Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 January 2005
Issue No. 725
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Dig days:

Zahi Hawass

Foreign expeditions

By Zahi Hawass

Egyptian antiquities suffered a great deal from the amateurs and adventurers who dominated exploration in Egypt for several centuries. Things improved enormously over the course of the 20th century, but until recently some people who were not qualified to excavate in Egypt were still granted concessions and allowed to run projects. Philologists with no archaeological training were allowed to excavate, and even students who were not yet qualified were given concessions in Egypt. Believe it or not, a group of American women with lots of enthusiasm but absolutely no training was permitted to excavate at Karnak only 19 years ago! Even more recently, French amateurs with no institutional backing were given permission to make holes in the Great Pyramid.

Two and a half years ago we made rules for everyone, both Egyptians and foreigners, to follow. According to these rules, only professionals affiliated with reputable institutions are permitted to head projects in Egypt. The purpose of these is not to scare off or harm anyone, but to protect our irreplaceable monuments and create a system to guide us all. Everywhere else in the world there is a system, but, for some reason, when we implement a system here in Egypt to help manage our cultural heritage people object and complain.

If an amateur Egyptian applied to excavate or carry out a conservation project in America or France, would he or she be given permission to do so? I doubt that the officials in charge would even respond to the request, much less approve the project.

The rules that we have made also put a stop to all new excavations in Upper Egypt, although conservation, restoration, and recording projects are still welcomed. New excavation projects are permitted in the Delta and the deserts, areas that are under threat from agricultural expansion and the rising water table. Salvaging sites in these regions is crucial. Another rule is that every excavation team is responsible for conserving and restoring anything they discover. Publication is also essential: preliminary reports must be produced in the journal of the antiquities service, the ASAE, both in English and Arabic. A full scientific report must be published within five years, or the project will be suspended. This is very important. There are many expeditions that have been working here for 20 years, and have never published their work. Scientific results that are not available to scholars are useless and contribute nothing to our knowledge of the past.

Discoveries must now be announced through the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Archaeologists must present us with official reports of their results. We then decide when, how, and whether to make an announcement in the media. Scientific reports may be published at any time, but media announcements must go through the SCA.

Foreign expeditions are also responsible for paying their Egyptian inspectors as members of their teams. The last important rule is that anyone involved in any way with the antiquities trade is either suspended or permanently banned from working in Egypt.

These are the rules that we all must respect. I was astonished to read in an English language newspaper published in Cairo that we had prevented 35 foreign expeditions from working in Egypt. The truth is that we have suspended four archaeologists who were either involved in buying or identifying objects for antiquities dealers, and one who made a speculative and unauthorised announcement in the media.

We have also turned down several project proposals because they did not meet our qualifications. We have never stopped a reputable, respected expedition connected with a museum or university that has followed the rules.

Egyptian monuments are in danger not only from the modern environment, tourism, and the expanding population, but are also being destroyed by ignorance. Important pieces of history are lost forever when amateurs are let lose on our monuments.

We have working here many well- respected scholars from France, Germany, America, the United Kingdom, and many other places. These men and women have dedicated their lives to Egyptology, and they work hard to do what they can to save and learn from our monuments for the benefit of all. On the other hand, we have others who believe they own our country, who are disrespectful to Egyptians, who lie to us, who ban Egyptian students from their libraries, and who support amateurs who want to carry out projects that will damage our heritage. These people should be consigned to the garbage dumps of history. But the others, those who are our friends and help us in our shared work, should be rewarded.

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