STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
The Truth About Archeology
By Staff News & Analysis - March 10, 2011

Egypt's outgoing antiquities chief warns heritage is at risk … As he steps down, Zahi Hawass (left) says country's unique archaeological sites are underprotected. Whoever saves Egypt's endangered antiquities, it will not be Zahi Hawass. The larger-than-life Egyptologist has been in charge of the country's archaeological heritage for almost a decade. But he stepped down at the weekend, warning that police are not protecting the sites and that looting has escalated. Hawass had been Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the body responsible for Egypt's archaeological sites and artefacts, since 2002. On 31 January, Egypt's then-president Hosni Mubarak transformed the SCA into a government department, with Hawass as its minister. Hawass told Nature that his sudden departure is a protest at the new government's lack of action on the looting. "I hope that my resignation will encourage the government to do something about this and encourage the international community to put pressure on." – Nature.com

Dominant Social Theme: A concerned man sounds the alarm.

Free-Market Analysis: One of the great things about the Egyptian revolution – other than the removal of the Mubarak regime itself – is the end of Zahi Hawass' tenure as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. In the last decade anyway and maybe for longer no program on Egyptian antiquities was safe from his bumptious, breathy presence and the fulsomeness of his praise for the political establishment – and endless procession of Pharonic nobility – of ancient Egypt.

There was never in any of his presentations the slightest deviation from accepted wisdom. One could count on Hawass to endlessly celebrate the glories of Egypt's dynasties with the most mundane – and cautious – frame-of-reference and to make sure that viewers identified him personally with every single discovery of note. His overbearing presence was in fact resented throughout the Egyptian archeological community and when his patron and mentor Mubarak lost his grip, Hawass became the target of protests.

The initial griping having to do with Hawass had to do with his covering up the actual gravity of the acts of vandalism at the Cairo museum. He claimed for more than a week that no items were stolen and few were damaged; it later turned out that many ancient artifacts had in fact been stolen and that he had purposefully minimized the problems. Perhaps for this reason Hawass is now being especially strident about the vandalism that is continuing to occur, not just in museums but nationwide.

The protests against him, meanwhile, have borne fruit, as he is stepping down – or so he currently maintains – and not just amidst accusations that he covered up the full gravity of looting. The complaints against him are various; chief among them are accusations that he constantly took credit for the discoveries of others and that his narrow view of what constituted Egyptian archeology has generally retarded the growth of scholarship.

Thanks to the Internet, much has emerged about Egyptology, not just its triumphs but also its lacunae. There is certainly serious evidence that Egyptians used rudimentary power tools and even light bulbs to illuminate the inner darkness of their tombs. There is a great deal of controversy over the age of the pyramids themselves and even if they were actually constructed as tombs.

Ancient Egyptian Royalty were buried in separate valleys and there is apparently no evidence that Pharonic remains ever occupied the pyramids. The elaborate hieroglyphs that decorate Egyptian tombs are entirely lacking in the pyramids as are even the faintest hints of identifying marks regarding the identification of the interred individual. They Egyptians were inveterate record-keepers but there are apparently few if any records of the three largest pyramids' construction. In other words, they do not conform to any of the criteria that have seemingly been established for ancient Egyptian burial sites.

There are a good many questions that have been raised about the mysterious Sphinx as well, including the reason for its severe weathering, which seem to be the product of a far wetter Egypt than that which existed when the Sphinx was supposedly carved and the presence of underground corridors that have never been formally confirmed. There are theories as well that the Sphinx was an entirely different statue and was recarved later on. The beard of the Sphinx was apparently an add-on.

One can multiply these observations by a thousand or ten thousand as Egyptology is a very active field and there are all sorts of theories – some mainstream and some not – regarding an ancient culture that has fascinated the world. Not much of this, however, if any, was ever dealt with by Howass. His job apparently was to enforce the most technically rigid and conservative view of ancient Egypt within the bounds of "acceptable" archeology.

In fact, this sort of approach is not merely restricted to Hawass. Even within libertarian circles, there is relatively little commentary on one of the chief drawbacks to archeology generally: It is almost universally controlled by the state itself. There is certainly a private market for ancient artifacts but the prevailing dominant social theme – one rabidly adhered to by the profession itself – is that the marketplace cannot do nearly as good job as government in terms of organizing protection for ancient sites, exploring them or preserving their remains.

One often hears of how "treasures vanish" into private collections and are never seen again. What is usually not mentioned is that museums around the world, especially major ones, have vast hordes of artifacts that never see the light of day and can languish for centuries in the dust. Some of these represent very important finds but are not properly catalogued or described.

The lack of funding for archeology is part of the problem; it is a constant complaint that one hears and yet there is an easy way to combat it. There are surely collectors who pay large sums for antiquities unearthed at various sites and in return for receiving such treasures would fund lavish excavations. But again archeology tends to be controlled by various governments and practiced by professionals within publicly funded university settings. The prejudice against private archeology is powerful indeed.

Of course this means that many sites languish without proper excavations for years or decades. And this in turn opens them up to the kind of vandalism that Hawass is currently warning against. Such funding problems could easily be ameliorated if the industry itself would embrace entrepreneurship and the ability of the market to generate capital.

Instead of depending on the occasional pittance of a government grant, universities could solicit endowments in return for providing certain choice artifacts to collectors. There could be sufficient conditions to make this approach palatable to governments themselves. Collectors could participate if they were willing to make their collections available to private research and to lend their artifacts back to the nations from whence they came.

Private archeology of course is big business. But as it stands now, such archeology only exists in the gray or black market. This means there is inevitably competition between looters and academic archeologists for the best sites. It never seems to occur to archeologists – bemoaning the presence of looters – that if the field were sufficiently privatized, the looting could be greatly diminished. But as we have pointed out in the past, economics is not an archeological strong suit.

Whole networks of avid collectors could probably be established. Annual showings could be organized. No long would the bulk of "discoveries' languish in the dust of museum basements. Magazines and catalogues (online of course) would take root, cataloging what was available in private collections. An entire industry could be created that would launch the dusty science of state-controlled public archeology into the 21st century.

Of course this probably will not happen any time soon. No industry is so fervently penetrated by political correctness as archeology (and anthropology). No, the industry unfortunately will continue to lurch ahead like an animated corpse. In Kenya, for decades only the Leakeys had the right to explore for ancient human remains. A single grant that places an archeologist at a dig for several weeks or months is widely celebrated for the windfall it is. And in the name of science, even major discoveries vanish into the desiccated maws of university and museum basements never to reemerge.

After Thoughts

The tragedy is that the worst rise to the top. It is not merely the inefficiency and waste that is such a problem but also that due to the lack of innovation and opportunity the industry itself is beset by narrowmindess and general lack of creative thinking. Endless vandalism, resolute refusals to consider anything remotely "out of the mainstream" and a general lack of opportunity for young, ambitious professionals are only some of the damages the industry accrues by sticking to its public-centric model. Archeology, more than most industries is used for shameless, statist promotions. It is a brief mercy that one of the most resolute shills – Hawass – is apparently on his way out. The tragedy is that the system itself is guaranteed to produce more just like him. It is knowledge itself that suffers.

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