21 March 2010
The most beautiful coffin
Last weekend Egypt retrieved a 3,000-year-old wooden sarcophagus from the United States. The coffin dates back to the 21st dynasty, and was accompanied home by Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawass on an EgyptAir flight from Miami, Florida. Miami airport authorities had seized the sarcophagus in October 2008 as it arrived from Spain but its owner, an antiquities dealer named Felix Cerera, failed to provide ownership documents. This prompted customs officials to suspect the piece was smuggled.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found the coffin had been smuggled out of Egypt in 1884 and had been exhibited in Madrid in 2007. Egypt requested its return in 2009. The coffin, described as one of the “most beautiful plastered and painted” pieces found in Egypt, was carved to resemble its recipient identified as “Imsey”, it is painted with images and religious inscriptions meant to aid the soul on its journey through the afterlife.
Earlier this month Britain has sent back to Egypt some 25,000 ancient artifacts, some dating as far back as the Stone Age. The artifacts, packaged in 85 boxes, returned to Cairo aboard an EgyptAir flight. Retrieving the items came after “long negotiations’ with the University of London, Mr Hawass said. Some of the pieces had been showcased in the British Museum, he said.
A 200,000-year-old stone axe, and a collection of pottery which bears the finger prints of its producers and dates back to the 7th millennium BC, are among the retrieved pieces.
“The artefacts,” Mr Hawass said, “will constitute the foundation for a collection from the (pre-dynastic) Naqada period,” named after a village in southern Egypt which represented “one of the oldest centres of civilisation in the world.” They will be displayed at the Ahmed Fakhri Museum, currently under construction in the Western Desert oasis of Dakhla.
Since becoming head of the SCA in 2002, Hawass says, the latest recoveries bring to 31,000 the number of relics brought back to Egypt.
Egypt is due to host a conference in April demanding the return of its antiquities, stolen but on display in museums around the world.
Thirty countries, including Greece, Mexico, Peru, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cambodia and China, will participate in the Cairo gathering.
Queen Behenu’s chamber
The French archaeological mission operating in Saqqara, Giza, earlier this month announced the unearthing of the burial chamber of Quean Behenu of the Sixth Dynasty (2374-2292BC). Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said that is was not yet confirmed, however, whether Queen Behenu was the wife of King Pepi I or Pepi II.
Mr Hawass described the room discovered as 10 metres long and five metres wide, part of a pyramid-shape cemetery of the kind in which ancient Egyptians were used to bury their queens. He added that the French team has uncovered remnants of the burial room walls with religious inscriptions on them, and discovered the sarcophagus among the rubble.
The pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose nine-year reign lasted from 1333-1324BC, had a club foot, walked with a cane and was killed by malaria, a study that harnessed modern genetic testing and computer technology, and the results of which were recently made public, showed.
Researchers from Egypt, Italy and Germany also used DNA testing to draw Tutankhamun’s family tree. They analysed DNA taken from 11 mummies, including the boy king himself, and scanned all but one of the mummies to determine if they were related, looked for evidence of genetic disorders and infectious diseases, and determined what killed Tutankhamun at the age of 19.
“Many scholars have hypothesised that Tutankhamun’s death was attributable to an accident, such as a fall from his chariot or a kick by a horse or other animal; septicemia or fat embolism secondary to a femur fracture; murder by a blow to the back of the head; or poisoning,” the study said.
But genetic testing found evidence that Tutankhamun had been infected with a parasite that causes an often deadly form of malaria. The scans and genetic also showed he had several disorders, some of which ran in the family. They included a bone disease and a club foot.
The study described the pharaoh as probably “a young but frail king who needed canes to walk because of the bone-necrotic and sometimes painful Koehler disease II, plus oligodactyly (hypophalangism) in the right foot and clubfoot on the left.”
Tutankhamun’s many disorders probably weakened his immune system over time, and the researchers believe he might have died when, in his immuno-deficient state, he sustained a “sudden leg fracture, possibly introduced by a fall,” which snowballed into a life-threatening condition when he contracted malaria.
Using genetic fingerprinting, the researchers also lifted the veil on another mystery surrounding King Tut: his lineage.
The researchers determined that Akhenaten, the controversial pharaoh who ruled from around 1351-1334 BC and is known as the father of monoatheism, was Tutankhamun’s father, and that his mother was Akhenaten’s sister.
Tutankhamun also sired two children, both girls, but they died in the womb, the study found.
The study represents another step in blending science and history into “molecular genealogy” and “pathogen paleogenomics of the Pharaonic era,” the authors said. But it also raises ethical questions, in particular about when it is right to disturb the dead for a scientific study or examination, said Howard Markel of the University of Michigan in an editorial accompanying the study.
“But we have to take into account the respect that most societies have for their dead before we disturb the deceased with the wonders of 21st-century science,” Markel said.