Questions resulting from the identification by Dr Joann Fletcher of the so-called mummy of Queen Nefertiti in the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Valley of the Kings has caused repercussions in the British press, including unjustified faultfinding with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). On 22 August 2003, The Times published an article claiming that Dr Fletcher was a "victim" of a sensitive issue. It continued: "The dispute has thrown British Egyptology into turmoil, with British archaeologists accusing the Egyptian government of taking revenge on Britain for occupying Egypt in the 19th century, for invading Iraq and for refusing to give back the Rosetta Stone."
A British Egyptologist who requested anonymity complained to The Times that the new guidelines issued by the SCA had laid restrictions which meant some people were not getting permits.
This suggestion of discrimination is totally unjustified. There are more than 300 foreign expeditions currently working in Egypt, and they all follow the same guidelines. We grant concessions to any scholar affiliated to a scientific or educational institution, and it has long been the accepted code of ethics that any discovery made during excavations should first be reported to the SCA.
By going first to the press with what might be considered a great discovery, Dr Fletcher broke the bond made by York University with the Egyptian authorities. And by putting out in the popular media what is considered by most scholars to be an unsound theory, Dr Fletcher has broken the rules and therefore, at least until we have reviewed the situation with her university, she must be banned from working in Egypt. I have written to York University asking them to clarify their position, and am waiting for a response.
Several other points raised in the article in The Times are of concern to me. For one, it is not correct to say that Egyptians are jealous of foreigners. Well-trained Egyptian teams are doing spectacular work in Egypt and making important discoveries which are covered by the press. For another, the spectres of Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism raised by the author of the newspaper article has nothing to do with archaeology in Egypt. The writer seems to be deliberately trying to make trouble between the SCA and our good friends and colleagues.
The article also states that I personally have asked that the Rosetta Stone be sent back to Egypt, and implies that once it crosses the Egyptian border it will never return to England. This is slanderous. I have indeed asked the British Museum to lend this magnificent artefact to Egypt for three months as part of a temporary exhibition of important pieces in foreign collections. This is so that Egyptians who cannot travel abroad have a chance to see key parts of their heritage.
We are constantly lending important pieces from our collections to museums around the world, so it is not unreasonable to ask a similar favour in return. Relationships between Egyptian and foreign archaeologists and museum curators are built on trust; we work together all the time, with goodwill and enormous success.
Joann Fletcher did not discover anything. She tried to sell herself to the world as an expert in something she knows little about. Last week I went to Luxor and entered the tomb of Amenhotep II once again, and I am now more certain than ever that this mummy cannot be Nefertiti.
Next week, this column will feature a letter written on the subject by GJ Tassie, a British archaeologist currently working in Egypt.