Revisiting the Past: New Insights into the Ancient and Modern History of Egyptian Artifacts

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:50 PM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Melinda Nelson-Hurst, Tulane University
During the early days of Egyptology, explorers, foreign colonists, treasure hunters, antiquities dealers, and scholars who participated in public spectacles, such as mummy unwrappings, dominated the scene.  Since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, methods in Egyptology – that is, the study of Ancient Egypt – have changed dramatically, often leading modern scholars to look back at those early days disparagingly.  Not only were historical and archaeological contexts consistently lost, but on many occasions the artifacts and human remains themselves were lost or completely destroyed by rough handling or neglect.  While modern archaeological methods and tighter controls on excavations and the sale of antiquities have vastly improved our understanding of Ancient Egypt and of the artifacts found today, what do we do with the many artifacts and human remains that were removed from their contexts long ago?  This presentation seeks to answer this question and show how a variety of methods – including those from paleopathology, art history, philology, and the study of paleography – combined with historical research of the more recent past here in America may restore some of what has been lost.  Through the case study of the “Tulane Mummies” (a small collection donated to the university in the 1850s that includes more than only mummies), we will discuss how scholars today may use these methods to unlock the lost history of these early collections and transform what was once a macabre spectacle into a meaningful look into both the distant and the not-so-distant past.