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Egyptian monuments repatriated after a century

Egyptian antiquities will be returned by Ireland to the Egyptian Museum in 2023, after ongoing negotiations between both sides failed in 2011.
A visitor views artefacts in one of the galleries of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, United Kingdom, July 28, 2022.

CAIRO — Egypt has been working to recover its monuments from around the world, successfully repatriating some stolen monuments in 2022 and continuing negotiations to have others returned.

According to statements this month by Monica Hanna, assistant professor of archaeology and cultural heritage, Egypt is working to have the mummy of Schepenese, located since 1820 at the Sao Galo Abbey Library in St. Gallen, Switzerland, returned. In addition, there are continuous attempts and negotiations to return the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum in London and the iconic Nefertiti’s head statue from the Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

Recently, an online campaign was set up by a group of Egyptian archaeologists, led by prominent Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawas, calling for the recovery of the Rosetta Stone. In October, archaeologist Monica Hanna told Al-Monitor that the petition collected more than 2,500 signatures in the effort to create public pressure to return the stone to Egypt.

After 100 years of housing a mummified body, a sarcophagus, four canopic jars and a set of coverings (cartonnage), the University College Cork  (UCC) in Ireland announced the repatriation of the objects two weeks ago.

“We as a university wanted to place the objects in the best possible professional setting, where they will receive specialist care and expert academic appreciation,” UCC President John O’Halloran told Al-Monitor

The most prominent artifacts that will be returned are the mummified human remains that are believed to belong to a 5-foot-6-inch adult male, estimated to be 45-50 years old at the time of death. The second item is a wooden sarcophagus, probably sycamore, applied with plaster and decorated with pigment.

The coffin dates to roughly 625-600 B.C. An inscription found on it indicates that it belonged to a man named Hor. The painted decorations on the lid and sides depict the procession of the gods to the table of offerings where the deceased — Hor — is presented by Thoth, an Egyptian god of writing, wisdom and magic. The human remains do not belong to Hor, to whom the sarcophagus belonged. Testing done on the wrapping of the remains dates it at around 305 B.C. to 500 A.D., meaning the sarcophagus pre-dates the human remains by several centuries.

The sarcophagus was displayed at the Cork Public Museum “From the Nile to the Lee” exhibition in 1993.

“The sarcophagus and mummified remains came as a donation from the African Missionaries, a Catholic religious order that had a presence in Blackrock, near Cork City, at the time [1928],” O’Halloran said. “The coffin was excavated by Italian Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli sometime between 1903 and 1904, from tombs in the Valley of the Queens. It is possible — though unconfirmed — that it was subsequently sold at the Salle de Vente at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo."

Also among the antiquities are four canopic jars used to preserve the bowels of the dead. The university bought them in 1911 from antiquities dealers. It is believed that they are the oldest holdings among the objects, as they date back to 975-700 B.C., in addition to a set of cartonnage, which are made of linen, plaster and paint, and used to preserve mummies. Otherwise, there is no accurate information on how they arrived at the university.

An ape-headed canopic jar with a detachable lid represents Hapy (ape), one of the four sons of Horus. A hieroglyphic panel appears on the body of the jar consisting of a prayer to Hapy for the deceased — "Pa-wer son of Pa-aa-em-mer, whose mother is Tanebetwadj." 

Another human-headed canopic jar with a detachable lid represents Imsety/Amset (human), another son of Horus. The conical cavity within the jar would originally have held some of the deceased's mummified internal organs — perhaps the stomach and large intestine.

The announcement of the return of the artifacts came after ongoing discussions that started early in 2022 between the UCC, the Egyptian and Irish governments, and the National Museum of Ireland.

“I wish to emphasize the utmost importance of the ongoing cooperation between the University College Cork and the Egyptian state through the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Dublin, in seeking the return of the Egyptian mummy and the set of the canopic jars to our homeland," Mohamed Sarwat Selim, Egyptian ambassador to Ireland, said in statement at the UCC two weeks ago.

Egypt had previously entered into talks with the UCC to return the mummy and house it at the Grand Egyptian Museum when it opens in 2023, but the unstable political situation after 2011 left the mummy at the Irish university.

In September, Egypt recovered a 10-feet-long wooden coffin lid from ancient Egyptian times from the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which was smuggled out of the country in addition to 16 artifacts. The recovered items include six artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum, which were confiscated by the US Attorney's Office in New York. In the same month, two ancient statues were recovered from Belgium.

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