Conversation: Protecting Egypt’s Antiquities

BY Jeffrey Brown  March 11, 2011 at 1:56 PM EST

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A soldier guards Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask inside the Egyptian Museum last month. Looters broke into the museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 28, shattering 13 display cases and at least 70 artifacts. Tutankhamun’s mask was not taken or damaged. Photo by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images.

 
Last week, Zahi Hawass, head of the Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities for nearly a decade and a cabinet minister since January, stepped down in protest, saying that many of the country’s ancient sites are not being protected.

Hawass’ resignation, of course, followed weeks of upheaval in the North African country. During the uprising, there were reports of vandalism and looting at several sites, most notably at the grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests.

Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, released a statement last week expressing concern about the safety of the antiquities. The Met’s excavation site in Dahshur, south of Cairo, was the site of looting and vandalism, as well.

Campbell has been keeping an eye on the situation there, and I spoke to him by phone earlier this week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me on the phone today is Thomas Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Welcome to you.

THOMAS CAMPBELL: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re here to talk about the situation in Egypt with the antiquities. What are you hearing from people on the ground there?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: Quite confused reports. After the initial drama in Cairo several weeks ago and the damage that was done in the main Cairo museum, things seemed to settle down, but in fact in recent weeks there seemed to have been an escalating volume of attacks on archeological sites and warehouses through the country. The news coming out is not always clear and sometimes it’s contradictory, but there clearly are vandalism and illegal excavations and looting that is indeed quite troubling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zahi Hawass, the longtime antiquities official there and until recently cabinet minister, he wrote on his blog a few days ago, he listed about two dozen sites that he said had been looted or vandalized since the uprising began. Does that jibe with what you’re hearing?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: That’s correct. And we certainly don’t have corroborative evidence of all of the sites he lists, but certainly there’s a volume of independent confirmation regarding some of the sites on the Internet, from archeologists on the ground in Egypt, and we certainly know that the warehouse that stores the fragments that our own team has been excavating at a site called Dahshur, about 40 miles south of Cairo, we know that that has been attacked on a couple of occasions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about the site. What kind of work goes on there? And the attacks, what do you know about the attacks at this point?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: It’s a middle kingdom pyramid, a brick pyramid, now in a state of partial collapse. We’ve been excavating there for the last couple of decades, recreating, rediscovering the causeway that led down to the Nile, painstakingly recovering fragments of stones that’s chipped off the blocks lining the causeway and the other buildings. These fragments, they belong to the Egyptian government; they don’t belong to us. It’s this site that we fund really for scholarly purposes. And many of these fragments are stored on site, and so far as we understand the warehouse has been broken into at least on a couple of occasions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you know much about the items being taken?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: We don’t have full details yet because our archeologists are back in New York. For obvious reasons we haven’t sent them back in. So we haven’t been able to do a complete inventory, and we are working closely with the representatives, the Egyptian archeology authorities on the ground, trying to ascertain what’s going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of that, I think I saw just today, Egyptian archeologists were calling on the new government to return police guards to many of these sites. Do you know how well-coordinated that effort is within Egypt and is the international community, people like yourself, involved in that effort?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: This is the key issue. I think that with the withdrawal of police from the streets and from the archeological sites, in effect that might have been a green light to vandals or looters to move in, and I think as fast as possible we need to see police returning to the sites and proper surveillance. I’ve certainly been in contact with my counterparts, both American and European museums. It’s of great concern to us. The new Egyptian government needs to act quickly to secure the archeological sites. Irreparable damage could be done very quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s what I wanted to ask you to explain. This issue of stolen artifacts has been in the news for the last decade or more, really. Once the artifacts are stolen, are we any better at shutting down the private market that is out there, or do they inevitably make it into that market, and perhaps as in the past even into some museums?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: Well, I think the museum community have really come together in recent years. We’ve acted very emphatically to try and deter illegal looting, and we now have very stringent requirements. We need to know a great deal about the provenance of an object so that we’re not buying objects that have just come straight out of the ground. Certainly the Association of American Art Museums is very, very strict on that now. I think as fast as possible the authorities in Egypt need to disseminate information and images of the objects that have been looted from the Cairo museum and from elsewhere so that we can all be on the lookout for them and get security back on the ground at the sites and at the warehouses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, I assume that at a prominent site like your warehouse, once you are able to get in there and see if things are missing, you put that out in a very public way to make clear that these are the objects?

THOMAS CAMPBELL: Yes, we’ll certainly be very transparent as soon as we have better information to go on. Egypt in many respects is an open-air museum. There are so many very, very important archeologists sites of world significance and securing them must be a matter of concern not only to the Egyptians but also to the world community at large.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Thomas Campbell is the director the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Thank you very much.

THOMAS CAMPBELL: Pleasure. Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all again for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.