Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The casual cultural colonialism of the gentleman archeologist

The following conversation takes place in E. F. Benson short story Monkeys between two Englishmen (a surgeon and a gentle archaeologist) about the details of the latter's current work in Egypt:
"But odder still are those old Egyptians of yours, who thought that there was something sacred about their bodies, after they were quit of them. And didn't you tell me that they covered their coffins with curses on anyone who disturbed their bones?"

"Constantly," said Madden. "It's the general rule in fact. Marrowy curses written in heiroglyphics on the mummy-case or carved on the sarcophagus."

"But that's not going to deter you this winter from opening many as many tombs as you can find, and rifling from them any objects of interest or value."

Madden laughed.

"Certainly it isn't," he said. "I take out of the tombs all objects of art, and I unwind the mummies to find and annex their scarabs and jewellry. But I make an absoulte rule always to bury the bodies again. I don't say that I believe in the power of those curses, but anyhow a mummy in a museum is an indecent object."

"But if you found some mummied body with an interesting malformation, wouldn't you send it to some anatomical institute?" asked Morris.

"it has never happened to me yet," said Madden, "but I'm pretty sure I should."

"Then you're a superstitious Goth and an anti-educational Vandal," remarked Morris.... ["Monkeys" in Benson, E. The Collected ghost stories of E.F. Benson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992., pp. 556-557]
Readers who know E. F. Benson only through his Mapp and Lucia books, a comic series of novels set in mostly the "quaint" English communities of Tilling and Rye and concerned mostly with the efforts of Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) and Miss Mapp to rule over social set, would probably read the above conversation as a humourous (and not particularly well informed) parody gentle surgeons and archeologists. But Benson is not speaking from ignorance or glancing acquaintanceship with such men. Benson knew well the society in which both these characters can be presumed to have grown up just as he also knew well the world of the classically educated, upper class gentlemen archeologist.

Benson was himself the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and graduated from Cambridge with a degree in archeology. After graduating he worked on archeological sites in Britain, Egypt and Greece. This is a world in which he worked for many years. The casual way in which these two Englishmen treat the graves of other people, the religious beliefs of the other people and even the right of other people to own and control their countries (and the bones of their ancestors) is carefully drawn in this and other stories.

Morris condemns as superstition Madden's willingness to at least rebury the bodies from the graves he is plundering. Madden feel no compunction about taking upon himself the decision as to whether to rebury the bones he finds or to "donate" them to a museum. It is clear that to both men the Egyptians of the day had no right to determine the fate of their own country, their own people and their own treasures.

Neither of these men is a villain. Each believes that he is acting for some greater "scientific" good. It is interesting, however, that the scientific good always aligns with that which is of most utility or benefit to them. As Benson shows us, the gentlemen archeologists of England did not twirl their waxed mustaches as they plundered the many civilizations within the British empire. They were sometimes almost excessively polite. They explained, to any "native" who dared expostulate that what they were doing was wrong, that to stand against them was to stand against progress, science and Britain's imperial destiny.

Polite, gentlemenly plunderers----but plunderers all the same.


  1. Plunderers they were. But some of them were scientists as well, although I don't think your Mr. Madden would qualify if all he's interested in is jewelry and objects of art. And Benson had the training to know better, but I suppose he met plenty of Maddens during his work as an archeologist.

    And maybe, you could say that the Maddens were carrying on in the spirit of generations of Egyptian tomb robbers before them, for whom "take the valuables and re-bury the bodies" was also standard procedure. Sometimes, I believe, it was even official procedure, when later Pharaohs re-used the grave goods of earlier ones. Plundering, for reasons that seemed good to them at the time.

    Ideally, of course, a nation's historic treasures should remain with the nation. But a hundred years ago, when national institutions in "the colonies" were not yet developed, I can understand a well-intentioned archeologist being torn between removing artifacts to a foreign museum were they'd at least be preserved, and leaving irreplaceable sites and artifacts to the mercy of thieves and the black market.

  2. Apropos of nothing, this reminds me of a story I read some time ago, about the oldest museum: The story behind the worlds oldest museum built by a Babylonian princess 2500 years ago.


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