Thursday, November 18, 2010

Egyptian Antiquities on Their Way Home

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Special Correspondent

Washington - Artifacts illegally taken from the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun's tomb are going home.

They include two rings bearing his name, a miniature black-bronze dog with gold collar, and a broad necklace with purple-blue beads. At 32 centimeters by 12 centimeters, the necklace is the largest of 19 artifacts formally returned to Egypt by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) on November 10.

Although most items fit in the palm of a hand, the goodwill engendered by the return is big. Announcement of the return, made jointly in New York and Cairo, involves items that entered the Met's collection between 1920 and the 1940s

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, hailed the return as "a wonderful gesture." The council is part of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and is responsible for the protection, conservation and regulation of all archaeological excavations and antiquities in Egypt. It oversees recovery of artifacts illegally exported or stolen from Egypt.

"Thanks to the generosity and ethical behavior of the Met, these 19 objects can now be reunited with the other treasures of the boy king," Hawass said.

Museum Director Thomas Campbell said in a statement that evidence shows "without doubt" that the objects originated in Tutankhamun's tomb. "These objects were never meant to have left Egypt," he said.

This isn't the first time that the Met has returned Egyptian antiquities. "For many years the museum, and especially the Egyptian art department, has been a strong partner in our ongoing efforts to repatriate illegally exported antiquities," Hawass said.

In 2009, the Met returned a red granite relief fragment inscribed with the name of Amenemhat I, ruler of Egypt from 1991 B.C. to 1962 B.C., after curators matched it with the larger work. It was on loan from a private owner and never displayed publicly. A decade ago it returned a relief with a goddess's head after a visiting Dutch Egyptologist saw it on display. That work was loaned to the museum in 1996 by a private owner.

The original home of the stolen items, King Tutankhamun's tomb, is one of legend.

The tomb was discovered in 1922 by English archaeologist Howard Carter. At the time, Egypt allowed excavators to keep most of what they found. But over a decade of excavating the tomb in the Valley of the Kings, where pharaohs were interred from the 16th to the 11th centuries B.C., it became clear that it held treasures. The Egyptian government initiated action to keep artifacts in the country and the area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

Tutankhamun was about 9 years old when he ascended the throne and 19 when he died nearly 3,000 years ago. His reign was brief (around 1333-1324 B.C.) but he lives on in popular culture. From his mummy, scientists reconstructed an image of his face. His gold death mask has toured in exhibitions worldwide. In February 2010, Hawass and other scholars analyzed Tutankhamun's mummy and concluded that an infected leg fracture and malaria killed him.

Carter found the door of the tomb intact, with an unbroken royal seal, but Egyptologists say his grave was robbed soon after construction in 1324 B.C. through an outer wall.

The stolen artifacts from the tomb are on display in New York at the Discovery Times Square Exhibition center as part of the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibition through January 2.

Then they'll be shown at the Met until June 2011, and afterward, returned to Cairo's Egyptian Museum. With the rest of the Tut collection, their new home will be at the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, scheduled to open in 2012.

The Met has about 36,000 Egyptian objects dating from the Paleolithic to the Roman period. On November 16, the Met opens the exhibition "Haremhab: The General Who Became King ( )," focusing on the scribe who commanded Tutankhamun's army.

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)