Monday, 4 January 2010

One for the Antiquities Dealers' Lobbyists ...

Today I have been accumulating lots of photos of archaeological (I use the term loosely as we shall see) holes in the ground. In the morning, taking more photos of the excavations in Hatshepsut's Temple. Then at lunch break the work done by the Antiquities Service in some service trenches along the front of the Temple of Ramsess III at Medinet Habu. I'll not be publishing those here though.

In the afternoon a delegate from an international conference on mortuary temples being held in Luxor across the river showed me some 200 disturbing pictures of what she'd seen in the conference lunchbreak. There are two major temples over there. In the south Luxor, and in the north the huge Karnak complex. In antiquity they were linked with an avenue of sphinxes. Some bright spark in the town council decided it would be a jolly good idea to knock down all the old buildings on the route of the avenue, and dig out the avenue so tourists can walk along it. Now this is a fantastic idea. Luxor is largely a sprawling nineteenth century development, which means that there have been very few opportunities for excavation of the town (arguably one of ancient Egypt's most important centres) around the sacral space. There must be at least one royal palace in the area immediately adjacent to the temples, there will be evidence of trade and administrative functions, private houses of citizens of all ranks from the elite to the humble artisans. This not only goes for dynastic times, but Luxor retaiuned its importance into the Late Roman period at least and was still occupied in early Islamic times. In other words, large scale excavation here, of all places, would have a vast contribution to add to our knowledge of Egypt's past, and precisely in areas where the biases of the research questions addressed by most former investigations had left huge gaps. Not only that, the accociated layers of well-dated alluvium of the Nile flood would have its own story to tell about changes in this part of the Nile valley due to environmental factors. In other words, the avenue excavations are a dream site.

The 200 photos I saw today (taken from the street, so no secret) show an archaeological nightmare.

1) Bulldozed houses, note the bases of the sphinxes and how carefully controlled methodological excavation of the surrounding stratigraphy done to standards appropriate for the well developed discipline of a modern nation in the second decade of the twenty first century...

2) Here is a close up of the trowelled surface. Note the finesse with which the various layers have been defined.... When it is done properly, you can read them like a book, every detail of the unwritten history is revealed .... Note that skillful tool use has avoided leaving even the slightest scratch on the delicate surfaces of these three thousand year old worked stones...

3) Here we see the well-trained archaeological team hard at work carefully dissecting the micro-stratigraphy of this complex site with hand tools. Note how each worker has a labelled finds tray for the many artefacts recovered from each stratigraphical unit identified. These will them be taken to the finds hut to be washed, sorted and inventoried according to context. (I was actually walking down that street in the background last night after dark - it is right in the town centre).

4) To the uninitiated, this may look like a mechanical excavator being driven over the archaeology and being used to rapidly gouge out anything that is not a sphinx base. That probably is not the case though, since this is an archaeologically sensitive site in the middle of an area where very little can be predicted about the surviving archaeological remains. It is inconceivable that anyone would do such a thing, so despite appearances this must be a mirage, an artefact presumably of poor camera work. And the deep gouges on the stones, and the detached heads of most of the sphinxes found, though they look fresh must in fact be ancient damage done by members of the ancient equivalent of the US State Department in collusion with terrorists from Nubia. Or something like that...

The observant reader may observe some discrepancies between the descriptions above and the pictures. Just like there is a discrepancy between what is happening here and real archaeology. This might have been acceptable in Napoleon's day and maybe Mariette's, but it really is not acceptable to treat otherwise unthreatened stratified archaeological sites in this manner this day and age. Let us recall that the ONLY reason this is being done by the town council is to make another tourist attraction. What price "heritage"?

Let it be noted that just over the river in Medinet Habu, an Egyptian team did a perfectly adequate job of excavating a very similar sequence of deposits stratigraphically and methodically.

I am sure the pro-collectiung ranters will be hapopy to learn that in the "source countries" for the stuff they covet, not all archaeology is being treated in the right and proper fasdhion. But I'd like to ask them, does this really mean it is "OK" to buy unprovenanced and potentially recently illegally exported ancient Egyptian antiquities? Do two wrongs make a right? Does buying such stuff "serve the Egyptians right" that the present Governor of Luxor (whose project this is) does not give two hoots for what the archaeologists think? (both national and international - for he received a strongly worded letter from the international egyptological community two years ago when he announced these plans).

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

British archaeologist Chris Cumberpatch apparently is not a fan of this blog. On an archaeology discussion forum he wrote a few days ago that my colleague's: "observations aren't all that original in this regard (although it is useful to have the case documented) - we all have horror stories from our time working abroad - some of us aren't content with posting them on self-regarding and moderated 'weblogs' but bring the issues to conferences and publications - examples of my minor own contributions in this regard (one of them co-authored with my colleague Reuben Thorpe) can be found on my page on - specifically 'Encountering the ancestors' and 'Approaches to the archaeology of Beirut':"

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