Earlier this month a large, sealed sarcophagus was discovered in Alexandria, Egypt along with an alabaster head believed to represent the person inside. Since we live in the digital age, we didn’t have to wait days or weeks for the news to travel across around the world and the public’s imagination was instantly captivated on social media. We learned that the sarcophagus was made of black granite, that it was large—8 feet by 4 feet by 5 feet—which may make it potentially the largest sarcophagus found—and that it appeared to have been untouched. We learned that it dates to 304 and 30 BC, so sometime after the death of Alexander the Great when the descendents of Ptolemy I ruled Egypt. This was exciting stuff, and the public had questions. Why was it so large? Who was inside? Maybe Alexander the Great himself? What treasures would we find inside?
Calls to open the sarcophagus mounted on Twitter with people speculating that doing so would unleash a curse or bring about the end of the world. Well, scientists opened the sarcophagus. There was no curse (that we know of); it was not Alexander the Great; and there were no grave goods. The sarcophagus contained three skeletons, and a reddish liquid that Eqyptian officials are reporting is sewage. Memes have sprung up that blame the sarcophagus for random occurrences. And yet we couldn’t just walk away. An online petition with over 23,000 signatures at the time of publication is demanding that the public be allowed to drink the fluid—“so we can assume its powers and finally die.”
It feels like just another day online but everything about our response to the find and now the demand to drink the fluid is deeply reflective of our relationship with Egyptian culture, our current social psychological state, and the rise of the attention economy. It’s a lot. Basically, this plea to drink the sarcophagus water is a snapshot of who we are right now and all of our anxieties rolled into one.
Walk Like An Egyptian—Egyptomania Lives
Our fascination with Egyptian culture and artifacts can be traced to Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign at the end of the 18th-century. With his military troops, he also brought 167 scientists and scholars who were intended to help his campaign by mapping roads, building mills, and spreading European Enlightenment throughout the country. A member of this group, Pierre-Francois-Xavier Bouchard, discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and they are largely responsible for the world’s initial experience of Ancient Egypt. It is their experiences that laid the foundation for Egyptology as these were among the first modern scholars to generate a scientific review that encompassed the country’s resources. It is from these experiences that Egyptomania emerged.
Throughout the 19th-century, Egypt would remain a central point of interest for Europeans. The British played a large role in this. Physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane established the British Museum in the 18th-century with the donation of his substantial personal collection that included a small number of Egyptian items. And upon the defeat of Napoleon’s forces in 1801, British forces seized the antiquities they had collected and added them to the museum—this acquisition included the Rosetta Stone. By 1866, the collection amounted to 10,000 objects and would continue to grow as Egyptian exploration peaked.
But artifacts and human remains were not just being transported to the Museum. Private collectors were busy too. Wealthy citizens purchased artifacts and mummies for their own collections. And in some cases, they would host mummy unwrapping events: the collector, fresh from Egypt, would invite his closest circle of friends for a meal and some drinks, and for entertainment they would remove the wrappings from a mummy he had acquired. In some instances, as with Thomas Pettigrew, this was done in the name of science but by-and-large it was a matter of spectacle. (Pettigrew later became the founding treasurer of the British Archaeological Society.)
The United States was not exempt from Egyptomania. Our capital bears an Egyptian obelisk that we have co-opted as a national symbol: the Washington Monument. Built as a tribute to George Washington, it was meant to invoke the sense of a grand tomb and was originally more neo-classical with a base featuring columns. Due to budgetary concerns most of that was stripped away and we were left with the obelisk. That was more than fine because in this material artifact of Washington’s legacy, the architects were also replicating a sense of timelessness for the nation by symbolically claiming the same status as some of the greatest ancient civilizations.
And we haven’t fully abandoned Egyptomania either. The current Mummy movie franchise continues the legacy established by the 1932 Boris Karloff film, and highlights the aspects of Egyptian culture and life that most captivated us: the mysteries of mummification and the existence of a rich underworld. But Egyptomania exoticizes beliefs and seeks to control and own and manipulate Egyptian culture to serve an external purpose. The demands to first open the sarcophagus, and then to drink the contents are echoes of this fervor. There is certainly an element of entitlement that lurks beneath both of these requests: what do the Ancient Egyptians know and why can’t we also use it? Let us see!
These are Challenging Times
But why would someone want to drink that red slurry regardless? Red—and other bright colors—are built into nature’s warning system. Microbiologist Rolf Halden told LiveScience that debris from dead bodies (if we ignore the official declaration that the fluid is sewage), contains a ton of microorganisms, including bacteria that can form endospores which are hard to kill. Maybe this is the curse that people were looking for?
Whether made in jest or not, our responses to the box are revealing. The possibility that opening the sarcophagus could unleash a curse on the world that would undo some of what has happened can’t be overlooked. People are anxious and stressed and a lot of it is due to the constant stream of political news that we’re digesting. In January 2017, the American Psychological Association reported 63% of Americans were stressed about the future of our nation and 57% reported being stressed about the current political climate. Among the causes of stress about the nation, 43% were worried about healthcare, 35% were worried about the economy, and 31% were concerned about hate crimes. These issues have only been magnified over the last year. Gallup reports that 55% of Americans worry about affordable healthcare, edging out crime and guns as a top concern, 34% were worried about the economy, and 37% of Americans worry about race-relations.
People are reporting feelings of anger and dread, weight loss, neck pain, teeth grinding, irritability, and trouble sleeping. Arguing about politics with relatives and friends over Thanksgiving dinner once a year is no longer the only option. Social media has moved this discourse into the public space. People are stressed—the American Psychological Association has even issued guidelines on how to specifically deal with politically-based stress. When people are stressed for prolonged periods of time, it can impact their behavior and decision-making abilities. It can lead to depression or make people more likely to engage in risky behavior. The petition to drink the contents of the sarcophagus explicitly calls for an end. The signatures on the petition amount to an informal poll concerning stress and depression.
Leaving a Legacy in the Attention Economy
When people are anxious and stressed, they tend to seek out and accept more risky behavior. But we can’t overlook the mandates of the attention economy either. Not only do we consume media designed to be easily digested, but we interact with our world in this way too: we post and share updates framed in pithy witticisms—we’re learning to talk and think in terms of soundbites because that’s all people have a chance to consume as they scroll through their newsfeeds.
The author of the petition to drink the sarcophagus water may have simply been responding in this way: a throwaway sarcastic comment that hit the right notes for virality. Increasingly Likes are a way to define who we are—that is the reason why they are so important to marketing. Likes tell researchers about you and your friends; they help shape the content you see; and they might qualify the people in your life. In this environment, we’ve seen the rise of influencers—people who have built a sizable social media following who are often tapped for product demos. And it seems easy enough to attain: be likable, be relatable, and produce content that is consumable. This is the reason so many people—kids and adults alike—recreate social memes. They want to belong, but there’s also the chance that they may be so exceptional, they could generate a reputation worth following.
There is a subset of Influencers who routinely engage in risky behaviors to frame the perfect picture, and a string of recent accidents have highlighted the lengths they often go to in order to maintain their reputations. For example, earlier this year a young woman drowned in a dam in New Zealand while she and her friends took selfies at a nearby river. She fell into the water and was swept to the dam; her two traveling companions also died as a result. There are several New York-based Instagram accounts that post photos taken from unusual vantage points around the city. The owners of these accounts know the risks involved, but persist because they have built a reputation for these actions and feel they have a responsibility to go where others can’t.
So? Well, It’s Pretty Complicated
For influencers who ride the wave of risk, this is their legacy in the attention economy. And in some ways, it could be that of the people who want to drink the sarcophagus fluid. If nothing happens, they’re social media legends. If something happens, they’re social media legends. And they’re taking the risk for all of us. They’re raising their hand by signing that petition that things are pretty bad on a social scale. And they’re using the tried-and-true practice of using symbology from ancient history to bolster their case.
Look, we shouldn’t drink the fluid. Hopefully, the message of our discontent will resonate loudly regardless.
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