Who Owns History?

Jordan has been asking for the Dead Sea Scrolls to be given back by Israel. During the Six-Day War of 1967 some of the ancient documents were absconded by Israel, according to the Jordanian point-of-view. (Nothing in the Middle East is every truly neutral or non-biased.) According to the newspaper, now Jordan wants them back.

This controversy is part of a larger trend for nations to demand “their” antiquities from foreign powers who have claimed and displayed them (in many cases) for large numbers of people to see. They are part of the world’s heritage and the modern day countries from which they emerged want them back. Why? To bolster national pride? Because of their inherent cultural value? To draw in tourist crowds who are interested in antiquities? The ownership of history is a touchy question. History itself belongs to the entire human race while individual artifacts may be stolen, purchased, or destroyed. Some are in the hands of major museums, minor museums, or in the houses of private collectors. Nations struggling for international respectability often want their heirlooms back, and this is only natural. At the same time, these nations may not have the infrastructure to preserve the artifacts securely. Think of the Baghdad Museum. When any government becomes unstable national treasures are at risk.

The Dead Sea Scrolls owe much of their public appeal to scandal. The story of their discovery and sale, rich with intrigue and skullduggery, is widely known. They capture headlines like 2000-year-old sex symbols; their chic name and aura of mystery assure public interest. As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, however, I have always found the Ugaritic texts to be of far greater importance. Nevertheless, while living in Wisconsin some years back, and teaching at Nashotah House, I arranged a field trip to the Field Museum in Chicago where a roving Dead Sea Scroll exhibit was settled for a limited time engagement. The seminarians were excited, and we decided to make a family trip of it. My daughter was a pre-schooler at the time, and we towed her along to be acculturated. In a dimly lit room, the feeling of an authentic Middle East chaos attended the display, people wandering blindly around, not quite sure of what they were looking at (this based on overheard conversations). People wanted to be near history, even if they didn’t know why. I had seen the famous scrolls in the Shrine of the Book some years before, but it was easy to feed off the excitement. When we got home we asked our daughter what she enjoyed the most from the bus ride and day out. “Seeing the Dead Sea Squirrels,” she replied.

History involves seeing what we want to see. Nobody owns it. Everybody owns it. Who should keep the artifacts? I don’t know. It seems that history is larger than petty desires for cultural fame. But then, that is what history records — our desires to stand out from the crowd.

One thought on “Who Owns History?

  1. Pingback: Who Owns History? « Sects and Violence in the Ancient World | Drakz Free Online Service

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