Repatriation, a New Ethos at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo
When Dr Zahi Hawass became Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities at the beginning of 2002 high on his agenda was the introduction of new security measures to combat the theft and smuggling of Egyptian antiquities. He intends to update security measures and catalogue all of the artefacts stored in the magazines scattered across Egypt. He also wants tougher new laws to combat smuggling of antiquities and further training for the people that guard the priceless artefacts. To this end, Dr Hawass has formed the Department of Stolen Artifacts, within which is Reclaim Department. This later department has been effective over the last two years in having stolen artefacts returned to Egypt, such as statues from Karnak and other temples around Egypt, two Roman masks and a beautiful relief of King Amenhotep III. At last courts around the world are beginning to recognise the ownership claims of Egypt on their cultural property. Museums and custom officials all over the world are now repatriating artefacts to their rightful home.
Two of the most high profile repatriations of recent times have been the mummy of Ramesses I and the lower part of the coffin from KV55. The mummy of the Dynasty XIX king, Ramesses I (1295-1294 BC), grandfather of Egypt’s most famous king – Ramesses II - was repatriated to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo early November 2003. At present the mummy resides in the foyer in a sealed plexiglass case, however, he will soon be moved to his original sarcophagus and displayed in the Luxor Museum’s annex dedicated to the military glory of Egypt. The mummy is believed to have been looted from the Valley of the Kings in 1871 and sold to an antiquities dealer. It probably originated from tomb DB320 in Deir el-Bahari, where a cache of royal mummies was found in 1881. This tomb had been systematically plundered by the Abdel-Rassul family, a group of professional tomb-robbers. The mummy of Ramesses I is thought to have left Egypt in the hands of a Canadian antiquities collector, although by the beginning of the twentieth century it turned up in Canada’s Niagra Falls Museum. The mummy was first identified as a royal mummy by a German Egyptologist, Dr Arne Eggevrecht, when he visited the museum in 1999. A few months later the Michael C Carlos Museum (MCCM) bought the entire Egyptian collection of the Niagra Falls Museum, including the mummy. After three years of intensive investigation of the royal mummy, including X-ray, CAT Scan, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging and other techniques, they are 95% certain that this is the mummy of Ramesses I. The arms that lay crossed on the chest indicated that the mummy is indeed royal, for this position was reserved only for royal personages. The director of the MCCM, Dr Bonnie Speed and her colleague Dr Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient art offered the mummy to Dr Hawass shortly after he had visited the museum to authenticate the claims of Dr Eggevrecht and negotiate its repatriation. The return of the mummy to the Cairo Museum was greeted by the Minister of Culture, the right honourable Farouk Hosni, a military band and hundreds of journalists, scholars and other well wishers.
The other item recently returned to the Cairo Museum is the basin (bottom part) of the elaborately decorated coffin found in KV55. The top part of the coffin has resided in the museum since its discovery by Theodore Davies in 1907 in the Valley of the Kings. This tomb is at the centre of one of the most enigmatic stories in Egyptology. It contained the poorly preserved remains of a member of the Amarna royal family. The Amarna Period encompassed by the reign of Akhenaten and his descendants, 1352 – 1327 BC.
The tomb of KV55 once belonged to the Great Royal Wife of King Amenhotep III, Queen Tiye (The Tomb of Queen Tiyi), although when it was excavated in 1907 the great royal lady was not interred therein. What was found was a rishi-coffin (coffin covered in feather decoration imitating the wings of Horus protecting the dead) covered in gold foil and inlays of semi-precious stones along with other funerary equipment. The identity of this individual was the subject of much speculation, possible candidates including Akhenaten himself, or perhaps Akhenaten’s successor, Smenkhkara. It is now generally accepted as being the coffin of Smenkhkara, although opinions may change, especially if DNA testing becomes more reliable. The only other known Amarna period body definitely identified is that of the Boy King Tutankhamun, excavated from KV62 by Howard Carter in 1922. The mummy of Queen Tiye is presumed to have been removed for safe keeping a few yeas earlier to another tomb, possibly KV35, where the mummy of the Older Lady stored in an anti-chamber is mooted as being Tiye.
The excavation of KV55 was unfortunately not conducted with the most rigorous of methodologies, and valuable clues as to its history have been lost. Although this could be excused due to the early date of its excavation, the methodology used to excavate the tomb of Tutankhamun, found some 15 years later, is as far removed as the engineering of a Model T Ford and a Saturn V space rocket. The coffin and pieces of gold foil sheets and inlays were removed to the Cairo Museum. Unfortunately the wooden part of the basin was unable to be conserved and the excavators had also folded many of the gold sheets to make their transportation ‘easier’, and in the process making the hieroglyphic inscriptions hard to read. Some of the golden sheets that were removed to the Cairo Museum belonged to the interior of the coffin lid and others to the interior and exterior of the basin. However, sometime between 1915 and 1931 the majority of the remaining elements of the coffin basin disappeared from the museum, resurfacing eventually in Germany in the 1980s. These pieces of the coffin basin were restored on a plexiglass form at the State Collection of Egyptian Art in Munich.
The Cairo Museum of course wanted to reunite the coffin basin and lid, especially since the former had been illegally removed from its premises in the first place. Since 2000 intense negotiations for its repatriation have been underway and eventually in early 2002, after the Egyptian Government loaned the Munich Museum the coffin lid for an exhibition, the basin was repatriated. The coffin lid, basin and pieces of gold foil are now all reunited in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, where the coffin and other pieces from the KV55 are on display to the public for the first time.