New research into Egyptian mummies leads to calls for major ethical review

Critics raise concerns after academics recreate "voice" of Nesyamun
Egyptology Ethics Mummies
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Coffin of Nesyamun
Coffin of Nesyamun Leeds Museums and Galleries

Last week, it was revealed that Takabuti, an ancient Egyptian mummy on display at the Ulster Museum, suffered a violent death from a knife attack. A team of pan-UK academics also found that her “DNA is more genetically similar to Europeans rather than modern Egyptian populations”.  

And Leeds Museums and Galleries published a Twitter thread detailing how a seven-year project into the human remains of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest who lived more than 3,000 years ago, had managed to recreate his vocal tract thanks to 3D scanning technology and his preserved larynx. Photographs of the mummy's unwrapped remains and a recording of his "voice” making an "aargh" sound were also shared.  

Leeds’s announcement generated a huge amount of press coverage and social media engagement. But it also attracted criticism, with many questioning the science behind the recreation of his voice and raising concerns about the ethics of the research.  

Charlotte Parent, a conservator at the Royal Ontario Museum, tweeted: “Everyone involved in this needs to take a step back and think - about ethics but also about what information they can really get from those CT scans.”   She quoted research from 2015 that found that CT scans were ineffective on mummified tissues.   John Kannenberg, an artist, curator and director of the Museum of Portable Sound, called the research “bad science”, and added: “[…] This sound is playing a dead human being like a musical instrument – demonstrating a complete lack of respect (would you do this to your dead grandfather?), empathy and respect for the ancient culture and religion in which this body was buried.”  

Ethical guidance for human remains from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport states that museums’ research agendas for human remains should be kept up to date and relevant.   Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s policy manager, says that recent debates around research might represent a shift in attitudes on human remains that isn’t reflected in existing procedures, which were published 15 years ago.  

“Museums always need to think carefully about the justifications for research on human remains, and how the information that results from their studies will be communicated,” says Brown.     

Responding to some of the criticism, Leeds Museums and Galleries tweeted: “Ethical considerations around this research were considered every step of the way by our human remains working group and our human remains policy is a framework we work within, informed by visitor consultation.   "We don’t generally share images of human remains unless it integral to the research, which in this case it is. Nesyamun’s face is exposed because he was unwrapped as part of a scientific investigation, published in 1828.”  

In a paper published about the research, the authors also state that inscriptions on Nesyamun’s coffin indicate his wish to “speak after his death”.   Responding on Twitter, Angela Stienne, an honorary research fellow in museums studies at Leicester University, and founder of Mummy Stories, a participatory project on mummies in museums, questioned this defence as “some very patchy reading of ancient funerary beliefs”.  

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Speaking to Museums Journal, Stienne says: “Our historical and current relationship with Egyptian mummies is still very problematic. We need a more human approach to this topic – we talk about scientific research but we forget we are dealing with cadavers, with human remains.  

“A major ethical review is needed. We are aware of unethical studies in the past, such as unwrapping and race research, but this is still happening. And we need to talk about issues of repatriation.”   Talking specifically about Ulster Museum’s mummy, Takabuti, Stienne says she was concerned that press announcements reference her DNA but fail to provide any context on migration to ancient Egypt and Greek and Roman invasions. She warns this echoes Victorian research that set out to prove ancient Egyptian were white, and plays into the hands of the right-wing media.  

“With research like these, we need to ask is it needed?” she says. “What do we gain from this, and is it worth the time, resources and money invested? New technology has lots of potential but it also risks creating areas for research where none is needed and the findings are not that interesting.”  

Update: 17.02.2020   Hannah Crowdy, head of curatorial at National Museums Northern Ireland, provided the following response on behalf of Ulster Museum:  

“The museum takes its responsibility over the care of Takabuti very seriously, prioritising respect, sensitivity and ethical alignment. The current genetic results are part of a wider project that involves the museum, academics and Egyptologists. There are elements looking at the mummification process, resins, packing material, stable isotopes, carbon dating and proteomics. The approved work will lead to further peer-reviewed publications and a book on Takabuti which we believe will contribute to wider understanding of Egypt at that time.  

"The preliminary genetic analysis shows that Takabuti’s ancestors may not have always lived in Egypt. We believe they confirm how diverse and complex Egyptian society was at the time. We do not suggest Takabuti was white and the evidence we have does not support such a conclusion.  She was one person in a culturally diverse society. In our gallery interpretation we have stressed further research needs to be done.  

"Research is undertaken in partnership with recognised experts and adheres to defined research standards and objectives. All research findings are subject to further scrutiny and are made publicly accessible through a range of mechanisms including gallery interpretation and academic papers. We recognise and seek to engage in contemporary discourse around the ethical treatment of human remains. To this end we participate within sectoral research and development initiatives and gather feedback and perspectives from our audiences.” 

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