Ever since archaeologists began excavating the Valley of the Mummies
last year, their findings have offered an unprecedented glimpse into how people lived and died there some 2,000 years ago.
|Zahi Hawass is Egypt's premier archaeologist|
But along with the mummies' clues comes a quandary: How do
archaeologists balance their thirst for knowledge with respect for the dead?
When does a mummy stop being a dead person and become an archaeological
artifact, like a shard of pottery?
That is a question that has bedeviled both Egyptologists and
political leaders for more than two decades.
For years the perquisites of history took precedence and the bodies of 27
of Egypt's most illustrious kings and queens, including those of Ramses II
and Queen Meret Amun, were on public display in the Royal Mummy Room of the
Egyptian museum in Cairo.
Then in 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, repulsed after Iranians
displayed the charred remains of eight Americans killed during an abortive
attempt to free embassy hostages, closed the room to the public,
declaring it disrespectful to the dead.
But five years ago, in an attempt to find some middle ground, the room was reopened
and refurbished to resemble the dimly lit surroundings of a tomb. To maintain a respectful, somber mood, visitors are now prohibited from talking above a whisper.
Not all of Egypt's mummified rulers have ended up in museums. The contents of
the tomb of King Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922, forms the Egyptian museum's
most celebrated exhibit. But his outermost coffin, made of gilded wood and
containing the mummified body of the child king, still remains respectfully
inside the granite sarcophagus in the burial chamber of his tomb in Luxor.
The same is true for many of Ramses II's sons, whose tombs were discovered in
1995 in Luxor's Valley of the Kings.
But that doesn't mean archaeologists and other experts haven't poked, prodded
and examined them. Before they were re-entombed, specialists performed
carbon-dating tests to determine how long ago these people died, forensic
tests to assess the condition of their bodies, and DNA testing to see if they
|Mummy Case of
"It's very important to have knowledge about them, to understand the people
back then," Dr. Zahi Hawass, the Egyptian government's chief archaeologist,
told FOX. "Because if you want to make a better future, you have to know
your past. Therefore, these people will forgive us if we disturb them a
Hawass, who is leading the excavations in the Valley of the Mummies in
Bahariya, an ancient oasis in the Sahara Desert about 200 miles southwest of
Cairo, told FOX that in only the past few days, new tombs have been
And when he opens these tombs and reveals their contents for the first time
on FOX TV's two-hour special, Opening the Tombs of the Golden Mummies: Live!,
on May 23, he says viewers will see for themselves what makes archaeological
discoveries like these so exciting.
More than 250 mummies already have been discovered in Bahariya, the first
findings in a vast and ancient Greco-Roman cemetery that is estimated
to contain more than 10,000 mummies. It is believed to be the largest
concentration of mummies ever found.
"I never thought I would be excavating mummies at all," said Hawass, who has
spent most of career excavating the Pyramids. "But now, when we excavate
and we see mummies every day, our hearts beat with excitement. This never
happened before. Before, people discovered one mummy and that's it. But every
hour we are finding a mummy, cleaning off the dust and revealing secrets from
the sand. And these secrets educate us."
But even in the midst of his professional zeal, Hawass remains adamant about
balancing the needs of archaeology with respect for the dead. He said
he will take only five mummies and place them on display in a
museum in Bahariya. All the others, he said, will be restored and then placed
back in their tombs, which will remain closed to the public.
"After we finish our excavations, we are keeping them in peace," said Hawass.
"I don't like mummies to be shown for a thrill or to scare children. I don't
like to see mummies in a museum. I believe you should use mummies for
education, not for a thrill."