Collateral damage: Egyptian archaeology

Posted on February 5, 2011


What are we to make of reports that “one of the few ancient Egyptian tombs devoted solely to a woman”, the tomb of Maia, wet nurse to Tutankhamun, was “completely destroyed”?

First, I would not want to over-react, or be drawn into what is essentially a reactionary script that elevates the importance of things over people. Archaeologists around the world have been engaged in a difficult balancing act during the dramatic events taking place in Egypt this week. Almost immediately after protesters began their peaceful demonstration against the continuation of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year long reign, reports began to spread of attacks against the Museum in Cairo.

Ever since the looting of the Baghdad Museum in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, archaeologists have been determined not to let the same thing happen again without raising an outcry.

But at the same time, exaggerated claims of damage to cultural resources could support the tacit argument Mubarak has been making, that only his presence is preventing Egypt from descending into lawlessness. The most recent danger to the museum in fact came from Mubarak enforcers, who threw molotov cocktails into the gardens of the museum during their attempt to intimidate the protesters, starting fires that were extinguished by the army.

Cairo and Baghdad are not the same situation at all. It remains unclear who broke into the museum last Friday, smashing some glass cases, possibly damaging two mummies, with some reports raising questions about initial claims of damage and especially, about some widely circulated images that may have been staged to appear more disturbing.  Zahi Hawass, who had been quoted in some early reports of supposedly widespread looting across the country, has since affirmed that damage is actually limited or even non-existent.

When compared to the suffering of the Egyptian people, what kind of perspective would allow us to elevate damage to archaeological sites and materials above the death and beatings seen in the reaction against the peaceful protesters? Neil Silbermann makes a compelling case that

monuments and relics of Ancient Egypt have not been administered for the good of the Egyptian people but have been mercilessly exploited as an economic cash cow for foreign tourism and have served as the propaganda icons of a historical narrative (of a “timeless” Egyptian essence) that has been used in so many ways to justify the autocratic centralization of the Sadat-Mubarak regime.

Certainly, the pattern of claims about damage (or lack thereof) suggests they are being manipulated for political ends. Despite many reports of specific damage or looting, independent verification continues to elude reporters. Hawass, one of the main sources, has most recently stated that “all of the Egyptian monuments are safe”.

So, to repeat my initial question, what do we make of reports about the destruction of one tomb– albeit a tomb represented as unique in the women’s history?

The tomb attributed to Maia, wet nurse to the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, was identified and explored in 1997 by French archaeologist Alain Zivie at Saqqara. Biblical Archaeology’s blog entry described a relief in the tomb

with a scene showing the baby sitting on her lap while a pet dog crouches beside her. Tutankhamun’s name is also engraved there, together with a scene depicting all the nobles and generals of the kingdom

The authors expressed some surprise at the discovery, not just because the tomb was an unprecedented lavish one for a woman, but because they felt it was

a little puzzling to learn that Tutankhamun needed a wet-nurse. It is natural to assume that his mother would have cared for him – unless she died in childbirth or soon after. According to the reliefs, Egyptian women were usually well endowed and able to suckle their babies…

I was startled that wet nursing was being presented purely in biological terms (and misleading ones at that, since breast size is not in fact an indicator of potential difficulty or ease of breast-feeding).

Wet nursing in stratified societies, like that of ancient Egypt, was most likely a socially conditioned practice, one that the authors of Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine A. Dettwyler note was typical of the nobility. Contracts for breast feeding services from ancient Egypt amply document the relationship, and in some ways, it would be more surprising to find out that ruling families did not use such services.

Balance this fragment of history against the living cultural practices of Egypt, including women’s handicrafts, that Silbermann asks all those decrying damage to antiquities, so far divorced from the living people of Egypt, to recognize as valuable and worth our concern.

As he reminds us:

There are different ways to preserve a country’s memory and creativity than selecting a certain Golden Age and using it as the metaphor and embodiment of an essentialized civilization and authoritarian regime.  Certainly the material remains of Ancient Egypt are fascinating and valuable.  But they, like the fabulously wealthy and well-connected families of the Cairo elite are not the only ones who deserve dignity, respect, and cries of outrage from the academy and from museum professionals when they are damaged or destroyed.