01 January 2010

Hawass Demands Frescos, French Surrender: A Preview of Archaeology in the 2010s

To ring in the new year, a story that hints of things to come in global archaeology, and some prognostications and aspirations for the coming decade.

First to Egypt, where Zahi Hawass has been generating a lot of news in recent months. Fresh off of the Louvre’s return of mosaic fragments stolen from the tomb of Tetaki the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) will formally demand the return of the bust of Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone, the Dendera Zodiac, and other iconic artifacts in European museums.

Hawass: praying for a return? (AFP)

The storyline has been playing out all year. Back in January 2009, German archaeologists informed the SCA that the mosaic fragments in the Louvre were looted, and Egypt promptly demanded their return. Early in October, Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni lost a close election for UNESCO Director-General, partly due to the opposition of France. A few days later, on October 7, Egypt gave the Louvre notice that they would not be getting excavation permits for their long-time dig at Saqqara if they did not return the fresco fragments. Though the Louvre management initially met the demand with defiance, it took them only a day and a half to cave. On October 9, the museum agreed to return the fragments to Egypt.

December 14, French President Nicolas Sarkozy formally presented the fragments to Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak during his state visit to Paris. (No word on whether cheese was eaten during the surrender.) Egypt exacts a satisfying revenge for its loss at UNESCO, and strikes a blow for the cause of repatriation.

This fine product courtesy of Bob McCarty.

As the press noted in October, the return of the Tetaki frescos was part of Hawass’ larger repatriation vision, which includes both recently looted material and certain iconic artifacts, like the Rosetta Stone and the famous bust of Nefertiti in Berlin, that he believes were removed from Egypt illegally.

While Hawass has been on this topic for years, he apparently has recently changed tactics. After requests for loans of the iconic artifacts were rebuffed by the British Museum and the Neues Museum, he has decided to put his foot down, in typically amusing fashion:
"What angers me is that for decade after decade the museums of the world have treated Egypt like a buffalo, exploiting our generosity by asking to borrow our artefacts for their various exhibitions and we have complied, handing things over for free,'' he said.

''But now the buffalo is thirsty*, and needs attention, but no one cares to help. Well, we have had enough of this. No more. I will not tolerate this kind of treatment any longer.''

This is how Egypt has been treated. Needs a drink now. (Jiri Bohdal)

Next March, Hawass will convene a conference on the return of stolen antiquities which will include up to a dozen states including Italy, Greece, China, and Mexico. Details of the agenda are unclear – I wonder if we’ll see a permanent organization of source states to advocate for repatriation of looted materials? The fact that these countries are major research destinations for American and European archaeologists adds a certain frisson to the proceedings. The possibility of connecting research permits to repatriation is a cloud looming over the heads of the archaeological establishment in the global North.

My guess for the next decade: such meetings are the shape of things to come. While the case for return of the Tetaki frescos was open and shut, Hawass parlayed it into a major symbolic victory for repatriation more generally. Anyone with a brain can see now that the way to get European museums to return artifacts is to threaten their excavation permits. Foreigners wanting to dig abroad are going to face higher and higher hurdles in the coming years. It’s happening already : Turkey this year circulated a letter requiring foreign expeditions to have a Turkish joint director; Saudi Arabia is becoming more active in demanding repatriation and in threatening permits to do so.

Is this good or bad? I don’t know. Things will be different. I know people will moan and groan about Hawass, and how his attitude is nationalistic, will harm archaeological research, damage international ties, and so on. Of course, these are partly true, and it is totally unfair that archaeologists will be the ones to suffer because of the intransigence of their respective states over repatriation. But these complaints miss the point. The struggle for control of artifacts and sites has nothing to do with archaeological research. Instead, what we are seeing is a process of decolonization of heritage, and like other decolonizations it is likely to get messy.

The justifications for European appropriation of other nations’ antiquities hinged on two arguments. First, that ‘natives’ were unable to appreciate the treasures they had. This argument is a piece of the racist rhetoric of colonialism: the savages were willfully ignorant, refuse to learn, and so were unworthy of self-rule. These tired tropes continue to be trotted out to justify European museums' retention of major artifacts. But when did the colonial powers ever bother to do mass education about why archaeology was important? For that matter, how often do archaeologists do any local education, even today? There are many sites that have been active for decades where the excavators have never given a public lecture to people that live nearby. Yet it remains common to blame "locals" for not understanding the obscure academic pursuits of an alien culture: it becomes a moral failing that demonstrates their inferiority.

The second common argument is that objects like the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles needed to be taken to Europe for ‘safekeeping’ lest they be destroyed. There is, of course, a certain truth to this. But once taken, the objects became symbols of European appropriation of other peoples' pasts, just one more indignity heaped on top of the appropriation of the present by the colonial powers. The condescension that Egyptians and others are untrustworthy and unfit to control their own heritage continues, and this is obviously one of the things that bugs Hawass the most. As he reflected after the British Museum rejected his request for a loan of the Rosetta Stone:
Even some people in the press began to say: 'If the British Museum will give the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, maybe Egyptians will not return it back.' We are not the Pirates of the Caribbean. We are a civilised country. If I...sign a contract with the British Museum, (we) will return it. Therefore we decided not to host the Rosetta Stone, but to ask for the Rosetta Stone to come back for good to Egypt.
What Hawass wants is for Egypt to be treated as a "civilized country" rather than a child in need of tutelage. It is not a coincidence, then, that he is looking for the return of iconic artifacts in particular - the ones that symbolize colonial rule and foreign control over Egypt’s past. No one would seriously argue that these artifacts would be in European museums if Egypt had never been invaded and occupied by the French and British. Likewise, there is no academic merit to the objects being in one place rather than the other (except, of course, that Americans and Europeans find London much more convenient than Cairo). Like many of Hawass' activities, these requests are political theater, not scientific pursuits. But like all good theater, it is about something very real: the sense of many people around the world that their past is being held hostage by foreigners, whether archaeologists, museums, or collectors.

So then: we close out the decade with hints of a harder line by source countries on repatriation, as a prelude to the decolonization of archaeological practice. My prediction is that the new decade will see the emergence in archaeology of a multipolar order that replaces the Euro-American superpowers.

I would also like to believe that this will be the decade where abolish the idea of culture as property, a stupid legacy of the colonial centuries that feeds the ego of collectors but does nothing to help people learn from the past. If an object really does belong to the world, as the British Museum and other institutions often argue, how can it be owned by a single museum, whatever its pretentions to being a "world repository"? The desire for ownership is a disease that reinforces power inequalities and sustains the mystification of the general public. Here's hoping that the 2010s bring a global system of artifact loans that exhibit some of the great treasures in places they've never been seen before, especially in the global South.

*Sadly, no relationship is implied to the bar of similar name, which serves cheeseburger soup. Mmmm.


  1. I was excited to read this commentary since it says in a direct way what I have been saying in my various articles,namely,the struggle to regain control of cultural artefacts carted away to the Western world from Africa,Asia and elsewhere, is part of the decolonization process,an attempt to regain lost dignity. Is this too difficult for the intellectuals in the Western world to understand?

  2. Well written, Dan!

    I am invited to a workshop like meeting with James Cuno next week in DC and look forward to hear his reactions.

    The conference in Cairo is very important and I am looking forward to it. Certainly things will have to change in the 2010s.

  3. @ Dr. Opoku - Thanks for your comment. I think the difficulty here is not so much intellectual as emotional. To give up these (symbolic) artifacts is to also give up (symbolic) power and authority. People find it difficult to learn to see people as equals when they have always thought of them as inferiors. (Though, of course, not nearly as difficult as being colonized.)

    So in my opinion it's really about changing the culture of archaeology in the global north, rather than understanding an intellectual argument.

    @ Alex - I'm eager to hear how the workshop goes. Want to write a brief report on it for us?! I find it unfathomable that the press takes the man so seriously.