An ancient wooden sarcophagus known as the “Green Coffin” has been returned to Egypt from the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences in the United States, after US authorities determined it was looted years ago.
The repatriation is part of Egyptian government efforts to stop the trafficking of its stolen antiquities. In 2021, authorities in Cairo succeeded in getting 5,300 stolen artifacts returned to Egypt from across the world.
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Mostafa Waziri, the top official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Monday that the sarcophagus dates back to the Late Dynastic Period of ancient Egypt, an era spanning from the time of the last Pharaonic rulers in 664 BC until Alexander the Great’s campaign in 332 BC.
The sarcophagus, almost three metres (9.5 feet) tall with a brightly painted top surface, may have belonged to an ancient priest named Ankhenmaat, though some of the inscriptions on it have been erased, Waziri said.
It was symbolically handed over at a ceremony following a news conference on Monday in Cairo by Daniel Rubinstein, the US chargé d’affaires in Egypt.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and the country’s Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa were also in attendance.
“A precious piece of Egypt’s history was recovered after cooperation with our friends in the US, and after efforts that lasted for several years,” Shoukry said.
Coffin was ‘trafficked’
The handover came more than three months after the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office determined the sarcophagus was looted from Abu Sir Necropolis, north of Cairo. It was smuggled through Germany into the US in 2008, according to Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L Bragg.
“This stunning coffin was trafficked by a well-organised network that has looted countless antiquities from the region,” Bragg said at the time. “We are pleased that this object will be returned to Egypt, where it rightfully belongs.”
Bragg said the same network had smuggled a gilded coffin out of Egypt that was featured at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum had bought the piece from a Paris art dealer in 2017 for about $4m. It was returned to Egypt in 2019.
In September, the Metropolitan Museum returned 16 antiquities to Egypt after a probe in the US concluded they had been illegally trafficked.
The return of the sarcophagus comes as more countries are demanding the repatriation of artefacts representing their heritage from museums in Europe and North America.
Egyptians have also been demanding the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone – one of the most important pieces in the British Museum – 200 years after the deciphering of the slab unlocked the secrets of hieroglyphic script and marked the birth of Egyptology.
Egypt says the return of artefacts helps boost its tourism sector, a crucial source of income for its struggling economy. The country is soon expected to open a new museum near the Giza pyramids to showcase its most famous ancient Egyptian collections.