Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On Hawass and repatriation

The Wall Street Journal

Dr. Hawass is something of a global media icon, following a series of heavily hyped TV specials and a carefully cultivated public persona. His recent History Channel series, "Chasing Mummies," depicted him as a sort of burly denim-clad Indiana Jones in a trademark leather Stetson hat. The archaeologist earned his Ph.D. in Egyptology in 1987 from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Egypt the same year. He was appointed director of the Giza Plateau, which includes overseeing the Pyramids and the Sphinx. He was named head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in 2002.

Imperious and relentlessly self-promoting, Dr. Hawass also has become a polarizing figure in the insular ranks of international archaeology, and may soon become more so. Some critics accuse him of hogging credit for other people's work and placing good television over sound science.

"I think Egyptologists kind of laugh and shrug their shoulders at Zahi," said one British archaeologist, who has worked with Dr. Hawass.

But few seem to doubt the sincerity of his antiquity-repatriation effort, which has become a personal mission for the 63-year-old.


Kate Phizackerley said...

I still question the case for repatriation. If a relief has been torn out then that clearly must be returned to Egypt. But what of burial goods, don't they belong with the "descendents"? They are quite probably not modern Egyptians.

Andie said...

Hi Kate

I can never quite make up my mind about repatriation. If things have been unambiguously stolen or smuggled out of a country then they should be returned. The arguments centering on the Nefertiti bust are all about the legality or otherwise of they way in which it was taken out of Egypt. The arguments about Rosetta are a bit mired in the debates about the political state of Egypt at the time.

Beyond looking at the legal issues, I think that museums act as repositories of knowledge and are probably currently the best way of engaging people with diverse types of aesthetic, belief system and social order which are very different from their own. Collections which incorporate items from many different parts of the planet introduce people to geographical as well as temporal differences in perspective. I think that these collections are important and that items should stay where they are for both engaging with the general public and for research purposes.
The case for the thousands of artefacts living in storage that never see the light of day is somewhat less easy to argue, but the fact of the matter is that at least in the case of Egypt most of these items are of very little interest to Egypt, and Egypt has even more items in storage herself. Egypt is looking for showcase items to be returned, or items connected with the famous names. This has to be as much to do with tourism as pride in heritage.

To be honest I have no idea what Egypt did with the items that were retrieved from the Louvre under threat of withdrawl of excavation rights. Did they go on display or into storage? If items are taken off public display in one country only to be put into storage in Egypt I think that that would be a real failure to act with common sense.

If items should stay with the dead, or failing the dead their descendants, surely those descendants are closer to modern Egyptians than anyone else on the planet? There was an article about the population of modern Egypt in one of the broadsheet blogs that quoted a well-referenced Wiki article that states that according to DNA studies only 15% of modern Egyptians are Arabic. The Wiki article also says that invasions have accounted for only 10% of current Egyptian ancestry. Have a look at it Kate it will mean much more to you than me!! :-)

In the specific case of Tutankhamun I think that there are good arguments for the collection being kept together in one place.

I tend to look at heritage in terms of how and where it gives most value in terms of inspiring people and delivering knowledge. I have much less feeling for a sense that all heritage should be returned to the modern country that sits on the land that used to be something so very different. "Heritage" is an emotive term and I find it difficult to engage with the idea that we can identify in some almost genetic way with our distant past given how much we have changed and how many influences have been important in our social and cultural evolution. On the other hand, I'd be seriously miffed if David Cameron sold Stonehenge to a foreign museum to help clear the UK national debt or is Spain sold Altamira to compensate for the :-)

Sorry - a lot of fence-sitting there, and no real conclusions. I've never really managed to get my head straight on the subject.

Kate Phizackerley said...

My fence sitting comes from whether in general it is right to remove things from tombs at all - or to dig tombs. Certain American Indians have a problem with it, as do many other ethnic groups. Personally I think Egypt is a special case and that the Ancient would want there treasures on display so long as their names are prominently shown. I don't believe they would be so sanguine about items in store rooms - especially if the conservation is so poor it leads to their decay.

In that context, then who should have custody? Their geographical successors? Their bilogical descendents? Or maybe those who can ensure the best prominence. It seems to me that the weakest of those for ancient Egyptians is geography.

"Stolen" in that context is a strange snd slippery concept because it is jumping straight to geographical succession.