Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has drawn a line in the sand in another fight for the repatriation of artifacts. France’s Louvre Museum has been told in effect to stay out of Egypt until they return four stelae that have been connected to the looting of an Eighteenth Dynasty noble tomb.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has sanctioned France’s Louvre Museum with an across the board embargo of all research activities in Egypt. Prompted by what he says is the museum’s refusal to return artifacts stolen from Egypt in 1980, the SCA has put a halt to archaeological digs, conferences organized with the museum, and a major project planned for the Old Kingdom necropolis of Saqqara.
“It is unfortunate that they would do this because the museum administration is different from us workers who continue to do great stuff and deal positively with the Supreme Council of Antiquities,” stated one French archaeologist, “…We have always worked with Egyptians under Hawass’ command, so it doesn’t make sense” (source: Bikya Masr, Zahi Hawass Strikes Again).
The artifacts in question come from the tomb of Tetaki (TT 15), an Eighteenth Dynasty official who was buried in a section of the Theban necropolis called the Tombs of the Nobles (source: Looting Matters, Egypt Requests Return of Reliefs from Paris). The necropolis, located on the west bank of the Nile across from the city of Luxor, is divided into sections such as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. The Tombs of the Nobles is a section where priests, court officials, and other powerful Thebans were buried. Thebes was the primary religious center of ancient Egypt, particularly during the New Kingdom Period.
The four fragments, which depict Tetaki’s journey to the afterlife, were hacked from the walls of his tomb back in 1980 (source: San Francisco Chronicle-SF Gate, Egypt Severs Ties With Louvre Over Artifacts). How they spent the next 20 years is not exactly clear, but they were acquired by the Louvre in 2000 and 2003 “in good faith,” and questions regarding the legitimacy of the purchase only arose in 2008, when archaeologists rediscovered the tomb and the nature of their painful extraction became clear (source: Bloomberg, Egypt Claims Louvre Stelae; French Minister in Favor).
Dr. Hawass does not seem to be convinced by the Louvre’s argument that the artifacts were purchased under conditions of transparency and good faith. “The purchase of stolen steles,” he claims, “is a sign that some museums are prepared to encourage the destruction and theft of Egyptian antiquities,” (source: Middle East Online, Egypt Breaks Ties With Louvre Museum).
Frederic Mitterrand, France’s Minister of Culture is sympathetic with Hawass’ concerns and agrees that the fragments should be restored to Egypt, but still claims innocence for the Louvre. “It wasn’t until November 2008, after archaeologists rediscovered the tomb from which the frescoes appear to have come, that serious doubts emerged about the legality of their removal from Egyptian territory,” the statement from the Culture Ministry reads.
The situation is complicated by what appear to be some discrepancies. For one, the French count five fragments associated with Tetaki’s tomb, while the Egyptians have only detailed four. There also seems to be an issue with the timeline. Dr. Hawass states that the Supreme Council of Antiquities sent a letter to the Louvre eighteen months ago requesting the items be returned, and that Henri Lovette, Director of the museum, agreed but failed to act (source: ANSAmed, Egypt, Louvre Museum in Talks Over 5 Stolen Luxor Paintings). However, according to Mitterrand’s statement the illicit nature of the artifacts’ removal from Egypt was not revealed until the tomb was rediscovered in November of 2008, which would be eleven months ago.
Another interesting note about the timeline is Dr. Hawass’ statement that even though the announcement is only being made now, the decision to cut ties with the Louvre was made two months ago. There has been some speculation that this is intended to disassociate the decision with the defeat last month of Egypt’s Culture Minister Farouk Hosni in his bid for the directorship of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (source: AFP, Egypt Breaks Ties With France’s Louvre Museum).
Regarding Lovette’s agreement to return the artifacts to Egypt, whether made eighteen or eleven months ago, that is actually up to the Cultural Ministry. Mitterrand has stated that if the artifacts are stolen they should be returned, and The National Scientific Commission for the Museum Collections of France will meet on Oct. 9 to make that determination (source).
Dr. Hawass has made the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts a priority since taking his position at the head of the SCA, and the four fragments from Tetaki’s tomb are not the only items on his list from the Louvre. He has also made clear his intentions to retrieve the famous Zodiac of Dendera, a section taken from the painted ceiling of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera.
Nor is the Louvre alone in being blacklisted from relations with Egypt. The St. Louis Art Museum has been similarly sanctioned as a result of refusing to return the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, a 3,200 year old burial mask acquired under apparently dubious circumstances.
Other artifacts Dr. Hawass is attempting to recover include the Rosetta Stone, currently in the British Museum, the bust of Achhaf, the architect of Khafre’s Pyramid, from the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston, and a statue of Hemienu, the architect of Khufu’s Pyramid, from the Roemer-Pelizaeu Museum in Germany. The most high profile repatriation effort is the current battle with Berlin’s Neues Museum for the bust of Nefertiti.
Dr. Hawass, who is in his final year as head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, seems determined to leave a full legacy, with long-awaited announcements regarding the results of genetic tests associated with King Tutankhamun and the location of a new tomb due for this month alone.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.
Photographs “Valley of the Nobles (Luxor) – aerial view.jpg” by Raymond Spekking, “Dendera Zodiac.jpg” by Paul James Cowie, are provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of those files under the conditions that you appropriately attribute them, and that you distribute them only under a license identical to this one. Official license