Egyptian Mummies and Respect for the Dead...

This is something I have wondered for some time. And since it is a moral debate, it may have no definite answer (although I do look forward to hearing people’s opinions on the matter). When we modern humans exhume ancient Egyptian mummies, and disect them, and put them on display in museums for the public to see, are we being respectful to the dead?

To see the conflict I see here, I offer one example: George Washington. My father and I went to Mount Vernon in 1998 where we saw his crypt. Obviously it is a place of great reverence and importance to us now, as is the man who lived there–and his grave. Now, what if hundreds of years in the future the USA as we know it no longer exists? And let’s say everyone is an atheist then (not a prediction, mind you, just a hypothetical example). And they do the same thing with Washington’s remains: they remove it, study it, and keep it as a conversation piece in some museum? How do you all like that scenario?

Anyways, in case you want my views, let me just say I am now what most people would term a “libertarian liberal”. I do believe in human dignity and respect for life and for the dead. So I think they could have simply exhumed the mummies and then put them back where they found them (or in some other respectful place).

What do the rest of you think?:slight_smile:

Weird. I was just discussing this at another board.

I’d fully approve.

As to the last, I don’t. Or to amend that, only a little.

As I mentioned elsewhere I’d be willing to go along with the wishes of anyone who held living memories of the deceased. But I kinda regard it like a copyright - after a certain period of time, it expires and society’s quest for enlightenment in terms of archaeology/anthropology/sociology trumps the “rights” of the dead.

Here’s my problem with that scenario.

We go out to Egypt and dig up King Tut. We subject it to all the tests possible with the latest in science and technology. Having learned everything we possibly can, we go back and rebury him where we found him.

We do this in 1922.

Now it’s 2010. We’ve got tools at our disposal that were unthinkable when we first dug up Tut. But: no mummy. If we’re very lucky, when we go back, he’ll still be there, and still be in more or less the same condition. Of course, we won’t have done this just once, will have done it dozens of times in the intervening 88 years, every time there was a significant technological advance that could have applications in archaeology. Even assuming we could put the body back and protect it from weather, animals, vandals, thieves, natural disaster, or local political instability, we’re talking about an 8,000 year old corpse, here. You don’t want to move it around a whole lot, and constantly exhuming and reburying it is going to take a toll. Far better to store the body in a sterile, hermetically sealed environment where it’s easily accessed for study with the latest tools science has to offer.

That’s the practical argument against your idea. Here’s the sentimental one:

If we want to respect the dead, the best way to do this is to remember them. Unfortunately, after the better part of ten millenia, not many people remember Tutankhamen, or his contemporaries. By studying his remains, we can learn not just about him, but about everyone who lived in his day. Through his remains, the memory of ancient Egypt is kept alive today, and knowledge of it is known in places unheard of to the Pharaohs, a truer form of immortality than they could have hoped to gain through their burial rights.

Heh. If we’d put them back were we’d found them, they’d have been stolen and sold for parts before the dust settled.

The only reason we have Tutankhamun’s grave goods at all is because the priests did an exceptionally good job of hiding them after his original tomb was busted open. No original, undisturbed, tomb has ever been found. They were all cracked wide open in antiquity. Probably as the mourners left by the front entrance, the tomb robbers were coming in by the back. It was a booming business and pretty much an open secret.

Later, during the Roman period and after, mummies were used in folk remedies and magic potions. Mummies were ground up for powder and their various mummified parts were said to have power too.

Compared to all that, putting them in careful, climate-controlled, well guarded museums -is- the most respectful place we could put them.

On a more general note, I have no sentimental attachment to dead bodies. I don’t care - dig them all up. “It belongs in a museum!” as a certain archaeologist once said. Studying bodies for medicine or history is the only actual way to show them respect, imo. Studying them preserves record of them that sticking them in a burial and ignoring them doesn’t.

But the only reason to dig them up in the first place is sentimental attachment. You’re not learning anything applicable, all you’re doing is finding out what some long-dead people thought as a culture. But if you care what they thought, why are you going around desecrating corpses?

Hell, whole mummies were burned as fuel for trains!

Actually, King Tut is still in his tomb:

I think there’s a pretty significant difference between historical curiousity and sentimental attachment.

Likewise, there is a similar distance between being curious about a culture, and adapting its religious/philosophical beliefs.

For the record, it’s still not allowed to open the ancient graves of the Japanese emperors, despite their obvious archeological importance.

ETA : And when will the Chinese keep digginp up the “First Emperor” grave? :mad:

I’m a papyrologist: I study Greek texts unearthed in Egypt from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Some texts are excavated directly from the ground, but we have a huge number of documents that we’ve found through deconstructing cartonnage. Cartonnage is a cardboard-like material made from plaster and linen or papyrus that Egyptians applied to the body while wet. It hardened when it dried and formed a nice, contoured case. Cartonnage was an important part of mummification from, I don’t remember, at least the Third Intermediate Period. I really care about the numerous papyrus cartonnages from the time of the Ptolemies onward because they contain Greek documents. Over the years, scholars have found some amazing documents hidden away in the mummy cartonnage of both humans and animals. Archaeologists typically use a chemical process to extract the papyri from the cartonnage. This process destroys the wrappings completely, making it impossible to put the mummy back in the same condition when they’re done with it.

With that in mind, the moral issues involved in unearthing and extracting mummies do not exactly keep me up at night. Nor does the idea that someday my own body might be desecrated if I do not choose to have myself cremated. I am unconvinced that we have any rights beyond the initial disposition of our corpse, and we only have those because of the wishes of the living who survive the deceased. We don’t dig up George Washington because, as you say, it would upset people. But I would not be the slightest bit troubled if we did.

The mummies who furnish documents have been dead in the ground for two thousand years or more. They were spoken for in life and long after their demise. Their people are long gone. I think the Aswan Dam presents a greater challenge to the legacy and wishes of the ancient Egyptians than does opening up their mummies, quite frankly.

Good post, but Tutankhamun died just 3,333 years ago (heh!), not anywhere near 8,000 years ago.

Cite? I’m pretty sure that this is an urban legend.

Here we go:
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2341/do-egyptians-burn-mummies-as-fuel

The story apparently originated from Mark Twain, who was making a joke.

I am strongly against the desecration of the dead.

I am also a scientist.

In an imperfect world, keeping everything in a museum is the best solution. However, I am still strongly against the exhibition of actual corpses. I think these should be kept locked away from prying eyes in museum vaults. Would the pharoahs really have objected to the exhibition of their grave goods- exhibitions which say in part ‘look how mighty and rich this guy was’? I doubt it. Would they object to their naked corpses being shown to a parade of tourists? I think they would.

In reply to Grumman - my take on it, exactly, with the caveat that it’s a little more than curiosity, in my opinion. I think history is important for its own sake. Where we’re going depends on where we’ve been.

Maeglin, what you describe sounds like wrapping things in newspapers. I’ve sometimes enjoyed the old newspapers around some old junk in the attic more than the junk.

I went to see a mummy and the MRI done of the mummy in San Francisco, and the guide said that in the 19th century so many mummies were found (not of Pharaohs) that they were sold for a few dollars each, and they were unwrapped (and destroyed) as part of dinner parties. I doubt the person, or his 100th generation descendants, care very much - we mostly object today for the loss of knowledge we could have gotten from the mummies. If a body remains undisturbed fine, but the very act of discovery makes that unlikely, so it is far better to preserve it. Is George in a museum any less respected than George where he is now?

As early as the 11th century, ground and powdered mummy was considered both a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Mumia vera was all the rage. Then there’s mummy paper, perhaps the most disgusting use of mummy wrappings the human race has yet conceived of. Fortunately, the proof for the existence of mummy paper is circumstantial at best. But I am not surprised by the idea that purchasing mummies was cheaper than purchasing rags in the 19th century. They were often buried in large pits from which huge numbers were excavated.

I try not to think about the possibility that one of those mummies contained a papyrus with a lost play of Euripedes. It’s not likely since most of these mummies were far older, but still, we have lost an enormous amount of our heritage through sheer stupidity and abuse of historical artifacts.