Friday 25 February 2011

What I Deduce from What I Saw in Cairo Museum


As a result of two days (almost solid) spent mooching around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo comparing the images of the vandalism and looting that appeared in the press with the actual traces in the places where they happened, I came to a number of conclusions and formulated a number of questions. I have actually been promised a meeting with “somebody who can answer your questions” by a member of the Museum’s directorate when I go back to Cairo. Until then I have written down what I currently think and the draft is twelve pages without the insertion of any of the Al Jazeera and other generally available images to which it refers. Since I am currently promised some more information where it is currently lacking, I will not release that text at this stage. I would like however to state some of the conclusions I have drawn on the basis of what have learnt to date:

1) I think the situation is more complex than has been assumed. I think that on that night four (or five) different processes were played out in and around the Museum which produce the reported effects.

2) Obviously, the first was a looting of the Museum shop, in the courtyard outside the main building. Items were stolen. It is not clear whether this looting was spontaneous or incited by government agencies to compromise the protests. The looters had probably largely dispersed when the army arrived outside the museum gates. Nevertheless, nine of the individuals involved appear to have been caught.

3) At the same time (when the museum security staff were presumably involved dealing as best they could with the crowd in the shop) a small group of men clearly went on a rampage through the Museum, smashing cases and scattering artifacts. Some “seventy” artifacts were displaced in a chaotic fashion. I believe the evidence in the museum shows:
a) these men did not enter through the skylight in room 37 by abseiling down makeshift ropes as officially claimed,
b) The pattern of scattering of objects shows clearly that instead of beginning here and working east, they in fact started their activities with a specific case in the Tutankhamun galleries and moved westwards through the museum.
It is unclear how they entered the museum, at this stage it cannot be excluded that they had keys (allowing them to exit, which they could not have done if they abseiled in through the roof).
I am sure from looking at the damage done and the pattern in which it was apparently carried out, and the relatively small number of objects currently reported as missing, the aim of this original operation was not a search for “gold” or “red mercury” or even antiquities, but it is apparent it was to create the impression of chaotic and catastrophic looting or vandalism. On the other hand, one gets the impression that the intention was to keep the actual damage to a minimum, and the majority of the cases were smashed without the actual intent of taking anything. The operation had probably been planned several hours (at least) in advance and many factors suggest it was government-inspired, and had as its aim compromising the anti-government protestors outside the museum.

If so, we must consider the possibility that the next day, the Museum staff could have been assured at a high level (ie from the people that had ordered it) that the damage was worse than it looked, which was the origin of the early statements that nothing was missing.

I would like to stress that there is no reason to suspect that the Museum’s curatorial staff and SCA/Ministry were forewarned of this or in any way involved.

4) Despite the apparent intent of this activity, it seems that among the intruders that night however was an individual or individuals who used the rampage as an opportunity to steal certain items with substantial resale value. Since the missing items which we have been informed about were related to one family and period, it cannot be excluded that they had a ‘shopping list’ and were stealing to order.

From the area where the damage was going on, someone took ten shabtis of Yuya, the heart scarab (four are now in the case). From a totally different part of the museum from the area damaged (downstairs at the other end of the museum) four figures from the Amarnan case.

5) I suspect it may possibly have been another person who (independently of the other thief) garnered two fragments of the smashed gilded wood statuary of Tutankhamun from the floor, possibly with an eye to resale. I have not heard any news of the items from the fan case in the Tutankhamun gallery, what happened to the bit broken off? the case is empty, where is the famous trumpet?

6) There are some aspects of the story that do not tie up. It is possible that faced with such a security crisis, the Museum’s staff probably hoped an international outcry would ensure the continuation of longterm military security measures while the situation is unstable. One of the things I am seeking refutation of is a suspicion that towards this aim certain items may have been moved before the Al Jazeera journalists were allowed in on 29th Jan and (maybe) something altered between the Al Jazeera filming and the CNN visit two days later (watch this space).

7) Consideration of the way this unfolded and the above reconstruction suggests that Zahi Hawass who stepped in as spokesman for the Museum has been unlucky in his informants and some of the statements which have led to him being accused rather roughly by the international community were in fact based on information he had been ‘fed’ by others with various motives.

8) The several completely variant stories about the discovery of the Akhenaton statue need verification and may hold the key to understanding the background to the first set of thefts.

9) The Museum holds material which is not just Egyptian patrimony, but world cultural heritage (which is why we go to see it and pay 60 Egyptian pounds a head to do so). As such the Egyptian Museum owes the world a full and detailed report about the course of events on the night of the 28th January 2011 and all that was done previously and subsequently to ensure the safety and well-being of the collection. This includes full details of the actual damage done and full details of the objects currently thought to be missing.


Larry Rothfield said...

Great amateur sleuthing, Paul! Do you have any information on what security arrangements were in place at the museum on the night of the looting: how many people were in the museum, how many were armed police, how many were unarmed guards, how many were curatorial or other staff? Did the security cameras include recording devices?

On what basis do you claim that the operation was probably planned several hours in advance and that entry was not through the skylight? If not through the skylight, how did that story come to be presented?

If you suspect that certain items might have been moved between 29th January and two days later, could that have happened without Hawass knowing about it? Didn't he show up at the museum on the morning of the 30th?

Paul Barford said...

Larry, can I answer all those questions in two weeks' time when I may have had a chance to talk to people at the museum about the things that still do not tie up? Also we will apparently see the final version of what was stolen tomorrow, if it looks like the version that has been prematurely leaked, I may have to modify some of my earlier conclusions...

I think Hawass may be as much as a victim as the rest of us trying to find out what really (might have) happened.

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