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Missing the Point: AAMD’s and AiA’s Joint Statement on Egypt’s Missing Objects

Thumbnail image for DahsBlShd.jpg
De Morgan storage facility at Dahshur, site of a Metropolitan Museum expedition
Photo from Blue Shield’s report on Egyptian archaeological sites

A joint statement on the “alarming picture on the state of antiquities and cultural sites” in Egypt was issued yesterday by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Archaeological Institute of America. But it misses two crucially important points.

AAMD and AiA have “call[ed] on Egyptian authorities, even in these unsettled times, to do what they can [emphasis added] to protect the country’s irreplaceable archaeological and cultural materials.”

But “what they can” has clearly proven insufficient. Urgently needed is outside help in securing the archaeological sites (not just in providing “professional support to…identify and reclaim missing objects,” as the two organizations have offered).

I had asked the Metropolitan Museum, whose director Tom Campbell issued a statement on Egypt on Thursday, whether it knew of any specific action being undertaken by the international community to organize protection for these sites. The answer was: “Not yet.” As for the security of the Middle Kingdom Pyramid sites at Dahshur and Lisht that Met archaeologists have been working on, the museum’s spokesperson, Elyse Topalian, told me: “We are in constant contact with the local antiquity inspectors, who are doing a heroic job in safeguarding and reporting back.”

The joint statement of AAMD and AiA urges the international museum and archaeological communities “to alert the appropriate international authorities and customs officials if they believe they have information regarding objects recently stolen from Egypt.”

Good plan. But before this can happen, Egypt needs to compile and widely disseminate as thorough an accounting as possible of exactly what is known to be missing. Public disclosure has thus far been fragmentary, incomplete and lacking photographic documentation.

In this regard, Kate Phizackerley in her News from the Valley of the Kings blog writes:

We still do not have photographs of the items which the [Egyptian] museum has confirmed stolen. That is critical in stopping the thieves escaping the country and they should have been published immediately. For me, not publishing photos of these items and the false doors reported stolen from Saqqara is far more reprehensible than the lapses of security in the first place.

Phizackerley also observes:

Egyptologists are likely to find it hard to believe that Tutankhamun statues were not immediately spotted as missing when there was a broken base on the floor, and question Hawass’ initial assertions that nothing was stolen [from the Egyptian Museum]. The same applies to the other premier items whose cabinets were smashed: curators tend to know their collections intimately and I think most curators would spot that a star item was missing pretty quickly.

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