Desecration or Science?

We recently returned from a vacation in Southern California where we attended the King Tut exhibit. This is the last time this exhibit will be in the United States. When this exhibit ends, King Tut and his artifacts will reside permanently in Egypt. It was fascinating. The handiwork from over 3,000 years ago was delicate and exquisite.  It was truly an experience not to be missed.

But after it was over, I got thinking. At what point does grave robbing go from being criminal and desecration to science? Or is it the circumstances under which the graves are robbed that makes the difference?

Some 20 years ago I represented one of the defendants in the Polar Mesa Cave-looting prosecution in Salt Lake City.  These guys (and women) were just souvenir hunters, rock-hound, antler-shed collectors as it were. Yet because they went into an area that was last inhabited around  A. D. 1250 they were prosecuted under federal law. As the article in the link above points out, the position of the federal government and those involved in antiquities preservation is that this was a “violation of Indian heritage.”

Wasn’t the excavation of Tut’s tomb a violation of Egyptian heritage? Does it make it less of a violation (or no violation at all) if the treasures recovered are put in a museum rather than on a shelf in someone’s house? Should we outlaw archaeological research as a violation of fundamental human rights?

Now I’m saying this (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. But think: how do you feel if you contemplate the possibility that, 3,000 years from now some archaeologists might dig up the cemetery, lift out your casket and pop it open to see how people lived in that part of the world once known as the United States? What did they wear? What did they die of? What did they eat? Does it matter to you whether those people are just souvenir hunters or whether they are the scientists of their day? Or does it matter at all? After all, you won’t be here to know.

King Tut, like the ancient people who inhabited Polar Mesa Cave, thought that when he died he would be laid to rest for eternity.  That wasn’t the case. My question is, at what point does opening a tomb, under whatever circumstances, constitute desecration and at what point is it justified in the name of science? Or should we take the position that when your time on earth is over, you have no further claim to a right to be left alone?

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