Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 July 2005
Issue No. 751
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zahi Hawass

Dig days: Unearthing the museum's basement

By Zahi Hawass

I have always dug in the sand, and this is where I have made my most important discoveries -- such as the Valley of the Golden Mummies at Bahariya Oasis, and the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders at Giza. But recently I have become interested in digging in a new place, a place without sand -- the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

There is a maze of corridors lying under the museum. For decades, no one knew what was hidden down there: boxes of all sorts of treasures discovered by foreign and Egyptian expeditions were brought in and stored over the years, without proper recording of the artefacts. There were objects of stone and wood, mummies, and even objects made of precious metal. But no one knew exactly what was there. It became known among scholars that if anything was sent to the basement it would be lost forever.

At the beginning of my career I excavated at Kom Abu Billo, an important site in the Delta. I worked there for nine years, from 1970 until 1979. We discovered a great cemetery of the Graeco-Roman period: many of the people interred were devotees of the goddess Isis- Aphrodite, the Egyptian-Greek goddess of beauty and love. Near the cemetery was a temple to the god Apollo. We had begun excavations at this site because a grand canal, five kilometres-long, was being cut through the desert, so we had to excavate along its designated route. Each year I took a truck full of boxes packed with jewellery -- especially bracelets -- and gold amulets, stelae, and 12 beautiful statues of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite.

When I came to Cairo much later I tried to find these artefacts in the museum, but no one could tell me where they were. So when I became head of Egypt's Antiquities Service in 2002, which coincided with the centennial of the museum, I decided to deal with this issue. I asked the curators at the museum to begin cleaning the basement and opening the boxes to see what lay inside. We cleaned out several basement galleries on the west side of the museum and turned it into an exhibition area. The first exhibition held here was of treasures found in the basement, along with objects from storerooms around the country and exhibits from the overcrowded showcases in the museum. We called the exhibition, which contained about 250 objects, "Hidden Treasures", and it was a great success.

The cleaning of the basement has been ongoing, and has become an important project with specially-chosen curators inspecting and recording each of the objects. We are also in the process of building a new inventory database for the museum where all these objects, along with their exact locations, will be recorded. We expect that all the objects in the basement will be in the new database by the end of this year. This will bring an enormous change, and will help to take the museum into the new millennium.

We have made many interesting discoveries in the treasure trove beneath the museum, finding artefacts that no one could imagine. A beautiful mummy encased in cartonnage belongs to Djed-Khonsu, son of Neskhonsu, and dates from the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties. This has many important religious scenes in vibrant colors, and the face is very impressive. Unfortunately we do not know who found it, or where. This information has been lost in the maze of corridors below the museum.

Another discovery was the wooden statuette of a man wearing a short kilt and a short wig. In this case we know that it was found at Saqqara. The curators also found a painted ushabti box, used to hold small funerary statuettes that were designed to work in the afterlife in place of the deceased person. They also came across wooden statues that I found in my excavations at the Teti pyramid cemetery at Saqqara less than 10 years ago, and which had been lost among thousands of pots and boxes. Other special finds were a unique vase bearing the name of the Pharaoh Horemheb found at Qantir in the Delta, tools bearing the name of Queen Hatshepsut from a foundation deposit at Karnak, and more than a hundred coffins and mummies of priests of Amun from a cache found at Deir Al-Bahari in 1891.

In October of this year we will put on a new exhibition of these treasures to show the world that it is not only in the sands of Egypt that beautiful things are hidden.

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