Friday, February 18, 2011

A Trade Older than the Pyramids

Geoffrey Tassie (Managing Director of the Egypt Cultural Heritage Organization) wrote the following article back in 2006 when discussions about the St Louis Mask were taken up with considerable interest by the media. I posted it on the blog at that time, but thought that it was well worth posting again in the light of recent statements by the St Louis Art Museum.

Trade Older than the Pyramids
by Geoffrey Tassie
Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organization

Not a single great pyramid escaped the attentions of the tomb-robbers. Soon after their burial the tomb-robbers went to work. However, the trade was already over a thousand years old by the time Khufu built his Great Pyramid at Giza. As Egyptian society became more complex and ruling elites arose, creating separate cemeteries for themselves at places such as Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Naqada, so the opportunity and temptation arose to make a fast buck. Many tombs from the Naqada II period, c. 3,650 BC, have been found plundered at these famous early sites. The robbers often showed complete contempt for the individuals interred, ripping their bodies to bits to get to the glittering jewels that once adorned their bodies. The tombs of the first kings of Egypt at Umm el-Qa’ab, Abydos were not only robbed but show signs of burning.

The great tombs of the First Dynasty high officials at Saqqara were also systematically robbed. Even in the provinces, at such sites as Kafr Hassan Dawood, one of the two great tombs was found with a robbers’ trench in the exact location where the local ruler’s body once lay.

Giza Pyramids and Sphinx

In late Dynasty XX, of the New Kingdom a papyrus scroll (P. Abbott) from year 16 of Ramesses IX’s reign gives the statements of tomb-robbers caught in the act. One such robber was Amenpanufer, a quarryman attached to the Temple of Amun in Thebes. His testament states that he went to the tombs in the west of Thebes with his accomplices and gathered up the gold and silver in the tombs, took their bronze chisels and opened the sarcophagi and carried away the gilded inner coffins to strip the gold from them and the jewellery from the body. They then burnt the coffins and distributed the booty amongst themselves. The fate of these tomb-robbers is uncertain, but they may have ended up skewered on a wooden spike along the banks of the Nile. However, this report led to a commission being established to investigate tomb-robberies from Dynasty XI, and XVII tombs, as well as that of Amenhotep I of Dynasty XVIII and members of the royal family in the Valley of the Queens. The commission did not visit the Valley of the Kings, burial place of later New Kingdom kings, probably as it had no reason to doubt its integrity. However, two reigns later after Ramesses XI was interred in the Valley of the Kings it was abandoned as a royal burial ground.

So serious was tomb-robbing considered in Dynasty XX and XXI that many other papyri record the statements of convicted robbers. In fact, by the end of Dynasty XXI, Nespekeshuty, a high official in the reign of Psusennes II ordered the reburial of the High Priests of Amun, including many members of Herihor’s family and buried them in a secret tomb high in the hills above Deir el-Bahari. This location, above Hatshepsut’s Temple, was also chosen by Nespekeshuty and the priests of late Dynasty XXI, as the reburial place of the New Kingdom royalty. The priests rewrapped and buried many of the most famous kings of the New Kingdom, such as Ramesses II in the large Middle kingdom tomb now known as DB320. The High priests of Amun were buried in one chamber and the kings in another, although coffins were found littering the corridors. Nespekeshuty, in fact chose this tomb as the burial place of Psusennes II. This tomb continued to be used for several years to hold the mummies of the priestly family who ruled Thebes after Psusennes II along with some more royal mummies. A second cache of royal mummies was stored in the tomb of Amenhotep II, KV35 by the High Priests of Dynasty XXI. The recently discovered KV63 also contains a small cache of mummies (5), although their identity at present is unknown.

Deir el Bahri

Egypt’s royalty lay relatively undisturbed for many thousands of years, with only the odd Luxor West Bank villager, particularly those from Qurna, using the mummy wrappings, old furniture and papyri as good burning material for their cooking fires. However, with the influx of Western tourists after the Napoleonic Expedition, the local West Bank villagers, many of whom actually lived in the tombs, found that they could make a small fortune by selling items from the tombs that they lived among. The trade in antiquities soon caught on, with every visitor wanting a souvenir of their visit. There was no real control on the trade in antiquities, and it wasn’t until Auguste Mariette formed the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858 that real care in preserving Egyptian cultural heritage started to be taken. However, the art of tomb-robbery by this time was being taken up with great gusto by the villagers of Qurna. One particular family, the notorious Abd el-Rassul family were particularly adept tomb-robbers and sellers of antiquities. Mohammed Abd el-Rassul was the eldest brother a ring-leader of this gang of villains. In 1871 he discovered the tomb full of royal mummies behind Hatshepsut’s Temple. To keep prying eyes away he put a dead donkey near the entrance, changing it every-so-often when it got too putrid. He and his band sold some of these antiquities to dealers and collectors. Egyptologists soon became aware of these new royal artefacts and became inquisitive as to their origin. When news broke about the cache of mummies from the local antiquities inspectors in Luxor, Émile Brugsch's (Assistant Curator/Conservator at the Cairo Museum) went down to investigate, due to the absence of his superior, Gaston Maspero who was in France. Brugsch then arranged for these mummies to be transferred to the Cairo Museum, where they remain on display.

Following in the footsteps of Amenpanufer and Mohammed Abd el-Rassul are many modern day illicit antiquity thieves and dealers, such as Mohamed Ali Farag, Gérard Razier, Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, Ali and Hisham Aboutaam, Mamdouh Michael, Frederick Schultz, and Abdul Karim Abu Shanab. Many of these villains’ activities are mentioned in the ECHO News article On the Trail of Illicit Antiquities ( and in the Archaeology article Selling the Past (

In circa 1986, the so-called Sekhemkhet Magazine (Storehouse) at Saqqara was broken into and looted by Ali Farag and his team. Dr Maarten Raven, who has had years of experience excavating at Saqqara states: "Objects of our 1985 season were included in the theft". Raven and his associates reported this theft to the antiquities authorities (the now SCA) who made a full inventory of the Magazine and confirmed that objects from the excavation of Sekhemkhet’s pyramid had also fallen victim to the robbery. One of the objects from the Sekhemkhet excavations, conducted in the 1950s by Mohammed Zakaria Goneim, is the Kanefernefer mask, now on display in the St. Louis Art Museum and published in Goneim’s 1956 excavation monograph. This Museum bought the mask in 1998 from the Aboutaam brothers, who had provided a dubious provenance. Dr. Raven states, in his open letter and further communications, that he cannot say for certain whether the Kanefernefer mask, now in the St. Louis Art Museum, was among the looted objects. However, he is certain that the mask never went to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo with other objects from Goneim's excavations. A good article about the dubious provenance of the Kanefernefer mask is to be found on the website of the River Front Times: (

Ali Aboutaam of Phoenix Ancient Art claims that the provenance for the mask is legitimate, saying “We do our business in the most legal way. Many things were sold from Egypt in the 1970s”. In 1970 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property, which binds member nations to help retrieve stolen or illegally exported items at the request of another member state. Although both the UK and USA were late arrivals at UNESCO's party, these two giants of the Western World have now ratified the Convention. In 1983, the same year that the US ratified the UNESCO Convention, the Egyptian government passed a new antiquities law (117) mandating that any cultural artifact unearthed in that country after 1983 belonged to the Egyptian state. This international law means that any object taken out of Egypt illegally (without legal title) since 1970 and residing in a
country that has ratified the convention, must be returned. Therefore, if the Aboutaam’s have objects exported from Egypt in the 1970s, they are legally bound to return them to Egypt. A claim may also be made if an object can be proved to have left the country illegally prior to 1970, although this is a more complicated legal affair.

Since 2002, the year Zahi Hawass took charge of the SCA, Egypt has stepped up its recovery efforts and begun actively litigating for the return of what they see as their cultural patrimony. Dr Hawass founded the Department of Stolen Artifacts for the express purpose of retrieving pieces of Egypt’s cultural heritage. The New SCA regulations state: “Members of foreign missions are expected to yield any information they have regarding stolen artifacts to the Department of Stolen Artifacts. It is absolutely prohibited for any member of a mission to be involved with dealers of stolen artifacts. People who are found by court evidence to be involved with stolen artifacts will be removed from the excavation. If the director is involved, the mission will be terminated.” This new offensive by Hawass and his SCA department has been relatively successful over the past four years (see On the Trail of Illicit Antiquities). Dr Hawass’ actions must be commended upon, for trying to stem a trade that is over 5,500 years old is like trying to stop prostitutes selling their wares on street corners. However, Soho in London is now relatively clean of vice girls, so it is possible. Hawass’ attentions are now focused on the St. Louis Art Museum and the repatriation of the Mask of Kanefernefer. Hawass states: “the mask belongs to Egypt? by every standard, from the strictly legal to the ethical and moral, it must be returned immediately. We are asking for [the Museum’s] cooperation; if this is not immediately forthcoming, we will contact Interpol and start legal proceedings.” (

Zahi Hawass

ECHO has been very proactive in following the rights of legal ownership of the mask of Kanefernefer, and in co-operation with Dr. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of the SCA), Dr. Hany Hanna (Elected Chair, ICOM and General Director, Department of Conservation, SCA), and a legal representative in the USA are now convinced that there is a legal case for the Egyptian Government to pursue. ECHO are also on the trail of some other artefacts that they believe to be illicit, and will speak out on this shortly.

Although the trade in illicit antiquities will never be stopped, museums must start to question the provenance of antiquities they purchase on the open market more closely, having provenances such as ‘A European collection’ or ‘formerly in the collection of Mr Smythe, Zurich’ is no longer acceptable. The reason that archaeologists are so against the illicit antiquities trade is that the context of the artefact is missing, meaning that most of its archaeological value is lost. All that is left is the artefact itself, which although it may be beautiful, and you may be able to tell how it was made and what it is made of, cannot really tell much about the people that made it. It is only by an artefacts placement on site and its association with other finds that interpretations can be made about the object and the people that used it. Also, sites are often destroyed by the looters, who leave it looking like a bomb site, and destroy all the valuable information about past human societies.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those other artefacts were the ones stolen from the Maadi Museum by the US airman. With the help of Luc Watrin and Joris van Wetering ECHO was able to provide the then SCA with a report and many of the objects were recovered.

Dr Tassie