The opening of three Egyptian sarcophagi, or stone coffins, shown live on an American reality-TV program, created a sensation on some social-media and news outlets.
For many archaeologists and heritage specialists around the world — and especially those in Egypt — the episode raises serious questions and concerns.
In fact, archaeology, as a multidisciplinary study of ancient civilizations through their material culture, has developed into a strict methodology of documentation and analysis involving contexts and stratigraphy of human, animal and vegetal remains and of structures and other objects.
Yet, in too many reality-TV and adventure-type programs, the material value of these objects is the sole point of interest, while poor or only the most basic information is given about all the rest. It is about the treasure — the “earth-shattering discovery" — not the valuable information. It’s all about the excited shouts of “Look, there is gold!”
We watch as ancient tombs or buildings are opened and objects (in this case, amulets and scarabs) are removed without apparent previous documentation: no photos taken, no drawings, no numbers given, no bags or boxes to store the objects as they are taken away.
This is, of course, if we buy into the story that these Upper Egypt sarcophagi were never opened before. In reality the necropolis, or ancient cemetery, where they are located was discovered a year ago; the burials look unusually clean; the objects seem detached from the mummies, as if they had been moved and cleaned; there is a conspicuous amount of sand inside the sarcophagi and the mummy wrappings do not seem consistent with the dates of each sarcophagus.
Typically, these openings claim to raise public interest in Egypt or other ancient countries and cultures, and thereby increase valuable tourism. If such claims are true — there are no statistics — the question remains: What is the price that Egypt or archaeology as a whole must pay for this return? Do we need more insensitive “Orientalist” rhetoric about the worn-out notions of mysteries, curses and secrets? Will it really raise awareness about the diversity and richness of Egypt’s heritage, or simply maintain the stereotypes of a mummy in a sarcophagus with gilded objects? Will it foster dreams of looting, or perhaps provoke tourists to grab a piece of stone or a mummy bandage when they visit a tomb or to buy a looted object on eBay?
The media need to abandon the “archaeological” images of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, who sit deeply in the conscience of the West and have their ancestry in Victorian-era colonialist experience. Those images perpetuate a historical injustice and a mythology about ancient Egypt that has nothing to do with ancient Egypt itself; it speaks only to a Western audience and does not really care about Egypt, its heritage or its financial benefit.
Sadly, there is no proper coverage of archaeology in Egyptian media, either. There are no domestic productions of documentaries, only foreign shows that do not speak directly to Egyptians. Most Egyptian scholars who appear on TV are there solely to speak to tourists, not to inspire greater interest among Egyptians in their heritage.
There also is an ethical question. Sometimes television programs show the entire corpse, and that begs the question of how appropriate it is to show dead bodies — especially on live TV. Because ancient Egyptians are long dead, it all seems fine. Yet, the debate over displaying human remains in museums has gone on for some time.
True archaeologists are extremely careful when dealing with human remains, because only careful treatment can produce meaningful scientific information. Many museums have adapted a greater sensitivity about displaying human remains. The Egyptian Museum in Turin, for example, clearly marks rooms where human remains are displayed so that visitors can decide whether to see them; the Bristol City Museum and Art Galleries displays an ancient mummy in a darkened box but visitors must push a button to temporarily illuminate the remains.
We don’t need sensationalized programming that embarrassingly trivializes mankind’s beginnings. We don’t need morbid, insensitive tourists eager to play Indiana Jones at the expense of a country’s ancient history and heritage, which often feeds into local corruption as well.
On the contrary, we need responsible, aware, respectful tourists who come to experience the rich cultural diversity that a country like Egypt rightly cherishes.
Dr. Monica Hanna is an archaeologist and acting dean of the college of archaeology and cultural heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport (AASTMT) in Cairo and Aswan, Egypt. She is internationally recognized as an expert in archaeological research and as an advocate for the protection of Egypt’s heritage sites and antiquities. She was honored for her work by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and by American University of Cairo (AUC). She is a graduate of AUC and of the University of Pisa, Italy.