Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 April 2006
Issue No. 790
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An open- door policy

An exhibition entitled "American Contributions to Egyptian Archaeology" in the Egyptian Museum suggests transparency after years of reticence, says Jill Kamil

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Clockwise from top left: fragment of Amenhotep II's robe; statue of Queen Tiye being unearthed; dancing dwarfs in ivory; paddle doll; anthropoid coffin of Ahmose Meritamun; recently found statue of Weni

Last month's official opening in Room No 44 of the Egyptian Museum of an exhibition of American discoveries in Egypt was a high-profile event. It was launched by Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and attended by Frank Ricciardone, the American ambassador in Egypt -- who is showing more interest in Egyptian culture than did his predecessors -- as well as Gerry Scott, director of the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE), who demonstrates a more amicable attitude to the press, and Wafaa El-Saddik, director of the museum. The objects on display included pieces chosen from the permanent collection of the museum as well as some recent and impressive discoveries.

Cameramen, reporters, invited guests and curious tourists pressed forward to catch sight of the charismatic Hawass as he gave his opening speech. With his usual exuberance he welcomed the opportunity to recognise America's contributions to Egyptian archaeology for more than a century. He mentioned the work of George Reisner at Giza, and made reference to the fact that he had been fortunate in his career to have been friends with two eminent American Egyptologists: David O'Conner, with whom he worked early in his career at Abydos and Malkata, and Mark Lehner, with whom he has worked at Giza for the last 30 years.

Reisner, one of America's "greats", was a Harvard University scholar who worked for the Egyptian government as director of the Nubian Archaeological Survey when the first Aswan Dam was being built at the turn of the 20th century. He is best known for his excavations at Giza on behalf of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where many of the most impressive objects he discovered are on display. As Hawass led his guests through the exhibition, he gave credit to American archaeologists and institutions, including the universities of Chicago, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Herbert Winlock, and Theodore Davis, who sponsored important discoveries in the Valley of the Kings.

The pièce de resistance was, of course, the splendid life-size diorite statue of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III (1388-1350), which was discovered by Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University Expedition only last year. It was unearthed from rubble during excavation of Mut's temple in the Karnak complex where it must have stood for centuries before it was discarded, perhaps in the Roman era (as suggested by the presence of some Roman pottery), and it is without doubt one of the finest statues of the queen ever found.

She has almond-shaped eyes, a carefully lined and pursed mouth, and on her head the queen wears the tripartite wig of a goddess, with the vulture headdress and a cylindrical crown. She has a close-fitting shift and a shawl, and around her neck is an elaborate necklace carved with floral elements. Queen Tiye's nipples are covered with finely- carved marguerite flowers, the meaning of which is not clear; they may have symbolic significance because such adornment has been noted on some pre- dynastic statues.

Among the most famous masterpieces on display from the museum's permanent collection is the skilfully-carved schist triad of Pharaoh Menkaure flanked by the goddess Hathor and a female personification of a province (found by Reisner at Giza); a wooden statue of a female offering bearer wearing a bead-net dress and balancing a reed box filled with wine-jars on her head (excavated by Herbert Winlock at Thebes); the Egyptian alabaster canopic jar of Kiya (found by Theodore Davis); and the beautiful anthropoid coffin of Ahmose Meritamun from Deir Al-Bahari which was also found by Winlock.

Several of the less-familiar objects aroused particular interest and comment. One is an amusing ivory toy of three dancing dwarfs, which are crafted with a system of threads wrapped around a pulley that, when pulled, make the figures turn back and forth. Another is a curious paddle doll; and the third, standing alone in a cabinet, is a wonderful little limestone ka -statue of Weni excavated by Janet Richards of the University of Michigan Expedition at Abydos in 1999. This delightful statue, which represents the life-force of the deceased, is no more than 17.9cm high and probably stood in his serdab or hidden chamber between two walls in his tomb. It shows him as a child with wide face, thick lips and protruding ears. He wears no clothing and the struts between his arms and body were probably intentionally left for support. Weni was a high- ranking official in the Old Kingdom but his tomb, discovered in 1860, has now been lost.

In Egyptian art, kings for the most part are depicted in simple garments of plain linen, so it was with pleasure that my eye fell on a fragment of an elaborately woven linen robe of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, decorated with staggered lotus blossoms and buds on the border, lilies and papyrus umbels at the centre, and the cartouche of the Pharaoh below an inscription. The remnant was found in the pharaoh's tomb by Theodore Davis and Howard Carter in the 1903 Davis Expedition.

I looked in vain round the display area for what I confidently expected: the rich grave goods from the tomb of Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Khufu, discovered by Reisner at Giza in 1925. The collection is without parallel, and its salvage and reconstruction is one of America's great archaeological achievements. Yet, surprisingly, all I found on display were a canopic chest in Egyptian alabaster from the tomb, five small objects in gold (including cosmetic implements), and several finely-carved alabaster objects.

El-Saddik explained the absence. "The other treasures from the tomb were considered too fragile to move," she said. Not convinced by her explanation -- especially since the Old Kingdom treasures and the new display area are on the ground floor of the same museum -- I started to ask why there was not at least a placard to notify visitors where the treasures could be seen... but my query was left hanging in the air and the museum director was whisked away before I could finish my sentence.

Let me, therefore, inform readers that the Hetepheres collection can be found in Room 37 of the museum. When Reisner cleared the sealed shaft in the so-called "Queen's Street" near the Great Pyramid it was found packed with funerary objects including a bed with inlaid foot board and a silver- covered headrest, a bed-canopy, a carrying-chair with gold palm capitals forming the pole ends, and an arm-chair with open-work papyrus design on the arms. The combination of elaborate decoration with simple design clearly reveals the level of artistic craftsmanship more than 4,000 years ago.

Delicate, indeed, they are, but Hetepheres' sturdy wood and gold leaf bedstead with carved lion's feet bound to the bed with thin leather throngs could easily have been carried to the new display area, as could the exquisitely-fashioned sedan chair, edged with gold decorated with geometrical patterns in relief.

The exhibition opening was followed by a reception hosted in the American Research Centre in Egypt's grand salon. ARCE has provided a strong cultural bridge between Egypt and America since its foundation in 1948; in the 1960s, during the Nubia salvage operations, it was particularly active in monitoring the American missions at work in the soon-to-be-doomed land, and since then, as El-Saddik explains, "the expansion of ARCE's support of research carried on by Americans in Egypt, has further strengthened this tie."

When ARCE's Antiquities Endowment Fund was established in 1993 with funds from USAID (United States Agency for International Development), it began actively to participate in large-scale conservation projects of Egypt's Pharaonic, Islamic and Christian heritages. Until recently, however, ARCE has only grudgingly shared with the public details of their wide-ranging and important activities. What now appears to be a new policy of transparency is a welcome change.

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