Get back to where you once belonged

Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Council of Antiquities is stirring it up again. This time, he has compiled a list of the great treasures of Egypt currently held by other museums, that he would like returned to Egypt. On his list: the sculptures of the builders of some of the pyramids, the Rosetta Stone, and the bust of Nefertiti. While I do think that the first two items on the list would ;egitimately make for a more cohesive narrative of Ancient Egyptian history, as I assume he wishes to do with the new museum set to open in Cairo in 2013, I call shenanigans on the bust.

First of all, Nefertiti was not an important Egyptian figure; she became so, because her bust was so compellingly modern looking, when it was discovered in the early 20th century, and she is now as iconic a symbol of Ancient Egypt as the Mona Lisa is for the Italian Renaissance. Except, while we at least know that La Gioconda is actually by Leonardo Da Vinci, we aren't sure if Nefertiti is even real. That particular bust, the famous one-eyed polychrome plaster-covered head in Berlin, is likely to be a fake. It bears little resemblance to other representations of the ancient Queen, and its sudden appearance in Europe, without a trace of it in the excavation records in Egypt, is suspicious. (It may have been smuggled out as a "worthless piece of plaster," but that's dubious. There was a booming trade in fake antiquities since the eighteenth century, and possibly earlier. Plus, late-Victorian/Edwardian archeologists often made stuff up to boost their own reputations, like in the case of Heinrich Schliemann and Troy.) So unless Hawass is planning a sophisticated exhibit of ideas which seeks to reveal, confront, and debunk accepted myths about Ancient Egypt (which is almost impossible, given his consistent public exclamations in the vein of the heroic culture of the Pharaohs, and his use therof for publicity purposes on the Discovery Channel, National Georgraphic, etc. to boost his own cult of personality), the bust should stay where it is.

The issue is clearly a political one, with Egypt seeking to use its cultural heritage to build up its national identity, just as Greece wishes to with the Elgin Marbles, etc. It's about proving one's intellectual and moral superiority over the Colonial Western Other. Except that, unfortunately for Zahi Hawass, his personality is so grating, and his pronouncements so outrageous, that no one feels subsumed by White Post-Colonial Politically Correct guilt, and not only do they not wish to send the tainted objects back, they want to hold onto them even more!

Having said all that, it's fascinating to reflect on how these antiquities got to where they are. How did the Rosetta Stone, which was discovered by the French, get to London? Why does Boston have so many granite statues? What are the identitites of the hundreds of mummies locked away in pretty much every museum in the UK? And, if the provenance is there - should they be returned to create a single museum with a single narrative in the country of their origin?


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