Cairo: Egypt is incensed at a 95-year-old Australian woman for looting precious antiquities.
Perth woman Joan Howard ??? dubbed "Indiana Joan" ??? has been accused by a group of concerned Egyptian archaeologists of looting artefacts from Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.
Earlier this month Howard gave an interview to The West Australian in which she proudly detailed her adventures during the 1960s and early 1970s while her husband, Keith, travelled widely in the Middle East.
"It was all good fun. Dirty work, of course. But as it turned out, very, very rewarding," she told the newspaper.
The antiquities are said to be worth around $1 million.
Howard used the diplomatic freedom afforded by her husband's job with the United Nations to travel between Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, where she volunteered on archeological digs with British and American archaeologists. Laws subsequently changed to make it illegal to dig for and remove antiquities.
The story says she now has Neolithic axe heads, pottery and weapons from the Phoenicians and the Romans, coins and seals and jewellery from the time of the pharaohs, and a precious funerary mask from Egypt.
Howard told the newspaper she felt "absolute wonder and astonishment" when she looked at these artifacts. Asked why she had kept quiet about her haul until now, she said: "You don't go round saying 'I've been in a tomb'."
However, Monica Hanna, a prominent archaeologist who works closely with the Egyptian government, has accused Howard of outright cultural theft.
"I was really appalled by her attitude because she broke the law", Hanna told Fairfax Media. "This is not something nice or fashionable to do to come and pretend to be Indiana Jones".
Shaaban Abdel Gawad, the director-general of the Retrieved Antiquities Department at Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities said, "We want to investigate how these pieces made it out of Egypt illegally".
Egypt's foreign ministry has contacted Australian authorities to open an investigation, Gawad said, and Neil Hawkins, Australia's ambassador to Egypt, was aware of the case.
Hanna said Howard's digs were not authorised by any educational institution, nor given permission from Egyptian or other Arab authorities.
"I would like the objects to be repatriated to Egypt, Palestine and the other countries" Hanna added.
She has started a petition, which has collected more than 400 signatures, also calling on Hawkins to investigate. Ms Hanna says that she has received informal correspondence from the Australian embassy in Cairo but no official response.
Fairfax Media could not contact Howard, but a family member speaking on her behalf said, "We have no comment".
A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman said the government was looking into the matter.
"Australia implements its obligations under the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) ??? this includes the return of foreign cultural property which has been illegally exported from its country of origin and imported into Australia," the spokesman said.
Egypt and the wider Middle East have been vulnerable sites for rampant illicit trade of important cultural artefacts by transnational criminal networks.
The so-called Islamic State at its height reportedly made millions of dollars trafficking in looted antiquities
In July, United States craft retail giant Hobby Lobby was ordered to pay a $US3 million fine for purchasing over 5500 smuggled ancient Iraqi objects via vendors in Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Australia and Egypt are both signatories of the Convention which stipulates that artefacts musts be properly returned to their countries of origin but the enforcement of such international treaties are haphazard and weak.
In May this year, the Egyptian government amended a law raising the maximum sentence for illegal trade of antiquities to life in prison.
"The theft of antiquities and its subsequent sale is not a new phenomenon and we are interested in retrieving those that belong to our country wherever they may be," Abdel Gawad said.
Australia returned 122 ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefactsto Egypt in November 2011 after they were discovered abandoned in Melbourne auction halls' storehouses.