Fascination Leads to Desecration


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.

22956unwrapparty  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.   mummy460

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.


Works Cited:


“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>.






Archaeology of Egyptology

Egyptology is not quit archaeology. It focuses on one culture and their history, culture, language and customs. It however does use many aspects of archaeology, such as scientific excavations and analysis of their culture.  Yet it does not do so to improve the future.

In popular culture as well as opinion mummies are a large part of Egyptology and many people have had strange fascinations with them now and through out history. In the 19th century European aristocrats would purchase mummies, unwrap, and observe them for their own entertainment. Hundreds of mummies were destroyed during this time. Egyptology focuses on every aspect of the Egyptian culture such as their language and how it was used. This helps them to be able to read the sarcophagus and make a connection to whom the person was and who mthey were related to. For archaeology this doesn’t matter at all. Who cares who this mummies father was or who his grandfather was? Archaeology’s main focus is to gather information that can help our future. Before these mummies were bought and sold to uppity Englishmen so that they could destroy history, many mummies were even lost by people who believed they had some sort of supernatural healing powers, which just throws any thoughts of real academic and information gathering archaeology out of the window. They would grind them into powders for color as well as pharmaceutical use. The furry friends of mummies were also used during this time when mummified cats were processed into fertilizer and used in England.

Hieroglyphs cover sarcophagi in order to describe the preserved person within, as well as lead them into the after life.

Though there are lots of movies and myths and fascination with mummies we can actually learn valuable information about cultures through their mummification processes. We can see how cultures valued their dead and what they thought of after life and other spiritual beliefs they held. We can see differences between different social classes and the differences in how their dead were buried. We can also learn about the physiology of people from the time and place of these mummies as they can be very well preserved.


This is an example of an egyptian sarcophagus showing hieroglyphs as well as a depiction of the persons face.

So basically mummies are very cool and when used in the proper way can be very useful for archaeology and not just Egyptology, especially since many cultures throughout history mummified their dead in order to grant them a successful beginning into the after life.





Ancient Egypt—Discovered Remains In an Art Museum?

Growing up in New York City, I always ran.  Several times a week on my runs, I would pass the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and look into the giant glass windows that enclosed an ancient Egyptian world packed with tourists.  As a naïve child that had not visited the exhibit, I assumed that it was filled with treasures and mummies.

Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art

I was wrong; the Egyptian Art Wing at the MET consists of 26,000 objects arranged in chronological order.  Who analyzed these objects, and with what knowledge did they do so?  Why does the MET have an Egyptian exhibit if it is an art museum?

Egyptologists I have learned, not archaeologists, analyzed these objects.  Egyptologists do not need their Masters in anthropology, but can have other Masters, such as a Masters in Fine Arts.  In the U.S., archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology (“the comprehensive study of human species from biological, social, and cultural perspectives using both synchronic and diachronic views”) (Ashmore 4).  According to Ashmore an archaeologist is “a professional scholar who studies the human past through its physical remains” (Ashmore 4).  In comparison, an Egyptologist, according to the University of Chicago, is an individual “whose regular work involves the history, archaeology, language or culture of ancient (pre-Islamic) Egypt”.

The average person does not understand Egyptology or archaeology.  When I asked random Vassar students what Egyptologists and archaeologists do, they had similar responses–looking in the field for mummies, looking for treasures (which are the objectives of looters), “digging up stuff” and “dusting off bones”.

The average person's understanding of Egyptology and archaeology

In reality, an Egyptologist needs to be a “student of language” who analyzes hieroglyphics and artifacts to understand the past. This is contrary to archaeologists who use physical remains as well as diverse and complex methods to understand the past and humanity.  Without an education in Egyptology or archaeology, a false understanding is derived from television, movies, and other media.  Egyptologists and archaeologists are made to seem like adventurers to capture the attention of the public.

So why did the Egyptologists put these objects in the MET?  They did so because Egyptian remains are the basis of Western Art.  Europeans view Egypt as part of their ancestry, and we, as Americans, view Europe as part of our ancestry.  As Americans we are learning about our heritage by studying Egyptian art.  In addition, we have the ability to study a wide variety of ancient Egyptian art, allowing us to better understand our past.  While much of Native American art may have decomposed because of moist environments, Egypt is arid and preserves the past well.  The Egyptian collection, therefore, should be in the MET.