Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, widespread looting occurred across archaeological sites and museums in the region. Most notably, the National Museum of Iraq was heavily pillaged and dozens of irreplaceable artifacts went missing.
Although many of the artifacts were eventually recovered, some were permanently lost or destroyed. Scores of other archaeological sites were damaged in the wake of the conflict and, eventually, the United States military and other international agencies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made a series of special attempts to protect archaeological sites and prevent further looting from museums. And in the years following the initial invasion, a number of museums in the United States began working closely with curators at the National Museum in Baghdad to recover, conserve, and protect collections related to Iraq’s heritage not only in Iraq, but also in U.S. museums.
The response of the United States to the problem of looting in many ways echoed the events of World War II, when a special Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section — a group eventually nicknamed the “Monuments Men” — was created in Europe following the invasion of Normandy. This group, led by bookish professors who viewed the objective of recovering art stolen by the Nazis as both a unique adventure and a contribution to the war effort, successfully managed to conserve, protect, and return much of the pillaged art displaced by the chaos of war.
Recent events in Egypt, where conflicting reports are emerging regarding the exact state of archaeological sites and museums, will leave the responsibility of protecting cultural heritage to whomever emerges successful following the uprisings. Reports I have received from colleagues in Egypt and Europe suggest that while most antiquities in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo are, as of now, relatively unharmed, archaeological sites throughout Egypt are being subjected to vandalism and theft.
Conflicting reports suggest that at least two mummies currently displayed in Cairo have been seriously damaged by vandals. Reports indicate that many archaeologists tasked with protecting museum collections and archaeological sites are too fearful for their well being to remain at their posts. Some have already left the country. In the wake of the looting that caused extensive damage to mummified remains, the Egyptian army was tasked with the responsibility of protecting state run museums.
As a historian of collections of human remains in the United States, I was particularly startled by the recent reports of the destruction of mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The long and unusual history of collecting, researching, and displaying mummified remains represents a fascinating component of how scholars and the public have learned about issues such as race and prehistory. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians continue to learn much from mummies, and their grotesque desecration should be avoided at all cost, as they represent a priceless piece of our shared global heritage.
For generations, students have visited museums like the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the Berkeley campus to view Egyptian mummies and learn about both the human body and ancient history. Many museum visitors connect with the physical remains of people who lived in the past in a manner unique from their examination of art or artifacts. Bodies fascinate us, and they have been long been used as vehicles to teach museum visitors about complex issues such as race, medicine, and human history. Our interpretations surrounding human remains have changed drastically over time, but the bones and mummified bodies have remained essentially static.
A shared global heritage
Due in no small part to their nearly constant display in museums, mummified remains originating from the Egypt are some of the most recognizable symbols of the ancient world. In the first half of the 19th century, mummified remains were prized in the West as souvenirs from voyages to the Middle East and Africa. Returning tourists might impress their friends with “mummy parties,” where a recently acquired mummified body would be displayed in a parlor for guests to examine as hosts recounted details of their travels.
Eventually, many of these privately collected mummies were subsequently donated to museums (imagine inheriting an Egyptian mummy from your deceased relatives). Professional archaeologists built upon donations from wealthy tourists and, by the middle of the 20th century, it had become so ubiquitous for museums in the U.S. to display mummies from Egypt that one museum curator even commented wryly that any self-respecting museum simply must have one to exhibit.
Despite the seeming abundance of mummies to display in our museums, they represent an irreplaceable commodity of our shared global heritage. In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, museums in the United States were offered funding to work closely with cultural officials in the region, taking thousands of digital photos, conserving objects, and publishing information about existing collections.
As an intern at the Field Museum in Chicago in 2004, I was part of a large team working to reorganize, conserve, and photograph valuable archaeological collections from Kish in Iraq. The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the auspices of a special “Recovering Iraq’s Past” initiative. In addition to such work in museums in the United States, museum professionals around the world have also offered valuable assistance and expertise to their counterparts in Iraq via e-mail and teleconference.
Similarly, in the wake of recent events in North Africa, we should call for government and international agencies to take a renewed interest in preserving Egyptian heritage. We need to take seriously reports of looting and pillaging in Egypt. Thankfully, in the digital age, our own “Monuments Men and Women” can contribute to the goal of preserving cultural heritage from across the globe. Before this important work can happen, however, we need to make the conscious decision to prioritize their valuable work. While keeping the safety of Egyptians, tourist, and expatriates in mind, we must also consider the preservation of our global heritage.