Durban – The 2000-year-old Egyptian mummy which has lain in the Durban Natural Science Museum since the end of the 19th century may soon be returned home, and that has raised debate about what this loss would mean for Durban.
This as a growing trend to return valuable historical artefacts to their countries of origin gains traction across the globe.
This week, Ethekwini Municipality head of department for international and governance relations, Eric Apelgren confirmed that they were waiting for agreement with the Egyptian government in order to return the ancient mummy.
The mummy is said to be Peten-Amun, a priest who died about 60 years of age.
Apelgren said negotiations were at an early stage and highlighted that new legislation regarding museums was in the pipeline, which would re-think the way in which mortal remains are stored and displayed in a public space.
Egypt has started a major push to restore its ancient artefacts which were stolen and looted from the country. Such artefacts remain a huge drawcard for tourists to visit the country.
Coinciding with World Heritage Day, the new Royal Mummies Hall At Cairo’s new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization was opened with much fanfare in April.
This was preceded by the “Golden Parade of Pharaohs” through central Cairo, where 22 of the country’s most prized mummies were moved to their new resting place in the massive museum.
The mummies, which are showcased in dimly lit crypt like rooms, belong to some of Egypt’s most famous kings and queens who ruled over 3000 years ago.
The Durban mummy is thought to come from Akhmim, Upper Egypt, in the early Ptolemaic period (300 BCE) and was brought to South Africa by Major William Joseph Myers some time after 1889.
Myers, who had previously served in Egypt for five years, was killed in 1899, aged 41, during the Siege of Ladysmith in the Anglo-Boer War.
He had amassed what has been described as “the finest 19th century private collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities”, which were bequeathed to his old school, Eton College. The collection comprised of 2000 objects some dating from as early as 5500 BC.
Apelgren said should the Peten-Amun mummy return to Egypt, the challenge would be for the museum to maintain the interest in that history without a display.
“I’m not sure we need a display to do that. You might have to find other ways of inspiring our kids, the next generation, to understand and respect our history on the continent, in particular the history of Egypt,” he said
Yesterday, local historian Arthur Gammage said: “In principle I am in favour of the return of the artefact. I think, for example, of the return of the remains of Sarah Baartman to SA in 2002. And there have been many other such relocations of historic treasures to their countries of origin.”
Highlighting Cairo’s new Royal Mummies Hall, Gammage added: “I am confident our mummy will be appreciated there or elsewhere as it is believed to come from Akhmim, Upper Egypt. Regarding the loss to Durbanites, possibilities could include a simple wall display with photos and text recording the mummy’s years here and the decision to repatriate him. There are also 3D options.”
However, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s history professor emeritus, Donal McCracken said: “This mummy has served as an important educational vehicle in eThekwini for over 120 years to the point it has become part of Durban’s cultural heritage. Because of this and its continual value in explaining one of Africa’s greatest cultures, I hope the Egyptian authorities will permit the mummy to remain in Durban, but on permanent loan to the people of our city.”
President of the South African National Society Robert King said his feelings were ambivalent as there were “pros and cons” for the mummy being sent back to Egypt.
He said while Egypt has the right to have its artefacts returned, this trend was growing around the world and could result in an avalanche which could impact museums.
“Were such items taken illegally or through the black market or were they given as gifts? I think the most important point is that wherever they are kept, they are stored and cared for properly,” said King.
The Independent on Saturday contacted the museum but it had not responded at time of going to press.
According to the Egyptian Society of SA, the mummy was x-rayed in Durban in November 1984, which revealed that the top half of it was almost complete, albeit with a few missing molars and pre-molars. There were several missing bones in the legs and feet which were replaced by false structures.
The reconstruction of Peten-Amun’s face was carried out in 1990 by Dr Bill Aulsebrook, who has PhD in forensic facial reconstruction.
A CT scan was taken at the King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban and plastic templates were made from the individual sectional images. The templates were then assembled to form a three-dimensional construction of the skull.
Using this reconstructed skull, Aulsebrook was able to build up the facial musculature features. The bust is displayed alongside the coffin and mummy in the museum.
Apart from the Durban mummy, the Egyptian Society has listed two other recorded ancient Egyptian mummies in South Africa – one preserved in the Albany Museum in Makhanda, and another in the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria.
Rapid decomposition prior to embalming has been said to explain the disordered state of some of the Ptolemaic era mummies which appear to have partly disintegrated before being mummified.
Independent On Saturday