Other Peoples’ Secrets and the All-Seeing Eye of the Conservator

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The author examining an ancient Egyptian mummy at the Royal Ontario Museum. The pictured human remains are blurred. Photograph by Stephanie Allen.

By Charlotte Parent

In the October-November 2020 issue of News in Conservation (p. 36), a photo showing an Egyptian mummy was printed alongside the announcement that “Conservation in Action: Saving the Perth Mummy” was nominated for the 2020 IIC Keck Award. Over the past year and a half, I have been thinking about what it means for archaeology and museum professionals, including conservators, to access and share images of Egyptian mummies. I have been invited to write a reflection on this topic. I hope that in doing so here, I will be able to raise some important questions, although I do not pretend to hold their answers.

It is widely accepted by conservators that “human remains are not just another artifact”

(Cassman et al. 2006, 1). Most conservation professionals believe that human remains must be treated with respect, decorum, and care. This leaves me asking what constitutes respect to the deceased when another people’s dead are concerned; beliefs surrounding the dead or ancestors are culturally-specific. Basing my practice solely on shared humanity and applying Euro-Western sensitivities—which are perhaps too often the basis of conservation practice—to the care, display, and documentation of all human remains overlooks fundamental differences in worldviews and human experiences across cultures and time. This is why I will focus here on what we know as Egyptian mummies specifically, rather than on “human remains” in general.

Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad and others have criticized the use of the word “mummy” (Abd el Gawad et al. 2020), pointing out that it contributes to the objectification and dehumanization of ancient people by obscuring the fact that mummies are human remains. I generally tend to use “mummified human remains” or “mummified person” whenever appropriate. In this case however, I will use the word “mummy” while inviting readers to keep in mind the valid concerns raised by Abd el Gawad and others because I wish to emphasize that mummies are more than human remains, more even than ancestors, in the sense that they are also sacred things, as will be explained below. No other word seems to correctly convey this idea in English. It is extremely tempting to use the ancient Egyptian word (which I will introduce shortly) as a way to relocate agency and show respect (in the same way that we should use Indigenous words when documenting Indigenous belongings), but chances are I would misuse it. The ancient Egyptian word might not encompass the different conditions and statuses of mummies currently housed in museums, amongst other issues.

Mummies sacred and secret

The ancient Egyptian word typically translated as “mummy” is sah (literally “noble one”). It refers to the intact mummy: the wrapped body with its head covering and beard (Riggs 2014, 86). It is not the word for “corpse.” In this sense, while the consideration of a mummy’s human-ness is certainly not misplaced, it is not enough.

The most common interpretation of mummification is that its goal was the material preservation of the body as a vessel for the soul, which would enable the individual to attain eternal life. This interpretation developed in the nineteenth century, and “aligned ideas of Egyptian afterlife with commonplace Christian aspirations after death,” namely a quest for eternal life (Nyord 2018, 77). Christina Riggs and Rune Nyord have argued that this analysis mistakenly equates the effects of mummification with the aims of the people who performed it. They believe instead that mummification rituals sought not so much to preserve the body as to transform the deceased into an ancestor (Nyord 2018, 79) – preservation would be a side effect of rituals and environmental conditions.

The dead body was sacralised through mortuary rituals with secrecy at their core: “the act of wrapping and, often, concealing them was what marked, made, and maintained their sacred character” (Riggs 2014, 215). The resulting intact, complete mummy (the sah), including its wrappings, blurs Euro-Western categories: the mummy is human remains, but it is also a sacred object. It is a sacred ancestor most people in ancient Egypt would never have seen because it is in “a state of being that fell within the purview of a sacred, secret world” (Riggs 2014, 107).

Disregarding the ancient Egyptian emphasis on secrecy by revealing sacred ancestors and sacred objects in the name of science, education, or entertainment implies a perceived hierarchy of value systems and of cultures. The Euro-Western world does not easily accept limits to its consumption of knowledge, and Egyptian mummies have long been a target of its destructive curiosity: “For European rationality to triumph, there could be little regard for what other, lesser cultures, living or dead, considered sacred. In many ways, unwrapping a mummy is homologous with the derogation of indigenous autonomy and action” (Riggs 2014, 44).

Mummies and violence

Mummies have been unwrapped, dissected, probed, and scanned for centuries. That these human remains were central to knowledge production by the Euro-West (about Egypt and about itself) from the nineteenth century on-ward is not coincidental: “In its objectified state, the ancient Egyptian body became a focus of discourse for co-lonial anxieties about race, gender, and cultural heritage” (Riggs 2014, 3). Many ancient Egyptian human remains were studied “for questions of race, ethnicity, brain capacity, and other variables, some of which helped legitimize colonial domination and racial stereotyping” (Ikram 2018). European scientists claimed ancient Egypt as belonging to the West, culturally and historically by means of the Bible and the Greeks, and genetically through eugenics and racial evolutionary theory.

Western mummy unwrappers saw themselves not only as the rightful heirs of ancient Egypt but also as its saviors:

"Like mummies concealing valuables, modern Egyptians were regarded as ‘ignorant people sitting on land full of historical treasures’ whose significance they were incapable of recognizing (Shohat 1997, 35). Many Europeans believed that a gulf existed between the past and the present that they alone could bridge with expert knowledge, and that they were charged with rescuing the remains of the past from its foreign captors (ibid.: 34-35)". (Day 2007, 30).

In this sense, conservation was always at the heart of imperial archaeology, in the same way that it was at the heart of the violent collecting of Indigenous belongings in settler-colonial states. As Lynn Meskell wrote, “Colonizing the monumentality of the past—a process that has its roots in bygone centuries—has served to separate countries such as India and Egypt from their past glories and future potentials in the service of the ruling empire” (Meskell 2005, 128).

The history of revealing mummies is fraught with imperial violence.

All-seeing conservators

Through their work, conservators in Western museums witness so much of Egyptian mummies: their wrapped form, their unwrapped skin, their bones and organs made visible by x-rays and CAT scans. I believe it is reasonable to question what to do with this unmitigated access to other peoples’ secrets and the images and information that it produces, which seem to reinforce the idea that every people’s knowledge is ripe for the taking by the West. Can our seeing and sharing cause harm by participating in histories of violence?

Egyptian mummies in museums are at a crossroads between irreconcilable worlds: “In the galleries and storerooms of museums, we see many things we were not meant to see. This is all but unavoidable, for we are entangled with the things of ancient Egypt in our world, not in theirs” (Riggs 2014, 221). In our world, mummies bear the marks of imperialism and scientific hubris. We have to consider those histories as well as the original ancient Egyptian meaning of mummification as we ponder what to do with what we see.

My approach has been to blur out mummies in photographs in my presentations and social media posts. It is an imperfect solution: doesn’t the very existence of the unblurred photograph point to a sacrilege of sorts? Why would I appoint myself as the keeper of other people’s secrets? What I like about these blurred images, however, is that they are disruptive. They signal my discomfort. They are not so much a solution as an acknowledgement that there is a problem.

I hope that readers will consider these thoughts next time they see ancient Egyptian mummies in labs, storerooms, and galleries, or their photographs in professional publications, presentations, or in museum marketing. I hope conservators will recognize that access gives them power and will ask themselves what responsibilities that power entails. I believe that consideration of issues around how to approach another people’s sacred secrets can make our field more just and more conducive to good relations with the people whose heritage we care for.

Cited works and further reading

Abd el Gawad, Heba, Sanchita Balachandran, Ahmed Elgharably, Charlotte Parent and Alice Stevenson. 2020. “Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and About Ancient Egyptian Human Remains.” Online panel, Co-organized by Everyday Orientalism, Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage and Egypt Exploration Society, August 18th. https://youtu.be/CLGUhS2qUi8

Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell (Ed). 2006. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Rowman Altamira. 

Day, Jasmine. 2007. The Mummy's Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World. Routledge.

Ikram, Salima. 2018. “From Thebes to Cairo, the Journey, Study, and Display of Egypt’s Royal Mummies: Past, Present, and Future.” In Volume In Onore Di M. Capasso, ed. P. Davoli, 867-883. University of Lecce.

Meskell, Lynn. 2005. “Sites of Violence: Terrorism, Tourism and Heritage in the Archaeological Present.” In Embedding Ethics, ed. Lynn Meskell and Peter Pels, 123-146. Berg Publishers.

Riggs, Christina. 2014. Unwrapping Ancient Egypt: The Shroud, the Secret, and the Sacred. Bloomsbury Academic. 

Stevenson, Alice. 2019. Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. UCL Press. 

Nyord, Rune. 2018. “‘Taking Ancient Egyptian Religion Seriously’: Why Would We, And How Could We?” In Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 17: 73-87.

Reid, Donald Malcolm. 2002. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, And Egyptian National Identity From Napoleon to World War I. University of California Press. 

Reid, Donald Malcolm. 2015. Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser. The American University in Cairo Press.

Author Byline

Charlotte Parent is an objects conservator specializing in archaeological conservation currently working freelance in Montreal. She was the 2019-2020 Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow in the Organic Materials Lab at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) where she focused on the ethics of caring for ancient Egyptian human remains. 


(Read the story in the April-May 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 83, p. 52-55)


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