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Egypt Update: Rare Tomb May Have Been Destroyed

3 February 2011 5:26 pm
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UPDATE, 12 February: The status of Maya's tomb remains unclear, as ScienceInsider reports in an update on Egypt's antiquities. See "After the Revolution, Who Will Control Egypt's Monuments?"

Reports of damage to one of the few ancient Egyptian tombs devoted solely to a woman have tempered the news that most of Egypt's priceless antiquities have escaped damage and that teams of foreign archaeologists are safe amid widespread protests against the regime led by Hosni Mubarak.

One archaeologist present at the famous cemetery of Saqqara, south of Cairo, said that as many as 200 looters were digging for treasure in the area this past weekend before police resecured the area. The excavator, who requested anonymity, added that the tomb of Maya, the wet nurse of King Tutankhamun, was "completely destroyed." Another Western archaeologist said, "We still don't know the extent of the damage, but things have been bad and out of control."

None of the Molotov cocktails hurled yesterday around Tahrir Square, home of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities , damaged the building or its contents, according to Zahi Hawass, the minister of antiquities. His blog explains that he has been in contact with the museum control room and that there was no damage beyond last weekend's break-in, which damaged 70 artifacts. Hawass also vehemently denied that there has been heavy looting in Saqqara.

Hawass did say that six boxes were stolen from a storeroom at a site on the Sinai Peninsula but that many objects had since been returned. Concerns remain that the small museum at Memphis, the ancient Egyptian capital, has been thoroughly looted. There was good news at Giza, however. Mark Lehner, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based archaeologist who digs at the pyramid-builders town, said the site was not damaged, as was reported earlier in the week.

Foreign archaeologists in Luxor say the situation in that city far to the south was normal. W. Raymond Johnson, who heads the University of Chicago team there, said that after some weekend rioting all was quiet and that there was no damage to any site. His team resumed work on Sunday. He added that American, French, German, and Egyptian teams "are all checking up on each other." The situation is so normal, in fact, that he noted "there were 10 tour buses" in the parking lot of one ancient Luxor temple yesterday afternoon.

At Amarna, once the capital of Egypt under the pharaoh Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti, all is "as peaceful as ever," says Barry Kemp, a University of Cambridge archaeologist who is still at the site. An attempt to loot archaeological magazines on the other side of the Nile River was thwarted by police, he said. "Order has not broken down in the countryside as it has in Cairo," he says.

Kemp said all foreign expeditions were ordered on Saturday to halt work and leave. Most of his team has since left, and he intends to travel to Cairo soon "to sit it out until I can come back."

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