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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Case of the Missing Mummies

The missing statuette of  King Tut's sister. No, she's not a conjoined twin; that's a lock of hair symbolizing her youth. She is holding an offering in her hand.
By 1922, when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings, opinion was swinging around to the idea that the treasures of Egypt were most appropriately left with Egypt herself, rather than parceled out between the British Museum, the Metropolitan, and private collectors.

The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo holds the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, including many treasures from Tutankhamen’s grave. During the 2011 revolution, many of its artifacts were damaged or stolen. A full inventory of the lost works has never been released, but among the damaged (and restored) items were two statuettes of King Tut, worked in cedar and covered in gold.

Yesterday the Telegraph reported that Egypt has issued an international alert reporting the theft of a statuette of King Tut’s sister, stolen during rioting in Mallawi this past summer. During the violence, looters walked off with every single portable item in the City Museum—more than a thousand objects. Of the 46 left in situ because they were just too big to move, many were vandalized. (You can view the complete list here.)

The Mallawi City Museum when looters were done with it.
More than half the items have been retrieved by Egyptian authorities. Many of the ones still missing are from nearby Tell el-Amarna, which is the site of the short-lived capitol founded by the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten. Amarna-era artifacts fetch the best prices from collectors.

Either the Mallawi riots were orchestrated to provide cover for the thefts, or the Egyptian families which control the illegal antiquities trade were able to strike fast and capitalize on the riots as they unfolded.  After all, the tradition of tomb-robbing in Egypt is far older than the business of professional archaeology itself.

They were together for more than 4500 years, before looters broke them up... into small pieces. This fifth dynasty tomb portrait was shattered during the riots. What couldn't be stolen was destroyed.
What little I know about Egyptology comes from reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery books. Under her real name of Barbara Mertz, the author held a PhD in Egyptology. She passed away a few months ago. This real-life mystery contains all the elements she threw into her novels. I imagine she’d have found it fascinating—and heart-breaking, at the same time.


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