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Dorset auction house withdraws Egyptian human skulls from sale
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Dorset auction house withdraws Egyptian human skulls from sale

An auction house has withdrawn 18 ancient Egyptian human skulls from sale after an MP said selling them would perpetuate the atrocities of colonialism.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Afrikan reparations, believes the sale of human remains for any purposes should be outlawed, adding that the trade was “a gross violation of human dignity”.

The skulls of 10 men, five women, and three people of uncertain sex, were listed by Semley Auctioneers in Dorset, with a guide price of £200-300 for each lot.

They were originally collected by the Victorian British soldier and archaeologist Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who founded the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884.

The skulls, some of which are listed as coming from Thebes and date to 1550-1292BC, were part of Pitt Rivers’ lesser-known second collection, which he displayed in a private museum on his estate in Farnham, Dorset.

Parts of the collection were later sold by Augustus’s grandson, George Pitt Rivers, a eugenicist, who was interned by the British government during the second world war due to his support for the fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

Picture of skulls up for sale on auctioneer’s websiteView image in fullscreen

Ribeiro-Addy said: “This despicable trade perpetuates a dark legacy of exploitation, colonialism and dehumanisation. It is a gross violation of human dignity and an affront to the memory of those whose lives were unjustly taken, or whose final resting places were desecrated.

“We cannot allow profit to be made from the exploits of those who often hoped to find evidence for their racist ideology. It is imperative that we take decisive action to end such practices and ensure that the remains of those who were stolen from their homelands are respectfully repatriated.”

The UK has strict regulations on the storage, treatment and display of human remains. But anyone can possess, buy and sell human body parts as long as they were not acquired illegally, and they are not used for transplants, only for decoration.

An online auction site on which the skulls were listed removed the lots after it was contacted by the Guardian. The Saleroom’s website states that the listing of human remains or body parts is prohibited.

A Saleroom spokesperson said: “These items are legal for sale in the UK and are of archaeological and anthropological interest. However, after discussion with the auctioneer we have removed the items while we consider our position and wording of our policy.”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy speaking into a microphoneView image in fullscreen

A Semley Auctioneers spokesperson confirmed the lots had been withdrawn from sale.

Prof Dan Hicks, the curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which removed a collection of shrunken human heads from display in 2020, said: “This sale from a legacy colonial collection that was sold off in the last century shines a light on ethical standards in the art and antiquities market. I hope that this will inspire a new national conversation about the legality of selling human remains.”

Hicks, the author of The Brutish Museums, which examines the looting of the Benin bronzes by British soldiers in the late 19th century, also noted that some of the skulls listed for sale were inscribed with phrenological measurements by Augustus Pitt Rivers.

Phrenology, a 19th-century racist pseudoscience that claimed the shape of the skull could be used to infer mental characteristics, was used to justify white supremacy and slavery.

“The measurements of heads in order to try to define human types or racial type was something that Pitt Rivers was continuing to do with archaeological human remains in order to try to add to his interpretations of the past,” Hicks added.

Pitt Rivers published his measurements of the skulls in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1882.

Hicks said Pitt Rivers’ theories and practices represented a transition from the racial “science” of early anthropology towards the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, of which his grandson, George, was part.

“George Pitt Rivers was a life member of the Eugenics Society and a member of the Nordic League, and a whole host of fascist organisations from the 1920s onwards. At the same time, he was also director of the second Pitt-Rivers collection,” Hicks added.

Source: theguardian.com