it happened. There's a museum there about the battle; I wasn't able to visit, but I saw two WW2 surplus relics given by the US and USSR to their sides in the conflict - a Sherman tank facing down a T-34. (The Sherman tank would have stood little chance, if any.)

There's a billboard near the museum that describes the Battle of Playa Girón as the site of the "first defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America."

Every year, I talk about the Cuban crocodile project because I got excellent photos of nesting behavior in the species. (Crocodylian nesting behavior is surprisingly bird-like. They protect their nests and hatchlings with great vigor.) And when I do, I show them this picture.

My only comment? That the people killed at the Alamo would probably disagree with the billboard's assertion that Playa Girón was the site of the first defeat of Yankee imperialism in Latin America.

I hope to visit that museum when I go back, whenever that is. And I have to go back - I never saw a bee hummingbird. (A local birder tried to find one, but no such bird showed up. But in the space of 5 minutes or so, he showed us the two species of owl found only in Cuba. And we saw some Cuban todies. The Cuban trogons were also great, but they almost don't count, since they're so common down there.)

Travels with a bear.

If I could digress from politics for a moment:

As I’ve probably mentioned before, I work on the evolution of crocodylians - living and extinct alligators, crocodiles, and their close relatives - for a living. One consequence is the need to visit museum collections to look at modern skeletal specimens and fossils. And because crocodylians have lived pretty much everywhere over the past 80 million years – they’re known from as far north as Ellesmere Island in rocks about 45 million years in age, for example – this means going pretty much everywhere.

Life would be much simpler if people would just mail their crocodylians to me. For one reason or another, they won’t. So I go to them.

In 2019, I travelled to East Africa for 8 weeks. I’ve done extended trips like this before, but this was different – I now had a 3-year-old daughter. This would be hard for her. (Hard for her mother and me, too.).

So I asked my sister for advice. Her husband served in the US Navy, and like others in their community, they faced extended absences of one parent while they had small children. How did they deal with it?

She gave me several suggestions. Out of them, my wife/her mother and I came up with a solution: we’d go to Build-A-Bear and have two teddy bears made. One would stay with our daughter, and the other would come with me. I would then have pictures taken of the bear every day, sometimes with me, and text them to my wife, who would show them to our daughter.

We put great ceremony into the bear generation process. Build-A-Bear puts a “heart” of sorts in the bear before adding stuffing, both my daughter and I blew on the heart before its insertion. When we got home, we chose one of the t-shirts she’d outgrown and put it on the bear.

(I kinda hoped they'd hook the bear to a couple of power cables and throw a big switch, but it wasn't quite so dramatic as that.)

I did manage to get pictures nearly every day, though I couldn’t actually send them every day – believe it or not, there was an attempted coup in one of the countries (Ethiopia) during my visit, and most WiFi was shut down for several days.

I tried to expand the level of inspiration by asking my colleagues to sometimes pose with the bear. Some of these were US- or Europe-based scientists visiting the same facilities, and others were scientists from the host institutions. I made an effort to include women and people of color – it’s critical to show young girls that fields such as science are not just for white cis-gender males. Most found it charming, though I suspect I’d get in serious trouble if the photo I took with the director of one of these museums with the bear was ever made public.

It worked. My daughter was sad I was gone, but she always felt connected. She’d see the pictures in the morning before heading to day care (by which time it was afternoon for me), and would tell all of her friends about them.

I just returned on Monday from my first international research trip since the pandemic began – this time to Germany and Italy. My daughter is now 5, and I wasn’t going to be gone for nearly as long (just shy of two weeks), but I decided to keep doing it. I might keep doing it in perpetuity – it’s kinda become a thing for us.

I suspect by the time I retire, I’ll be known as the fellow who’s always keeping an eye on the time for bear o’clock as much as a crocodylian systematist. And I’m cool with that.

Here are some of the photos. I’m not including photos showing my colleagues – only the bear and, in some cases, yours truly.

Waiting for the flight to Addis Ababa, 2019:

Bale Mountains, south of Addis, 2019:

With some Somali ostriches, Middle Awash NP, 2019:

Middle Awash NP, 2019; there are crocodiles in the river behind us, but I don’t think you can see them:

Outside the paleo (palaeo?) collections area at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, 2019:

Lions near Nairobi, 2019:

Getting caffeinated before hitting the collections, Kampala, 2019:

Working with fossils, Stuttgart, 2021:

Train between Stuttgart and Tübingen, 2021:

Post-research drinks, Rome, 2021:

Roman Forum, 2021:

Wondering where the gladiators all went, 2021:
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