Looted 2,500-Year-Old “Green Sarcophagus” Is Returned to Egypt


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Egypt is famous for its ancient history, among other topics. Unfortunately, for centuries looters have turned this history into an extremely profitable black market full of tablets, relics, and even large sarcophagi. The latter are famous, intricate coffins (or containers for coffins) in which ancient Egyptians with means were buried. Many are painted intricately, and some are inlaid with precious stones. A unique example, known as the green coffin or green sarcophagus, particularly stood out for its verdant “skin.” This antiquity, on view at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences until recently, was looted—a wrong which was finally righted in January 2023 with the artifact's return to Egypt.

The green sarcophagus appeared in the United States in 2008. In late 2022, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office determined the sarcophagus was looted from Abu Sir Necropolis, a site north of Cairo. A well-organized network of looters and middlemen smuggled it through Germany to America where it eventually came to rest in Houston. “The sarcophagus is very thick, which pushed looters to steal the sarcophagus's lid without the base,” said Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities at Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in a news conference. The painting of the coffin's former occupant unusually depicts green skin, hence the artifact's moniker. In 2019, The Metropolitan Museum of Art returned a gold sarcophagus they purchased which turned out to have a looted provenance traced to the same network.

The green sarcophagus was symbolically accepted by Egyptian authorities in a ceremony in Cairo on January 2, 2023. According to Waziri, the 9-foot-tall sarcophagus dates to the Late Dynastic Period, a period from the last of the Pharaonic rulers in 664 BCE until Alexander the Great’s campaign and subsequent rule in 332 BCE. The item is among the around 29,300 recovered looted pieces in the last 10 years, according to Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who attended the handover ceremony. Egypt is still attempting to regain some of their most famous artifacts, lost to colonialism and looting centuries ago. This includes the famous Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum.

A green-painted ancient sarcophagus has been returned to Egypt after it was looted in the 2000s.

Embed from Getty Images

h/t: [Gizmodo, PBS, CNN]

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Madeleine Muzdakis

Madeleine Muzdakis is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met and a historian of early modern Britain & the Atlantic world. She holds a BA in History and Mathematics from Brown University and an MA in European & Russian Studies from Yale University. Madeleine has worked in archives and museums for years with a particular focus on photography and arts education. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, film photography, and studying law while cuddling with her cat Georgia.
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