Did auction amount to tomb robbery?

The sculpture of King Tut that raised so much controversy was sold for nearly $6 million at Christie’s in New York. Regardless of how you look at this, somebody made a lot of money. King Tut’s family definitely didn’t put the item up to pay some bills.

Almost a century ago, Howard Carter discovered the sealed tomb of King Tut, and the world was flabbergasted at the opulence of wealth found inside. I saw the traveling exhibit of King Tut’s tomb a number of years ago, and even though I was disappointed that they did not risk displaying the famous gold burial mask, the collection was still mind boggling. The beauty and the mystique of ancient Egyptian art has no parallel, as well as the insatiable desire to study it and the ancients’ way of life. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

History has not been kind to Egyptian tombs. As a matter of fact, King Tut’s tomb is the only one to date that has been found intact. All others to date have been plundered by tomb robbers. How is this recent sale any different? Just because it was orderly and documented, didn’t our contemporaries do the same thing? Can we justify this in the name of art and science? King Tut’s artifacts are scattered all over the world. How did they get there and do you think that anyone profited from it? Of course they did! The Egyptian people have a right to be upset.

What has occurred to me in recent years, however, is a more ethical question that goes beyond the obvious, and that is the disrespect for the dead. This was someone’s sacred burial spot, but it has been picked apart by vultures for one reason or another. Personal belongings as well as the corpse itself have been removed. Back in the mid-19th century, the wealthy in this country used to purchase intact mummies and then throw a “mummy party” with food and drink that was highlighted by unwrapping a mummy to see what kind of valuables were stashed in the wrappings. How macabre! Today, hosts of educational shows on TV document the study of various mummies, X-raying them, extracting samples of flesh and bone for DNA identification and poking through ancient dried up remains ... that have faces.

In this country, we have strict laws governing respectful preservation of Native American burial grounds. Why, then, is it OK to obliterate Egyptian sites? Is it acceptable since these were ancient people that we really never knew? Or are there no descendants to organize and complain? When you think about it, with the lightning progression of the capabilities of DNA, it is not too far-fetched for descendants of King Tut to organize and petition to put all his stuff back. I kind of wish they would.

Sally Brown-Pawlosky