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February 13 2011

Tutankhamun statues stolen

Egyptian minister says thieves targeted most-valuable artefacts after breaking in through roof and descending by ropes

Thieves have stolen 18 priceless artefacts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, including two gilded statues of King Tutankhamun, during the political unrest.

Zahi Hawass, the antiquities minister, said the losses were discovered during an inventory of the museum after the protests died down.

Among missing items are a statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess and another of him harpooning. Also stolen is a limestone statue of the pharaoh Akhenaten holding an offering table, a statue of Nefertiti making offerings and several other stone and wooden artefacts.

Hawass said that an investigation is underway and that the "police and army plan to follow up with the criminals already in custody".

The museum is on the edge of Tahrir square, the heart of three weeks of protests that brought down the president, Hosni Mubarak. It was raided on 28 January by thieves who climbed up a fire escape and then used ropes to lower themselves into the museum.

The thieves appear to have carefully selected some of the most valuable objects while ignoring less important artefacts. "They are not something you would come and randomly find," an Egyptologist at Cairo's American University, Ikram Said Salima Ikram, told Reuters.

Restoration work has already started at the museum to repair the damage by looters. Hawass said that 70 pieces were damaged.

The army guarded the museum and its 125,000 antiquities, including Tutankhamun's funeral mask, throughout the unrest. The building was threatened when the neighbouring ruling party headquarters was burnt down.

At one point, protesters formed a human chain to surround the museum and protect it from thieves and looters.


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February 03 2011

Tomb raiders

Judging by reports from Cairo, the west does not understand that one of the greatest antiquity collections on Earth is in danger

If petrol bombs were being thrown in St Marks Square in Venice, or outside the British Museum, what would reports say? We would never stop hearing about the threat to humanity's cultural heritage. Yet, as I scan the news sites for the latest reports from Cairo, it is strange how little stress has been placed on the unique importance and fragility of the contents of the Egyptian Museum, which stands at the very heart of the unfolding tragedy. That is why I must reiterate my previous attempt to draw attention to this silent witness and victim of events.

No, works of art are not people. The violence to protesters who had been so peaceful is nightmarish. But a nightmare scenario is also unfolding for the antiquities of Egypt. As I already stressed earlier this week, the collection of the Egyptian Museum is one of the greatest on Earth. This is where the golden mask of Tutenkamun is kept; the mummies of the pharaohs, and so much more.

The image that has haunted me all week is of a very ancient and very spooky tomb statue in the museum: it keeps coming to mind because I have seen nothing like it anywhere else – and because it is made of wood. Old, dry wood. All these treasures could vanish in smoke so easily.

My initial assumption was that the western media were downplaying the museum because it seemed less important than the lives at stake and the future to be won. It was even being said that to draw attention to looting was to do the propaganda work of the regime. But now I am starting to wonder if people in the west even know or care what is in that building. It is a great museum. And it is in peril.


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November 09 2010

Tutankhamun gallery opens

Video: Archives from the Griffith Institute in Oxford are on display at Tomb and Treasures exhibition, which opens this weekend in Manchester



November 05 2010

Egypt: A life before the afterlife

Gloomy tombs and morbid mummies? Everyday Egypt was much more than that, argues Richard Parkinson in a first glimpse of a new series focusing on the ancient world, free with tomorrow's Guardian

Ancient Egypt rarely escapes our stereotypical view of it: an exotic place full of pyramids crammed with cursed treasure, waiting to be discovered by adventurous archaeologists. As in René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's comic Asterix and Cleopatra, it is often presented as a land of spooky tombs and people speaking in hieroglyphic pictures. These stereotypes are themselves quite ancient – even to the ancient Greeks, Egypt was a quintessentially different culture. But they trivialise a complex society.

Ancient Egypt is one of the first civilisations that children are taught about, and so people sometimes assume that it must be a "childish" culture, an early step in humanity's evolution towards modernity. People of all ages visit the displays of mummies in the British Museum, and there can be no more vivid way of stirring anyone's historical imagination than to look into an actual ancient face. But as we stare, we can sometimes forget that they were more than mummies, and that once they were people as complex and sophisticated as us.

Some of our misunderstandings about ancient Egypt come about in part because the Egyptians presented much of their history in a monumental and monolithic form. For centuries, the Egyptians codified in stone their history as a list of kings, each the son of the sun god, each a triumphant hero who, with each reign, re-established order in a chaotic universe. Even now, Egyptian history is conventionally divided into great kingdoms of centralised rule, the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, divided by periods of supposed chaos. The central role of the king is perhaps the key to Egypt's self-representation: every king re-established Egyptian society, eternal and unchanging since the time of the gods.

In these official records, Egypt presented itself as an extremely conservative culture. As in any society, it is all too easy to accept this ideology at face value, but there were huge changes behind this facade and continual tensions between the royal centre and periphery – aspects of history that were written out of royal inscriptions. After so many centuries, how can we get behind these official political pronouncements and begin to understand the Egyptians in context?

Occasionally we have different types of evidence for the same events, which allow us a fuller picture. In 1858BC at Semna, in Nubia at the southern edge of Egypt, King Senusret III erected an inscription to mark the border of his territory. In this, he proclaimed scornfully that the Nubian locals "only have to hear and then fall at a word: just answering them makes them retreat". But the archaeological context reveals that the inscription was erected in a massive mud-brick fortress, which shows that the king needed more than words to control the Nubians. And this fortress was part of an expansion into Nubia that was motivated by complex economic and political factors. The history of the area was not simply a triumph of royal rhetoric.

For one week during the reign of the following king, Amenemhat III, we have evidence that hints at a more complex history underlying this monumental facade. A fragmentary series of military despatches records trivial realities such as the arrival of a group of soldiers to report "on month 4 of winter, day 2 at breakfast-time" that a patrol had returned with the news that "we found the tracks of 32 men and three donkeys". This was a civilisation not just of pyramids, but also petty paperwork and interrupted breakfasts.

The ancient Egyptians were, of course, as fully aware as any modern historian or politician of the difference between words and reality. The dichotomies between what one can say on an official monument and what one really feels is vividly conveyed in a letter from Luxor, dated around 1100BC, in which the pharaoh's general Payankh tells a scribe to have two troublesome policemen "put in two baskets and thrown into the water by night – but don't let anyone find out". He continues: "and Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) – how will he even get to this part of the land? And ... whose boss is he anyway?" Such dissidence is unthinkable in Egyptian official writings, although even here the writer adds the obedient salutation to the Pharaoh's health even as he mocks him.

Life and death

Popular books often tell us that the ancient Egyptians spent their whole life preparing for death. Western cinema has been haunted by the image of the mummy emerging from its tomb to send innocent westerners to their doom ever since Boris Karloff appeared as the bandaged Imhotep in 1932. But if we read Egyptian poetry, we find that their attitudes to death were more complex. Poets lament the cruelty of death, and urge their readers to enjoy life: "Follow the happy day! Forget care!"

Because cemeteries were located in the desert, they are better preserved than anything else, and this has given us a very distorted view of the culture – imagine if only municipal cemeteries were preserved from Victorian Britain.

Yet they can still tell us as much about life as death – the dry desert can preserve organic material so well that we can still handle actual wigs, baskets, food and flowers from 3,000 years ago. Objects from a person's life were buried with them in the tomb, and when we can still see a baker's fingerprints in an ancient loaf of bread we sense some of the material experience of their lives better than from any inscription.

But even here there is a danger: tombs filled with such variety tell us only about the lives of those who could afford to be buried this way – that is, the wealthy elite.

Gossip and swearing

Scenes inside the tombs themselves defy the cliches: the modern visitor is often shocked to find how intimate and colourful a place they are. They show workmen squabbling and fighting among themselves, very much alive. And when we can observe the ancient Egyptians' own interactions with their dead, they were usually not concerned with magic or curses as we might expect, but with more immediate domestic matters. People would visit tomb-chapels and sometimes write letters to their dead relatives, asking them for help with ongoing family problems. In one example, a husband asks his dead wife why she is persecuting him from the underworld, repeatedly protesting (perhaps rather too much) that he had never done anything with the serving girls. The blessed dead were still part of the living family even when they had left the land of the living.

Much less survives from settlement sites because they were almost always in the agricultural land of the Nile valley. Luckily for us, there are a few exceptions, such as the village of the craftsmen who decorated the royal tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, now known as Deir el-Medina, in the 1200sBC. For reasons of convenience, this was built near their workplace in the desert hills, and so it preserves a unique range of archaeological and textual material. In Deir el-Medina we can still see and study their living spaces, their furniture and vast quantities of discarded broken pottery. We can also still read about the minutiae of daily life: the problems of donkey hire, and accusations of sleeping around ("he had sex with the lady Hel while she was married to Hesysunebef … and when he'd had sex with Hel he had sex with Webkhet, her daughter. And then Aapehty, his son, had sex with Webkhet"). We can see universal human concerns embodied in very different cultural ways from our own: government–employed artists drew cartoons in which animals parody the official art they produced for the kings – a mouse pharaoh in a chariot attacks a citadel of cats, imitating scenes of royal victories. This one small village gives us evidence for a full range of human intrigues, gossip, learning, sophistication and sensuality that is mostly lacking in our record of Egypt's long history. In Deir el-Medina it is impossible to forget that these ancient people were once very much alive.

Egyptology is a relatively recent discipline, and was born in imperial times. Unfortunately it is still tainted by its own colonialist stereotypes or those similar to the macho archaeologist embodied by Indiana Jones. Popular books still go on relentlessly about uncovering finds, cracking secret codes – a language that implies that we are acquiring hidden treasures and bringing them from primitive darkness into modern scientific light. Real Egyptology, however, is no longer about acquiring objects, but about understanding their meaning in their original context, and about working within the Egyptian landscape. Long gone is the old colonial arrogance that once denied to ancient Egyptians any possibility of being our equals – and denied to modern Egyptians any interest in their own culture: Egyptology is now always a partnership with modern Egypt. More sophisticated theoretical perspectives are developing, drawing on work from other disciplines, and we are beginning to understand Egyptian culture more as a whole, and less as a sequence of facts and artefacts. Our European stereotypes are not the only way of viewing this past, no matter how familiar and natural they seem to us. Modern scholarship has a lot to learn from how modern Egyptians have engaged with their history: when the Egyptian director Shadi Abd al-Salam filmed the story of a 19th- century discovery of royal mummies, his film was titled The Mummy – but instead of being another crude yarn of monsters and curses, it sympathetically explores our complex relationship with this ancient heritage, and reminds us that ancient and modern Egypt are parts of the same country.

Culture shock

When we encounter an ancient Egyptian artefact face to face, it often produces a strangely mixed feeling of meeting something very different from our own culture, but also very familiar. No matter how "other" it is, it can also give us a slight shock of recognition.

And sometimes not so slight. It is said that when the statue of the aristocratic lady Nofret from c2600BC was first discovered in 1871, the workman excavating the chamber ran out of the tomb, terrified. He had tunnelled into a chamber and looked through the hole to find he was looking straight into the statue's eyes, inlaid with rock crystal, which seemed to be staring back at him. The excavator, Albert Daninos, described the eyes as "uncomfortably real".

Which is exactly the point: when we look at the ancient world, we do not expect the ancient dead to look back at us, or to look so lively. We prefer them to stay safely dead, distant and irrelevant. "Uncomfortably real", the ancient Egyptians can still challenge our assumptions that ours is the only way of looking at the world, and remind us that they saw it differently.

Richard Parkinson is a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. His main research interest is the poetry of the classical age of Egyptian literature


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November 03 2010

The magic of the mummies

The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains a spell that turns the speaker into a snake

"I am the Sata-snake, long of years, who sleeps and is reborn each day. I am the Sata-snake, dwelling in the limits of the earth. I sleep and am reborn, renewed and rejuvenated each day."

This is a translation of a spell (right) from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, on display at the British Museum, which enables the speaker to change into a snake. It may not read like a spell – eye of bat, skin of toad – but it was expected to have a magical effect and to be recited by a mummy – the dead person in the tomb.

Why a snake? Well, if you wanted to travel after death through the Western Lands, over hill and through river, a serpent's body was ideal. Also, the Sata-snake was thought to be reborn in an endless cycle mirroring the dream of eternal life.

The spell is shorter in English; hieroglyphs, says John H Taylor, curator of the exhibition, include phonetic signs and ideograms, and any word is likely to mix the two. But every symbol has magic in it. Images and words combine to give the mummy power, as The Book of the Dead puts it, to "go forth by day".


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November 02 2010

Dead cool

British Museum

Statues are speaking at the British Museum. The dead are coming to life. The statue in front of me is a small painted wooden figure of the god Osiris, just over half a metre high, in a glass case in one of the first rooms of this engrossing exhibition. It is instantly striking, because of the bright green of its face and hands, but its verbal eloquence lies hidden inside.

It was made as a container for a rolled-up papyrus that "speaks" for its owner to the gods: a Book of the Dead, a collection of magic spells to help a departed person on their journey through the Western Lands, where gods and monsters live and the dead walk. The Book of the Dead was an illustrated guide to this landscape, as well as a survival kit of spells to repel dangers and get the gods on your side.

This particular statue, and the papyrus it held, belonged to Anhai, a woman of high rank from a powerful priestly family in the Egyptian New Kingdom, who died in about 1100 BC. Her book, like others, was not only meticulously filled with spells written by scribes but illuminated with bright, crisp paintings that show crucial scenes and deities. The figures in these pictures stand or walk in profile – the Egyptians never did learn to portray people in the round, as the Greeks would – and have a crystal-clear beauty. Anhai's paintings portray her as tall and slender, with long, braided black hair, being led by the falcon-headed god Horus, who tightly grasps her wrist, towards the gates of the dead.

When this collection of often-enigmatic pronouncements was first collated and translated by 19th-century scholars, it was seen as a kind of Egyptian Bible. An 1898 translation by the British Museum's expert EA Wallis Budge gave it the sonorities of the King James translation to make the point, inspiring many a mummy-related horror film and fuelling a remote image of ancient Egypt.

But this show vividly demonstrates that this image is false: what we actually see here are individualised books of the dead, each one making a different choice from the corpus of spells, movingly personalised with portraits of the dead person. In a book belonging to Ani, a royal scribe who died in about 1275 BC, we even see him and his wife Tutu playing a board game called senet – a game seen as symbolic of the journey through the afterlife, but also here inspiring a lovely domestic scene.

Real-life details fill these books of the dead. Gardens, houses, feasts, clothes, animals and boats are lovingly portrayed. The texts themselves are also very beautiful: it is amazing to look at precisely inked writing that is more than 3,000 years old, a thousand years before Julius Caesar. So why are there comparatively few quotes in this exhibition? Although Budge's translation is now considered dated, there are clear, modern English translations of many of these spells, and surely there should be more of them on the walls.

The show does not stint on deathly drama, however. The setting, under the dome of the old British Museum reading room, is strikingly exploited with ghostly lighting and deep shadows; a mummy's burial chamber is even recreated inside. As you proceed from this tomb into the realms of the dead, in this case represented by an array of coffins, sculpted stones, masks, bandages and papyri, you enter – as the Ba, the bird-like detachable spirit of the deceased, would – a strange limbo-like land of gates and passages and journeys. At last you come to the Hall of Judgment. Each Egyptian had to stand before Osiris while her or his heart was weighed by Anubis. In the other scale was the feather of Maat, goddess of balance and rightness; the terrifying Devourer crouched nearby, waiting to eat the hearts of sinners. In these papyri, artists have great fun imagining the Devourer – part crocodile, part lion, part hippopotamus.

If your heart was free from sin, you proceeded on towards the Field of Reeds, a paradise that looked exactly like the real Egypt and where the dead could do what they did in life, but without illness or pain. They are portrayed working in the fields, although, if you were asked to do anything too onerous in the afterlife (and were rich enough), you could get shabti figures – servile statuettes – that were buried to take on the task.

As this exhibition reveals, no civilisation ever had a stronger belief in the afterlife than Egypt. Greeks and Roman myths focus overwhelmingly on this life; Egypt, with one foot in prehistory, looked over the horizon to the place where the setting sun vanished. Yet ancient Egyptians lived 35 years on average. Their obsession with the afterlife was a response to that reality. And in their desire to perpetuate existence, they demonstrated their passion for the world. They loved life and wanted it to go on forever. In the end, perhaps there is nothing spooky in this exhibition at all. It is a hymn to the sun.

Rating: 5/5


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