Saturday, 7 April 2012

Focus on the Ka Nefer Nefer "Collection History" (1) ("Here Zakki, you can have this, old chap")

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The collection history of the mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer currently in the St Louis Art Museum is crucial to the SLAM claim to the object. The mask was excavated by Muhammed Zakaria Goneim in 1952 in a grave at Saqqara. It was part of a small Ramesside cemetery in the layers overlying the lower courses of the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhemkhet. We do no know what position Ka Nefer Nefer (or Neferu) held, though circumstantial evidence suggests she lived in the times of Rameses II in the 19th Dynasty. Her body had not been mummified, the corpse was given a gilded cartonage mask and placed (apparently unwrapped) in a grave wrapped in a large reed mat. This is a type of rite more commonly associated with lower class burials, though the quality of the mask and accompanying gold items and range of amulets (and two alabaster shabtis) most of them inscribed with her name show that this was not the burial of a poor woman. It has been suggested that she was of Libyan ancestry.

I'd like to draw attention to the wiki by K.M. Johnston on this burial which is more accessible to most readers I would guess than Gonheim's own published account, it was put up on 16 January 2011 and deserves much more attention, this is because it highlights what else was in that grave.  The smaller items are all still in Saqqara.

Let us imagine that the version fed to SLAM by the dealers, the Aboutaams, is true. The idea is that for his merits as an archaeologist the Egyptian Government in its munificence gave him one of the objects from the state-funded excavations he had directed as a reward. This is the way the mummy mask (the Aboutaams suggest) came onto the market legally, as the excavator's own private property.

This is highly unlikely to have happened. First of all this is not what happened in Egyptian archaeology in the 1950s. Furthermore, Goneim himself was not exactly flavour of the month after he had embarrassed the government in June 1954 when a much hyped pyramid-opening was a flop when the sarcophagus turned out to be empty. He was soon after this hounded, accused of antiquity thefts (it seems unjustly - there is a history of that in Egyptian archaeology) and committed suicide (or was killed) in January 1959. At what stage would the mask be "given to him" in the Aboutaam version of events? It was found early in 1952, seven years later Goneim was dead. When he published the book in 1956 he thanked the Supreme Council for use of the photo of the object, unlikely if he had then been in possession of it.

After he died, under the shadow of accusations of pinching stuff, under what circumstances would his heirs be able to export it and a foreign gallery purchase it? Also, had Goneim's enemies been accusing him of stealing objects, if he had indeed officially been granted the possession of one of his excavated finds, the fact that a whopping big mummy mask was not in the collections would have aroused suspicions, and one would have expected there to be a trace in some written records somewhere that he had secured himself against accusations on that account by providing some details of how he had come by this rather noticeable object by official channels. Instead, he was accused of nicking a vase (which later turned up in the muddle - even in 1959 - of the stores at the Egyptian Museum).

More to the point, the grave contained a whole lot of goodies. Had a magnanimous official wished to "reward" an archaeologist for doing his job, why would he choose the biggest - and most museum-displayable - thing in the grave?  There were two gold inlaid pectorals, and two alabaster shabtis, if 'partage' of some sort was being practised, surely one of those would be a good 'gift'? The amulets or beads likewise. The Saqqara storeroom is already full of such things. Anything would have made a more suitable "present" (official or not) than the mask.

The fact is that in 1952-9 no 'partage' had been practised for thirty years. The Aboutaam/SLAM story fails to provide any evidence why in this particular case that principle was ignored, and why it was the mummy mask that Goneim "received". Of course neither party feels under any obligation to support their far-fetched interpretation of events.

Of course if the mask originated from Goneim, as the Aboutaams assert, and it had not been an official grant, that too has consequences for the SLAM claim to ownership. 

 Photo: Mohammed Zacharia Goneim (1905-1959): the first owner of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask?

16 comments:

Museum Security Network said...

Great job Paul, goes for all other posts about this stolen Ka Nefer Nefer mask. Even if - I know this just is not true - Egyptian authorities would donate an excavated object to the official digger, this would never be an object of this importance. The Aboutaam provenance information sucks.

Ton Cremers

Dorothy King said...

A quick parallel would be the Met recently returning items from Tut's tomb - the Egyptians had agreed a share of partage for it, reneged, and one excavator had decided he could take items under the original agreement ... they ended up in the Met, who decided to return them.

kyri said...

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/multimedia/video/Treasure_hunters.html?cid=29579780&itemId=29579768

intresting video on the swiss battling metal detectors,nothing you dont allready know but still intresting to know that there are academics out there that think as you do.this is for you ,you dont have to publish it.
kyri

Paul Barford said...

@Ton,
Well, unless you are a US court I suppose - there is a good reason Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be tried in the US rather than where the witnesses are...

I plan to do a series of posts pointing out the holes in the Aboutaam collection history - as if they were not obvious anyway.

@Dorothy King,
but that was in soon after 1922, well before this is supposed to have happened.

M. Banyai said...

Sorry Paul, but I feel, you are posting non-sense.
Since Goneim thanked to the Supreme Council in 1956 for the allowance to publish photos of the mask. This must have been by that time in the museum. Unless you assume that Goneim broke into the museum 1957-1959 to steal that quite large mumy coffin, what nobody ever accused him to have done, the story of the official deaccession must be true.
Because your argumentation lacks much, you feel apparently in need to colportate those smears concerning his alleged robbery of a vase, even if that turned untrue, as you concede in the next sentence.
What would have happened, if you have had left that non-information out? It´s like heaping accusations, you know to be untrue in the hope that some stain would remain in the mind of the naive reader.
Equal to that reference to the Bales´case. Smearing the US in the hope it helps in an unrelated case. It is an unfair, manipulative, kind of argumentation.

Paul Barford said...

Mr Banyai,
I am not sure why you think what I wrote is "nonsense", and you think "the story of the official deaccession must be true" when what you say yourself conflicts with it!

What you call "non-information" is indeed wholly germane to the question. I think it is important to try and put the SLAM story, such as it is, into its wider context. As I argued, had Goneim possessed the mummy mask (and more to the point sold it abroad in 1952 as SLAM assert), I think the background of the accusations levelled at him just a few years later make it more odd that there is NO documentation surviving that he had been awarded it legally, don't you? I think what happened is perfectly germane to the question of whether he was the first legitimate owner of the mask as the US museum asserts.

I suspect you have not understood something, I do not think for a moment that Goneim is responsible for the mummy mask which he excavated coming onto the market, either legally or illegally.

M. Banyai said...

Sorry again, but I am not convinced by your arguments.

Of course you didn´t prove beyond any doubt, that Goneim didn´t own the mumy mask by 1952.

The fact that 1956 he thanked the Egyptian Supreme Council for the use of the photo doesn´t prove anything concerning the ownership of the mask. I suppose, he should have had, as the very finder of the mask at least a couple of photographs in his own archive. The fact, he had despite our expectations none doesn´t prove, neither that he was not the finder nor the temporary proprietor of the mask.

Does he write anything in his 1956 book about the mask as having been stolen in the interval 1952-1956? No. Was he ever accused of having stolen the mask? No. Have there been filled any official Egyptian complaints in the subsequent years concerning the mask? No.

Since he has asked 1956 for a photo of the mask, it is clear that there have had to be some official action in this context. The disparition of the mask would have been registered, if illegal, that very moment.

We could of course assume, taking serious your argument concerning the photo, that the mask was stolen after 1959. But this is freely just an unproven assumption since it was never listed as stolen. Something is at any rate problematic with the assumption regarding the Egyptians being stolen but not being aware of this for several decenia.

Paul Barford said...

@Banyai: What?

You may not be "convinced by my arguments", I think you simply have not bothered to find out what it is I am talking about. But it is you it reflects badly upon, not me.

There are a whole series of posts on this mask and its collecting history on this blog, how many of them have you read before dashing off some knee-jerk non-reply?

I really am not at all sure what your point is. Are you siding with SLAM? If so, say so. Are you one of their lawyers?

"We could of course assume, taking serious your argument concerning the photo, that the mask was stolen after 1959. But this is freely just an unproven assumption since it was never listed as stolen."

I suggest you read up on the history of the mask and its movements between Saqqara and Cairo up to 1966, OK? Even Judge Autrey accepts that in his opinion. Nobody is "assuming" anything, the mask was - in accordance with all the information we have (EXCEPT what the dealer asserts) - still in Egypt where it should have been as late as 1966.

This means it cannot have been in Brussels in 1952, cannot have been in the "Kaloterma" collection, and cannot have been bought by an "anonymous Swiss collector in the early 1960s". Now you may prefer to believe Mr Aboutaam's version of events, I find reason to be highly sceptical about that story and in a series of posts (you may have missed numbers II and III) intend to dissect it - but in fact I have been through this before in earlier posts on my blog, which I bet you've missed too.

But please if you want to discuss this seriously, first of all find out what this is about by reading the other posts and only then try to construct your alternative history.

M. Banyai said...

Dear Paul,

it is partly a problem with your blog, that information is not to find at a single spot - and I must say, I am not soo interested in the case, to begin to research every spot, where additional informations to the case might be hidden. I have puzzled together a couple of posts, but maybe not all.

Besides: I am no lawyer... I got simply curious concerning your blog after reading several diatribes against it elsewhere. I am trying to understand, what is going on.

Paul Barford said...

Well "M.", your "profile" is not at all helpful in working out who you are and what you therefore might be bringing to the discussion.

Well, I am glad you tried to taste the blog rather than just go on what others say.

But yes, the blog covers a variety of topics at different times. But there is a neat search box at the top which is invaluable for finding all the past posts on a topic. SLAM/ St Louis or Ka Nefer Nefer will get you to most of the ones on this topic. Or there are the labels at the bottom (though I do not always remember to use them).

M. Banyai said...

Thanks, not that I am so interested in the excessive protection of archaeological items advocacy. I come from approximately the same corner as you - I have published a couple of papers, I deem to be important, in Anatolica.
Concerning the subject of the protection of archaeological finds, I bring to your attention, that excesses in the conservation of archaeological artifacts may well directly provoke the death of archaeology itself.

My view is, I think so, quite pragmatic. Not even the richest nations will ever increase the national budget for archaeological artefacts in an unlimited fashion because they simply can not afford it! Since however the preservation of finds will be an ever increasing costs factor, this will lead to the ever smaller funding for living archaeological work. Or to the deterioration of the existing deposited finds.

Both, I mean conservation of artefacts and active archaeology, will allways be ran under the same budget, you can not hope that active archaeology will ever be financed on separate means.

This will lead sooner or later even the bleeding hearts to the conclusion, that a selection between cultural goods of national importance, those of scientific importance and lesser ones is necessary.

Multiplicating the number of the museums is also no solution, because the least museums are financially self-sustaining.

These are just some considerations of general nature.

Best regards,
Michael

M. Banyai said...

Thanks, not that I am so interested in the excessive protection of archaeological items advocacy. I come from approximately the same corner as you - I have published a couple of papers, I deem to be important, in Anatolica.
Concerning the subject of the protection of archaeological finds, I bring to your attention, that excesses in the conservation of archaeological artifacts may well directly provoke the death of archaeology itself.

My view is, I think so, quite pragmatic. Not even the richest nations will ever increase the national budget for archaeological artefacts in an unlimited fashion because they simply can not afford it! Since however the preservation of finds will be an ever increasing costs factor, this will lead to the ever smaller funding for living archaeological work. Or to the deterioration of the existing deposited finds.

Both, I mean conservation of artefacts and active archaeology, will allways be ran under the same budget, you can not hope that active archaeology will ever be financed on separate means.

This will lead sooner or later even the bleeding hearts to the conclusion, that a selection between cultural goods of national importance, those of scientific importance and lesser ones is necessary.

Multiplicating the number of the museums is also no solution, because the least museums are financially self-sustaining.

These are just some considerations of general nature.

Best regards,
Michael

Paul Barford said...

"I bring to your attention, that excesses in the conservation of archaeological artifacts may well directly provoke the death of archaeology itself.

Well, first of all, my concern is not with "artefacts". Secondly I am of the opposite opinion, doing bugger all about the commercial mining of archaeological sites for collectables and stifling public debate on it will, I am sure "directly provoke the death of archaeology itself".

M. Banyai said...

I might suggest that both would directly lead to the death of archaeology. Indirectly however, the lack of funds for archaeological diggings will always give a major head start to the robbers. Most of the robbers earn so little directly from their destructive activity that they could eventually have more from being employed in a correct archaeological dig.
It was calculated that for example for the excavation of Tell Hazor, a major Tell in Israel, it would require 200 years or more to explore the whole surface of the Tell at the current pace of exploration. Sell the extra shards and finance with this the next years´ expedition!

Paul Barford said...

Well, we are getting quite a long way from the topic of this post, so I think we'll end this here.

Actually the idea of stopping commercial looting is not so the archaeologists can get there to dig everything up first, it is not an artefact-grabbing "race" or competition. We need the sites to be preserved, so I do not really think we want Tell Hazor (or anywhere else) to be dug over totally in the next 200 years. What about publishing what has been done 1990-2011 and then having a generation to think about the next batch of research questions and how sustainably to get answers?

Dorothy King said...

@ PaulBarford - you're right, although I am unclear when partage ended in Egypt ... In Greece it went on "officially" for longer than it was Officially ended

 
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