University College London set up a committee of inquiry on Friday to question the provenance, or legal ownership, of 650 Aramaic incantation bowls dating from the 5th century CE.

Although Norwegian collector Martin Schoyen is not named in the inquiry, he is on record as having loaned the bowls to the university.

Schoyen, who boasts one of the largest collections of manuscripts to have been assembled in the 20th century, has since faced allegations about how it was acquired.

Loan

Schoyen loaned the bowls - usually buried under the floor of private houses to protect the inhabitants from harmful demons - to the UCL for research and cataloguing, but they may not have been his to loan.

The panel of experts will begin their investigation by finding out how the bowls came to Europe.

Professor Michael Worton, UCL vice-provost, said: "We have established this inquiry because we need to be absolutely clear about the provenance of these bowls, and to satisfy ourselves that they were not removed illegally from their country of origin.

"In addition, we aspire to provide a model for best practice in dealing with the complex cultural issues that can arise from such situations."

"When people buy it [looted antiquites], they create a demand for it”

Atle Omland, a lecturer in archaeology at Oslo University

"Indeed, until recently, most universities have taken a relaxed approach to the acquisition of such objects … but intelligence on the pillaging of archaeological sites has greatly increased and attitudes are changing," he added.

Although the collection was exported from Jordan, its country of origin was almost certainly Iraq, the UCL statement said. And under international law, any and all relics taken out of Iraq after 1991 can only have been exported illegally.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, is among the scholars who have questioned the provenance of the material and will sit on the university's investigation.

The committee will go on to audit other collections at the UCL and recommend how the college should deal with future acquisitions of cultural objects.

Reaction

Schoyen was not available for comment on the inquiry.

Atle Omland, a lecturer in archaeology at Oslo University, welcomed the UCL’s investigation, saying that the material should be seized if it is found to have been taken illegally.

Like other scholars, he dismissed the argument that Schoyen’s collecting passion had helped to save some of the material: "That’s a typical answer collectors have, but when people buy it, they create a demand for it."

Schoyen’s collection also boasts fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Buddhist manuscripts – some of which have been proven to have been illegally removed from Afghanistan.

The investigation has been prompted by allegations against Schoyen in an award-winning documentary by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation made in 2004 by David Hebditch, a British documentary-maker.

The collector complained unsuccessfully to Norway’s press complaints commission and attempted to stop its screening.