Contentious Artifacts, Contentious Histories: Why Histories of Egyptology (and Archaeology) Matter

William Carruthers, editor of Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures, discusses his research and the complicated ethics of buying and selling ancient artifacts.

Over the last year, a number of ancient Egyptian artifacts sourced from public collections have come up for sale at auction. Most recently, the St. Louis chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America attempted to sell items that had been gifted to them by the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie after his excavations at the Egyptian site of Harageh in the early twentieth century. Individuals from St. Louis had backed the work and, at the time, it had become the norm to provide a number of excavated items from Egypt to dig sponsors abroad; the items were eventually kept in the St. Louis Art Museum.

Unsurprisingly, such sales have caused contention. In the case of the Harageh artifacts, archaeologists and other heritage professionals advanced arguments against the sale relating to the idea of the museum as protector of the past. They also referred to the agreement between Petrie and his St. Louis backers that the excavated objects remain in a public collection, accessible to anyone with an interest in them. In other words, practitioners claimed ethical objections to the auction related to notions of disciplinary and institutional authority. They claimed that knowledge of, and access to, the past was under threat, and that they were best placed to protect it.

I don’t believe in the validity of the antiquities trade. But what I do want to know is what happens if we think more widely about the ethical claims made around such sales. In fact, I edited Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures in order to think about this sort of question. Only through having such a critical, historical dialogue can we understand what making such claims actually means.

In this context, then, let’s return to Petrie and the ethical statements made around the Harageh artifacts. These statements reference concepts of the scholarly and public good. Yet they also—despite their undeniably good intentions—skirt an awkward history. Petrie may have believed in the idea of collections being publicly accessible: every year in London he would mount displays of the finds from his annual excavation seasons (Drower 1985). But, in a historical frame, the definition of public being used here is anachronistic.

This point does not simply relate to Egyptian antiquities law (which has always reflected much wider structural inequalities in the world). As Alice Stevenson has noted, “when Petrie’s field methodology is ... scrutinized it becomes apparent that it was … [an] imperative to provide for [the] collections [of sponsors] that was in his mind’s eye when embarking on his excavations” (Stevenson 2013, 8). Petrie operated within an entirely different ethical frame than the one that many archaeologists now attempt to adhere to: a frame that acknowledged the indivisible basis of the institutions that he gave items to and the wider issue of financing.

Other archaeologists took this belief further. As late as 1940, the League of Nations’ International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (the predecessor organization to UNESCO) published a Manual on the Technique of Archaeological Excavations, based on a conference held in Cairo in 1937 and attended by many leading names in the field. As Ana Vrdoljak (2006, 117) has noted, the volume promoted “free trade in objects not subject to export controls.” Times—and laws—have changed (at least in theory), but it is difficult to make ethical arguments about the contemporary public good when it is clear that, for much of the last century (at least some) archaeologists excavated with this sort of approach to ancient artifacts in mind: one driven by a combination of collecting and market-making forces.

Ultimately, then, those involved with the study and public collection of artifacts are stuck in a double bind. It is not hard to understand why they want to halt the sale of antiquities. It is almost certain that objects that are sold will end up in private—and often impossible to access—collections. There has also been a genuine move in some quarters to understand how the way in which archaeology has operated in the world has often been problematic; not least among practitioners concerned with the sale of the Harageh artifacts. Yet, by rooting their ethical objections in claims hinting at the authority of certain institutions and disciplines in connection to these objects, practitioners inevitably negate the complex, questionable, and very often exclusionary and judgmental practices and formation histories of these very same institutions and disciplines. Their objections, then, become open to question.

As Christina Riggs (2014, 4) has noted, it would be “futile and counterproductive” to set out prescriptive recommendations for how practitioners might deal with these histories. Why make matters more exclusionary and prescriptive when sustained attempts are being made to move beyond these issues? But there also has to be a way forward that takes this complex past into account. I edited Histories of Egyptology to try and have a conversation about what that way forward might be. As the complex case of the Harageh artifacts illustrates, it’s a conversation that is becoming increasingly necessary.


  • Drower, Margaret. 1985. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. London: Victor Gollancz.
  • Riggs, Christina. 2014. Unwrapping Ancient Egypt. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Stevenson, Alice. 2013. “Artefacts of Excavation: The British Collection and Distribution of Egyptian Finds to Museums, 1880–1915.” Journal of the History of Collections advance access: doi: 10.1093/jhc/fht017
  • Vrdoljak, Ana. 2006. International Law, Museums and the Return of Cultural Objects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William Carruthers is a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. In 2014, he graduated with a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge, and prior to that trained and worked as an archaeologist.

  • Histories of Egyptology

    Interdisciplinary Measures, 1st Edition

    Edited by William Carruthers

    Histories of Egyptology are increasingly of interest: to Egyptologists, archaeologists, historians, and others. Yet, particularly as Egypt undergoes a contested process of political redefinition, how do we write these histories, and what (or who) are they for?  This volume addresses a variety of…

    Hardback – 2014-07-21
    Routledge Studies in Egyptology