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The News About Egypt's Antiquities Is Good—and Bad

18 February 2011 2:18 pm
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After weeks of denials, Egypt's top archaeologist admitted yesterday that several ancient tombs and "many" storerooms were damaged or looted during the recent chaos that swept Hosni Mubarak out of office. Zahi Hawass, the minister of antiquities, also said that sporadic attacks continue on the treasures.

At the same time, members of an independent team of international experts that visited the sites last weekend found little evidence of significant destruction. They released a report yesterday detailing their finds.

Hawass wrote on his blog that thieves at Saqqara, the cemetery of the ancient capital of Memphis, broke into the tomb of Hetepka, stealing a false door and other objects stored in the tomb. A storehouse near the pyramid of Teti was looted, and looters in the nearby cemetery of Abu Sir made away with a false door from the tomb of Re-Hetop. The seals on a storehouse at Cairo University also were broken, Hawass said.

It's still not clear, however, what artifacts may have been stolen from these sites. "I have created a committee to prepare reports to determine what, if anything, is missing from these magazines," he added. In addition, soldiers stopped thieves who were attempting to loot the site of Tell el Basta and a tomb in Lisht.

Meanwhile, a mission by the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield-an international organization dedicated to protecting cultural heritage-visited Saqqara, Abu Sir, Dashur, Memphis, and other important ancient sites from 12 to 16 February. The report noted that contradictory reports of damage required on-the-ground inspection "to document the situation, state the damages incurred, and to encourage the parties involved to futher efforts in protecting the invaluable cultural heritage of Egypt."

The three-person team, led by association president Karl von Habsburg, was relieved to find that the sites were largely intact. "We thought the situation would be much worse than what we found," says team member Joris Kila, a culture and history researcher at the University of Amsterdam. The team visited the small museum at Memphis, which was reported to have been heavily looted. They found the building untouched with no signs of vandalism. Even shopping stalls outside the museum were untouched. Later, however, they learned that a nearby warehouse may have been damaged or looted.

At Saqqara, there were early reports of extensive damage to the tomb of Maya, the wet nurse of King Tut, which is well-known for its elaborate paintings. The team found "clear signs of vandalism," including broken locks and destroyed bits of wood, but the tomb was sealed. Antiquities guards insisted the inside was untouched. Later, Kila showed images of the tomb's entrance to University of Leiden archaeologists who have worked at the site, and they agreed that "things did not look changed" around the entrance. "They don't think anything happened," he added.

The team visited the nearby cemetery of Dashur, site of the De Morgans storage facility that is overseen by New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was broken into several times before 15 February, according to the report. By the time of their visit, the doors and windows were sealed, but the report notes "there was no doubt that looting on a big scale took place" at Dashur.

Kila said most of the damage they saw at ancient sites was simple vandalism, with little sign of organized or extensive looting. He said most of this damage was apparently the result of an outpouring of anger by locals toward the government rather than a concerted attempt at theft.

The report urged Egyptian authorities to convene a meeting "to analyze the security at archaeological sites, on how to deal with emergency situations, and how to create contingency plans using the Egyptian example."

Hawass, meanwhile, says that ancient sites will reopen 20 February to tourists.

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