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Undiscovered Treasures Are Key Worry of Egyptologist

Willeke Wendrich, professor of Egyptian archaeology and digital humanities at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, answers questions about the volatile situation in Egypt. She has received three grants from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration to investigate agricultural sites from the Neolithic period in Egypt’s Fayum region. She continues to pursue questions about the introduction and development of agriculture in this fascinating ancient culture.

Q: We’ve heard about some vandalism that occurred several days ago at the Cairo museum. (Pictures: Ancient Egyptian Artifacts Damaged in Looting.) What about the key sites outside of Cairo?

There are reports from several areas outside Cairo that have sustained damage or looting. On the other hand the major sites in Luxor and Aswan seem to be safe, and are even open to visitors. Other, especially rural areas of Egypt are very quiet, and life goes on pretty much as usual.


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The head of the mummy of King Tutankhamun, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, first published in 2009 in National Geographic magazine. The mummy has survived the current unrest intact.

NGS stock photo by Kenneth Garrett

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The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It has escaped damage in connection with protests in the city.

NGS stock photo by Kenneth Garrett

Q: What are some of the most unique and valuable treasures of Egypt?

The contents of the tomb of Tutankhamun are of course among the most famous archaeological treasures in the world, but what I am really worried about are the things that have not yet been studied, have not yet been published, or have not been mapped or excavated. Through random digging by looters we are losing valuable information on Egypt’s history and culture. An excavation is a one time opportunity: it can only be done that once, and if it is not executed or recorded properly the information is lost forever.

Q: How do average Egyptians view their patrimony?

In general Egyptians are very proud of their cultural heritage, something that was beautifully illustrated by the human chain protecting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There is a strong feeling that Egypt is unique in the world, and that there is a direct line between the forebears of the Pharaonic period, and present day Egyptian families. It is expressed, for instance, in personal names such as Nefertiti, Ramses, or Menat, given by both Coptic and Muslim parents to their children as a reflection of this pride and appreciation of a glorious past.

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A nested set of coffins from King Tut’s tomb, also thought to be safe. The coffins are housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the richest collection of Egyptian antiquities.

NGS stock photo by Kenneth Garrett


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Statues of Tutankhamun and Ankesenamun at Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt. Ancient sites there are thought to be safe.

NGS stock photo by Kenneth Garrett


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The Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile River. The valley was the principal burial place of major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, including King Tut.

NGS stock photo by Kenneth Garrett

Q: What is the nature of your own research in Egypt, and has it been affected by the uprising?

My own research, which by definition is cooperative, involving researchers from at least ten different countries (including of course Egypt), concentrates on the Fayum, an oasis 60 miles southwest of Cairo. In the past days I have mainly tried to find out whether my colleagues and friends are OK. I have asked one of my Egyptian colleagues to check whether there is any damage to the area we work in, but frankly speaking I don’t expect there to be. I am working in settlements, rather than tombs, and we excavate mostly ancient garbage, rather than ‘precious’ objects. I hope to go back to Egypt as scheduled in September.

Barbara S. Moffet is a senior director of communications at the National Geographic Society. She specializes in shining a spotlight on the Society’s numerous grant recipients, who do field research around the world.

Related News Watch blog posts:

Looted Treasures Recovered, Egypt’s Antiquities Chief Reports

UN Calls on Egypt to Safeguard its “Cultural Identity”

Young Egyptians Rally to Protect Egypt’s Ancient Heritage

Plundering of Tombs, Museums, Antiquities Widespread, Egyptian Official Reports

Ancient Treasures Looted, Destroyed in Egypt’s Chaos


Ancient Egypt
A collection of National Geographic Magazine photos and features about the world’s greatest trove of ancient treasures.