After the "discovery" of the long-sought tomb of Alexander the Great fizzled away to fiction, Egypt has tightened its scrutiny of whom it allows to dig in the rich sands of its archaeological heritage. The team that claimed to have found the conqueror's burial place in 1995 is among four groups suspended from further excavation work. In recent months, Egypt's Higher Council for Antiquities has cracked down on its enforcement of regulations that previously were not uniformly applied, council chairman Ali Hassan said.
The council has checked for irregularities among the 35 foreign teams and dozens of Egyptian groups licensed to excavate in Egypt, he said. "We have stopped only one foreign mission and three Egyptian missions," he said. "It is a sort of discipline, a sort of rearranging our house."
Egyptian newspapers first reported the tightened scrutiny last fall, but what was involved did not become clear until late last month when reporters questioned Hassan during a public meeting.
Review of the archaeological missions stems from Greek researcher Liana Souvaltzi's claim to have found the 2,300-year-old tomb of Alexander in Siwa Oasis, in Egypt's Western Desert.
The announcement attracted international attention. But Egypt was embarrassed when experts later said tablets found by Souvaltzi's team were from several centuries after Alexander's death.
Subsequently, five Greek-Roman specialists were asked to review Souvaltzi's work. "It was one of the worst reports I have ever seen," Hassan said. "They all said she has to be stopped. There can be no experiments in archaeology because you destroy."
Souvaltzi, who is in Greece, has referred to the Egyptian action as "a war against me." She reportedly is taking legal action to regain her mission to dig in Egypt. Hassan said three Egyptian teams also were suspended because their work showed no results. Zahi Hawas, the antiquities council chief for the Pyramids and Sphinx, said other foreign archaeologists also made gaffes but said Egypt was partly to blame for allowing inept teams to work in the country.
"Sometimes, in the past decade, some heads of the Antiquities Department overstepped the rules and allowed unqualified people access," he said He said the biggest problems were amateurs or researchers like Souvaltzi who are funded by private sources, not recognized institutions that require teams to keep meticulous records of their finds, publish reports and restore their digs.
"We have set rules, and we are applying the rules," Hassan said. "I am only asking them to use the methods practiced by archeologists." Egyptians are relative newcomers to the craft of studying their ancient civilization, which dates back about 5,000 years.
Until the country's 1952 revolution, Egyptology was run by the French and English. Now, Egyptians want to protect their own past but still need the expertise - and money - provided by overseas universities and institutions. "Foreigners who work in Egypt do not own Egypt, and they have to know they are guests of Egypt," Hawas said. "We are the guardians to these monuments, but Egypt by itself cannot preserve and restore them."