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A British Museum Egyptologist's View: The Return of Egyptian Antiquities is Not an Issue


A British Museum Egyptologist's View:

The Return of Egyptian Antiquities is Not an Issue

by Adel Murad in London

Dr. Neal Spencer at the British Museum


In recent weeks, the level of debate on the Tour Egypts Message Center, on the issue of the return of Egyptian antiquities from abroad has intensified. The discussion has often been emotional and the two points of view never conciliated. An experts view and a cool debate were needed, on this and other Egyptology issues.

Dr. Neal Spencer, Assistant Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the British Museum knows the situation well, having worked at the museum for six years and himself involved in a current excavation project in Egypt. He believes that the issue of claiming back ancient objects has not been raised officially, and when raised it relates mainly to objects exported out of Egypt after 1970.

In 1970 the UNESCO treaty prohibited the export and transfer of ownership of cultural properties. After that date it became illegal to export any ancient antiquities or artefacts in any manner or form without an explicit official permission.



Entrance to the British Museum with Mummy Exhibition prominent

The real issue for Dr Spencer is not whether specific objects are returned or not, but rather that a universal spirit of co-operation prevails in the world of Egyptology. He confirms that such a spirit does exist today and he hopes to nourish it in the future.

The museum helps in training professional Egyptians in various conservation disciplines and four curators and archaeological inspectors are coming to London this summer for an 8-week training course. There are other joint programs of cooperation with Egyptian universities and museums, and exchange programs are continuing. The British museum is also funding current excavations programs in Egypt and researchers come to study the museums collection. According to Dr Spencer, these are the real issues to focus on, and not the location of the objects, or where they ought to be. It has been a matter of policy at the British Museum, since 1970, not to acquire any ancient Egyptian objects, he confirmed. The only exceptions would be objects that are properly documented and are in the public domain.



Egyptian Attraction

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

About 90% of all visitors to the British Museum come specifically to see the Egyptian Section, and the Rosetta Stone in particular, he confirmed in an interview in his office at the museum. However, he admitted that only 4% of the estimated 110,000 objects at the museum are on display. The rest are stored and classified and only taken out for research, special exhibitions or conservation work. These objects are only accessible by appointment.

The Egyptian collection at the British Museum is one of the largest collections outside Egypt, rivalled only by the Louvre Museum Collection in Paris. Most of the objects in this collection came to Britain -legally- in the 19th century, and now form a large department in the 250-year-old museum. The treaty of Alexandria in the first year of the 19th century was a treaty of war, between the British and French, after the battle near that city. Included was provision for the transfer of antiquities acquired in Egypt from the French to the British government. The British Museum acquired the Rosetta Stone according to this treaty and the stone has been in the museum ever since.

Dr Spencer views the British Museum as a centre of global knowledge. Training, exchange programs and exhibitions with other institutions are a vital means to widen our understanding of the past. The museum overseas the excavations of seven sites in Egypt at the moment: two in the Delta and the rest in Upper Egypt and the Sudan. Research is conducted and geared towards 're-contextualising' our understanding of the objects we have already, and not for finding new objects; all new finds stay in Egypt, he said.



Kom Firin



Map showing the location of Kom Firin

Dr Spencer is also the director archaeologist in the Kom Firin Expedition, which has been going on for three seasons. Kom Firin is a small village, near the city of Damanhour, in Beheira, west of Delta. He is preparing to go back on site next September for one more season of further excavations of a small temple site set within a large fortified enclosure, seemingly dated to the Ramesside Period. According to Dr Spencers report, this settlement site had been the only western Delta Ramesside fort identified through archaeology. The rest have only been identified through textual references.

Results of magnetic imaging at Kom Firin

The team consists of six experts: Neal Spencer, Director Archaeologist, Ann Donkin, Magnetometry Surveyor, Elizabeth Frood. Archaeologist, Stuart Nealis, Surveyor Assistant, Liam McNamara, Illusrator, and Kveta Smolarikova, Ceramicit. A unique use of magnetometry (Magnetic Survey) can illustrate features under the surface, such as foundations of walls, which can save on time and cost and direct excavation efforts to where it is most needed (see illustration).

Egyptology Rules It is true there are too many Egyptologists and very few opportunities for work, according to Dr Spencer. But, he adds that many students of Egyptology realise this from an early stage and set their ambitions towards tourism, publishing or other disciplines associated with Egyptology.

The situation, however, may lead to friction and misunderstanding, due to intense competition, especially when dealing with the Egyptian authorities. There are rules and regulations, which researchers and excavators have to follow.

Dr Spencer acknowledges that sometimes Egyptologists overstep the mark and cause problems with officials of the host country. He denied any obstacles from Egyptian departments in conducting his own research and said that the rules and regulations, and the paperwork involved are to be expected working in any country. Permissions, paperwork and reports at the end of every season, in English and in Arabic, have to be submitted, he said, but adds that this is normal procedures that would be followed anywhere else, and they have to be respected.

A Pharaoh guards the  Egyptain collection at the British Museum


Egyptologists have to be affiliated with universities or museums in order to obtain permission to excavate in Egypt, and they have to enter into a contract with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, agreeing to notify the Council of any finds or conclusions before going to the media. One of the high profile disputes, concerning the discovery of the mummy of Nefertiti, resulted from going to the media first without consulting the Council.



Mummy Story

A view of the Mummy in the Mummy Exhibition

The British Museum has a current virtual reality film and exhibition, sponsored by BP, entitled Mummy: the inside story. It reveals in 3D the story of the un-opened, 3000-year-old mummy of Nesperennub, priest of Karnak. The viewers see inside the mummy-case, the wrappings, even travel inside the body, and see the priests recreated face.



According to Dr Spencer, there will be a new gallery in 2007 (Gallery 67) to display, among others, the paintings of the tomb of Nebamu. These paintings have been in the museum since 1820 and have never been on display before, but have been subject to continuous research. New information about them is still being revealed almost two centuries after their discovery.

The museum is also organising an exhibition in Canada, entitled Eternal Egypt, which displays and catalogues 144 objects, never seen on display before.

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Life in Ancient Egypt

Last Updated: May 19th, 2011

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