Mummy's Return to Egypt Spotlights Smuggling

Brian Handwerk
for Ultimate Explorer
March 4, 2004
Last September—after a 140-odd-year run in a Niagara Falls, Canada, sideshow—the 3,000-year-old mummy of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses I returned home. The celebration was one for the ages.

"When he arrived, no living king [had] ever had such a reception," said Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The mummy's return to Egypt was facilitated by the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. While the museum had obtained legal rights to own and display the mummy, museum officials decided that the pharaoh's proper place was in Egypt.

"It just seemed the right thing to do for a lot of reasons," said Peter Lacovara, the museum's curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Middle Eastern art.

The repatriation served to highlight Egypt's ongoing struggle to restore lost cultural heritage and stem the black market trade in antiquities.

Hawass, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, said he was grateful for the gift, to which his country had no legal claim. Only since 1983 has Egypt put laws in place that establish Egyptian ownership of all archaeological finds within its borders.

The archaeologist says he'd like to see some other scattered pieces of Egypt's cultural heritage come home—even if only for a visit.

The return of Ramses I "can tell the world that artifacts that have no parallel in Egypt should come back to Egypt," Hawass said. "This was a pharaoh, and he should be at home. But the same may [also] be true for a very unique item like the Rosetta stone or the bust of Nefertiti." (Nefertiti ruled as queen of Eygpt in the 1300s B.C. A famous bust of her resides in Berlin's Egyptian Museum.)

Spiritual Artifacts

Hawass said returning antiquities to their original sites in Egypt helps restore their archaeological context and spiritual power. The pharaohs "put their money into the tomb for the journey to the afterlife. If you cut a piece away, you are completely cutting the spiritual value."

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, applauds the Ramses gift. But he says he's uncertain it is a harbinger of similar gifts from other museums.

"Human remains are kind of in a category by themselves," Vikan said. "We've come to recognize the spiritual value of remains. But whether or not this has an effect on other antiquities, I rather doubt that it will. Most of the U.S. collections, for example, are rather old and were formed under circumstances that were legitimate at the time."

Lacovara, the Emory University museum curator, said: "People don't go to an impressionist painting gallery and say, 'Why don't all of these paintings go back to Paris?'"

Museums aside, some private collectors flout the ethical and legal restrictions to which museums adhere. Their demand for artifacts fuels a thriving black market trade in antiquities, which Hawass and fellow archaeologists say is of chief concern.

Cultural History for Sale

Notable artifacts continue to leave Egypt in a steady stream—and end up far from the public eye. Hawass says protecting them will require a global effort from both Egyptian authorities and the international antiquities community.

"I think our goal and our mission is really reaching to persons all over the world [to say] that any stolen art after '72 should come back to Egypt," Hawass said. A 1972 UN convention stipulates that smuggled antiquities must be returned to their country of origin.

Antiquities theft is a practice nearly as old as antiquity. In some regions of Egypt, history is literally so thick under the ground that many can illegally excavate antiquities from their own basements.

The abundance of artifacts, combined with the poverty that grips many Egyptians, helps saturate the international antiquities market with pieces of questionable provenance.

Lacovara says that even for scrupulous collectors, legally acquiring pieces has become a "minefield."

"Artifacts have been legitimately exported from Egypt for 200 years and more. But [artifacts also] come on the market in dribs and drabs from attics and storerooms," Lacovara said.

Vikan, the Walters Art Museum curator, said: "You don't just buy the object. You buy the story." He notes that collectors must be convinced the provenance of the object complies with both local and international law. "It's a much more complex issue," he said.

Thwarting the Black Market

Hawass says global efforts to stem illicit trade in antiquities are starting to bear fruit. He cites a recent case where the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation and New York City district attorney helped to reacquire illegal antiquities.

The pressure may be getting to private collectors. "An American in New York hears what we are doing and he is giving to me … some artifacts that he bought ten years ago," Hawass said. "Switzerland has been the market for storing these artifacts, and we recently received some 280 pieces that were smuggled from Egypt and stored there."

Vikan says that to confront the monumentally difficult task of stopping black market trade in antiquities, advocates must foster an sense of international responsibility and collective ownership for cultural heritage.

"When does humankind's responsibility for antiquities supercede the power in any given place?" Vikan said, citing the demolition of ancient, cliffside Buddha carvings at the hands of Taliban leaders in Afghanistan in March 2001. "Was there any way for the world community to act to save those irreplaceable, monumental Buddhas?"

Hawass agrees that the fight must be a global one, because the treasures involved are of universal importance. "It's very important that this art has to be safely kept," he said, noting that exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities are traveling to China, Paris, and Japan. "They are sent to people all over the world, because we believe that these artifacts do belong to all of us."

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