The tragic looting of archaeological sites throughout Egypt – from El Hibeh to Antinopolis, from Dashur to Abu Sir, to the very halls of the Egyptian Museum – is leaving the land covered by the scattered bones and tattered remains of ancient Egyptians, discarded by the criminal gangs and freelance crooks who are destroying as much of humanity’s irreplacable heritage as they can get their despicable hands on. As Egypt flounders in escalating political and economic chaos today, what we are seeing appears to be the end of a second Golden Age of Egyptian archaeology.
Theodore Davis, who discovered eighteen tombs in the Valley of the Kings between 1902 and 1914, was just one of the key figures in what has been called the “Golden Age” of Egyptian archaeology. Beginning with Flinders Petrie’s study of the Great Pyramid in 1880, the Golden Age saw its climax with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. The early 20th century, beyond the Valley of the Kings, saw George Reisner’s dozens of discoveries at the Giza Plateau, the opening of the tomb of Nefertari, the publication of J.H. Breasted’s “Ancient Records of Egypt”, the clearing of Karnak and Luxor temples and the construciton of the Egyptian Museum itself, as well as scores of other crucial developments. At the height of the Golden Age a 1906 article about a Davis discovery in London’s “Pall Mall Gazette” stated “one really commences to wonder whether these discoveries will ever cease.”
They did cease, of course. Clearing Tut’s tomb was completed in 1931; the worldwide Great Depression, and then World War II, served to stymie archaeology in Egypt for decades. The 1952 revolution (which saw the burning of the iconic Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo) and strongman Abdel Nasser’s embrace of the Soviet Union continued the decades long lull; the Russians did almost nothing for the country, archaeologically speaking. The fledgling American Research Center in Egypt was effectively expelled from the country for years.
For half a century now, however, we have been seeing what is – if not specifically recognized as such – the second Golden Age. The spectacular relocations of the temples at Aswan and Abu Simbel marked the beginning of this renaissance; the discovery of the “Valley of the Golden Mummies” at Bahariya Oasis revealed an entirely unknown archaeological treasure trove. In the Valley of the Kings, Kent Weeks discovered that KV 5 – which had been ignored by explorers including Davis and Howard Carter – was the most massive underground construction in all of Egypt, and Otto Schaden discovered the first new tomb there since 1922.
Hatshepsut’s Chapel Rouge was unearthed and reassembled at Karnak. Ingenious gizmos were created to explore the mysterious “air shafts” in the Giza pyramids. Scholarship saw the publication of the massive Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Wonderful new museums opened in Luxor, Aswan and throughout the country. CT scans and DNA tests led the flamboyant Zahi Hawass to proclaim the identification of the mummies of Akhenaten and Hatshepsut (although his conclusions went far beyond what the data supported). In one of the most encouraging developments, the world’s Egyptological community united to foster the development of a generation of native Egyptian archaeologists and scholars who would continue the work in their homeland.
The current descent into chaos began ominously, with the looting of the Egyptian Museum on January 28, 2011 (several objects discovered by Davis were among the stolen items). Simultaneously, the discovery of a new (although minor) tomb in the Valley of the Kings had to be concealed and kept secret for a year to protect it. In the past weeks the Museum has been closed by a strike, in the wake of a report that the collection is deteriorating at an alarming rate due to lack of attention. The looting of sites increases every day, and a scholar had his throat cut – for the sin of being an American – in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (fortunately, he survived).
Tourism has collapsed, with the hotels that are still open only 15% occupied. The U.S. State Department has warned travellers against visiting the Pyramids. The Antiquities Ministry appears to have collapsed into complete disarray, with a revolving door of administrators and disruptions by staff who are going unpaid. Egyptian and foreign staffers of non-governmental organizations have been sentenced to years in prison due to the xenophobic political climate. The second Golden Age appears to be over, and it is impossible at this point to be optimistic about the outcome of the Egyptian catastrophe.
Hope springs eternal, however. History indicates that storms are followed by calm, and Egyptophiles can only look forward to the resolution of their current troubles by the Egyptian people. When order has been restored there is much hope for a third Golden Age; the satellite imagery studies by Sarah Parcak appear to prove that what had long been suspected is true: 90% of Egypt’s past still lies hidden beneath the sands. Someday the political and social problems of Egypt will be resolved, and the study by scholars and the experiencing of this wonderful country by visitors will be resumed. Nothing lasts forever, after all – except, one hopes, the Pyramids.