Skip to main content

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.

Bookmark and Share so Your Real Friends Know that You Know


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.

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

The Getty Kouros: "The moral is, never ever buy a piece without a provenance"

In the wake of the 1992 Athens conference to discuss the Getty kouros (85.AA.40), one of the delegates, a "distinguished" American museum curator, was quoted ("Greek sculpture; the age-old question", The Economist June 20, 1992):
The moral is, never ever buy a piece without a provenance.
The recent discussions about the return of antiquities from North American museums to Italy and Greece may seem far removed from the acquisition of what appears to be a forged archaic Greek sculpture in the 1980s. However, there are some surprising overlaps.

The statue arrived at the Getty on September 18, 1983 in seven pieces. True (1993: 11) subsequently asked two questions:
Where was it found? As it was said to have been in a Swiss private collection for fifty years, why had it never been reassembled, though it was virtually complete?
A similar statue surfacing in the 1930s
A decision was taken to acquire the kouros in 1985. The official Getty line at the time (and reported in Russell…

The Getty kouros: a modern creation?

The refurbished galleries of the J. Paul Getty Museum no longer include the Getty kouros, a sculpture purchased in 1985 (Christopher Knight, "Something's missing from the newly reinstalled antiquities collection at the Getty Villa", LA Times April 19, 2018). Knight explains:
Unexpectedly, the Getty kouros, a controversial sculpture even before the museum acquired it more than 30 years ago, has been removed from public view. The work is now in museum storage.   For decades, the life-size carving of a standing nude youth carried one of the most distinctive labels of any work of art in an American museum: “Greece (?) about 530 B.C. or modern forgery.” The label encapsulated puzzling issues about the work, whose questionable status as dating from the archaic dawn of Western civilization had been the focus of scholarly and scientific research, debate and international symposiums for years. It is ten years since I provided an overview of the kouros here on LM. And over 20 year…