November 2, 2011

Trade in Treasures

Some countries want artifacts discovered on their land returned from museums around the world.

Justin: From the great pyramids in the north — we are making our way right now to a view you might recognize; it is a panoramic view of the plateau — to the Karnak temples in the south, where kings and queens were worshipped as gods, to high above it all at the Valley of the Kings, a final resting place for royals only. We are about to make our way deep down into the tomb in here.

Wherever we traveled in Egypt, we saw an ancient past still very much alive. Much of what we know about ancient Egypt comes from archaeology, or the study of civilizations through the items they used.

Alright, guys. So, right here, they are digging out a site, looking for fragments of bones, pottery, anything to link it back to thousands of years ago. What they find could make its way to a museum near you, but only if Egypt says it is okay. It is one way the country is preserving its past, and part of a bigger plan to reclaim historic items it believes were stolen.

Any idea of how many relics you have saved over the years?

“What I brought back? More than 5,000 objects. Five thousand objects came back from the last eight years, and this is the time that I was the head of antiquities since 2002.”

Justin: At the feet of the Great Sphinx, we met up with Dr. Zahi Hawass, the man who first led the charge to return stolen Egyptian artifacts to Egypt. And he knows just what he wants.

Dr. Zahi Hawass: I’m only saying there are six artifacts that are unique, that are important. Their home should not be Germany, or France, or Italy, or Africa; it should be in Egypt.

Justin: So, what are those artifacts? The Rosetta Stone, on display at the British Museum; the Zodiac of Dendera, housed at The Louvre museum in Paris; the bust of Prince Ankhhaf at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the statue of Pharaoh Ramses II, exhibited at the Egyptian Museum of Turin in Italy; the statue of Prince Hemiunu at the Pelizaeus Museum in Germany; and the bust of Queen Nerfertiti, held at the Neues Museum in Germany.

All items, Hawass argues, were looted — or taken illegally — from ancient sites. He says that happened years ago to this sculpture of Queen Nefertiti, which was discovered by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912.

When you see that bust in Germany, how does that make you feel?

Dr. Hawass: I told you, this is something unique; this is something beautiful, and it left Egypt illegally. The archaeologist Borchardt who discovered that in 1912, he cheated in taking it out of Egypt illegally. He recorded the bust as a princess made of gypsum and it was not. It was for a queen and made of limestone. Based on the law of that time, statues of kings and queens cannot leave Egypt.

Justin: Germany’s Neues Museum, which has held the bust for decades, tells a different story; that Borchardt and Egypt agreed the archeologist could bring the bust to Germany legally.

To get that bust and other antiquities back, Egypt has turned to an international law from UNESCO, short for the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO is like a worldwide watchdog on issues about culture and heritage. Simply put, UNESCO says artifacts must be returned to their countries of origin if there is proof they were stolen.

Dr. Hawass told me that law helped work out a deal with The Louvre museum in paris in 2009 to return five Egyptian paintings he believes were illegally taken from an ancient tomb. Hawass admits he pressured The Louvre into giving in.

Dr. Hawass: Anyone who does not cooperate with us, anyone who buys stolen artifacts, we do not make any scientific relation with this museum, or this university, or any scholar who will be able to identify objects for antiquity stealers. We stop them working in Egypt.

Justin: In other words, any person or organization found to support artifact theft, or house items believed to have been stolen are not allowed to search for artifacts in Egypt; a hard line that seems to be working.

You have also got artifacts returned from the Tut exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Dr. Hawass: That was really important because when the tomb of King Tut was found by Howard Carter in November 4, 1922, I found 5,398 artifacts. We do have evidence that looters entered the tomb and they took things illegally. And these nineteen objects were taken by Carter and, actually, when he died in 1914, his niece took it and gave it as a gift to the Met.

Justin: Over the summer, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced all nineteen objects are going back to Egypt.

We are going deeper and deeper — whoa! see there? — into the tomb here. It smells kind of damp and dank down here. It is getting darker. I am going to cheat and tell you that around the corner here, I see what looks to be a mummy.

With special permission, we got to see where those treasures were first uncovered inside Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb almost a century ago.

Guys, meet King Tut, 19-years-old. And he used to rule over all of Egypt.

And it is incredible to be this close to him, even if it is through glass. Its just, to be this close, I can’t even believe it. I can’t believe it.

The return of King Tut’s treasures is a huge success for Egypt, and an inspiration to countries around the world that have fought to have artifacts they believe were stolen returned home.

Last March, the U.S. returned ancient Chinese pottery to China. Yale University announced it will send more than 45,000 artifacts from the ancient city of Machu Picchu back to Peru by year’s end. And several thousands items have been returned to Iraq’s National Museum. They are from among some 15,000 that were looted during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But as these countries declare victory, some members of the museum community are crying foul, setting the stage for the tug of war over just who really owns these pieces of history.


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