Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Of people and things: Egyptian protest and cultural properties

By Rosemary Joyce

In a post on the Berkeley Blog, Samuel Redman makes an argument that urges protection of antiquities be emphasized in the face of current events in Egypt, arguing that mummies are "shared global heritage".

I addressed similar questions in writing a  post on my Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives blog about unconfirmed reports of possible damage to a unique tomb, that of the woman identified as the wet nurse of Tutankhamon. But in writing my post, I subordinated questions of the destruction of antiquities to the critical moment facing Egypt today, which concerns the future of living men and women.

Redman's  commentary came in reaction to widely publicized images of heads of two mummies, one against a background of human bones, in the Cairo Museum, following the brief incident a week ago when as-yet unidentified hoodlums entered the museum, broke several glass cases and damaged some artifacts.

But there are several problems with this story, and with emphasizing it at this moment.

First, as Neil Silbermann, long-term scholar of cultural heritage policy reminds us forcefully in a series of posts on his blog, we need to stop and consider what leads us to place a higher value on antiquities than on the lives of the contemporary people who have not benefited from the big business made out of archaeology. Silbermann writes that

the fact is that the administration of antiquities in Egypt has been part and parcel of an arrogant and capricious regime. Past folds into Present in an insidious way. The monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

We need to be cautious about what interests are being advanced in these stories, which on closer examination get more complicated than at first telling. In a DiscoveryNews blog post Rosella Lorenzi writes:

the mummies have become the symbol of the world's concern for ancient Egyptian cultural heritage...The shocking image of their heads lying on the floor of the Egyptian Museum with broken bones scattered all around have been haunting Egyptologists and mummy experts for a week.

While one of the mummy heads reportedly matched that of a previously photographed undamaged mummy, the shocking image of the second mummy head may owe more to the original investigators in the 19th century:

the well cut neck might indicate that the head was already loose, torn from its body long ago. Indeed, that was a typical practice of the 19th century.

Neither head appears to be associated with the bones pictured in the same images. They do not seem to be, as originally rumored, from royal mummies on display. Again quoting Lorenzi:

Wafaa El Saddik, former director of the Egyptian Museum, confirmed to Discovery News that the mummies had been in a research lab.

Beyond my worries about advancing a story that is at present lacking in confirmed facts, and subject to politically motivated interpretation, I am bothered by a post urging protection of Egyptian antiquities out of concern for their status as "global cultural heritage". The claim that antiquities are a global heritage is highly contested, used (among other things) by those who traffic in antiquities to justify the removal of objects from the countries that own them, against the laws of those countries, to protect them when, it is claimed, the source country cannot.

The argument easily slips into a kind of patronizing view of Egypt as a backward steward of things that don't properly belong there. Even gentle commentaries written by well-meaning authors concerned first and foremost about Egypt's antiquities suggest that the protest will be "tainted" if cultural properties are damaged and "sympathy could be strained by further destruction of a historic material culture".

And on the extreme right wing, the outright accusation-- countered by every bit of evidence-- is that those protesting denial of their rights to self-determination are responsible for the one break in security at the Cairo Museum, either actively or simply because they came out to speak up for their rights. (I was going to link to one of these blogs, but decided I don't want to encourage them. Go ahead, find them yourself. That's what google is for.)

This is valuing things over people. The human rights violations taking place in Egypt simply have to be our first concern. Even UNESCO-- charged with protection of cultural properties listed as World Heritage Sites-- insisted in its statement of concern about Egypt on respect for freedom of expression. And UNESCO put these human rights first:

"My compassion goes first to the victims of the civil unrest and their families," said UNESCO director Irina Bokova, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that according to unconfirmed reports, a total of 300 people have died in the anti-government unrest.

This is a proper order of priorities.

Then, if we want to turn to consideration of why antiquities are at risk at this moment, we would need to do a great deal more analysis of the kinds of circumstances that can lead to what Simon Schama calls "desecration" at a time of revolution.

We might want to remember that it was the enforcers who attacked the peaceful crowds yesterday, reported to be organized by Mubarak by such reliable sources as the New York Times, who indiscriminately threw molotov cocktails into the crowds and into the property of the museum (where they were extinguished before damaging the museum).

We won't know for some time what damage was actually done to Egyptian antiquities. Zahi Hawass is now on record several times claiming that, outside of the initial break-in at the museum, Egyptian archaeological heritage is actually being protected by a combination of heritage workers, the people, and the army.

Cairo isn't Baghdad: the people of Egypt are seeking rights we all cherish, and even as they do, they are trying to protect those things that the rest of the world is too easily elevating over the safety and rights of people.

As an archaeologist, I will regret any losses. But as a human being, I will not agree that we should make the mistake of treating people as less valuable than things.