Ancient artefacts returned to Jordan with help of Oxford expert

Three finely carved stones from an ancient temple in modern-day Jordan have been returned to the country thanks to the expertise of an Oxford University archaeologist.

The pieces formed part of Khirbet et-Tannur, a temple complex 70km north of Petra, the rose-red rock-cut city of the Nabataeans. The temple flourished as a place of sanctuary from the second century BC until the middle of the fourth century AD.

Featuring grape vine and vegetal motifs, the artefacts were saved from private sale after an art dealer in Spain contacted Oxford expert Dr Judith McKenzie, of the Faculty of Classics, who was able to identify the items as pieces of the Khirbet et-Tannur altar platform.

Dr McKenzie, who has led international studies of the archaeological finds from Khirbet et-Tannur, resulting in two books, said: ’Khirbet et-Tannur was first excavated in 1937, and the artefacts found at the site were split between Cincinnati Art Museum in the United States and the archaeological museum in Jordan.

’The temple is famous in Jordan because the Vegetation Goddess panel from it is prominently displayed in the entrance of the Jordan Museum in Amman.One of the returned pieces joins the Fish Goddess bust from the altar platform in the museum. It is thus important that the pieces be displayed in the Jordan Museum, along with the other pieces from Khirbet et-Tannur.’

Of the sequence of events that led to the artefacts’ return, Dr McKenzie said: ’Mr Diego López de Aragón of Galería López de Aragón, a third-generation art dealer with an important presence in the international art market and who intended to sell these three particular items, contacted me in the summer of 2018 to ask for my opinion to clarify their provenance. I immediately recognised them as pieces of the altar platform at Khirbet et-Tannur, and I was able to demonstrate that they should be returned to Jordan.

’Securing their return was a collaborative effort involving myself, the art dealer, and various authorities in Spain and Jordan, including the Department of Antiquities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Her Royal Highness Princess Dana Firas, President of the Petra National Trust and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Cultural Heritage, the Spanish Ministry of Culture (Heritage Department), and the Jordanian Embassy in Madrid.’

Diego López de Aragón of Galería López de Aragón, which exhibits each year at TEFAF Maastricht, said: ’These Nabataean pieces formed part of the collection belonging to a Spanish diplomat and collector, Juan Durán-Lóriga y Rodrigañez [1926-2016]. He was posted to Jerusalem as vice-consul general for Spain in the 1950s, and years later, in 1969, he was appointed Spanish ambassador to Amman. The pieces became part of his collection once he was back in Spain.

’Galería López de Aragón and Galería Escorial Casado acquired the three pieces from the Ambassador’s nephew and heir in 2017. The heir later provided us with a copy of Nelson Glueck’s excavation book,  Deities and Dolphins , that he found in his uncle’s library. Consequently, we realised that the stones belonged to the Khirbet et-Tannur Temple in Jordan.

’Therefore, we decided to contact Dr McKenzie to help us catalogue the stones. Thanks to her knowledge and information on Glueck’s excavation, we proceeded to donate the stones to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We truly believe that such singular pieces should be exhibited at the Jordan Museum in Amman, hence our decision to donate them.’

Her Royal Highness Princess Dana Firas said: ’We are grateful to Dr Judith McKenzie and Diego López de Aragón for their collaboration and their critical role in repatriating these important pieces to Jordan. This outcome stands as a successful example of cooperation among governments, the private sector, and civil society to honor the country-origin of archaeological pieces. We are proud to have these important Nabataean pieces back in Jordan, where they belong, and we look forward to displaying them with other pieces from Khirbet et-Tannur that tell the story of our history and rich cultural heritage.’ 

Dr McKenzie, Director of the Manar al-Athar Open-Access Photo Archive in Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, added: ’These pieces are unique in the Jordanian context and an important part of the region’s cultural heritage. It’s very satisfying to know they have been returned rather than being sold on the private market, and I’m thankful to the dealer for proactively seeking out the view of an expert. Their successful return also shows the important role played by Jordan’s own civil society organisations, such as the Petra National Trust.’