Egypt's Antiquities Chief Combines Passion, Clout to Protect Artifacts
for National Geographic News
|October 24, 2006|
Since the days of the pharaohs, priceless artifacts from Egypt have been falling into the wrong hands.
But Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is on a mission to protect the relics of his country's storied past.
"I believe that the return of stolen artifacts is important not only to Egypt but also to everyone all over the world," Hawass said.
"These artifacts belong to everyone, and their return is of the utmost importance, because the past is important to our future."
Hawass wields strong influence over archaeological work in Egypt and over traveling exhibits of Egyptian objects that are ultimately in his charge.
Such clout—combined with a passionate and highly vocal presence—has aided his quest.
Last spring, for example, Hawass used his professional influence to pry a sarcophagus from the private office of Exelon chairperson John Rowe.
The Chicago, Illinois-based electric utility is a major sponsor of a traveling exhibition of artifacts related to King Tutankhamun now showing at Chicago's Field Museum (see photos of King Tut's treasures from the exhibit).
When an Exelon official offhandedly mentioned that Rowe displayed a sarcophagus in his office, an angry Hawass threatened to cut ties with the museum and other affiliates if the exhibit didn't drop Exelon's sponsorship.
Field Museum officials, caught between an important donor and the agency responsible for the Tut exhibit, got off the hook when Rowe agreed to lend them the piece for an indefinite length of time.
In many instances Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, has been able to secure the return of artifacts because he has cultivated good working relationships with museums, nonprofits, and foreign policing agencies. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)
But at times the Egyptologist has been forced to take legal action or press his case to the public through the media.
Currently Hawass is at odds with the St. Louis Museum of Art in Missouri.
Earlier this year he told the New York Times that he was considering calling a press conference to make museum director Brent Benjamin's life "a living hell."
"There is currently a case of a mask in the St. Louis Museum of Art, which was stolen from the storage magazine at Saqqara [just south of Cairo] after 1959," Hawass said (Egypt map).
"Evidence of this theft was given to the director of the St. Louis Museum of Art, but he does not think that we have enough evidence. I cannot imagine why this man says this."
Benjamin acknowledges that the accusation is "a very serious charge, needless to say."
But he contends that the museum did extensive research before acquiring the mask in 1998—including contacting Egyptian authorities—to ensure that the piece was not stolen.
"Until we are able to review the complete range of documents that bear on this matter, it's hard to have a full consideration of the validity of the claim, much less decide what to do about it," Benjamin said.
Hawass insists that the documentation the St. Louis museum has been given is more than sufficient to prove that the mask was stolen, and that the provenance given to the museum by art dealers has been falsified.
He says he is now pondering legal action, a boycott of the museum, and other tactics to recover the mask.
Illegal Digs, Sales Continue
Back in Egypt, illegal digs are a continuing problem for Hawass in a land with many valuable artifacts and many poor citizens.
"Many people dig inside houses to find antiquities, since many of the modern cities [and villages] are built above ancient ones," Hawass said.
On Sunday Hawass told reporters that tomb robbers had been arrested while digging in the ancient royal cemetery of Saqqara.
The incident turned out to be a near miss, as the robbers' trail led archaeologists to discover the 4,200-year-old graves of three royal dentists.
Egypt's antiquities agency has worked to halt such illegal digs and to shore up protection of storage facilities that hold the fruits of countless expeditions.
"Thirty-three storage magazines [have been] established to contain artifacts. Now no one can steal from these magazines as before."
Hawass's team also uses computer databases to photograph and chronicle Egypt's enormous repository of ancient treasures (related news: "Egyptian Writing 'Scanned' Using High-Tech Methods" [September 8, 2006]).
But despite the agency's best efforts, illegal artifacts regularly end up on the international auction block.
Some items appear for sale online, where Egyptian officials can easily identify them. For others, Hawass depends on a global network of contacts to tip him off when notable objects surface.
According to Hawass, Dieter Arnold, an Egyptologist with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, recently alerted him about an alabaster vessel in the shape of a duck in the Christie's catalog.
Arnold had recognized the duck as a piece he had excavated more than 25 years ago. A second duck from the same excavation turned up at the Rupert Wace Gallery in London.
Both of these cases are currently under investigation.
Richard Leventhal, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, agrees that many objects up for sale have dubious origins.
"There is a trade going on," he said. "One only has to look at the catalogs from Sotheby's, Christie's, and other auction houses to see that there are still large amounts of materials on the market without a clear provenance."
Not Stolen, but Uniquely Egyptian
While most of his actions focus on stolen goods, Hawass also makes it clear that he believes five unique artifacts should be repatriated—regardless of their provenance:
the bust of Nefertiti in the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany;
the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum in London, England;
the zodiac ceiling from the Dendera temple complex in the Louvre in Paris, France;
the statue of Hemiunu, architect of the Great Pyramid, in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany;
the statue of Ankhaf in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
The University of Pennsylvania's Leventhal suggests that such iconic artifacts must be considered separately from the legal concerns that apply to other pieces.
"The issue of the Rosetta Stone, that's a different and in some sense a more difficult discussion," he said. "These are cultural properties of great importance, and I think [they have to be addressed] case by case."
For Hawass, such pieces quite simply belong to the land of their origin.
"I believe that these five objects should be in their homeland," he said.
And with Hawass energetically pursuing the case, they just might end up there.
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