It’s been a little more than a year since I found myself in downtown Chicago running an errand for the Hoard Historical Museum, where I’m the director. It was a beautiful sunny day and I looked like just another average person walking down the sidewalk, but I was not in downtown Chicago for a normal reason.
I was on my way to the Egyptian Consulate whose offices are in downtown Chicago about a block away from Grant Park. As I walked down Michigan Avenue toward the consulate offices, I remember feeling a bit like a country mouse in the city.
My trip to the Egyptian Consulate was not for fun. I was there to return something that did not belong here in Wisconsin. And I was very glad that I could.
A few months before my trip to the Windy City, our local high school science teacher Nick Hamele had stopped by the museum with a small, nondescript cardboard box. Nick said he had something to show me.
As a museum director, people frequently stop by with something to share. It’s generally arrowheads they picked up from the ground, or objects found in a house while remodeling, or something unusual they bought at a sale. Nick’s objects were not what I expected and I wasn’t at all prepared for what he pulled from the box.
As Nick pulled small objects wrapped in plastic bags out of the box, he carefully unwrapped each object and laid them out in front of both of us. There were seven objects. Most of them were shades of brown and dark tan but one was a piece of dirty, off-white, rough cloth.
None were more than a few inches in length or diameter. One piece was a small piece of wood, darkened with age. The rest looked like bones. I picked up one piece and thought, “this looks like a piece of bone,” and then carefully set it back down.
After unwrapping all the objects, Nick, who teaches anatomy classes, started identifying the bones. There was a finger or foot bone, part of a shoulder blade, a section of bone from the elbow, and a piece of a skull cap. He saved the most important fact until last: They were human bones.
There was one very obvious question that I had to ask: “How did you get these?”
Nick explained that a box had been left for him at the high school’s front office. He picked it up, not realizing what it contained. Upon opening it, he found the bones along with a note that the bones had come from Hawara, Egypt.
The bones were wrapped in various plastic bags, some of which had the name of a tourist boat that cruised the Nile River and visited tourist destinations in Egypt. Nick said, “It seemed to me that the bones and the piece of wood, identified in the note as a piece of a coffin, were collected as souvenirs on a trip to Egypt. And someone thought that I, as the human anatomy teacher, could use them for teaching aids.”
While he appreciated the gesture, Nick knew that using these bones for teaching aids was not acceptable.
“The human specimens that I use in class are from people who donated their bodies to science,” he said. “They intended their remains to be used by professors, teachers and students. These Egyptian bones came from individuals who intended for their remains to be left alone. Ethically and morally, I couldn’t use the donated bones in my class.”
But what do to with them?
Nick brought them to the museum in the hope that we might have an idea. Any time an object is brought to the museum to be considered for accessioning (becoming part of the museum’s collection), we have to ensure that it fits our collections policy.
Our policy states that the objects must have some connection to Fort Atkinson or the surrounding area. These objects clearly didn’t fit our policy but there are other more important reasons why the Hoard Museum couldn’t be the final resting place for these bones. It isn’t the proper home for human remains, especially ancient Egyptian remains.
Since 1983, all Egyptian artifacts are covered by the Egyptian Antiquities Protection Law (Law Number 117), which helps to protect their cultural heritage. The law makes it illegal to export antiquities, including human remains, from Egypt without proper documentation. It also is illegal for museums to accession (accept for ownership) Egyptian artifacts unless the objects’ histories are well-documented with a clear date of when the objects entered the United States.
Due to the law and the fact that no one knew when the bones had entered the United States, no museum would accept them. So, I only had one option: repatriate the bones.
For museums, repatriation is the act of returning human remains or items of significant cultural importance to the correct peoples or country. For items such as these, it is fairly easy to know to whom to return them. They needed to be returned to Egypt and the Egyptian people.
Egypt is not the only nation or group actively trying to protect and regain its cultural heritage. Here in the United States, all museums and other cultural institutions are governed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in regard to Native American artifacts.
Passed in 1990, the federal law creates the process for returning artifacts from museums to Native American nations and tribes. Especially for museums in North America, many of which have items that were inappropriately taken from Native American sites, NAGPRA helps direct the return of the objects to their proper owners, namely, the First Nations who first called these areas home. It is the right thing to do to return these objects to the descendants of the people to whom they belong.
While I personally have never repatriated Native American objects to First Nations, I have worked for institutions that have returned objects. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a museum our size helping to return ancient Egyptian objects.
Sending an email to the Egyptian Consulate regarding human bones probably will be one of the most unusual emails I ever send. Luckily, the Egyptian Consulate staff promptly called the Hoard Historical Museum and asked for more details regarding the remains. I told them all that Nick had told me about the remains.
Specifically, the cardboard box contained a human ulnas bone, a wrist bone, part of the shoulder bone, a skull cap and a bone that either was a foot or finger bone. There was also a small piece of wood (5-6 inches in length) and a small box with fiber wrappings in it. On the box was a handwritten label: “Hawara, Middle Kingdom, c 1800 BC.”
I also told them all that I knew about the bones, including how they had been dropped off at the high school, how Nick had gotten them, and how I now had them and was trying to return them to Egypt and the Egyptian people. The Egyptian Consulate thanked me for reaching out, and said they would take the remains and send them back to Egypt.
According to the Consulate, Hawara is an archaeological site south of Cairo. It also was one of the first areas opened to tourism and still is a much-visited tourist site, which fits our theory that the bones were picked up as a type of souvenir by a tourist while in Egypt.
After speaking to the Egyptian Consulate, we settled on a date for me to travel to the Consulate and return the remains. The staff members at the Egyptian Consulate were very accommodating and returning the ancient human remains to the Consulate was surprisingly easy. I later reached out to them again regarding the status of the remains but I haven’t heard anything. We did all that we could for the people whose remains traveled from Egypt to Wisconsin in someone’s suitcase.
Our view of souvenirs such as these definitely has changed since these human remains were brought to Fort Atkinson. Standards and expectations have changed. Previously, human remains and cultural objects were collected and removed from their original site or country to serve as a souvenir or item of curiosity or for other reasons that might not have been as clear-cut or honest.
A great example of this is the contested ownership of the Elgin marbles, which were removed from their original site at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, has been hotly contested for decades. The Parthenon temple complex once was the city-center of ancient Athens and later the entire Greek government.
The Elgin marbles originally were collected from the Parthenon and brought to England by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, to decorate his house. The stone friezes, statues and more now are on display in the British Museum in London. Created roughly 2,500 years ago, they are some of the finest remaining sculptures from their era and represent more than half of the sculptures remaining from the Parthenon.
Since 1816, the marble artworks have belonged to the British government, which purchased them from Earl Elgin. In 1832, the Greek government started petitioning to have the marbles returned and the British government continues to refuse their petition. The British government contends that since they purchased them from Elgin, the marbles belong to the British.
The Greeks counter-argue that Elgin did not have the authority to remove them from Greece and that the marbles belong to the Greek people as part of their cultural heritage. So, who owns them? The millions of dollars raised annually from tourists coming to see the marbles only helps to make the situation worse.
The Elgin marbles represent an extreme case of contested cultural ownership. For most repatriated remains, the issue is not as divisive and long lasting. For most human remains, religious objects or funeral objects (objects buried with a person), it is easier to return them to their rightful owners, once the current owners recognize that the objects need to be returned.
For other people who might have items such as human remains, funeral objects or religious objects that should be returned to the original owners or tribal ancestors, please know that there are no repercussions for returning objects. There only is gratitude for doing the respectful and correct action.
If there are other members of our community who have questions regarding items, particularly Native American items, that might fall in this category, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Hoard Historical Museum for help. And if you have ancient Egyptian items, I know just who to call: my friend Raya from the Egyptian Consulate.
The hero in this story is Nick Hamele, who recognized that he had something that did not belong with him or in Wisconsin. I’m glad he stopped by the museum with that cardboard box. I’m especially glad that the Hoard Historical Museum could help return them to the Egyptian people.