Wednesday 14 April 2010

Ancient Corporeal "Collectable" Handed Over

The collecting of human body parts as souvenirs is one of the less savory features of the private collection of objects removed from archaeological sites. In the case of an object, a human toe, that was returned to Egypt this week however we have a rare case when the collectable was valued not only for its "Eeeeeuuwww value" but also for its provenance, which was not therefore lost. The toe had been taken from the mummy found in 1907 in Valley of the Kings tomb 55, an Amarnan period royal grave now thought after the latest DNA testing to have been that of Akhenaton. The item was handed over by university of Zurich scientist Frank Ruehlit o the head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities on Wednesday during the signing in Switzerland of an agreement about return of stolen antiquities. The return was Ruehli's 'private initiative' and not sponsored by the Swiss government. The toe had apparently been taken from the royal body in 1907 and passed through private hands and kept as a souvenir until through 'personal contacts' it was obtained by Ruehli in 'another European country'. He then returned the object to Egypt so it could be reunited with the body.

A number of antiquity dealers and collectors hold this kind of material, there was the case of a Washington dealer discussed here who was selling a mummified foot, which she withdrew from sale when the matter was being openly discussed, Damien Huffer drew attention on SAFECorner last week to a gallery in Australia selling bronze bangles with the human armbones in them as an added 'bonus', again when he drew attention to this the items were withdrawn from sale. Ebay does not always react to being alerted to dodgy artefact sales, but tends pretty quickly to end the auctions of ancient human remains when notified. The collectors who held the KV55 toe are not named to shield them from public shame.

So it would appear that the people responsible for offering such items for sale and collecting them realise that what they are doing is likely to be regarded as offensive by many people. Obviously they do not care - unless people find out that is. Artefact collecting is, collectors feel, best done behind closed doors. Collectors and antiquity dealers do not want people peeking over their shoulders, seeing exactly what they are doing, because they know in their heart of hearts that while protesting loudly that it is all legitimate ("innit") and "no law (of my country) is broken", in fact a lot of people if they had the full facts about the damage done by the double standards and doubletalk inherent in the trade would strongly disapprove.

Vignette: here's a book for the sort of people that might want to collect broken off bits of human corpses in their homes as "antiquities" (Legal disclaimer: I do not want to imply however that its author would approve of such things, most normal people would not, though for many antiquity collectors it is quite acceptable).

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