Elginism in Greece and Egypt. Manuscripts, Mummy Masks, Ptolemaic Texts – and Cultural Repatriation

Elginism (ĕl’gĭnĭz’əm) n. 1801. [f. the name of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (1766-1841); see —ISM. Cf. Fr. elginisme & Sp. elginismo.]  Source – Elginism

While the concept of Cultural patrimony has been gaining recognition over the past several decades, both concept and related action remain debated – at times contentiously.  Here are a few thoughts on the topic from Greece and Egypt, together with current debates and past activities.

Greece – 

Iris, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, now in the  British Museum. Source - British Museum.

Iris, from the west pediment of the Parthenon, now in the British Museum. Source – British Museum.

 Since the early 1980s Greek governments have argued for the permanent removal to Athens of all the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The Greek government has also disputed the British Museum Trustees’ legal title to the sculptures. For more information on the Greek Government’s official position, see the website of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture: www.culture.gr

British Museum, The Parthenon Sculptures

On the other hand –

Cultural treasures from ancient civilisations belong in the places they come from. Museums in Sweden, Germany, America and the Vatican have already acknowledged this and returned items taken from the Acropolis. The British museum should follow suit and put an end to more than two centuries of bad feeling in Greece. –

Source – Elginism, Arguments for & against the return of the Elgin Marbles 

And in more detail –

Decontextualised artefacts that end up in a museum or gallery are often given the name of the person who perpetrated their removal from their original setting (see Elgin Marbles). The French use the term elginisme to describe the practice of stealing antique fittings from old houses. The act of elginism has been going on for thousands of years, however the Elgin Marbles are now considered to be the classic case of elginism.

Source: Definition of Elginism 


One rationale for keeping the Marbles at the British Museum –


Egypt – 

In the heady days of Nineteenth Century colonialism and related Egyptological adventures in Egypt, excavations were generally conducted very quickly, as shown in the following picture of excavations at Tebtunis in the Fayum.  This dig was run by Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt; the the primary goal at that time was to procure papyri – Greek if possible.

Their finds are now kept at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, where there is an ongoing program about the papyri, as well as about Tebtunis and the Ptolemaic period. Results of this work can be linked to here. Other nearby sites included Crocodilopolis (Arsinoe) and Oxyrhynchus, where large caches of papyri were discovered.

This was an era of viewing the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history as somewhat degenerate – no longer ‘really Egyptian’; dig goals were often associated with goals of finding copies of both classical and biblical texts in the ruins (Summary information on the Tebtunis papyri can be found here, together with a number of excellent excursions and studies.)

EES Hunt  Excavating the town of Tebtunis in the Fayum, Southwest of Cairo.  Source - Egyptian Exploration Society, Hunt.

Excavating activities in the town of Tebtunis in Egypt by Grenfell and Hunt, 1899-1900.  Their search was primarily for manuscripts.  Tebtunis is located in the southern Fayum, Southwest of Cairo. Source – Egyptian Exploration Society, Hunt.

Also in the Nineteenth Century, portions of the important kinglist of Ramesses II located on the walls of the pharaoh’s  Abydos temple was chiseled out and exported to the British Museum..The king list of Ramsses II, 19th Dynasty, around 1250 BC Source - British Museum, EA117

The king list of Ramesses II, 19th Dynasty, around 1250 BC Source – British Museum, EA117

The memorial temple of Ramesses II (reigned 1279-1213 BC) survives today at Abydos [Egypt], the cult centre of Osiris. The temple contains superb decoration, including … a list of the kings of Egypt [portion depicted above]. It was excavated by W.J. Bankes and came to The British Museum in 1837.

Source – British Museum, List of the kings of Egypt from the Temple of Ramesses II

However, views of exportation are changing, even while looting activities are increasing.  A  public hearing has recently taken place in Egypt regarding imports from Egypt to the U.S.A. –

Public hearing on Egypt’s request for import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S. [5 June 2014]

A common sentiment expressed by the supporters [of import restrictions during] the hearing is that the implementation of US import restrictions would create a ripple effect that would lower market demand and thereby reduce the incentive to loot. An MoU with the United States will stimulate engagement among local communities and public educational programs in Egypt …

The speakers who opposed import restrictions argued that since Egypt’s problems are internal, and the will of the Egyptian people to solve this problem without foreign assistance is uncertain, it is unfair for US collectors and to dealers to be asked to curb their activities. While the MoU requires documentation and export permits in order for material to be imported into the US, opponents argued that it is unrealistic to expect small businesses to do this work… Source

In 2011, a Homeland Security official indicated [of the U.S. Government] … “the illicit sale of cultural property is the third most profitable black market industry following narcotics and weapons trafficking.” (Source)

But there are other types of exploitation of Egyptian artifacts that are currently taking place, such as  described below. This is a new form of artifact manipulation, following in the footsteps of Grenfell and Hunt over a century after their work in the Fayum but with some new twists.  The goal, similarly, is to extract papyri – biblical, if possible – here, from mummy masks  –

What we learn [from this video – see below] is that, apparently, McDowell is one of the main persons dismounting mummy masks. He states in the video that he doesn’t know what he is doing and has to rely on what scholars tell him. In his PowerPoint, he shows many of the same images that appear in Carroll’s PowerPoint in the video [below]

All of this is deeply disconcerting and I would ask readers of this blog to disseminate this post widely. The scholarly community needs to be more and more aware of these practices, how these artifacts are being used, and the religious agendas behind it all…

Source – The ‘First Century’ Gospel of Mark, Josh McDowell, and Mummy Masks: What They All Have in Common

A few pictures from the video, which I give below.

Extracting papyri from a Greco-Roman mummy mask, in hopes that early Biblical texts might be found.  Source - see following pictures.

Extracting papyri from a Greco-Roman mummy mask, in hopes that early Biblical texts might be found. Source – see following picture.

Screen shot of mummy mask (taken from video of Josh McDowell, ricecjones weeblyl.com Source - 'Faces and Voices'

Screen shot of mummy mask after being soaked (taken from video of Josh McDowell, below). Source

A rationale given here – the destruction of largely unprovenanced artifacts – mummy masks in this case (purchased from largely unidentified artifact dealers) – is that the activity may result in discovering early manuscripts containing portions of the bible.

In the below video, the process of mummy mask-dissolving begins at 23.00 minutes into the video.  Using Palmolive Soap, it is claimed that the manuscripts are not destroyed, but, of course the mask is dissolved.  And is there really no destruction to the papyrus?

Is this not a form of looting; of destroying cultural property?  Supporters of this effort suggest that since the masks are privately owned, the owners can do as they please with them.  And indeed, there seems to be no law in the U.S. controlling these kinds of activities.  There are, however, other forms of control – or at least enclosure – that I will discuss in another blog.

Another video, by Dr. Scott Carroll, showing the mummy mask being dissolved; the dissolving pictures begins at 25.00 minutes.  Dr Carroll provides an interesting show-and-tell to his congregation; his goal in dissolving masks is the possible retrieval of biblical papyri.

I have much more to say on the topic, which will await another blog or two.  In the meantime, see what the papyrologist Dr Mazza of the University of Manchester has to say on the topic of Mummy Masks on her excellent blog, Faces and Voices, here.

Other information and links can be found here.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Colonialism, Cultural Patrimony, Egypt, Egypt-Ancient, Looting, Manuscripts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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