May 30, 2024

An auction house has withdrawn 18 ancient Egyptian human skulls from sale after an MP said selling them would perpetuate the atrocities of colonialism.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 chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on African restoration, believes that the sale of human remains for any purpose should be banned, adding that the trade was “a gross violation of human dignity”.

The skulls of 10 men, five women and three people of uncertain gender 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. Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884.

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

Parts of the collection were later sold by Augustus’ grandson, George Pitt Rivers, a eugenicist, who was interned by the British government during World War II for his support of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley.

Some of skulls listed by Semley Auctioneers. Photo: Semley Auctioneers

Ribeiro-Addy said: “This despicable trade perpetuates a dark legacy of exploitation, colonialism and dehumanization. It is a gross violation of human dignity and an insult 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 exploitation of those who have often hoped to find evidence for their racist ideology. It is imperative that we act decisively to end such practices and ensure that the remains of those stolen from their homelands are respectfully repatriated.”

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

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

A spokesman for Saleroom said: “These items are legal to sell 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: ‘This despicable trade perpetuates a dark legacy of exploitation, colonialism and dehumanization.’ Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures/Getty

A spokesperson for Semley Auctioneers confirmed the lots had been withdrawn from sale.

Prof Dan Hicks, the curator of world archeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum, who removed a collection of shrunken human heads of show in 2020, said: “This sale of a heritage colonial collection sold in the last century shines a light on ethical standards in the art and antiques market. I hope it will inspire a new national conversation about the legality of selling human remains.”

Hicks, the author of The Brutish Museumsinvestigating 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 attributes, was used to justify white supremacy and slavery.

“The measurements of heads to try to define human types or racial types was something that Pitt Rivers continued to do with archaeological human remains 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 to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, of which his grandson, George, was a part.

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

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