Stolen Egyptian tomb fragment found in Australia

  Last updated July 19, 2019 at 1:36 pm


A monument stolen from an Egyptian tomb 25 years ago has turned up in Australia after a museum director discovered it in his collection.

An ancient tomb fragment stolen from Egypt and long believed lost has been found in Australia and returned to where it belongs.

As a result – and all being well – the prized Seshen-Nefertem stela from the tomb of a temple administrator who lived during Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty (380-332BCE) will be restored and on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo sometime this year or next.

The discovery was made by the director of the Macquarie University’s Museum of Ancient Cultures, Martin Bommas, soon after he arrived to take up the position late last year.

One of the few people in the world who can read hieroglyphs, Bommas recognised the fragment of limestone slab as the fourth and final piece of the stela and quickly got on the phone to the Egyptian Embassy.

“The Thirtieth Dynasty was before the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great,” says Bommas. “During this era, Egypt was at its cultural peak. And the execution of this stela makes it one of the best we have, quality-wise, from that time.”

stolen Egyptian tomb artefact Macquarie University Martin Bommas Egypt Luxor

The original stela fragment, now returned to Egypt. Credit: Macquarie University

1994 theft tracked to Switzerland then Australia

It certainly has an interesting recent history.

The four pieces were found separately between 1976 and 1988 during the excavation of an ancient cemetery near Luxor, only to be stolen from storage at Luxor’s Qurna museum in 1994 and spirited out of the country.

The theft led to a significant change in how Egypt deals with foreign archaeologists. Where previously those who found artefacts could access them at will, suddenly they had to apply to do so.

Three of the four fragments were discovered in Switzerland in 2017.

Recent investigations reveal that the then unidentified fourth piece was gifted to Macquarie University in 1995 by an individual who had bought it for $5000 from collectors with known connections to Switzerland. Macquarie University did not pay the collector for the piece.

“There is a lot at stake here. We want to continue working with international organisations to dry out the swamp of stolen and fake pieces. Returning objects is a key aspect of our work,” says Bommas.

It is now safely in the hands of Shaaban Abdel Gawwad, the general supervisor at Egypt’s Department of Restored Antiquities.

Video courtesy of Sophie Gidley at The Lighthouse.


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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

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