For A Century, Egyptology Was Dominated By Europeans And Americans. Can The $1 Billion Grand Egyptian Museum Change That For Good?

Researchers in Egypt say the opening of the museum needs to be accompanied by a plan to return artefacts to the nation, including archive materials. Although laws against the export of antiquities have existed in Egypt since at least 1835, many ancient Egyptian treasures have been shipped abroad, populating more than 350 institutions in 27 countries on 5 continents8.

“The real problem is that Howard Carter exported all his excavation notes to the Griffith Institute,” which is based at the University of Oxford, UK, says Hanna. “I think that the archive should come back from the Griffith Institute. This should also be part of the exhibition of the Tutankhamun objects,” she adds. “We cannot produce knowledge about the past without these archives, because then we’re just dealing with objects from the ground, not with something that has been thoroughly excavated and documented.”

The institute’s deputy director, Richard Parkinson, told Nature that the archive is in a fragile condition but that “requests for repatriation would always be welcome”. The archive has been digitized and is free to access, although images are of low resolution. The museum can provide high-resolution images at no cost to Egyptian researchers, he adds.

Hanna is also calling for systemic changes to Egyptology, beyond individual projects or institutions such as the Grand Egyptian Museum. “What would really help decolonize Egyptology is not necessarily a big museum, but putting in place policies that empower academics to actually excavate and produce knowledge about the past. That does not exist.”

“Unless we have financial independence to be able to carry out our excavations, conservation projects, site-management or public archaeology projects, we cannot really decolonize Egyptology,” says Hanna.

Ikram is hopeful. “What the museum offers with its state-of-the-art labs, and some really kick-ass scientists, is that people can collaborate, people can carry out work. But one should not just do bells-and-whistles science, one should have real research questions and be able to address them to move the discipline and our understanding of ancient Egypt forward,” she says.

But for others, including Ikram, efforts to reclaim a national narrative of Egyptology should not come at the expense of cancelling researchers who come from outside Egypt. “To learn about ancient Egypt is not for any one culture, or one group. Knowledge transcends, science and research transcends nationalistic boundaries,” she says.

The museum is “a big leap forward in the field of research, nationally and internationally”, says Tawfik. “It has the potential to really take research concerning Egyptology and conservation to new dimensions in Egypt, in cooperation with Egyptology and conservation all around the world. Before, “archaeology was in the hands of foreigners”, says Hawass. “Now it’s in our hands.”

  • Author: Miryam Naddaf
  • Original photography: Rehab Eldalil for Nature
  • Photo editor: Tom Houghton
  • Map design: Paul Jackman
  • Subeditor: Anne Haggart
  • Editor: Ehsan Masood

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