A New Hope for Egyptian Archaeology.
October 24, 2014 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Five years ago, if archaeologists digging up pharaonic ruins in Egypt found any human bones, they would usually throw them away. “Most Egyptian archaeological missions looked at human remains as garbage,” said Afaf Wahba, a young official at Egypt’s antiquities ministry. Now, however, a new generation of Egyptian archaeologists, including Wahba, are pushing to reform the ossified ministry for antiquities.

Meanwhile, Zahi Hawass, fired in 2011 during the Arab Spring, continues to seek the spotlight.
posted by ursus_comiter (9 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Most Egyptian archaeological missions looked at human remains as garbage

Surely this must be an exaggeration? I know that egyptology exemplifies a lot of common scientific problems as a subfield (politicization, orthodoxy, exclusivity, etc.) but it can't possibly be true that egyptologists as recently as five years ago were just chucking human remains in the trash, can it? I mean, that just flies in the face of everything I know (admittedly not that much) about archaeology and physical anthropology, where human remains are normally considered to be one of the most exciting and useful things one can find on a dig. Discarding bones just seems positively unscientific.

Can anybody who is closer to the subject chime in? Was this just a glib exaggeration made for dramatic effect, or is the state of egyptology really that bad?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:28 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I too find that really hard to believe. So... everything the GSV just said. I know that @eloquentpeasant has an account here... really hoping she chimes in.
posted by Leon at 10:33 AM on October 24, 2014

Most Egyptian archaeological missions looked at human remains as garbage

Surely this must be an exaggeration?

Well, I know it's not categorically the case, evidenced by the lavish attention given to recovered remains of pharaohs and other high-status individuals.

On the other hand, there is (was) definitely a single-minded focus on monumental remains from the periods we typically think of when we think "Egyptian history". I was there a few times to do survey and artifact analysis on paleolithic sites in the high desert; we were looked on as a curiosity at best and a nuisance at worst. The attitude was "well, we have temples and pyramids, why do you care about those rocks?" (to be fair, we absolutely won over our Ministry minders and they eventually enthusiastically participated in the survey). Also, the western archaeologists working in Egypt often come not from the anthropological tradition, but rather the antiquarian tradition of Great Cultures that begat Egyptology departments, and that difference matters. Yes, Not All Egyptologists, but there is definitely a different focus. Note too that much of the excavations are done by workmen and just overseen by the western archaeologists, who don't necessarily have the time and resources to eyeball everything that comes out of the ground.

Given all of the above, I'd totally believe the claims, especially from work done pre-1960s. More recently than that, of course there are archaeologists treating the bones well, but I can imagine that there still others who just tossed bones that they inferred came from slaves or low-status individuals. It's just that the ones doing the good work are glossed over to make the point that there is vast room for improvement in archaeology in Egypt, which is definitely true.
posted by The Michael The at 11:04 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I won't name names, but I've been affiliated with at least two expeditions(not in Egypt) where the respect shown for human remains was in my opinion bordering on, if not an outright breach of, professional ethics. So it's not unheard of in archaeology, but probably depends heavily on who the PI is. I am not really familiar with the methods and common practices used in Egyptology so I can't speak to that field directly.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:09 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

[...] the ossified ministry for antiquities.

I'm just sayin'.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:10 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Outside the profession, it appears some of the problem may have been Mubarak-era figures like Zahi Hawass, who seems to exemplify that "Great Cultures" approach along with a breezy sense of showmanship that nevertheless endeared him to those receptive to that message, in particular, legions of Western tourists.
posted by dhartung at 11:36 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I once lived with an osteologist in training who did fieldwork in...Egypt. So definitely not entirely true.
posted by Thing at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2014

Wow, what archaeology team in the last 50 years that has thrown out human osteological material? Names, countries, types of sites? I'm not saying it doesn't happen because who could, and I'm definitely not saying it's always handled well, but I would be really interested to know which projects in Egypt were involved in anything like that. For one thing, bones are incredibly important for understanding sites! You can learn all kinds of things! I have not excavated in Egypt but every time I have had to deal with humans and archaeological sites, it's been intense.The history of archaeology is littered with mistakes involving human remains but the last 5 years? (The other issues mentioned, like training Egyptian archaeologists and not relying solely on foreign teams, or having funding to pay and sustain archaeologists, are also really important and I'm glad the Guardian is reporting on them.)

What has been another serious issue involving human remains lately has been looting. Mummies are wildly illegal to sell, hard to disguise and difficult to transport, and poorly or partially preserved mummies or skeletons...well. (Not that bones don't get shadily sold all the time.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:25 PM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Press release out of Stanford on osteological research at Deir El-Medina.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:15 PM on November 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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