TRIPOLI, (Reuters Life!) – A British woman has handed back to Libya a collection of ancient artefacts which her father, an amateur archaeologist, took from the north African country when it was administered by Britain after World War Two.
The artefacts were part of a consignment — including a Hellenic ram, Roman terracotta oil lamps, the head of a statue of Bacchus and wall decorations — returned by relatives and friends of Britons who took them from Libya decades ago.
Jean Hugo from Wales said her family found a box of antiquities under her father’s bed after he died in 1996 and she felt compelled to bring back the items he collected. She lived in the Libyan city of Khoms, not far from the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, from 1953 to 1959 where her father was headmaster of the British army school.
“He was very interested in archaeology, so he did a lot of work at Leptis Magna,” she said at a ceremony in Tripoli late on Wednesday to mark the return of the artefacts. “There was nowhere to house the objects he found at the time … I will miss them terribly but they are back in their right place.”
Libya’s government says it wants to draw more tourists to its ancient sites and has been tracking down items that were sold, given or taken over four centuries of Turkish Ottoman and Italian rule and during the British administration of 1943-1951.
“I salute those people for this initiative,” said Saleh Agab, head of Libya’s Archaeology department, at the ceremony to welcome back the returned artefacts.
“(I) thank them for returning the antiquities voluntarily, without any pressure … because they are convinced they must return to their original place,” he said.
Some of the artefacts that can now be found from London to Istanbul, Cairo and Pennsylvania were sold by Libyan Bedouin tribesmen with little interest in the ancient past, said Agab’s predecessor at the department, Giuma Anag.
The palace of Versailles near Paris still houses items taken from Leptis Magna, Archaeology Department Advisor Fadal Ali told Reuters.
“We must work hard to return hundreds of similar pieces from other countries,” he said. “We have no archive of stolen items.”
Some Western academics fear that returning items could expose them to a lack of care, a view reinforced by the unkempt appearance of some historical sites in Libya.
“It can be very hard to challenge such claims, but the government is paying more attention to our cultural heritage than ever before,” said Anag.
Briton Oliver Keen said he also returned a Hellenic ram recovered during a diving expedition west of the Libyan city of Tobrouk with two friends.
The returned items are on display at the Tripoli Museum, refurbished last year to mark four decades since Gaddafi took power.
“As archaeologists we are not after the pieces as such, we are after the information they can reveal once they are returned to their natural environment,” said Anag.