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After More Than 90 Years, Looted Mummy Parts Repatriated to Egypt

The skull and two hands were illegally acquired by a tourist in 1927 and were confiscated from an antiquities dealer

The repatriated mummy skull (Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities)
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A skull and two dismembered hands that belonged to three ancient mummies, which were smuggled out of Egypt more than 90 years ago, are being repatriated, according to antiquities investigators.

As Callum Paton at Newsweek reports, the remains were seized by U.S. federal investigators from a dealer who was selling the mummy bits to a collector in Manhattan.

Nevine El-Aref at Ahram Online reports that the remains are considered to be in good condition. An antiquities worker stole the pilfered parts from an illegal excavation in the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor, the warren of hidden tombs of pharaohs and queens. It came to the States in 1927 when a U.S. citizen brought the remains.  

“The fragments are now in the possession of American authorities, and will be handed over to the Egyptian embassy on 8 January at a large celebration in New York,” Abdel-Gawad, head of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ repatriation division, tells El-Aref.

Though Egypt has passed laws for over a century to protect its cultural heritage, it’s difficult to police the flood of antiquities from the region, which at one time were shipped by the boatload overseas. In recent years, however, the illegal antiquities trade has ramped up, fed by looting to fund ISIS and the ability to sell fake or untraceable objects online.

That has led to something of a crackdown. In the U.S., the district attorney in Manhattan recently established an antiquities unit. In Egypt, reports Hani Sameer at Al-Monitor, the Ministry of Antiquities has also begun efforts to prevent the international sales of antiquities acquired sometimes decades ago in violation of its laws. But that’s easier said than done. Many nations do not have laws against trading Egyptian antiquities, and other international laws make proving the provenance of a piece difficult. When Egypt does have proof that a piece was acquired illegally, however, it works with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and Interpol to prevent the sale of an item and often cooperates with the law enforcement of the nation in which the artifact was being sold to confiscate it. This is what occurred in the case of the repatriated mummy.

Last year, Sameer reports, Egypt was able to seize several hundred illegally exported artifacts and is currently funding a four-year effort to produce a database of all public antiquities collections to help track the vast number of mummies, statutes, pieces of jewelry and everyday items in its museums and storehouses. “Digitizing antiquities will limit theft operations and prevent the sale of Egyptian antiquities at [international] auctions,” Gawad tells Sameer. “It will also allow the recovery of registered artifacts.”

People within Egypt are also beginning to demand a stop to the looting of their heritage. The sale and looting of mummies in particular is galling to some people. In an interview with Rana Atef at Egypt Today, historian Bassam el-Shamaa’ calls on the trade to stop. “Egyptians should stop selling and smuggling Egypt's heritage,” he says. “It is against all human rights to sell dismembered parts of human bodies even if they are mummies. The returned dismembered parts should be kept within their mummies' cases in peace and serenity.”

Paton reports that this isn’t the only repatriation case in to make news recently. A 95-year-old woman in Australia described as a “real life tomb-raider” was recently profiled by a local television station. In the interview, she tells how she took artifacts from dig sites in Palestine and Egypt while her husband was stationed with the UN in the Middle East in the late 1950s and 1960s. Though she claims diplomatic status gave her the legal right to acquire her $1 million collection, Egypt’s Heritage Task is asking Australia to investigate her for smuggling the artifacts across borders.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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