Almost 4,000 years ago, a woman travelled hundreds of kilometres to Egypt carrying an infant child on her back, seeking to trade or perhaps to settle there, presumably looking for a better life. They were immortalised in an extraordinary wooden statuette, which was excavated in a tomb at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt thousands of years later. She stands only 15 cm tall but her face is full of character. Her appearance is very different from depictions of ancient Egyptians: her skin is yellow and she wears a long red woollen cloak and boots.
This type of small wooden statuette was usually part of a larger group of wooden figurines depicting scenes of food production and craftsmanship on the tomb owner’s estate, so they may originally have been part of a larger processional scene. The woman and child are also unusual in the level of detail in the carving, which is unlike most other wooden tomb models. The modelling of the woman’s face is deeply furrowed and highly expressive.
Today, 90 years ago on 26 November 1922, a small group gathered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt at the entrance to a tomb after five years of excavating. They waited as archaeologist Howard Carter painstakingly chiselled an opening through the sealed door. Initially he could see nothing in the flickering candle light, but he described how as his eyes adjusted to the light:
‘The details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold everywhere the glint of gold. Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” It was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things”.’
That day transformed our knowledge of ancient Egypt forever. Despite being a hastily arranged burial for a relatively minor king who died in his teens, the contents of the tomb over six hundred objects, ranging from thrones and chariots to game boards and underwear was one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, an unparalleled time capsule from 14th century BC Egypt.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb fuelled many Egyptologists’ early interest in the subject, including one of our former curators, Cyril Aldred, a notable Egyptologist who served from 1937-1974. While still at school, he met Howard Carter, who tested him on his Egyptological knowledge and was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to the great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Carter urged Petrie to take the young man on excavation with him, but Aldred was deterred when Petrie requested that his father contribute to financing the excavation! Despite this initial set back, Aldred had a long and influential career in Edinburgh.
When I arrived as the new curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the National Museum of Scotland just one month ago and started exploring the incredible ancient Egyptian collection here, I felt something akin to what I imagine Howard Carter must have felt.
Knowing how famous Tutankhamun is today, it is hard to believe that a hundred years ago he was almost completely unknown, even to Egyptologists. Very few occurrences of his name had been found before the discovery of his tomb, but it is possible that an object in our collection may have been amongst the very earliest a bright blue bezel finger ring stamped with the throne name of Tutankhamun. It is known to have been in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in 1900 (the National Museum of Antiquities later merged with the Royal Scottish Museum, to form what is now National Museums Scotland). This suggests that it was amongst the objects brought back from Egypt in the 1850s by the Scottish antiquarian and early archaeology pioneer Alexander Henry Rhind. Rings like this are thought to have been produced because the divine nature of the king’s name held magical, protective qualities.
One of the discoveries that led Howard Carter to find Tutankhamun’s tomb was a find made ten years earlier by Theodore Davis of another tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV58, which contained gold foil, probably from a royal chariot, and faience furniture knobs decorated with the name of Tutankhamun’s successor Ay. Davis mistakenly ascribed this tomb to Tutankhamun and declared ‘I fear that the Valley of the Tombs [i.e. the Valley of the Kings] is now exhausted’. Rarely has anyone been proven more wrong! Moreover, it was these objects that suggested to Carter that Tutankhamun’s tomb must be nearby.
National Museums Scotland has an object very similar to those first furniture handles found by Davis. It is made from a glazed ceramic composition called faience, decorated with Tutankhamun’s throne name, and would have originally adorned an elaborate, decorated wooden box. All of the beautiful wooden boxes from Tutankhamun’s tomb have very similar handles.
In addition to these small finds, the museum also holds two somewhat mysterious statue heads, which certainly date roughly to the era of Tutankhamun, but over which scholars have debated for decades. Cyril Aldred wrote that he and Bernard V. Bothmer of the Brooklyn Museum had argued over the head for years without reaching finality.
Both heads are made of granite and wear the royal nemes headdress and have been variously identified as Tutankhamun; an elderly Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather; Ay, Tutankhamun’s vizier and immediate successor, and Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s general who succeeded Ay as king.
Their hooded eyes and deep furrows from the nose to the downturned mouth are strongly reminiscent of late Amarna art and I can certainly see the resemblance to other statues identified as Tutankhamun. Further research is required, but it is important to remember that royal statues were never intended as portraits and were executed by different artists, so definitive attribution is unlikely. Many scholars have had different opinions on who our mystery pharaohs are what do you think?
For the past three and a half months, I’ve been privileged to be working as a trainee curator in the ‘Future Curators’ programme at the British Museum, where I’ve had the opportunity to work on the UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt. Developed in partnership with Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the exhibition explores both the ideals and the realities of ancient Egyptian kingship. The exhibition includes extraordinary objects, such as the sed-festival label of King Den, one of the earliest rulers of Egypt; an Abusir papyrus, a record of temple accounts and one of the oldest surviving papyri; the iconic siltstone head of Thutmoses III; a wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I; beautiful decorative tiles from royal palaces; a doorjamb from the tomb of General Horemheb before he became king; several Amarna letters with diplomatic correspondence between Akhenaten and foreign powers; and monumental reliefs from the temple at Bubastis and mortuary temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri.
It’s been incredible getting to work with British Museum curator Neal Spencer and the rest of the department of the Ancient Egypt & Sudan, as well as the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums staff, especially at the Great North Museum: Hancock. It’s been a diverse experience, from helping writing objects labels with the curators, sourcing quotations for the walls of the exhibition space to give voice to the ancient Egyptians, and assisting the museum assistants in unpacking, checking, and manoeuvring objects into position. You can read more about the exhibition and the process of installing it in my posts on the British Museum blog, which I will continue to update in the future.
I’m also looking forward to giving a lecture at the Great North Museum on Monday, September 5th entitled ‘Fallen pharaohs: Egypt’s civil war and cultural renaissance’, focussing on the revaluation of the role of the king during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom.
Tomorrow, July 16th, 2011,Â Pharaoh will finally open to the public. I hope that some of you will have the opportunity to visit the exhibition in one of its many venues around the UK or at least explore the objects through the website that we are continuing to develop. Everyone loves to marvel at the extraordinary craftsmanship of the royal monuments of ancient Egypt and the exhibition has no shortage of exquisite jewellery and imposing monuments, but it is fascinating to see them juxtaposed alongside the real-life challenges of ruling the ancient Egyptian civilisation for over 3000 years.
A total of 54 objects make up the list of objects missing from the museum in Cairo, which can be downloaded from the SCA website in PDF format. Sadly the objects include, in addition to those already announced, a number of Amarna statuettes, a fan and trumpet of Tutankhamun’s, sixteen Late Period bronze statuettes, and eight pieces of jewellery.
Two trumpets were discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, one of silver, and one of gilded bronze. In an experiment to attempt playing them, the fragile silver trumpet was shattered but later restored. The bronze trumpet survived, but it is now missing from the Egyptian Museum. On youTube, you can listen to the remarkable BBC recording of the sounding of trumpets, and hear T.G.H. James read an account of the story behind the recording.
In other news, Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted his in absentia address to the UNESCO convention against illicit trafficking of cultural property. The event celebrated the anniversary of UNESCO’s ‘Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Currently ratified by 120 States, it marked the first international recognition of the fact that cultural goods are not goods like any others’. The event was intended ‘to review the history of the Convention, appraise its achievements, its strong points and its weaknesses’. Dr. Hawass was due to speak at the event, but did not attend, instead sending his remarks:
In these dark days, when some of our most important sites are suffering from the depredations of the looters and opportunists who are taking advantage of the current power vacuum, we call upon the international community for help. The antiquities department has issued lists of antiquities known to be missing from the Egyptian Museum and from storage magazines that have been robbed; we call upon you to help us circulate these lists and watch out for these pieces should they appear on the black market. As we struggle to restore order to our sites, we call upon you for ideas and support, which we will welcome gladly.
The new Minister of Antiquities is reported to be Dr. Alaa Shaheen, the Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University. He has made a statement saying that protecting museums and addressing the problems of recent archaeology graduates will be his priorities. His personal website can be visited here.
Luxor Times is reporting that 12 of the objects stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have been recovered after the thieves were caught by police and armed forces trying to sell the items.
The objects are 7 statues, 5 bronze statues and 1 limestone statue beside 5 necklaces, one is golden and the others are made of faience and coloured glass.
Ahram Online reports that the Ministry of Antiquities has released the results of an inventory carried out at the Tell El-Faraein storehouse in Kafrul Sheikh in the Delta and 27 objects are known to be missing:
He explained that the missing objects included 20 bronze coins from the Roman and Islamic eras, a limestone relief engraved with a Greco text, a statue inscribed with a hieroglyphic text and four clay pots.
The storehouse at Tel El-Faraein was looted last week, when an armed gang tied up its guards and succeeded in entering the storehouses. Some of the ministry guards escaped, and caught four gang members red-handed. A list has been sent to the prosecutor for investigation.
The article also states ‘The office of minister of state for antiquities affairs is still vacant as no one has been appointed to succeed Hawass’, suggesting that reports of Dr. Alaa Shaheen accepting the post may be incorrect.
Today on the programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent‘ on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, Christine Finn reports from Abydos on witnessing the damage done by the extensive illicit digging ongoing there and interviews a number of locals. It will be live on the World Service and online at 16:32 GMT this afternoon and again on Radio 4 on Saturday at 11:30 GMT. It is not available online yet, but should soon be uploaded to BBC iPlayer here.
Also, further information on the UNESCO missions to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya can be found here.
UPDATE 30th March 10:40am:
According to the Egyptian cabinet on Twitter, Dr. Zahi Hawass has been reappointed Minister of Antiquities by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.
Ahram Online reports that a further five objects have been recovered of those missing from the Cairo Museum. The objects found are the bronze seated statue of Bastet (CG 38998), the bronze seated Osiris (JE 17914), the bronze statue of Neith (JE 30324), the bronze sceptre of Ankhusiri (JE 91488), and one of the two missing bronze Apis bulls, sadly damaged (most likely TR 18.104.22.168). Dr. Zahi Hawass tells about how they were reportedly found after attempts to sell the objects in the famous market in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili:
These five pieces were found yesterday with three of the criminals who broke into the museum. They took the five objects to Khan el-Khalili in order to sell them. A man at the bazaar told the criminals that he would pay 1500LE for the pieces. The looters said that the pieces were from the museum and worth much more than that price. After this, the man informed the police who apprehended the criminals. The five objects are bronze pieces dating to the Late Period: a scepter, a statue of an Apis Bull, a seated statue of Bastet, a statue of Neith, and a statue of Osiris. There are 37 objects still missing from the museum, but I am confident that they will be found soon.
Dr. Hawass also has news about further unauthorized building on ancient sites at Dashur and Abusir, with Ahram Online reporting that the UNESCO delegation were ‘upset’ by what they had seen. Apparently there reports state that there have been ‘500 encroachments during the past two months’.
The nation of Egypt has now embarked on a brave new beginning, achieved through passionate but peaceful demonstrations by people throughout the country. However, amidst scenes of celebration in Tahrir Square, sad news has emerged from the museum that is situated there. The Minister of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass has now released the news that there have indeed been a number of objects stolen from the museum and that De Morgan’s magazine at Dashur has also been looted.
So far, this is the list of stolen objects that has been released (I will add to the photographic record as I am able to):
1. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess
2. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun harpooning. Only the torso and upper limbs of the king are missing
3. Limestone statue of Akhenaten holding an offering table
4. Statue of Nefertiti making offerings
5. Sandstone head of an Amarna princess
6. Stone statuette of a scribe from Amarna
7. Wooden shabti statuettes from Yuya (11 pieces)
8. Heart Scarab of Yuya
It is extremely sad, as these are extraordinary works of art of great historical significance. These particular objects all relate to a particular period of Egyptian history, roughly 1390-1322 BCE, that has particularly resonated with people over the past century. The tomb of Yuya and Thuja was one of the first great discoveries of an almost intact burial, echoed again by the even greater discovery of the tomb of their great-grandson Tutankhamun. Both significantly advanced our understanding of ancient Egypt. Akhenaten’s religious, political, and artistic revolution changed Egypt forever and continues to fascinate and inspire today.
Now we must hope to mobilize the world’s awareness of these objects to be alert to their possible movement or sale. I will try to outline soon some of the current discussion on potential avenues available to thwart the trafficking of stolen Egyptian objects. In recent days, people around the world have been inspired by the spirit of the Egyptian people. No one can now doubt that they are capable of great achievements now, in the past, and in the future. Insha’Allah, the stolen objects will be recovered soon, but until then, people around the world who love Egypt will surely be willing to offer whatever help they can.
4. Statue of Nefertiti making offerings, not identified yet
Many of the Amarna princess heads are carved in quartzite. There is at least one in red sandstone though, Cairo JE 44871. There is supposedly a photo of it in Borchardt, Ludwig, Ausgrabungen in Tell el Amarna 1912/13, in: Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 52, 1913, pl. 21. I don’t have library access today, but will get look it up tomorrow, unless anyone else can get a hold of it.
The entry for this scarab is linked in the bibliography to what seems to be a completely different scarab in Theodore Davis’ The Tomb of Iouiya and Touiyou (London, 1907), a scarab is depicted in the painting reproduced here in plate 43 and described on page 33 as: “Scarab-amulet in green beryl with head chipped, and inscribed with the chapter of the Heart from the Book of the Head. It bears the name of Touiyou.”
The first scarab seems the much more likely candidate, but I’m still not sure, and I hope that we can clarify this soon. If anyone has suggestions or comments about the identification of these objects, please comment below or email me!
It is still not known what was taken from Dashur. There was previously a report from Nicole Kehrer of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin saying their storage facility was broken into and looted and it sounds like the De Morgan magazine may be different from this.
It is odd that the Akhenaten sculpture was initially announced as being damaged and the Tutankhamun harpooning statue was only briefly mentioned, but both are now known to be stolen. Is it just a coincidence that all of the objects announced as stolen are very famous? Were no other less well-known objects taken? It is possible that there may be more sad news in days to come.
UPDATE: 14th Feb, 4pm:
In a strange but welcome turn of events, Dr. Zahi Hawass announced that Yuya’s heart scarab and one of the shabtis has been found in the grounds of the museum, just a day after the announcement of the theft, which occurred over two weeks ago. The report also states that Dahshur was looted for the second time on Sunday.
It was also announced in Ahram Online that an inventory of the recently looted Dashur magazine revealed eight amulets had been stolen. It is not clear whether the inventory is complete or whether this is the full extent of the theft, but that seems doubtful, especially since it has now been targeted twice.
It is also worth noting that there have been various accounts on Twitter, including photos, of protests going on outside the Cairo offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and a new army presence there.
UPDATE: 15th Feb, 11:20pm:
In an interview on CNN, Zahi Hawass stated that in addition to finding Yuya’s heart scarab and one shabti in the grounds of the museum, the goddess section of the statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess has also now been found. However, the figure of Tutankhamun remains missing. The video doesn’t allow embedding, so please click here to view.
UNESCO has released a statement from their Director-General Irina Bokova calling for increased vigilance from national and international authorities, art dealers and collectors following the reports of thefts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and other sites throughout the country.
CBS also featured an interview with Dr. Hawass downplaying the thefts from the museum:
In light of recent events, I have been meeting with the heads of the sectors of the Ministry of Antiquities with a view to addressing and solving the issues raised by those who have voiced concern outside our building in Zamalek. We want to work with these young people to satisfy their demands, and work out the best way to do so. An announcement will be made on Wednesday concerning this.
Yasmin El Shazly, who works at the Egyptian Museum, posted this statement to the Restore + Save Facebook group, asking for patience with the museum and their ongoing work:
As someone who works for the Egyptian Museum, I have been resisting the urge to respond to all your concerns, since we are still in the process of assessing the damage that happened. All I can say is that you have to understand that we just had a revolution. Most staff members had very limited access to the museum until very recently, since the museum was under the responsibility of the army. It is a very difficult time for all of us, and you cannot imagine the amount of stress we are under. Dr. Zahi was appointed minister in a very critical time. We ask for your patience and cooperation and I assure you that Dr. Zahi Hawass and Dr. Tarek El Awady will provide all the information you want in due time.
UPDATE: 17th Feb, 11:40am:
The New York Times (via Kate) has two articles reporting that the beautiful limestone statue of Akhentaten holding an offering table was found in the rubbish near Tahrir Square by a boy whose uncle was a professor at the University of Cairo. The condition of the statue is not mentioned, but it is a huge relief that it has been found, especially when it could quite easily have been lost amongst the discarded rubbish. Dr. Hawass says: â€œWe are going to look inside all the garbage that they collected from Tahrir Square to find the rest of the objects.â€
According to Ahram Online, “Sabry Abdel Aziz, head of the Pharaonic Sector of the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs, reported on Thursday that the tomb of Hetep-Ka, in Saqqara, was broken into, and the false door was stolen along with objects stored in the tomb. In Abusir, a portion of the false door was stolen from the tomb of Re-Hotep. In addition, many magazines also suffered break-ins: magazines in Saqqara, including the one near the pyramid of Teti, and the magazine of Cairo University all had their seals broken. In an attempt to compile full reports of what is missing, a committee to determine what, if anything, is missing from these magazines has been established”. Further looting was prevented in Tell el Basta and a tomb in Lisht, but “there have also been many reports of violations of archaeological sites in the form of the illegal building of houses and digging.”
According to Rossella Lorenzi, a journalist for the Discovery Channel, the SCA press release also stated that all “Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic, and modern sites would reopen to the public on Sunday, 20 February 2011.”
Here is an image of the false door of Rahotep from Abusir, from which a section has been stolen, illustration from Miroslav Barta’s article ‘The Title Inspector of the Palace during the Egyptian Old Kingdom’ in Archiv Orientalni 67 (1999), 1-20:
UPDATE: 18th Feb, 10:45am:
Kate at KV64 has posted a Blue Shield report from a number of the sites that had been reported as looted and the news seems fairly positive. I have not had a chance yet to review the report fully or their collection of site photos and would welcome anyone who wants to comment on them. Kate says:
In summary the museum at Memphis has not been looted as previously reported. As suspected, there was widespread digging at Abusir but it was shallow and is not believed to have disturbed the archaeology. The news from Dashur and Saqqara is less good and there has been forced entry into tombs and looting of magazines. The very good news is that tombs and reliefs show no sign of damage, although today’s report from the SCA show that some items stored within tombs were taken. It wasn’t possible to enter every tomb: this was a flying visit and some tombs are bricked up for their protection. As I have said before, over the next few months these will need checking. Nonetheless that tombs which were inspected were undamaged is highly encouraging. That includes the unique Pyramid Texts in the Unas Pyramid which very surprisingly wasn’t even entered by the looters.
Zahi Hawass’ latest blog update shows the Akhenaten statue being returned relatively undamaged, the offering tray having been broken off but found within the museum.
Dr. Hawass also confirms the Ministry of Antiquities statements about looting: “At Saqqara, the tomb of Hetepka was broken into, and the false door may have been stolen along with objects stored in the tomb. I have arranged for a committee to visit the tomb this coming Saturday to compare the alleged damage with earlier expedition photos. In Abusir, a portion of the false door was stolen from the tomb of Rahotep. In addition, break-ins have been confirmed at a number of storage magazines: these include ones in Saqqara, including one near the pyramid of Teti, and the magazine of Cairo University. I have created a committee to prepare reports to determine what, if anything, is missing from these magazines.”
A video from the French press agency AFP shows the Mesehti model boat and Nubian soldiers (at the 1:32 mark) and the cartonnage of Tujya (at mark 1:44) have been restored and are already back on display.
Other videos put online after journalists were given a tour of the museum include a BBC video report from inside the museum and a Russian news video showing footage from the museum.
It is hard to believe that only a week has passed since I initially wrote my last post in response to the images of damage at the Egyptian Museum. Over that period of time, many of us who blog about ancient Egypt have been caught up in the panic of trying to assess the antiquities situation despite the difficulties of communication. But it hasn’t been worrying over the antiquities that has kept me up at night. The scenes in Tahrir Square and the streets of Alexandria have never left my mind. On the Berkeley Blog, Rosemary Joyce urges us to keep everything in perspective. I have always loved my time spent in Egypt, visiting the monuments, working on sites, and living with local families on farms and in small villages and getting to know the people, from antiquities inspectors to local shopkeepers. Somehow though, I never quite realised just how much I love the country and the people until these past few days.
No one who has worked in Egypt is surprised by the brave actions of the ordinary Egyptians and SCA officials who have stood guard over their heritage, but their actions are still powerfully inspiring and give great hope to all who have been concerned over the future of Egypt’s past. Finally stories are emerging from Egyptians themselves and they should be celebrated. Ramadan B. Hussein, who works for the Supreme Council of Antiquities, posted his take on the museum break in and the efforts of locals around the country on Facebook (reproduced below). A moving story of locals in Luxor protecting Karnak temple was posted on the Looting Database and conveys their passion. A post from Francesco Tiradritti from the Italian Mission to Luxor also gives an account of the locals protecting Karnak. Also, the youth of Alexandria banded together to protect the great library there. It is terrifying to imagine what the worst case scenario could have been, but it is because of the people of Egypt that it did not come to pass, indeed, could probably never happen because of the love and pride that so many people there feel for their heritage.
But can we now piece history back together again? Can the damage truly be undone, and can we ever recover what has been lost? Some people have been commenting, blaming Egypt for allowing this to happen, but we should also remember the damage done by early archaeologists in their often destructive hunt for valuable antiquities. In my current PhD work, I found that a number of the wooden models I’d wanted to study, similar to those of Meseti’s that were damaged in Cairo, no longer exist. They were housed in the museum at Liverpool, and during World War II they were destroyed by the bombing. All I have to work with is a couple of insufficient photos. Other models that were excavated in the 19th century do not have any recorded location and seem to have vanished without a trace. Objects that are lost are not not only lost in terms of something beautiful to look at, but as a source of knowledge for future generations.
People often think that once a tomb’s been discovered or an artefact’s been found and put in a museum, that’s the goal achieved, it’s purpose fulfilled. Someone must have thoroughly recorded and studied it at some point, right? Not necessarily. Especially with sites excavated in the 19th and early 20th century, so many tombs and artefacts were discovered in a short space of time with less than rigorous recording. Many objects in museums have barely been looked at, let alone been part of a focussed study. Even the treasures of Tutankhamun, which I expect people will assume are some of the best known artefacts from Egypt, many of them have not yet been properly published at all.
And even if objects and sites *have* been looked at in a number of detailed studies, focus of investigation can evolve over time and details that were overlooked in the past can become important for new avenues of understanding. What has happened at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a reminder to all of us to never take for granted what we already have in the glass cases and storage rooms of our museums. These objects are ripe for study and the stories they can tell us have not yet been exhausted. As tantalising as it is to find the next great discovery hidden in the sands of Egypt, we must not ignore what we already lucky to have.
Usually whatever has been guarded by the sand for up to the past 5000 years is fairly safe there, but as well as museums and excavated tombs being targeted, the reports of widespread illicit diggings going on at Saqqara and perhaps to a lesser extent in the Fayum and elsewhere, suggest that Egypt’s undiscovered heritage is threatened as well. I am constantly surprised by how often I get asked by people, ‘is there still anything left to be discovered in Egypt?’. Considering that millions of people lived and died there for over 3000 years, there is still plenty to be found. A town and temple site excavated over almost a decade would probably uncover less than a 10th of what’s actually beneath the ground. Even if the random diggings of uninformed looters fails to uncover the statues and golden treasures they’re looking for, the potential damage could hurt our understanding of the day-to-day use of the site and how it evolved over time.
One of the sources of the problem with looters right now is sadly a legacy of the early days of European treasure hunting in Egypt and the global obsession with ancient Egyptian gold. Many Egyptians in rural areas believe that modern excavation is still an aim to find gold, rather than a desire to better understand the lives of the ancient Egyptians. Today, our knowledge is better served by finding mud brick walls, seal impressions, scrawled notes on broken pottery sherds, and analysing soil samples. More work needs to be done to educate local populations about local history and the current aims of modern Egyptologists. Some excavation projects already do this, for example the British Museum excavation at Kom Firin shared information about their work through leaflets made available in Arabic. More of this should be encouraged.
We are still waiting for more thorough news from across Egypt- there is reason to be concerned about the situation there but also much reason to be hopeful. My thanks go out to the people of Egypt for their protection of the past, as well as my thoughts and prayers for their future.
UPDATE 5th Feb 3pm:
Dr. Sarah Parcak has posted another update from Dr. Salima Ikram on the Facebook group Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum. Dr. Ikram states that the damaged mummies were Late Period fragmentary mummies used to test the CT machine.
UPDATE 5th Feb 8:30pm:
Dr. Zahi Hawass has issued another statement on his blog, again reassuring everyone that Saqqara is safe, including the tomb of Maia, and that the Memphis Museum was not looted, which is wonderful news. He also confirms what Dr. Ikram said earlier today that the mummies were not royal but fragmentary ones used for CT scans.
There is also an article from a National Geographic reporter who was given a tour around Saqqara to show that everything there is indeed safe. He was shown the entrance to the tomb of Maia, now bricked up for safety, and was assured that the tomb of Maya is also safe.
UPDATE 6th Feb 1pm:
Dr. Salima Ikram has posted on Facebook:
“I know that the Sohag area is secure. Natrun seems to be fine, and the areas w/in or next to the monasteries are well protected. All the Luxor and south area sites are totally fine.”
“Egyptian museum continues to be secure. Curators and directors working inside. Southern sites secure and being defended by inspectors and guards and villagers, for the most part. Tremendous sense of national pride. Army remains at the Memphite necropoleis to continue to secure it. No new reports of looting there since initial reports. The Egyptian people are standing proud.”
To guard against any potential future problems with illegal antiquities smuggling, Rick St. Hilaire, a cultural heritage lawyer, has written a helpful guide to US Seizure Laws and How to Make a Report to Customs and Border Protection. If you’re in the US and come across anything suspicious, just fill out the secure form at https://apps.cbp.gov/eallegations/. You can also make a report by telephone by calling 1-800-BE-ALERT.
The International Archaeological Community has also issued a statement calling for measures to be taken to protect Egypt’s archaeological heritage.
Dr. Zahi Hawass was on the Andrew Marr show on the BBC this morning. If you’re in the UK, you can watch it on iPlayer here at the 30min mark, otherwise a transcript should be posted sometime soon here. A short summary can be found on the BBC’s live updates page.
An article by ‘Archaeology’ correspondent Mike Elkin, says that a member of the French mission at Saqqara has stated: ‘People were saying that my site in south Saqqara was destroyed, but in reality only two tents were damaged’, although other archaeologists there say ‘added that storage facilities were robbed’. Miriam Seco, director of the excavation of the Temple of Thutmose III in Luxor, says “I’ve been in contact with the curators at the Cairo Museum, and many are sleeping there at night. The army is outside, but they are staying there to protect the antiquities. In Luxor, there were warnings on January 29th and 30th about armed looters so all the Egyptian archaeologists, who live on the East Bank, crossed the river to take turns standing guard with sticks and anything else to protect the sites. Thank god there were no such attacks.” Seco said that missions pressing on with work include Chicago House in Medinet Habu, her excavations at Thutmose III’s temple in Luxor, a French team at Karnak, and the Polish team at Deir el Bahri.
“Then I saw
something incredible happen: the looters rushed.
Hundred, two hundred young people from 10 to 15 years, from the villages of
Saqqara and Abusir nearby, swept by groups of
ten. Some were armed with pistols and fired into the air
to ghafirs from the (guards). Taking advantage of the chaos, they
hoped to find treasures. “Wheeling shovels, picks and
baskets, they began to dig frantically
Each time they guess something under the sand. “These
are young people without education. They believe they will find
gold, jewelry, the mask of Tutankhamun …
Ahram Online reports that the roughly 70 damaged objects from the Egyptian Museum are due to be repaired soon and back on display.
On another note, I went to the Egyptian museum today with reporters from the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers.
We reviewed every smashed vitrine. One showcase in the Amarna galleries was smashed; it contained a standing statue of the king carrying an offering tray. While the showcase is badly damaged, the statue sustained very minor damage and is repairable. Another vitrine that was smashed contained one of King Tutankhamunâ€™s walking sticks. The gilded stick is broken into two pieces, and can be restored. The other King Tutankhamun object that was damaged was the wooden statue of the king standing on the back of a panther.
The reference to the statue of Akhenaten carrying an offering tray would suggest that it *might* possibly be this small statue on the left from the Egyptian Museum that has been slightly damaged. Luckily it sounds like the damage is minimal.
UPDATE 7th Feb 10:30am:
A National Geographic article says only 20-25 objects damaged at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo rather than 70, which is great news. Damage to the gilded statue of Tutankhamun on the papyrus skiff is also confirmed.
UPDATE 7th Feb 12pm:
A report from an inspector at Saqqara has been posted on the Dutch team’s website and suggests that, while there has sadly been illicit digging and looting of magazines, there may only be a small amount of damage to the tombs themselves:
From January 29, a lot of people attacked the antiquities area, from Abusir North to Lisht. Although many tombs and magazines were opened, few things were stolen. Some destruction happened, but not too much, because the stupid robbers searched only for gold and precious things and were not interested in limestone blocks. There was a lot of pit digging in the whole area, but generally this caused no problems. The Dutch site is o.k., except that the magazines of pottery, small objects and bones in the tombs of Maya, Horemheb and Ptahemwia were opened. We closed them again, the wall reliefs are o.k, and nothing was stolen or plundered or damaged. We try to save the sites and do some protection, then later we shall arrange some committee to account for the magazines of Saqqara.
The Leiden excavation team who work in the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara also posted this statement:
We know from other reports that the local inspectors fought very bravely to protect the site and want to thank them and the Egyptian army for their efforts. Whether indeed no damage was done remains to be seen. The main thing is that the precious reliefs seem to be safe. We suppose that objects in the magazines cannot have escaped damage or destruction, and that there will be some loss of archaeological information. However, most of the remains kept there have already been studied by the expedition and we hope that the losses will be minimal. We shall try to inspect the situation in person as soon as everything has calmed down in Egypt.
UPDATE 7th Feb 5pm:
Dr. Zahi Hawass’ latest update discusses the restoration work on damaged objects at the museum. He mentions ‘a small statue of Akhenaten wearing the blue crown and holding an offering table’, which is likely the statue pictured here above and below, and refers to a ‘New Kingdom coffin’, which ‘can easily be restored’. He assures everyone that the rest of the Tutankhamun objects, apart from the statues, sticks, and fan, and the royal mummies are all safe. Here is a photo of the Akhenaten statue as it looked in its case at the museum:
I have also been wondering whether the travertine calcite (alabaster) object shown in the al Jazeera footage might be one of the lids of Yuya and Tujya’s canopic jars, seen here as displayed in the Egyptian Museum. The shape and the dark lines at the front that would correspond with the eyes seem to fit. This photo shows one of the lids from above. This is very speculative though. Thankfully, whatever it is it doesn’t look damaged in the footage, and hopefully nothing else from that case is either.
UPDATE 8th Feb 12pm:
The interview with the Wall Street Journal mentioned in Dr. Hawass’ blog yesterday is now up. The article by Christopher Rhoads mentions that various amulets have been damaged, as well as Tutankhamun panther statue, his gold fan and gilded stick, and the Akhenaten statue, but there’s still no mention of the late Eleventh Dynasty models of Mesehti from Assyut. Rather bizarrely, it states that over a thousand people broke into the museum, which is nothing like anything we’ve heard elsewhere. Restoration work at the museum is ongoing but there have been some reports of illicit digging. The article refers to how the national antiquities situation is being monitored:
Some young Egyptologists now manage a control room in the antiquities department, responding 24 hours a day to any break-in reports from the country’s 42 museums, and other sites. Each location checks in every three hours.The room has direct lines to the branches of the military and police that have been used 17 times, according to one official. On Monday, there were a handful of reports of unauthorized digging at archaeological sites.
There is also an interview with Dr. Nadia Lokma who is working on the restoration of the damaged wooden objects at the museum. She took 8 years to restore a chariot of Tutankhamun and she’s obviously very passionate about her work. It’s wonderful to know that the objects are in good hands:
In the article, Dr. Hawass says of the looting of the museum’s gift shop: â€œThe funny part of the story is that only the books of the gift shop remained untouched. Looters are never interested in books, I guessâ€.
UPDATE 8th Feb 3pm:
Radio Netherlands has an emotional print interview with Dr. Maarten Raven, the field director for the Dutch mission at Saqqara. Speaking about the illicit digging there, he says:
Iâ€™ve always been afraid this would happen. All we can do now is look on and weep.
Another update from Dr. Zahi Hawass mainly discusses a visit with journalists to Giza and plans to reopen the site to tourists. He discusses Saqqara, but not the site as a whole, referring to certain specific tombs as being safe:
I would once again like to say that the rumors claiming that the tombs of Maya, Nefer, and the Two Brothers in Saqqara were recently damaged are not true. The Imhotep Museum and the storage magazines of Saqqara are also safe.
UPDATE 11th Feb 12:30am:
Sorry for the delay in updates everyone- I still have PhD research and teaching to do despite everything! And a huge thank you again for everyone who has contributed comments to the discussion and to what we know about the ongoing situation.
There have been more contradictory, unverified reports of looting or lack thereof, this time in Kharga Museum. Posts from three local Egyptians on Facebook and Twitter suggested attacks on the museum and looting. However, Dr. Salima Ikram says that despite violence in the area and threats to the museum, it had not in fact been looted: “Kharga: police station attacked because police killed 5 people there. Hospitals busy with this there and in Asyut. Apparently all the magazines and museum and Hibis et alli are safe. In the absence of police etc, thieves and robbers are around. Potentially attacking houses and maybe this will extend to antiquities. However, all the inspectors and the people are patrolling the areas trying to keep everyone and everything safe. Will report further in the morning. S”. An article in Ahram Online (via Andie Byrnes) says an official statement denied any damage to the museum.
An article in Al Masry Al Youm says that the museum in Asyut is a target of people’s anger with the government but doesn’t specify what form that anger has taken. There is no direct reference to looting or damage though.
Dr. Hawass has posted again on his blog and states that five more stolen Qantara objects have been recovered. Another National Geographic article again reiterates that the tomb of Maya the treasurer is safe, while the tomb of Maia the wet nurse is completely bricked up.
There are also lots of photos and footage from various sources of the ongoing restoration work in the Egyptian Museum. I will comment further on these in the next day or two. Here are some photos from the BBC.