On May 6, Mattapoisett Public Library’s Purrington Lecture Series hosted a lecture that opened a door into Bronze Age culture and sites. Holding the door open as we slipped through was archeologist Dr. Stuart Swiny. On the other side were magnificent works of art, many of which have been under continuous threat of annihilation or confiscation almost since they were created, but never more than now in modern Near East countries.
Swiny has spent decades both in the field excavating sites in Turkey, Cyprus, Iran and Afghanistan, and in academic circles as a professor focused primarily on Near East studies with a concentration on early and middle Cypriot periods. He was also the director of the Cyprus American Archeological Research Institute. More recently, he taught at the University of Albany before retiring.
With such a massive wealth of knowledge, Swiny’s presentation gave the audience just a taste of Bronze Age artistic ingenuity, religious themes, and the cross-pollination of cultures and societies in ancient Cypriot times. He also reminded us that mankind, at times, is savage.
Woven throughout Swiny’s talk was the importance – the absolute necessity – of preserving historic sites and artifacts.
“Preserving the remains of a culture is a serious matter,” said Swiny.
He gave his personal view of the perils faced in areas where war and conflict have not only threatened human lives but the ancient history that rightfully belongs to them as well.
Swiny started with early threats by French and English excavators better described as “looters” who took, sold, or purchased all things ancient. Then he introduced a prime mover, one Earl Elgin (1774-1841), who nearly singlehandedly deconstructed pieces of the Parthenon, transporting them to England. And let us not forget those who acquired anything and everything that could be moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York City.
Swiny said of modern society and the hundreds of thousands of stolen pieces, “There are governments who would like them back!” He pointed to the famous tug of war between the Italian government and the MFA-NY that went on for three decades before the massive Euphronios Krater (515 BC) was returned.
Swiny said that it was a western elitist justification that “we are saving these things” from climate and an indifferent local attitude that contributed to the removal of artifacts. However, such concepts were, in fact, not always the best for the pieces in question.
The World War II bombing of Germany, for instance, turned many ancient pieces taken from their original locations to Germany into rubble. Swiny said other pieces that had been transported west were saved prior to the outbreak of war, as they were secreted into caves and other safe havens. “Hilter was upset to find the Louvre was cleaned out.”
Speaking to the magnificence of the works of art, Swiny showed a picture of a gleaming white statue; then beside it another of the same statue brightly painted. He said that most of statues and interior temple walls were painted saying, “…Because color in everyday life was limited, and the ancients loved color.”
After World War II, Swiny said looting decreased. Yet even today these illegal activities continue. He said museums cannot purchase ancient works that have been excavated after 1972. But more distressing yet, many sites and precious pieces have been physically destroyed.
Swiny showed photographic evidence of temples bombed and statues defaced in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the museum in Kabul that he so enjoyed visiting in the past had been stripped to bare stones and used for a refugee shelter.
“It is painful for me to see,” he quietly stated. He said that even the ruthless Genghis Kahn had not damaged the gods of other cultures, somehow believing in the respect they should receive. “The Islamic State, however, blew them up.”
Regarding the conflict in Syria, Swingy said that many works of art had been removed to safe locations but that the culture of the country was still damaged.
Swiny’s many decades of study give him not only an immense understanding of ancient societies, but they also imbue him with tremendous insight into human nature both then and now. He believes that while people of the past didn’t fully appreciate all the riches they had, modern people can and should, thus his message resonates: “…Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever…” He understands the importance of research and its ability to yield important information about human habitation from what people ate to societal constructs, but he also is sounding the drumbeat – “History matters,” and as such should not be taken for granted.
When asked about how governments should balance the needs of growing modern populations with the conservation of historic sites, Swiny thought for a moment then smiled and said, “Well, you can make more humans, but not historic works.”
Swiny has written many articles and books based on his research. To learn more, visit www.researchgate.net. To learn more about the Purrington Lecture series at the Mattapoisett Public Library, visit www.mattapoisettlibrary.org.
By Marilou Newell