Sunday, January 22, 2012

Egyptologists still digging up past, even with uncertain future

by David B. Nelson
Jan 19, 2012

The Egyptian Revolution that began a year ago continues to create instability in a country rich with antiquity. But most Egyptologists say it’s business as usual, even with the recent return of protestors to Tahrir Square in Cairo.

“The impact has been very minor,” said Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist and research associate at the Oriental Institute, a research center and archaeology museum at the University of Chicago. Teeter, also a representative to the Chicago chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt, was in Egypt as recently as last November. “The biggest disruption has been bureaucratic. Permissions were disrupted because committees weren’t meeting. Basically trying to do advanced planning was very hard,” she said.

Kathleen Scott, director of publications at the San Antonio chapter of the American Research Center, also reported only minor issues unrelated to safety.

“At first some expedition seasons were delayed or held off,” Scott said. “But for the most part our organization, which does a lot of the interface between expeditions and government, has found it to be going reasonably well.”

With anywhere from 10 to 15 expeditions in Egypt at a time, depending on schedules and seasons, the organization also maintains an office in Cairo.

“Obviously the political turmoil is happening, and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Scott said. “But at the moment we feel fairly confident.”

Most archaeological work occurs not in the major cities, but in less populated places such as Luxor, the site of former Egyptian capital Thebes, where the University of Chicago has a permanent headquarters. Although Luxor was undisrupted, various institutions did send home students as a precaution.

“The main problems, if any, are in Cairo and Alexandria,” said Janet Johnson, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago.
For Egyptians, the ancient civilization their ancestors established along the life-giving Nile River and beyond is still a sense of national pride.

“They’ve continually asked many people from American institutions as well as European institutions to come help,” Scott said. “They are very eager to unearth their past and for other people to help them do so as well.”

Most protesters in Egypt now feel that the revolution is now in its second phase, having ended prematurely when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down after weeks of violence. But under a veil of jubilation, the Mubarak regime was traded for a strict military regime. Tahrir Square is again a rallying point for the protesters.

“The whole point of the revolution was to bring down the old regime and rebuild a new independent Eygpt,” said Lausanne Shalaby, 24, advisor at a lifestyle management company in Cairo. “Every day we see the old regime manifested in different ways, either by statements or how people’s demands are handled, or the ongoing trials.” After years of only knowing the Mubarak regime and the corruption that came with it, Shalaby says Egyptians are no longer scared. “I don’t feel threatened. People still go out and have a good time living their lives normally. My friends and I were never involved in politics, but post-revolution, we all were, and not just us, literally everyone. That’s the biggest accomplishment of the revolution.”

The uncertain fate of Egypt has created worry about public comment on the political climate of the country. Faculty and students at the University of California-Berkeley declined to comment after a request for information. An email reply said they didn't want to be quoted on the topic, adding, “This is the very topic that no Egyptologist will touch in the current climate.”

“It’s really hard to know what the end product is going to be over there,” Scott said of the worry over commenting on the current state of the country. “Who will be in charge and how will they view Americans?”

Tied to the revolution is the question of repatriation of ancient artifacts. In recent years some native Egyptologists have requested the return of such items as the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now in the Neues Museum in Berlin, and also the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum in London.

Discovered by French invaders in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was transferred to Britain as part of an 1802 treaty. The text of the stone, written in three languages, provided scholars with the final key to translating the Egyptian language.

But with current situation in Egypt, historical materials are even less likely to be returned.

“Zahi Hawass loved to bring this topic up every now and then,” Scott said, referring to the former minister of antiquities. The appointee of Mubarak, often sporting an Indiana Jones-like fedora, Hawass frequently demanded the return of objects in foreign hands. “In certain circles, it was popular. The truth is, the Rosetta was part of a treaty in the early 1800s, it’s nothing that the British Museum is going to relinquish," Scott said.

“Hawass’s job was to keep Egypt in the news,” Teeter said of the flamboyant now-retired minister, “and he did a good job of that.”

However, most don’t put much stock in the sometimes controversial debate.

“There are very specific laws that if a good case is made, then an artifact should go back,” Teeter said. “But there are things that have been out of the country for hundreds of years and have no legal basis for repatriation."

Scott said it is unlikely any famous artifiacts will be returned.

“Unless they were illegally obtained somehow," she said. "But for the most part they were obtained as gifts or through international treaties. It’s a difficult political discussion.”


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