Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Head bone’s connected to the...

On Friday night, having spent the afternoon with young actors and Lance from Doctor Who, the Dr and I made our way to the Institute of Archaeology for a talk about some dead faces.

The authors of “Living images – Egyptian funerary portraits in the Petrie Museum” each spoke, giving context to the writing of the book and to the portraits themselves. The portraits were discovered while Flinders Petrie was looking for something else entirely. But he found a great cache of sarcophagi, each painted with their contents.

The sarcophagi in question are from the period when Egypt was governed by Romans (as seen in the TV show Rome). Which is also, of course, the Dr’s period and she loves the details in the faces. The Roman ex-pats couldn’t afford the gold opulence that was once lavished on mummified pharaohs, so a portrait was the next best thing. These portraits, and the grave goods found with them, give all kinds of clues about the Roman middle-classes – their clothes, jewellery, diets and lives.

Petrie’s interest, though, was in their use for phrenology. His notebooks detail how he eagerly reaped the shrunken heads of the mummies – as well as the portraits of them alive. Skull A, says his notes, goes with Portrait A.

Phrenology, and its emphasis on the supremacy of particular races based on the shape of their heads, is less in vogue today. This is because it is bonkers. Over the years, many museums and institutions have quietly returned or got shot of their less savoury human remains. The authors of the portraits book believed the skulls Petrie collected were long lost when they started writing their book. Only for them to turn up in a box at the V&A. Matching the skulls to the portraits gives a sense of how good the likenesses are.

The Dr, though, is still troubled by Petrie’s head-snatching antics. The Egyptians were keen on their heads, you see. Heads weren’t just where your brains were, but your heart and soul as well. (BBC Four’s recent repeat of Magnus Magnusson’s trip to the 1972 Tutankhamun exhibition included an ornate and uncomfy-looking head rest.) So removing the heads from the mummies is especially problematic.

This makes studying, displaying or even acknowledging the heads a little problematic, what with the new but relatively untested rules set down in the Human Tissues Act (2004) – which came into force last September.

It’s a complex and controversial topic, though I’m rather of the side of the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
“If you dig up a man with bowls and things all round him, like those people we dug up at the east end of Maiden Castle… They were dead, they’d been dead a long time and they were going to be dead a long time. They’re still dead. But round them were all sorts of possessions which were of interest to us. They helped us to put a little piece of our history into perspective which we otherwise wouldn’t have had, and so on. They enabled us to reconstruct the world and the history within which we lived. And I think that’s worthwhile. We do know harm to these poor chaps. When I’m dead you can did me up ten times. I won’t haunt you… much.”
Chronicle: Sir Mortimer (BBC Two, 1973)

And, glibly and probably wrongly, I forgive Petrie a lot for one very good joke. His notebooks include a sketch of the excavation, showing where the sarcophagi were recovered. And the building where he kept all the mummies heads is marked “Skullery”.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Question: how can Egyptian hearts and souls reside in the head when the brains were removed and thrown away/given to dogs to eat?

point 1. Phrenology and all those Victorian pseudo-sciences fascinate me. Perhaps why I wrote a radio play about them!

point 2. The Roman painted portrait mummies are beautiful and strange. When I volunteered at the Egypt Centre their cases were some of my faves.