Sunday, May 22, 2011

Should Priceless Artworks Be Returned To Egypt--Or Kept By Whoever Found Them?

What do the following things have in common?

The Rosetta Stone
The Zodiac of Dendera
The statue of Hemiunu
The bust of Ankhhaf
The bust of Nefertiti
Statue of Ramesses II

I know—it's a toughy.

These six antiquities, known as “The Big Six,” were discovered in Egypt long ago and removed—some might say stolen—and the museums that currently house them refuse to give them back.

Despite mounting media attention, the museums are defending their claims of ownership, while Egyptian authorities are fighting hard to get back what they feel is rightfully theirs. Should these priceless antiquities be returned to Egypt? Or is this a case of “finder’s keepers”?

To understand the hoopla, a (brief) history lesson is in order. 

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is part of a stela (stone slab) from the second century B.C.E. that contains the same message in three different scripts: hieroglyphics, Egyptian cursive and Greek. It was discovered in Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt in 1799 by a Frenchman during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. After the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the nearly four-foot-tall stone came into British possession and it was transported to the British Museum in London, where it’s been on display ever since. It sat in the museum for 20 years before anyone was able to decipher the stone’s significance. In 1822 a Frenchman cracked the code by comparing the known names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra carved on the stone in Greek and the royal Egyptian names carved in oval hieroglyphic cartouches. From there he was able to decipher the message on the stone: it was a decree from Memphis, Egypt to commemorate the first anniversary of King Ptolemy V’s coronation. More importantly, the stone provided us the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Zodiac of Dendera

The Zodiac of Dendera is less well known, but it’s no less important than the other five Egyptian antiquities. It was carved for the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris in Dendera, which is located north of ancient Thebes on the west bank of the Nile. Its uniqueness lies in its shape: the bas-relief is circular (rectangular zodiacs were more typical in Egypt). And there’s a lot going on inside the circle. Believed to date to 50 C.E., the Greco-Roman period (although that is contested), the stone piece maps the stars and constellations, and signs of the zodiac are represented as a mixture of Egyptian iconography and Greek symbols. There are also Egyptian spirits that represent the 360 days of Egyptian year. And kneeling falcon-headed female figures. A French expedition commissioned a mason to painstakingly remove the zodiac in 1820, and by 1822 it was installed at the Royal Library in Paris. It now resides in the Louvre. While the bas-relief’s uniqueness lies in its shape, its importance rests with the fact that it may be the only complete map we have of an ancient sky, no less than the basis on which later astronomy systems were based. 

Statue of Hemiuni
You probably don’t recognize this man, but you’d recognize his work. This 26th century B.C.E. limestone statue depicts Hemiunu, nephew and vizier (high official) of Pharaoh Khufu, and overseer of all the construction projects that took place under his reign. His most famous work? The Great Pyramid at Giza. The statue used to be painted, and an inscription on the base identifies his official title: Overseer of All Construction Projects of the King. The fleshy architect—who is of particular interest to me since I work in the construction industry and have regular dealings with architects—was discovered in his tomb near the Great Pyramid by a team of German archeologists in 1912. It was immediately transported to the Roemer-und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, where it resides today. And the Germans have no plans to give it back. However, in April 2010, the museum did agree to “loan” the statue to Egypt for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum scheduled for 2013. The loan agreement stipulates for the return of the statue to Germany.

Bust of Ankhhaf

This guy was also an architect, the successor to Hemiunu, and vizier to the pharaoh Khafre. He may have been involved in the construction of the second pyramid at Giza and possibly the Sphinx. The limestone and painted plaster bust was discovered in a small chapel in Ankhhaf’s tomb during a 1920s tomb expedition that was jointly funded by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University. The bust’s importance lies in the fact that it is considered one of Egypt’s most realistic portraits—simple, unadorned, and unidealized. As a sign of thanks from the Egyptians for the expedition, the bust was given to the Museum of Fine Arts after it was found, where it resides today.

Bust of Nefertiti

Recognize this lady?

This 20” plaster and limestone head depicts the beautiful Queen Nefertiti, principal wife to Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled for seventeen years during the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt (circa 1550 – 1292 BCE). The bust dates to 1345 B.C.E. and recent CT scans reveal a more aged, wrinkled face underneath that smooth, colorful stucco. But no matter: the controversy doesn’t revolve around whether or not we’ve been misled about Nefertiti’s supposed beauty. The brouhaha centers around the Germany vs. Egypt cage match, the fight over whether or not Egypt was duped into giving her up. You see, the bust was found during a German-led excavation at el-Amarna in 1912. Plenty of other booty was discovered, and the finds were divided equally between the two countries, a pact sealed by signed documents outlining the agreement. The Germans wound up with the Nefertiti bust, which was shipped to Berlin in 1913, where it has resided ever since in the Neues Museum. Now, however, the Egyptians feel the Germans downplayed the bust’s beauty and importance all those years ago in order to take it for themselves, so the Egyptians feel they are entitled to claim it back.

Statue of Ramesses II

The Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy houses the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt, and that’s where this guy resides. The seated diorite sculpture of Ramesses II—Egypt’s most famous pharaoh—was found in Thebes and dates to the 13th century B.C.E.  A casual observer and non-Egyptian expert wouldn’t think too much of the fact that the ruler is seated, but that’s exactly what makes it so unique. It was around the time of Ramesses that the way rulers were depicted was starting to change. Up until then, it was typical to depict pharaohs standing and barefoot. Here, Ramesses is seated and wearing sandals. Also, the face is more realistic, with a nose, chin and mouth disproportionate from each other. There are eye sockets and eyelids and eyebrows, all sculpted. Beneath the pharaohs feet are nine bows, symbolic representations of foreign enemy tribes. Two prisoners on the base is also a symbol--that Ramesses holds dominion over Egypt and all its possessions. And on either side of his legs are mini sculptures of his beloved wife Nefertari and son Amunherkhepeshef. 

“The Big Six” are all important pieces of Egypt’s history, no less than archeological timestamps of bygone eras. Should they have stayed in Egypt? Because each piece was procured differently, under varying circumstances, perhaps it’s unfair to simply lump them all together, tag it “finders keepers,” and call it case closed. Only when each piece is taken on a case by case basis does the debate come into focus. Because let’s face it: the bust of Ankhhaf was simply given away, gifted to the Americans by an appreciative Egypt during a time of relative peace. That’s quite different than the case of the Rosetta Stone, which was pretty much pilfered out of Egypt during the French invasion. It takes a big set of brass balls to ask for something back that you willingly gave away--especially when that something was a gift, and especially almost a hundred years later. The Egyptians would risk looking like the world’s biggest Indian giver if they demanded the return of the bust of Ankhhaf. So no, perhaps the Egyptians should consider that antiquity gone, but not forgotten. And the Rosetta Stone? Eh, the Egyptians might be able to build a case for its return, if they can prove that it was stolen under the mask of war, and that Napoleon’s invasion was used as a distraction to take it.

The story of the abovementioned antiquities stands in stark contrast to Nefertiti’s bust, which, like the bust of Ankhhaf, was willingly relinquished to a foreign power (in this case, Germany). But the difference here is that a signed pact between the two countries allowed for Germany to keep it. So unless Egypt can prove it was fed a rufie and then forced to sign on the dotted line while compromised, getting the beautiful queen back is going to be an uphill battle. After all, it’s hard to fight a written agreement.

The Zodiac of Dendera is a tricky one. The carving was chipped away from the ceiling where it had been carved over a two-year period and then moved to Paris. What’s up with that? I can’t help but think there’s more to that story. I mean, who in their right mind would stand by and watch, for example, a robber break into their house and allow them to steal stuff? Had the Egyptian’s agreed to such a thing? Had they supervised its removal? That would be like the homeowner pointing out the 60” plasma TV to the robber and imploring him to take it because it’s the most valuable thing in the house. Seriously, this zodiac thing sounds fishy. Unless more details about the French procurement of the zodiac comes to light, we’ll have to call this a case of theft and move on without much of a debate.

The last relic for which we have information about its removal is the statue of Hemiunu. It was found by a team of German archeologists (again with the Germans!), taken to a German museum and…well, that’s it. End of story. Can there be a simpler case of rightful ownership? The Germans had the credentials and permission to dig in Giza, they found a relic, so they kept it. The Germans were nice enough to agree to loan it to Egypt for the opening of its Grand Museum, an agreement the Egyptians are upset about because it stipulates they must return it to Germany.

But still.

Sorry, Egypt, I think this one truly is a case of finders keepers.