Why an undamaged mummy uncovered in Luxor will stay in Egypt

The city of Luxor, Egypt, a treasure trove of antiquities, reveals its latest gem.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Policemen secure the area around pharaonic artifacts inside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, June 23.

Spanish archaeologists have uncovered a 3,000-year-old mummy "in very good condition" near the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, said Egypt’s antiquities ministry this weekend.

The mummy, bound with linen and plaster, was entombed in a brightly colored wooden sarcophagus on the west bank of the Nile River, near a temple built for warrior king Thutmose III. The remains are thought to belong to a nobleman and servant of the royal household, Amenrenef, and date back to sometime between 1075 and 664 BC, according to Al Jazeera.

Myriam Seco Alvarez, leader of the archaeological team that made the find, told reporters that the mummy was adorned with "many colorful decorations recalling religious symbols from ancient Egypt, such as the goddesses Isis and Nephthys displaying their wings, and the four sons of Horus."

The discovery comes as Egyptian authorities continue work on recovering the estimated $3 billion of antiquities stolen during post-2011 political instability. That effort is resurfacing intense patriotic feeling around Egypt’s cultural patrimony, as well as contributing to the emergence of a new generation of antiquities experts that some say are changing a traditionally dense and hidebound bureaucracy.

The law is clear: What’s found in Egypt, stays in Egypt. Under the terms of a 1983 law, all artifacts uncovered on national territory become the property of the state. Thieves and smugglers can get stiff fines and prison sentences that include hard labor.

But in the confusion surrounding the 2011 revolution, museums and historical sites were hit by widespread looting, to the dismay of the Egyptian public. In one Associated Press account from that year, some young men armed with truncheons taken from police appeared outside of Cairo’s famed Egyptian Museum to defend it against thieves who had begun to pour into the museum grounds.

In the years since, authorities in the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), which has jurisdiction over historical artifacts, have recovered a little more than 1,000 objects, often identifying them when they surface in auction houses abroad and working with foreign authorities to get them seized, according to Middle East Eye. Artifacts can fetch serious coin, from hundreds of dollars up into the millions, and smugglers can be a well-organized bunch.

"Behind Egypt’s antiquities black market trade are mainly organized gangs, specialized in the trafficking of ancient relics, and poor residents making illegal excavations at archaeological sites," French internal security attaché Jean-Charles La Monica told the site.

Even as the MSA has struggled to reestablish control following the revolutionary-era power vacuum, there are signs that the institution – which has long frustrated foreign archaeologists with red tape and tight restrictions on imports and exports even for scientific purposes – is getting fresh life with a new wave of officials and leadership, reported the Guardian in 2014.

Freshly minted, homegrown archaeologists are applying innovative science to their work, while recent years of instruction from foreign conservation groups are producing local teams capable of doing the work that foreigners – and their colonial forebears – used to lead.

"Trust the new generation," Moamen Saad, a young ministry official, told the Guardian then. "Be flexible, listen to them and their ideas.... Let’s test it and if it’s OK, let’s continue with it. But don’t from the beginning say no."

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