Since the birth of civilization, the two periods of war and peace have alternated with each era pushing the world in new directions. In the last three centuries, the quest for power and dominance has defined the relations between states and the people representing them. With political power reaching its acme, confrontations between smaller groups and communities became minified. As states battled for resources, markets and dominance - the global order became inevitable. Still later, politics took a backseat and in the last 50 years and more it has been economics to shape the states and the future of the people. After the catastrophes unfolded by the two world wars that left Europe, America and other countries that were under the imperial rule devastated with total economic collapse and huge death toll, an era of peace became inevitable. Also because the countries engaged in the war had destroyed each other and they needed to rebuild their states are face end. League of Nations and then United Nations were established to ensure that no major war took place in the two hemispheres. More than 50 years after the formation of the international peace keeping body, the world yet again felt the shocks of power disturbance. The split of Soviet Union followed by a series of conflicts in Middle East has prepared the breeding ground for a major conflict. Although international diplomacy is trying its best to maintain the balance of power, the gulf between East and West or the US and China poses imminent threat to the order. Far right politics has seized the world once again after an era of libertarian politics. We don’t know when the spark will blow the powder keg, but it seems quite plausible. To understand how the world changed with conflicts we need to step into the past.
The discovery of the New World by European explorers sparked a fierce competition among European nations to obtain territories abroad. Colonialism was fueled by the desire to fill national coffers, through trade, agriculture, or plunder. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exaggerated rumors of indigenous wealth and stores of gold encouraged plunder of Indian villages. Almost immediately, the demand for exotic objects of art from the Americas swelled, as wealthy aristocrats clamored for Incan jewelry and Mayan antiquities.
In the 1790s, the birth of the academic discipline of archaeology spurred further interest in antiquities. Archaeologists conducted expeditions, excavating sites and capturing the popular imagination with the artifacts they found. The development of archaeology occurred with a contemporary revival in colonialism. In the early 1800s, independence movements drove European colonial powers from much of the Americas. Seeking other venues for expanding colonial markets, obtaining natural resources, and extending political influence, several European nations, including Britain, France, and the Netherlands, turned to colonial endeavors in Africa and Asia. As imperial powers expanded, so too did public interest in exotic artifacts. During the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese porcelains, costumes, and figurines were popular goods in Holland, Britain, and France. At the turn of the twentieth century, British collectors favored artifacts and antique jewels from Egypt and India. Colonialism provided a means for such cultural resources to be trafficked to Europe for sale or display in museums.
Even in times of warfare, such as the Napoleonic Wars and wars of colonial expansion, cultural resources were a prime consideration. Many western armies freely destroyed indigenous or ancient sites of cultural significance in the heat of battle—a practice that later devastated the many Medieval and Renaissance treasures in Europe itself during World War I. Western archaeologists and antiquities collectors, in an era before the discipline became highly scientific, looted sites to locate artifacts.
Antiquities of value were removed from their national contexts, and sent back to museums in Europe. Napoleon employed special spies to locate and gather the best art and antiquities in conquered nations to send back to Paris. In Britain, ancient Egyptian goods and mummies proved immensely popular with collectors and museum audiences. Later, French wars in Indochina created a popular vogue of Buddhist relics and ancient Chinese artifacts.
Even though many of the great finds of the last three hundred years were considered spoils of war or colonialism, the removal of artifacts from their national contexts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was illustrative of the colonial worldview. Many archeologists, antiquities collectors, and museum collectors considered the removal of foreign treasures to European museums a chief means of preservation. They considered themselves better stewards of the world cultural resources, believing that European collections offered better access for scholars, and a safer environment for the storage of the artifacts themselves.
Changing practices in the discipline of archaeology, which is now highly specialized, scientific, and wholly dependent on the provenience (location and context) of cultural goods, and the fall of colonialism, facilitated the end of widespread plundering of African and Far Eastern antiquities to Western museums. The demise of nineteenth century values regarding antiquities, however, raised new questions about the ownership of goods plundered during past conflicts.
One of the most complicated cases in the international dispute over antiquities repatriation, the giving back of antiquities or works of art to their original owner, is that of the British-owned Elgin Marbles. The stone sculptures hail from the Greek Parthenon, but were purchased by Lord Elgin, a British collector, from Greek authorities, shortly before Greece erupted in a decades-long series of wars. The Parthenon was in dubious condition, and Elgin took the statues in an allegedly legal transaction. After the establishment of international laws governing the repatriation of both wartime and peacetime plundered goods, the Greek government appealed to the British History Museum for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The legal battle remains ongoing, intensified by Greece’s desire to repossess the statues before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but Britain has retained ownership of the prized antiquities.