Foreign Mission Rights

In several readings and class lectures, the nationalities of archaeologists excavating the sites of ancient civilizations have been mentioned. In his February 4 lecture, Dr. Watrall (an American who has excavated in Egypt) mentioned the current involvement of the Germans in the excavations at Ma’adi, and we know that Flinders Petrie, who did a significant amount of work in Egypt, was British. While in the latter case of Petries’s work in Egypt, the involvement of the British has rather obvious reasons (Egypt was not yet fully independent from Britain), how did Dr. Watrall, the Germans, and other non-Egyptian teams come to work in Egypt? Further, who takes “ownership” of the items found during these excavations?

In earlier times, archaeology in Egypt—and many other countries—was mostly a “free for all.” Indiana Jones–esque explorers, merchants, and anthropologists associated with the military took advantage of the lack of regulation and law enforcement and dug where they pleased, often taking priceless artifacts with them. For instance, after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, archaeologists associated with his military “took home hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts: columns, coffins, stone tablets, monumental statues” (emphasis mine), which today still remain in France, taking up “entire floors of the Louvre Museum” (National Geographic, 2013, p. 2).

Today, especially in light of the stealing and black market trade of antiquities, Egypt has a government agency dealing with all requests for archaeological missions. This agency, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is the ultimate power in deciding all things related to Egyptian cultural heritage ( The homepage of its website states that it “formulates and implements all policies concerned with antiquities; issues guidelines and permits for the excavation, restoration, conservation, documentation, and study of sites and monuments; and manages a country-wide system of antiquities museums,” along with doing research, excavation, and conservation of its own (Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2013). The ministry’s website provides all of the forms and rules/regulations related to applying and obtaining permission for foreign missions.

In order to complete the application for a mission in Egypt, there are many conditions that must be met, some obvious (e.g., photocopy of passport, mission director and affiliated institution information), some less so (e.g. five photographs of each mission member, payment / room and board for the Egyptian inspectors that Egypt requires accompany each foreign mission, agreement not to excavate on Fridays). Additionally, mission areas are under stringent regulations: prior to receiving permission to dig, foreign missions must get detailed maps of their site of interest approved and may not stray from these areas—even renewing permissions is an extremely regulated process. Any discovered artifacts are the property of Egypt and no amount (even samples for analysis) may be removed from the country without express permission.

As of fall 2011, some of the countries performing excavation, conservation, or documentation work in Egypt were Japan, Germany, the United States, Spain, France, and Poland. Currently, the only areas open to new missions are the Delta, Western Desert, and Eastern Desert—all places extremely and immediately threatened by population growth and other factors. All of Upper Egypt is closed to new excavations, although some restoration, preservation, and documentation missions will be allowed.

Interestingly, Google returned hits for foreign archaeology in Sudan, Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece (countries I randomly chose), but I could not find any information on foreign mission in England or the United States. This leads me to believe—if there really are no foreign missions in the United States or England—that foreign archaeology is significantly intertwined with power relations. I would welcome any information from Dr. Watrall about this.


1 thought on “Foreign Mission Rights

  1. Mel Walker

    You raise a lot of interesting points about foreign involvement in studying another culture’s history. Archaeology has an unfortunate past filled with racism, ethnocentrism and insensitive research methods. Earlier archaeology was more about treasure hunting than gaining perspective on past cultures. It is good to see countries enforcing stricter guidelines on their cultural resources and foreign researchers following them.

    Your last point about there not seeming to be foreign missions in the United States or England is interesting, especially considering England’s past as a colonial powerhouse. This is probably part of the reason that it doesn’t have a lot of the foreign missions that countries like Egypt do.

    Looking at a similar issue, North American archaeology has a spotty past with the way it has treated Native American artifacts and remains. While not quite the same as foreign missions, it is a case of one culture examining another’s past. The growing number of Native American archaeologists, especially among the Navajo, and the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act has a done a lot to help this issue. Having archaeologists who descend from the cultures being studied can help others gain insights and perspectives they might not otherwise have. It can also help relations and communications between academics and the people who descended from the culture or are currently a part of the culture being studied.

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