The bodies of the ancient Egyptian dead — “mummies” — made the news again this month, when Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism opened one of a reported 59 wooden coffins recently found at Saqqara, near Cairo, to reveal the intricately wrapped beings inside. With the world’s press and several ambassadors gathered around we witnessed a replay of the coffin openings and mummy unveilings that have titillated audiences for two centuries now. It wasn’t the first time ancient burial rites have been reversed in the interests of modern politics, science, and tourism, and it won’t be the last.
Elsewhere in the news, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University took a step that had long been debated among its staff, by obscuring a vitrine containing human skulls and tsantsas, the latter colloquially known as “shrunken heads.” Created by the Shuar and Achuar people from the Peruvian and Ecuadorian rainforest, tsantsas allowed fighters to control the spirit of a dead male enemy. Like Egyptian mummies, they became a focus of colonial-era collecting, often involving practices that were exploitative or downright illegal at the time.
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The tsantsas at the Pitt Rivers Museum had for decades and all at once been the most visited, reviled, and beloved of the museum’s eclectic ethnographic displays. Over the glass, the museum has erected signage with questions for visitors to contemplate: “How would you feel if the remains of your family members were taken and put on public display?” reads one. “How would you feel walking into the Museum and seeing, without warning, the skull of a grandparent looking back at you from the displays?” is another.
The motivation behind these questions is well intended, but with their emotional punch they veer towards oversimplification. On the one hand, they encourage visitors, mainly of European descent, to think themselves into perspectives that have been voiced for many years by descendants of the diverse peoples represented in anthropology museums. On the other, they imply that ideas about death and the dead are universal, that all bodies are equal, and that the values of Oxford museumgoers outweigh the values of living descendants or, for that matter, of those people in the past who were responsible for making tsantsas or embalming ancient Egyptians.
The hitch lies in the phrase “human remains,” found in the email address to which Pitt Rivers Museum visitors are invited to send their responses. This catch-all term emerged more than two decades ago as a leveling device in archaeological and museological practice. Under its umbrella are human tissue samples in any form: hair and skin; decorated skulls and other skeletal remains; and whole bodies or body parts, which might be preserved in alcohol or by dehydration. All of these may well be human remains for the purpose of museum categorization, but they are “human” and “remains” in very different and culturally specific ways.
Since the late 18th century, European thought has tended to assume that a human body comprises a single, bounded individual whose identity is unbroken between its living and dead states. Grandma is grandma, whether she is in a rocking chair or a coffin. But there are as many ways to be alive as there are to be dead. The tsantsas were integral to a belief system whereby an enemy’s preserved head had protective, magical, and life-giving powers, for instance. The process of making a tsantsa gave it those powers, operating across any strict split between human and divine.
The treatment of the Egyptian bodies known as mummies also confounds any assumption that human remains are always and only human. In the media, museums, and much of its own literature, Egyptology promotes the idea that all ancient Egyptians were embalmed in order to preserve the individual’s physical form so that its soul could recognize it. Not only does this reduce a complex set of practices to supernatural hide-and-seek, but it also ignores copious evidence about why and how some (definitely not all) bodies mattered in Egyptian belief systems.
Rather than constituting a stark difference between being dead and alive, human or divine, practices like speaking or writing to deceased ancestors, seeing them in dreams, and caring for their tombs and statues, all point to the rich social existence these entities had within their communities. Whereas museum displays of Egyptian bodies focus on interventions on the corpse, what mattered more in ancient practice were acts like anointing the body, wrapping it in linen, and sealing it away in layers of shrouds and in coffins. No one else was ever meant to see the embalmed or even the wrapped-up corpse, yet visitors today expect CT scans, X-rays, bare flesh, or some combination of the three.
One impetus for changes to the Pitt Rivers Museum’s tsantsas display has been the active involvement of the communities in which they originated. In defense of their own practices, Egyptologists in European and North American museums often point to high-profile events like the coffin opening at Saqqara to claim that contemporary Egyptians have no problem with the display of ancient bodies or medicalized research on them. After all, the Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Khaled el-Anany, was everywhere to be seen at the “cracking open” of the coffins, as was Dr Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. Only the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled a planned military parade to move several royal bodies from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in the Fustat neighborhood of Cairo.
The timing of both events is telling: the parade would have taken place around the July 23rd Revolution Day holiday, while the coffin openings were timed for the October 6th celebration of Armed Forces Day. Look for similar media stories around January 25th, National Police Day, which will also distract from any attempts to remember the 2011 revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. When Western Egyptologists tweet enthusiastic approval for coffin crackings, or their own mummy research projects, it’s worth remembering that archaeology has always been a political endeavor, and that ministries represent government, not public, opinion.
Rather than pass the buck, or the body, more museums need to do what the Pitt Rivers Museum has implemented with the tsantsas case. There’s no perfect way to go about it, but it’s a start. To display or not to display the dead in museums is an urgent question, not for whatever result it might yield — but for the harder questions it invites us to ask about the past, the present, and the bodies caught between them.