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How Egypt's Present Is Affecting Studies of Its Ancient Past

A man in front of a liquor store in Moscow last year
A man in front of a liquor store in Moscow last year

FAITH LAPIDUS: This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

BOB DOUGHTY: And I’m Bob Doughty. This week, we tell about a new report about alcohol abuse. And we tell how the recent political unrest in Egypt has affected American archeologists who are working there.


FAITH LAPIDUS: The World Health Organization says alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of death and disability in the world. WHO officials say the misuse of alcohol kills two million five hundred thousand people a year. And, the officials are calling for action to reduce the problem.

The WHO released the “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011” last month. The report shows young people at risk. It says three hundred twenty thousand people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine die each year from alcohol-related causes. That is nine percent of all deaths in that age group.

BOB DOUGHTY: Shekhar Saxena is director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the WHO. He says alcohol is responsible for one-third of the deaths among young people in some parts of the world.

SHEHAR SAXENA: “Consumption and harmful effects of alcohol are increasing in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, which have less powerful regulations and which have less health services available.”

The World Health Organization report finds that six percent of all male deaths worldwide are linked to alcohol. This is true in only one percent of female deaths. The report says one in five men die from alcohol-related causes in the Russian Federation and neighboring countries.

FAITH LAPIDUS: There are four main causes of alcohol related death. Injury, from car accidents or violence, is one. The others are diseases like cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, heart and blood system diseases. The WHO report says alcohol abuse also adds to the development of two hundred other diseases.

Dr. Saxena says people who are dependent on alcohol live ten years less on average that those who do not have the problem.

The WHO has a plan to reduce the misuse of alcohol. It includes raising taxes on alcohol, reducing the number of businesses selling alcohol and raising the drinking age. Officials say other measures include better drunk driving laws and banning some alcohol advertising.


BOB DOUGHTY: Archeologists from several American universities left Egypt during the events leading up to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. But some archeologists and students are still working in Egypt, or they left but plan to return.

At least ten American organizations provide educational programs with a specialty in studies of ancient Egypt. Their students are among hundreds of people involved in current and recent Egyptian archeological projects.

Zahi Hawass, center, standing near a damaged coffin at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He has announced plans to resign as head of the Ministry of State for Antiquities.
Zahi Hawass, center, standing near a damaged coffin at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He has announced plans to resign as head of the Ministry of State for Antiquities.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Laurel Bestock is with Brown University in Rhode Island. Professor Bestock led five graduate students on a recent excavation at Abydos, in southern Egypt. They worked there as part of a program with Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University.

The group left Egypt five days before the anti-government protests began. Professor Bestock says their return to the United States was not linked to the ouster of President Mubarak.

Abydos was one of the most important ancient cities in Upper Egypt. Archeologists have been working there for more than a century. But the area continues to give up secrets from thousands of years ago.

The Brown University group plans another visit to Egypt in December. Professor Bestock says, “There is no reason to believe that we will not return.”

BOB DOUGHTY: Archeologist Suzanne Onstine started her work in Egypt in January. She is working with two graduate students from the University of Memphis, in Tennessee. The three continued their project through the anti-Mubarak protests and his resignation. They are currently working at an excavation at Theban Tomb Sixteen. This is a burial place of an important official who served a king. It is on the west bank of the Nile River, opposite Luxor.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Some travel guides have described Luxor as the world’s largest "open-air museum." The area covers and surrounds the place where the city of Thebes once stood. Luxor is about six hundred forty four kilometers south of Cairo.

Lorelei Corcoran directs the Institute of Art and Archeology at the University of Memphis. She heard reports of objects being destroyed in the Luxor area as her team worked there. Professor Corcoran says the school community was tense and worried about their people during the anti-government unrest. Archeologists from the University of Chicago also remained at work in Luxor during the unrest.

BOB DOUGHTY: Jay Van Rensselaer was also at Luxor when the protests began. Mr. Van Rensselaer works as a photographer, taking pictures of artifacts for Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He was with Johns Hopkins students and group leader Betsy Bryan at the time of the protests. They were working in the Temple of Mut Precinct.

The photographer says he left the dig on January twenty-eighth for Cairo. He waited at the city’s crowded airport, where he was able to get a flight to the United States. Several others remained at Luxor for a few days. Then they returned to Maryland.

Mr. Van Ransselaer says he is hopeful about the future of foreign archeology there. He believes the new government will welcome foreign research teams.


FAITH LAPIDUS: All archeology programs operating in Egypt need permission from the government to work in the country. Scientist Zahi Hawass had led the Supreme Council of Antiquities for years when the government changed.

Last week, Mr. Hawass announced plans to resign from his position as head of the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs. He also expressed deep sadness about criminal attacks on the country’s archeological treasures. On his blog, he identified more than twenty areas that have been robbed or suffered damage after huge protests began.

His comments came after the appointment of a new prime minister, Essam Sharaf. Egypt’s military rulers asked Mr. Sharaf to lead the government.

BOB DOUGHTY: Zahi Hawass was appointed to his cabinet-level position in January, shortly before the protests forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign. For almost ten years before that, the archeologist had served as chief antiquities official.

Mr. Hawass is often described as a colorful leader who has brought Egypt’s long-ago past to the attention of the world. He has appeared in many television programs that tell about his nation’s monuments and mummified remains.

Mr. Hawass has made many discoveries. He sent artifacts from young King Tutankhamen and his family to a number of foreign museums. Some observers say that through his efforts, foreigners have brought billions of dollars into his nation.

Mr. Hawass also has fought for return of art objects that he says belong in Egypt, where they were found. A good example is the Rosetta Stone. It is now at the British Museum in London. Writing in three ancient languages on the stone contains a declaration made for King Ptolemy the Fifth. Mr. Hawass has promised to make life unpleasant for museums that he believes have unlawfully kept Egyptian art objects.

FAITH LAPIDUS: But Mr. Hawass has recently come under criticism. During the anti-government protests, a small demonstration took place near Mr. Hawass’ office. About one hundred fifty Egyptian archeology students and workers demanded that he resign. They accused him of corruption and treating employees unfairly. They said that not enough jobs are available in archeology in Egypt.

Critics of Zahi Hawass also noted how he reacted to attacks on the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The museum sits on Tahrir Square, where the large demonstrations took place. At first, he said no objects were stolen from the museum during the unrest. But he later said that a number of objects were missing or broken.

Other experts defend Mr. Hawass. Peter Lacovara is Egypt, Nubia and the Near East curator for the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Georgia. He says it would have taken some time to discover losses and damage in the Egyptian Museum. Mr. Lacovara also praises Zahi Hawass for improving the administration of archeology of Egypt. And he says Mr. Hawass has brought the study of the ancient world into the twenty-first century.


BOB DOUGHTY: This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jerilyn Watson and Caty Weaver. Our producer was June Simms. I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. Listen again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.