Friday, 1 April 2011

A Warning From Beyond the Grave for Looters

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Attention has been focussed on the legal, rather than moral, aspects of the current retention by the St Louis Art Museum of the cartonage mask which proper due diligence should have revealed clearly should be in the archives of the 1952 excavation by archaeologist Mohammed Zakaria Goneim in Sakkara. The excavation has been published (Goneim 1956), but there is a nice online resource detailing her burial by K.M. Johnston, a previous correspondent with this blog, on Egyptology Geek and Amduat Wiki.

Johnston notes that the contents of Ka Nefer Nefer’s burial are in several respects extraordinary for such a simple interment. The body has the cartonnage accompaniments of a mummy, but was not actually mummified. A recent re-examination in association with the upcoming court case of the field catalogue of finds still held in Egypt however reveals (pers. comm. A. Mustafa Laff, Feb 2011) that also now missing from the Sakkara storeroom (presumably removed at the same time as the mask and presumably scattered in the no-questions-asked antiquities trade), are several fragments of cartonnage bands found loose in the vicinity of the body. Although, unlike the mask, they do not bear the name of the deceased, they clearly belong to this burial. There is a hieratic inscription on the cartonnage, and the text (visible in the low resolution photos in the field journal) is transcribed as below by Prof. Ivar Lupe, egyptologist in the Estonian Academy of Sciences, whose recent research has focussed on Ramesside non-royal burial practices and who will be publishing this new discovery in due course:

Lupe observes that a feature of great interest in these lost fragments is that alongside the usual funerary formulae, the mummy bands contain a text of the type popularly known as a „mummy’s curse”. Lupe translates this portion of the text as follows:
"Death will come on swift wings to those who disturb my peace and shall do evil or wickedness to this. The City of the Gate will fall, and to its land will come fire, water and pestilence [...]."
This seems to me a further argument for returning Ka Nefer Nefer's coffin mask to Egypt to rejoin the rest of the material excavated from her burial. It is what she would have wanted. The formulae are well known from other inscriptions of this type, but Prof. Lupe was unable to decipher the meaning of the „City of the Gate” in an ancient Egyptian context, suggesting it either refers to a local town or more likely refers to a military outpost on Egypt’s western borders in the Delta, referring to a text on a Late Ramesside papyrus from Deir El-Medina in a time of crisis at the end of the 21st dynasty which makes reference to the „foreign-born princes” ruling in a „City of the Gate on the Western Horizon” indicating a collapse of central control of this strategically important region.

Readers cannot fail to note the coincidence that St Louis which refuses to allow Ka Nefer Nefer’s face to be reunited with the rest of her burial also calls itself the „Gateway to the West”. One may only speculate whether the priests and seers (re)burying Ka Nefer Nefer's remains foresaw the violation of the integrity of her burial and were issuing a warning to the people of St Louis, that under the rule of a foreign-born prince „fire, water and pestilence” will visit their land. Just to be on the SAFE side, in their place, and given all the other factors, I would be urging the local museum to give it back right now.

Reference: (Goneim, M. Zakaria. The Lost Pyramid. Rinehardt & Co Inc. 1956. pp 64-66; Goneim, M. Zakaria, Service des Antiquites de L'Egypte. Horus Sekhem-khet - The Unfinished Step Pyramid At Saqqara, Volume 1. Excavations at Saqqara. Imprimerie de L'Institut Francais D'Archeologie Orientale. Cairo. 1957. pp 23-27, Plates LXVII-LXXI)

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