Do archaeologists care about the living? Yes, but like all people, we focus on those aspects of a story that are of greatest interest to us. That’s why I have tuned out much of the news coming out of Egypt over the last few weeks. I casually skimmed through articles about the protests, the motivations of the protesters, political ramifications for the region and for me as an American, and even the tragic loss of life. But when Egyptian antiquities were endangered, I began to pay close attention! As a kid, I was inspired by Indiana “It belongs in a museum” Jones. What happens when the museums themselves are threatened? Archaeological materials are one of the many casualties of war and civil unrest, as recently seen in Iraq.
During the Egyptian protests, the Cairo Museum, one of the most significant repositories of artifacts in the world, was raided by looters. Thankfully, it appears that none of the museum’s famed mummies were damaged and, in fact, some protesters defended the museum from looting. Dr. Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Antiquities Department, even ridiculed some looters for stealing souvenirs from the museum gift shop while leaving priceless artifacts untouched. It could have been much worse, since the museum’s collections are truly irreplaceable, and their theft would’ve represented a great loss to humanity.
From the perspective of archaeological preservation, it was a relatively happy ending. Wait…was I really more outraged by the prospect of stolen artifacts and ransacked mummies than hundreds of deaths? Maybe 24-hour global news cycles have desensitized me to death tolls and modern human tragedy. Archaeologists, especially, have been accused of insensitivity toward living people (insert your own joke about archaeologists “preferring their informants dead” here). Sometimes this reputation is deserved – long hours poring over bones and stones in laboratories can dull a person’s sociability. But archaeologists are anthropologists and, as the anthropology.net motto says, we go “Beyond bones & stones.” Archaeologists are as focused on people as any other branch of anthropology. We reconstruct past human behavior from material remains, work with living and descendant communities to better understand the past, and do our best to share archaeology with everyone. Ideally, we go into anthropology because we are human beings who care about our fellow human beings, past and present. And, if our priorities sometimes need adjusting, world events remind us to pay attention to living people and dynamic political situations in addition to mummies.
What aspects of the Egyptian protests have been most meaningful to you?
– Jay Fancher