Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Something the AAMD and AIA Could Do to Help Egyptian Archaeologists

A report in Nature on the risks to Egypt's heritage notes that

some break-ins, particularly those at storage warehouses, do seem to be targeting antiquities to be smuggled out of the country for sale on the international black market. "Some of this material has huge market value," says Malek. The warehouses hold material from archaeological digs, for example fragments of loose wall reliefs from tombs. Much of it has never been properly described or published, meaning that it will be impossible ever to know for sure what has been lost.
This last sentence is key, and points to a major failing on the part not just of Egypt but of the international community of archaeologists, museum directors, and others devoted to preserving the ancient past. Instead of merely providing "professional support to.. identify and reclaim missing objects", as the AIA/AAMD joint statement urges its members to do, these organizations should also be focusing on protecting what has not yet been stolen but is at risk. One step that could and should be taken immediately is to organize a crash program to at least create an archive of photos, if not full descriptions and publication (though they are trained to be fastidious, archaeologists should not let the best should be the enemy of the good here), for the huge number of artifacts that are piled up in Egypt's storerooms, warehouses and museums. Such a program might prove to be a useful pilot leading to similar efforts in other countries.

If cost is an issue, here's a suggestion. Collectors and dealers have long complained about the archaeological community's failure to publish finds, though these complaints have seldom if ever been accompanied by offers to underwrite the costs. Perhaps it is time for Kaywin Feldman and Elizabeth Bartman to sit down with Shelby White and Arthur Houghton. 


Cultural Property Observer said...

Isn't this a responsibility of the Egyptians themselves? And hasn't the SCA received millions of dollars in aid and in payments for travelling shows and the like that might be used for this purpose?

Larry Rothfield said...

Insofar as cultural heritage belongs in the deepest sense to all of us, as John Merryman, Tony Appiah, James Cuno and other friends of collectors have reminded us (and as I too believe), it is the responsibility of us all, no? And since the looting is done to meet the demand for Egyptian antiquities, I would think collectors would feel a particularly strong sense of responsibility to make sure that they aren't inadvertently purchasing stolen artifacts.

You are right to note that the SCA makes money from traveling shows -- I don't know about aid, perhaps you could point to sources for that assertion -- and that it could have budgeted more for documenting and securing its artifacts. But its task is gargantuan under normal circumstances, and even then the antiquities police were not under its budget. In any case, the question is what can be done right away and over the next few months. Given the disastrous drop-off in tourism, the SCA is likely to have even less money available than normal.

Cultural Property Observer said...

For more about the aid Egypt has received from the US Taxpayer, see

It's interesting to note that the Oriental Institute has been a USAID partner for some time and the amounts spent on Luxor have reached $100 million!!!!!

Of course, it would have been nice if a fraction of this amount was used to help the Egyptian government take stock of what it already has-- though of course I believe that remains their primary responsibility.