Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Ownership of the Grave: Who owns the Dead?

Some of you who are active in the archaeology twittersphere may have witnessed the incident that occurred last night / this morning / semi-ongoing. As it relates to burial archaeology specifically, I feel the need to expand on my original retweet.

Here is a breakdown: An archaeologist with a huge public platform, who is very well known for her branding of the term ‘space archaeology’ (this, in itself, it a whole other story), posted a request to her followers to help fund her latest archaeological investigations in Egypt, her primary study area.

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Tweet posted on November 7th, 2019, since deleted. 

Let me start out by saying that fundraising for archaeological endeavours is not new, nor something that is usually frowned upon. Groups like DigVentures in the UK are run by professional archaeologists and raise funds for research and excavation through volunteers who help on the digs, and their contributions to the field are immense! We could not do this job without the support and interest of the public, which is why public archaeology (check out the tag #pubarch on twitter) is such an important aspect of the work that we do.

The issue here, as you can see in the tweet above, is that a gofundme incentive was created as part of the crowd-sourcing that offered the public the option to ‘adopt’ a tomb for a donation of $50.00 USD or more.

This is an ethical issue, as it as prescribes the right, even the pretend right, of an individual over another individual’s grave. No matter how old a grave is, it is still the final resting place of a human being and should be respected as such. However, there is the added layer of colonialism here, because the graves in question are Egyptian, a region whose archaeology, including the tombs and mummies, have historically been decimated by the established white antiquarians of the 19th – 20th centuries. Allowing pretend ownership over these tombs is allowing the continuation of this narrative, this assumed ownership over the past.

This raises the question, who owns a grave? I’ve written about an extension of this topic in the past, ‘when is a grave no longer a grave‘, and in short the answer is simple: the deceased. The longer answer would include their ancestors, their families, and their culture. Some museums and art galleries have an ‘adopt an artifact / painting’ program, where the money from the program goes towards the conservation of those objects, but you know what those objects are not? Human remains. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology’s Adopt an Artifact program says it well when they wrote “a symbolic way to show your appreciation of Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage, connect with your favorite object, and support the museum.

I’m sure that sentiment is what the gofundme page was going for when they decided to launch an ‘adopt a tomb’ incentive, but pretending ownership over the dead, especially the dead from a country who has already suffered the brunt of colonial impact on their heritage, isn’t ok. As a burial ground specialist and historic archaeologist, I would not dream of suggesting people could own other peoples’ graves, and am not happy to see others suggesting it be done.

The dead belong to themselves, to their people, to their history, to their land. Even when a burial ground has been ‘abandoned’ where I live today, the municipality is assigned as its caretaker, but not as its owner.

Thanks so much for reading.