British Museum faces probe over handling of tabots, sacred Ethiopian artifacts held 150 years out of view

London — London’s renowned British Museum is facing an investigation by the United Kingdom’s information watchdog over claims that it has not been transparent about a collection of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets held away from public view for more than 150 years. The museum has housed the 11 wood and stone tabots — replicas of the Ark of the Covenant — since they were looted from Ethiopia by British forces following the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. 

According to the museum, the tabots are “believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on Earth, the mercy seat described in the Bible, and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant.” The ancient Ark of the Covenant, according to Jewish tradition, contained the 10 Commandments.

If and when consecrated, a tabot is typically kept in a church’s Holy of Holies, an inner sanctum that only senior clergy are permitted to enter. Because of their sacred nature, the tabots have never been put on public display by the British Museum.

Ethiopia Daily Life
Priests lead a procession of “The Tabot,” carrying replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, during the annual feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel, Dec. 28, 2020, at Gibi Gabriel Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

J. Countess/Getty

Returning Heritage, an advocacy group that focuses on the return of artifacts obtained during Britain’s long reign as an imperial power, has submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) arguing that the museum withheld important details of internal deliberations about the status of the tabots when responding to a Freedom of Information request.

“The Museum’s lack of transparency on this issue is deeply concerning,” said Lewis McNaught, managing editor of Returning Heritage, in a statement. “Following recent news that Westminster Abbey has agreed ‘in principle’ to return the Ethiopian Tabot sealed into the back of its Lady Chapel altar, we hope the ICO will agree it’s time the Museum explains why it is still clinging on to a collection of highly sacred objects that, unlike other contested items in its collection, can be returned without a change in the existing legislation.”

Under U.K. law, the British Museum is forbidden from returning any of its treasures to their countries of origin, barring some very specific circumstances. A clause in the British Museum Act 1963 allows for objects to be repatriated if, in the opinion of the museum trustees, the objects are “unfit to be retained” and can be removed “without detriment to the interests of students.”

“The information sought concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest,” said Tom Short, a lawyer with the firm who submitted the complaint on behalf of Returning Heritage. “That the museum should attempt to withhold such information from public scrutiny is surprising, not least at a time when recent events have shown a clear need for light to be shone on how the museum conducts its business.”

The British Museum has declined to comment on the investigation. On its website, the museum says it is actively invested in discussions with Ethiopian partners about the collection. 

The museum has been no stranger to controversy over the last year. Just last month, it appointed a new director after its previous boss resigned following the discovery that 1,800 artifacts from the museum’s collection were “missing, stolen or damaged.”

British Museum's Security In Question After Revelations Of Missing Treasures
Visitors to the British Museum in London, England, walk around a selection of items from the collection of ancient Greek sculptures known as The Elgin Marbles, Aug. 23, 2023.


Another of the museum’s prize collections is at the center of a separate artifact feud between the U.K. and Greece. Greek authorities have demanded the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which have been part of the British Museum’s permanent collection for decades.


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