After years of being illegally trotted over the globe, a 3,000-year-old, ornately painted, hieroglyphics-inscribed sarcophagus is homeward bound to Egypt where the ancient relic can finally rest in peace.
Alert to red flags that signaled its illegal transport, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at the Miami International Airport intercepted the ancient coffin and immediately contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
ICE Special Agent Vincent Menditto, who spearheaded the subsequent two-year investigation that began in October 2008, said one clue that the ancient sarcophagus was brought into the U.S. illegally was the way it was shipped-"in bubble wrap, blankets and Styrofoam peanuts."
Suspicions were confirmed when Felix Cervera, a Spanish gallery owner who had shipped the sarcophagus into the U.S., could not provide proper provenance (documentation showing ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature). Cervera had shipped the sarcophagus from Barcelona, Spain, to Dublin, Ireland, to Orlando, Fla., and then to Miami, Fla.
The chronology of the item's recent history is mixed and murky: Cervera claimed he purchased the ancient coffin in 1970 from an individual who claimed to have found it in 1972 in either Egypt or Europe during his travels. Aside from the date discrepancies, it's worth noting that 1970 was the year UNESCO Treaty laws were enacted to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property.
Cervera filed a judgment protesting the seizure of the sarcophagus, but dropped the complaint when ICE cited the Egyptian Ordinance of 1835, "Decree on Antiquity Protection Measures," which bans the export of "masterpieces of centuries." Had federal authorities not seized this particular masterpiece in Miami, it would have continued jet-setting. Cervera had sold the sarcophagus to an individual in Maryland for $22,000. This individual, in turn, had another buyer lined up in Canada.
Menditto remarked that the two-piece wooden plastered and painted coffin appeared to have been kept out of the sun as the paint was bright and the hieroglyphics were "crystal clear." To ensure it remained preserved, officials stored the 21st Dynasty coffin in a super-secure, climate-controlled storage facility, aptly named the Fortress, where it resided until ICE returned it to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in a repatriation ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., on March 10.
Investigating the loss or looting of cultural heritage properties and returning them to their countries of origin are important parts of ICE's diverse mission. In fact, this is the second repatriation ceremony ICE has held in recent weeks. On Feb. 25, ICE returned historical and cultural treasures to Iraq. ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said, "We have a tremendous responsibility that transcends us as people or even as institutions or countries" in returning ancient and cultural artifacts back to their countries of origin.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Egyptian SCA, thanked ICE for returning the sarcophagus, which he called "the heritage of the world."
"It was amazing to see the confidence and sincerity between us" working together every day, Hawass said. "The country that helped us is the United States; I told President Obama."
Glad that the Egyptian sarcophagus case is closed, Menditto said there are always issues when "people start digging up the dead, and now the sarcophagus is where it should be."
Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, the artistically-rendered coffin that dates back to 1070 BC may have at one time held a body's mummified remains. Who had been buried in it? What is the meaning of the ancient writing?
ICE deferred these and other questions to authenticator Lorelei Corcoran, associate professor of art history and director of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis. She holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and is the author a monograph, Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt, and numerous articles on the funerary art of ancient Egypt.
Corcoran said that the coffin was made for an elite male in society and depicts "ancient Egyptian gods, goddesses and protective mythological symbols." The hieroglyphics are "captions" that identify the gods and goddesses as "Osiris and his two sisters, Isis and Nephthys and the four sons of Horus." Deciphering text down the center of the sarcophagus, Dr. Corcoran said are "requests for offerings to be provided to the deceased, including bread and beer."
To read a full news release on the repatriation ceremony in Washington, D.C., visit the ICE News page.