Going for gold
Were any artefacts in the Egyptian Museum's collection taken by looters? Nevine El-Aref
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Clockwise from top left: the missing painted limestone statue of king Akhnaten; a restorer safeguraded by a commandos while cleaning a statue inside the museum; the funerary golden mask of king Tutankhamun and commandos roaming around the museum's galleries
After thugs and outlaws broke in the Egyptian Museum on 28 January, when the violence surrounding the uprising in Tahrir Square was at its zenith, the new minister of state for antiquities affairs, Zahi Hawass, went on television to say that the museum and its collection were safe. He continued that the only reported damage was to 70 objects that had been removed from their showcases and in some cases broken, but that these would soon be back on display following restoration.
Two unidentified ancient Egyptian skeletons were among the objects broken as the thieves made their escape. The skeletons were stored for purposes of study in the storage magazine beside the X-ray machine unit in the museum garden.
At the time, Hawass said that the only objects stolen were replica jewellery pieces taken from the gift shop. Nothing, he said, was removed from the museum's authentic collection.
However, last Sunday Hawass issued a press release stating that, according to a comprehensive inventory carried out by the museum's data base department, eight artefacts from the collection of the Golden King Tutankhamun and his family had been taken. These objects were on permanent display in the museum.
The missing objects are two gilded wooden statues depicting the 19th- Dynasty Pharaoh carried by a goddess and wielding a harpoon. A limestone statue of his father, the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten, holding an offering table, a statue depicting Akhenaten's wife, Queen Nefertiti, making offerings, a sandstone head of an unidentified Amarna princess, a stone statuette of an Amarna scribe, a heart- shaped scarab showing Tutankhamun's grandfather Yuya and 11 of his ushabti (votive figurines).
Hawass, who says he is greatly saddened by the disappearances, said an investigation to find those responsible for stealing the objects had already begun. At the same time the police and army plan to investigate those thieves caught red-handed by anti- government demonstrators as they left the museum on 28 February, and who are now in custody.
Hawass said five amulets were looted when the De-Morgan storehouse in the Dahshour necropolis south of Cairo, which contains large blocks and small artefacts, was broken into. To tighten security measures around the storehouse a huge iron gate has been erected in the stone wall.
The statement also contained some good news. Five objects stolen from the Qantara East storehouse in Sinai have been recovered in the desert by the police.
"It seems that the thieves dropped the objects as they got away," Hawass said. He continued that up to now 393 objects had been returned to the Qantara East storehouse, but said the ministry would not be able to assess the number of objects stolen until the current situation returned to normal.
A committee is now being formed to draw up an inventory of the contents of the magazine. "I believe that it will be impossible for the people who stole the objects to sell them," Hawass said. "No museum or private collector will buy Egyptian antiquities now [as] they will be too scared. I am very happy that my calls for the return of these objects on television and in newspapers have been successful."
The day after the break-in, another statement was published revealing that Egyptian Museum staff had been able to locate the heart-shaped amulet of Tutankhamun's grandfather and one of his ushabti figurines, as well as a part of the broken anthropoid wooden sarcophagus on display in the New Kingdom Gallery. The objects were found on the ground beside the gift shop on the east side of the museum. A part of the statue depicting a goddess carrying King Tutankhamun was also found underneath a showcase in the corridor between Tutankhamun and Akhnaten's collection halls.
In a telephone interview, Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that the looters appeared to have dropped the objects as they fled. He said that every inch of the museum must be searched before the Registration, Collections Management and Documentation Department, which is overseeing the inventory, could produce a complete and final report of exactly what was missing.
"The museum staff are not yet able to move freely within the museum, and up to now they are having to walk in groups of 10 to 15 people, accompanied by soldiers," Hawass said. "Unfortunately, this has slowed down the search and made it very difficult to carry out a final inventory."
The army is allowing very few people into the museum, and the first time the museum's office staff were allowed in was on 6 February. The list of objects that have possibly gone missing announced in previous statements is preliminary, and will continue to be updated as new information comes to light.
Hawass clarified that earlier statements in which he announced that nothing was missing were the result of the search committee's first look through the museum. Objects that were at first thought to be missing were later found thrown into waste bins and corners far from their proper locations, and Hawass said he had been led to believe that a full sweep of the museum might well succeed in locating all the missing objects.
Hawass intended that his earlier statements were to reassure the world that the damage at the museum, while tragic, was far less destructive than originally feared, and to make clear that most major masterpieces, such as the gold mask of Tutankhamun, were safe.
Tarek El-Awadi, director-general of the Egyptian Museum, told the Weekly that the thieves who entered the museum and created all the chaos were not professional thieves as some in the media had suggested.
"They are vandals and thugs," El-Awadi said. "If they were professional antiquities traders they would have robbed the neighbouring showcase, which contains the beautiful limestone head of Akhenaten and the statue depicting him kissing the queen." He pointed out that they could have taken the unique seven-centimetre statue of King Khufu. On the contrary, he continued, those who broke into the museum were looking for small objects that could easily be carried away.
El-Awadi told the Weekly that the news on several TV channels on 28 January that the Egyptian Museum had been looted had attracted more thieves and vandals.
"The images broadcast gave viewers the impression that the Egyptian Museum was in chaos and invited anybody to come and take any piece he wanted," he said. In the two days following the news the army caught 30 thieves who were attempting to jump over the main gate of the museum with the intent of entering the building.
"Concerning the news broadcast on some TV channels that the gold mask of Tutankhamun was stolen, this is totally untrue," El-Awadi said. He added that if one examined the media photographs taken on Saturday 29 January one would see a photograph showing a soldier standing in front of the iron gate to the museum's jewellery gallery where the mask is exhibited. The mask can clearly be seen in the photograph.