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Ancient history can still hit a nerve.
A researcher's offhand comment made international headlines in recent weeks, jeopardizing Brigham Young University's dig at an ancient Egyptian cemetery. But the university this week says the dispute is resolved.
BYU Egypt Excavation Project director Kerry Muhlestein, the source of the slip, plans eventually to return to work at the site.
At a November conference in Toronto, Muhlestein projected that the burial site may hold up to a million bodies mummified by the elements an announcement apparently strictly reserved for Egyptian officials.
This week, Muhlestein said in a prepared statement, "I am fully pleased with the spirit of cooperation and communication we have had with the [Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities] over the years and during the last few weeks. It has allowed miscommunications to be rectified."
The snafu threatened to put on hold three decades of work in Egypt by BYU researchers and students.
Willeke Wendrich, a professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it's protocol for the ministry to announce big discoveries.
"This was just an unfortunate coincidence that this one remark got picked up and blown up," Wendrich said. "I don't think this was meant to be an announcement of a great new find."
The status of the project is unclear. University officials aren't saying how long research was halted. And the Egyptian agency overseeing excavations did not respond to requests for details this week.
The university is pleased "to have been able to communicate with them in regards to misinformation that has arisen about our excavations at Fag el-Gamous," the school said in a statement.
In response to requests for information from The Salt Lake Tribune, the Egyptian ministry emailed a list of permitting and other requirements for archaeological sites.
The department will suspend any archaeological mission if its director neglects to "immediately" notify the office of any new discoveries, the rules stipulate.
The future of BYU's Egyptian archaeology project was in question late last month after Muhlestein described the burials.
An online agenda for the conference of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities shows Muhlestein was scheduled to present an academic paper on Nov. 14 called "Death of a Poor Man: How the 'poor' prepared for burial in the Roman Fayoum."
For years, archaeologists from LDS Church-owned BYU have been excavating plots at the cemetery, a densely packed burial place 60 miles south of Cairo.
Unlike Egyptian royalty, the people buried in Fag el-Gamous were more common. Teams have unearthed about 1,700 bodies, textiles and religious icons.
The cemetery is thought to span the beginnings of Christianity in Egypt. A 2003 university news release noted BYU teams have uncovered religious artifacts including crosses, carved fish, rosettes and clay Madonna figures buried alongside the bodies.
The same online news release from the university notes the "Egyptian government's Supreme Council of Antiquities gave BYU the task of both discovering and preserving the history of the people buried there."
In an interview with online science magazine LiveScience, Muhlestein described the 18-month-old child his team had found and a 7-foot-tall man who seems to have been bent in half before burial.
After being quoted in multiple news stories in recent weeks, Muhlestein provided a written statement this week and declined to be interviewed.
The story made headlines around the world. But Muhlestein's comments apparently upset leaders at Egypt's antiquities ministry, which told the team to stop work at the site, The Cairo Post reported.
"What was published in the newspaper is not true," Youssef Khalifa, head of the ministry's ancient Egypt department, wrote on the office's Facebook page, according to the newspaper. "A mummy definition to begin with means a complete mummified body and there is only one mummy found at the site of Fag el-Gamous in 1980, which is at the Egyptian Museum since then."
He called the bodies in question "only poor skeletons and plenty of bones, some of which are wrapped in textiles."
Khalifa's Facebook comment could not be found on the department's site.
Meantime, Muhlestein is back teaching at the Provo campus this semester, BYU spokesman Joe Hadfield said. He has taught at the university since 2006, according to a résumé posted on his faculty page.
Wendrich, who oversaw Muhlestein's graduate thesis when he was at UCLA, where he earned a doctorate in Egyptology, called Muhlestein "a wonderful person and a diligent researcher. And I think he was carried away by his enthusiasm."