Wednesday 27 April 2011

"The staff of the Egyptian Museum has seen very little support" (2)

I am called to the blackboard and accused by name of having a negative attitude towards the looting that happened in the Egyptian Museum on the night of 28th January. It is not quite as simple as Dr Yasmin El Shazly would like to make out. Perhaps it would help her understand what she clearly does not about what I have written if we look at the development of my blogging on the matter in the context of events.

Back in January the world was shocked to hear about the violence which had broken out on Cairo's streets as a wave of protests started to sweep the country. I was watching this pretty carefully as I was supposed to be going out there a few days later. Then came the equally dreadful news from the media on 28th Jan that the police had withdrawn from the streets and there were thugs, including 'escaped' prisoners and looters abroad. The internet and phone lines were down and there was no contact with our friends in Cairo, let alone friends and colleagues in Luxor. Then the world heard, at first very confused, accounts that the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had been looted. I remember feeling physically sick at the news and I am sure that I was not the only archaeologist who took that news very badly and - whether Yasmin El Shazly likes it or not - very personally. I started several posts here on that topic, and finished one that day; now actually in hindsight considering what we had to work with, that was not a bad account. I was one of several bloggers trying to make sense of the fragmentary information (see links to some of the others here). There are a series of posts on my blog for the next few days expressing deep concern about the fate of monuments and antiquities in the civil unrest that was developing. I posted a text on the 30th suggesting that it was likely that the looting of sites could follow and hoping that they were going to be better guarded. The next day it turned out those fears had already been fulfilled. The information emerging from the Egyptian Museum and the Ministry of Antiquities over the next days and weeks was wholly unclear and contradictory and there was much questioning and speculation about what was going on. It stands to reason that anyone who cares, whether they are Egyptian or not, is going to want to try and understand what was going on. Why does that disturb Yasmin?

Like many other people, I had difficulties following the various pieces of contradictory information that were coming out of the Ministry of Antiquities, and occasionally the Museum. I was however privileged that I had the opportunity almost as soon as the Museum re-opened to go there and see for myself, and within a few hours of getting off my plane I was in the museum doing just that. I suppose its a professional disease, trying to make sense of past events by their material traces, it does not matter if its the robbing of a tomb in the 20th dynasty or a museum in 2011, there are traces there and a story to try to unravel. I was the first foreign archaeologist to enter the Museum since it was closed in late January the lady at the door checking my papers said. Let it be on record that before I flew to Cairo, I wrote to Dr Yasmin El-Shazly through Facebook perfectly civilly asking if we could meet when I was in the Museum. I received no reply. I did, however, meet several very interesting people, including some journalists both international and Egyptian who were able to give me their take on what was happening, I met the wonderful Salima Ikram there by chance and we went round together for a while and I was privileged to be shown her favourite pieces (none of which were touched by the looters) and we talked about what had happened. I also bumped into Albert Ghaly of the Museum staff who first agreed to show me where the looters had been, but disappeared when I started, perfectly civilly and wholly innocently, asking certain questions - like how the mummy heads had got into the Museum where the journalists saw them on the 29th. I met him three times in the next few days and he gave extraordinarily conflicting stories about the mummy heads each time before darting away again on "urgent business". To be fair to him, he was (he says) abroad when this happened, but still clearly will have known more than he was apparently prepared to say.

Wandering around by myself, I found out where all the cases were that we'd glimpsed in the film reports of Al Jazeera and a few days later CNN, and found the places where the well-known publicity photos had been taken. I tried to trace a route (one guy) or routes (the nine-guy version) that led from one smashed case to the next and tried to imagine covering them in the dark by men knowing/suspecting there were somewhere in the building security guards who would be reacting to the sounds of the breaking glass. I reconstructed in my mind where the objects we had seen in the photos had been removed from cases and where they had ended up (we did not have all of this information, and still do not, of course) and where possible tried to surmise their route through the Museum. It then slowly started emerging that the stories we were being told simply did not make any sense when confronted with the evidence on the ground. Puzzled by this, I spent many hours re-examining and trying to make the stories fit. They did not. Which is what I wrote what I wrote. I even went back there again on my way out of Egypt because I wanted to make sure I'd not imagined it. So I do not make the statements about what I saw lightly.

Now apparently Dr Yasmin who so objects to me expressing an opinion based on what I read and saw has a different view, she's walked around those galleries more times than me. Since she objects so strongly to me offering a version opposed to it, it would seem she has no doubts in accepting the official story. It would be useful for historians of Egyptian archaeology and others (and settle this once and for all) if she would set down in writing what she thinks the traces left behind show. Where she says the looters were and what she thinks they were doing there. After all, she would have been one of the persons actively removing and - one hopes - fully documenting the traces of the events (the scattered objects and their fragments) which I was interested in examining. Perhaps I missed something that is in her documentation?

Yasmin El Shazly's critical text on Facebook was written on the 16th April 2011. Let's see what was happening about that time. On the 12th April I was absolutely overjoyed to learn that four more objects had been recovered. Literally because I was sure until then that the harpooning statue (which really is one of my personal favourites from Tutankhamun's tomb) was lost forever. That was fantastic (I even posted it on my facebook page saying so) - and I was quite happy that this meant that one of my earlier deductions about the theft had been disproven. I think that can be seen in the first part of my post about it. No "criticism" there. I was puzzled that nothing had been said about how they had been recovered. Odd, I thought.

That joy turned to disappointment and anger when we were told the first version about "how they had been recovered". Dr El Shazly's Museum Director appeared at a press conference (see the video in my blog post) announcing to all the world in an offhand manner that four objects had been found in an unattended bag just ever-so-coincidentally but also extremely conveniently on his way to work by Salah Abdel Salam, who just happens to work at the ministry. I do not think I am the only person in the world who feels insulted that we (and in that I am not excluding Egyptians) were expected to believe that. That is simply demeaning - not surprisingly the story later changed in its details.

I really cannot help it that I do actually have at home in my upstairs bookcase next to my desk a big red folder with a printout of the Egyptian Museum's missing objects list (because Yasmin, I do care about the missing objects - right?). When I was joyfully ticking off these four newly recovered items, I realised that the shabti which the Egyptian authorities said had returned was in a different state from the depiction in the picture in the list, and I posted about that, registering my concern (concern, Yasmin). It seemed from the photo which we were told was JE 68984 that the object was splitting because unstable (note the problem arose because I accepted what we'd been told). It turns out (after I went to bed) somebody over the other side of the world, equally concerned no doubt, found out that the people announcing the miraculous find of just four items had got it mixed up with another. Well, jeez Yasmin, what can one say - but "shambles"? [Your "Missing objects" lists still lack a title page, date of publication, page numbering and still contain a number of apparent errors and inconsistencies].

Then there was that needlessly stupid anti-Hawass bru-ha-ha about the Museum shop lease and a fashion collection. I posted on the one, not the other as I recall, pretty disgusted by people's reactions to both (I really see nothing to get worked up about with the clothes line and photography and I really liked the Museum's new gift shop - best thing in the Museum and they wanted to put the guy in jail for creating it).

Then on the 16th April, I posted a text on the changed story about "how the bag was found" and the mysterious offhand mention that somebody-or-other had already been sentenced for some theft-or-other in the museum, leaving it wholly unclear (to me at least) how that related to any of the other stories. This was the day Dr Yasmin El Shazly wrote about the "notorious" Paul Barford and his criticisms. Now I really do not see that any of my criticisms were unjustified. Maybe Yasmin would like to explain what a blogger should have praised?

Perhaps it is worth noting that between these posts on my blog there are a whole load of others about other portable antiquity issues. Including quite a lot expressing concern about what was happening in Egypt outside Cairo. This is not a blog about one museum and its problems, however interested I am in (and puzzled by) them. It is a blog about portable antiquities and issues, and the Cairo museum looting story involves a lot of rather knotty issues connected with portable antiquities.

As for being "clearly far less interested in the actual wellbeing of the Egyptian Museum" that is simply not true, Yasmin. Of course any archaeologist is extremely concerned about the wellbeing of the Museum. Anyone interested in ancient Egypt (and I am) is going to be particularly interested in the wellbeing of that particular Museum, aren't they? (I even bet some collectors and maybe even antiquity dealers are too, though you'd not see it in the blogs of the usual culprits.)

Yasmin also accuses the foreign devil Barford of "promoting himself" by writing about the Museum. Yasmin, a blog is a blog. A blog is what a bloke writes about what interests or concerns him. Some people write about what they had for breakfast, others about what Lady Gaga had for breakfast, some what they saw in a demonstration outside a courthouse. I write about "portable antiquities" because it is what I like writing about and feel very strongly about. Nobody makes Yasmin or anyone else read this. (Anyway, I would not bother too much, if you look over at the "popular posts" sidebar, I am currently mostly visited by UK metal detectorists who don't care about anything much and the global tarantula-breeding community.)

I don't know whether this is really "promoting" myself. It serves primarily to get me to set out my random ideas in a coherent form, and also get those ideas out where they might eventually be seen, thought about and - please note Yasmin - challenged. I rather think that as a means of "promotion", this blog does me no favours at all. It certainly makes me rather a lot of seriously vindictive enemies among collectors, dealers and antiquity smugglers, museum staff who've got dodgy objects in their collections, and archaeologists who don't like me criticising metal detectorists. Even the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme have threatened to have their lawyers on me. Twice, so I hear. So does that mean I should not speak out about what concerns me as an archaeologist (or as anyone else)? Somebody ought to. I think we have far too many jobsworth archaeologists who do not speak out about various things because they are afraid of the reaction. Is that not the case, Yasmin?

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