Friday, 13 May 2011

Big-Eared Hare and Hedgehogs on Egyptian "Hunting" Relief

They've had a 'revolution' (looking these days more like a coup) and the country is in shambles but antiquities still fulfil their traditional role in international affairs. So Egypt is trumpeting the return of the "first artefact repatriated to Egypt after the revolution" (later said to be the second because the cartoonish relief from Mexico was afforded that status). Anyway this latest success in getting back stuff stolen from Egyptian antiquities stores and monuments and smuggled out through those supposedly "secure" airports and ports is a fifth dynasty limestone relief of a hunting scene 51cm high x 83cm in width which Egypt is getting back from the Antikenmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. The collecting history of this item is not discussed, how did it get into the Basel collection, where had it been (allegedly and actually) before then?

What are the grounds for demanding its return? ("The Basel museum volunteered to return this piece immediately after discovering that it was stolen from Saqqara"). "[Dr] Hawass will shortly be contacting the ministry of foreign affairs to arrange for an MSAA representative to travel to Switzerland to collect the relief". He'll have to take a big black bag with him to bring it back {but the Ministry already has one, found on a platform in a metro station}.
The Antikenmuseum has already sent back the eye of a colossal quartzite statue of Amenhotep III (c. 1390-1352 BC) found in 1970 at his funerary temple in Kom el-Hettan area on the Luxor west bank. The eye was smuggled out of the country and loaned to the museum by a private collector, where it was recognised by Egyptologist, Hourig Sourouzian, and returned to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in October 2008.
I wonder just what a museum does with something like this. Its an unwieldy block of stone with pictures of animals on it, some of them incomplete - going off the edge of the block. The picture does not make much sense. The photo being used in the media - presumably supplied by the MSAA is in fact the centrefold from the popular magazine Kmt (one might suspect that the appearance of this photo in the article 'The Egyptian Collection of Basel’s Antikenmuseum' by Lucy Gordan-Rastelli was the reason why the object was spotted by the Egyptians). Its a pretty poorly-lit photo and it suggests the scene shows hedgehog-like animals and a hare with enormous ears.

Presumably is we saw these figures in the context of the whole block they would make more sense, as would the block as part of the whole series of scenes from which it has been extracted, and that would make sense only when seen in its position in the tomb alongside the others, and that would make more sense in the context of what fifth dynasty tombs in lower Egypt generally show. What function is served by a contextless block lit more (or less) dramatically in a gallery in Switzerland, isolated from all of that? An "example of Old Kingdom art"? But are hedgehogs big-eared lagomorphs typically Old Kingdom subjects? Presented in an isolated decontextualised form, what information do they supply the viewer about Old Kingdom Egypt? Or is their function in fact to provide "information" (the function usually assigned to 'universal museum collections')? Is this not just a rich man's trophy, like some people collect shiny cars and glamorous trophy wives? Why do we need the public display of lumps of stone with ancient pictures of animals - especially stolen ones? More to the point, what are the Egyptians going to do with it when they get it back?

UPDATE: Alain Guilleux suggests the big-eared creature is a rabbit or hare but I suspect rabbits (orycytolagus cuniculus) were not present in Egypt in pharaonic times. I find though that the desert hare (Lepus capensis) was, and some individuals do indeed seem to have some pretty imposing ears.

Photo: A desert hare running away from antiquity smugglers, I wonder how many would, like me, prefer to look at a properly-presented exhibition of decent wildlife photography than some scruffy animal pictures on old ripped-off stonework.

Heba Hesham, Egypt to regain stolen limestone painting from Switzerland
bikya masr, May 12th, 2011

Nevine El-Aref, 'Old Kingdom relief first artefact repatriated to Egypt after revolution', Al-Ahram, 11 May 2011.

UPDATE- UPDATE 8th June 2011:
A followup article 'Switzerland returns stolen Egyptian antique' tells us the relief is already back in Egypt and adds the information that "The relief [...] was apparently stolen from the Saqqara Necropolis, south of Cairo, 10 years ago. The piece was not reported stolen but when its surfaced in Switzerland museum officials in Basel carried out tests to trace its provenance". Good for them.

1 comment:

Alain said...

Some pictures of this relief :

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