Mummy Dummy 3: Treasure Hunters and Antique Collectors
Archaeology wasn't always the science that it is today. In the late 1800s, there weren't any textbooks or professors to teach interested persons how to study or even safeguard their discoveries. Often, these "archaeologists" were more like treasure hunters or antiques dealers; they hunted for ancient tombs or burial grounds, often with the good intention of preserving what they had found.
Sometimes they kept the contents of the tombs (including any mummies) themselves; sometimes they sold them, especially to museums interested in adding to their collections. Unfortunately, many mummies were lost or destroyed in the process.
For example, Giovanni Belzoni, an engineer who achieved great success as a circus strongman, was hired in 1817 as an agent of the British Museum to acquire antiquities in Egypt. Four years later, he published an account of his work, describing what happened to some mummies he discovered in the tombs at Gournou in 1817. He had followed winding passages within one tomb and was so tired that he wanted to find a place to sit down and rest. Unfortunately, he decided to sit on a mummy, and it collapsed from his weight. He recalled:
I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not [leave] the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other.
In one narrow tomb passage, which was "choked with mummies,"
I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downward, my own weight helped me on; however, I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above. Thus I proceeded from one [tomb] to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying, and some on their heads.
Although Belzoni uncovered many royal tombs, including one of the best royal mummies ever found, Seti I, he also managed to destroy many mummies in the process.
Don't assume that this type of mummy dummy no longer exists. In the southwestern United States, archaeologists frequently encounter damage to Native American sites done by "pot hunters." These pillagers ransack ancient burial grounds, dismembering and destroying the human remains in their quest for Indian pottery to sell Even though such looting is a federal crime, pot hunter: seem to stop at nothing, even grave robbing, to make money.
Sometimes, however, there is a fine line between pot hunting and preserving the past. This was the case when the Mesa Verde ruins in southwest Colorado were explored by the Wetherill brothers in the early 1900s. The Wetherills tried to get the United States government to help in preserving the ruins and their contents, but the government wasn't interested at the time. So the Wetherills went to work.
Besides baskets and tools, they found a number of Indian mummies, or, in the words of Benjamin Alfred Wetherill, "the dried-up remains of a people without a name." They put the mummies, along with other artifacts, on tour — first in Colorado, then in Minneapolis and Chicago — so that people could see "who was who in Colorado in prehistoric times." Of course, the objects and remains did not come from prehistoric times, archaeologists discovered sometime later; rather, they were no more than 1,000 years old. But the Wetherills did the best they could to promote an interest in the past and to make sure that most of the items were placed in museums.
They were quite moved by what they discovered in the ruined cliff dwellings. One infant mummy was photographed, and this poem was written about it by Benjamin Wetherill:
Greetings, child of an ancient race.
How little is told by thy baby face
Of children's joys and a mother's tears
All lost now for a thousand years.
Thy once bright eyes beheld great things.
Thou hope of parents that childhood brings.
Yet thou, with others of thy race,
Were doomed to pass; leave but a trace.
None there are who can thy story tell.
All are gone where thou didst dwell.
All voices stilled; all lips are sealed
Forever closed and unrevealed.
His brother Richard made a stunning discovery one night in January 1897 as he excavated a site near Green Marsh Spring. Writer David Roberts describes the find that he made working by lantern light:
A 66-inch-wide basket covered another; under them lay a turkey-feather blanket decorated with bluebird feathers, and another blanket spangled with canary yellow spots. A final basket covered the perfectly mummified head of a woman. Her body was painted yellow, her face red.
Wetherill called her "the Princess." She, too, was put on exhibit.
Although the Wetherills' intentions were honest and heartfelt, in later years many people came to believe that the display of Native American mummies was demeaning and disrespectful. Recently, laws were passed by Congress preventing the exhibition of Native American mummies and allowing their return to various tribes for burial. Even the artifacts recovered at archaeological sites are often returned to tribes, because they are viewed as sacred objects.