Repatriation of ancient artifacts and the launch of the UK’s Monuments Men: Cultural Protection event at Villa Wolkonsky

On October 11, 2018, the UK Embassy and British School at Rome hosted an event at Villa Wolkonsky, the British Ambassador’s residence. The focus of the event was the protection of cultural heritage and it was attended by representatives from the UK and Italian governments, Carabinieri, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), British Council, British Academy, and Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA).

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Assistant Director for Archaeology Peter Campbell presents HMA Jill Morris with a scaled-down replica statue of Antinous currently on display at the British Museum, created by digital heritage specialists ThinkSee3D Ltd. In the background you can see work by BSR Arts Council of Northern Ireland Fellow John Rainey. Photo by Luca Marinelli.

The event featured exhibitions by the Carabinieri and the BSR. The Carabinieri displayed eight artifacts that had been recovered in raids, spanning from ancient Greek vases to an Amati violin dating back to 1500. The BSR exhibition featured the destruction and looting of cultural heritage, showing post-World War II photographs from the archive taken by John Ward-Perkins to document war damage, as well as contemporary photographs from Aleppo and Palmyra in Syria. The exhibition also showed the latest methods for identifying, documenting, and sharing cultural heritage in the race to preserve archaeological sites. This included geophysics equipment, 3D documentation and printing, and holograms. For example, ThinkSee3D, a company based in Oxford, sent a reproduction of a statue of Antinous that was found on the Janiculum and is currently in the British Museum. The museum 3D scanned the statue and ThinkSee3D printed it and created a high quality cast. The statue was presented as a gift to HMA Jill Morris. The exhibition also featured contemporary art by Ian Kirkpatrick, John Rainey (2018 Arts Council of Northern Ireland Fellow), and Joseph Redpath (2018 Scholars’ Prize-winner in Architecture), who draw inspiration from Rome and ancient themes.

A panel of speakers addressed the protection of cultural heritage from various perspectives. General Parrulli of the Carabinieri detailed how they have become world leaders in the recovery of stolen antiquities. Lynda Albertson, the director of ARCA, discussed her experience of training students to disrupt the illegal trafficking and sale of antiquities. Particularly poignant was the recent sale of a Hindu statue, which was retracted due to ARCA’s intervention. MP Mark Lancaster gave perspective from the UK government and the military, as the head of armed forces.


Peter Campbell with Minister of State for Armed Forces The Rt Hon Mark Lancaster MP at the exhibition of photographs from the BSR Ward-Perkins collection of war damage photographs.

The highlight of the event was the return of two stolen Etruscan artifacts. Taken from collections several decades ago, the artifacts turned up on the art market in London. The Metropolitan police confiscated the pieces from dealers and presented them to the Carabinieri at the event, marking the successful repatriation of these stolen works of art.


The ceremony for the official repatriation of two Etruscan artefacts recovered by the Metropolitan Police. Photo by Luca Marinelli.

Perhaps the most significant moment in the day came with the announcement of the creation of a UK military unit to protect cultural heritage, a ‘Monuments Men’ as it was known in World War II, though the original and current units included women. Following the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention, the UK is now enlisting specialists in cultural heritage to identify significant cultural sites in countries and work to protect them during conflict. Led by Lieutenant Coronel Tim Purbrick, the unit has started recruiting members from reservists with specializations in cultural heritage. The new Monuments Men will assist with areas in conflict and protect sites that may come under assault.

Peter Campbell (Assistant Director for Archaeology and Archaeological Science)