National Geographic : 2016 Jun
plundering the past 65 antiquities trade for looting, claiming that many artifacts on the market were stolen. Collectors, dealers, and many museum curators counter that most antiquities sales are legal. Some argue that the ultimate goal of safeguarding human- kind’s artistic heritage obliges them to “rescue” antiquities from unstable countries—even if it means buying from looters. The story of Shesepamuntayesher gives these abstract questions a harsh clarity. By piecing together clues from Egyptologists, mu- seum curators, and federal agents, I’ll retrace her journey from a grave somewhere in Egypt, through a complex network of antiquities smug- glers, handlers, and dealers, to this high-security holding tank in New York City. The first step is to locate Shesepamuntayesh- er’s likely burial place. Based on her coffins’ hi- eroglyphs and artistic style, Egyptologists at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that she lived around 600 B.C. A search of Egyptian coffin books and antiquities websites reveals a similar sarcophagus, of a woman with the same unusual name, reported to have been found at Abu Sir al Malaq, a site 60 miles south of Cairo. In ancient times Abu Sir al Malaq, then called Busiris, was a prosperous city overlooking the floodplain between the Nile River and El Faiyum oasis. It was famed for its temples of Osiris, god of fertility and the afterlife, and for the splendid graves of its 4,000-year history. Today, in hazy sunlight, Abu Sir looks like a recently bombed battlefield. Craters and shafts gash the rolling sand where looters have rummaged in the earth with shovels, backhoes, and dynamite. In the process they’ve violated countless graves, leav- ing a grim scree of skulls and shattered bones around many looting pits. Amal Farag, the head Antiquities Ministry official at Abu Sir and nearby sites, takes me on a tour of the site with five guards carrying Kalashnikovs. A slender, upright woman of 49 with a hard mouth and gentle eyes, Farag picks up strips of cedar with wooden nails and traces of red pigment—fragments of ancient sarcoph- agi. “The looters keep only the good pieces and smash or throw down the rest,” she says. “For every nice piece, they destroy hundreds.” Farag leads me to a shaft tomb in a hillside, angling down into a dark chamber. Here, in April 2012, she confronted three looters. During a routine visit to Abu Sir with a colleague, she noticed a taxi parked near the tomb. Coming closer, the two women came face-to-face with three tall, muscular men in galabia robes. “I told my colleague, ‘If you feel afraid, just pretend you’re very proud,’ ” Farag says. Pride did the trick: After glaring at them wordlessly for a moment, the men climbed into the taxi and drove off. Now Farag leads me into the tomb and points to the spot on the floor where she found two splendid sarcophagi that the looters had stashed under a blanket. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see niches cut in the rock walls of the chamber and tunnels leading to other chambers deeper in the hillside. Perhaps Shesepamuntayesher was looted from a tomb like this. She would have lain in one of these niches, surrounded by the objects she’d cherished in life: jewelry, a walking stick, papyri containing magic spells, chests decorat- ed with gods of the dead. Her ancestors and de- scendants would have occupied nearby niches, with their own treasures. If found intact, such a family tomb would open a bright window on the past. Even orphaned by looting as she is, Shesepamuntayesher is valuable because of her hieroglyphs and paintings, but properly excavated she’d be priceless—the difference between a page torn from a book and an entire book, set in a large library. Farag and her colleague managed to haul the two coffins out of the grave and load them into their car so they could be moved to a safe place. On the drive back to ministry headquarters, they were chased by a Peugeot 504 that came within inches of their bumper. Finally, at an Tune in at 8 p.m . on Sunday, June 5, to National Geographic Channel’s Explorer series episode Blood Antiquities.