Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Respecting History

In the Cleveland Museum of Art, they have a mummy. When did the ancient Egyptians bury people in Cleveland?~ Zoltan

Oetzi and Kennewick Man have much in common. They are both important to understanding the period in which they lived, and they've both spent time in court.

Kennewick Man died around 9000 years ago in what is now Washington state. When he was found, scientists were excited about what they might learn about early inhabitants of North America. Native Americans, however, declared that he was an ancestor, and, by law, his bones had to be given to them for burial. After several years of court hearings, a federal court has finally determined the obvious: No present-day tribe can prove kinship to a 9000-year-old man, therefore, he can be studied by scientists.

Congress, in its ongoing attempts to avoid tackling real issues, is actually attempting, for the third time, to amend the law so scientists would have to return the remains to the current tribes living in the area. How Congress figures it knows who his descendants are is a little mysterious, but then most things Congress does are pretty strange. At any rate, one enlightened individual, Doc Hastings, representative from the district where Kennewick Man was found, is planning to introduce a bill to specifically protect scientists' rights to examine the bones.

None of this would be necessary were it not for the disregard and disrespect that has been shown to peoples around the world by legitimate scientists, museums, and “collectors” for years.

Take mummies. In the nineteenth century and earlier, mummies were routinely removed from Egypt to be ground up as “medicine” or to be part of parlor show unwrappings. Some were even burned as fuel. I often wonder how those folks would have felt if a bunch of Egyptians had shown up and started digging up English or French cemeteries to harvest bones to make fertilizer.

It's bad enough that the Egyptians themselves looted tombs and destroyed the mummified bodies of kings and queens, but for others, including scientists who should have known better, simply removed them to their own museums to dissect is even worse. The cost in information about Egyptian history is immense.

There is also the general removal of artifacts. Parts of the Parthenon frieze sit in London, England. The Greeks are not at all happy about this and never have been. Now, I imagine that some upstanding Englishman decided that the Greeks at the time weren't doing a very good job of keeping the Parthenon intact, so he decided that this portion, at least, would be better served to be London rather than Athens. At the time, he may have been right, but the time is long past that the piece should be returned.

Unfortunately, the history of archaeology has been filled with the removal of artifacts from their home countries to be studied and/or displayed in a place far away. In the latter part of the twentieth century and continuing into the twenty-first, a good deal of restitution has been made. There are still many articles that were removed many years ago, many of which will probably never be returned.

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's main man of Antiquities, has made it a priority to recover as many of Egypt's treasures as is practical. Recently, an exhibit of wonders from King Tutankhamun's tomb was loaned to the Fields Museum in Chicago. One helpful soul, wanting to impress Dr. Hawass with the love the Fields' director had for things Egyptian, told the doctor that said director had an Egyptian sarcophagus in his private collection. Dr. Hawass promptly went ballistic, threatening to pull the Tut exhibit unless the piece was returned to Egypt immediately. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and the exhibit stayed. I imagine that some sort of negotiations have been made regarding the disposition of the sarcophagus, and the helpful soul is now a janitor.

The problem is that such articles are almost always obtained illegally. The director may have purchased the sarcophagus in good faith, but he should have been aware that it could hardly have been removed from Egyptian territory legitimately.

Illegal sales of artifacts has been a major problem for years. Museums purchase items this way, claiming that they are saving them from being hidden in a private collection, but, since they know full well that they are supporting the thieves, this is a specious argument. If they were buying them to return them to the land from which they came, that's one thing. Buying them to display is quite another.

Such actions merely encourage the looting of archaelogical sites. Some sites look like the surface of the moon, with craters scattered across the landscape as the looters dig for treasures to sell in the antiquities black market. One site, the tomb of the Lord of Copan, was saved only because it happened to be under a corral where a bull was kept. The surrounding area looked like an artillery range.

Many of these looted items are bought by private “collectors”. I've never understood the idea of buying some ancient find and hiding it from the world in some private hoard. What can the motivation to keep knowledge from the rest of the world? What good is a wonderful object if you can't show it to anyone?

In North America, too, there is a long history of digging up burial mounds with no respect for those who might have been buried within. That's why the laws regarding Native American ancestors are in place. Because of the actions of these despoilers, we lose our ability to gain more insight into the civilizations that roamed the continent in the centuries before Europeans, Vikings, or Chinese sailors (depending on your favorite theory) found the continent.

It's not that some countries aren't fighting back. Italy, for example, has a task force which does nothing but track down illegal artifact dealers (and artifact forgers). More and more museums are working with the countries of origin to work out deals for returning long-removed treasures. There's light at the end of the tunnel.

And, some scientists have found that native peoples can be a help rather than a hindrance in hunting for artifacts and the remains of early North American settlers. “Lost World” is a fascinating book by Tom Koppel laying out new theories (at least as of 2003) about the earliest settlers of North America. In the book, he talks about the concerns of dealing with native groups about digging in tribal areas. Rather than being confrontational, the team asked the Tlingit Indians to participate in the discovery process. Remains were treated respectfully in accordance with tribal customs, but significant information was gathered that would never have been obtained otherwise. Everyone wants to know where they came from and who they were. Everyone also deserves respect.

And so do their ancestors.

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