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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Planned Plunder? The British Museum and the 1868 Maqdala Expedition

The article I have written with my colleague Lucia Patricia Gunning on Maqdala, the 1868 expedition to Ethiopia (then called - in Britain - Abyssinia) and the role of an employee of the British Museum has been published this week in the Historical Journal.

Sulpted bust of a bewhiskered Victorian man
Sir Charles Thomas Newton by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, 1st Bt plaster cast of bust, 1863 NPG 973. National Portrait Gallery.

Our paper shows that it was a letter written on 3 October 1867 by Charles Thomas Newton (left), Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, to Sir Roderick Murchison, the President of the Royal Geographical Society, requesting that an archaeologist from the museum be sent with the expedition, that put in motion the circumstances that led to these sacred objects entering the British Museum’s (and a number of other museums’) collections.[i] And yet, the material that Newton wished to be collected were antiquities related to Greek-ruled (Ptolemaic) Egypt and the ancient silk route to South Asia. The plunder of cultural heritage on the Maqdala expedition was premeditated, but we argue that it did not go to plan. In addition, the inclusion of a man from the museum made this expedition unique in the British Museum’s history. Understanding the plunder of Maqdala, illustrates the entanglement of politics and imperialism with scientific and cultural institutions in Victorian Britain and underlines the importance of undertaking accurate and wide-ranging research on the history of collections.

This paper has been a long time coming. I first read the letter in 2004 - towards the end of my PhD

Hand written notes on a page.
My notes from 2004

research - and remember discussing its implications with my supervisor, Professor Annie Coombes. We agreed it could merit at least a whole chapter and so was not included as my PhD was pretty much done. Then I returned to it in 2006 when trying to get a biography of Newton published. I ended up getting a different book accepted for publication and then switched to looking at the influence of racial theory (or just racism) and eugenics on the reception of the ancient world for about a decade.

In 2018 I returned to this letter and got to know my co-author Lucia more. We agreed that by putting our expertise together we could deliver an article that explained the context and importance of it but didn't really start work on it until late 2019, then worked on it through lockdown in 2020, then again in 2021. It has been through many changes and our referees really helped to shape it. So massive thanks to them, the editor Rachel Leow at the Historical Journal and Lucia for working together with me on it. All this is to say that I have gone through many 'failures' as a researcher and historian but have learnt to pick myself up and try again.

The Letter

Murchison Papers Vol. III, British Library Add. MS 46127


24 Gower St

Oct. 3. 1867

My Dear Sir Roderick,

On the announcement of the Abyssinian expedition it occurred to me that it would be very desirable that an archaeologist should be sent out with the army.

Axum and Awasa were two cities lying in the track of the old Indian trade of the Ptolemies, and are full of Roman coins. Inscriptions of great historic interest have been found in both. Abyssinia too contains in its ? unknown collections [272] of Aethiopia and other Civss[?]*.

These considerations induced me to look out for a likely man to send.

I think I have found such a man among the staff of the museum and have talked the matter over with G. Grote and W. Jones with a view to bringing it before the trustees on the 18th incl.* In the meantime I have ascertained that the person on whom such appointments depends is the Indian Minister, Sir Stafford Northcote.

I am told that you have been already in communication with him in reference to the sending out a geologist, W. Jones. I thought [repeated?] [273] that you would be able to give me valuable advice as to the best method of laying the matter before him, supposing the trustees are willing to adopt my suggestion.

Perhaps you would kindly give me your opinion as to this. Believe me yours most truly,

C. T. Newton

[On back of 274] Newton, Abyssinian Antiquities, Oct 1867

[i] Newton to Murchison, 3 Oct. 1867, London, The British Library / BL - AM, Murchison Papers, III, ADD MS 46127, ff.271 – 274, F. 271.


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