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Egyptian Cultural Heritage: the wider perspective

Dr Christina Riggs, lecturer in Art History at the University of East Anglia (UEA), has written a comment piece on the loss of archaeological material from the Cairo Museum during the recent demonstrations ("We've been here before", THE February 24, 2011, 28). She chides the archaeological blogosphere for not commenting specifically on the protests. (At the same time, should academic blogs stray from their main purpose of commenting on archaeological material?)

Riggs makes an interesting observation:
Egyptology websites, discussion lists, even Facebook groups have circulated updates about suspected looting, and several organisations have issued statements calling for the protection of Egypt's antiquities. Ironically, such statements come on the heels of vigorous US and European rejections of Egyptian requests to repatriate objects, including some granted to foreign excavators before the 1920s.
She appears to be alluding to the legal action being taken by the St Louis Art Museum (SLAM) to prevent the seizure of the Egyptian mummy mask known to have been excavated at Saqqara, and the Egyptian claims on the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin.

Riggs does not not explore the contemporary market in Egyptian antiquities, or consider the material and intellectual consequences of the desire to own such objects.

The damage to objects in the Cairo Museum should not distract us from the primary concern of seeking the safeguarding of these internationally significant objects and their archaeological contexts.

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There were and are plenty of archaeologists who are all too aware of the connection between archaeology and politics. Riggs just chooses to look selectively. For instance, the role of Zahi Hawas has been discussed/criticized extensively. Anyway, in a crisis situation one has little choice but to focus on the immediate concerns of protection of artifacts and sites. Are archaeologists saints? No. Can some of them be heavy-handed and arrogant? You betcha. Do they betray cultural bias of any kind? Of course, Egyptian as well as foreign ones in this case. It is very easy to halt all discussion by invoking colonialism and such but we don't live in a perfect world. There are greedy museums, art dealers rely too much on looting, quite a few archaeologists seem only interested in their career, some governments of archaeologically-rich countries wield ideological axes: all true. However, give underemployed, continuously-caught-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place archaeologists a break already.
Frankly, there also needs to be more concern expressed about reports that substantial amounts of money was diverted from Egyptian archaeology into the pockets of corrupt Mubarak Government officials. US Government and private sources alone have spent millions in foreign aid and payments for travelling exhibits and TV shows. This should have gone to Egyptian archaeology instead of the lifestyles of Egypt's government elite. It's a bit disconcerting that these allegations stopped after Egyptian Antiquities Minister Hawass announced 1,000 new jobs for Egyptian archaeological students. Such allegations should be investigated rather than swept under the rug.

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