The Schoyen Collection: 20,000 Ancient Manuscripts from 134 Countries in 120 Languages
The largest private collection of manuscripts is remarkable not just for the number of items it possesses (over 20,000) but for the breadth and depth of human history it encompasses. The Schøyen Collection, which is stored in both Oslo and London, contains documents dating as far back as 5,300 years ago; items in the collection represent 134 different countries and are written in 120 different languages. Specimens in the collection include “the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Cairo Genizah of Hebrew MSS, The Oxyrhynchus hoard of classical papyri, the Dishna Biblical papyri, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic papyri, the Dunhuang hoard of Buddhist MSS, and many others” (The Schøyen Collection, 2016). The Schøyen Collection started accumulating around 1920 at a time when Westerner colonizers thought nothing of taking the best artifacts home to Europe. Today, the Schøyen Collection faces controversy, as the manuscripts rightful owners demand their repatriation.
Norwegian engineer M.O. Schøyen (1896-1962) had always been fascinated by world literature and ancient antiquities. Starting in his mid-20s, he began to collect manuscripts of Norwegian legends and soon began to gather other volumes of ancient literature, history, science, and philosophy. By the time the collection was passed on to his son, Martin Schøyen, it contained roughly 1000 items. Martin was an even more avid collector than his father and set about acquiring important manuscripts from antiquity as well as coins and other artifacts. Always looking for items that spoke to mankind’s cultural heritage, today the collection also seeks out important movie scripts and sheet music.
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Martin Schøyen (terraeantiqvae.com)
Throughout its history, a priority of the Schøyen Collection has been to gather manuscripts of bibles and biblical writings, citing that “the Bible is the most influential and important book ever written” (The Schøyen Collection, 2016). The collections first truly remarkable addition was acquired in June 1986: volume 3 of the monumental Romanesque Lectern Bible from Geraardsbergen Abbey. In 1988, Schøyen bought several items of the Dead Sea Scroll collection, religious scripts believed to have been written during the lifetime of Christ and the Apostles. Since then, the organization has acquired “the St. Cecilia Bible, the only Carolingian Bible in private hands; further by Codex Sinaiticus Zosimi Rescriptus, the 6th century palimpsest Aramaic Gospels from St. Catherine's Monastery; and The Liesborn Gospels of the 10th century” (The Schøyen Collection, 2016).
The Schøyen Collection also features remarkable testaments to the history of world literature. It possesses the oldest manuscript of the ancient Babylonian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as early manuscripts of the legendary writings of Homer and Hesiod.
Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh (CC BY-SA 4.0)
According to the Schøyen Collection’s website, “The uniqueness and importance of the materials in The Schøyen Collection go far beyond the scope of a private collection, or even a national public collection. These MSS are the world's heritage, the memory of the world. They are felt not really to belong to The Schøyen Collection and its owner, who is the privileged keeper, neither do they belong to a particular nation, people, religion, culture, but to mankind, being the property of the entire world” (The Schøyen Collection, 2016). However, many countries do not feel the same way.
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Allegations have arisen that the Schøyen Collection has been acquired through shady practices, such as theft from colonies or smuggling from war-torn countries. In 2003, the Egyptian Supreme Council demanded the return of 17 Egyptian items held by the Schøyen Collection. Egypt claims that these items were stolen from their native land, a charge that Schøyen denies. Also in 2003, the Afghan Minister of Culture claimed ancient Buddhist manuscripts were taken out of the country without permission. The minister stated, “the law stipulates that ‘the historical and cultural heritage of Afghanistan belongs to the people of Afghanistan’” (Prescott and Omland, 2004). Rumors began to circulate that it was the Taliban regime that had brought the manuscripts to London for auction, an act not officially sanctioned by the Afghan government. Again, Schøyen refused to give into the repatriation demands, though this time on less solid ground.
Martin Schøyen sits with the Gospel of Christ's own language from the 6th century. (tux1.aftenposten.no)
In the face of several similar challenges, Schøyen has responded in what some consider negative and condescending language, even if it holds a grain of truth. The collector has argued that countries persistently embroiled in conflict and subject to terrorist vandalism are not a safe place for precious manuscripts. “I’ve put together a collection that represents all the world’s religions and cultures precisely to create understanding across borders. In the long term one can never know what will happen in the Muslim states” (Prescott and Omland, 2004).
Today, Schøyen is no longer acquiring non-Western artifacts or manuscripts. The Norwegian government is looking into the claims of wrongful appropriation of valuables from foreign lands, particularly Afghanistan.
Top image: Tang Period (618-907) Buddhist sutra fragment from Dunhuang (Public Domain), Apocalypse of Peter (Public Domain) Papyrus 66 of the Bodmer Papyri (Public Domain), Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus, dated 75–125 A.D. It describes one of the oldest diagrams of Euclid's Elements. (Public Domain) Fragment of the Cairo Genizah (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Omland, Atle, and Christopher Prescott. "The Schøyen Collection in Norway: Demand for the Return of Objects and Questions about Iraq." Culture Without Context 13 (2003): n. pag. Illicit Antiquities Research Centre. Department of Archaeology, University of Oslo, July 2004. Web. http://www2.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/culturewithoutcontext/issue%2013/prescott-omland.htm
The Schøyen Collection. "About Us." The Schøyen Collection. The Schøyen Collection, 2016. Web. 06 Aug. 2016. http://www.schoyencollection.com/
Shanks, Hershel. "Loot from Iraq and Martin Schøyen (again!)." Museum Security Network. Museum Security Network, 8 Nov. 2009. Web. 06 Aug. 2016. http://www.museum-security.org/2009/11/3028/