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Ownership and Protection in the Case of the Roman Mosaics from Zeugma, Turkey 

Eisuke TanakaDepartment of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge


This paper explores the relationship between the idea of “protection” and the idea of “ownership” in the case of historical objects marked as “cultural property,” by focusingon the controversy over plans for an exhibition of Roman mosaics discovered atZeugma, the site of an ancient city on the Euphrates near Gaziantep, southeast Turkey.Focusing on a discrepancy found in the claims for protection and control of themosaics, this paper attempts to elicit the relationship between the notions of protection, ownership and place in debates over objects considered “cultural.” Indiscussions of the issues concerning cultural property, the notion of protection and theidea of ownership are generally considered to overlap and reinforce each other.However, the ways in which the locals in Gaziantep, the Turkish state and aninternational organization that supported conservation works for the Zeugma mosaicsused the notion of protection to claim control of the mosaics, suggest that theseownership claims are not only opposed but also are differentiated by mobilizing thenotion of protection.


This paper explores the relationship between the idea of “protection” and the idea of “ownership” in the case of historical objects marked as “cultural property,” looking at acase of Roman mosaics found at Zeugma near Gaziantep, southeast Turkey. Recentanthropological discussions concerning “cultural property” point out that the notion of property is deployed in the discourse of protection of tangible and intangiblemanifestations of an individual culture, which works to reify the culture as if it was athing to be owned (see e.g. Brown 2004; Handler 1988). Reciprocally, this alsodesignates a group, usually a nation or an ethnic group, as the owner of such culturalobjects. In this context, it is often claimed that such cultural objects should beprotected in the place where they were originally found.In Turkey, controversies over state development projects and the protection of archaeological sites affected by such projects have increasingly drawn public attentionsince the late 1990s. In 2000, international as well as Turkish media attention focusedon the rescue excavations conducted at Zeugma, an ancient city on the Euphrates,where archaeologists found a number of extremely well-preserved Roman mosaics.Zeugma and its mosaics were recognized as important to the cultural heritage of thecountry by both the Turkish state and the local inhabitants of Gaziantep. However,there were tensions between the two. This was particularly evident when these localsopposed the Turkish state’s plan to exhibit the mosaics in Istanbul in 2004, arguing thatthey should not be transferred outside Gaziantep (see Gaziantep Anadolu Ajansı, 11March, 2004).Based on the media coverage on this controversy over the exhibition plan of the Zeugma mosaics in Istanbul, this paper examines what it means for different groupsinvolved in this case, specifically Turkish state agencies and local people, to protectthings considered “cultural property.” It explores how the language of ownership isrelated to the idea of protection of cultural objects. It also considers the role of the ideaof place in relation to the discourses concerning the protection of cultural property inshowing how and why the locals in Gaziantep opposed the exhibition plan in Istanbul. Itsuggests that the notion of place of origin helps to construct an essential link betweencultural property and those who make claims for its protection using the language of ownership.


Terms like “cultural property” and “heritage” are now commonly used to refer to allcultural expressions both tangible and intangible, such as artifacts and sites of historicalimportance, and practices considered “traditional.” Several scholars have studied the role of the concept of cultural property in constructing representations of the past andhistory, highlighting that the notion of property is used to denote phenomena related tothe appropriation of culture and history in the name of “identity,” such as in the case of “cultural revival” movements (Brown 2003 and 2004; Foster 1991; Handler 1988;Lowenthal 1985 and 1997; Walsh 1992). These studies have suggested that the notionof property works to reify a “culture” in a materialized form, as it “encompass[es] allmanifestations of an individual culture, both material and intangible” (Brown 2004:53). Moreover, a culture reified through the concept of property works reciprocally todesignate a community as the rightful owner of cultural objects, usually identified witha nation or an ethnic group, both by international organizations like UNESCO and bynation-states. Through such reification, the relationship between cultural property andthe owners of that property is often described by anthropologists as “inalienable”(Welsh 1997; Weiner 1985; 1992).

1. This relationship between cultural property and their owners involves thenotions of time and place. Objects considered “cultural property” often acquire aparticular symbolic value for a nation or an ethnic group as their owner. In such acontext, cultural objects are considered to be inseparable from the group of peoplewho claim their possession as their “heritage.” This “inalienable” nature of culturalobjects is indicated for example in the claims for repatriation of cultural property.Those who ask the return of cultural objects (i.e. some nation-states and indigenouspeoples) often claim that they have inherited such objects from their ancestors. Thisthen entails that these people have to verify their link with the originators of the objectsin question. For example, in the case of the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles debates betweenGreece and the United Kingdom, the Greek state has stressed the continuity betweenancient Greeks and the modern Greek nation (see Greenfield 1996; cf. Herzfeld 1987;Yalouri 2001).In addition to invoking the idea of the past through terms like “inheritance” and“heritage,” disputes over cultural property suggest that ownership of such objects is alsostrongly connected with the idea of place. What is often problematised in repatriationdisputes is the fact that the objects in question are outside their place of origin. Words  such as “return,” “restitution” and “repatriation” themselves imply the move of objectsfrom one place to another, and in practice, claims of repatriation of cultural propertyare often based on the assumption that an object’s place of origin is self-evident.

2.Theidea of place of origin already reifies “place” as an essential reality assuming that thingsmarked as cultural property have a well-defined singular place of origin as such. In thiscontext, the place of origin emerges as a distinctly bounded space in which culturalproperty should most legitimately belong. Thus, through involving the notions of placeand the past, an “inalienable” value of cultural property is generated. This is also inaccordance with the idea that the nation or ethnic group, the supposed owner of cultural property, is thought to be bounded spatially as well as temporally (cf.Anderson 1991).It is important to note here that the significance of cultural manifestations,both tangible and intangible, is articulated by evoking the necessity of their protectionthrough the conservation and restoration of historic sites, monuments and artifacts, thepreservation of cultural landscapes, and the safeguarding of “traditional” practices (likerituals and music) and “indigenous” knowledge. Protection, that is the bid to savecultural property from destruction, is in fact one of the focal points in the discussions of heritage management and other cultural property related phenomena such as the illicittrade of antiquities (Carman 2001; Daifuku 1968; Renfrew 2000; Tubb 1995). Theprotection of cultural property is also the key objective of the laws and regulations forsuch objects, which are formulated by international organizations like UNESCO as wellas nation-states (Magness-Gardiner 2004).However, the idea of protection does not simply mean safeguarding objectsconsidered cultural property from destruction. The notion of protection is also used todenote protecting the owner’s right to control cultural property. What is often at stakein cultural property debates (e.g. disputes over repatriation) is where and by whomsuch objects should be protected, and who can decide where such objects are protectedand displayed. This provokes rivalry between different claimants for the ownership of cultural property at international, national and local levels. The “allocation” of culturalproperty is contested among these groups (Lowenthal 1997: 269). Given that objectsconsidered cultural often play a key role as symbols of identity, control over culturalproducts works to authorize a particular group’s objectification of “culture” in the senseof self-identification and self-determination (see Neller 2002).

3. Claims to protect a culture through its products are seen as claims to protect the identity of the group inthis respect (Bray 1996; see also Strathern 2004: 93). Thus, ownership claims forobjects designated cultural property are entwined with the idea of protection, andthese two notions reinforce one another. However, the following case-study of thecontroversy over the Gaziantep Roman mosaics suggests a more complicatedrelationship between the idea of “ownership” and the idea of “protection.”


Since the 1960s a number of archaeological and historical sites in Turkey have beensubmerged because of dam constructions and many more will soon be underwater.Most affected are the country’s southeastern regions, where a number of dams havebeen constructed on the basins of the Tigris and the Euphrates as part of the state’sregional development project.

4.Archaeological projects to record the archaeologicalremains which would be inundated by the dam water have also been conducted (e.g.the “Keban Project”).

5.From the end of the 1990s especially, dam constructions and theprotection and conservation of archaeological and historic sites attracted much publicattention (Siiler 2000: 3). In 2000, international as well as the Turkish mass mediahighlighted several issues involving Zeugma.Zeugma was a Hellenistic and Roman city whose remains are today found inthe village of Belkis on the Euphrates, 60 km east of Gaziantep, southeast Turkey.

6.Archaeological excavations at the site started in the late 1980s, although it was alreadyknown in the early twentieth century to locals and to some Europeans who visited theregion as the site where Roman mosaics and inscriptions were discovered. Some of theexcavated mosaics are said to have found their way to museums in Turkey as well asEurope and the United States, and also to private collections (Kennedy 1998: 11-13).By the 1960s, some locals discovered the monetary value of the mosaics, and are said tohave been involved in clandestine excavations for the international art market (Ergeç2000: 20). Archaeologists who began excavation at Zeugma have reported that many of the mosaics found in Zeugma had been damaged by such “illegal” excavations(Campbell and Ergeç 1998; Ergeç 2000: 21). When I interviewed Turkish journalistÖzgen Acar about issues of illegal digging in Turkey, he told me about his suspicionthat many of the Roman mosaics in various museum catalogues, whose place of origin isdescribed as “East Mediterranean,” or “said to be from East Turkey,” or “near Syria,”are probably excavated from Zeugma.

7. One notable example is the mosaic of Dionysus and Ariadne. In 1992, a localguard for Zeugma noticed a tunnel, which led to the remains of a Roman villa.Archaeologists based at the Gaziantep Museum excavated the site and uncovered amosaic depicting the wedding of Dionysus and Ariadne (Başgelen and Ergeç 2000: 18).They decided to preserve it in situ. However, a large part of this mosaic was cut out bylooters on 15 June 1998 (Acar 2000b: 7), and has been missing since then.

8. Archaeologist Rıfat Ergeç, who was the director of the Gaziantep Museum between1989 and 1999, notes that the name of Zeugma became known for the first time to thelocals in Gaziantep through the news coverage of the discovery of this mosaic piece(Ergeç 2005: 52). He also mentions that the villagers living near Zeugma started tovisit the site showing an interest in the Dionysus and Ariadne mosaic, and also began toappropriate the motifs of the mosaic for the designs of their handicrafts (e.g. carpets)(Ergeç 2000: 52).From the late 1990s when the construction of the Birecik Dam on theEuphrates commenced, a rescue excavation at Zeugma was also started by the  Gaziantep Museum and a team of foreign archaeologists. At first, the excavation didnot seem to attract much public attention (Acar 2000: 7; Başgelen 2000: 13-14; Ergeç2000: 22-3.). However, as the construction of the Birecik Dam neared completion in2000, the Turkish press started to bring up the issue of Zeugma after a huge number of extremely well-preserved Roman mosaics and frescoes were discovered through therescue excavations (see Figure 1) (Gaziantep Sanay Odası21 June, 2000). Eventually,these finds came to be regarded as “one of the greatest collections of ancient mosaicsanywhere in the world” (see Gorvet 31 May, 2004).

9.After the Birecik dam went intooperation in April 2000, a large number of articles on the development of the rescueexcavations began to appear in the international media (e.g. New York Times, TheEconomist) as well as in the Turkish national and local press.

10. The fact that these articles appeared in the foreign press had the effect of further attracting the attention of the Turkish media: that of the mosaics was a storywhich “shook the world first, and only then the Turkish media, intellectuals, theMinistry of Culture, and politicians like a big earthquake” (Acar 2000b: 8). The mediacoverage also attracted financial support for the excavation project from the PackardHumanities Institute (PHI) in the United States (Bagelen and Ergeç 2000: 46). ThePHI gave $5,000,000 for a three-month archaeological rescue operation from July tothe beginning of October 2000.

11.It also agreed to support post-excavation works, suchas the construction of a laboratory for the conservation of the finds.Through this national and international attention, the Roman mosaicsexcavated from Zeugma have come to be recognized as one of the finest in the worldboth in size and in quality. Declaring that the South Anatolia Project (SAP) “assignsspecial importance to the protection, conservation, tourism industry, relatedpromotion of the cultural heritage of the region” (Southeast Anatolia Project RegionalDevelopment Administration 6 November, 1999), SAP now presents the management of Zeugma’s heritage as essential to its policy on “cultural sustainability,” which itmeans “the transfer of cultural heritage to future generations” (Southeast AnatoliaProject Regional Development Administration 28 December, 2006). Highlighting thesignificance of the site as national heritage, the local government in Gaziantep also usesimages of the excavated objects as one of the symbols of the city.

13.Images of themosaics have proliferated in the city, and can even be found in the central reserve of the main street in the city centre (see Figure 2). Turkish archaeologist Rıfat Ergeç notesin his article written for a local business magazine that “Zeugma” is sometimes used as asynonym for the Roman mosaics discovered at the site (Ergeç 2005: 53.). Given such asituation, questions such as who controls the mosaics, where they are protected, and bywhom, have become focal points of discussion. Roman mosaics of Zeugma were thusfeatured again by the Turkish (and some international) mass media in 2004

Belkıs/Zeugma Ancient City is located on the banks of the Euphrates River within the borders of Belkıs Village, Nizip District, Gaziantep Province. Built on approximately 20 thousand acres of land…