Egyptian Finds Are Real Treasures the Ancient Statues Recently Discovered in Luxor Are the Height of Pharaonic Art, Experts Say

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FOR more than two millenniums they lay in hiding: an alabaster sphinx of King Tutankhamen, a life-size Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the smiling cow-goddess Hathor. Their long sleep ended when a workman's shovel unwittingly struck one of their long-buried forms.

The discovery of a major cache of ancient statues in Luxor two years ago was heralded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of this century.

Given the country's habit of hyperbole about antiquities, the news was initially greeted with some skepticism. But experts now concede that the statues are of an unrivaled caliber, their execution marking a golden age of Pharaonic art.

In January, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the German Archaeological Institute jointly published a journal devoted to the Luxor sculpture cache. It described the statues as "the most extraordinary ever found" and "a sensational discovery of great importance."

Peter Kuhlmann, an Egyptologist at the German Archaeological Institute, adds, "There are obviously some first-rate statuary among them. Amenhotep III would be the kingpin of any exhibit. It's a masterpiece, an absolutely sublime masterpiece. This is probably by far the best piece uncovered. It is beautifully preserved and from the height of the art of this period."

The march of history had unknowingly passed above their mute heads. The soldiers of successive invading armies turned their temple sanctuary into military camps. Later, Egyptians themselves used the sacred courtyards as stables. They abandoned their faith in the pharaohs' many gods and turned to just one; first through Christianity and later through Islam.

Only 100 years ago, peasants living inside the temple itself were evicted. Today the world's curious fly in from distant places to marvel at the artistry of a lost civilization.

In 1989, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization began work to right the tilting columns of Luxor Temple. The 3,500-year-old monument lies along the Nile in Upper Egypt, 450 miles south of Cairo. It was begun by 18th-dynasty King Amenhotep III, one of the great builders of ancient Egypt, who died in the late 1300s BC. Later rulers - including King Tutankhamen, Ramses II, and Alexander the Great - added to its expanding complex.

It is a stunning structure. The courtyards are spacious and surrounded by rows of graceful columns. The monumental gateway is still flanked by colossal sculpture and one of the original pair of obelisks. The second stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

But the temple's location, in the center of Luxor and beside the Nile, has made it vulnerable to deterioration. Seepage from the river and the town's sewage have increased the level of groundwater under the temple itself.

In recent years, at least three of the majestic papyrus-shaped columns had begun to visibly tilt. The first step in repair plans was to take soil samples to determine the makeup of the temple foundations.

In the western part of the temple complex, beneath the courtyard built by Amenhotep III, laborers discovered the cache of statues. Almost 6 1/2 feet below the surface, a workman's shovel struck a smoothly polished stone base. In the immediate vicinity, the contours of the first statues could also be seen. Work was immediately halted and the authorities were informed.

By the following day, a nearly life-size statue of the temple founder himself had been freed from its burial place. The perfection of the statue, the renderings of detail and proportion, made it clear that the find was of great importance. …