Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hey YOU! Put Those Artifacts Back.

In modern archeology there is a movement to put artifacts and bodies back where they had been found. In many cultures this is the respectful thing to do regarding religion and/or culture. Egypt and the mindset of the Ancient Egyptian puts a very different twist on the idea of returning items. Were an Ancient Egyptian to enter into this discussion they might disagree with those who want Egyptian artifacts returned to where they were found. I'll try to work through several of these arguments based solely on information we have currently about Ancient Egyptian culture and religion.

Anyone who has seen an Egyptian monument of huge stones can easily understand the Egyptians built things to last. This can also be seen reflected in their religion. Continued life after death was partially attached to the continuation of the mortal body. This was the purpose for mummification and why many dynasties of Egyptian rule had harsh and deadly punishment for tomb raiders. Preserving the body was important to religion and the very soul of a person. Through this lens of an Ancient Egyptian let us explore the idea of a mummy in a museum. A mummy in a museum is kept in a temperature and moisture controlled area. It is protected from decay and any living things which might disturb or destroy it, such as tomb robbers or rodents. A mummy in a museum can be expected to go on as long as the museum stands and is maintained. For an Egyptian this doesn't seem to be a bad plan for preserving their body into eternity. This is especially true when we consider the incidents of tomb robbing, burning mummies for fuel and grinding them up for medicines.

There are other considerations to the idea of Egyptian artifacts in a place such as a museum where they are viewed by the masses. These ideas all deal with images... one of the images itself and the other dealing with language. We'll start with the language one since it is usually easier to understand. Egyptians had magical standard that when a word was said it gave power and life to that thing. So, every time someone says King Tut his being in this world and the after world gains more power. In fact, in order to weaken others Egyptians would often attempt to erase them from the world. We see this with both Hashepsut and Ankenaten whose names were systematically carved off of stone items. An Egyptian seeing a plaque that had a king or gods name on it that was read by thousands of people every year doesn't seem too bad after all. The more we say the names of those who have passed on the more power hey maintain.

The other image related consideration is the Egyptian idea of imagery. An image was not just an image but the item itself, a manifestation in some sense of the word. For example, a statue of Ramses the Great is not just his likeness but actually the pharaoh himself standing there before us. Seeing the image of someone or some thing in a whole and healthy form also gave energy and power to them. If a statue of Anubis is standing in a great hall of a museum to be seen by thousands of people a year then he will remain a strong god. Here again an Ancient Egyptian might well agree with putting things on display.

The final question we might address from the aspects of an Ancient Egyptian is all of the replica tombs and monuments we see. What would an Egyptian thing of these? Given our past few paragraphs I think that the repetition of imagery would be something that would meet with their approval. Very often the Egyptians themselves did this very thing. The sacred texts such as the Book of the Dead are copied widely as are motifs and kings lists. Repetition ensured survival of at least one copy which was necessary.

Over all, unlike many cultures and religions, Ancient Egyptian practices might well approve of the care a museum or other qualified facility could give to their dead and artifacts. It is something to consider not only when looking at Egyptian artifacts but those of any culture. What was the standard care practices of the culture or religion and do facilities such as museums provide those requirements?

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