The second half of the 1920s saw a series of exhibitions, on both sides of the north Atlantic, displaying the most recent archaeological finds from Mesopotamia. The Royal Tombs of Ur had just been discovered and the legend of Queen Puabi could only be compared to that of Tutankhamun. The excavations, led out by colonial powers such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany and, later, the United States of America, dated back to the Crimean War, between 1853 and 1856. The presence of western troops on Ottoman land and the political instability of the time created the perfect conditions to set up archaeological sites in the Middle East. 

The idea that the land belonged to those who studied it, not those who lived on it, took hold. The majority of the archaeologists on the first missions were also soldiers. A strict hierarchy relegated the native people to digging ditches and other physical tasks, for which prisoners were also used. To control the territory, modern geographical domination techniques were used, such as aerial photography and detailed military maps. In 1927, Henry Hall and Charles Leonard Woolley, the famous archaeologist who discovered the Royal Tombs of Ur, wrote: ‘It is curious that the first excavations of the British Museum on this site should have taken place during the Crimean War, and the next during the Great War of 1914-18. In each case war gave an opportunity to archaeology.’

After being unearthed, each object was thoroughly described and catalogued. The outlines of the figures were transcribed on graph paper and all the pieces and fragments were photographed from various angles on contrasting backgrounds. From the dig sites, the objects moved on to the work tables, before being packed in boxes to be sent to the countries that funded the expeditions. In the destination museums or universities, the boxes were emptied and the pieces were placed on tables so that their state of conservation could be certified. They were then put into other boxes: in this case, transparent display cabinets. From this point onwards, the same logistics were required every time the pieces were moved: from the table to the box, from the box to the table, from the table to the box, etcetera.

The archaeological findings, especially the anthropomorphic figures, were a topic of aesthetic discussion. They became part of the History of Art. Their inclusion in the teleological framework of the evolution of forms took the origins of western art back six millennia to Sumerian civilisation. This aesthetic-historical angle was used to justify the colonial presence, military intervention, exploitation of the native population and pillaging of the local cultural heritage.

The reduction of the ancient figures to works of art was the result of a rational procedure. The idea that modern society could assimilate fetishes in a positive way was inconceivable. They were an objectifiable sign of otherness that, stripped of their power, were rewritten by cognitive and aesthetic rationality.
Mark