(Political) “Scientific War”

Oh, Oh. This won’t be pretty.

There is an article at the National Geographic news site saying that Zahi Hawass, the scientist with the rather pompous title of General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is making waves again.

Upping the ante, Hawass on Sunday told his country’s parliament that he “will never again organize antiquities exhibitions in Germany if it refuses a request, to be issued next week, to allow the bust of Nefertiti to be displayed in Egypt for three months.”

While this sounds like a rather inconvenient tit for tat between two museums, it is far more serious.

Hawass is not an unwritten book. He has been pushing for the return of Egyptian artefacts to Egypt since he got his title.

You know this guy. His is the face of Egyptian archaeology, not only on National Geographic but on any show involving a pyramid in Egypt today. He seems to have two modes – Indiana Jones with rolled up sleeves and (I kid you not) a Fedora and the perfect Middle East minister with tailored suit and perfectly manicured fingernails. You can’t film about ancient Egypt in Egypt without giving him airtime.

He certainly doesn’t worry about science stuff. During the NOVA episode The Mummy Who Would Be King, he walked into a room and declared, in a booming, confident voice, that a newly rediscovered mummy was ‘royal.’

Myself, I can smell royal mummies. And I know the difference from a mummy to the others. You know, I discovered, in my career, more than 254 mummies. And I can really look at the face and from the first sight I will find out that it’s royal mummy or not.

I have seen a report on the discovery of a number of mummies where archaeologists wondered if they had discovered Nefertiti’s tomb. The reporter asked a conservator working on one of the mummies a rather innocuous question. The terror this woman felt was written in her face. She stammered something and told the reporter that he needed to talk to Hawass. Only Hawass gets airtime. To disobey this rule is to fall into disgrace in Hawass’ eyes.

But there is one person who Hawass really dislikes. That is the director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Dietrich Wildung. From an article in the LA Times,

If Hawass is a master at outreach, he’s a black belt at infighting.is loftiest target has been Dietrich Wildung, an eminent scholar who runs the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. In 2003, Hawass announced that Egyptian police had a tape of known antiquities thieves talking about the kinds of things Wildung would be willing to buy from them for his museum’s collection.

“The … authorities have incontrovertible evidence that he was involved in the illegal trafficking and buying of antiquities,” Hawass wrote in his column for the English edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. But when asked why Egypt, two years later, still hasn’t moved to indict Wildung — as Italian authorities recently did in bringing a case against Marion True, the J. Paul Getty Museum’s curator of antiquities — Hawass acknowledges that the tapes are hearsay that can’t prove a case.

Now Hawass wants Germany to “loan” the classic Nefertiti bust back to Egypt. The Germans think that as soon as the statue is back in Egypt it is gone. Possession is, after all, nine-tenths of the law. Since this also the central piece in the German museum, they are understandably nervous about giving it up. It would kill their exhibition.

There are long traditions of German and Egyptian scientists working together. Germany was active both before and after the second world war and many major discoveries were made by Germans. Thus a disagreement on this level might cause an academic break.

But unlike the nice quiet science types, Hawass plays hard ball. He is ratcheting up the language. Back to the National Geographic piece,

Hawass said today that he would send a letter to Germany tomorrow formally requesting a loan of the bust for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum.

The museum is scheduled to open in 2012 near the site of the Great Pyramids at Giza, just outside Cairo.

“I will begin a negotiation,” Hawass said.

If it fails, Hawass said, he will organize a worldwide boycott of loans to German museums.

“We will make the lives of these museums miserable,” he said. “It will be a scientific war.” [My emphasis]

No. It will be a political war. A political war where science plays a very minor role compared to the ego of one Egyptian minister.

It is a political (science) war.

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2 comments so far

  1. Nahman on

    Normally in any scientifical project politics play a very bad role as in raccomandation scholars( not the best)just because friends of Mr.X or Mr.Y.
    In this case I saw with my eyes what happened in Hawass’s office with the German delegation.
    I am suggesting to Wildung: why he didn’t send to Hawass a very pretty German lady to convince him to be more reasonable, the only small that he can fell is that and the wine
    Good luck

  2. blc303 on

    I wish you could give me more background on meeting. I’d love to hear the inside story.

    Arguably you couldn’t send a very pretty German lady to convince him. She would have to have nothing to do with archaeology, meet him at some political soirée, get him in an inconvenient position and then take pictures. Then you might get somewhere.

    Germany will have to wait until Hawass gets out or is removed from of office. Whether the next director will be any different will remain to be seen.

    Most directors of national scientific organisations are political animals (look a Michael Griffins) and not scientists. The question is how far they bend over to please the politics or whether they try to protect the science from politics. Hawass and Griffin are examples of the “throw science to the wolfs” mentalities.


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