Stones, loans, and groans
January 11, 2010 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Zahi Hawass, bombastic if nothing else, is proving successful in his ongoing push to repatriate Egyptian artifacts that may or may not have been illegally removed from the country. The Tetiky friezes were returned from France; next on the agenda are the iconic Nefertiti bust [MP3 audio], which is currently housed in Berlin’s Neues Museum, and the Rosetta Stone, which has lived at the British Museum for over two centuries.
posted by oinopaponton (24 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For a day’s worth of interesting reading about repatriation attempts, go here or here.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:52 AM on January 11, 2010

I will not open any of the links in the post for the simple fact that over the past ten or twelve years, his has been the only voice for Egyptian archeology. And frankly, I'm quite tired of hearing it.
posted by jsavimbi at 9:55 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Snakes. Why is it always snakes?
posted by clvrmnky at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2010

I will not open any of the links in the post for the simple fact that over the past ten or twelve years, his has been the only voice for Egyptian archeology.

wait, what?

do you mean you're boycotting Egyptian archaeology until someone else speaks for it, or boycotting Egyptian archeology forever on principle, or...what?

and furthermore, are links like a Pandora's Box of enablement that, when clicked, unleash further Zahi Hawass-ness on our unsuspecting world?

Hope me, man.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:24 AM on January 11, 2010

Yeah, Hawass is not only annoying and bombastic but a stone antisemite. I wish he'd stick to preservation of antiquities.
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on January 11, 2010

The comment (scroll down) at this link about the Rosetta Stone is very worth reading. It summarizes how we got here, why Britain has a good case for being the legal owner of the Stone but also a good suggestion for how to resolve the situation.
posted by vacapinta at 10:27 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep, I know, not the most savory guy, but he's getting results.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:30 AM on January 11, 2010

If Dr. Hawass succeeds in repatriating the Rosetta Stone, it won't be long before he starts taking credit for its discovery.
posted by grounded at 10:33 AM on January 11, 2010

First of all, let me salute you for not calling him the "real-life Indiana Jones", which is all too commonly applied to Hawass. He's a very smart, very politically-connected man who knows how to wield his control over almost all aspects of Egyptology like a cudgel or a scalpel. On the plus side, that means he can ensure the level of quality work he wants and he can squash some of the kooks. On the negative side, you have to go through his gateway to work effectively in Egypt. He controls excavation passes, the museums, site assignments, and lots more; if you want to excavate in Egypt, I recommend staying on his good side. He has a stunning amount of power.

He's going to face his toughest battle with the British Museum. They have gotten a lot of practice digging their heels in with the Elgin Marbles. Because their collection is so old, it predates the recent treaties, which means that Hawass's best tool - the force of international law, and the embarrassment arising from contemporaries and near-contemporaries from being personally involved in buying/holding illegally acquired items - is considerably weakened. It's a lot easier to claim a legal purchase 250 years ago when the transactions are conveniently murky than it is today when everything is documented out the oisieau.
posted by julen at 10:35 AM on January 11, 2010

Hawass first asked the British Museum to lend the Rosetta Stone to Egypt for a temporary display. However, he was angered when trustees asked him to provide assurances that the stone would be safe.

“The [security] standards of our new museums in Egypt are better than the standards of security at the British Museum and therefore I decided that we are not going to ask for a loan. We are going to bring [it back] for good,” said Hawass.
HawAsshole, more like.

The Rosetta Stone will go back to Egypt when the Declaration of Independence goes back to Britain (seeing as how Jefferson was technically still a citizen of England when he wrote it). Which is to say, never. Ever.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:39 AM on January 11, 2010

HumanComplex, there was just a deleted post about the Pyramid slave thing. It's not new news, though it is a common misconception. These guys probably know the most about pyramid builders out of anyone alive.

(Incidentally, I got to meet Mark Lehner once. He's a great, hardworking archaeologist, way closer to the "real life Indiana Jones" than Zahi, but damn if archaeology isn't one big cult of personality)
posted by oinopaponton at 10:51 AM on January 11, 2010

It's not new news, though it is a common misconception.

Not sure that was the claim, though, even if media did their best to mess things up; the new news seems to be that they have found more tombs:

Press Release - New Tombs Found at Giza

"A collection of tombs that belong to workers who built Khufu’s pyramid has been discovered in the area of the workmen’s tombs on the Giza plateau, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni announced. [...] 'This is the first time to uncover tombs like the ones that were found during the 1990’s, which belong to the late 4th and 5th Dynasties (2649-2374 BC),' asserted Hawass."
posted by effbot at 11:22 AM on January 11, 2010

I had a drinking game with my college roommate for a while wherein: every time we found a show about Egypt or the Pyramids or a pharaoh or any related subject on the Discovery Channel or PBS, we both got a beer. And then when Dr. Zahi Hawass showed up on screen first, whoever was first to shout "DOCTOR ZAHI HAWASS" would make the other person finish his beer.

During certain weeks we went through a lot of beer on this.
posted by penduluum at 11:35 AM on January 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Crudblatt. The November New Yorker piece about him is behind the paywall.
posted by hecho de la basura at 11:56 AM on January 11, 2010

We should give the Rosetta Stone back to the Greeks, just to make a point, you know?

I mean, I actually support the repatriation of artifacts, but there is the issue of where they belong, and who is the rightful inheritor. Obviously the Elgin Marbles are part of the Parthenon, and so belong on or as close to that building as possible. The Rosetta Stone is less clear, because how can we decide who owns a culture or its history? Even fixed artifacts, such as the city of Ani, can't sincerely held to be owned by their current possessors; and even the English are only keepers of Stonehenge - it really means nothing to us as a culture. But for movable and losable things, which may have been buried or misunderstood for hundreds or thousands of years, it strains belief that there is a definite moral right for a country to own them, just because of a line on the map. I respect that treaties give countries the legal right to control the disposal on artifacts found in their territory, but I think that should be seen as administrative, and not foundational to a complete and retrospective right of repatriation. Sometimes the arguments of safety and public exposure are quite credible, and there may exist no better context for an artifact than in a museum.
posted by Sova at 12:04 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a drinking game with my college roommate for a while wherein: every time we found a show about Egypt or the Pyramids or a pharaoh or any related subject on the Discovery Channel or PBS, we both got a beer. And then when Dr. Zahi Hawass showed up on screen first, whoever was first to shout "DOCTOR ZAHI HAWASS" would make the other person finish his beer.

It makes me happy that there are other people out there besides me who have devised incredibly geeky drinking games. I suspect that this sort of thing is common in Metafilter users.

Oh and

posted by freecellwizard at 12:15 PM on January 11, 2010

Sova, I think you're totally right (if I understand you correctly) in saying that artifacts belong to humanity as a whole, and that preservation is better than destruction. The tricky stuff, and the area where Hawass actually has a point, comes when you factor in colonialism and its aftermath. The Elgin marbles are the saddest example of this-- Athens just built a stunning, state of the art museum to prove to the British Museum that they're civilized enough to keep the marbles safe (and of course, no marbles have been returned as of yet). It's easy (though maybe incorrect?) to read this as Britain clutching onto what's left of the Empire, and it matters in terms of cultural identity to varying degrees.

An example totally unrelated to Classical history is the Buddhist sculptures at the MFA Boston-- most, if not all, were bought legally after WWII from struggling monasteries who basically had to sell their statues or shut down. They're important religious/cultural artifacts and a really popular tourist attraction for Japanese tourists, but it's pretty awkward that they're here in Boston in the first place.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:25 PM on January 11, 2010

Oops, my Acropolis Museum link is out of date. Here's the new one.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:27 PM on January 11, 2010

While I’m sympathetic to countries trying to have items of antiquity returned to their modern day country of origin, I disagree with it for two major reasons.

One is that concentrating items in one place severely limits the number of people that can see and learn more about an item. For instance, putting two Ptolemaic mummies in a museum Chicago or Tokyo will expose individuals to such object that otherwise would never have such exposure. Putting these two mummies in a room with ninety other similar mummies in Cairo won’t have such an affect. If the point of museums is to allow people to get easily survey man's history and creations, having a variety of artifacts from different locations and periods seems ideal versus this idea that all Chinese artifacts should be shipped back to China, all Egyptian artifacts to Egypt, and so on. Modern day laws and treaties should and are enforced to prevent any more artifacts from leaving a country without governmental approval.

The second concern I have is something that I’ve encountered at countless museums around the world in less developed countries. While museums like the Met and the British Museum will have the highest available security and conservation technologies deployed, many developing countries will not have the will or ability to do the same. There are absolute exceptions, such as the Shanghai Museum and the Pre-Columbian Art Museum of Cusco, many other museums that I've been to have had invaluable items exposed to the elements, easy theft, and ungodly poor displays. A few notable examples that I've run into would be parts of parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls sitting in sunlight with no humidity control in Jordan, easily bribing guards in the stunning, disorganized Museum of Egyptian Antiquities where items disappear regularly (and the new museum keeps being delayed), and enjoying replicas of stolden items that were recently returned to Turkey.

And in case anyone is interested in this sort of thing, Greece just opened a museum essentially to prove a point, while China has been merging reality TV, nationalism, and artifact reparations.
posted by SeanOfTheHillPeople at 12:29 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I felt so sure this would go to the Onion...
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:53 PM on January 11, 2010

Can't museums just use replicas then?

The awesome thing about Egyptian antiquities in particular is that there are so many of them. That's not sarcastic. There are mummies (not famous ones, and usually not perfect ones) by the dozen sitting in plenty of museum basements. The artifacts in question in terms of repatriation are usually the ones "of cultural importance," hence the Nefertitis and the Rosetta Stones. If Dr. Hawass gets every item on his current list, I think the general assumption is that he'll stop and leave the less famous pieces wherever they are (I guess we'll see whether that happens or not).
posted by oinopaponton at 1:03 PM on January 11, 2010

And in case anyone is interested in this sort of thing, Greece just opened a museum essentially to prove a point

Eh, say Greece is being nationalist*. However, it's hard to overlook that the British Museum houses a great number of exhibits acquired during the age of the British Empire and won't let go of them. The exposure argument is a good one. A more blunt argument is that museums such as the British Museum or the Louvre (let's not mention the Pergamonmuseum) owe significant part of their lustre to their foreign collections and can't afford to give them away. The power disparity at play ensures that they won't and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I actually like the sculpture collection in the Louvre or the non-Parthenon part of the collection in the British Museum insofar it offers a taste of archaic/classical Greek art and makes for interesting contrast with other works in these museums that were inspired by or against these aesthetics.

Acropolis is an essential part of modern Athens because it simultaneously serves as a testament to the achievements of the classical age, a "witness" to the fortunes of the city throughout the years and a reminder not to fuck up. It's probably the most powerful symbol Greece has ever produced. Keeping parts of the most characteristic feature of the city away from it simply feels wrong.

*Incidentally, besides making a point, the museum also addresses worries about the care afforded to antiquities. The British Museum isn't immaticulate (Greece wouldn't have been either), but even the BM recognises this isn't a hill to die on.

It is often incorrectly reported that the British Museum argues that the sculptures in their collection should remain in London because there is nowhere to house them in Greece and that the Greek authorities cannot look after them. Now that the new museum is opening these arguments are redundant.

Neither of these claims is true, the British Museum does not argue this. The Trustees argue that the sculptures on display in London convey huge public benefit as part of the Museum’s worldwide collection. Our colleagues in Athens are, of course, fully able to conserve and preserve the material in their care and we enjoy friendly and constructive relations with them.

posted by ersatz at 4:58 PM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

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