British university forced to return 'looted' Iraq treasure

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future