The EES and the Trade in Antiquities

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EES Excavations underway at Oxyrhynchus

The Egypt Exploration Society’s connection with the trade in Egyptian antiquities is as follows:

1. The Society’s mission is: “to explore ancient Egyptian sites and monuments, to create a lasting record of the remains, to generate enthusiasm for, and increase knowledge and understanding of, Egypt’s past and to raise awareness of the importance of protecting its heritage.”

The illicit excavation of and trade in ancient material clearly runs contrary to these aims, for the following reasons:

  • It renders any information about provenance / archaeological context – which is crucial to the interpretation of objects and they information they themselves provide – entirely unknowable;
  • It renders those objects that never appear on the open market unknown themselves;
  • It poses a risk to objects and the sites at which they are found, which may be damaged by the excavators who, we can assume, are not trained in the appropriate techniques for removing ancient material safely;
  • It deprives scholars and the wider public of the opportunity to study or enjoy the objects;
  • The ‘success’ of such illicit activity, as defined by the amount of money to be made from the sale of the objects excavated, encourages the proliferation of similar activity elsewhere in Egypt, exacerbating all the above problems.

Furthermore, although not directly related to the Society’s aims, it is worth noting that such activities also deprive Egypt of the opportunity to benefit from objects which are a part of its heritage.

2. The Society has in the past been responsible for the distribution of material, which its archaeologists excavated and recorded scientifically, to public collections around the world, with the blessing of the Egyptian authorities. It was intended that such material would remain in public collections in perpetuity. However, in some cases, the institutions to which material was distributed have chosen to sell the objects in question on the open market, potentially to private collections, compromising the Society’s intentions. As above, such sales:

  • Deprive scholars and the wider public of the opportunity to study or enjoy these objects;
  • Encourage the proliferation of similar sales and, potentially, illicit excavations, to generate further profits.

Allow me to elaborate…

The Society has conducted excavations, surveys and other archaeological work in Egypt under license from the Egyptian authorities from 1883 to present. Many thousands of objects (‘portable antiquities’) were uncovered during the course of this work and transferred for their safety and preservation to secure locations, usually the Egyptian Museum, now situated on Tahrir Square in Cairo.

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Objects from the EES’ 1931-2 excavations at Amarna being sorted by representatives of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Taken from the moving images presented here

Under the ‘partage’ system the Society, and other excavating institutions, were, until the 1980s when the system was stopped, regularly allowed to retain a portion of the objects removed during the course of its excavations, at the discretion of the antiquities service. These objects were transferred to London and exhibited to the public as a record of the Society’s work during the year. 

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View of the EES exhibition of 1931

They were subsequently distributed to museums and other public institutions in accordance with the following clause in the Society’s Memorandum of Association:

“"(c.) To make, maintain and exhibit illustrative collections of antiquities and other things relative to, or connected with, any of the objects of the Society, or to present any such antiquities or things to any public body, university, school, library, or other similar institutions.”

This was initially, in 1888, listed among the ‘objects’ of the Society but was subsequently included instead under the ‘powers’ the Society might exercise in furtherance of its objects. In other words it changed from being something the Society should do, to something it could do if that were to help it achieve its aims. This clause is still there today (for the current version see here). In practice though, there has been no possibility of the Society doing any such thing for many years. A change in Egyptian legislation ended the ‘partage’ system in 1983 and all objects excavated by the Society since that time have remained in Egypt, in the care of the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA, previously the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Egyptian Antiquities Organisation (EAO) and Service des Antiquités). The Society has never acquired antiquities any other way and certainly not through purchase. In fact, even prior to 1983, it was never the Society’s practice to retain objects but rather to distribute everything it received from the Egyptian authorities, shortly after the end of each summer exhibition. The important part of the clause, and that which is relevant to the sale of antiquities today, is the second part: “…to present any such antiquities or things to any public body, university, school, library, or other similar institutions.”

The intention here is clear, I think.

The sale of objects from Harageh by the St Louis AIA

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The tomb group from Harageh. Image from www.bonhams.com

Recently a group of objects, a ‘tomb group’ excavated by Flinders Petrie at the site of Harageh, near to the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt, was put up for sale at auction by Bonhams of London. The objects had been in the collection of the St Louis branch of the American Institute of Archaeology (AIA) to which Petrie had sent them in exchange for a financial contribution towards his ongoing excavations. (It is important to note that the St Louis branch is distinct and separate from the national AIA – see further, below). Although Petrie was not working for the EES at this point but under the auspices of his own organisation, the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (BSAE), this was typical of the way both institutions worked. Clearly, the offering of these objects for sale went against Petrie’s intention that they should remain in a public collection, and against what the Society and other organisations like it is trying to achieve today. Public collections offer the best hope that ancient objects are safeguarded against loss or deterioration to their condition, and that they will remain accessible to scholars and the wider public for study and enjoyment. Objects which are sold on the open market may be transferred to collections which are not required to provide such safeguards, and which have no obligations to make the material they contain accessible.

Shortly after learning of the sale (and with little time left to lose before it took place) it was agreed that a statement objecting to the sale should be issued in the name of the EES and the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, as the successor organisation to the BSAE. Our two institutions were founded and run along very similar lines, and the system of partage was in fact established following discussions between Petrie, then working for the EES, and Gaston Maspero of the Egyptian antiquities service (see Drower, ’Gaston Maspero and the Birth of the Egypt Exploration FundJEA 68 (1982)). Most importantly, many thousands of objects excavated by the BSAE and EES were distributed to public collections in the UK, USA and elsewhere and remain in those collections today. Much stands to be lost if further material of this kind is offered for sale. It was not only the case of the Harageh objects that was of concern therefore, but the potential for further such sales in future.

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‘Bonhams criticised for Egypt treasure sale’, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2014

My colleagues and I felt it was crucially important to adopt a clear and robust stance against the sale, and to make clear the grounds for our objection. In other words, for once we wanted not to take it for granted that everyone would know why it was bad that these objects were being sold, but to spell out as clearly as we could why that was. We hoped that our names (personally and institutional) would give the message some clout, and did what we could to ensure that the message was circulated as widely as possible, succeeding in getting it picked up by the mainstream media (in e.g. Medavia and The Daily Telegraph – see above image). We considered raising the possibility there may also be legal grounds for objecting to the sale but as the situation from this angle was unclear we felt it better to focus on the ethical case; we also chose not to mention any of the other high profile cases when Egyptian objects have come up for sale, such as the auction of the Northampton statue of Sekhemka (see the excellent piece by Mike Pitts, here), which involved similar but not identical issues. 

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The objects are withdrawn from sale at the last minute…

On the morning of the sale, the objects were withdrawn. We later learnt that negotiations, unbeknownst to us, had been underway in the States, to arrange for the objects to be sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was a good outcome in that they will remain in a public collection, of the very highest order in this case. It was not all good however. It led to very positive statements being released by both Bonhams and the St Louis AIA (quotes here) celebrating the role they had played in bringing this about. However, it seems very unlikely that this would have been the outcome were it not for the actions of others, principally the negotiators in the US. And let’s be clear, both had other reasons to celebrate: both must have made considerable amounts of money from the sale of these objects to the Met. And worse, there was a second lot, a headrest which had also come from Petrie’s excavations at Harageh, which was sold at auction and has now disappeared from view – the worst case scenario. The St Louis AIA did not respond to our petitions, nor to those of the central AIA which has also now issued a statement expressing its “grave concern” at the sale. The statements from St Louis and Bonhams ignored all of this and in fact suggested that there was nothing wrong with the sale after all, perhaps to clear the way for further sales in future. This is very dangerous; our aim was to stop the sale on ethical grounds, partly for the sake of these particular objects but moreover to create a precedent that would deter any other organisation in a similar position to the St Louis AIA from disposing of their objects in the same way. The triumphalism of the St Louis and Bonhams statements may, on the contrary, encourage further sales.

Again, let’s be clear:

  • Ancient objects like this should be maintained in public collections;
  • They are not there for anyone to profit financially from their sale;
  • Such sales encourage others to act in the same way, and, worst of all, encourage illicit, criminal activity – looting – in ‘source’ countries such as Egypt.

Still work to do…

Several of those involved in the campaign in the UK are continuing to investigate the legal situation to try to establish whether or not organisations like the St Louis AIA which received objects from the EES and/or BSAE have the legal right to sell those objects. The regulations of both suggest not, but it is not yet clear whether these have any legal force. There is a frustrating lack of documentation, not a single example of a signed contract relating to the transfer of ownership to the receiving institution for example, to help clarify things.

There are many positives to take from this case however. It is a significant step forward for the Society that we have given such consideration to the issues which we have always been aware of but only perhaps in general terms, and adopted such a clear and robust position. We have a momentum now, and will be better equipped if and when another similar sale occurs. I hope we have helped raise awareness of the issues as well (this post is also intended to play a part in that) and the reasons why sales such as this are problematic. It has also thrown into focus how fragile and impermanent our own actions can be. As Egyptology has reached sufficient age that it has gained its own history, the archaeologists of the past come to be seen as historical figures themselves, actors in an ongoing narrative. It is now clear that the distribution of objects, such an important past of the EES’ legacy, may also be much less permanent, and more vulnerable and transient than those who found the objects might have hoped. Objects of incalculable value for the story of humanity were lost until they were dug up by Petrie and his successors so that the whole world could come to know them again. We have them back, he might have thought, and we won’t lose them again. Or will we? That is exactly what is at stake here. How much better off are we when objects that have been recovered from the sands simply disappear again into anonymous, untraceable collections?

Lost … then found … then lost again …

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The Society’s distribution lists show to which public institutions the objects were sent

The truth is that the cavalier manner – this is how it seems to us now – in which the distribution of objects was handled – the lack of documentation is sadly, characteristic of the way a great deal was and handled in the past – has meant that that the EES and BSAE gave away, at that point, any control they might have had as to what happened to the objects. Fortunately, the vast majority of the objects concerned went to institutions that have endured and operate according to similar principles, and have remained in those collections. We are aware of exceptions however, going back to the middle of the 20th century at least, and there may be other cases we are unaware of. In fact it came to my attention while we were working on the Harageh case that a relief fragment excavated by the Society at Amarna had previously been sold by the St Louis AIA in the 1970s. We have no effective means of keeping a track of all the objects distributed by the EES over the years, although Dr Stevenson’s new project, ’Artefacts of Excavation’ may retrospectively provide us with a picture.

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Amarna relief fragment. Image from www.bonhams.com

So this isn’t a new issue but our recent efforts are nonetheless vital, as the problem seems to be getting worse. Looting in Egypt has undoubtedly increased since the revolution of January 2011, and is exemplified by the horrors witnessed at El Hibeh and described by Prof Carol Redmount in the most recent issue of Egyptian Archaeology. We cannot know what has been lost as a result – this is part of the problem – but it is a safe bet that material has been sold onto the market as a result; much will have entered private collections entirely under the radar of Egyptologists and the authorities; in a few cases such material has appeared more publicly and been returned to Egypt (see e.g. ‘A collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts recovered from London’). The Repatriation Department at the Ministry of Antiquities has been successful enough in this to stage an exhibition of recovered pieces in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo recently.

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The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, June 2014

Two papyri in that exhibition were excavated by the EES at Saqqara in the early 1970s and stolen from a storage facility no later than 1996 at which time they entered a private collection. That they were no longer at Saqqara where they should have been was spotted by Demotist, Cary Martin while he was working on the texts for publication. With his assistance, and the full cooperation of the owner, Martin Schøyen, the Society arranged for them to be returned to Egypt via the Egyptian Embassy in London.* The papyri will be published in the next volume of the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology later this year (H S Smith, Cary J Martin and Sue Davies, “The Horhotep Letters’ from The Sacred Animal Necropolis at North Saqqara’ JEA 100 (2014), forthcoming).

In the last few weeks alone several further cases have come to my attention. I was contacted by a friend in the Abydos inspectorate pointing out that a head of Ramesses II, part of a group statue, and still in place on the king’s shoulders, in situ in the small temple of that king in the early 1980s, was currently on sale in London. Another statue excavated by a project connected to the EES in 2011, and presented at a conference in London in September, was subsequently revealed to be on sale in Brussels. This apparent rash of cases may be coincidence but we cannot afford to take that chance.

*I am grateful to 2014 EES Scholar Reham Zaky for confirming that the papyri in the exhibition were those from Saqqara. 

UPDATE 30 Oct 2014: I presented some of the thoughts in this post at the conference, ’To publish or not to publish? A multidisciplinary approach to the politics, ethics and economics of ancient artefacts’ on 25 October 2014. The slides from my presentation are here.

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