6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Weighing the issuesBy Jill Kamil and Rehab Saad
What are the problems facing Egyptology today? How do we solve them? Where do our priorities lie? These are just some of the questions raised by the six scholars debating "Egyptology in the 21st Century," the first debate of the eighth International Congress of Egyptology (ICE).
David O'Conner, of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, opened the debate with an important paper assessing the future of Egyptian archaeology (read in his absence by his assistant). O'Conner suggested that the greatest challenge to Egyptologists is the human factor: "The changing attitudes of Egyptians toward archaeology, and the changing attitudes of Egyptologists toward the aims and methods of archaeology as a humanistic and scientific mode of research."
O'Conner's paper highlighted the achievements of Egyptian archaeology over the last 40 years and addressed the so-called Egyptian dimension and the issue of comprehensive mapping and documentation as crucial for Egyptologists today.
For O'Conner, the Egyptian dimension covers the entire archaeological landscape, including town sites, churches and mosques. He stressed a "productive relationship" with foreign institutes and the need to continue this relationship. The future of Egyptian archaeology depends on the Egyptian population at large and its attitudes toward archaeology.
"I would say that while Egyptians, increasingly well-educated at every social level, are conscious and proud of their country's extraordinary cultural heritage, they are often less clear about the role of archaeology in both preserving and expanding knowledge of that heritage," said O'Conner.
"The archaeology of Egypt -- in its broadest sense -- is under extraordinary pressure," O'Conner declared. Drawing on the highly confined nature of archaeological remains and the developmental needs of modern Egypt, O'Conner stressed the need for site management, salvage archaeology and site mapping and documentation.
The latter, the complete exploration and documentation of the country's entire surviving archaeology, is widely regarded as one of the most important tasks of 21st century Egyptology -- although the argument has its detractors. O'Conner described the project as a "kind of Nubian salvage campaign, but on a grand scale, with the emphasis placed on survey and mapping, rather than selective excavation and salvaging of monuments."
Such a map, "even if it is incomplete," would constitute a tremendous advance, as it would allow Egyptologists to focus on archaeology that is still "missing" -- either undiscovered or unexcavated -- and on strategies that would enable them to be recovered. But one of the most important -- and pragmatic -- results of such a map would be to provide the relevant Egyptian authorities with more comprehensive information. "I believe that it would be a valuable resource to the Supreme Council of Antiquities and other agencies involved in the protection of archaeological sites," O'Conner said.
O'Conner maintains that it is not enough to "simply keep expanding the coverage of individual excavations and surveys," and instead calls for a "national map," which would utilise all the available technologies and resources, including satellite photography and computerised survey techniques. "Egyptian archaeology cannot properly perform its role without developing a more comprehensive map of flood plain archaeology, both surface and subsurface, and following this up with excavation," he said.
Manal Mohey El-Din playing the harp at the opening ceremony
photo: Mohamed Wassim
Reiner Stadelmann, ex-director of the German Archaeological Institute, responded strongly to the idea that Egypt should be surveyed and mapped, rejecting the suggestion that fieldwork in Nubia should be a model for future projects. "I don't agree with O'Conner," Stadelmann said. "Mapping is not the main point. More important is conservation. The water level is still rising and it is affecting not only statues but columns and even the bases of columns in temples. Saving the surviving monuments is much more important than mapping."
Miroslav Verner, of the Czech Archaeological Institute, referred to the UNESCO-sponsored Nubia salvage campaign -- which rescued numerous monuments from inundation caused by the backwaters of the High Dam completed in 1970 -- as a milestone in world archaeology. But Verner was wary of applying the ethic of the UNESCO mission as an archetype for Egyptian archaeology at large. "In Nubia, the time factor was critical," Verner suggested, noting that problems are not the same now. "Our response to them should not be one mammoth project, but a series of separate activities," he said.
Fekri Hassan, of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, presented a strong paper on cultural heritage management in Egypt. Hassan asserted that measures that have been taken to protect, conserve, restore and manage sites and artefacts from all periods "are not sufficient or adequate." The situation is aggravated, he noted, by modern expansion and the impact of agricultural and industrial projects. Tourist undertakings are also to blame, particularly those in fragile areas "without an emphasis on the sustainability of cultural resources."
"Everyone must be mobilised to contribute," Hassan said, calling for task forces to rescue, survey and excavate threatened areas. "Looting and destruction in the desert goes on at an unprecedented scale, especially as control in these areas is negligible. Monuments are being destroyed. This calls for a programme of public participation and site management that depends on training Egyptian personnel."
"Appropriate training is indeed desirable," ventured Verner in his paper, "but not only for young Egyptians. Young foreign scholars need to experience as full a range of expertise as Egyptians."
In a brief private conversation with Verner, he said: "What we really need is clear-cut government policy on Egyptian archaeology. That should have priority." And no policy is more needed than a clear-cut position on further excavations.
"To excavate or not to excavate, that is the question," said Karol Mysliwiec, director of Mediterranean Archaeology at the Polish Institute in Cairo. "That is not easy," he added. He pointed out that some scholars call for a moratorium on excavation, others advocate salvaging sites in the Delta while there is still time. "What we should ask ourselves is ... where, how and by whom should excavations be carried out?"
Time was running out when Manfred Bietak, director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, summarised the debate. He stressed the danger of rural, urban and agricultural expansion to monuments, mentioning in particular the fourth-dynasty urban settlement obscured by development in Giza -- "an enormous city, but just the tip of the iceberg," said Bietak.
"There are similar town sites all over the country; those in the Delta especially have to be explored. We should stimulate activity there -- not to the detriment of desert sites, as they are not out of danger -- but preference should be given to Lower Egypt."
Bietak raised an important issue that many consider long settled: the question of chronology. "This is by no means certain," he warned. "How can we write history if we are not sure the chronology is correct?"
Whether scholars gather to simply air their views or to agree on solutions, the time is always inevitably too short. In retrospect, there seems to have been but one single factor on which there was unanimity -- site management. This was up for discussion later in the congress.