King Tut’s unfortunate shave

So, um, it was kind of a rough week for the Egyptian Museum, eh? Several news outlets reported that King Tutankhamun’s burial mask, arguably the most famous archeological item in the world and certainly the pride and joy of the Egyptian Museum, had its beard taken off last year, either because it was damaged during a cleaning (the popular suspicion) or because it was already falling off and needed to be restored (the museum’s official story).

King Tut, presumably in happier, pre-catastrophe times (via)

King Tut, presumably in happier, pre-catastrophe times (via)

OK, so Tut’s beard got broke. It’s a shame, but stuff happens, right? This kind of thing is exactly why museums pay people to care for and restore artifacts, right? Well, yeah, except unfortunately the effort to repair the damage in this case went terribly wrong. Either out of haste to get the mask back into the exhibit (the popular suspicion) or plain old incompetence (which, I guess, is the museum’s official story), the beard was glued back on to the mask with epoxy, and the job was done so carelessly that there’s now a thin but clearly visible crack, filled with opaque yellow dried epoxy, separating the beard from Tut’s chin.

This is supposedly the moment the beard was shoved back into place, though you can't see the wooden stumps that dude apparently has where his hands are supposed to be (via)

This is supposedly the moment the beard was shoved back into place, which for some reason they did right out in the open in front of tourists (via)

Here's the very visible, painfully visible, crack (also via)

Here’s the very visible, painfully visible, crack (also via)

Oops. The director of the museum, Mahmoud Halwagy, is insisting that whatever happened to the mask happened before he got the job in October (AKA the “it was like that when I got here” defense), but a group of Egyptologists called the “Egypt’s Heritage Task Force” are planning to bring evidence to prosecutors to see if charges can be levied at the responsible parties.

The problem is that epoxy is incredibly strong stuff, and not only is it inappropriate to use on a piece like this in general, but if you get the job wrong it becomes very difficult to separate the pieces and try again. Egyptian authorities hurriedly flew in a German restoration expert today to take a look at the botched repair job, and he declared that it would be possible to remove the glue and properly restore the piece, but we’ll see.

This is a big deal for Egypt not just because of the real value of this particular piece, but for the symbolic importance attached to Egyptian artifacts in general. For one thing, Egypt depends a great deal on tourism, and after three years of revolution, counter-revolution, violent suppression of protests caused by said counter-revolution, increasing terrorist activity in the Sinai, and general regional instability, Egypt is still struggling to get its tourist numbers back to where they were a few years ago. A story like this is the last thing the Egyptian tourism industry needed.

For another thing, one of the battles that Egypt’s antiquities officials are constantly waging is the effort to get foreign museums to repatriate important artifacts that were plundered from the country during its colonial period. The Egyptians want desperately for the British Museum, for example, to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, or for the Louvre to return any of several important Egyptian pieces that it houses. The chief argument those museums make when refusing to return the artifacts, the one argument they can make that doesn’t smack completely of colonial appropriation of another nation’s cultural heritage, is that the Egyptians can’t take care of what they already have, let alone these other pieces. It’s a low blow, but it’s not wrong either; anybody who’s ever visited the Egyptian Museum can attest to cases upon cases where stuff has basically just been tossed in for display without much concern for how it’s organized or what kind of care it’s getting. The case against repatriation on those grounds got stronger in 2011, when rioters used the Tahrir Square uprising to loot and destroy several artifacts in the Egyptian Museum, and in 2013, when the Malawi Museum in Minya was almost totally looted during the violence that followed the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi (most of the artifacts have since been recovered, but the fact that it happened at all is the problem). A story like this is just going to add more weight to the argument that Egypt can’t be trusted with her own history.


What’s going on with Djoser’s Pyramid?

There were terrible reports a couple of weeks ago that the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the so-called “Step Pyramid” and the oldest pyramid in Egypt, was falling apart. The twin culprits are a 1992 earthquake that left the structure in danger of collapse, and a restoration company that, according to activists, has actually destroyed part of the pyramid in the process of “restoring” it. The firm in question, Shurbagy, has apparently never undertaken a historical restoration project, nor has it ever “successfully” completed a project of any kind. They’ve been building a brick wall around the base of the pyramid that seems to be exerting pressure on the pyramid itself, which would explain the damage.

This is apparently what the pyramid looks like today

This week, however Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, Mamdouh El-Damaty, held a press conference at Saqqara to declare that these reports of the pyramid’s deterioration were incorrect:

On the site, Al-Damaty detailed the condition of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. He completely denounced all accusations spread in media and social networks, describing the deterioration of the Step Pyramid as “rumours.” He continued to say that the pyramid’s restoration project is still in progress, and that it did not confront any technical problems. He asserted that the whole site was subjected to investigation, and that it had been proved that none of the pyramid’s stones had collapsed.

Mohamed El-Shimi, Head of the Saqqara Necropolis, pointed out that the company in charge of the restoration project was following a plan drawn up by specialists in the field, and its work is under the supervision of the ministry’s consultancy bureau, led by well-known architects and consultants from Cairo and Ain Shams universities.

He went on to deny claims that a wall had been built around the pyramid or that a block of the pyramid had fallen. He pointed out that the blocks scattered around the pyramid fell away over centuries as a result of environmental stresses, adding that these blocks had been collected, cleaned, and returned to their original positions as part of the first phase of the restoration project. He added that blocks damaged beyond repair had been replaced with replicas to fill in the gaps in the pyramid, and that the whole structure had been subject to careful tests.

You can imagine that this is a real sore spot for the Sisi government, which would undoubtedly like to see Egyptian tourism, a huge part of the Egyptian economy, pick up again after a couple of years of sometimes-violent political unrest have driven tourist revenues into the ground. El-Damaty blamed a group of archeologists who opposed last year’s military coup that overthrew the elected Morsi government and eventually replaced it with Sisi’s, um, also “elected” government for the “rumors” that the structure was collapsing:

During the conference, el-Damaty angrily blamed journalists for not contacting the ministry about the “rumors” of the pyramid’s structural integrity.

He singled out the website “Archaeologists Against the Coup,” run by Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as being “behind the spread of rumors which the media helped exaggerate.”

Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 amid mass demonstrations calling for his resignation after a tumultuous year in power. His supporters view the current government as illegitimate.

While it would be great if the Egyptian government were telling the truth and the pyramid was being restored to specs and was not in any danger of collapse, there’s something about military governments that take power by coup and then ratify themselves with dubious elections that makes me think they’re liable to be less than honest with the public. Just a gut feeling I guess. Unfortunately, the only way anybody is ever really going to know if they’re lying is if the pyramid collapses, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. As usual when it comes to antiquities, it’s not only the history and the structure itself that’s at risk, it’s the well-being of countless numbers of Egyptians who rely, directly or indirectly, on the tourist trade for their livelihoods.

Five threats to cultural and historic heritage in 2013

Full confession: I kind of hate these year-end recap stories that crop up this time every year. I guess I object to the idea that the end of a year is some real event rather than a superficial cultural marker, and I feel like we’d all be better served to keep pushing on rather than acting as though something is “ending.” That said, I do understand how important it is to stop and take stock of what’s happened every once in a while, and if the end of a year inspires people to do that, so be it. In the spirit of the season, here are five stories reflecting the threats and challenges the world’s cultural and historic heritage has faced in 2013:

5. Looting and black market antiquities dealing

Presumably looting could make a list like this one any year, but the turmoil in places like Egypt and Syria (keep reading) made this an especially difficult year for curtailing the illegal trade in antiquities. Apart from those two places, which we will deal with separately, looting was also rampant in places like Macedonia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. Billions of dollars are being made illegally each year via the antiquities trade. Even in the United States, the issue of art looted by the Nazis and brought to American museums after the war is still relevant.

4. Egypt’s instability puts artifacts, sites at risk

It was a year of incredible change and turmoil in Egypt, with the elected but increasingly undemocratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being forced from power by the Egyptian armed forces in July. Dueling protests, both for and against Morsi and then, after the coup, for and against the new military government caused chaos in the streets of major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and threatened Egypt’s priceless stores of antiquities. In August the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was ransacked and looted. The museum has recovered some of its collection, but the search for the rest of its pieces is ongoing. Despite the chaos, and the promise of further chaos if Egypt is unable to transition from its current repressive military government to a stable democratic system, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was probably a good thing for Egypt’s antiquities. The Brotherhood is another offshoot of the same kind of ultra-conservative Islam that produces those Salafi groups that have damaged or destroyed precious historical sites throughout the Islamic World, and Morsi’s government showed little interest in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage from looters and developers, prompting UNESCO to threaten to remove several Egyptian sites from its World Heritage list. Perhaps the biggest loss, and risk of further loss, has been in regards to Egypt’s Coptic churches, which have been targeted by angry pro-Brotherhood protesters on religious grounds.

3. The pressures of development

All over the world we saw sites threatened and destroyed by unchecked commercial and industrial development. A 2300-year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was obliterated to make gravel. A 4000 year old pyramid at El Paraiso, Peru, was destroyed by developers. The threat of unchecked mineral mining has put ancient sites across Afghanistan at grave risk. Ancient burial mounds, some more than 4000 years old, are being destroyed by development in Bahrain. Prehistoric sites are being demolished by developers in the Bujang Valley in Malaysia. Developers plowed up a 2000 year old necropolis in Cyrene, Libya.  Sites from the earliest days of Islam continue to be destroyed in Saudi Arabia. America is not immune to this trend, as American Indian sites are being wiped out for things as frivolous as new Walmart warehouses.

2. Natural disasters destroy sites in the Philippines

In October, 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated heritage sites in the Philippine province of Bohol, in particular reducing several centuries-old churches to rubble. Two of these churches, the 17th century Loboc Church and the 18th century Baclayon Church, had been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status before they were destroyed. The devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, only a month later, compounded the challenge of recovering these sites and also damaged several other heritage churches all over the country.

1. Syria

If the civil war in Syria ended tomorrow the loss of Syria’s rich cultural heritage would still be incalculable, but the war continues and continues to destroy sites and artifacts that had survived for centuries despite doomed efforts to stave off the destruction. Entire sites have been heavily damaged if not destroyed in the fighting. The city of Aleppo and its millenia of cultural heritage is all but destroyed, and the Syrian government continues to batter it. The direct impacts of the conflict aside, the chaos created by the war has led to rampant illicit excavation and looting. The loss of Syria’s heritage is not just tragic from the standpoint of lost history and culture, but it is deeply harmful to the chances of Syrian society recovering from the devastation of the war, whenever it does end:

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

A Little Bit of History Repeating

Remember a couple of months ago, when a construction company in Belize destroyed a 2300-year old Mayan pyramid for, I guess, building materials? Well, it turns out that four people have been charged in that case, including the two managing directors of the company responsible for the destruction.

I wonder what’s going to happen in this case?

Real estate developers using heavy machinery tore down a 20ft (6m) tall pyramid at one of Peru‘s oldest archaeological sites, cultural officials have said.

Rafael Varon, deputy minister of cultural patrimony, told reporters on Wednesday that the destruction occurred over the weekend at the ruins of El Paraiso, a few miles north of Peru’s capital, Lima.

He said his agency has lodged criminal complaints against two companies for the damage – identified as Alisol and Provelanz – and has moved to seize the equipment used. People who answered the telephone at both companies said no one was available to comment.

I’ll bet they weren’t available to comment. What comment would they have offered? “Yeah, uh, sorry about the building or whatever, but, uh, progress, you know?” And, astonishingly, it could have been worse:

Varon said people apparently working for the two companies tore down one pyramid and tried to destroy three others, but were stopped by witnesses.

Well, you’ve already got the destruction crews out there, why stop at leveling just one irreplaceable site? It just makes good economic sense to take down a few more while you’re at it.

The site of El Paraíso was inhabited during the Late Preceramic (3500-1800 BCE), and the pyramid in question was at least 4000 years old. And now it’s gone, taken apart in one night by a gang of criminals calling themselves construction companies.

Here’s an after/before photo (after on the left), via


How the Hell Does Something Like This Happen?

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These are the images of what remains of a 2300 year old Mayan pyramid, at a site in the north of Belize called Nohmul, that has been destroyed in order to be reused as gravel by road paving crews.

A construction company in Belize has been scooping stone out of the major pyramid at the site of Nohmul (meaning Big Mound), one of only 15 ancient Maya sites important enough to be noted on the National Geographic World Atlas.

The National Institute of Culture and History of Belize had earlier noted that “the site continues to be destroyed by road construction crews who bulldoze the mounds for gravel.”

But now it appears that nearly the entire main pyramid, once standing over 60 feet tall, has been destroyed by road building crews, said John Morris, associate director of research at Belize’s Institute of Archaeology. The institute is a department of the Belize Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

This is simply unconscionable. I find this kind of destruction even more heinous than what has happened to Syria’s heritage during her ongoing civil war, or the ongoing destruction of Sufi shrines in North Africa by Salafi fighters. They’re all horrific as far as I’m concerned, but there’s at least an explanation for the latter cases that can be understood on some level. Wars happen, as much as we might wish they didn’t, and things are damaged and destroyed in war, as much as we might wish they weren’t; there is no justification for the destruction, but it is at least understandable. Salafi teaching, whatever one may think of its merits, tells its devotees that shrines are an affront to God and must be destroyed; again, there’s no justification for what they do, but it can be understood if seen in the proper context. But this? A road crew, or a series of road crews, either too lazy and/or greedy to find gravel that wasn’t part of a millenia-old, irreplaceable structure, or too ignorant to know what they were demolishing? A crime against cultural heritage that could have been avoided without breaking a sweat? Wars destroy things. Salafis are taught to attack Sufi shrines. But this? This was just pointless greed, laziness, and stupidity. It served no purpose, even a disagreeable one. It’s not even destruction for destruction’s sake; it’s just destruction because we’re too dumb to do anything else.

Belize’s deputy prime minister is calling for prosecutions; I’ll believe it when I see it, and anyway no amount of legal action is going to bring this incredible temple back. It survived 2300 years on this planet but couldn’t survive human greed and human stupidity. I hope the damn road they paved with these stones was really majestic.