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18 ancient Egyptian human skulls are being auctioned for $250 each, in a grim sale of colonial spoils

Mia Jankowicz   

18 ancient Egyptian human skulls are being auctioned for $250 each, in a grim sale of colonial spoils
  • A British auction house is facing criticism for selling 18 ancient Egyptian human skulls.
  • The skulls come from the collections of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, a 19th-century British general.

A British auction house has been criticized after listing 18 human skulls from ancient Egypt.

The skulls — of 10 men, five women, and three people of uncertain sex — are for sale at a guide price of £200-£300, or about $250-$380.

Several of the skulls are listed as coming from Thebes and dating back to 1550-1292 BC, making them more than 3,000 years old.

But experts have raised objections, and have asked for a review of laws around the sale of human remains.

Dan Hicks, author of "The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution," told BI that "it's quite a shocker" to see the skulls for sale.

Hicks, an archaeologist who works as a curator with the Pitt Rivers Museum, has pushed for a review of the law, pointing out that the UK has already clamped down on the sale of elephant ivory.

"Every generation or so, surely we need to check in on our ethical compass on these questions and just ask, is this really right?" he said.

According to the auction listing, the skulls come from a collection amassed by 19th-century British army officer Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers.

Pitt Rivers collected an extraordinarily wide range of artifacts, from weaponry to ceremonial items to jewelry — as well as human remains.

Unlike his first collection, which is held by Oxford University and is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the second collection was sold off throughout the 20th Century.

Items from that collection continue to emerge on the open market.

The UK has strict regulations on the storage, treatment, and display of human remains. But their sale for decorative purposes remains completely legal.

A representative at the auction house, Semley Auctioneers, was contacted by phone and told BI that the auctioneer was unavailable for immediate comment.

This latest episode offers a window into the strange trade in human remains, which is legal in many places worldwide.

In 2020, an Indonesian fashion designer received viral outrage over a handbag he said was made from a human spine.

Laura Van Broekhoven, the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, told BI that she was "really surprised that auction houses are still doing this," but added that "obviously, there is a market for human remains."

"If there's one community that has really gone out of their way to be buried and stay buried, that was especially the Egyptians," Van Broekhoven said.

She added: "I would hope that we would stop selling and commodifying human remains of communities that really have tried to have dignified ways of, and usually ritual ways, of dealing with their ancestors."

The shrunken head problem

Van Broekhoven has had to grapple with the issue of handling human remains in museum collections.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has a collection of shrunken heads — some human — along with other human remains, which were taken off display in 2020.

"The way people were talking about the human remains, or making selfies with them" created an ethical problem, she told BI.

The museum is still working through questions of how to handle and potentially return the human remains in its collection, guided by the wishes of the communities they came from, she added.

The skulls now on sale for a few hundred dollars also offer a glimpse into the mindset of the 19th-century Brits who took them.

Hicks said that Pitt Rivers acquired the skulls during a trip to Egypt in 1881, and that it's quite possible he dug them up himself.

"The idea of cultural supremacy and the role of anthropology in terms of its relationship to empire, and the justifications for empire, were things that interested him a lot," Hicks told BI.

Potential skull-buyers today may not have that mindset. But, Van Broekhoven said, there's still a risk that "people forget the humanity of what is being collected."

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