In this site, we will explore the following questions: What forms of visual art were a part of the funerary practice of Ancient Egypt? What scientific principles are followed to create the visually stunning pyramids and the mummification process? What do the funerary processes of Ancient Egypt imply about their culture and religious beliefs? What are the ethical dilemmas associated with the exhumation and photography of the deceased, specifically mummified Egyptians? Scientists, anthropologist, many others have been interested in these questions and mysteries for decades. Ancient Egyptians have captivated the globe with their visual representations of death, such as pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphs, and statues; which have been shared with the world through photojournalism.
Pyramids are the houses of dead pharaohs in Egyptian culture. Pyramids of Giza (The Great Pyramids), the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, were built by three great rulers: pharaoh Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. The first and largest pyramid was built by Khufu, with Khafre the second, and Menkaure the smallest. In order to, construct such a massive monument, a permanent group of skilled workers, along with seasonal crews with approximately 2000 conscripted peasants composed the workforce. These crews are divided into small groups; each group of 20 men could carry 2.5 ton blocks from quarry to the construction site within 20 minutes. Each day, near 140 stones were hauled to the pyramid. When almost finished, a smooth outer casing made of limestone was put on top of each pyramid. Mark Lehner, an Egyptologist who leads of Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA) and engineer David Goodman discovered that stones used in Khufu’s pyramid are from a horseshoe-shaped quarry located just south of the pyramid. On the other hand, the papyri found at Wadi al-Jarf said that the limestone used in the casing is from a quarry located at Turah and was shipped to Giza by boat. Apart from the materials, another engineer of AERA, Glen Dash, noted that Khufu’s pyramid is aligned to true north within one-tenth of a degree. He proposed that Ancient Egyptians may use a circumpolar star like Polaris and lines of rope to accomplish that.Astronomical knowledge also allowed Egyptian architects with alignment. Two tools were known to be used: the merkhet (the ‘instrument of knowing’) and the bay (a sighting tool). Workers lay out straight lines and right-angles with these tools, and orient sides and corners of structures according to the stars.
In order to raise the rocks to the top, ramps are necessary. Researchers have found traces of interior ramps in other pyramids, but no evidence are left in the pyramids of Giza. Also, the exterior ramps haven’t been found in any other pyramid yet due to the hardship of survival without protection. We will need more researches focusing on that to continue unveiling the myth. Beside basic physics, what shock the scientists was the new founding of the Great Pyramids’ ability to concentrate electromagnetic energy. Based on founding, Khufu’s pyramid can focus electric and magnetic energy into its chambers to spark higher levels of energy. Though the Ancient Egyptians may not be aware of this property, Researchers believe that if we could imitate the same effect on a smaller scale, new and more efficient sensors and solar cells could be developed. From all of this information and data, one can see the extensive lengths ancient Egyptians went to master the art of creating these visually gigantic building to house the dead. Showing how crucial death was in their culture.
Ancient Egyptians found the concept of death to be merely a part of one’s spiritual journey. To them, the physical body may have died, but they believed that the spirit of the person would continue and live on in the afterlife. A large portion of their culture centered around death as there were many gods related to it, many ceremonies were created about it, and even art was created to represent it. The ancient Egyptians did not create art for creative purposes or for just the fun of it, to them, visual art was highly significant. Therefore, art was primarily used for religious purposes, such as death and funerary practices. Religion, death, and art were all intertwined in ancient Egyptian culture.
The reason why visual art was extremely meaningful to this culture is that art helped ancient Egyptians cope with death as it acted as the gateway between the living and the dead. For them, the afterlife was a mirror copy of our world. Therefore, to ensure that they live the same life in the afterworld ancient Egyptians took preparations by visually drawing out hieroglyphics. Pyramids contained tombs of the dead in them and in these tombs there were walls that were decorated with artistic visual hieroglyphics. Culturally it was believed that some of these hieroglyphics would become real in the afterlife where the spirits would go. Therefore, the hieroglyphics were seen as a part of the afterlife and a key component in funerary practices. For instance, hieroglyphics drawn on tomb walls would give a visual story of the deceased’s life letting them live the same life in the afterlife, gave a visual representation of a spell that would protect the deceased’s body and soul in the afterlife, would give the soul instructions as to how to navigate the afterlife, and much more.
Hieroglyphics were not the only visual art form that ancient Egyptians used to cope with death and navigate the afterlife. Pyramids also held the coffin of the dead and the coffin itself was a visual art piece that was intertwined with death and the afterlife. Many coffins have a beautifully detailed face of the deceased on it. As culturally it was believed that when one dies their spirit will need to reunite with its mummified body in order to reborn in the afterlife. It would be hard for a spirit to find its dead mummified body. Therefore, Egyptians created these detailed faces so that the spit can recognize its faces and go to their body so that one can be reborn into the afterlife. Additionally, other parts of the coffin were glittered with powerful symbolic art that related to death. Coffins often had the scarab beetle on it as it represented death and rebirth. Additionally, many coffins were painted with Egyptian Gods that would provide help and protection during the rebirth process and in the afterlife such as the Sun God Ra, the Goddess Isis, and Osiris who is the God of life, death, and rebirth, and many other ditties. Additionally, coffins had eyes drawn on them for the spirit to see the mortal world while they presided in the afterlife world.
During the mummification process, the eyes are taken out and replaced with glass or stone eye, however these eyes allowed the spirit to see in the afterlife. For Egyptians, the mummified body is the home for this soul or spirit. To preserve the body, they extracted all moistures from the body so that the dry form can have a slower decaying rate. The process of mummification involves knowledge of human anatomy. First, all internal parts were removed because they may decay rapidly. All the organs except for the heart were pulled out carefully, with least destruction of the physical appearance. The organs then were put in special boxes called canopic jars and buried with the mummy. Another practice was to treat and wrap the organs to put them into the body again. Next step is to remove all moisture from the body. They used natron to dry out the body and clean them after the process is completed. Materials like linen and false eyes are added to the sunken parts of the dried out body to make it more life-like. The last step was the wrapping process. Linen used in wrapping may be as long as hundreds of yards. To protect the wrap-up body from a mishap, priests write prayers on some linen strips and placed a mask on the body before putting on an extra layer of bandages. Some warm resin were also added in the process. After the final cloth was wrapped, the mummy was completed.
To study the mummies without damaging its physical properties, scientists utilize Radiology，mass spectrometry, and DNA analysis. With advancing radiology: X-ray imaging, CT scans, and MRI scans, researchers not only discover what’s inside the wraps, but also the health problems of the person. For example, coronary arteriosclerotic disease has been around in China for over two millennia; Ötzi the Iceman suffered a fatal blow to the head; ancient Egyptians suffered from atherosclerosis. With mass spectrometry, scientists analyzed hairs of the body to reveal the substance usage. We have believed that mummies don’t have any DNA left, but a new study proves that we are wrong. The study was led by Johannes Krause, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. A similar DNA study has been done in 2010, but its techniques were not mature enough to distinguish between ancient and modern DNA. The new study was a sequential success. And it revealed that Egyptian DNA had been consistent even though different political powers conquered the empire.
Scientists, such as bio-archaeologists, argue that the benefits of research outweigh the benefits of leaving the mummies untouched in the ground. To these scientists leaving these mummies in the ground is the “forensic equivalent of book burning, the willful ruin of knowledge.” In this field of study, bones play a key role in research. The bones allow scientists to examine how a person died and allow them to look into how diseases have affected the human population over time. For example, skeletons found a mass grave due to the Black Death are being examined to look into why the Black Death affected certain people. It was previously believed that the Black Death affected anyone and everyone regardless of who they were. However, the skeletons show certain non-specific markers among all those in the sample. These include signs of malnourishment and illness, such as lines on teeth (which are linked to enamel formation stopping) and excess bone growth on the tibia. This could have caused infection in the soft tissue, which in turn leads to a weakened immune system. This new research can help us understand how epidemics can affect the current population.
Without the exhuming of mummies from ancient Egypt little would be known about how that population lived, worshiped, and died. The tombs of pharaohs allow scientists and anthropologists to research the funerary practices of ancient Egyptians, and also the religion of these peoples. The tombs give insight into the fact that the Egyptians viewed the afterlife as an extension of the world they lived in. They also allow scientists to see how effective the mummification process was.
On the other side of the argument, people fight for the return of exhumed bodies based on moral ideas. For example, many Native Americans have been fighting for years to have the bones of their ancestors removed from lab storage and returned to their resting places. To these people, the archeologists are “grave robbing scientists”. Although Native Americans are still fighting for the return of their ancestors, federal legislation has mandated the return of the skeletons. However, many believe the return is being slowed because the scientists are more concerned about research than morality. Native Americans are not the only peoples who have a moral dilemma when it comes to skeletal research. Many groups, such as Native Hawaiians, believe that the bones of the dead are a tie to the spiritual world, and therefore they should be left alone. Also, Christians believe that once the dead are “laid to rest” they should remain untouched. Many theologians claim that the bible has little evidence that Jesus Christ showed care for the body after physical death. However, the Church believes that burial is final, and were opposed to cremation until well into the 19th century. The Church fights for the reburial of historic skeletons. The pushback against this is that future generations would not be able to perform research on the skeletons without excavating the bodies again.
One group who does not want the mummified bodies are the spirits themselves. The ancient Egyptians did not want their mummified body to follow them in afterlife. Instead they had statues created in their likeness and placed in their tombs. As they believed that their statue body would replace their human body in the afterlife and where their spirit would aside.
Visually these statues were created with death in mind. Many of these statues were created in a static pose with a neutral, peaceful face intended to give the spirit a relax body and face in the afterlife, essentially letting them rest in peace. However, there were more visual aspects of the statutes. The statues have symbols carved on them for people to visually see the type of life the person lived, their status in society, more deities to protect their spirit, and much more.
Objects in a tomb other than the coffin or statute can tell the kind of status the deceased lived. The wealthy and noble individuals tombs were much more visually elaborate. For instance, there would be hoards of worldly possessions in tombs that would travel with the spirit into the afterlife or an array of artistic hieroglyphics covering the walls in the tombs of the noble and wealthy. This allows one to visually see how death in ancient Egypt did not change the social status of the deceased. After death, ancient Egyptians would continue on with their life but just in the afterlife instead as long as they had the proper funerary procedures. However, their afterlife could be disturbed if someone disrespects their tombs or body such as taking photos of their mummified remains.
There are a multitude of ethical problem tied to photographs taken of exhumed mummies. Photojournalism is a powerful tool in today’s world. Photojournalism tells the stories in a snapshot and can bring a unique perspective to the story. However, photojournalism has a very complicated relationship with ethics. Photojournalists have a responsibility to share the news with the public, but they have to weigh the costs and benefits of publishing the photos they are capturing. They know that so many people are forever going to have their photos ingrained in their minds, and so they have to make the decision if the photo adds the public good or if it is too violent for the general public.When considering the ethics of photojournalism we must ask ourselves do the “photographers have the right to photograph individuals in distress.” This can stem to photographing the deceased.
In the United States taking photographs of the deceased is considered disrespectful. In fact, from 1991 to 2009 there was a ban on photographing flag-draped caskets returning from the Gulf War conflict. However, there still are few photographs of these caskets. On the other hand, foreign soldiers and civilians are often photographed being killed or shown dead all the time. Are their lives and deaths less worthy of respect, when they are fighting for what they believe is right? This issues also stems into the photography of mummified corpses.
Photography of these corpses is important for the preservation of history, but should we abandon the idea that photographing the dead is immoral just to freeze that moment in time? Siegfried Kracauer claims that “in a photograph, a person’s history is buried, as if under a layer of snow” because a picture only captures a moment rather than the entire story. This claim can be used to support the argument that the dead should not be photographed. Photographs can be used as a way to spread a moment to the general public, but it ignores the history and story behind the photo. By taking photos of the dead we take their lives and condense it into a single moment. This can be seen as a sign of disrespect for what the person has been through. People’s lives are a collection of many moments, and to take that away and turn it into one moment sends a message that the rest of their life is not as important as the moment that was captured. Of course, this moment is forever saved in history, but it erases the person’s history. In the case of mummified Egyptians, photographs turn their story into a sensation and popular culture obsession. This can be potentially damaging because it destroys the original culture and turns it [the culture] into something that it is not.
Death was an immense part of ancient Egyptian culture as it leads them to create stunning pyramids, dozens of funerary practices, and a complex process to preserve one’s body. In ancient Egypt, death was extremely visual as much of the death practices revolved around creating timeless objects such as hieroglyphics, sarcophaguses, and statues that were intended to be immortal like the spirits and Gods. Ancient Egyptians have captivated the globe with their visual representations of death, such as pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphs, and statues; which have been shared with the world through photojournalism.
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Arianna Collins, Babar Iqbal, and Vivi Wang