TODAY   |  January 31, 2011

King Tut’s treasures defiled in Egypt

Amid political clashes, looters tore through 14 cases of priceless artifacts at the Egyptian Museum In Cairo, damaging some of the world’s most historic relics. NBC’s Kate Snow reports.

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ANN CURRY, co-host: Back now at 7:44 with the effort to save some of the world's most precious ancient artifacts amid this uprising in Egypt . We've got NBC 's Kate Snow now joining us with details. Hey, Kate. Good morning.

KATE SNOW reporting: Good morning to you, Ann. You know, Egypt is such an alluring place, filled with so much history, the pyramids, the Nile , mummies, the King Tut spring to mind, but unfortunately over the past few days some of Egypt 's treasures have been destroyed or defiled. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo this weekend, soldiers surveyed the damage, 14 cases, priceless artifacts damaged by thieves who seemed to be hunting for gold.

Mr. ZAHI HAWASS (Secretary General, Supreme Council of Antiquities): They were able, these two people, to enter inside the Cairo Museum from the top and they destroyed two mummies.

SNOW: Concerned Egyptians formed a human chain to protect the museum's treasures.

Mr. HAWASS: But thanks God, there is some Egyptians , real good Egyptians , tried to stop them.

SNOW: Still, the damage was done. Archaeologists and Egyptologists all over the world are studying the grainy images on Web sites , conferring with each other on blogs, and to their trained eyes, the destruction is devastating.

Dr. BOB BRIER (Contributing Editor, Archaeology Today): It just hurts, it really hurts.

SNOW: Dr. Bob Brier is an expert on Egyptian mummies who's been to that museum more than 100 times.

Dr. BRIER: It's like our Smithsonian , it's a repository of Egyptian culture .

SNOW: Many of the damaged or looted items came from the tomb of that famous pharaoh, King Tut . What are we looking at right there?

Dr. BRIER: That's a Tutankhamen object, King Tut . It's a -- it's a wooden statue that he was buried with and it's a panther and he was standing on top of it. And that was once in beautiful condition.

COWAN: How old is that?

Dr. BRIER: It's 3,300 years old.

SNOW: Two mummies were damaged, there were reports they may have been beheaded.

Dr. BRIER: This was on the mummy of Tutankhamen 's great-grandmother.

SNOW: There are reports of looting at other archaeological sites , including one of Egypt 's ancient burial grounds. On Sunday, the military stood guard at the museum in Cairo and at the famous pyramids, closed now to tourists. Experts are hopeful Egypt has enough security forces to protect most of its history, literally millions of ancient artifacts .

Dr. BRIER: It's crucial to protect all the sites, but it's a very difficult job.

SNOW: Most Egyptians do want to protect those treasures not only because they're culturally important but also because they serve as a major source of tourism revenue, of course. As we've seen, however, it only takes a few people, Ann , to do so much damage to something so historic.

CURRY: But then how did those people get into the museum? Is there any explanation as to why authorities were not doing a better job protecting these museums?

SNOW: Right. Apparently this museum under normal circumstances isn't the most protected place, although there is some security. But on Friday that crowd swelled, as we remember, so large, it got right up to the gate, into the courtyard and then some men were able to go up on the roof and get in through a skylight.

CURRY: You know, Zahi Hawass , who you interviewed for this, or at least we heard in your report...

SNOW: Mm-hmm.

CURRY: ...he said, I think he speaks for I think everyone listening, when he wrote in his blog, "My heart is broken and my blood is boiling." For those people who care so much, as we all really should because this is a very important legacy to all of us. Thank you so much , Kate Snow , this morning.