In order to deny States the right to control excavations on their land and to prevent them from claiming ownership of artefacts found in their countries, James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, in his new book, Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage, goes so far as to deny any continuity between the peoples of present States and those of ancient civilizations. He denies that the present-day Egyptians have any links with ancient Egyptians:
“What is the relationship between, say, modern Egypt and the antiquities that were part of the land’s Pharaonic past? The people of modern-day Cairo do not speak the language of the ancient Egyptians, do not practice their religion, do not make their art, wear their dress, eat their food, or play their music, and do not adhere to the same kind of laws or form of government the ancient Egyptians did.” (1) This astonishing declaration is typical of the controversial pronouncements made by Cuno in his book which can be easily proven to be unfounded or mere speculation and in any case, not very helpful in finding workable solutions to present controversies concerning the retention of illegally exported or stolen cultural objects. Some of his statements are of such a nature that one wonders whether they are worthy of detailed examination. They are probably better left uncommented but since they come from a director of one of the most important museums in the Western world, they cannot be simply ignored. Take the statement that the present Egyptians do not eat the same food as ancient Egyptians. Is this serious? When Zahi Hawass claims the return of the Rosetta Stone or the bust of Nefertiti, should we examine his diet in order to establish his links to ancient Egypt which permit him to claim on behalf of present-day Egypt? Does our consumption of particular food establish our links or affinity with other peoples? Does the consumption of rice by many Africans establish in any way their links to Asians? What about MacDonald’s food which is wide spread in our world, does that make all of us Americans or one people? What about variations in food consumption patterns within a country along north/south lines or class lines? So who cares whether Zahi Hawass eats the same food as Tutankhamen did? For most of us, it is enough to know that they are both Egyptians and the one can legitimately claim the cultural achievements of the other on behalf of the Egyptian peoples of to-day.