From the Archives 35 — October 2018

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

Every year at this time, children and adults start dressing up as goblins and ghouls and monsters of all kinds, scaring their neighbors and friends, and decorating their homes with skulls and witches and other Halloween trends. There is a focus on the deathly, the afterlife, the things that go bump in the dark. We look to be frightened, calling upon the wicked and evil to come give us a spark.

This is not a new phenomenon. A fascination with death has a very long history. Communication and connection with the afterlife, with demons and spirits, has been known for thousands of years. Looking back at ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, there was a great amount of focus on the afterlife, for example. And the famous Greek and Roman stories are littered with cathartic moments of visiting the afterlife.

Even in the United States, death has been a popular topic since the arrival of the Europeans to the New World. Tombstones from the New England area show iconography that appears frightening to the modern viewer. Over time, skull and crossbones on tombstones changed to cherubim, appearing more welcoming and less scary.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present some rather macabre photographs. Again, we see people flirting with the dead, this time literally. Here we see several familiar names, though perhaps not as familiar faces, posing for the camera. We see Easton Kelsey, son of Francis Kelsey, posing with a skull. We see Leslie Askren, daughter of Dr. David Askren, a colleague of Kelsey’s who was a great resource and ally while working in Egypt. Finally, we see Mr. Brunton posing in a mummy case. Mr. Brunton is Guy Brunton, student of William Flinders Petrie, colleague of Joseph Starkey (the original dig director of Karanis), and archaeologist from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Mr. Brunton worked at Lahun, Egypt, and it appears some of the Michigan crew had a chance to visit for at least this one day, 26 February 1920 (the Karanis excavations did not commence until 1924).

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Easton Kelsey (left) and Leslie Askren (right) posing with skulls at Abu Gurab, near Lahun, Egypt, 26 February 1920. KK052 and KK053.
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Mr. Brunton in a mummy case at Abu Gurab, Egypt, 26 February 1920. KK057.

Though a fascination with the dead may still be ongoing, there are a number of differences between people working at excavations in the 1920s and our current excavators working in the field today. Though the skulls seen here may be unnamed people, they are still people. We cannot judge the people of the 1920s using today’s standards, but we can make a concerted effort to pay better respect to the people we encounter during excavations. Nameless to us, but these people had names, had families. It is on us to pay them proper respect, not to treat them as props for a photo op.

People will continue to be fascinated with death and the dead. Skulls and mummies will be party decorations for years to come. This interest is not new, but is something we share with many generations that have come before us. And likely something we will continue to share for a long time.

pile of skulls in barren landscape
Skulls and other bones from the mastaba at Abu Gurab, Egypt. KK051.