Episode 16: The Colonial History of Archaeology and Museums
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Meira Gold
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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In this episode, the hosts discuss the role archaeology played in colonial collecting practices of Western museums and how this practice perpetuated white supremacist notions of colonized nations. Guest Meira Gold joins the discussion to talk about her research on Victorian archaeology in Egypt.
Slaver! Invader! The tour guide who tells the ugly truth about museum portraits by Bridget Minamore
The British Museum’s ‘Looting’ Problem by Josephine Livingstone
Museums in France Should Return African Treasures, Report Says by Farah Nayeri
Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology by Jane Lyndon and Uzma Rizvi
Case Sarah Baartman - France and South Africa by Caroline Renold, Alessandro Chechi, and Marc-André Renold
Victorian Anthropology by George Stocking
Decolonisation: we aren’t going to save you by Puawai Cairns
Transcript by Rev.com
Rebecca: Welcome to episode 16 of the Lady Science Podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive on topics centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science Magazine.
M. Gold: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I am a writer, editor, and PhD student studying 20th century American culture, and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.
Leila: I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the Internet. I am currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at Smithsonianmag.com.
Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team I can be found writing about museums and public history around the Internet, and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
Leila: Okay, so before we jump into the episode we want to do our drawing for everyone who left a review for us on iTunes. These reviews and ratings really mean a lot to us because we don't pay to advertise the show anywhere, so every time you rate and review us it helps us get boosted a little bit more so that more people can find us on iTunes whatever culture algorithm they have that says we're important enough to put on their front page. So, okay, let me pull someone out of here. All right, so the person named C.M. Bezilla is going to be winning a swag bag from us.
Leila: They said in their review "Lady Science always focuses on incredibly interesting topics in the history of science and gender linking them with contemporary problematics and events, and the hosts are super entertaining, too." Thank you very much.
Rebecca: Oh, yay.
Leila: "I often find myself actually laughing out loud while listening. Highly recommend." So, thank you, C.M. Bezilla. If you will email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can get your information, we will send you your swag bag. So, thank you very much. If those of you out there listening like the show please be sure that you leave us a rating and a review as well, and we'll do some more of these drawings throughout the year, so thank you.
Rebecca: Okay, so let's get onto the show. In 2018 museums were in the news a lot, which is real exciting to me because I'm a museum person, though, sometimes, it's for good reasons, and sometimes was for not great reasons as is so often the case. In particular there were a number of really interesting high profile incidents that highlighted the role that museums and their collections play in colonization, and slavery, and empire, and the way that frankly they continue to prop up white supremacy. So here's just a couple of those stories that stood out to us.
Rebecca: First of all there was Alice Procter and her uncomfortable art tours. Procter made headlines giving these tours at a number of different British museums including the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum itself. These tours she talks about the ugly and mostly glossed-over history of the subjects of famous paintings. She does that by highlighting the roles of those subjects in colonization and slavery. If you look at her website, which is really fascinating, also she has a digital tour of many of the paintings, and you will find portraits of Queen Elizabeth with the word “slaver” graffitied across her face, or a portrait of Lord Nelson with “white supremacist” across it. That gives you a sense, even if you can't go on one of her great tours, of the sort of the work that she is doing.
Rebecca: Also, last year in August, the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of human culture in the world, returned 80 artifacts to Iraq. And then in November, France came into the spotlight when two academics, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr produced a report that found that 90 to 95% of African heritage is found outside of Africa, which is insane. France alone holds at least 90,000 artifacts from Africa. In the report Savoy and Sarr recommended the restitution, which is fancy museum language for return, of any objects that were taken through "inequitable conditions." That include objects acquired by the military or by diplomats, or as part of scientific expeditions.
Rebecca: So with all of that in mind today we're going to take a look at what part science has played in amassing these modern day collections in the West, and basically why 90 to 95% of African heritage is outside of Africa. As part of that maybe we'll even talk a little bit about what we can do about it. We also will be joined a little bit later by Meira Gold, a historian of archaeology who is going to talk to us about Victorian archaeology in Egypt.
Anna: Cool. So let's talk a little bit about archaeology. Archaeology was integral to the way that European countries went about building their empires. European archaeologists and explorers extracted artifacts from the colonies that they occupied. Those are the objects that we're talking about that are still in Western museums. But archaeology was much more than just collecting for the sake of filling museums. It was also a way of creating knowledge about indigenous people in the colonies and their history, so on this type of knowledge production in archaeology Jane Lydon and Uzma Rizvi say that "People all over the world have been dealing with their past in manifold ways before Western knowledge arrived, therefore, what we do most of the time is recover their history for us so that we can make sense of them."
Anna: This type of colonial knowledge production, which is based on the extraction of artifacts, sets up Westerners in Western archaeology as a gatekeeper of knowledge for the rest of the world. This is how Western people go and extract this knowledge about other people in other places in some ways regardless of whether that matches up with the history that those people have of themselves. We should think about artifacts as something that we can consider, like should the British Museum have all of this stuff from Africa, or should they take it back? But we should also think about the underlying knowledge production that happens when those artifacts are removed and then taken to the British Museum or wherever, and the way that they structure our Western understanding of other cultures and of colonized places.
Rebecca: Can I just say that the statement people all over the world have been dealing with their past in manifold ways before Western knowledge arrived should not be such a remarkable statement, but it just is the thing that I feel like a lot of archaeologists both in the past and today and a lot of museum professionals both from the past and today don't really think about, and that in and of itself says something about the way we think about knowledge from non-Western places.
Anna: Yeah, I think there's a sense that we Western folk assume, first of all, that history is done everywhere the way that people do it in the West, and that there's one way to write history like there's one scientific method, that there's one way that it's done, and white people are the ones who figured that out. This assumption that colonized people don't have a sense of their own history, or don't have a practice for understanding their own history when, actually, a lot of the time the artifacts that are removed from places are that practice for people, but we just assume that the only culture capable of writing history is Western culture. That's why we have to take stewardship of the rest of the world's history. Everybody has a sense of their own history they just do it differently than going into other countries and pillaging all of their cool stuff.
Leila: Yeah, and this type of gatekeeping wasn't just creating knowledge about people other than themselves. They were creating knowledge about themselves as well that this type of gatekeeping helped Western scholars to create these racial categories that we've talked about on this podcast before, the scientific racism. It also helps them create a self-stylized European identity that was above and in opposition to indigenous people and the people that they were colonizing. The 19th century archaeologists weren't the first ones to do this kind of identity building. In classical times Greeks and Romans looked at "barbarian" nations to bolster their own identities of Greekness and Romanness.
Leila: If this sounds familiar to you that would be because these are Western identifications that white supremacists still in this current day still invoke to promote their notions of "civilization” and whiteness. What this type of identity building did was construct the people that they colonized as an other while bolstering themselves as the “normal” image of civilization and whiteness. So all of this is to say that when we talk about these artifacts in museums we're not just talking about physical objects. We're talking about a people's culture and heritage and who we see as having ownership over them both in the past and today.
Rebecca: One of the things that popped out at me about the fact that the Greeks and the Romans were doing this othering before the 19th century Westerners came along and did that that's just like a beautiful, hilarious, terrible, awful, no good, very bad irony is that I'm pretty darn sure that a lot of the time the Greeks and the Romans were talking about the Gauls and the Anglo-Saxons when they were talking about the barbarian other, and not that it makes it okay, but now, of course, for white supremacists today their authority and whiteness and supremacy stems for them from being Gauls and Anglo-Saxons. It's terrible.
Leila: So much of some of the conversations and debates going on among medieval scholars and, frankly, very violent backlash that medieval scholars who are saying that these times weren't just full of white people, actually, that there were a lot of brown people involved in these cultures and these empires. They say that and then they get this enormous violent racist backlash not just from within the field, but from without the field from people who are trying to claim that these cultures identify with the whiteness of them not the diversity of them. This identity building that is so deeply embedded in our consciousness of what civilization means, and whose included in that civilization.
Rebecca: Yeah, and to bring us back to objects I think it is super important to remember the role that those objects played in creating those 19th century racial categories because, yeah, as you said, I think it's terrible enough that a bunch of white people went into Africa and just took a bunch of stuff, but then they used that stuff to prove that the people who created these objects were inferior in some way. I think that that's honestly the part that sometimes gets left out of the conversation about what to do with non-Western objects in the West is we get to the level of even people who support repatriation it's the level of we should give this stuff back because we stole it, but there's this darker more insidious level of we should give this stuff back because we stole it, and then used it to tell lies about other people. Of course, the practice of collecting and the notion of ownership to make this even grosser went beyond artifacts and objects to include insects and animals, and also people.
Rebecca: This is another one of those things that underlines the racist goals of collecting objects in the colonies, which is that people were thought of as fascinating scientific objects in the same way that clay pots were, and that's just so awful. One of the most infamous cases that we're going to talk about for a little bit of people collecting was the story of Sarah Baartman. Baartman was a South African woman who was taken into domestic servitude in 1810 by a Dutch trader, Pieter Willem Cezar. I apologize to all Dutch speakers out there. She was passed into the ownership of his friend, an English surgeon, named William Dunlop. Dunlop and his brother took Baartman to London where she was displayed in Piccadilly Circus. She was stripped naked and given a loin cloth to wear, and displayed in a cage side-by-side with animals, and Europeans paid money to ogle at her.
Rebecca: This would be terrible anywhere, but if anyone has ever been to Piccadilly Circus today or seen drawings of Piccadilly Circus in the 19th century I feel like you have to imagine the just crazy touristy madness that Piccadilly Circus pretty much has always been to underline just how horrifying this is. When I was reading about this just Piccadilly Circus immediately popped into my head as it looks today. So after that she was transported from England to France and suffered similar indignities there.
Anna: While there she caught the interest of naturalist, Georges Cuvier. He brought her into his circles of men of science and used her for scientific observation even against her actual protestations. That didn't seem to matter to Cuvier, or anybody, really. There are two parts - I'm just going to preface this by saying this is really upsetting - there were two parts of her body that Cuvier took particular notice of [inaudible 00:17:44] oh, gosh, sorry, steatopygia. Is that how you say it?
Leila: I think so.
Anna: Oh, boy.
Rebecca: That sounds right.
Anna: - which is a large accumulation of fat in the buttocks, and hypertrophied labia, meaning that her labia were larger than most women. For Baartman, both of these things that are totally normal among her people, the Khoisan women, but to white Europeans this was seen as a freakish abnormality. Anatomists and zoologists studied her. Ultimately, Cuvier determined that she wasn't really a person, that she was the missing link between animals and humans, and that she represented this primitive form of humanity based on what she looked like basically. When Baartman died at the age of 26, Cuvier had her body dissected at the National Museum of Natural History. They conserved her vulva and anus and they made a plaster of her body that was displayed at the... oh, my French is terrible...Musee de l’Homme until 1974.
Leila: Yeah, I think there's a lot of things that we can say about this story, a lot of things, particularly, how this objectification of a black woman's body endures today. I encourage listeners to read what black women have written about this. There's a lot. There's particularly a piece by Natasha Mwansa titled "The Tragic Story of Sarah Baartman and the Enduring Objectification of Black Women." We'll link to it in the show notes. One of the things that I think we should highlight, though, is that this was an objectification that was legitimized by scientific institutions and then preserved by them.
Leila: South African authorities demanded to have Baartman's body returned to them in 1994, but because she was considered to be part of the French National Collection, and thus under their ownership their demand was denied. In order to have her body returned there would have had to have been an adoption of a formal act to deaccession her body from the National Museum in order to return it to South Africa. The act required an acknowledgment that France no longer had scientific interest in the remains. The act did pass, and from what I was reading, and I'll link to this in the show notes as well is that the French government did it because they didn't want to keep being bothered anymore by this issue.
Rebecca: Which is honestly I feel like pretty much why these things, when repatriation does happen, that's why.
Leila: Right, exactly.
Rebecca: Because someone's tired of the letters.
Leila: Right. So the act did pass and she was returned to Africa in 2002. Just a reminder that she entered into servitude in 1810. Almost 200 years for any justice is a really long time. When she was returned they had a ceremony, a burial and everything, but I think you can't highlight enough that it was because of some sort of scientific legitimacy that kept her body the property of a museum. So when we're talking about returning artifacts to their country of origin that the issue of ownership, and of scientific ownership, plays a big role in why France can't just put all of these things on a plane, and ship them back to Africa, because this type of cultural ownership is ensconced in the actual law and procedures of European nations and European museums.
Rebecca: Yeah, that significance of “does this have scientific value?” as a reason for not repatriating things is just so embedded. In the United States, there is a law called NAGPRA, which I had to just look up what it stood for because I always forget exactly what it stands for. It's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. There are a lot of terrible things about the U.S. government and relationship to indigenous people, but my understanding or feeling is that NAGPRA is actually compared to other Western nations and their relationship with people they have colonized is pretty good. It's one of the better ones, and yet one of the things that museums and scientific institutions and governmental bodies can flag as, “oh, we're not going to return this,” is “well, it might still have scientific value.” Even for one of these regulations that's a pretty relatively good system. I don't want to be like NAGPRA's great because there are problems. Even for that this calling to scientific authority as a reason to not give things back that have been used by scientific authorities to come up with racism is deeply frustrating.
Anna: I was thinking about the historical case of this, too. I think that, while the story is not as well-known as it should be Sarah Baartman's story is relatively well-known, I think there are lots of other incidences of people collecting that you can look at to understand the importance of her being declared of scientific interest because up until even the early 20th century people were displayed at world's fairs as cultural curiosities. They were put in traditional garb and made to do traditional things so that people going to World's Fairs could gawk at them. I think we are much more ready to say that's bad. We should not gawk at people as curiosities that way, but if you just inject this idea that, “oh, well, they were studying Sarah Baartman to understand her anatomy” there's still this undercurrent of certain things are justifiable in the interest of scientific advancement.
Anna: I think maybe the case that we have talked about on this podcast before is the people who still want to defend J. Marion Sims for experimenting on enslaved black women because there was scientific merit to what he did, and that he invented a new procedure through these experimentations. People are still totally fine to just defend that and say that's an acceptable thing. It's bound by the norms of its time, I guess, for some people, maybe not for others, but as long as we can extract some kind of scientific value that there is a sliding scale of acceptable human suffering. That's something that we really need to interrogate about our cultural relationship to science because that's extremely dangerous.
Leila: Yeah, and I want to head off anyone who says, “well, they were from a different time” because when she got to Europe there were anti-slavery people that were advocating vehemently for her release, and for her to go back to Africa. It's not like there was nobody around to insert some dissent into what was going on. There were concerted campaigns to put an end to what was happening to her.
Anna: Also, she did not want to be put into slavery and ogled by Europeans she said so.
Leila: Yeah. There's an issue when she first went that she apparently, allegedly signed a contract to go with the agreement that she would be a domestic servant and she would be put on display in return for money, that she would also receive payment. Then after five years of that she would be allowed to return back to Africa. There's a lot of problems with the idea that she signed a contract willingly with informed consent because she actually could not read or write. She didn't have the same understanding, cultural understanding, or even just literacy that would have allowed her to enter into an agreement that was written by a European man. The whole terms of the conditions were directed by someone who had her already in domestic servitude.
Anna: After a famous naturalist declares you not a human and the missing link between humans and animals you don't have any say in anything at that point because you're not a person.
Leila: Yeah, right.
Rebecca: Also, remember, that her remains and the remains of many other people taken under circumstances like this governments and institutions can still make the argument that “this has scientific value, therefore, I don't have to give it back.” With this story in this century someone said, "No, her bones can't go back to Africa because science." That part is still there. I think that it's also just a dirty secret of a lot of legacy natural history museums that there are human remains that they've lost the papers for, and haven't been cataloged in the way that many things in museums end up being not cataloged, and that the efforts to go through and catalog them and find out where they should actually go back to is spotty. Some institutions have dedicated themselves to doing that, and some institutions haven't. A lot of institutions that haven't. It's because that would involve admitting that they had done this in the first place, and that is really messy, and, again, I think, cuts against this idea that, well, things were different back then because there still isn't a willingness to acknowledge it even now.
Rebecca: One of the things I want to talk about that is, I think, related to all of this is a movement. I'm going to call it a movement, yeah. A movement that's become significant in the museum world over the last couple of years. It's just called Museums Are Not Neutral. This was started by LaTanya Autry and Mike Murawski who are two museum professionals. They have put a lot of effort into spreading what is honestly a very, very basic idea which is that museums of all types have been sites of white supremacy both in terms of their collecting practices, in terms of who gets to be an authority in a museum, in terms of who today is employed at museums, and who feels comfortable in museums. The choices that curators and educators and conservationists and collections managers make are like everything driven by internalized and externalized biases.
Rebecca: This is one of those things that's also become a part of the conversation because people say, "Well, museums can't be political." It's like what museums choose to say or not say is inherently political. It's true on many levels, but I think that this legacy of museums and what they collect and why they collect it is just one of the most intense and upsetting examples of this issue of museums not being neutral. So, yeah, I encourage you to seek the two of them out on social media. They're both great. You can also get T-shirts that say Museums Are Not Neutral. They are awesome T-shirts. I recommend them.
Leila: We'll put a link to that in the show notes so that you can read a little bit more about what they're all about. So I think it's a good time to bring in our interview guest for today. Let's go ahead and get Meira in.
Rebecca: Okay, so with us here today we have Meira Gold. Meira is working on her PhD at Cambridge University where she researches archaeological field recording practices, and knowledge construction about ancient Egypt. So, welcome to the show Meira.
M. Gold: Hi, thanks so much for having me.
Rebecca: Yeah, we're excited to have you. Just to get us started can you tell us just a little bit more about your research and what you do?
M. Gold: Of course, yeah. I research the history of Victorian Egyptology. My PhD specifically is looking at the emergence of archaeological fieldwork as a practice in semi-colonial Egypt from about 1850 to the early 1900s, and broadly how that corresponds to developments in the natural and human sciences. I got interested in that specific topic because in a lot of histories of British Egyptology they tend to say that archaeological fieldwork developed only in the 1880s after an organization called the Egypt Exploration Fund was established, and after the British occupied Egypt in 1882. Those same histories tend to give the Great Man treatment to certain archaeologists like William Matthew Flinders Petrie, who they credit with pioneering all of these scientific field practices out of thin air. They partly make that assumption because between the 1850s and the 1880s there were very few British Egyptologists working in Egypt.
M. Gold: They were, of course, traveling. They were writing. They were sketching. They were definitely collecting antiquities and mummies and objects, but very few were excavating and that was because the Egyptian antiquity service was controlled by the French, and they held a monopoly over archaeological permits, but when I started researching this topic I actually found that British practitioners dealt with those colonial limitations by establishing these vast correspondence networks and using archaeological informants in Egypt who they would use to extract information and record on their behalf, and then they would analyze artifacts and key information back in the metropole. So, my thesis really traces this crucial development in Egyptology from this activity that could be practiced long distance in London through a network of informants to one that required firsthand excavation experience, but in the process also became this overtly masculinized heroic affair by the early 20th century.
Leila: One of the things that you write about is how Egypt became central to the Victorians understanding of the antiquity of man, and there was one episode in particular in the 1850s that you write about involving the British geologist, Leonard Horner, and an Armenian Egyptian engineer named Joseph Hekekyan that showed how artifacts were used as a basis to understand human antiquity, so can you tell us a little bit about the story, and what it can tell us about competing knowledges about a human past.
M. Gold: Yeah, definitely. So Leonard Horner was this Scottish geologist. He was probably best known at the time as this educationalist and social reformer, but also a highly respected geologist. He used his authoritative role in the geological society of London in the late 1840s and through the 1850s basically to encourage other geologists to start talking about human antiquity because questions like how old humans were, and where humans had originated from, and the big racial question of the day - were humans one species, or many species? These were in general controversial questions, but they were especially off limits to geologists at least in public debate. While a lot of his geological colleagues in the 1850s started looking at things like flint tools, hand axes to provide answers to some of those questions Horner investigated river sedimentation in Egypt because he thought between the annual Nile flooding and historical artifacts in Egypt that he could estimate how long humans had been living there.
M. Gold: He got joint funding from the Royal Society of London and the Ottoman Egyptian government. He enlisted Joseph Hekekyan, or Yusuf Hikakyan, to be his personal informant or his field assistant. Hekekyan was this very talent engineer with really extraordinary drafting skills. He was born in Istanbul, but he had been educated in Britain, and then he moved to Egypt where he became really active in various modernization projects, and on Horner's behalf Hekekyan supervised four years of geological, archaeological excavations in ancient Memphis and ancient Heliopolis, which are both near Cairo. Hekekyan sent back hundreds of reports and letters and sketches and maps to Horner. They concluded that "civilized humans" had lived in Egypt for exactly 13,371 years. It was very specific. Some Victorians thought it was really important research, and others dismissed it entirely, but the whole episode is significant, I think, for a few reasons.
M. Gold: One, because it was this period where there were really enormous disciplinary changes to Victorian studies of the deep human past. The episode, I think, highlights how porous those boundaries were between things like geology, ethnology, theology, archaeology, and especially biblical studies, and how various tools, ideas, and practices were exchanged by representatives of those individual communities. For example, it was the first time that geological stratigraphy as a tool was applied to human chronology, which is pretty significant, but the episode also shows some of the ways that scientific knowledge in this case archaeological knowledge was managed over long distances in the imperial age, and the divisions of labor within those networks of communication. Then, I think, most interestingly it points to the important role that Egypt played in debates about human antiquity, and the prehistoric past in Britain. It shows how not just accident materials, but especially how Egyptian labor and Egyptian knowledge informed some of those debates.
Leila: You said that they dated civilization or civilized people. What did they see as the marker of civilization? What was the distinction there?
M. Gold: People had different markers for what constituted civilization at that point, but for Horner and Hekekyan it was the ability to make pottery. They found evidence of pottery and burnt mud brick really far down in the ground so they said this is evidence that humans who are capable of making pottery meaning they were civilized enough to do this, they had the cognitive abilities to do this, had been living in Egypt for that long. That was essentially their argument.
Rebecca: One thing, also, that is interesting from what you said, and also your point earlier about a lot of traditional looking at Egyptian or British archaeologists in Egypt is this idea that it starts much later, but there was this correspondence going on between obviously people like Horner and Hekekyan. It's just fascinatingly predictable to me the way that clearly a bunch of labor that was happening is sort of placed in those traditional heroic narratives about the British dudes going out into the field in Egypt and making these grand discoveries.
M. Gold: I think, so, yeah, and I think it also points to some of the value judgments that historians have made about what actually counts as archaeological work at any given point, and who gets incorporated into those stories.
Anna: So I wanted to ask a little bit more about Hekekyan and this idea that he was required to present as a gentleman in order to do this work, and to be taken seriously. Can you just talk a little bit about what that means about gentlemanly norms for Victorians, and why is it important particularly for Hekekyan?
M. Gold: Yeah, definitely. Being a gentleman or gentlemanly scientist in mid 19th century Britain, but definitely before that as well, it meant that you were relatively wealthy, of course, well-read, you were white, and it was a primary mechanism to assert masculine scientific authority. More than that, it meant you could pursue science as a vocation or a passion because you didn't need to do it for money. Supposedly this made their work disinterested so there was this moral economy around gentlemanly trust in the sciences in general at this time, and because Hekekyan was not white, the onus was on himself and on Horner to prove that he was trustworthy in that way. That was feasible because Hekekyan has this liminal status. In Egypt, he was definitely part of the bureaucratic elite, but he had basically grown up in Britain. He was also this Catholic Armenian and he felt isolated often in Egypt.
M. Gold: It was his adopted home, but he was constantly made to feel like a foreigner there, but he also embraced that. He embraced being this Anglophile, and he became this point of contact for Europeans who were in Egypt who called him this "Europeanized oriental." He embraced that in a way, and in the field he was at the very top of the labor hierarchy with other Egyptian supervisors, foremen, workers, including men, women, and children working underneath him. He presented himself to Horner as not just this reliable field assistant who could do this work on his behalf, but he also challenged Horner to take his intellectual input seriously. That was the difficulty for Horner when it came to representing him and his work in Britain because on one hand Horner had to for this long distance style of investigation to be valid he had to demonstrate that Hekekyan was this trustworthy colleague, and that everything he sent, the information he sent him was credible, but he also had to demonstrate his superiority to him.
M. Gold: So he sold this gentlemanly version of Hekekyan who had not been financially compensated for the work he was doing ergo he could be trusted, but he also sold him this superstar fieldworker who on one hand was educated in the natural sciences and spoke and wrote perfectly in English, and French and German just like Horner and other gentlemanly scientists, but unlike Horner he was ... This was the argument because of his ethnicity he could handle the hot climate supposedly, and he definitely could mediate between the Arabic speaking fieldworkers, and Turkish speaking government administrators in Egypt. I think one of the most interesting things from that is how Hekekyan had to fight to be taken up this way, and still it only worked on some audiences in Britain.
M. Gold: Essentially people who responded well to Horner and Hekekyan's conclusions about human antiquity were like, yeah, Hekekyan he's this standup guy. Some of those people were pretty influential thinkers like geologist Charles Lyell, but those who didn't respond well to the research itself attacked Hekekyan and his Egyptian field team utilizing racist arguments saying that Egyptians will basically find whatever we ask them to find. They can't be trusted. They're not capable of empirical observation, or they're specifically trying to trick Horner. So those reviewers Hekekyan was pigeonholed as just an Egyptian and could never be taken up as a gentleman.
Rebecca: It's a reminder for me how long something like respectability politics has been part of so much of people of color trying to make a name for themselves. Also, that the limits of respectability politics, and the pitfalls of it have been around for a very long time. In hearing this story this guy tried so hard to make himself into the perfect Victorian gentleman, and is kind of a jerk about it, but he has to be, but there's still plenty of people who just won't take him seriously.
M. Gold: Yeah, I mean, what's interesting is they take him seriously when it's useful for them.
M. Gold: Hekekyan went on to publish his own book on this topic, and Horner published that for him in Britain. It was not well circulated, but it's interesting because when you look at all these travel logs, and diaries, and correspondence from throughout this period over and over again there's all these Europeans, archaeologists, colonial officials going to Egypt and saying “Hekekyan, he's great. He gave me this reference to this person.” Clearly they really need him and appreciate him as this go-between, this mediator, but they don't want to take him seriously intellectually in some of their debates in Britain, which is interesting.
Rebecca: Right. So that gives us a good idea of how race and ethnicity was so significant to authority and being a gentlemanly scientific authority. We are, of course, Lady Science, so are there other instances or ways that you can talk about how gender played a role in Victorian science circles, and how to create authority?
M. Gold: In general, Victorian women who were participating in Egyptological debate were just as knowledgeable and experienced as a lot of their male counterparts. That shouldn't be a surprise. They were well-read. A lot of them had been to Egypt. They attended society meetings. Initially, upper class women generally found their authority in things like, for instance, translating text. Horner's daughters, sometimes, called the Horneritas, which is fun.
Leila: Oh, my God.
M. Gold: Yeah, but they had done a lot of work translating Egyptology books from say German to English for Victorian audiences. Other women wrote really popular travel logs about their time on the Nile, especially towards the end of the 19th century, early 20th century they were really active in archaeological fundraising, and that was essential because in Egypt in this time, funds for excavations were essentially crowdsourced from the Victorian public, so women played a huge role in the media publicity machine. By the early 20th century, there were some women like Margaret Murray, who I know you've had Kathleen Sheppard talk about on the podcast before, found authority in the classroom teaching students before they went to Egypt.
M. Gold: Then, also, around that same time women started participating in archaeological digs doing a lot of the transcribing and drawing, copying, drawing things like pottery, producing maps, really important stuff, but there were also arguments about how women were not suited to this work. They were not suited to such dirty work essentially, or there were arguments that women could accompany their husbands on archaeological digs. In some cases they could do their own excavations, but they shouldn't be on what was sometimes called mixed excavations because essentially they would be distracting to men. So it was not just these debates about who would be appropriate expertise to be an authoritative voice, but it was also about who was suited to certain work.
M. Gold: I think that the figure of the heroic male Egyptologist was specifically constructed to make someone like William Matthew Flinders Petrie look like the only one who was doing work. The process of publicizing excavations in Egypt made the Victorian women, and all the Egyptians who were doing most of the technical and manual labor largely invisible so they couldn't be the public authorities or the face of Egyptology.
Leila: We've talked a lot on this episode about collections in museums, and how they are still tied up in these racist and sexist Victorian ideas of authority, some of which we have just talked about. How have you seen that play out in your research specifically?
M. Gold: Something that comes up for me a lot are the common racist narratives that Victorians manufactured to legitimatize their colonial presence in Egypt, but then also to legitimatize what they were bringing back to museums in Britain and how they were doing that. They oscillated between these two opposing narratives that worked in tandem. On one hand, they claimed that Egyptians were passive who didn't care about their Pharaonic past supposedly because they were less civilized on these universal racial hierarchies. On the other hand, they claimed that Egyptians were actively damaging archaeological remains. For instance, dismantling architecture, or the big one was digging up sites on the archaeological off seasons. In that light, Victorians could market archaeology and museum scholarship as this really urgent almost altruistic preservation practice. They were saving Egypt's antiquities from the country's modern inhabitants.
M. Gold: If that sounds familiar it's because those narratives are still perpetuated in so many ways, and it comes up over and over again with Egyptian collections. I think maybe a really good example, recent example, was this fiasco Tutankhamun's mask back in 2015. Tutankhamun's mask is basically one of the most iconic, I think, objects in the public imagination of ancient Egypt. It's in the Cairo museum in Egypt which has the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world. British Museum is right after it. Anyways, back in 2015 they were doing some routine cleaning and the beard came off accidentally. According to British media reports in particular the Egyptian conservators quickly reattached it using everyday epoxy glue, and they called it the “botched beard incident.”
M. Gold: Archaeologists around the world, not just archaeologists, but they basically lost it. They rehashed a lot of these same racist narratives saying things like the conservators there didn't have the proper training, or resources to fix the beard properly, or they weren't capable of fixing it properly, or they didn't care enough to fix it properly, and just wanted to do it quickly so nobody noticed. They characterized it as really vindictive. They used words like reckless. They used words like they were doing it without a conscience. Eventually eight museum staff were fired, and the museum brought in this team of German conservators to fix it. So it was this weird moment where Egyptologists and the media and the public were basically making the same racist arguments that they had been making throughout the 19th century. One interesting, also, side note about that story is that when Tutankhamun's mask was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist, Howard Carter, the beard wasn't even on it. They reattached it afterwards, but we think of the beard attached, so Western archaeologists freaked out.
Leila: It's this very paternalistic attitude towards museums and museum workers that lay outside the bounds of Western control. We saw that and we talked about it when we were talking about the Brazil Museum fire that there was a bunch of people in Europe and the United States saying that, “well, these people clearly can't take care of their things, so they should give it to us so that we can take care of it properly.”
M. Gold: Exactly, yeah. That mask also represents this really contentious moment, too, in terms of British and Egyptian relations when it came to antiquities because it was one of the first moments where the Egyptian government was essentially saying, “no, you can't take this stuff to the British museum. We're keeping it.” It's almost like in a way we haven't stopped saying we need to bring that stuff to the British Museum.
Leila: Well, and it's like countries that are not the United States and Europe have to jump through hoops to get these artifacts returned to them, but still this idea that the British Museum can come in and not have to jump through those hoops and just be like “give us your stuff.”
M. Gold: Yeah, and it's, in fact, justification for not giving anything back either.
M. Gold: When it comes to repatriation, yeah.
Leila: Well, I guess that's all the questions that we have for you. Well, thanks for being on the show, and thanks for taking the time to come and talk to us.
M. Gold: Thank you so much for having me.
M. Gold: Yeah, this has been great. I really enjoyed chatting.
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