What we are talking about when we talk about Tutankhamun’s beard

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Carruthers-Cropped-154x200A commentary by

William E. Carruthers (HEC MW Fellow 2014-2015) (*)






Tutankhamun’s beard has been in constant circulation recently. In what seemed like the sort of story normally only picked up during a slow news week, the international press has repeated two claims almost ad nauseam. First, that the beard had apparently been accidentally snapped off the pharaoh’s burial mask during recent maintenance work on the artefact’s display case. Second, that the appendage had then become the subject of a botched reattachment job involving epoxy glue. These claims published, swarms of journalists descended upon Cairo’s Egyptian Museum to report on the press conference hastily arranged to address—and significantly temper—the story. So what, during a week that also included the deaths of eighteen protesters on the fourth anniversary of the country’s January 25th 2011 uprising, made Tutankhamun’s facial hair into the most newsworthy thing in Egypt?

Here’s a hint (and one backed by the recent scholarship of Christina Riggs and Elliott Colla). This situation has nothing to do with whether or not Tutankhamun’s facial hair should be attached to anything; despite initial reports, the beard was displayed unconnected from the burial mask for many years. Rather, this situation has everything to do with the knowledge practices that have developed around the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb.These practices have become coded with hints about what can be done to these artefacts, where it can be done and by whom. And they are practices that have often seemed to value the (scientific and political) ‘stability’ of these objects more than many of the people who now live and work in and around the places—like the Egyptian Museum—where they are kept. These people are perceived as threats, emblematic of potential disorder and political instability. When the story about Tutankhamun’s beard broke, it was almost inevitable that it would turn into the tale that it did.

The roots of this situation are threaded within Egypt’s twentieth-century history. Howard Carter (with the help of many other individuals, not least the workers doing all the digging) uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Discovery came three years after an uprising had started against Britain’s protectorate over, and occupation of, Egypt. It also occurred the same year as Britain had granted the country (nominal, but not actual) independence (occupation by British troops continued, as did the influence of the British Embassy). The scientific claims made during work on the tomb were therefore helplessly embroiled with various currents of national and transnational (anti-colonial) political activism, as well as the apparently destabilising threat of the people involved with such activities.

Indeed, the objects from the tomb only ended up on display in Cairo after a legal battle between Carter and the newly formed Egyptian government; a battle that took place within a political context that was becoming increasingly deadly for many Egyptians. Having been examined, measured and catalogued using a variety of (decidedly scientistic) archaeological practices, the assumption had been that the objects would leave Egypt. Only outside the country (or so it was implied) could the right kind of science—and the right kind of scientist—continue to generate knowledge about the artefacts in a safe and stable place. Instead, though, the excavated objects were moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There, the artefacts continued to represent the scientific claims that Carter and his team made relating to them, at the same time as inspiring a certain amount of paranoia about their safety in the face of political ‘chaos’.

Over time, and aided by the growth of discourses relating to world heritage after the Second World War, the unsettling (political and racial) undertones of this scientism started to be forgotten, even as Nasser became Egypt’s president and moved the country towards non-alignment. As official (if not unofficial) histories state, from the late 1950s onwards, archaeologists from around the world—and from across various post-war political divisions—worked together to salvage archaeological sites in the region of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia. The area was being slowly encroached upon by the floodwaters of the Aswan High Dam, and the construction of a common, universalistic past for humanity became the order of the day. UNESCO backed the campaign, and the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights loomed large. Meanwhile, the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb were put on display around the world in order to raise money for the High Dam’s construction.

The artefacts therefore became paradoxically emblematic of this peaceful universalism even as networks of torture in Egypt—and the destructive proxy conflicts of the Cold War—strengthened. Indeed, the artefacts gradually became coded as (scientifically and politically) stable. Later global displays in the 1970s, by which point Egypt’s president Anwar al-Sadat had started to pursue the policy of infitāḥ (“opening up”) of the state’s economy towards private (particularly American) investment, only took this process further. Back home in an Egyptian Museum that was starting to be patronised by mass tourists, the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb became solid symbols of (the right sort of) scientific and political cooperation, even at the same time as Sadat’s assassin called out “I have killed pharaoh!” The cracks in the system had started to show, but the threads had not yet unravelled.

Egyptian policy under the presidency of Husni Mubarak only strengthened this contradictory narrative of stability. As Mohamed Elshahed has noted, under Mubarak the Egyptian Museum came close to becoming a fortress. The building was surrounded by police and security officials who made sure that the collection was off limits to many Egyptians but also easily accessible to foreign tourists. Archaeological sites around the country were treated in the same way. As a means of dealing with the many informal settlements that had started to encroach upon archaeological terrain (a consequence, if anything, of questionable development and land ownership policies in the country), the Egyptian government started to build walls. Sometimes built in cooperation with archaeological missions, these walls bounded Egyptian archaeological sites, keeping them—and the unexcavated objects within their ground—secure, and also keeping the (apparently untrustworthy) locals out.

Yet this forced stability was always transient, predicated on the poor staying in their place. During January and February 2011, when many years’ worth of protest in Egypt turned into something much bigger, the objects in the Egyptian Museum became the centre of attention once again. The institution was broken into, certain artefacts were stolen, and a statue of Tutankhamun was damaged. The circumstances behind these events (and the eventual return of some of the pieces) have never been entirely clear. But what came into immediate focus at the time was a continued international queasiness relating to the safety of objects within the collection. Numerous people and organisations made knee-jerk comments about the situation, placing the blame on the protesters who had gathered in Tahrir Square, which is located immediately outside the institution. Yet these comments also exhibited a collective amnesia: these same protesters had attempted to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting. Once again, the scientific stability of the objects was linked to (and became more important than) the political ‘chaos’ occurring outside their institutional home. Once again, protesters outside were dying in their droves.

So where does this narrative leave us? I’d suggest that history is repeating itself. The objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb are coded not only as scientific artefacts, but also (to many people) as artefacts whose scientific designation is unstable due to their location in Egypt, home of what appears to be (but really isn’t) exceptional political unrest. Elsewhere, or so it is implied, such objects might be kept and examined safely (and not, as many current reports seem to suggest, by bungling and incompetent Egyptian conservators). It is little wonder that there was an outcry when the story of damage to Tutankhamun’s burial mask came about. Any perceived threat to the object’s stability will become cause for uproar, and demands for its ‘proper’ treatment and conservation will be made for some time to come. Such demands have to be at least partially the reason why, at the time of writing, the Museum’s (Egyptian) head conservator appears to have been demoted. They are also why an Austrian conservator ended up appearing at the packed press conference held in the institution to state that the epoxying of the beard was reversible. The furore is all about regimes of knowledge and expertise within archaeology: these regimes tell the world who is trusted to deal with such ancient items, and also the practices (and places) that these people can represent.

So how can anyone attempt to address this situation in any sort of constructive way? Perhaps one suggestion would be to stop blaming victims. Maintenance workers and conservators working with very low budgets and under very high pressure do not deserve criticism. The root causes behind this situation do, and unpacking them can go some to way to helping understand why. The same suggestion might be applied to the ‘awareness raising’ campaigns about the looting of antiquities (in Egypt and elsewhere) that have also recently multiplied. Of course it is worthwhile making looting an issue of concern. But without understanding what it is that actually motivates people to loot artefacts, stopping the practice will be almost impossible. We also risk alienating groups of people who, ultimately, may not have much of a choice when they loot. Rampant inequality and poverty clearly play a role in their actions. Maybe we’d be better off sorting those issues out first?

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme