The ancient Middle East and the ethics of archaeology

Many of the advances that we enjoy and even take for granted nowadays have come from the Middle East. Love coffee? The earliest credible evidence of coffee drinking or knowledge shows that a monastery in Yemen during the 15th century enjoyed or knew about coffee. Have you performed in a marching band? The origins of this comes from the Ottoman military band from the 16th century. Several forms of surgery and algebra itself also came from the ancient Middle East. As such, it’s important to study the cultures, histories, and heritages of this region – as well as to review the fundamentals and ethics of archaeology. This past spring students in Dr. Heather Sharkey’s The University, the Museum, and the Middle East class at the University of Pennsylvania chose to edit or create several articles along this vein.

For those who perked up at the mention of music as well as those who love history, you may find the Bull Headed Lyre of Ur intriguing. One of the oldest stringed instruments ever discovered, this was excavated in the Royal Cemetery of Ur during the 1926-27 season of an archeological dig led by Leonard Woolley and carried out in what is now Iraq jointly by the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum. Woolley was assisted in his work by his future wife Katharine Woolley, whom he married in 1927, and who also helped by working as an illustrator for the objects catalog. The lyre dates back to the Early Dynastic III Period (2550–2450 BCE) and was found along with several other such instruments in “The King’s Grave,” near the bodies of more than sixty soldiers and attendants. As a group, these instruments are the second oldest surviving stringed instruments. It is currently held at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, which also took great pains to conserve and restore this historical treasure. There is much that can be learned from these instruments, such as how they were constructed, the available materials, and the preferred styles of the people from that era.

The ethics of archaeology have often been debated, as there are questions such as whether or not it is ethical to excavate a grave site or whether or not sites should be preserved in hopes that future generations will have less invasive techniques. There is also the question of what happens to artifacts once they’re taken from the site and what the responsibility is for museums that obtain them for their collections. To this end the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology issued the Pennsylvania Declaration on April 1, 1970. With this declaration the institution swore to not accept any items that lacked provenance or collection histories. This was done in order to foster and maintain trust with the countries where the university engaged in field research, as well as to distinguish it from illegal antiquity trading. It was presented by Froelich Rainey, director of the Penn Museum, at the meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in conjunction with the issue of its treaty known as the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Rainey, who had performed field research throughout the world – including his early work in Arctic Alaska, had been invited by UNESCO the prior year to help draft the convention. However as he did so, he realized that the UNESCO convention would lack legal accountability and would not suffice in ending looting, regulating the importation of cultural material, and providing guidelines for legal trade. This realization influenced his decision to draft the separate Pennsylvania Declaration.

Students and instructors have a lot of knowledge to offer the world! Wiki Education provides tools, online trainings, and printed materials to help them channel that knowledge into the public resource that is Wikipedia. If you’re interested in getting involved, visit to get started.

Header image by BabelStone, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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