CAIRO: Many of you may have questioned why, suddenly around this time of the year, a flurry of archaeological discoveries appears in the press and on television. Well, forget your conspiracy theories; there is a reason and it’s due to the almost unique way in which archaeology is practised in Egypt.
Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology are still overwhelming dominated by foreigners – the subject itself is a product of a colonial era.
However, this is changing. Encouraged by leading Egyptian archaeologists the youth of Egypt are beginning to engage with the study of their past in increasing numbers.
We steer away from the subject of the glut of new discoveries somewhat, yet an understanding of the present situation is needed.
Within the boundaries of Egypt, the body assigned the legal responsibility for the protection of antiquities, the oversight of archaeological excavations and the management of heritage sites (defined as anything over 100 years old), is the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). The SCA is a department within the Ministry of Culture (MOC), headed by a Secretary General, a position now occupied by Dr Zahi Hawass.
At this point, it would be useful to consider a brief potted history of the SCA. The Supreme Council was formed during the colonial era in 1858, when it was originally called the Service des Antiquites, at which time it was run mainly by the French, and had control of all archaeological excavations in the country. After partial Egyptian independence in 1922, the service was increasingly brought under the control of Egyptian government officials and was finally renamed the Egyptian Antiquities Organization in 1971.
However, legislative development regarding antiquities protection in Egypt was considered inadequate until 1951 when Law 215 was passed. This was the first piece of legislation that attempted to cover all aspects of antiquities protection, yet it contained many loopholes and was superseded in 1983 by Law 117. Only then did Egypt have the legislative powers to fully protect its heritage.
The main points of Law 117 are: The SCA was made the legal guardian of antiquities; “antiquity was defined as any object movable or immovable over 100 years old, or objects or sites selected by prime ministerial decree and therefore public property; the trade in antiquities was prohibited; the exportation of cultural property from Egypt was banned.
In addition to the recording, management and preservation of heritage sites, the SCA’s main role in relation to these sites is to approve all excavation concessions and clear personnel for work in Egypt, while stipulating the conditions under which foreign missions carry archaeological work in Egypt. And this is where an understanding of the practice of archaeology in Egypt is needed.
There are currently somewhere in the region of 300 concessions (licences to carry out archaeological work in Egypt) in place. These include the dominant players in Egyptology – the English, Germans and French – but also include teams from as far afield as Japan and Brazil.
This number is boosted by a growing number of teams from within the SCA.
These missions’ work is supervised and approved by the Director General of the SCA, and each team is allocated a supervisor who ensures that rules and regulations are being adhered to.
If we go back to the colonial era, a lot of archaeology around the world was carried out by gentlemen scholars, those who had a disposable income and time enough to spend the winter in Egypt and the Levant. Many were even recommended by their doctors to winter in the Middle East for the sake of the health benefits of the climate. They mainly spent the harsher winter months – say from October to March – here in Egypt, returning home to show off their discoveries and possibly write up their finds. Even when the discipline of archaeology became more scientific, the winter season was firmly established in the schedule of institutes and universities.
And the pattern continues to this day. Like migrating birds, the hordes of Egyptologists descend on Egypt late in the autumn and retreat again in early spring. Some, however, do stay on until April or May, and it has been known for some hardy souls to work through the summer.
During these final few weeks in the spring, most dig directors then are busy packing up their sites and writing up reports to deposit with the SCA before they leave the country. Hence, new discoveries made in the preceding months suddenly appear on our screens and in our newspapers – as if they had all just been discovered this month.
Nigel J. Hetherington is the founder and owner of Past Preservers a Heritage Consultancy operating out of Cairo, London and the United States (www.Pastpreservers.com).