My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The 3,000 year-old 26-foot tall quartzite statue of Ramses II recently discovered underneath a Cairo slum didn’t bear Shelly’s famous lines, but the sentiment was too apt to ignore. Though the ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ have yet to be unearthed, first reports indicate that excavators have uncovered the monumental bust and crown of the famous Egyptian ruler. And like their Romantically-rhapsodized counterpart, the real-life remains now attest not to Ramses’ greatness, but, by way of contrast with the dingy environs in which they were found, to just how much the world has changed in the course of three thousand years.

These days we don’t talk so much about the glory of particular rulers as we might the glory of a given civilization. Glory of this sort is often demonstrated with reference to treasures like the newly-uncovered Ramses statue, which serve as much as claims to history as they do sources of national pride. So it is unsurprising, then, that Egypt’s national Ministry of Antiquities works doggedly to fund excavations like the current one in the Cairo slums, despite the difficulty of such digs. “New construction and a rapidly rising water table,” the American Research Center in Egypt reports, put researchers working to uncover the ancient city of Heliopolis under challenging conditions; add to this the more than 8 meters of “domestic and industrial waste” and rubble that has been dumped on the site in just the last few years and salvage archaeology in Egypt begins to take on a certain air of urgency.

Such urgency has sometimes led to aggressive public policy. For example, in April 2010 a blustery statement from the then-head of the Ministry of Antiquities (also known as the Supreme Council of Antiquities), Mr Zahi Hawass, demanded that Western countries in possession of Egyptian artifacts hand them over to the government in Cairo. A representative of the British Museum, from which Hawass was seeking a return of the famous Rosetta Stone, said at the time that “no official request” had come from the Egyptians, suggesting the head of the Supreme Council may have gone out on a limb. But Hawass, who has since left his post at the Ministry but remains an outspoken campaigner for repatriation, promised to “fight” for the return of every artifact on his “wish list”. “Important icons should be in their motherland,” he said, “period.”                               

Hawass’ position has the benefit of clarity, but it ignores the impossibly complex web of factors—legal, cultural, historical, ethical—that pertain to questions of artistic ownership. Americans don't often have to confront these questions simply by nature of our relatively short national history, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. When government ministers are also cultural guard dogs, the heavy hand of the state has a way of impressing itself a bit too eagerly on conversations best left to civil society. And it is easy for these conversations to derail a government’s focus, particularly when it comes to social spending and investments. Residents of the north Cairo district in which the Ramses colossus was found may enjoy the spectacle of discovery in their back yard, but when the academics and government ministers eventually pack up, they’ll be the ones left to live with the “boundless and bare/the lone and level sands” of urban decay.

Discoveries such as the Ramses colossus are exciting and important for any number of reasons, but perhaps it’s worth keeping them apart from nationalistic politics.

Photo credit: josep salvia i boté via / CC BY-ND