Were Tut’s treasures damaged?

Msnbc.com’s Al Stirrett reports on vandalism at the Egyptian Museum.

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By Alan Boyle

Update for 7 p.m. ET Jan. 29: Despite the best efforts of the Egyptian army and a human shield, some of the artifacts inside the century-old Egyptian Museum were damaged during a brief wave of looting, authorities in Cairo say. And it sounds as if the damaged goods include treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun, based on comments from the country’s top archaeologist as well as a little sleuthing by archaeologists looking at video footage shot inside the museum.

Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist at Oxford University in England, matched up shots of the damage with pictures of artifacts from Tut’s tomb and said that three gilded wooden statuettes of the boy-king may have been broken off their pedestals. In their original condition, one sculpture shows Tut standing on a boat with a harpoon at the ready, and another shows him astride a panther.

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Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

A wooden statuette shows the gilded figure of Tutankhamun standing on a boat, holding a harpoon.

APTV via msnbc.com

This video frame from the looted Egyptian Museum shows what appears to be the boat, with the Tut figure broken off.

Roger Wood/CORBIS

A figurine from Tutankhamun’s tomb shows the boy-king riding a panther.

Al Jazeera via EloquentPeasant.com

A video frame from Al Jazeera shows what appears to be the panther in pieces, with the figurine of Tutankhamun missing.

The footage suggests that a third statuette of a standing Tut was broken off right at the feet. Check out Maitland’s blog posting at the Eloquent Peasant for that comparison.

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has acknowledged that two pharaonic mummies were destroyed, that other relics were knocked out of their glass display cases, and that the museum’s ticket office was ransacked. But he said that no artifacts were taken out of the museum, and that the Tut collection was now secure.

Is he speaking the truth? That could well be, despite how it looks in the video footage. The latest information suggests that artifacts were indeed taken from display cases but recovered from the would-be looters. At this point, the best guess is that a few of Tut’s treasures sustained damage but are not beyond repair.

The museum is still under peril, even though it’s under guard by security forces as well as Cairo’s citizens. The threat to Egypt’s millennia-old artifacts began when fire broke out at the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters, virtually next door, and at last report that building was still in danger of collapse. “What scares me is that if this building is destroyed, it will fall over the museum,” Hawass told reporters at the museum on Saturday as he watched fire trucks try to extinguish the blaze.

The good news So far, the saga of the Egyptian Museum has been more of a good-news rather than bad-news story. The current chaos in Cairo easily could have left all those priceless artifacts, 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.

On Saturday, Hawass provided a damage report.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Reuters quoted him as saying. “Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some [looters] managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies.”

In addition to the damage apparently done to the Tut figurines, 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.).

MSNBC TV

A video grab shows damage done to a display case that apparently contains an array of soldier figurines from the tomb of Mesehti, a provincial governor from the 11th or 12th Dynasty.

MSNBC TV

An armed security guard stands watch next to a display case containing a damaged model boat from the tomb of Mesehti.

Treasures galore 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.

Amr Nabil / AP file

The golden mask of Tutankhamun is the best-known treasure at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.

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. The fire next door is the main threat right now.

“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.”

Update for 8:50 p.m. Jan. 29: The Daily Mail says Hawass has acknowledged that the looters targeted Tut’s treasures.

“They tried to attack and rob from the showcases of King Tut, but they failed,” Hawass is quoted as saying. “These people are criminals, they are not true Egyptians. The nine men were caught carrying skulls and two statues, one of which was broken. But the army are now guarding the museum and all the museums are now safe.”

More tales from the museums:

* Slideshow: Tutankhamun’s treasures * Mystery of Afghan gold has a happy ending * Looted Baghdad museum restored, dedicated * Iraq finds missing artifacts in premier’s storage * Fire at Nazi death camp destroys victims’ shoes

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URL: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/01/28/5943271-were-tuts-treasures-damaged

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