Kristin Robinson
English Language Arts
Material Type:
Middle School
  • CAST
  • Clusive
  • clusive
  • content
    Creative Commons Attribution
    Media Formats:
    eBook, Graphics/Photos, Text/HTML

    Education Standards

    Mummies: Who owns the dead?

    Mummies: Who owns the dead?


    Are mummies pieces of history, or the sacred remains of human ancestors?

    Mummies: Who owns the dead?

    Mummies are very old dead human bodies that have been preserved with hair, flesh, and often clothing still on their bones. Some civilizations, such as the ancient Egyptians, have a tradition of making mummies when people die. Ancient Egyptians preserved the bodies of dead kings and queens because they believed this would confirm a good afterlife for these monarchs, which they believed were gods themselves.

    Photo of an Egyptian mummy covered in wrappings and decorations.
    A mummy is a preserved human body.

    In recent years, mummies that were created naturally have been discovered all over the world. One, found in the Alps and who appears to have died and been eventually frozen in a glacier, is known as the Iceman. The Iceman is presumed by scientists to be over 5,000 years old!

    There is a diversity of perspectives about what to do with mummies when they are discovered. Should they be removed and examined, or should they be left where they are? Many people believe that removing a mummy from its burial place debases the dead. They argue that mummies preserved by humans were honored by their culture for religious or other reasons, and that we should respect these rituals instead of damaging the burial ground and removing the dead. Some people argue that even mummies that were created naturally, like the Iceman, should not be disturbed after death out of respect for these humans from the distant past. 

    In contrast, others disagree and say that it would be injudicious to give up the opportunity to learn about ancient civilizations through the study of mummies. These people assert that humanity can discover a great deal about human history by studying these ancient human bodies. These artifacts can reveal clues about what people ate, the tools they created and used, what they wore, and how they lived and died. They can also help to enhance archaeologists’ understanding of human migration patterns. For example, scientific tests have revealed information about where the Iceman might have traveled in his lifetime.

    Even among people who agree that we should remove and study mummies, there is a range of opinions about where the bodies should be studied or taken. Some think that each mummy belongs to the country where it was first discovered. They believe that researchers in its home country have the right to take ownership of the mummy. 

    Others believe that each mummy should go to the museum or university best equipped to study and protect it, even if it will need to be conveyed to a different country. They argue that the home country will not always have the ability to properly remove, transport, study, and store the mummy. If it isn’t handled carefully, a mummy will deteriorate and will no longer be useful for scientific knowledge at all. 

    What do you think?