Friday 4 February 2011

Headless Mummies Mystery

A week on from the first shocking reports, we are really no nearer to understanding what happened in Cairo's Egyptian Museum on Friday night. Not even when it comes to the most iconic piece of damage:
Vandalized a week ago at Cairo's Egyptian Museum, where thieves looking for antiquities broke 70 objects, the mummies have become the symbol of the world's concern for ancient Egyptian cultural heritage. The shocking image of their heads lying on the floor of the Egyptian Museum with broken bones scattered all around have been haunting Egyptologists and mummy experts for a week. Despite close examinations of the released pictures, extensive archival research and opinion exchange on social networks, no expert has been able to identify them.
See: Rossella Lorenzi, 'Headless Egyptian Mummy Mystery Thickens', Discovery News Fri Feb 4, 2011.

Photo: two mummy heads and human bones lying on the floor in a gallery (where? Why are there scaffold poles in the shot?)

UPDATE 6/2/1:
Information is now emerging which contradicts all the earlier accounts of how these mummies got damaged. The most 'definitive' version is that in the extraordinary text "The Sphinx is Sad" of Zahi Hawass.
The two mummies that were reported as damaged at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo were in fact unidentified skulls dating to the Late Period; these two skulls are NOT royal mummies. These skulls were being temporarily housed in the storage room next to the CT scanner lab, which is in the grounds of the museum. The skulls were there to be used to test the CT scanner, and when they were retrieved from the looters, they were in the same condition that they had been in when they were originally placed in the storage room.
(Do hospitals have an odd dismembered cadaver or two lying around on which to test their equipment - what kind of "tests" was this used for in?.) Hawass reproduces on his blog a photo that has been circulating of this head. Despite the superficial similarities and the manner in which it has been placed for the photo, it is clear is that this is a different head from the one shown on the floor in the earlier shots. This must be the second head that the reports were referring to.

Well, this is odd isn't it? They were "retrieved from the looters". Which looters? The gift-shop looters, the second-floor case-smashing looters, or another previously unknown group? Another text of Hawass (undated, but apparently 5th Feb) tells us that they were not exactly "retrieved from looters" as much as left on the floor:
I would also like to clarify the situation as to the state of the royal mummies in the museum. When the crisis erupted, I took a very quick walk through the museum and thought that the two skulls thrown on the floor of one of the side rooms might belong to some of the royal mummies [...] I examined all of the royal mummies last week [...] I am happy to report that they all are safe and untouched,[...]. As for these two skulls, they were kept in a storeroom next to the CT scanner lab, and were used for testing the machine.
Here though a rather puzzling question emerges. If somebody had taken them from a CT scanner lab in the grounds of the museum, why do the reports so far suggest that they were part of the loot being carried off by the group of looters that also took "two statues" (ie we have all assumed up to now the second floor skylight looters)? Why would they take two heads out of the lab before setting off on their climb onto the roof and lowering themselves down four metres into a gallery where they expected to find gold, lots of gold? Then they were both dropped in the same place? This just does not make sense. Just where was the photo of the mummy head and bones taken? There seems to be the base of a showcase, not a laboratory cupboard visible in the shot the media are using.

Also, on the internet we have seen many times seen photos of a complete mummy with what purports to be the same head as the one lying on the floor. The question is why this has been accepted so long as the same mummy - the nose is completely different.

There has been a whole series of myths and speculations around these mummies and the looting as a whole. The evidence is such that if the Egyptian Museum service is to have any credibility, it demands that when the situation is more stable, a full report should be prepared on the basis of the interrogation of the people arrested, the questioning of eyewitnesses and the material traces in the museum, and presented to international public opinion. What really happened in this internationally important museum that night?

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