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Book Review: ‘A World Beneath the Sands,’ by Toby Wilkinson

As for Ernest Alred Thompson Wallis Budge, when sent to acquire antiquities for the British Museum, he too bribed the police, bought stolen artifacts from illicit dealers, stole, smuggled and justified his actions in the same way countless archaeologists and amateur scavengers have justified theirs: “The objects would have been smuggled out of Egypt all the same; the only difference would have been that instead of being in the British Museum they would be in some museum or private collection on the continent or in America.” In other words, they would have ended up someplace quite like his own, and how, pray, could anybody want that? It’s an amusing characteristic of all the players in these hundred years of excavation that every one of them claimed ample reason for removing antiquities from Egypt, legally or illegally, yet howled with outrage when anyone else did the same.

Where were the Egyptians when all this plunder of their heritage was taking place? They were there under the heels of their visitors, providing cheap or, when the labor was enforced, as it often was, free labor for the crushing work of archaeological excavation. In exchange they were characterized as ignorant, lazy, abject and shiftless. If they sought to make a few pence by pilfering a piece from an excavation site, they were severely punished.

The European stronghold on Egyptian archaeology was so firm that not until 1909 were Egyptian citizens of means allowed to sponsor formal excavations in their own country. As for the Egyptian leadership, from Muhammad Ali to King Fuad, few Egyptian leaders held the nation’s antiquities in much regard; they blithely quarried ancient monuments for the stone to build modern factories and casually tossed precious objects to the British and the French in exchange for loans and political favors.

In 1912, a growing ripple of Egyptian nationalism became an outraged wave when the exquisite painted limestone bust of Nefertiti (“fresh as the day it had been made 35 centuries before”) was discovered at Amarna by a German excavation team and promptly removed to Berlin. “More than the Rosetta stone,” Wilkinson writes, “or the Dendera Zodiac, the Luxor obelisk or Cleopatra’s Needles … the bust of Nefertiti came to represent for Egyptian nationalists the exploitation and appropriation of their history by foreigners — a perennial insult that had gone on for more than a century.”

We hear a lot now about “cultural appropriation,” a term lately fired with reflexive ease at even the slightest cultural crossover. This, however, was a frenzied, long-term, all-out cultural heist, complete with government-funded pistols and getaway car — one of many in the greater schemes of world history.

This is a riveting, sometimes appalling story. I think it’s important to say that Wilkinson’s prose style is so smooth and straight and unadorned as to be nearly nonexistent. In fact, as I closed the book I wondered fleetingly in exactly whose company I had just spent hundreds of pages, for as a writer, Wilkinson draws little attention to himself and only now and then opines. With another sort of story this could be considered a flaw. Here, it’s a strength. Wilkinson is a consummate historian. As such, he needs no histrionics or mood music to hold the reader’s attention or spin his tale along. He has mastered the facts with painstaking research and allowed them to speak for themselves. Rarely do facts speak this clearly.

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