Jan. 28, 2011 at 7:20 PM ET
Update for 4:30 p.m. ET Jan. 31: Despite the best efforts of the Egyptian army and a human shield, some of the ancient treasures inside the century-old Egyptian Museum were damaged during a brief wave of looting, authorities in Cairo say. Among the damaged artifacts are two pharaonic mummies and a priceless statuette from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The country's top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, described the damage in a series of statements, including an update that was posted to his blog on Sunday. He said looters ransacked the museum's gift shop and went on to vandalize authentic treasures as well. More than a dozen display cases were broken into, including one that contained the Tut statuette. "The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor," Hawass wrote. "I am very thankful that all of the antiquities that were damaged in the museum can be restored, and the tourist police caught all of the criminals that broke into it."
The looters scattered pieces of the mummies across the museum floor — and judging by the photographs that were released Monday (graphic content below), restoring those relics will be challenging to say the least.
Based on video footage that was shot inside the museum, some observers suggest that other treasures from Tut's tomb may have been damaged as well. Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist at Oxford University in England, suggested that at least one other gilded statuettes of the boy-king pictures may have been broken off its pedestal.
This one shows Tut standing on a boat with a harpoon at the ready:
Maitland also pointed to another video showing a wooden block with the broken-off feet still attached. At first, she assumed that this suggested yet another statuette of a standing Tut was snapped off, but later analysis made it seem more likely that these were the broken-off feet from the "Tut on a panther" statuette. Check out Maitland's blog posting at the Eloquent Peasant for those comparisons.
Hawass said two mummies in the museum were destroyed, with their heads ripped off. In one of the most upsetting pictures from the museum, shown below, the mummies' heads and bones can be seen spread across the floor.
Over the weekend, experts wondered whether two mummies may have been the mortal remains of Tut's great-grandparents, Yuya and Tuya. That surmise was based on a comparison of a gilded mummy case seen in the video with photographs of the case that was laid over Tuya's mummy. Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi focused on that angle.
On Monday, however, Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist from the University of Bristol, reported that the mummies were unlikely to be those of Yuya and Tuya. As explained in an update from Maitland, the mummy case had been separated from Tuya's mummy and was being exhibited in the museum by itself.
Maitland noted that two more ruined displays matched up with well-known items from Egypt's antiquity: an array of soldier figurines and a wooden model boat from the tomb of Mesehti, a provincial governor during the 11th or 12th Dynasty (roughly 2025 to 1700 B.C.). Here are pictures showing those damaged artifacts:
In his blog posting, Hawass provided specific information about the Tut-on-a-panther statuette (which is actually one of two similar statuettes from the tomb), but not about the other items that appear to be damaged in the video. Why not? It could be because Hawass is still trying to get all the facts of the story straight, or because he's reluctant to publicize the full extent of the damage at this time. It's also possible that some of the items shown in the video are display-case replicas or gift-shop knock-offs rather than the real things.
In any case, Hawass sees the damage and looting as a national tragedy.
"My heart is broken and my blood is boiling," he wrote. "I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day, but all the inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators, are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities."
The good news
That's the good news about the saga of Egypt's endangered heritage. The current chaos in Cairo easily could have left all the priceless artifacts at the Egyptian Museum, including Tutankhamun's 3,300-year-old golden death mask, vulnerable to widespread looting. After all, that's how the situation played out for Baghdad's national museum in 2003 after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
It didn't happen that way in Cairo because of the high-mindedness of the government as well as its critics.
When fire broke out on Friday night at the ruling party's headquarters, Khaled Youssef, an Egyptian film director who has made movies critical of government policies, issued an urgent call on the Al Arabiya television channel: "I am calling on the Egyptian army to head instantly to the Egyptian Museum. There is a fire right next to it in the party headquarters," he said in a report relayed by Reuters.
As the fire raged, would-be thieves started entering the grounds surrounding the museum, The Associated Press reported. But other young men, some armed with truncheons taken from the police, formed a protective human chain outside the museum's main gates. "I'm standing here to defend and to protect our national treasure," one of the men, a 40-year-old engineer named Farid Saad, told AP.
AP quoted 26-year-old Ahmed Ibrahim as saying that it was important to guard the museum because it has "5,000 years of our history. If they steal it, we'll never find it again."
Another defender at the gates pleaded with the crowd not to let the looters in, shouting, "We are not like Baghdad!"
Finally, four of the army's armored vehicles took up posts outside the museum. Soldiers surrounded the building and moved inside.
AP said the soldiers rounded up would-be looters who made it onto the museum grounds and lined them up in a row. As the soldiers corralled one man toward the line, crowds outside the fence shouted, "Thief, thief!" A couple of the troops hit the man with the butts of their rifles and sat him down with others who were apparently caught inside the gates.
The army and the people are continuing to keep watch on the museum and its riches amid Egypt's crisis.
Tut's golden mask is arguably the most precious of the museum's treasures — so precious that authorities will no longer let it travel out of the country, even though many other artifacts from Tut's time are currently on the road. (I had the chance to see the mask in Seattle in 1978 during the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit.) The 109-year-old museum serves as the central repository for the riches from Tut's tomb, which was discovered by Egyptologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. But there's lots more to protect. The highlights range from monumental statues of Amenhotep III and his family to Roman-era gold treasures dug up from Egypt's Western Desert.
Elizabeth Bartman, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, told me she was heartened to hear that the Egyptian people were so keen to protect their cultural heritage.
"If the reports about the human cordon around the museum are true, that's a very moving thing for me," she told me. "They regard their archaeological finds as so precious that it's worth their lives to protect them."
University of Pennsylvania archaeologist C. Brian Rose, the institute's past president, wasn't surprised by the reports.
"It's not possible to plan for the future unless one understands the past, and I think this is something that all Egyptians understand very well," Rose told me. "There's a great respect for the cultural heritage of Egypt — shared, I think, by I would say nearly all Egyptians. I hope that respect will keep the archaeological sites and museums safe from any harm during this period of conflict."
Even if the protesters and government forces share that respect for the museum's antiquities, the situation could still lead to unintended and unwelcome consequences.
"Especially with Egypt being such a dry place — they have all these organic materials, they have textiles, they have ancient food, they have lots of wooden items — fire is a very scary proposition," Bartman said. "Let's just keep our fingers crossed that the museums are not going to be caught in the crossfire."
More tales from the museums:
And other sagas of endangered antiquities:
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