Those forgotten mummies in the cellar must be cursed

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Egyptian archaeologists, who normally scour the desert in search of treasures of the past, have discovered that one of the greatest caches of antiquities may well be in the basement of the Egyptian Museum. For the last century, artifacts have been stored away in crates there and forgotten, often allowed to disintegrate in the dank, dusty cavern.

Forgotten until now. The recent theft and recovery of three statues from the basement have prompted antiquity officials in Egypt to redouble an effort already under way to complete the first comprehensive inventory of artifacts in the basement.

"For the last 100 years, curators sat down to drink tea, but they did not do their jobs," said Zahi Hawass, the general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. "How many artifacts are in the basement? It was awful."

Step through a small, Hobbit-sized door, down a steep flight of stairs and through a locked gate. The basement is a maze of arched passageways and bare light bulbs hanging from decaying wires. It is packed with wooden crates, hundreds of them, sometimes piled floor to ceiling.

Cobwebs cling to ancient pottery and tablets engraved with hieroglyphics. Six hundred coffins and 170 mummies have been found so far. No one knows what may have been stolen over the years. Last year, officials reported that 38 golden bracelets from Roman times had vanished from the basement, apparently six years earlier.

"It is an accumulation of 100 years of neglect," said Dr. Ali Radwan, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo University who took a recent tour of the basement. "It is not appropriate for a country like Egypt to have such miserable storage for its history."

The Egyptian Museum is a 104-year-old repository of the some the world's most famous antiquities. Inside, there are the mummified remains of pharaohs, like Ramses II, who died in 1212 B.C. There are the treasures of the young Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the golden chariot and the golden mask.

Built and designed by the French, the two-story building in central Tahrir Square has changed little over the decades. It remains crowded with an estimated 120,000 items, most of which have also never been properly inventoried, museum officials said. And even the exhibition areas can be haphazardly arranged: some of the labels date to colonial times, and some items are not labeled at all.

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