Roman and Byzantine tombs were pillaged for their grave goods, and the “art” of grave robbing goes back over 2,000 years in China. Today, professional “tomb raiders” around the globe loot the burial places of past civilizations, from the graves of North American Indians to the tombs of ancient Chinese notables, and the international art market appears ever hungry for such antiquities, no matter how ill-gotten.
But taking the tombs themselves? That would be most unusual. Yet this is exactly what happened in the 1840s, when British traveler Charles Fellows shipped back to London’s British Museum 105 crates of blocks and sculptures taken from the ornate collection of tombs scattered across the ancient Lycian site of Xanthos on the picturesque southwest coast of Turkey. Of course, Fellows can be seen as a thief only if judged by the laws of modern Turkey, which strictly forbids the export of such antiquities. In the mid-19th century, however, wealthy and powerful imperialist European nations such as Britain and France were adept at forcing concessions from an Ottoman Empire in terminal decline -- concessions that included permits (firman) issued by the sultan allowing them to excavate, dismantle and carry off ancient remains from Anatolia (and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire).
Robbing graves is a crime almost as old as the practice that unwittingly encouraged it, but taking the tombs themselves is an entirely different matter. In the 1840s, Charles Fellows shipped back to London’s British Museum 105 crates of blocks and sculptures taken from tombs scattered in Turkey…
A man of his time
Fellows was typical of his times and class. Born into a wealthy landowning family in Nottinghamshire, England, in 1799, he had no pressing need to work. Perhaps bored with provincial life, he headed south to London, then the vibrant capital of the globe-spanning British Empire. Here he became an active member of the British Association, a society which promoted learning. A few years later he sought a more physical challenge in Europe’s new playground, the Alps, and in 1827, he found the classic route up 4,807-meter Mont Blanc. Following his mother’s death in 1832, he was drawn, like many of his contemporaries, to the “Grand Tour” countries, first Italy and Greece and then the Ottoman lands of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Overland to Lycia
Fellows first visited stunningly beautiful, mountainous Lycia in 1838. Travelling overland through Europe to Constantinople (İstanbul), he then turned south to Antalya. From this charming Mediterranean port, he turned west to enter Lycia, at that time a little known backwater of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed Lycia was so remote, Fellows noted in his first journal, that it had “not before been traversed by any European.” The mysterious Lycians had inhabited the wild peaks and valleys of the region from the late Bronze Age until their absorption into the Roman world in the first century, and Fellows was fascinated by their ruined cities. Possibly related to the Hittites, the Lycians developed a unique civilization of their own, fusing indigenous elements of their own culture with those of the peoples they came into contact with (Persian, Greek, Roman), resulting in the distinctive architecture which makes Lycia such a draw for archaeology and history buffs today.
Fellows was taken with all the Lycian sites he discovered, but the capital of the ancient region, Xanthos, captivated him most. “Ruins are wholly of temples, tombs, triumphal arches, walls, and a theatre. The site is extremely romantic, upon beautiful hills; some crowned with rocks, others rising perpendicularly from the river, which is seen winding its way down from the woody uplands, while beyond in the extreme distance are the snowy mountains in which it rises.” Camping amongst these magnificent remains, keeping malaria at bay with a homemade calico mosquito net, he was modest about his archaeological abilities, noting, “I have not had time, and do not possess sufficient talent, to examine completely the objects here, which alone afford inducement to the man of taste to visit this country, even from distant England.” Fellows makes no mention in the account of his 1838 visit about the possibility of removing some of the works of art from Xanthos and continued his journey, on horseback, up the coast to distant Smyrna (İzmir).
A second visit to Lycia
The intrepid Fellows returned to Lycia in 1839. Accompanied by the artist George Scharf (whose brilliant drawings illustrate Fellow’s second book “A Journal Written During an Excursion in Asia Minor”) he “discovered” several more Lycian sites, including Pınara, Sidyma and Myra. Xanthos, however, retained its hold on Fellows, and he wrote, “How might the classic enthusiast revel in the charms of this city and its neighbourhood!” He later added, tellingly, that he hoped many of the beautiful remains littered across the site would “ere long be deposited in the national museum.” The scene was set for Fellows’ third expedition of 1841-2, following which the British public would no longer have to make do with accounts and sketches of the archaeological wonders of distant Lycia, they would be able to see them for themselves in London’s British Museum.
Wolves, jackals and a game of cricket
The British Museum obtained a firman for Xanthos, and Fellows set sail from Malta in early November 1841 on a British naval ship, HMS Beacon. The ship’s captain, Graves, had been ordered to “sail to Smyrna for the firman, and thence to the nearest safe anchorage to the mouth of the river Xanthus, and there to put on board and bring away to Malta such objects as should be pointed out by Mr. Fellows.” Bureaucratic hiccups delayed the expedition at Smyrna, and it wasn’t until Dec. 26 that the Beacon reached its anchorage at the mouth of the river Xanthos. Fellows put ashore with his expedition team of “fifteen working men, a boy, the Lieutenant, the Gunner, the Cavasses [Ottoman police officials], a youth, the son of Mr. Wilkinson, our Consul at Rhodes, and myself” and made camp in the dunes near Patara. This long beach remains Turkey’s most unspoilt; in Fellows’ day it was positively wild, and he wrote, “No signs of life were visible but the footsteps of the wolves, jackals, and hares.”
Ancient Xanthos lies some 16 kilometers inland, above the river of the same name (now the Eşen Çayı) and only with great difficulty did the expedition manage to sail their small boats up what Fellows describes as “one of the most powerful, wild, and unmanageable streams I ever saw.” It took four days to ferry all the stores up to the new camp, close to the ancient site. According to Fellows, the curious locals “whose invisible tents and huts were sheltered with their flocks amongst the bushes” soon displayed the “hospitality and kindness which I had before experienced.” Indeed so helpful were the local Muslims that they “acted as pilots, by wading over the shallows and pointing out our best course for the boats” and freely supplied the expedition with “eggs, poultry, fruit, and milk.” Near to the first camp Fellows explored the ruins of ancient Letoon, but the sailors were more interested in sport and put the sands of Patara beach to good use. “Our evenings were not without amusement; the sailors soon made bats and balls, and cricket was perhaps for the first time played in Lycia; at all events the wonder expressed by the living generation showed that it was not a game known to the present inhabitants.”
Taking tombs from Lycia to London
In early January the real work began -- dismantling the tombs that had been identified by Fellows on his previous visit. His methods, by modern standards, were crude, but he was not solely interested in the finest sculptures, as earlier “marble hunters” had been. He mapped the site properly, recorded the location of stones before their removal and, most importantly, wanted to keep the tombs he was removing intact, including their many unadorned blocks and slabs, so they could be rebuilt in the British Museum. The Harpy Tomb, a huge rock pillar with a cavity at the top to hold the body, was so named for the relief-carved slabs of winged women adorning its exterior. The Nereid Monument was even more elaborate, a monumental tomb resembling an Ionic Greek temple, and named after the Nereid (sea-nymph) statues gracing its façade.
If taking the tombs apart without damaging them was difficult, dragging them across a rocky landscape of oleander, tamarisk, myrtle and storax even more so. Then the stones had to be lowered down a tricky cliff face to the boats moored in the fast-flowing river below and then ferried downstream to the river mouth, where the ship was anchored. Heavy rain and scorpions conspired to make things even more difficult, and on one occasion, Wilkinson, forced to abandon his horse when it got stuck in mud, returned next day to find “only the saddle, a part of the bridle, and one hoof.” Wolves had devoured the poor beast. But perhaps most frustrating for Fellows was the intransigence of Graves, who refused to allow his carpenters to build the flat-bottomed boats that would have eased the transport of the stones downstream, and then refused to load the crated tomb parts -- despite his orders.
Celebrity, controversy and death
In the end, however, the crates were loaded onto another ship, the HMS Monarch, and transported to Malta and thence onto London in another naval vessel. Many of the unfortunate crew of the Monarch had contracted malaria whilst loading the Xanthos stones and died, but Fellows became a celebrity and his various accounts of his expeditions to Lycia were bestsellers. In 1852 John Murray published his Lycian journals in a single volume entitled “Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, More Particularly in the Province of Lycia,” still available as a reprint by Elibron Classics. Most people, however, will come across his name at the British Museum, where the rebuilt Nereid Monument stands in all its glory, along with the fine relief-carvings from the Harpy Tomb.
Revisionists may well argue that the British Museum’s appropriation of the Xanthos antiquities constituted moral theft. This is certainly how the Greeks view the relief-carved marble frieze that once adorned Athens’ Parthenon, the so-called Elgin Marbles. Taken from Athens in 1816, and on display in the British Museum since 1817, the Greek government has campaigned vigorously for the return of “their” heritage for over 30 years. But Fellows can only be judged by the laws of his own time. A tomb raider he may have been, but a legally sanctioned one -- and at least visitors to the site of Xanthos today can see replicas, made from casts of the originals, of the Nereid and Harpy tombs. In 1845, he was knighted for his role in bringing the Lycian antiquities to Britain, and died in 1860.