On our 100th episode (never get tired of saying that) we discussed the situation regarding a bust of Queen Nefertiti.
The first salvo was when Dr. Zahi Hawass started a campaign to have ancient Egyptian artifacts returned to Egypt, including the the Rosetta Stone, the bust of Nefertiti, the Dendera zodiac ceiling painting from the Dendera Temple, the bust of Ankhhaf, the faces of Amenhotep III‘s tomb at the Louvre Museum, the Luxor Temple’s obelisk at the Place de la Concorde and many others. Now its quite clear that Egypt has other things to worry about at the moment but prior to the uprising, this story caught my attention.
It was reported in late January that Egypt was requesting the return of the famous bust of Nefertiti.
The bust in question is a 3,400-year-old likeness of Queen Nefertiti, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) sent the request to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Neues Museum in the German capital where the bust is kept. Antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, appealed to the foundation seeking the return of the bust. However, the foundation said it did not consider the letter an official state request as it had not been signed by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.
Perhaps the second salvo, Germany refused to return the bust (as they have every time a request was sent) Considering what’s happened in Egypt in the last few days, some people are wondering if Germany’s refusal was actually a prudent move. Alex Joffe said in a Wall Street Journal article that “these events make Mr. Hawass’s quest to return all Egyptian objects to Egypt misguided or at least poorly timed.” Not only have the recent political upheaval been dominating the news, but it appears that the tense climate led to some tragic vandalism of ancient Egyptian artifacts. The last thing that should happen is the museum literally become a battleground.
The Nefertiti bust was found on the 6th December, 1912 at Amarna by the German Oriental Company led by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. It was found in what had been the sculptor Thutmose’s workshop, along with other unfinished busts of Nefertiti.
What makes this request somewhat unique is that Egypt (or rather Dr. Hawass) is making the claim that Germany removed the artifact illegally. The story goes that Ludwig Borchardt discovered the artifact and wanted to take it back to Germany. However, this had to be cleared with Egyptian authorities. So he wrapped it in paper and told them it wasn’t anything special.
A 1924 document found in the archives of the German Oriental Company recalls the 20 January 1913 meeting between Ludwig Borchardt and a senior Egyptian official to discuss the division of the archaeological finds of 1912 between Germany and Egypt. According to the secretary of the German Oriental Company (who was the author of the document and who was present at the meeting), Borchardt “wanted to save the bust for us”
If this is true, then Egypt probably does have a legitimate complaint. The item was removed from their borders under false pretenses. Of course, the Prussian Cultural Heritage denies this. (As did Borchardt)
Despite that, the artifact is still considered “stolen” by Egypt and even Time magazine lists it among the “Top 10 Plundered Artifacts“
Dr. Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, believes that Nefertiti belongs to Egypt and that the bust was taken out of Egypt illegally and should therefore be returned. Dr. Hawass has maintained the stance that Egyptian authorities were misled over the acquisition of Nefertiti in 1913. He has demanded that Germany prove that it was exported legally.
There’s an interesting parallel between ownership of artifacts and ownership of land, of which we discussed back in episode 93.
Many of the same questions come up – ownership based on culture (how do you define culture) ownership based on ancestry (how do you define ancestry) – After all, modern Egypt is hardly the same as Egypt in the time of Nefertiti.
Of course Egypt doesn’t seem to be relying on claims of culture at all. The crux of their case appears to be the artifact was uncovered within their sovereign borders and was removed illegally.
I find myself with generally mixed feelings about repatriation of historic items. On the one hand, many great and beautiful examples of culture were stolen or removed at the point of a gun during an age of imperialism. Yet in many cases the items in question were preserved and protected (and remain today) because they were taken to secure locations. Of course you can’t justify taking something from someone by saying you’ll treasure it more. That’s just silly.
On the other hand, I’m reluctant to cede ownership of historical artifacts to people just because they happened to be born in the geographic area where that artifact was created centuries or even thousands of years earlier. I’m also not comfortable with groups or cultures claiming ownership of items that represent great works of art that are significant to not just them, but the world.
I was particularly distressed to learn that during the Egyptian uprising a number of priceless artifacts were destroyed or damaged. Apparently looters or vandels broke into the Egyptian Museum and beheaded two mummies—possibly Tutankhamun’s grandparents—and looted the ticket booth. They also stole jewelry and broke some of the antiques.
Dr. Zahi Hawass discussed some of the damage in his blog and read about it more in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the museum is safe for the moment. During the break-in museum security and regular Egyptians helped protect the treasures before the army showed up to restore order. A number of people mentioned to me how this was some attempt by the government to sew discontent by having hooligans or secret agents disguised as rioters. Frankly I don’t care. It doesn’t matter who was trying to damage these artifacts. These are one of a kind and if they’re destroyed, they’re gone.
There is certainly more to be said on the subject of repatriation of these historic artifacts. Perhaps that’s something we’ll dive into on a future episode of the show. In the meantime I shall hope that Egypt quickly resolves its problems and go on protecting and showcasing its wonders to the world.