Saturday, 20 December 2014

More than "a Million Mummies"

BoM (reconstruction) Not
the Book of Abraham
If you are going to let a foreign mission loose on the archaeological record, producing boxes and boxes of material to be studied and stored, you really want to make sure that they are up to the task. That's what we have excavation permits for. There has been a bit of fuss in the past couple of days about a US mission that has apparently had its permit revoked over "false information" published in the press, sidestepping the usual mechanisms of the Ministry of Antiquities vetting the announcements (Ed Mazza, 'Million Mummy Discovery Disputed In Egypt', rewriting what has appeared in Al Ahram here and here and the Luxor Times blog). That sounds a little unjust in that the first reports containing the phrase allegedly in dispute "a million mummies" were several years ago, apparently vetted by the Ministry, and the current spate come from reports of a scientific session held in Toronto last year. I suspect that the real reason owes more to a bit of dodgy papyrology.

One of the scriptures of the Mormon Church is the so-called Book of Abraham, the original was written on one of two damaged ancient scrolls brought to the sect at Kirtland, Ohio by dealer Michael Chandler in 1835. They were among a group of eleven mummies and several (accompanying?) funerary papyri discovered near the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes by Antonio Lebolo between 1818 and 1822. At the time nobody in the US could read hieroglyphics, so prophet Joseph Smith had no difficulty  passing it off as a narrative scroll of the Book of Abraham, and the second as the Book of Joseph. The two were published in 1842. For a long time the story could not be checked, the original scrolls were believed to have been burnt in the 1871 Chicago fire.

Then, 1967, by selling them to the Mormon Church, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York got itself out of an awkward situation when it found that in 1947 they had accidentally purchased the original manuscripts owned by Joseph Smith. The main ones were part of a late Ptolemaic or early Roman Period Book of Breathing of a priest Hôr, son of the priest Osorwêr and the lady Tikhebyt. This was what Smith had translated as the 'Book of Abraham'. The second group of fragments were identified as the prototype of the "Book of Joseph", they were in fact parts of "The Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Tshenmîn". A third group of fragments which had belonged to Smith (and were presumably bought from Chandler) included fragments of The Book of the Dead belonging to the musician of Amon Re Neferirnûb". Smith also had a Late Period hypocephalus amulet on papyrus (belonging to a man Sheshonk), but this is now lost. These all came from late period tombs in the Gurna area of Thebes, and they are all typical of the genres they represent.

Here however is a discussion of what the director of the Fag El Gamous project, BYU professor Kerry Muhlestein  is saying about the Book of Breathing of Hor/Book of Abraham. He has made a series of videos defending Joseph Smith's literal translation of the papyri which flies in the face of current scholarship (for example here, here, here - playlist here

Aside, perhaps, from the lunatic fringe, there is universal consensus of non-Mormon scholarship on the reading of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and this type of document. Obviously the Egyptian authorities are perfectly within their rights to conclude that if Kerry Muhlestein is unable to read and identify the Book of Breathing of Hor, then perhaps he should not be documenting and publishing the remains of a contemporary Fayum cemetery in their country. Let him stick to exploring graves of the "Jaredites", the "Nephites" and "Lamanites" back home. I do not think this is a freedom of religion argument but of intellectual honesty and good scholarship.

[I am not going to accept comments here defending the BoM, the BoA, take it elsewhere and save your and my time, I have my views and you have yours, OK?]

UPDATE 23.12.14
There's Mormons, and then there are morons. I think I made it perfectly clear that the problem here is dodgy archaeology, I certainly have not, as one lobbyist for the simple-minded folk of the antiquities trade put it: "made the case that Egyptian cultural bureaucrats have pulled the excavation permit of American archaeologists from Brigham Young University because they disagree with the tenants (verily, sic) of their Mormon faith". I stated above quite clearly that in my view this has nothing to do with religious intolerance. Kerry Muhlestein has gone public with a totally distorted interpretation of an artefact and the Egyptians conclude that what we all see does not recommend him as the right person to be leading a major research excavation in their country. As I said, there is nothing to stop Dr Muhlstein getting permits and sponsorship to excavate sites of the "Jaredites", the "Nephites", "Lamanites" and graves of "giants" in the USA and find some more evidence of the use of Smith's "Reformed Egyptian" actually in "Bountiful" itself, rather than trying to impose his religious views on the Book of Breathing of Hor. 

UPDATE 9th Jan 2015
'After flub, Egyptian ties are restored by BYU researcher' <

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