Last Thursday an Egyptian-German archaeological mission discovered two 19th Dynasty royal statues in a pit in the Souq Al-Khamis district of Matariya in Greater Cairo.
The statues, the main one of which is a colossal statue believed to be of the Pharaoh Ramses II, were found in the vicinity of the temple precinct of ancient Heliopolis known as “Oun” and dedicated to Ramses II.
The first statue is an 80cm bust of Seti II carved in limestone with fine facial features. The second, found in two pieces, appears to have been eight metres long and carved in quartzite.
Although there are no engravings that could identify the statue, its existence at the entrance of the Ramses II Temple suggests that it could have been of him.
Ayman Ashmawi, head of the Egyptian team, described the discovery as “very important” because it showed that the Oun Temple once had magnificent structures, engravings, colossal statues and obelisks.
The temple suffered damage in antiquity, and most of its obelisks and colossal statues were later transported to Alexandria or to Europe. During the Islamic era, blocks from the Temple were used in the construction of Islamic Cairo.
Both parts of the colossal statue were found in a muddy pit between a series of residential buildings and flooded with subterranean water.
To rescue the statue, the Ministry of Antiquities lifted the smaller part with a forklift truck. This part weighs 2.5 tons and includes a large section of the pharaoh’s crown, right ear and part of the right eye, while the larger part, which includes the torso, the neck and part of the beard, remains in situ as it was almost totally submerged in ground water.
A few hours after the announcement of the discovery, the mission and the ministry came under fire for using a forklift truck to lift the statue out of the pit.
Many Egyptologists and others despaired when they saw photographs of the statue being lifted from the earth with heavy construction equipment, and rumours soon swirled that the heavy-handed digging had broken the newly-discovered statue.
More criticisms were hurled at the ministry when photographs showed the excavated parts of the statue wrapped in a blanket picturing a Spiderman cartoon and becoming a hot topic on social media. Children were spotted at the site near the findings without clear supervision and taking selfies with them.
Some Egyptologists accused the ministry of failing to deal properly with the statues, risking their damage.
Egyptologist Monica Hanna of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology said the problem was that the colossal statue had been discovered on land ceded by the Ministry of Antiquities. The former head of the Matariya archaeological area had claimed that the area had no historical interest and had allowed a market to be built on it, she said.
This had turned out to be a mistake because vendors in the regular market had refused to relocate to the new area.
Hanna told Al-Ahram Weekly that the lifting of the head of the statue had taken place in a difficult area with water complicating the work. The water had leaked into the area from illegal buildings erected on the former archaeological site, she said.
Colossal statue found
In normal archaeological practice, Hanna said, it was recommended to pump away such water before any operation took place. This was standard practice in many archaeological contexts, including at the Roman harbours now buried under the Egyptian coastline.
In addition, she said, heavy objects were usually lifted using belts or ropes or were padded to avoid contact with metal parts of a forklift truck, as there are always risks of shock during such difficult operations.
“From the images, it seems the statue was not broken during the operation as some people feared, however,” Hanna said.
She described the way the head of the statue had been lifted as “wrong”, saying it should have been carried out according to a pre-scheduled plan. “A forklift truck is a heavyweight piece of equipment that could also destroy any further artefacts still buried in the sand,” she commented.
But she said the archaeologists working in Matariya faced difficult working conditions, and the photographs of children playing and taking selfies with the head had shown the “joy and happiness of local children with the find”.
“This discovery and the children’s joy could fill the gap between the community and their priceless heritage,” Hanna said, adding that she hoped the local community would participate in the excavation process.
“The archaeological mission will leave sooner or later, but these people and children will remain to protect their priceless heritage,” she said. “Good planning as well as cultural and touristic development projects in the area could transform the community into a strong protective wall against anyone seeking to damage the country’s heritage.”
NO DAMAGE: Youssef Khalifa, former head of ancient Egyptian antiquities at the ministry, described the process of extracting the statue as “rushed”.
“This site is extremely important, and this discovery is one of a kind. But I believe that the team rushed into removing the statue without thinking things through in detail first,” Khalifa told the Weekly.
He believes that the water at the site should have been pumped out of the area to complete the excavation and to allow clearer pictures to be taken as the parts of the statues were being unearthed. “The process can take time, but the security forces can help secure the site until the excavations are over,” he added.
Khalifa worked on excavations in the area for 15 years and said that the find’s location was an important discovery in itself, as many archaeologists in the past had studied the area to find the western entrance to ancient Heliopolis.
Gharbi Sonbol, head of the Central Administration for Restoration, described the way the first part of the statue had been lifted as “haphazard”. He said that appropriate scientific methods had not been used, but happily the forklift truck had not damaged the statue.
Ashmawi vouched for the practices of the German-Egyptian team, saying that it was operating in difficult conditions amid water and apartment blocks built without planning permission. He said that the equipment used was efficient and safe for the body and stone of the statue.
“The forklift did not touch any part of the piece, which was supported on large wooden beams,” Ashmawi said, adding that the process had been carried out under the supervision of German and Egyptian Egyptologists and restorers.
The discovery amazed the archaeological community and the residents of Matariya, who gathered to take selfies with the 3,000-year-old statue that was buried just beneath their feet. The international media also described the discovery as “one of a kind and the first gigantic discovery since 2011”.
“Everyone is surprised at the scale of the statue,” British Egyptologist Nigel Hetherington told the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph. “I don’t think anyone realised how dramatic it would look, and there may still be more to come.”
“It is one of the most important excavations in Egypt,” professor of Egyptology at the AUC Salima Ikram told the American network NBC News, proclaiming the finds as “spectacular and astonishing”.
Former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass refuted claims that the colossal statue was damaged during the excavation and said its discovery would not only reveal more of ancient Egyptian history but would also help promote tourism to Egypt worldwide.
“Using a forklift truck was the only efficient way to remove the three-ton piece of the statue from the two-metre deep pit filled with ground water,” he told the Weekly, adding that the area in Matariya where the statue was discovered is itself an important archaeological site that does not have any complete statues, tombs or temples.
“It is impossible to find any complete full-sized statue in the area,” Hawass said, adding that any statue that could be uncovered in the future would likely be found in pieces. The site was subjected to damage during the Graeco-Roman and Christian periods as the area was used as a quarry for constructing other buildings, he said, in a process that had continued into the Fatimid era.
He said the Matariya area, a poor suburb of Cairo, was largely built on top of the remains of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs which were submerged in subterranean water from two to four metres deep.
Hawass refuted allegations against the Upper Egyptian workmen who had helped in the transportation of the statue, saying that the workmen were skilled labourers who were used to working in the excavation, transportation and removal of heavy pieces like the one discovered in Matariya.
“They are workmen from the Upper Egyptian town of Qift in the Qena governorate who are highly trained in such work,” Hawass said. He explained that similar workmen had worked at the Saqqara Necropolis and had been able to transport enormous sarcophagi and colossal statues that each could weigh 20 tons.
Dietrich Raue from the Egyptian Museum at the University of Leipzig in Germany and head of the German mission defended his work and said that removing the smaller part of the statue with the forklift truck was a way of removing heavy monuments that had been carried out worldwide, including in Germany.
“Heliopolis once stood at the centre of the ancient Egyptian sun-cult, a core element of ancient Egyptian religion for more than three millennia. Today, the site is seriously threatened by quick urban development and a rapidly rising water table. Eight metres of domestic and industrial waste as well as building rubble have been dumped on the site in the past six years,” he said, adding that the level of the water table at the site had risen and continued to do so.
“We are excavating in very hard conditions,” Raue pointed out. “I am very sad to hear that some accuse our work of being inefficient because we are not amateurs. We are a scientific team that is affiliated to one of the best-known scientific institutes in Germany and the world.”
“We are always keen to preserve and protect Egypt’s monuments. They are a vital part of the world’s heritage,” he said.
German Ambassador to Egypt Julius Georg Luy described the discovery as “very important and great work, especially as the archaeologists are working in critical environmental conditions.” He congratulated the German-Egyptian excavation team on its success and wished them all the best in revealing more of the area’s monuments.
Preparations were underway earlier this week to lift the second part of the statue.
Afifi explained that the part of the statue that was lifted was reinforced with bedded ropes used with heavy antiquities after measuring its approximate weight and dimensions. The team had also extracted a sample of the water where the statue was lying to implement the required analysis in situ, he said.
The test had shown that the water was neutral to alkaline. A complete analysis of the water would be carried out, he said.
Meanwhile, the part of the statue pulled out last week has now been completely packed with treated materials to adapt it to its new environment.