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British Museum: “The removal of any material from an archaeological site is damaging”

A new exhibit at the Tate Modern is based on the artist’s experiences with a fragment broken off one of the Pyramids in Egypt that he later returned. What is more interesting though is the comments from the British Museum on the issues raised by this – despite the fact that many of the artefacts in their collection were originally acquired in similar circumstances by untrained excavators without proper permits.

Daily Telegraph [1]

Tate show reveals artist’s pyramid theft
British artist Andy Holden is to reveal how he stole a piece of the Egypt pyramids in a new exhibition at the Tate Britain in London.
Roya Nikkhah, Arts Correspondent
Published: 9:00AM GMT 10 Jan 2010

The artist’s guilty secret began with a seemingly innocent trip to Egypt.

Accompanying his father, who was there on business, Andy, then 12, was taken to the Great Pyramid of Giza: the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still surviving – relatively intact – and the oldest and largest of the pyramids at the Giza Necropolis.

“When we arrived at the pyramids, unthinkingly I broke off a lump of stone from the side of the Great Pyramid in Giza,” said Mr Holden. “I got home and put it on a shelf in my room alongside a collection of other souvenirs I had as a kid, but when my parents found out, they were furious and it ended up becoming this terrible guilt object.

“I didn’t tell anyone else what I had done, but it had been haunting me in the last few years, so I thought I’d try to undo the guilt by travelling back to Egypt and putting it back in its original spot.”

“Consumed” by guilt, Mr Holden’s attempts at reparation didn’t end there: he also created a “colossal” replica of the rock. The sculpture is now featuring in a new exhibition at Tate Britain in London.

Pyramid Piece 2009, a giant knitted boulder, is being displayed alongside a film work, Return of the Pyramid Piece 2008, in which Mr Holden can be seen climbing the pyramid and returning the stone to its original spot.

Under Egyptian law, it is illegal to remove any item from a cultural heritage site without the Egyptian government’s permission. An international Unesco convention also prohibits the removal of cultural artefacts without the country of origin’s knowledge and permission.

In 2008, Mr Holden returned to Egypt and attempted to replace the rock in the exact spot from where it was taken, enlisting the help of a tourist to film his efforts.

After returning from his pilgrimage to Egypt, he set about knitting a replica of his stolen rock, working from photographs and diagrams he had made before returning the rock to the pyramid.

The work, which is nearly 10ft high, took more than a year to knit in a laborious process which Mr Holden describes as “a work of penance”.

“The sense of guilt I felt was so hugely out of proportion compared to this incidental fragment of stolen rock,” he said. “I suppose the gesture of knitting a colossal replica is an absurd work of penance on my behalf for the original crime.”

Archaeology experts condemned Mr Holden’s theft from the pyramid but said they hoped it would raise awareness surrounding the illegal removal of antiquities.

A spokesman for the British Museum’s Egyptian Department said: “The removal of any material from an archaeological site is damaging and we hope that this art work showing the artist returning this piece will encourage other people to be more responsible when they visit such sites.”

Sally MacDonald, the director of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London, said: “If you remove an artefact without permission, you are not only stealing from that country, but robbing humanity of knowledge, because once you take it away from that site you lose all manner of contextual information that can never be replaced.

“I am glad that this issue is being aired in an exhibition and I hope it will make people think twice about taking home illicit souvenirs from their holidays.”

Dr John De Salvo, the director of the Great Pyramid of Giza Research Association, said: “Breaking a piece off the pyramid is definitely not the right thing to do, but I can understand why he felt overpowered by the magnificence of the pyramids and wanted a memento.

“I applaud his attempt to make reparations and hope his work will encourage interest in the pyramids.”

Art now: Andy Holden runs at Tate Britain until April 10.