Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.
What makes a skeleton a person? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the realisation that a skull he finds in a graveyard is actually the remains of a court jester he once knew renders the encounter all the more significant. Hamlet comes face to skull with the materiality of mortality, and finds it difficult to equate the Yorick of his memory with the Yorick that he can now hold aloft, theatrically, in the palm of his hand.
This cognitive dissonance between personhood and skeletal remains is a subject that’s been occupying my mind for the past few weeks. In July, a black granite sarcophagus was found in Alexandria, Egypt. The inevitable social media circus of meme humour speculating about the contents of the ‘mysterious’ sarcophagus erupted, and this reached a crescendo once it was opened. Inside were three decomposed mummies, as well as a red liquid thought to be sewage water that leaked inside due to a crack in it, dated to the early Ptolemaic Period (beginning after the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC).
The irony is that in all this clamouring about ‘mummy curses’ people have failed to notice that we’ve been plagued by a virus after all-a viral meme.
Probably the most widely shared and reported upon response to the discovery was a joke petition on change.org to ‘let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus.’ The petition was obviously just another iteration of absurd online humour, though in this case it came to dominate the media coverage of the archaeology, leading to such headlines as ‘Vexed Egyptian Antiquities Ministry Says Black Sarcophagus Not Full of ‘Juice for Mummies.’
The narrative of fusty archaeologists discovering mysterious treasures is not just wildly inaccurate, its lazy writing. As an archaeologist I’ve come to expect the same dull tropes to be trotted out, but this particular case needs to be digested more carefully. Aside from within the archaeological community itself, I have seen little reflection on the implications of memifying the three mummies in question. This has led me to wonder, at what point does the general Western population stop respecting skeletons as human remains and start utilising them as human objects?
There are several factors which I believe make the mummies particularly susceptible to online commodification. The first is that they are several thousands of years old, the second that they are not identifiable by name, the third that they could easily be subsumed into a narrative of pulp archaeology, and lastly, that they were found in Egypt by an Egyptian team.
After writing a few tweets detailing my distress over the petition, I saw some other posts which seemed to indicate that people could not understand why making jokes about skeletons would be an issue, as well as a joke somewhat along the lines of ‘ah yes the pharaohs, that famously subjugated class.’ These individuals are not likely to be pharaohs (an initial assessment by Shaaban Abdel Amonem, one of the specialists in mummification present at the opening, deems them to be soldiers with evidence of damage from arrow blows on one of the skeletons). The irony is, if some kind of ancient celebrity had been ascribed onto the mummies they would be less easily objectified. The sustained Othering of human remains has their modern anonymity at its core.
As an archaeologist, it’s hard not to roll my eyes at such headlines as ‘Big Mysterious Sarcophagus Opened, Sucks.’ What sucks isn’t so much the contents of the sarcophagus but the failure to appreciate how exciting it is that any remains were preserved at all and the potential for further study. Whilst some have been getting drunk on their own ‘mummy juice’ jokes, what really leaves a bad taste in my mouth is the fact that this is a discovery which has been managed by Egyptian archaeologists, and the significance of their work has been completely diluted in the Western press. Its essential to consider this in the wider context of the fetishization and exploitation of Egyptian archaeology by the British and other European countries. The social media morbid fascination surrounding the sarcophagus is the direct descendent of the same desire for titillation via the macabre that the Victorians invested in when they hosted mummy unwrapping parties.
Perhaps my reaction to what basically equates to an online joke surprises you. It surprised me. I wasn’t expecting my own very visceral response to it, and that led me to pause and assess what it was about the petition that really bothered me. I’ve outlined some reasons above, but my own personal reaction to it is something I wanted to touch upon because I think this piece requires it.
As part of my working life, I have excavated, recorded and stewarded human remains. I have literally been paid to care about skeletons. As a field archaeologist I’ve had to endure my fair share of bullying and harassment, and one particular site I was working on ended up being a tense cocktail of both these things as well as…human remains.
When I was on that site I felt intensely vulnerable. I constantly sensed the eyes of construction workers and colleagues on me, vetting my every move. Labouring with my own mental health problems, I felt more kinship with the human remains I encountered than the living people around me. Just like me, their fragility was subject to scrutiny. At the time, I thought I had distanced myself from my work but it turns out the opposite was true. I was incredibly emotionally invested in those skeletons. On some level, I think that I believed that if I could protect them, then I could protect myself. If I could see the humanity in them, if I could do right by the remains of the dead, then perhaps my own humanity would not become lost in a job that was slowly stripping it away.
The ability to value human remains not on the basis of spectacle or financial gain is something that archaeology has a very particular and fraught perspective on. In my own case, I have profited from excavating human remains through making a living as an archaeologist and imbued them with a personal meaning that would be professionally discouraged. That being said, the desire to respectfully study human remains in their full historical and archaeological context is an aspect of the field to be lauded.
Though this piece has been rather cynical at times, I would like to make it clear that I understand the sarcophagus petition and its meme descendants were not a product of malice. I am frustrated specifically with the petition and its online reception, not any individual involved. Having written this blog post and processed my feelings, I realise that what I really hope and advocate for is archaeological practise which does not objectify its human practitioners nor the human remains that those practitioners study, and for a wider audience that has access to the full body of that research. I would argue that one of the greatest strengths of archaeology is its potential to humanise the past, but without fundamental self-respect the field will always flounder. Just as we can ask how and why we treat human remains with particular respect, we should ask how and why archaeologists are underpaid, exploited and vulnerable to various forms of harrassment.
Won’t someone think of the skeletons? If you don’t respect human remains, then what remains to be human?