The Stele of Antiochus I (GR 1927,12-14.1)

The Museum can confirm it has received a letter from the Ministry of Culture in Turkey requesting the transfer of ownership of an inscribed stele with a relief of Herakles greeting King Antiochus I of Commagene to the Turkish state.

The stele has been part of the British Museum’s collection since 1927. It was published both before and immediately after its acquisition and on numerous occasions subsequently, most recently in 2005 when it was lent for the exhibition ‘Alexander the Great – East-West cultural contacts from Japan to Greece’ at the Tokyo National Museum. At no point between 1927 and 2005 have the Turkish authorities, who were fully aware of the stele’s location, ever suggested that it had been improperly acquired or should be returned.

Prior to World War 1 the distinguished archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating at Carchemish, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Woolley was working with the full knowledge and consent of the Ottoman authorities. In 1914 the stele was brought to the attention of the archaeologists on his expedition, who saw it at Birecik. It was floated down the Euphrates to Carchemish for study and publication purposes. No evidence survives for how this journey was arranged or by whom, but what is clear is that the stele was not acquired by the British Museum or its agents at this time. It was deposited in the courtyard of the excavation premises at Jerablus and treated there in exactly the same way as stored finds from the Carchemish excavations, which equally were not to be acquired or exported.

During WWI and in the troubled period that followed, the border area that included the southern part of the Carchemish site and the excavation premises was much fought-over. The British Museum, fearing for the safety of the site and the antiquities in the excavation premises, paid for guards throughout WWI and up until 1923, when the guards were expelled by Turkish troops. In spite of this, reports of damage were frequent.

Under the treaties of 1923 that established the modern Turkish state, the southern part of the Carchemish site and the excavation premises at Jerablus became part of Syrian territory. Despite this destruction and looting continued and reached a peak in 1924, at which point Leonard Woolley gained permission from the French authorities in Syria to remove to safety ‘such stones as could be secured from the ruins’ of the dig house and adjacent area. There can be no doubt that the stele was acquired from Syrian territory, with permission from the French authorities in Syria, and therefore no Turkish law was contravened.

The stele is one of a number of reduced scale versions of the sculptural reliefs decorating the major monument built by Antiochus I still in situ at Nemrut Dag. Other versions are on Turkish sites or in Turkish museums. The stele in the British Museum sustained considerable damage at some stage in its history when it was turned into an olive press and used in a farmer’s field. It now has a large hole in it that destroys part of the relief and part of the inscription on the reverse side.

The Museum greatly values the cordial relationship it has enjoyed with Turkish colleagues over recent years which has led to fruitful collaborations such as the loan by Turkey of a head of Hadrian for the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Hadrian: Empire and Conflict’in 2008, and the loan by the British Museum of the iconic sculpture of the discus-thrower or ‘Discobol(o)us’ to Istanbul in 2010. As with all objects in the collection, the Museum would be willing to discuss a loan of the stele, subject to usual conditions, for the purposes of temporary exhibition in Turkey. The Trustees of the British Museum cannot consent to the transfer of ownership of the stele and firmly believe that it should remain part of the British Museum’s collection where it can be seen in a world context by a global audience.

For more information please contact the Communications department on +44 (0)20 7323 8522/8583/8394 or  

Stele of Antiochus I

Stele of Antiochus I (GR 1927,12-14.1)