Grave Thoughts – The Question of Respect in the Afterlife

by George Prew


“I felt the thrill of a scientist and the shame of a desecrator”

These were the words of Manolis Andronikos upon coming across the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in the royal capital of Aigai. The tomb, unlike most of its ilk, was found completely undisturbed, with all of its rich burial gifts intact; Andronikos was the first person in over two millennia to see the grand frieze decorating the interior, or the beautifully crafted weapons that had accompanied the former king to the afterlife. The first to disturb his repose. For many, those moments where one feels a tangible link to past people are the main reason to enter archaeology, and I, as a Classical Archaeology and Ancient History student, delight as much as anyone else in the stories of people finding dainty jars still holding the scent of ancient perfume, or by an ancient scribe’s fingerprint on a clay document – I understand the thrill of the scientist. But I also understand the shame of the desecrator.

I feel this because perhaps the greatest archaeological resource that we have are tombs – nowhere else do paintings and architecture survive so well, offerings give our most reliable evidence for changes in arms, armour, pottery; it seems that almost every complete pot from the ancient world spent the time between then and now in a tomb. If we scrupled to excavate tombs, therefore, we would have only a fraction of the evidence that we have today. Yet I cannot help but question the morality of it all – why should we not let Philip lie? Why should hundreds of sarcophagi and urns now be on display in museums to be pored over by academics and the public or, more likely, in the stores of those museums, gathering dust until it is hard to distinguish the ashes of the occupant from this more recent accumulation? If the living people wanted their remains to do just that inside these monuments, undisturbed, then why should we disregard their wishes?

“We are simply more thorough and expert desecrators – desecrators for a good cause”

There are, in my opinion, two answers to this question, though neither is ideal. The first is that if we did not find the tombs and excavate them carefully and scientifically, then they would just be desecrated by grave robbers looking for antiquities to sell, as indeed has been the fate of countless ancient tombs, including the other two in the same monument as that of Philip II. This means that we archaeologists are the lesser of two evils, but also that we are simply more thorough and expert desecrators – desecrators for a good cause. This cause is the key to the other answer, and that is that excavating these tombs allows us to understand the societies of these people better than anything else, and that as tombs are a way for people to be remembered, surely this is a good enough reason to disinter them. This idea in fact reflects practice with the recently deceased, as religious laws regarding burial can be over-ruled in Britain in the case of unexpected death so that a proper post-mortem can be carried out. This, however, is a practical rule in order to avoid, for example, problems of contagious disease or to avoid murderers going free – problems that affect those still living and deeply affect the deceased. Poor Philip II, not being himself an archaeologist, would likely not have seen the excavation of his tomb in the same way as us – and I dare say would have preferred that the items meant to accompany him in the afterlife not be removed, no matter how much we’ve learned from them about the armies of Macedon in his reign.

That, indeed, is the crux of the problem for me – these items were likely meant to accompany the dead in to the afterlife, so do they still belong to them? One might argue that after 2,000 years in the Underworld, they might bear the loss of their worldly possessions philosophically and, from an atheistic point of view, then it is ridiculous to hold back advancement in the field for the sake of the dead, but in that case then why is grave-robbing of the more straightforward kind illegal?


I should of course mention that the problems surrounding bodies are of great concern and are dealt with in various ways throughout the world. In Italy, for example, if a body is found in an archaeological dig then the job is handed over to the local Superintendence. In a more extreme form, since 1994, human archaeological remains in Israel have been treated in the same way as any other human remains and reinterred with Jewish burial rites; this is a thorny issue, with problems arising from the fact that not all humans who have died in Israel throughout history have been Jewish and so might have objected to being buried with such rites. These problems are beyond the scope of this article, but the controversy that has arisen from this situation shows that there really is an interest in showing respect to the ancient dead, and, since we can generally fairly safely ascribe a religion to the body in an actual tomb, or at least the rites with which the body was buried, we should perhaps abide by those rites when attempting to excavate. (This problem is elaborated upon in Fforde, C., Hubert, J., and Turnbull, P. (eds.), 2002, The Dead and their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, London).

“To show respect to the dead, their own wishes and customs should be observed, or else we run the risk of utterly dehumanising the people and cultures that we are studying”

This all comes into sharpest focus when dealing with Egyptian tombs, especially in the cases of canopic jars and ushabti figurines. The former, as many eager children fresh from reading Horrible Histories will attest, held the preserved viscera of the deceased in order to keep them preserved in to the afterlife. The questionable ethics of removing these are straightforward; if the belief is that the deceased will not be whole in the afterlife without these jars and their contents, then surely it is respectful to keep the jars with the bodies?  The same is true of the ushabti figurines, which are small, blue figurines that, in Ancient Egyptian religion, would come to life in the afterlife and work for the person in the tomb, as they saw the afterlife as being a place where work was still required of the deceased – the ushabti figurines provided a more peaceful rest for the departed, and so, once again, should they not be kept with the body? These provisions, of course, would make studying the jars, bodies and ushabti figurines more difficult and, when applied to every ancient culture, would require archaeologists to be experts in ancient grave rites, but it can be asked whether that is unreasonable – to show respect to the dead, their own wishes and customs should be observed, or else we run the risk of utterly dehumanising the people and cultures that we are studying.

Luckily for this school of thought, modern technology provides a wonderful chance to study the dead while still showing them respect. Scanning technology has now reached the point where we can reproduce tombs to within fractions of a millimetre of detail, and 3D printing means that if we want, for example, to keep ushabti figurines with the deceased in Egypt while studying them in Oxford, then we will be able to print off facsimiles of them whenever we like. This technology is already in use in tombs where there are worries about preservation – where the light levels necessary to see, for example, might damage the paint in a tomb. Further, if ground scanning technology ever gets to the point where we can reliably reproduce to a good degree of detail structures that are still buried (and this really is in the realm of science fiction) then the costly and destructive business of excavation would likely be all but removed from the field of archaeology in favour of digital reconstruction. The future looks bright for the ancient occupants of tombs, even if the reasons for this improvement relate more to practicality than respect.

It seems that for the present, however, there are no easy answers to the questions, but it is important to remember that they are worth asking. And as for myself? I have no intention of leaving the field of archaeology, and while I have so far only excavated a farmhouse, I will gladly do my duty to my field of study if I ever have the chance to excavate a tomb. I do, however, hope that, as methods for archaeology get less destructive and more high-tech, the business of desecrating the tombs of the people whose lives we have devoted our own lives to studying becomes more and more a thing of the past.

A Collection of Ushabti Figurines
A Collection of Ushabti Figurines
The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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