Adventures in the Egyptian Museum
What lies hidden in the basement maze of Cairo's Egyptian Museum, asks Zahi Hawass
I have always dug in sand, and this is where I have made my most important discoveries, such as the Valley of the Golden Mummies in the Bahariya Oasis and the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders at Giza. But one day I became interested in digging in a new place, a place without sand – the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
There is a maze of corridors lying under the museum. For decades, no one knew what was hidden down there: Boxes of all sorts of treasures discovered by foreign and Egyptian expeditions were brought in and stored there over the years without the proper recording of the artefacts. There were objects of stone and wood, mummies, and even objects made of precious metals. But no one knew exactly what was down there. It was said among scholars that anything sent down to the basement of the museum would be lost forever.
At the beginning of my career I excavated at Kom Abu Billo, an important site in the Delta. I worked there for nine years from 1970 until 1979. We discovered a great cemetery from the Graeco-Roman period, where many of the people interred were devotees of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite, the Egyptian-Greek goddess of beauty and love. Near the cemetery was a temple to the god Apollo. We had begun excavations at this site because a grand canal five km long was being dug through the desert. So we had to excavate along the designated route. Each year, I took a truck to the Egyptian Museum full of boxes packed with jewellery, especially bracelets, and gold amulets, stelae and 12 beautiful statues of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite.
When I came to Cairo much later, I tried to find these artefacts in the museum, but no one could tell me where they were. When I became head of Egypt's Antiquities Service in 2002, which coincided with the centennial of the museum, I decided to deal with the issue myself. I asked Mamdouh Eldamaty, the then director of the museum, to begin clearing out the basement and opening the various boxes to see what was inside them. We cleaned out several basement galleries on the west side of the museum and turned them into an exhibition area. The first exhibition held here was of treasures found in the basement of the building, along with objects from storerooms around the country and exhibits from overcrowded showcases in the museum itself. We called the exhibition, which consisted of about 250 objects, "Hidden Treasures," and it was a great success.
The clearing of the basement has been ongoing since then, and it has become an important project in its own right with specially chosen curators inspecting and recording each of the objects found. The heroine of this work was curator Sabah Abdel-Razik, who spent most of her time in the basement. We are now in the process of building a new inventory database for the museum where all these objects, along with their exact locations, will be recorded. This project was begun under Janice Kamrin, now a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, assisted by Yasmine Al-Shazli. We expect that all the objects in the basement will be in the new database. This will bring enormous changes, and it will help to take the museum into the new millennium.
Many interesting discoveries have been made in the treasure trove beneath the museum, including artefacts that no one could have imagined. A beautiful mummy encased in cartonnage belonging to Djed-Khonsu, son of Neskhonsu, and dating from the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties, has been found, for example. This has important religious scenes in vibrant colours on it, and the mummy's face is very impressive. Unfortunately, we do not know who found it, or where it was found. This information has been lost in the maze of corridors below the museum.
Another discovery is a wooden statuette of a man wearing a short kilt and a short wig, and in this case we know that it was found in Saqqara. The curators have also found a painted ushabti box used to hold small funerary statuettes that were designed to work in the afterlife in the place of the deceased person. They have also come across some wooden statues that I myself found in my excavations at the Teti Pyramid cemetery at Saqqara fewer than ten years ago that had been lost among thousands of pots and boxes. Other special finds have included a unique vase bearing the name of the pharaoh Horemheb from a foundation deposit at Karnak.
The most important treasures in the basement are the coffins and mummies of the priests and priestesses of the Late Period. I believe that the Ministry of Antiquities should create an exhibition at the museum to display these coffins and mummies that have never been shown to the public before, and after that the exhibition should be a part of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.
The Egyptian Museum basement is close to my heart because the statue that changed my life is also in it. I mentioned that all the artefacts found at Kom Abu Billo in the Delta are inside boxes in the basement of the museum. I was sitting inside a tent at the site one day, when the Reis (the overseer of the workmen) Doctoor (that was his name – he was originally from Qift, a town north of Luxor where the residents are experts in excavating and have worked with famous archaeologists like Carter, Reisner, Borchardt, Junker, Loret and others) came to me and asked if I would come to the site because a tomb had been found.
I was very young, and this was my first excavation. I went to the tomb unhappily, because I was ready to go to Cairo and was wearing clean clothes. I sat beside the Reis Doctoor, and he began to teach me how to excavate. Suddenly, I saw a statue in the middle of the tomb, and Reis Doctoor gave me a brush to clean it with. While I was cleaning the statue, I said to myself that "I have found my true love – archaeology."
Ever since then, I have had a passion for archaeology. When I meet young people today, I tell them that passion can change anything, and my passion has certainly made me talk about archaeology like a lover. I had to go and ask Sabeh, a curator at the museum, to search for the statue that changed my life. We found it and took a photograph of ourselves with it. I can like or love anything, but it is passion that is essential.
-- Sent from my Linux system.