Exhuming Ancient Celebrities

I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun.  Over the past twenty-four hours,  journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments.  I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage.   Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,”  while others took lower aim.  One online rag, for example,   informed readers  that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”

If you ask me,  these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are  becoming media circuses.   All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women,  baring their physical  frailties and secrets for all to see.  In recent years,  we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come.  I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci.  And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.

None of the subjects,  I might add,  has given consent for such scientific study.  And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers.  The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example,  want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause.   This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.

In future,  I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum.   Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains  just to satisfy a point of  idle curiosity.  So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?

When I was writing my book,  The Mummy Congress,  I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made  jokes at the expense of the dead or  talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments.  Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies,  they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.

Poor Tutankhamun.  I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.


  1. Poor Tut’s indignities go way back. Didn’t his “well-developed” penis go missing shortly after Carter’s team opened the inner sarcophagus?

    1. Hi Daniel: I don’t recall hearing that story. However, the young king’s remains have endured a lot of rough handling. Here is what Salim Ikram and Aidan Dodson, both wonderful Egyptologists, had to say about his remains in their encyclopedic book, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity:

      “Found intact in the tomb (KV62), the mummy has suffered badly from the effects of the decomposition of sacred oils which were poured over it as it lay in its solid gold inner coffin. These effectively carbonized the flesh and stuck the body to the coffin, meaning that it had to be cut up to remove it. Part of the rib-cage is missing….”

  2. APM

    These prurient studies are part of a continuum that starts with the desire to see pictures of the dead bodies. As an archaeologist I have witnessed the intense drive by the media (including even a bidding war by respected international publications) to obtain pictures of human remains without consideration for the opinions and wishes of the First Nations whose ancestors are involved. These are the same journalists who refrain from showing the bodies of victims of car accidents – most are unwilling to accept that archaeological human remains should be treated in the same way when relevant living communities so desire. A nice body sells papers. Some images become iconic, such as the image of Oetzi melted from a glacier. One of the pictures taken of an excavated Franklin Expedition crew member, frozen in his coffin, won a major international photojournalism prize.

  3. APM:

    Yes, I think you make a number of excellent points here. I myself heard about a bidding war that broke out among some media outlets after the ancient remains of a young man–Kwaday Dan Ts’inchi, as he was later known–were discovered by hunters along the edge of a melting glacier in northern British Columbia. Fortunately, as I understand it, those photos were never published–definitely the RIGHT decision given the beliefs and sensibilities of First Nations and Native Americans.

    I have to add, though, that I am not opposed across the board to publishing photos of mummies. I have done it myself, in my book The Mummy Congress. I was the person who selected the photos of Egyptian, South American and Chinese mummies, and I spent hundreds of hours searching for images that were taken with sensitivity and that did not sensationalize or exploit the sometimes gruesome nature of death. I thought it was really important to show the mummies and let me briefly explain my reasoning. When I look at the face of a well-preserved mummy, I see a real human being–not just an abstraction of the past. I see somebody a lot like myself, and it reminds me that we are not so very different than those who went before us. Most people can’t make the connection to past cultures through photos of stone tools or potsherds. But they do connect immediately and viscerally when they see a well-taken mummy photo.

    1. APM


      I think we are on the same page. I did say “when relevant living communities so desire”. The culture I am part of (Euro-Canadian) does not usually mind having our ancestors on display in newspapers and even museums. It does not bother me to have my ancestors depicted in anarchaeological image or museum exhibit.

      Even so, there is a fine line between depicting a real person from the past and depicting real people mangled a car accident or a plane crash. In both instances there is value in reminding the everyone that they are not so very different from us and not an abstract by-product of sensational headlines. This goal needs to be achieved without degrading the dignity of accident victims or the cultural dignity of the descendents of archaeological discoveries. It becomes a case-by-case decision that must be well informed. I think you find that balance in your work. I think many other journalists do not – they don’t even care.

      1. APM:

        Thanks very much for the kind words. Much appreciated. I should say, however, that it’s not an easy thing for most journalists to find that balance–particularly when they are on tight deadlines, are unfamiliar with the issues, and are subject to increasing pressure from their editors to produce stories that will sell newspapers or magazines. I’m a bit lucky: I’ve been writing about archaeology for 30 years now and so have a good understanding of many the issues.

  4. Dan Hilborn

    As a young child I used to consider any photo of a mummy as somewhat repulsive. And I remember asking myself: why would ancient people put so much effort into preserving a dead body, when the real substance of a person is in their mind?

    I agree with Heather, there is a level of exploitation with every picture of a mummy.

    Probably the most egregious example was the ‘screaming mummy’ debacle from ’08. The Daily Mail was probably the worst exploiter and, if I remember, correctly, even the usually austere Bibilcal Archaeological Review ran a story on the ‘controversy’.

    National Geographic jumped on the bandwagon too, but at least they explained some of the actual history behind the ‘find’. This line was telling: “Archaeologists now agree, however, that mummies are commonly found with their jaws open as a result of their heads falling back after death.”

    That is history. And a world that forgets its history doomed to repeat its mistakes.

    So please, publish with sensitivity … just like this article.

    1. Dan: I’d like to respond to a point, here. I think societies had many different reasons for mummifying their dead. The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that to be reborn after death and live forever their bodies had to be reunited with their spiritual and life forces. So their bodies had to be preserved. In many ancient Andean cultures, mummies were revered and venerated ancestors–intermediaries in the spirit world. I think much of our attitude today toward mummies stems from our great fear of death and the way our culture tries to conceal it whenever possible.

  5. Regarding my earlier entry, this from Discovery News:

    “May 3, 2006 — King Tutankhamun’s rediscovered penis could make the pharaoh stand out in the shrunken world of male mummies, according to a close look into old pictures of the 3,300-year-old mummified king.

    The formerly missing sex organ has been just another puzzle in the story of the best-known pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

    Photographed intact by Harry Burton (1879-1940) during Howard Carter’s excavation of Tut’s tomb in 1922, the royal penis was reported missing in 1968, when British scientist Ronald Harrison took a series of X-rays of the mummy.

    Speculation abounded that the penis had been stolen and sold.

    “Instead, it has always been there. I found it during the CT scan last year, when the mummy was lifted. It lay loose in the sand around the king’s body. It was mummified,” Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Discovery News.”

    I note with dismay the snarky tee-hee tone of the lead paragraph.

  6. Hi Heather, hey this story might interest you: in it the direct descendants of a known individual are involved in the mummy research:


    There is even a series of letters found with the mummy, including one which starts, almost unbelievably (as in you could make this up and no one would buy it):

    “To Won’s Father
    June 1, 1586

    You always said, “Dear, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?

    How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

    I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where would I put my heart in now and how can I live with the child missing you?

    Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. Because I want to listen to your saying in detail in my dreams I write this letter and put it in. Look closely and talk to me.

    When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.”

    1. What a fascinating story! I have to confess that my first reaction to the letter was: “hoax.” There was something so 19th century about the sentiments in the letter and the way the writer expressed them. But the website does look and sound authentic. Amazing. How wonderful that the mummy’s descendants still keep a detailed lineage book, charting all their ancestors. No need for expensive genealogical research there. And the little detail I like best is the 480-year old-gingko tree still standing in the family yard, a tree that the devoted wife and letter writer might have known. Thanks, Quentin!

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