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.
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).
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