Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 January 2003
Issue No. 621
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Dig Days: Hidden treasures on view

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass Can you imagine that an Ancient Egyptian physician once fitted a patient with a prosthetic toe? (see Al-Ahram Weekly Issue 599, 15-21 August 2002). It is hard to believe that a person who died 3,000 years ago had a custom-made wooden toe. I considered it important enough to be included in the exhibition the "Hidden Treasures" now open to the public in the basement of the Egyptian Museum.

The basement of the museum is a complex maze of corridors. It was so crowded with the 60,000 artefacts and thousands of pottery shards, skulls and even flint tools crammed into it that it was almost impossible to locate a specific object. The biggest mistake ever made was using the basement of the museum as a storeroom for objects found by foreign teams working in Egypt. Egyptian archaeologists, too, used it for the same purpose.

When I started my first excavation at Kom Abu-Bellou in the Delta I was assistant to my good friend Ahmed El-Sawi, who helped me a lot at the beginning of my career. Every year I would load a truck with boxes, statues and even gold artefacts to be transported to the Egyptian Museum. Among the statues were some unique Aphrodite/Isis statues in faience which should have been put on exhibition, but although Ahmed El-Sawi asked many museum curators to find a place for them, no one was able to help. Their destination was uncertain; El- Sawi even thought they had been lost.

When I became secretary- general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, El-Sawi called me and said: "We are relying on you to find the Aphrodite/Isis statues." One of the reasons that we cleaned the basement of the museum was to sort out and record all the objects, and to make a plan to put the artefacts into some semblance of order. We have already started to place selective pieces in boxes and have moved them to a storage facility in Fustat. We are also considering changing some of the displays in the crowded museum. No one can stand seeing more than 20 Late Period sarcophagi in one room! There are also hundreds of statues on display with poor lighting and what appears to be a complete lack of interior design. And should you be unfortunate enough to visit the museum in August, it is like being in an oven.

We have consequently decided to remove some of those objects of which there are many similar types and exhibit them in museums that will be built throughout the country -- in Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, for example. This is apart from our plan for the Grand Museum at the Pyramids and the Fustat Museum, which will exhibit artifacts that span the full range of Egyptian history from the predynastic period to modern times.

The interior of the Egyptian Museum will be redesigned so it displays its contents to the best advantage. Air-conditioning will be installed, and the entrance will be used as an entrance only; the shops and cafeteria will be moved. Visitors will leave from the west side of the building and a 12-metre high extension will be built.

Five years from now Cairo will be able to boast five great museums: the Islamic and Coptic Museums, currently being restored and reorganised; the Grand Museum, which will exhibit some of the artefacts of Tutankamun; the National Museum in Fustat, which will house mummies of the great Pharaohs who ruled during the Golden Age; and the Egyptian Museum, which will be devoted to objects of exceptional artistic value.

The "Hidden Treasures" exhibition currently on show in the re-designed basement of the museum has many unique pieces, apart from the artificial toe on exhibition. Such an object certainly encourages one to re-read the Medical Papyri with careful attention; we were so encouraged after the discovery of evidence of brain surgery in the skull of one of the workmen who built the pyramids; this man lived for two years after his surgery... remarkable!

There are interesting stories about each artefact, some of which were found as far afield as Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh and Tanta.

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