The Prince and the Pa(u)per Mask

Over the past couple of days, two news reports about Egyptian Mummy Masks have been reported separately in news outlets across the world. One is about the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask in the Cairo Museum; the other is about a papyrus mask of an unknown individual in a private collection which was destroyed to reveal what might be an early copy of the Gospel of Mark. I find it very interesting that these two cases have made the news so close together, but none of the news reports that I’ve seen have tied the two cases together. It is perhaps worth remembering that a huge chronological span separates these two objects – although not a span as great as that which separates us from them. And yet I believe that the parallels between the two cases are worth a few comments.

The treatment of these masks is directly related to their perceived value by their owners and curators. The first is perhaps the most famous museum object in the world, the gold mask of a long-dead king of a prosperous land around whose tomb and discovery many myths have gathered. The other was a papyrus mask of an unknown individual, of much lower status, in an Egypt which was part of a much larger empire – the mask has been described as not “museum-quality” (although one wonders how many museums were consulted about that and what defines “museum-quality”). In an effort to make the gold shine again, Tutankhamun’s mask was damaged, and the perceived need for such a valuable and famous treasure to be on display led to it being further – and permanently – damaged by a speedy and unprofessional repair job. Meanwhile, the perceived lack of value of the papyrus mask led to its total destruction in the hope of finding something with greater value in the modern world: a fragment of an early Gospel. In the former case, the object is world famous and has been recorded, studied, and photographed again and again – arguably nothing has been lost by the damage done to it. But the response, on social media and in the news reports about the damage, is incredulous. That reaction seems fair – the damage is irreparable, and many of us (myself included) will now never see the object in as perfect condition as we might. In the latter case, however, the object is largely unknown and there may not even be any decent photographs of it; it is, as far as I can tell, unprovenanced or at least not obviously from a formal excavation. So little is known about the Gospel Mask, except that it has now been completely destroyed and we may never know anything about it. But, we might argue, it could lead to a potentially more interesting further discovery. As an archaeologist largely interested in pre- or proto-historic periods, the idea that a written document of dubious date, of which we have many other copies, and which is largely of interest only to those who believe in its contents is more important than an artefact which may give us some indication about those not usually represented by written texts or shiny gold masks is troubling. What is perhaps also of interest is that whoever made this mask clearly also placed greater value on the mummy mask than on the copy of the gospel. Might we be better off questioning why that is, too?

In both of these cases, the problems seem to have occurred because of specialists; or rather, because of a lack of consultation with specialists. Rather than take the necessary time to repair the damage done to Tutankhamun’s mask, someone ordered that it be repaired with whatever happened to be around, which was a tube of bog-standard superglue. I assumed that this could not have been done by a professional conservator, but another glance at the story seems to indicate that it was, in fact, done by a professional. We don’t know what professionals, if any, have been consulted about the Gospel mask. The only names which have been spoken are not archaeologists or papyrus experts, but a New Testament scholar. The publication of the text has been delayed and delayed. It is unclear what has been done to this object or who is responsible. We do not know how this evidence might be manipulated, except for the clear case of hype-creation by leaking titbits of material to the press about the object.

These two cases highlight how we place value on historical artefacts, how this has changed from the value placed on them in antiquity, and how we perceive authority in controlling access to and disseminating information about historical objects. The case of the Gospel mask certainly deserves examination and discussion about how we should go about damaging objects, whether “museum-quality” or not – would I be complaining if the “damage” done was destruction of part of a sword to determine its metal composition? That’s work I’d even be happy to do myself, if I knew how to go about it (and was paid to do it). But the discussion needs to be about what information is gained and what information is lost. Our understanding of Tutankhamun’s burial and our appreciation of the objects created for it has declined very little, if at all, as a result of this damage. We may never understand the Gospel Mask, nor know about it in any great detail, unless it was very carefully recorded before it was destroyed. Whatever new information with which we are provided by the text on the papyrus, perhaps the most interesting thing about it is the perceived value placed on it by whoever made the mask, and was buried in it – was this reverence for the text or complete dismissal? Can we know the answer to that question now the mask has been destroyed?

There’s certainly a lot to mull over in the cases of Tutankhamun’s mask and the Gospel mask. I haven’t even considered the fact that these objects are *funerary* (largely because I have little respect for the long-dead, and no belief in an afterlife). The public reaction to these cases suggests to me that they might even be more interesting objects because of their roles in 2015 than they were when they were first created.