Are we invading the Pharaohs’ privacy?

The idea that we shouldn’t carry out research on Egyptian mummies because we don’t have their consent is bonkers.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

A couple of years ago, a curious exchange took place at a conference on the ownership of human remains. A museum director was uncomfortable with the continued display of Egyptian mummies at his own institution and felt that they should no longer be on show. ‘You must want them back?’, he offered the curator of the Cairo museum. She smiled but declined: ‘No thank you’, she said, ‘we have plenty of mummies’.

It was the old white chap in charge of the museum who didn’t want the human specimen exhibited. When he was born – I’m guessing around 1940 – directors of cultural institutions would have been on the hunt for more mummies, not trying to take them down and give them back. Most ordinary people do not share his unease. The most popular exhibition in any museum that has them will be the Egyptian mummies. They entice reluctant children into galleries and introduce the young to people and civilisations that lived long ago.

One reason why they are so popular is that they are preserved – wrapped and mummified – bodies. They look like us, but being so old – the oldest of which in the British Museum is thought to be from around 3300 BC – they are also far removed and outside any social relationship. We recognise them as like us, but from a time and a place long ago.

Studying their tombs and artefacts has led to knowledge about their lives and beliefs, especially relating to the afterlife. Scientific research on mummies has led to discoveries about dating, mummification, health, diet and disease. They were originally examined by unwrapping the bodies, but this is a destructive process. Today it is possible to look inside using CAT scans and X-rays. Continuing advances in science, biomedicine and technology, including the potential of cloning DNA, means that what we can discover continues to expand. For example, the most urgent research projects are analysing the development of disease through looking at mummies. In the process of charting the evolution of tuberculosis – a serious and deadly infection – a team at University College London has used mummies to pinpoint crucial stages in the development of this disease.

Yet for some researchers, there is a growing concern about the ethics of research on Egyptian mummies, and this concern threatens to hamper progress. In a recent paper, in the influential Journal of Medical Ethics, anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, criticised the study of ancient mummies as lacking in ethical considerations. This is a problem, they argue, for three reasons:

‘First, any modern examination on historic corpses is done a priori without informed consent of the deceased. Second, the research undertaken on such a body is often invasive either in terms of technological aspects or in terms of personality traits… [And] third, public and scientific reports about such findings do not follow the common criteria of medical privacy, by explicitly and specifically naming major diseases or causes of death of a famous ancient individual, such as a former king or pharaoh.’

In other words, the people whose mummies are the subjects of scientific research, and who lived over three thousand years ago, have not given ‘informed consent’ for the studies being carried out, and therefore revelations about their lives may invade their privacy. Rühli and Kaufmann have imported specific controversies around the use of the human tissue of the recently dead into a discussion about research on the ancient dead.

It was during the 1990s that collections of human tissue came to be seen as a potentially ethical problem. A key turning point came in 1998 with the revelation that doctors in certain UK hospitals had retained organs for research and teaching without clear permission. The response of the New Labour government to this issue was to pass the Human Tissue Act 2004, and so the lengthy and extensive process of gaining explicit and informed consent for corpse investigations was given institutional form. Shortly afterwards, however, it was acknowledged that this procedure made it more difficult to address the serious shortage of organ donation. So much so, in fact, that when Gordon Brown was made prime minister in 2007, he considered institutionalising presumed consent for organ donation.

Although there are problems with the expanded concept of consent in this discussion, it was always clear who it was that would be doing the consenting: us, before we die, or our immediate relatives if our wishes were not known. In other words there is, in relation to the human remains of the recently deceased, a person who would be either be giving or withholding consent.

This is crucial: for consent to mean anything there has to be someone to consent. How would this apply to a 4,000-year-old corpse? Tutankhamen wouldn’t have had any idea of what it is to consent to scientific research or even a notion of what a museum is. We will never, ever be able to ask him or his relatives. By transferring the idea of consent into the context of the ancient dead, Rühli and Kaufmann undermine the concept of consent itself. Here the ancient dead are being used to voice the authors’ own anxieties about the ethics of mummy-related research.

In many other challenges to the progress of scientific research, there is usually a campaign group, or victim, that spearheads – or is used – to raise the profile of the debate. In this case, there is no community group, no activism – least of all from the ancient Egyptians. This indicates that the limits to research today are advocated, less by those outside the medical and academic spheres, as would traditionally have been the case, than by those within those spheres.

Concerns similar to those raised around research on mummies are at work in the discussion of the treatment of mummies in museums. At Manchester University Museum in 2008, the unwrapped mummy of Asru, the partially wrapped mummy of Khary and the loaned child mummy from Stonyhurst College, usually a popular display, were recently covered with a white sheet. According to the museum the covering was carried out ‘in order that the human remains be treated with respect and to keep the bodies on display in line with the Manchester Museum Human Remains policy’. After significant protests by visitors, the museum reluctantly restated the display.

It is important to note that hostility towards scientific research and the use of mummies for research or educational purposes is coming from those who would have once championed it. Hence this covering of the mummies at Manchester was carried out by curators; no group external to the museum had requested it.

In Rühli and Kaufmann’s paper, the implication is that those researchers who work on the ancient dead are disrespectful. But if you talk to any scientist or researcher who handles the ancient dead they will tell you they take their work seriously and treat the human remains with respect. They will also explain that their research is helping humanity, by contributing to ending disease and educating people about ancient civilisations. This should be celebrated, not denigrated.

Ironically, given the current anxiety over disrespecting the dead, the development of a scientific outlook that conceptualised the body as a research object contributed to ending the use of mummies as entertainment. In Victorian times, mummies were wheeled out at parties to be gleefully unwrapped – which also destroyed them. This mockery of the dead came to an end because the mummies were increasingly considered scientific objects, an important development signalled and shaped by Dr Augustus Bozzi Granville, who conducted the first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy at the Royal Society of London in 1825.

‘I determined, perfect and beautiful as it was, to make it the object of further research by subjecting it to the anatomical knife, and thus to sacrifice a most complete specimen of the art of Egyptian embalming, in hopes of eliciting some new facts illustrative of so curious and interesting a subject’, he wrote. The mummy to go under Granville’s knife was a fiftysomething woman from Thebes named Irtyersenu, who lived around 600BC. She had died, Dr Granville showed, from an ovarian tumour.

Subsequent to this autopsy, which was a trail-blazing first, mummies were increasingly treated as research objects that could contribute to our knowledge of their lives and diseases. And they continue to do so today, which is why we should argue against those who seek to limit and restrain our ability to work on them.

Two hundred years later, research by a team at University College London has challenged Granville’s verdict: although Irtyersenu had a tumour on one of her ovaries, it has been found to have been a benign cyst, which would not have been fatal. By studying the DNA, it has been discovered that the cause of death was probably tuberculosis.

The fight to understand disease, and help the living, must continue to be aided by the ancient dead.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and the author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the crisis of cultural authority published by Routledge. She is speaking in the debate Losing our marbles? Who owns culture? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 31 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today