#EOTalks 4: Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and About Ancient Egyptian Human Remains

#EOTalks 4: Your Mummies, Their Ancestors? Caring for and About Ancient Egyptian Human Remains

by Charlotte Parent, Heba Abd El Gawad, and Katherine Blouin

Cover picture: Mahmoud Hassan (see below for details)

Join us on zoom on August 18th for the fourth of our 2020 #EOTalks series! This discussion panel will focus on the ethical entanglements of caring for ancient Egyptian human remains. The event was conceived by Charlotte Parent and Heba Abdel Gawad, and organized in collaboration with the the Egypt Exploration Society and Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage project. We are very grateful to the EES for hosting us on its virtual platform!

#EOTalks 4

Abstract: Human remains should not be treated as objects. They require a highly sensitive care grounded in respect, dignity, and fulfillment of the wishes of the dead and the living. Consultation with descendants informs best practices for handling, storing, treating, and repatriating human remains that living communities formally claim as their own. Yet, ancient Egyptian remains are perceived  as “uncontested” and “unclaimed” due to the long-held colonial racial view of the disconnection between modern and ancient Egyptians. Today, as the colonial practices of Egyptian archaeology are being unpacked, what do we do when the “should-be-honoured” dead are treated as artefacts, race-science subjects, public attractions, and musical instruments? Should we take in consideration ancient Egyptian beliefs and wishes? Should human remains be treated in a detached manner as scientific evidence? Is there an emotional component to them? How did these human remains get into museums in the first place, and how should that inform our approaches? How can we deal with the past violences mummified human remains were subjected to, such as unwrappings and autopsies? How can the voices and concerns of Egyptian communities become amplified and validated in the treatment, display, and  care of ancient Egyptian human remains? Who gets to decide?

Join us in this panel discussion organized by the EES, Everyday Orientalism, Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage, and Charlotte Parent (Samuel H. Kress Fellow, Royal Ontario Museum) to question how we can sensitively, ethically, practically, and emotionally care for and about ancient Egyptian human remains today.

CONTENT WARNING: Images of human remains will be shown during this event. 


Heba Abd el Gawad: Egyptian Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad is the postdoctoral researcher for ‘Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: Views from Egypt’ (see below). She has previously held various curatorial roles in the UK including co-curating Two Temple Place’s 2016 ‘Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt’ exhibition, project curator of the British Museum’s Asyut Project, and more recently has guest curated ‘Listen to her! Turning up the Volume on Egypt’s Ordinary Women’ exhibition at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. She specialises in the history of Egyptian archaeology focusing on the modern Egyptian perceptions and representations of the collection and distribution of archaeological finds from Egypt to the world.

Sanchita Balachandran: Sanchita Balachandran is Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In her current role, she conducts research of the Archaeological Museum’s collection and teaches courses related to the technical study and analysis of ancient objects, and the history, ethics and practice of art conservation. A recent project “Who Am I? Remembering the Dead Through Facial Reconstruction” sought to rehumanize two ancient Egyptian women whose remains are in the Museum’s care through the collaborative and collective work of forensic artists and scientists, medical and technical imaging specialists, art conservators, Egyptologists, osteologists, and graduate and undergraduate students. Balachandran received her graduate training as a conservator specializing in archaeological materials at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Preservation Studies at the University of Delaware where her research focuses on uncovering the diverse identities of the ancient potters and painters producing ceramics in ancient Athens in the 6th to 4th centuries BCE.

Ahmed Elgharably: Ahmed Elgharably is a Fifth year Medical Student at Imperial College London. During the course he has taken a special interest in Medical Humanities, Ethics and Law and has undertaken a research project focused on the ethics of human remains use within the museum sector. With his background in medicine and his studies into museum ethics, Ahmed assimilates both museum and medical approaches to human remains critically analysing the role of ethics and the way it shapes our interactions with the dead. He poses novel ideas which could potentially revitalise the museum industries’ approach to the dead for the future.

Charlotte Parent: Charlotte Parent is an objects conservator specializing in archaeological conservation. She is the 2019-2020 Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow in the Organic Materials Lab at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). She holds a Master of Art Conservation from Queen’s University (2019) and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Concordia University where she majored in Studio Arts and Western Civilization and Culture (2017). Charlotte has pursued conservation internships in institutions including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Centre de Conservation du Québec. She has been a field conservator on archaeological projects in Northern Mongolia and at Abydos in Egypt. At the ROM, she is doing research into the post-excavation story of an Egyptian mummy, drawing links to wider trends in collecting, dispersing, and studying objects and human remains collected in a colonial context in Egypt in the early 20th century. Ultimately, she hopes that this research can inform her responsibilities to the ancient Egyptian human remains as a conservator tasked with caring for this individual. 

Alice Stevenson: Alice Stevenson is Associate Professor of Museum Studies at UCL Institute of Archaeology. She has previously held positions as Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and Researcher in World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her latest book, Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums, is available free Open Access from UCL Press and is the foundation of Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage project currently underway with Heba Abd el Gawad.

This event is co-organized with the following partners:

The Egypt Exploration Society

Founded in 1882 by Amelia Edwards, the EES is now directed by Dr Carl Graves. Its current mission is to support and promote Egyptian cultural heritage, because we envisage a world where the cultural heritage of Egypt is preserved for posterity.

Today the Society supports archaeological research projects throughout Egypt and Sudan. We rely almost entirely on donations from members and the wider public to fund our work and run an extensive educational programme of publications and training, as well as events to convey the results to interested audiences. You can follow their work online here and on Twitter @TheEES

Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: Views from Egypt

Led by Alice Stevenson and Heba Abd el Gawad (University College of London), this AHRC funded project aims to amplify the voice, visibility, and validity of modern Egyptian communities in ancient Egyptian collections at UK museums. You can follow their work online here and on Twitter @excavatedegypt

A podcast of the project’s public discussion at the National Museum of Scotland on the legacies of Western archaeology in Egypt and how UK museums can create a dialogue with modern Egyptian communities chaired by, journalist, writer, and BBC presenter Samira Ahmed could be found here:https://t.co/OOyQFotwPh?amp=1

A recent interview with Heba and project’s partner Egyptian comic artist Mohammed Nasser (Nasser Junior) by Digital Hammurabi, ‘Who Owns the Past? Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage’ can be found on their YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpg_1cOGGSY


We recommend webcaptioner.com (using Google Chrome as a browser) or the smartphone app LiveTranscribe for closed captioning during the event. Notes from each of the speakers can be provided before the event for those who need it to follow along. Please get in touch with us if you have any concerns about accessibility. The session will be recorded and made available in the future.

Further references and resources:

CW: Some of these articles, books, and videos contain images of human remains. 

Balachandran, Sanchita. 2009. “Among the Dead and their Possessions: A Conservator’s Role in the Death, Life, and Afterlife of Human Remains and their Associated Objects”. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 48: 199-222. 

Brooklyn Museum. 2010. Rewrapping the Anonymous Man. [Video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcXTX0MDJvo

Carruthers, William (Ed). 2014. Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures. Routledge Studies in Egyptology. New York/London: Routledge.

Cassman, Vicki and Nancy Odegaard. 2004. “Human Remains and the Conservator’s Role.” Studies in Conservation 49: 271-282. 

Cassman, Vicki, Nancy Odegaard, and Joseph Powell (Ed). 2006. Human Remains: Guide for Museums and Academic Institutions. Rowman Altamira. 

Cox, Samantha L. “A Critical Look at Mummy CT Scanning.” The Anatomical Record 298: 1099-1110. 

Digital Hammurabi 2020. Who owns the past?: An interview with Nasser Mohammed and Heba Abd el Gawad.

Ikram, Salima. 2018. “From Thebes to Cairo, the Journey, Study, and Display of Egypt’s Royal Mummies: Past, Present, and Future.” In Volume In Onore Di M. Capasso, ed. P. Davoli, 867-883. Lecce: University of Lecce.

McGowan, Gary S. and Cheryl J. LaRoche. 1996. “The Ethical Dilemma Facing Conservation: Care and Treatment of Skeletal Remains and Mortuary Objects.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 35, No. 2: 109-121

National Museum of Scotland 2019. Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: A podcast with Samira Ahmed, Margaret Maitland, Heba Abdel Gawad and Alice Stevenson (see also Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage: Views from Egypt Project).

Nyord, Rune. 2018. “‘Taking Ancient Egyptian Religion Seriously’: Why Would We, And How Could We?” In Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 17: 73-87.

Press, Michael. 2020. “Attempts To Reconstruct a Mummy’s Voice Are Cursed.” Hyperallergic. 27 Jan, 2020. 

Reid, Donald Malcolm. 2002. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, And Egyptian National Identity From Napoleon to World War I. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

Reid, Donald Malcolm. 2015. Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums & the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Riggs, Christina. 2014. Unwrapping Ancient Egypt: The Shroud, the Secret, and the Sacred. Bloomsbury Academic. 

Stevenson, Alice. 2019. Scattered Finds: Archaeology, Egyptology and Museums. London: UCL Press. 

Stienne, Angela. 2018. Encountering Egyptian Mummies, 1753-1858. [Doctoral Thesis] https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/Encountering_Egyptian_Mummies_1753-1858/10209173/1

Swaney, Margaret and Sanchita Balachandran. “Who Am I? Remembering the Dead Through Facial Reconstruction.” John Hopkins Archaeological Museum. http://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/the-collection/object-stories/who-am-i-remembering-the-dead-through-facial-reconstruction/

Cover picture: Fayoum portraits as felt by Fayoumi artists captured by Mahmoud Hassan (pictured in the middle), founder of the non-profit www.fayoumegypt.com, which aims to promote Fayyum’s touristic, cultural and natural heritage to international audiences.  Mahmoud is one of the Egyptian community heritage activists who partners up with the Egypt Dispersed Heritage project (photos are used with permission. Mahmoud Hassan is and remains the sole copyright holder of featured images).

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