Forgery, (de)authentication, and modes of expertise.

Rachel Yuen-Collingridge and I spent part of February and March as Visiting Research Fellows of the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, an amazing institution which I strongly recommend visiting and working in if the opportunity arises – many thanks to our hosts for making our time there so profitable. While we were there we were working on our ARC-funded project on forged papyri as part of the HRC’s 2018 annual theme ‘Imagining Science and Technology 200 Years after Frankenstein’.

As part of my fellowship, I gave a paper in the HRC seminar series which I used to sketch out some ideas on how the HRC’s research theme of the humanities’ engagement with science and technology related to our work, by tracing some of the scientific and technological engagement with ancient manuscripts, and especially forged manuscripts and papyri. I also used this opportunity to think about the book that Rachel and I will write as part of the forgery project, which will focus on Constantine Simonides and what we might concentrate on within his huge, complicated, and fascinating story. The (still somewhat long) summary below necessarily skates over a number of important issues somewhat superficially, and there are many loose ends I need to chase up, paths I need to follow much further, and no doubt things I have not yet thought of; but I hope it serves as a spur to further conversation and is of some interest nonetheless.

Part of this discussion needs to be about the way different modes of academic expertise interact, and, importantly, how the public perceives, evaluates, and values these academic expertises. To have this discussion properly, we need to think about what is meant by ‘expertise’, both in the context of the mid-19th century, when the self-taught could rise to the top of their disciplines, and in the present day, when distrust of expertise and the rise of the internet as a means of propagating opinions has led to the ability to project arguments which are persuasive to various publics, who are inclined to accept claims that there are truths which are being hidden form them. Of course, we also need to think about precisely what we mean by ‘science’; what counts as scientific investigation; what it means to make the claim that one’s study is ‘scientific’; and the validity of the bases on which disciplines whose institutional or traditional home is within the arts and humanities make this claim. These days a lot of archaeological research presents itself as science, but what is it that makes it thus? And, of course, as we’re talking about authenticating artefacts, we have to think about what we mean by the malleable and multivalent concept of ‘authenticity’. These can be challenging questions, and investigating the history of science and its engagement with the humanities throws into relief how difficult they are to answer.

Rather than trying to define these concepts (‘authenticity’ in particular eludes definition and should be left fuzzy; the others would require posts in and of themselves), I want to reflect on the interaction of different modes of expertise, and different modes of viewing them, in the assessment of ancient artifacts. In the paper, I focused on two figures from the mid-nineteenth century, a forger and a chemist, whose echoes I looked for in the twenty-first century.

The first of the mid-nineteenth figures was the master forger Constantine Simonides (1820 or 1824 – 1867 or 1890, depending on who you believe), who needs little introduction.1 The other was the chemist Henry Deane, who is a little less known. Henry Deane (1807–1874) was a chemist who learnt on the job and through voracious reading, rising to be President in 1853–55 of the Pharmaceutical Society in which he remained a central figure in until his death in 1874, on which the Society commissioned a portrait of him which hangs in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum in London.

Wyburd, Francis John, 1826-1893; Henry Deane (1807-1874), President of the Pharmaceutical Society (1853-1855)
Francis John Wyburd, Henry Deane (1807-1874), President of the Pharmaceutical Society (1853-1855); Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum;

Alongside pharmacy, Deane had a second related legacy, microscopy, in which field he made important observations about microscopic fossils in chalk rock, discovered a genus of algae, and pioneered a technique for mounting slides with glycerine.

It was his expertise in microscopy which led to his paths crossing with Simonides; maybe not literally, as they may not actually have met, but Deane was drawn into the Simonides affair after Simonides arrived back in England in 1858, carrying a palimpsest manuscript in which Uranius’ History of Kings of Egypt was supposedly underlying a medieval ecclesiastical manuscript. This has been denounced as a forgery already in Berlin in 1856 (though not before Wilhelm Dindorf had published part of a – swiftly recalled – edition with Oxford University Press), but the controversy over the papyri Simonides ‘discovered’ in the Mayer collection in Liverpool led to a reopening of discussion over the authenticity of the Uranius. Deane was contacted by John Eliot Hodgkin, a Liverpudlian businessman and collector of antiquities, who was the chief supporter of Simonides and

Portrait of Francis Wenham, 1866. Source: Wikimedia Commons

defender of his manuscripts in England at this time. According to letters from Hodgkin to Deane now in the State Library of Victoria (which we had the opportunity to examine last year), Hodgkin asked Deane to engage ‘your most eminent collaborators in microscopical investigation in London’, in the task of examining the Uranius manuscript and some of the papyri, at which Deane called on the expertise of the optician and microscope maker Richard Beck, and the microscopist, aeronautical pioneer, and inventor of the wind tunnel Francis Wenham.

In the course of more than a year considering the Uranius and the papyri, Deane gave his opinion publically at a meeting of the Royal Society of Literature,2 and prepared a handwritten report, now in the State Library of Victoria. While he vacillated in his opinion on the issue of the Uranius’ authenticity – as a number of alarmed letters from Hodgkin demonstrate – at both the Royal Society meeting and in the report, he disagreed with Wenham, Beck, the naturalist and microscopist Freeman Roper, (whose opinion Deane mentions), and the German microscopropists who had already examined the Uranius, by declaring that his “full conviction that the uncial writing (i.e., the Uranius) is under the cursive or Ecclesiastical and moreover that if it is a forgery Simonides is not the author of it.” The following year, in 1865, Simonides left England, never to return. And Deane seems not to have interacted with manuscripts, forged or otherwise, again. His reputation certainly did not suffer among his fellow chemists and microscopists, all of which seem to have forgotten about the episode.

As mentioned above, by the time Deane saw the Uranius manuscript, it had already been subject to a full philological, textual, and historical examination by scholars in Germany, most prominently the Egyptologist Carl Richard Lepsius, the editor of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica Georg Heinrich Pertz, as well as Dindorf himself. However it had also received scrutiny in January 1856 by a trio of top German microscopists, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, and Gustav Magnus.

Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, and Gustav Magnus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ehrenberg was the doyen of German microscopy in the period, and was Chief Secretary of the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1863 when he wrote a letter describing the examination that he and his colleagues had undertaken which was reproduced in the Royal Society of Literature’s Report of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature on some of the Mayer Papyri and the Palimpsest MS. of Uranius belonging to M. Simonides with Letters from MM. Pertz, Ehrenberg and Dindorf (London: John Murray, 1863).

As Ehrenberg explains there, Lepsius wanted more proof of forgery than his philological and historical analysis could provide: he needed ‘material proofs of forgery’ (materieller Beweise), and so turned to the microscopists, who adduced various proofs around the relationship of the uncial writing to the ruled guidelines for the 12 century ecclesiastical text (on which Pertz had also concentrated), and the 12 century script itself. During the debate over the Uranius in Berlin and Leipzig, a tincture was also applied to the manuscript which, it was believed by some made ancient but not modern ink turn blue. This procedure had been discovered by Charles Blagdan in the eighteenth century, who by testing a number of solutions on a number of medieval manuscripts (some of which caused the writing to be obliterated) found that a combination of a dilute acid and a phlogisticated alkali made the ink he was examining turn a brilliant blue.3 What Blagdan called ‘phlogisticated alkali’ we call Potassium ferrocyanide (K4Fe(CN)6 . 3H2O), but Deane (who used the same procedure) and his fellow nineteenth century chemists called Prussiate of potash. Yet as noted by Alexander Lykurgos, a Greek who at first unwittingly aided Simonides in constructing the Uranius before writing a long work denouncing him, this procedure was not so much a test of authenticity as a reading aid, which is indeed what Blagdan had proposed it for.4

The examination of the Uranius initiated a new phase in the use of microscopy for studying manuscripts, but also raised the public profile of microscopy. The Evening Mail reported on 3 March 1856 that ‘Professor Ehrenberg’s microscope, which did such good service in procuring undeniable proof of the Simonides fraud, has been made use of again, to detect the thief that stole a barrel of specie, which had been purloined on one of the railways’. (Italics mine). In the case of the ‘Perkins folio’ of Shakespeare, in which the authenticity of the corrections and marginal additions on the manuscript was disputed, Nevil Maskelyne, Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum, ‘suggested the use of an instrument which has already done good service in an analagous case (that of the Simonides Uranius) – the microscope’, as he reported in a letter to the Times in 1859.5 And it was no doubt the role the microscope had played in the deauthentication of the Uranius which led Hodgkin to seek out British microscopists to examine the Uranius, to try to overturn the earlier opinions formed on the same basis.

It was during the 19th century that microscopes emerged as guarantors of authentic reproduction within science, as zoologists not only gained ever increasing ability to see the natural world at the microscopic scale, but also, by using a machine, to gain what they asserted was a more objective and authentic view of this micro-world. Using a microscope still relies on human sight, but the machine was an essential component of the process. It is also to the nineteenth century that Daston and Galison date the development of the discourse of objectivity itself.6 It is in this context, within the development and propagation of concepts of mechanical objectivity that we see the recourse to the microscopists and chemists in attempts to prove both forgery and authenticity, to provide the definitive answer which, it seemed, observation of the language and script could not.

We might put the growth of microscopy’s engagement with studies of manuscripts into dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s observations some 80 years later, problematising the relationship between original and copy ‘in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, lamenting the loss of the aura of the original. And also with one of the other great technological advances of the 19th century which effected both manuscript studies and concepts of authenticity and originality, the development of photography.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, from the time of Mabillon, Montfaucaon, and before, discussions of authenticity had been based exclusively on the traditional methods of studying manuscripts. From that time until now, scientific engagement has advanced exponentially, to the point where now a wide array of techniques are used to study manuscripts which are under no suspicion of being fakes, and ones which are suspected of being that. The case of the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife’ provides an apposite recent case, where a battery of scientific techniques were used to test the papyri. In the present day – something this case also demonstrated –the collection history of an object has also come to occupy an increasingly central role in discussions of authenticity. Just as in the case of Simonides’ manuscripts, the debate over the ‘Gospel of Jesus Wife’ advanced the field, and led to new methods of ink-testing which made advances which may be very significant for the study of ancient inks.

So we could argue that forgery is a catalyst for disciplinary innovation; that such moments of crisis drive fields forward; and that in response to the vulnerabilities caused by uncertain data, new techniques are developed. We could partner this with reflections on the role of technological change in exposing the vulnerabilities of human systems, and increased anxiety about the status of information distributed in new forms of media, from changing book technologies in antiquity and the renaissance, to the new digital media of today. If we position the figure of the forger as an embodiment of these anxieties, someone who by appropriating traditional and novel ways of affirming authenticity exposes the flaws within systems of verification, we gain a very interesting insight into the interaction of different modes of expertise and how the public perceives them.

These various public evaluations of expertise were on display in the mid-nineteenth century, but they were even more evident recently, with the way the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ wife’ was reported in some sections of the media, with the scientific results highlighted; and received by some in the general public, as perusal of comments sections in traditional media (e.g. the New York Times, or Boston Globe) and online fora such as Reddit (e.g. here or here) shows. While many argued past each other on the basis of other debates and fault lines in American society, many were simply more receptive to the supposedly more objective scientific opinion, than the subjective, emotional, uncritical, and possibly biased judgment of humanities scholars. This is of course to some extent a simplification, but I think this tendency can be detected in public responses to media reporting of the case.

We might contextualise this public reaction to different modes of expertise by positioning it within developing relationship between academic disciplines, especially at points where not only their findings but their methodologies come into friction. We might compare here the recent unwillingness by Nassim Taleb and his online supporters to acknowledge that evidence used by ancient historians was acceptable data in his argument with Mary Beard over race in Roman Britain (or indeed the twitter debate between Taleb and US-based Iraqi intellectual Nibras Kazimi over the genetic history of Lebanon). And we can of course talk about this in relation to the rising distrust of ‘experts’ (or ‘so-called experts’ as some would call them) in public debates – climate change, Brexit, gun-control, vaccination, immigration. Yet against this suspicion of expertise, we could compare the use of scientists in advertisements for a range of products, to vouchsafe the reliability of the product. The classic examples were of course the smoking advertisements, but now – and more legally – scientists (or actors in white coats) appear in advertisements commenting on research (or perhaps ‘research’) on a whole range of products.

So as we look back at these cases of the interaction of the humanities and sciences in the assessment of forged manuscripts, we can ask ourselves a more general question about what we’re witnessing. Are the humanities here merely a staging ground for debates within science over who has the better techniques, instruments, reputation? Is it thus an opportunity for scientists to debate each other, or are they engaging with the humanities, and with the issues underlying the question of forgery and authenticity? When giving their opinion on manuscripts, scientists from Deane’s time until today are usually clear that they do not regard their findings as the last word. Yet the public often interpret them as if they were, or they’re being presented in this way by proponents of one view or another. So is this an issue of communication within the academy, or of the academy with the wider community?

There’s much more to explore here, and many more things for us to understand about the way authentication interacts with science and technology, modes of expertise, and the public gaze. Part of that will be explored by Rachel in her HRC seminar, ‘Negotiating Authenticity: Fakes in the Public and Private Worlds of Disciplinary Expertise’, to be delivered later in the year, so please stay tuned for further thoughts on this issue.

Malcolm Choat.


1. The wikipedia page for Simonides provides a very basic orientation; a bit more detail, though dated, is in chapter 3 of Literary Forgeries by Andrew Farrer. Among things not available freely online, I recommend A.E. Müller et al., Die getäuschte Wissenschaft. Ein Genie betrügt Europa – Konstantinos Simonides (Vienna: Vienna University Press, 2017), and on the time period I focus on here, especially the excellent chapter by Massimo Pinto, ‘Simonides in England: A Forger’s Progress’ (pp. 109–126) (partially visible in Google Books).
2. See The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art and Science, Feb. 14, 1863.
3. C. Blagden, ‘Some Observations on Ancient Inks, with the Proposal of a New Method of Recovering the Legibility of Decayed Writings’, Philosophical Transactions 77 (1787) 451–457.
4. Alexander Lykurgos, Enthüllungen über den Simonides-Dindorfschen Uranios (Leipzeig, 1856), 70, n. 1.
5. Reproduced in N. Hamilton, An inquiry into the genuineness of the manuscript corrections in Mr. J. Payne Collier’s annotated Shakspere, folio, 1632 : and of certain Shaksperian documents likewise published by Mr. Collier (London 1861) p. 142–146, at 143-144.
6. L. Daston‪ and P. Galison‬, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books. 2007), which should also be consulted on the rise of the microscope in the 19th century.

The Authenticity of the Body


On Thursday March 22, at 4:00pm – 6:00pm (Australian Hearing Hub, Level 5, Room 212, Macquarie University) the Markers of Authenticity Seminar Series will recommence for 2018 with two speakers, Dr Karin Sellberg from the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland, and Professor Wendy Rogers from the Departments of Clinical Medicine and Philosophy at Macquarie University.

Our theme this seminar is the Authenticity of the Body, that is the way the body has been regulated and thought of in medicine, the media, and in society. Ideas about what constitutes the ideal state and what variations are permissable, tolerable, invited, and recognised shape the possibilities we imagine for ourselves and our conception of what it is to be embodied.


Narrative Authenticity: Transgender Identity, ‘Passing’ and Coming-of-Age Stories

Dr Karin Sellberg, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland

From its modern emergence in the 1950’s and 60’s, transgender subjectivity and embodiment has relied on narrative as a means of transformation. After the highly publicized international announcement of the ‘first sex change’ of Christine Jorgensen in 1952, there was a surge of transition autobiographies published, outlining the pre- and post-transition histories and emotional developments of (initially primarily female-to-male) transsexual authors of various nationalities and backgrounds, as well as a number of academic works, also by transgender authors, analyzing these autobiographies and the questions they pose about gender.

Bernice Hausman recognizes both types of texts to be narratives of authenticity, or identity formation in Changing Sex (Routledge, 1995). Stories about how ‘I always knew I was a little girl/boy’, have become canonical within transgender academia and culture, as well as within the private experiences of transgender men and women. Not merely have they become the means by which a person can prove their transgender status within the clinical space, and thus receive treatment, but they’ve also become an often reiterated and internalized means of connection and self-recognition within transgender cultural spaces.

This paper will investigate the ways in which a number of linked transgender coming-of-age blogs reiterate the narrative structures as well as the more or less theoretical analyses coming out of the autobiographical transgender canon. I will argue that there is a canonical shape, content and understanding of the narratives of self appearing within this online community, and that these constraints determine the perimeters of ‘authentic’ transgender experiences.



“Overdiagnosis and the problem of ‘real’ diseases”

Professor Wendy A. Rogers, Department of Philosophy and Department of Clinical Medicine, Macquarie University.

 The criteria for defining what ‘counts’ as a disease are contested in philosophy and medicine alike. Conditions such as measles, tuberculosis or malignant melanoma are widely accepted as authentic diseases. In contrast, conditions such as Gulf War Syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme-like disease occupy a less certain place in Western nosology. Longstanding challenges in defining disease have been exacerbated by technological advances in medicine that permit identification of ever smaller degrees of abnormality; by the introduction of widespread screening programs; and by changes in diagnostic criteria for specific diseases. These factors have prompted the observation that much of diagnosed disease does not progress in the expected ways, a phenomenon known as overdiagnosis. Overdiagnosis is the detection of conditions taken to be diseases that would not have harmed the individual if left undetected. Overdiagnosis of “non-authentic” diseases raises a plethora of conceptual and ethical challenges, upon which I touch in this talk.

Disobedience in the Milgram Experiments: Kathryn Millard’s Experiment 20

Professor Kathryn Millard (Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies) has been working on the famous Milgram ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiments for a number of years, mining the archives for new critical insights into the human reality behind the now infamous conclusions. Her interdisciplinary projects, working with psychologists in the United Kingdom, get under the skin of psychological method and reveal on film the importance of small moments of resistance. Following on from the success of Shock Room, Experiment 20 (featured in the Guardian Australia’s Present Traces series) highlights the experience of women participating in the experiment by using recordings of the experiment to bring them to life on the screen. Professor Millard will be discussing these projects in the final event of our Markers of Authenticity seminar series, The Spectacle of Science, this year in November.

Online Conspiracy Forums and Belief – Colin Klein, Peter Clutton & Vince Polito

phil-colin_klein 2

Last year, Dr Colin Klein (Philosophy, ANU) presented in our Markers of Authenticity seminar on ‘Faking the News’ with Dr Margie Borschke (MMCCS, Macquarie University) on the 14th of August. Colin’s work, with colleagues Peter Clutton (formerly ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University) and Vince Polito (Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University), on conspiracy theories and the online communities which disseminate these has now been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology: Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 21 2018). Check out ‘Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests within an Online Conspiracy Forum‘ to learn more about how this work on online conspiracy forums complicates our picture of belief. Vince Polito will be speaking later this year in our Markers of Authenticity seminar on the Authenticity of Faith.

‘Markers of Authenticity’ in 2017

We’re a bit late on reporting on our Markers of Authenticity series in 2017, but thought we should put out a recap as we look ahead to 2018.

In 2017 the Markers of Authenticity Interdisciplinary Seminar Series continued at Macquarie University, supported by funding from Faculty of Arts Research Theme funding scheme, and the MQ Ancient Cultures Research Centre: we’re very grateful to both bodies for their generous support.

Our 2017 program saw an increase in disciplinary representation across the Faculty and University: as well as the range of fields represented by the presenters, the audiences regularly featured staff and students from a wide range of departments (International Studies; English; Ancient History; Music, Media, Communication and Cultural Studies; Linguistics; Philosophy; Modern History; Security Studies and Criminology; and Cognitive Science). Audience numbers averaged between 20 and 30 throughout the year, with several larger events exceeding this. This year we aimed to enhance our  links with other research clusters and centres, and to this end co-sponsored events with the Centre for Applied History, the ‘Environmental Humanities’ research cluster, the ‘World Literatures and Cultures’ Research Cluster, and the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies.

In the first half of 2017 we held three events: a seminar ‘On Authenticity and Race’ on May 26th, given by Dr Adam Hochman (Philosophy) with a response by A/Prof. Andrew Gillett (Ancient History); an introduction and progress report on the ARC-funded Project ‘Forging Antiquity’ by A/Prof. Malcolm Choat, Dr Rachel-Yuen Collingridge, and our PACE intern (and now Research Assistant) Vanessa Mawby (Ancient History) on June 2; and a conversation on June 9th on ‘The Internet Antiquities Trade: Insight into an Invisible Market?’ between Lauren Dundler (MRes student, Ancient History) and Iain Shearer (Freelance archaeologist, Honorary Fellow University College London).

We began our program for the second half of the year on August 14th with a seminar on ‘Faking the News’, with papers by Dr Colin Klein (Philosophy) and Dr Margie Borschke (Music, Media, Communication and Cultural Studies). This was followed on September 5th by a seminar by Dr Julian Droogan (Security Studies and Criminology) on ‘The Authentic Terrorist?: Mobilising the Past, Battling for the Future’.

confOn October 13th–14th, we co-hosted a conference, ‘Imagining the Real: Alternative (Arte)Facts from Antiquity to the Present Day’ with the Australian Centre for Ancient Numismatic Studies, which featured keynote speakers from the University of Western Australia (Emeritus Professors John Melville Jones ) and University of Agder (Professor Årstein Justnes), in addition to a range of other speakers ( program and abstracts for the conference).

In late October (26th), we held a seminar on ‘Creative Authenticity: Originality and the Real’ with papers given by Dr. Mio Bryce (International Studies) and Dr Ilona Hongisto (Music, Media, Communication and Cultural Studies).

In early November (2nd), we co-sponsored a panel on the ‘Authenticity of Experience: IMG_20171102_190404History and Gaming’ with the Centre for Applied History, which was attended by nearly 60 people. Dr Rowan Tulloch (Music, Media, Communication and Cultural Studies), Daniel Keogh (Educational Games Designer, 3P Learning), and Abbie Hartman (Modern History), gave presentations, followed by a lively Q&A with the audience. Thanks to funding contributed by the Centre for Applied History, the presentations were recorded on video, and can be seen online.

One week later (Nov. 9th), we held a seminar on the ‘Authenticity of Desire’ with papers by Dr Thomas Baudinette (International Studies), and Dr Chelsea Barnett (Modern History). Finally, we co-sponsored a workshop on December 11th on ‘Environmental Change and the Historical Imaginary: Ancient, Medieval, Modern’, with the ‘Environmental Humanities’ research cluster, convened by Professor Louise D’Arcens (English) and featuring an international keynote as well as speakers from Ancient History, Modern History, and English.

We think the 2017 iteration of the series had extremely good outcomes in terms of bringing together a broad cross-disciplinary group to a regular forum to discuss a central theme from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Planning for our 2018 program is well advanced (see our ideas here), and we hope to see many of you at these events: we’ll post a final schedule as soon as it’s available.

Markers of Authenticity, Events for 2018


For 2018 we have a range of events planned including seminars, a conference, and a showcase evening.

We will be holding seminars on:

  • the Authenticity of the Body, looking at the history and present of the medical interventions on and reasoning about ‘authentic’ bodies;
  • the Authenticity of Landscape, looking at the way ideas of authenticity are mobilised to privilege certain environments and stages of cultivation over others;
  • the Authenticity of Identity, looking at the way identity is determined and policed by new technologies meant to counter identity fraud

And finally

  • the Authenticity of Faith, looking at discourses of heresy, faith, and delusion from a range of perspectives including historical and cognitive.

The conference,  How to edit a forgery: Manuscripts from the Margins, for the Australian Research Council Discovery Project: Forging Antiquity: Authenticity, forgery and fake papyri, will consider the how and why of editing forgeries from a practical and ethical perspective. The conference will involve a number of international scholars from diverse fields from antiquity through to the Renaissance examining these issues through editions of specific forgeries, as well as a series of public lectures to showcase the theme.

And finally, to end the year off, we will host a showcase event on the intersection between Art and Science, looking at the way humanities methods have been used to propel and communicate scientific discovery. The format of the evening will be one of wonder and spectacle, to remind us that scientific communication (broadly conceived) has historically been embedded in worlds of social and intellectual ritual, from the salon through to the cabinet of curiosity.

Do sign up to keep in touch and hear more about these events as our plans unfold!


Rights of the Dead and Orientalism

In a learned discussion about the history of the ethics of displaying human remains, Chip Colwell (senior curator of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science) illustrates many problems with displaying  Human Remains (‘The Long Ethical Arc of Displaying Human Remains’, Atlas Obscura, November 16, 2017). The discussion covers the current fad for exhibitions of human remains and narrates the history of the collection and exhibition of Native American Human Remains and the successful battle to prohibit this and return remains to their communities.

Colwell draws comparison with the treatment of human remain from other cultures (Britain, Vikings, Neolithic China), highlighting in particular the case of the Egyptian mummy.

He draws attention to the indulgent use of Egyptian remains as a source of spectacle and fantasy from the Enlightenment on (he might have also included reference to the long Renaissance engagement with Egypt propelled in part by the rediscovery of Horapollo’s ‘translation’ of hieroglyphs among others).  Here he points out rightly “the collection of Egyptian skeletons is rooted in colonialism and a disregard for the wishes of the dead.” However, the claims which follow make out of Ancient Egypt a special case and include a number of points with which we would take issue.

The paragraph of concern in its entirety runs as follows:

Like the treatment of Native Americans, the collection of Egyptian skeletons is rooted in colonialism and a disregard for the wishes of the dead. But, while living Native Americans claim descent from their continent’s first peoples, the Islamic communities of Egypt do not claim continuity with the people who built the pyramids. And even if they did, mummies were gathered to glorify ancient Egyptians while Native American skeletons were long collected to dehumanize indigenous peoples. The modern-day Egyptian government has given its consent for the excavation of tombs.

Let’s examine these claims:

The claim that “the Islamic communities of Egypt do not claim continuity with the people who built the pyramids” reflects a widespread misconception which does not recognise explicit institutional and popular identifications with the Pharaonic past. The use of Pharaonic imagery in government artworks like those which adorn the National Military Museum illustrates the ongoing importance of Egypt’s ancient history to its sense of agency and identity.
National Military Museum, Cairo. Image: Richard Seaman,

Likewise the spontaneous appearance of Pharaonic imagery in graffiti during and after the Revolution by Egyptian artists like Alaa Awad among others attests to the ongoing importance of Ancient Egypt to the present and future of Egypt’s peoples (see the discussion by Lisa Lau, ‘The murals of Mohammad Mahmoud Street: Reclaiming Narratives of Living History for the Egyptian People’, Boston University: Arts & Sciences Writing Program, Issue 5, 2013–2013).

Alaa Awad’s mural from Mohammad Mahmoud Street, image: Lisa Lau,

Such a sharp division between Egypt’s Pharaonic and Islamic pasts does not acknowledge the fact that some of the earliest Egyptologists concerned with the material and linguistic remains of Ancient Egypt were Islamic scholars. Figures like Al-Idrisi, the 12th century scholar responsible for some of the earliest descriptions of the monuments at Giza, or Ibn Wahshiyya, the 9th/10th century alchemist whose investigations of hieroglyphs recognised determinatives and some phonetic values, have been largely excluded from the Napoleon-centric version of the history of Egyptology.

Beyond these artistic, governmental, and scholarly links, a connection with the Pharaonic past is deeply felt by many modern Egyptians, within Egypt and throughout the Egyptian diaspora. At times the ‘authenticity’ of such connections is disputed. This type of argument engages in an orientalising view of culture, in which only certain communities are allowed to sustain the integrity of their connection with the past in spite of monumental and significant changes in belief, government, practices and demography (see on this in particular the work of James Clifford). The “glorification” of Egypt in the hands of scholarship has often supported – not combatted – the orientalising view of Egypt as other. A fetishised approval is no less diminishing.

Finally, one might interrogate the notion of consent. Colwell correctly notes that the Egyptian government, via the Ministry of Antiquities, grants permission for the archaeological investigation of theses tombs. But what of the wishes of the dead? Evidence from grave and tomb inscriptions from across the Mediterranean indicates clearly that disturbing a burial threatened the spiritual wellbeing of the deceased. Such interference is strictly and explicitly prohibited. The evidence from Ancient Egypt is voluminous in this respect. The statements are repeated in tombs from across Egypt’s history from the Old Kingdom to the Late period, such as the 6th Dynasty tomb of Djenwen:

“As for any man who will do something against this (tomb), there will be judgement with him by the Great God”

or the 25th Dynasty Block Statue of Montuemhat from Karnak:

“As for anyone against this tomb in my place: the one who disturbs is a criminal”

or finally the 18th Dynasty Statue of Wersu from Koptos:

“As for anyone who will desecrate my corpse in the necropolis, who will remove my statue from my tomb, he will be a hated one of Re, he will not receive water from the water-jar of Osiris, he will not hand over his possessions to his children, ever.” … “As for the one who desecrates my place, who will damage my tomb or remove my corpse, the soul of Re will hate him, he will not hand over his possessions to his children, his heart will not rest in life, he will not receive water in the necropolis, his soul will be destroyed forever.”

In these curses the damage to be inflicted on those who violate the bodies and tombs of the deceased mirrors that which is incurred by the deceased through such actions.

The beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians are as clear as can be on this matter, as countless curses of this nature demonstrate. More can be found in the thesis of Sarah Colledge, who studied these curses for her 2015 Liverpool PhD, and whose translations we cite above (other examples are on her blog, and in the thesis itself which may be viewed here). It’s unlikely that the Ancient Egyptians would be sympathetic to the ethical sophistry of those who might want to argue that new non-invasive technologies (CT scanning among others) respect these wishes: such scans are only possible because the bodies have been removed from the tomb (thus violating the dead’s wishes) in the first place.

An advanced screening at the recent ‘Creative Uses of the Archive‘ Workshop at Macquarie University of parts of the documentary, Etched in Bone, being made by ANU researchers Martin Thomas and Béatrice Bijon about the stealing and repatriation of skeletal remains from mortuary caves in a North Australian Aboriginal reserve provided us with a salient reminder of the importance of critically assessing past practice. The remains which were taken to the Smithsonian Institution when the National Geographic American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land visited the region in 1948 were repatriated to the settlement of Gunbalanya after a long campaign by the Australian government (among others) in 2009–2010. Such repatriation efforts sadly coincide often with the deaths of those who witnessed the thefts in the first place. They remind us of our responsibilities to the dead and to the diverse communities to which they belong. In the case of people from the ancient world, there may be no one left to speak for them:  does this mean we should heed their wishes any less?

Malcolm & Rachel