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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cleopatra's Needle: Is NYC Pollution to Blame?

As you may have seen reported in the Wall Street Journal, TIME, and many other news outlets, there's a bit of an archaeological dust-up happening in Central Park. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg complaining about the condition of Cleopatra's Needle, the 71-foot tall obelisk that resides in Central Park directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The obelisk, a gift from the Khedive of Egypt, has been in the park since 1881, when William Henry Vanderbilt paid over $100,000 to have it transported from Alexandria to the United States. The needle--one of a pair--was constructed ca. 1475 B.C. and originally stood up the Nile in Heliopolis. Both obelisks were moved to Alexandria ca. 13 B.C., perhaps in honor of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. In antiquity, one of the needles fell in an earthquake, and that one was transported in 1877 to London, where it still stands on the banks of the Thames. Four years later, New York's obelisk arrived; weighing over 220 tons, the needle had to be inched along a special railway from its West Side dock at 96th Street to Central Park--just getting it across the island took 112 days!

For years, visitors to the park have complained about the weathering of the granite and the loss of its hieroglyphics. Many--including Zahi Hawass--have come to the conclusion that New York is to blame. As Hawass wrote in his letter to Mayor Bloomberg, "I am glad that this monument has become such an integral part of New York City, but I am dismayed at the lack of care and attention that it has been given. Recent photographs that I have received show the severe damage that has been done to the obelisk, particularly to the hieroglyphic text, which in places has been completely worn away."

But is that "severe damage" New York's fault? In his insightful archaeological blog, Per Storemyr examines the obelisk in old photos and comes to the conclusion that the obelisk was already weathered by the time it reached America. In particular, his points to the photo (above) from the Library of Congress taken ca. 1856-60, which shows that twenty years before it came to New York, the needle was "only in marginally better condition than today. The weathering continues along part of the south face, whereas other photos taken before the transfer to New York show that the east face is in good repair, just as today."

Will this photographic evidence be enough to convince Egypt that we are good custodians of this monument? Or should objects like Cleopatra's Needle be repatriated for deeper reasons of cultural patrimony?

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Read more about the creation of Central Park in

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