After Looting in the Egyptian Museum, Archaeologists Pick up the Pieces

By Patrick Morgan | February 1, 2011 11:48 am

With the world focused on the uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, archaeologists have raised the alarm about Egypt’s ancient treasures. Last Friday, looters destroyed some artifacts in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, home of over 120,000 priceless artifacts, including many from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Other museums have also been ransacked–but in one uplifting moment, citizens and army personnel banded together to save Egypt’s past.

Although some of the Egyptian Museum looters were reportedly apprehended, the damage was already done: the criminals beheaded two mummies thought to be pharaohs, reduced to rubble a statue of the young King Tut astride a panther, and damaged many other treasures.

The country’s top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, described the damage in a series of statements, including an update that was posted to his blog on Sunday. He said looters ransacked the museum’s gift shop and went on to vandalize authentic treasures as well. More than a dozen display cases were broken into, including one that contained the Tut statuette. “The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor,” Hawass wrote. “I am very thankful that all of the antiquities that were damaged in the museum can be restored, and the tourist police caught all of the criminals that broke into it.” [MSNBC]

There’s a big difference, though, between “can be restored,” and “easily restored.”

“A lot of the things that were broken off were gilded wood, so I think they were after gold,” UCLA Egyptologist Willeke Wendrich told National Geographic News…. “The restoration of those objects, even if all the parts are still there, will be very difficult, time consuming, and costly,” she added. “This is really fragile wood.” [National Geographic]

Despite the damage to Egypt’s past, much more looting was thankfully prevented, thanks to groups of civic-minded citizens. At the Egyptian Museum, people formed a human wall to protect their country’s treasures:

As the fire raged, would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum…. But other young men, some armed with truncheons taken from the police, formed a protective human chain outside the museum’s main gates. “I’m standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure,” one of the men, a 40-year-old engineer named Farid Saad, told AP. [MSNBC]

Other museums, though, were not as lucky as the Egyptian Museum:

The open-air museum in Memphis—a capital of ancient Egypt just south of Cairo—was emptied of its treasures, according to antiquities chief Hawass…. While an inventory of items damaged or stolen at Memphis is not currently available, the site is famous for its large statue of Pharaoh Ramses II and other sculptures. [National Geographic]

And even amidst the clamor of looting, old tensions over the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts still linger. In an op-ed article, Middle East archaeologist and historian Alex Joffe questioned whether Egypt can look after the artifacts it already has.

“These events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed. Last week he again demanded the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Berlin. The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum has long been on Mr. Hawass’s wish list, along with the Zodiac Ceiling in the Louvre and statues in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and museums in Hildesheim, Germany, and Turin, Italy.” [The Wall Street Journal]

Related Content:
80beats: How Egypt Shut Down the Web—and How Egyptians Are Fighting Back
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80beats: X-Rayed Mummies Reveal That Ancient Egyptians Had Heart Disease
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DISCOVER: Making a Modern Mummy

Image: flickr / fmerenda

  • Anatol

    Countries with very very long histories (unlike USA), all have a problem with their antique past. By antique, i mean religous wise. The influence of islam has been so strong on the people, they became enemies of their own ancestral heritage. This is how i see it. That old culture is long gone. Everything has changed. The only reason antiquity is preserved is because they are the main money makers, as tourist attractions. Ask historians and they will tell you how in the old days, Egyptians were selling their ancient artifacts for cigarette money to english, french collecters, recklessly. That is why you have Egyptian items in all the museums around the world. “The book of dead” would have never made it, if it wasn’t smuggled out of Egypt for a few bucks. The idea of huge structures, devoted to some other gods in muslim countries, is hard to swallow for extremists.

    Remember the demolished Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

  • Khayim

    Anatol: The Egyptians that you reference aren’t the indigenous tribes that originated there. Remember that Egypt was first KEMET, AFRICA. This African civilization has been plundered by countless outside invaders. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the current “Egyptians” disrespected one of the greatest cultures to date. The Greatest Arab legacy is their founding of the African Slave Trade which is some areas continues today. But we can’t lay all the blame on them when other invaders ( France- Nepolean, Germany- Hitler, Great Britian, USA, etc.) have plundered the interiors of Africa for centuries. To Really cleanse the area, one would need to exile ALL of Africas’ invaders. But that would step on many countries toes and as always, Africans are FORCED to let bygones be bygones. I question the integrity of all that lay ANY claim to the area that are not of Nubian descent. Invaders get out! The Book Of the Dead that you reference is the precursor to the BIBLE. Constantine, another invader, had nine monks rewrite much of what is considered the ‘Holy Bible’ based on the Book of the Dead. It was once known as the ‘Wholly Bible’ because is merely contained some of the original texts. The Bible has the 10 commandments whereas the Book of the Dead has 49. Maybe those missing commandments lie at the root of why so many cultures other than true Africans fight over such things! They all bear the name of “Robber Baron”. Purchase of stolen artifacts doesn’t change the fact that is was stolen! It has been said that the bible was writtenas instructions for the man who had not the true integrity in his heart. Peace not War- invaders get out! Return Kemet!

  • Abby Blackburn

    This is beyond despicable, what was accomplished by doing all that damage?
    I am appalled and absolutely so disheartened by reading what citizens of Egypt have done to thousands and thousands of years of historical artifacts.


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