Foreign expeditions in Egypt
Foreign archaeological missions in Egypt have contributed enormously to Egyptology, but they should follow proper professional rules, writes Zahi Hawass
We cannot deny the great work done by foreign scholars for Egyptian antiquities. There have been many great people who have contributed to the field of antiquities, among them Mariette Pasha and Gaston Maspero.
When I go to the garden of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, I always recall all the work done by Mariette Pasha both in terms of his discoveries and in terms of conservation. I value in particular what Maspero did to explicate the mummy cache that was discovered by the Abdel-Rasoul family.
We also value the work of scholars Borchart and Lepsius, Howard Carter, Sir Alan Gardiner, and John Wilson. I cannot list all the names of all the great scholars in the field of Egyptology: I can only write the names of some of those who come to mind. Without the great work of these foreign scholars, we would not have Egyptology as it is now.
When I first went to the International Congress of Egyptology in the French city of Grenoble, I went to the town where the French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion had lived and visited his house. I sat on his chair in his office — the chair of this man who had decoded hieroglyphics for the first time.
When I became head of antiquities in Egypt in 2002, I decided to re-organise the department. Egyptian antiquities have suffered a great deal from the work of the amateurs and adventurers who dominated exploration in Egypt for centuries. Things improved enormously over the course of the 20th century, but until recently people who were not qualified to excavate were still granted concessions in Egypt, among them students.
Believe it or not, a group of American women with lots of enthusiasm but absolutely no training were permitted to excavate at Karnak only 19 years ago. Even more recently, French amateurs with no institutional backing were given permission to make holes in the Great Pyramid at Giza.
The person in charge of antiquities at that time was a philologist, and he had no understanding of archaeology and could not distinguish between a real scholar and an amateur. He made many mistakes and even once permitted an Arab princess to leave Egypt with an ancient manuscript.
As a result, in 2002 I instituted new rules for all, both Egyptians and foreigners. According to these, only professionals affiliated with reputable institutions would be permitted to head projects in Egypt. The purpose of this was not to scare off or to harm anybody, but instead it was meant to protect our irreplaceable monuments and to create a system that would apply to all. Everywhere else in the world there is a system of this sort, but for some reason people object or complain when we implement a system like this in Egypt.
If an amateur Egyptian applied to excavate or to carry out a conservation project in America or France, would he or she be given permission to do so? I doubt that the officials in charge would even respond to the request, much less approve the project.
The rules that were introduced put a stop to all new excavations in Upper Egypt, although conservation, restoration and recording projects were still welcomed. New excavation projects are permitted in the Delta and the deserts, areas that are under threat from agricultural expansion and the rising water table. Salvaging sites in these regions is crucial.
Another rule was that every excavation team was responsible for conserving and restoring anything it discovered. Publication is essential, and preliminary reports were to be submitted to the journal of the Antiquities Service, the ASAE, in both English and Arabic.
A full scientific report was to be published by expeditions that had been working in the country for 20 years or more but had never published their work. Scientific results that are not available to scholars are useless, and they contribute nothing to our knowledge of the past.
All discoveries must be announced through the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). Archaeologists must present official reports of their results, and a decision is then made on how and whether to make an announcement to the media. Scientific reports may be published at any time, but media announcements must go through the SCA.
The UK Egyptologist Joann Fletcher once announced that she had found the mummy of queen Nefertiti. She thought that the mummy of the young lady in tomb KV 35 was that of Nefertiti, but she gave no evidence for this view. Nevertheless, her announcement went all around the world, even if the SCA in Egypt knew nothing about it. The SCA permanent committee then stopped Fletcher from working in Egypt because she had disobeyed the rules.
Foreign expeditions are also responsible for paying their Egyptian inspectors as members of their teams. Anyone involved in any way with the antiquities trade is also either suspended or permanently banned from working in Egypt.
These are the rules that all must respect. So I was astonished to read in an English-language newspaper published in Cairo that 35 foreign expeditions had been prevented from working in Egypt. The truth was that four archaeologists who were either involved in buying or identifying objects for antiquities dealers were suspended, one of them having also made a speculative and unauthorised announcement to the media.
Several project proposals have been turned down because they did not meet the stated requirements. But a reputable expedition connected with a museum or university abroad that followed the rules has never been stopped.
Egypt’s monuments are in danger not only from the environment, tourism, and the expanding population, but also from being destroyed by ignorance. Important pieces of our history are lost forever when amateurs are let loose on monuments.
There are many well-respected scholars from France, Germany, the US, the UK, and other countries working in Egypt. These men and women have dedicated their lives to Egyptology, and they work hard to do what they can to save and learn from our monuments for the benefit of all.
On the other hand, there are still others who believe they own the country, are disrespectful to Egyptians, who ban Egyptian students from their libraries, and who support amateurs who want to carry out projects that will damage the heritage. These people should be prevented from working in Egypt. Those who are our friends and help us in our shared work should be rewarded.
When I drafted the new rules, most people approved of them and only a few objected. These rules enabled everyone to work peacefully together, and for the first time Egyptian inspectors became part of expeditions and were not told simply to wait in expedition houses drinking tea.
We began to teach our young people excavation techniques, and we made a rule that only these who had passed courses in field schools could accompany expeditions. I am sorry to see what has happened to these rules today, when three expeditions have been permitted to work in Upper Egypt.
I hope that all Egyptians and all non-Egyptians will be able to collaborate in the preservation and recording of the country’s monuments.
These monuments may not be around in 100 years if we do not do our utmost to conserve them.