Respect for the dead has proved to be a prevalent notion in most cultures. However, prior to the development of modern Egyptology and the transformation of archaeologists from antiquarians to scientists, desecration of burial sites and dead bodies was not only common, but in the case of Egyptian mummies, used as a form of entertainment.
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, “Egyptomania,” a fascination with ancient Egypt, swept over Europe. While many important discoveries about the Egyptians occurred during this era, wealthy amateur “Egyptologists” and collectors did much damage. Tombs were raided and mummies were sold cheaply to European enthusiasts for a variety of purposes. Best case scenario, the mummy served as a collector’s piece, providing little historical information but also oftentimes avoiding destruction. However, many mummies met a much worse fate. Some were boiled, and the oil produced was sold as a medical ointment. Others were publically unwrapped, both in educational settings and during what have come to be known as mummy unwrapping parties. At these parties, wealthy Victorian Egyptology enthusiasts would unwrap ancient mummies under the guise of science, and often give away the artifacts that were buried with them as party favors. While these parties serve as a rather extreme example, they demonstrate the danger of pseudoarcheology and the lack of respect that many Western nations showed for the human remains of non-European cultures.
The first major step towards putting an end to desecration of Egyptian artifacts occurred in 1859, when Auguste Marlette, an Egyptologist, founded the ESA (Egyptian Service for Antiquities), which was designed to protect and preserve valuable pieces of Egyptian history. Since then, more action has been taken by archaeologists, Egyptologists, and the Egyptian government to put a stop to desecration of mummies. These measures ensure that the past is well preserved, but they also raise the issue of respect for human remains. Who has the right to uproot and examine the body of another human being? What level of respect must scientists and archaeologists show towards the remains that they study? Does ethnocentrism play a major role in the amount of respect given to said remains? This issue is prevalent in American archeology as well, concerning remains of Native Americans that are considered sacred by many of their descendants. The problem of desecration is one that must be addressed by archaeologists worldwide.
“Egyptian Mummies | Ancient Egyptian Mummy Overview.” Egyptian Mummies | Ancient Egyptian Mummy Overview. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <http://www.kingtutone.com/mummies/overview/>.
“Egyptomania.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptomania>.
“The Neo-Victorian Parlour.” : Victorian Mummy Unwrapping Parties. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <http://neovictorianparlour.blogspot.com/2013/04/victorian-mummy-unwrapping-parties.html>.
“Unwrapping the Mummy Performance and Science.” Unwrapping the Mummy Performance and Science. Past Horizons, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013. <http://www.redicecreations.com/article.php?id=22957>.
Respect for the dead is a critical question in the study of human remains, and is ethically a moving target, as it is closely tied to the religious and spiritual beliefs of descendant communities. This question becomes even more complicated when one considers that the exhumation of Egyptian mummies, as you imply here, is irreversibly entwined with European hegemony and colonial exploitation. For instance, Nesperennub, a 3,000-year-old Theban priest I mentioned in a response to Kelsey’s post, has been a part of the British Museum’s collection for over a hundred years; the date of his acquisition falls firmly within the British colonial empire’s heyday. He may have been ethically acquired under the ESA guidelines established in 1859, but perhaps not. (After all, there is a thriving black market for antiquities, especially from the Middle East, even today.) Even though the Victorian-era Europeans you wrote about were more interested in their own amusement than in scientific advancement, it is undeniable that human remains provide invaluable archaeological information. The question, then, is how to study them in an ethical and respectful way, and to pass of their rich historical narratives to new generations. To learn more about public education about mummies, take a look at this Discovery Kids web game that allows children to embalm their own mummy: http://kids.discovery.com/games/just-for-fun/mummy-maker
After playing, do you find this game ethical in how it addresses the dead? Does it objectify or humanize the mummified person? If you were a descendant of the ancient Egyptians, would you find this game respectful? Why or why not?
After playing the game sponsored by Discovery Kids, I have come to the conclusion that it serves a somewhat similar function to the aforementioned mummy unwrapping parties–it dehumanizes the dead in an attempt to create a sense of mystique and allure for Westerners. While this game obviously seeks to inform kids, it also perpetuates the stereotypes of archaeology/Egyptology as a field characterized by mystery and dead bodies, rather than a careful and respectful study of what the dead can teach us about modern day society. In particular, the trivialization of taking out the mummy’s brain, while meant to be informative, was offensive in that it made light of a solemn ritual that was very important to Ancient Egyptian culture and identity. While modern day archaeologists have much to learn from the human remains of past cultures, it is essential to draw the line between capturing public interest and using sacred burials as a source of macabre entertainment. The World Archaeological Congress states in its code of ethics that archaeologists should respect the “special importance of indigenous ancestral human remains,” (http://www.worldarchaeologicalcongress.org/site/about_ethi.php) which applies to all different types of archaeology. However, with Egyptology, since the remains are so old and the direct descendants of the bodies cannot be traced, do the same rules still apply? I think that human remains should be treated with dignity and not used to garner public appeal, regardless of their age and whether or not they are claimed by a specific group.