A Lecture Series for the Occultist and Archaeologist in all of Us
Brilliant archaeologist, art historian, and Egyptologist Ava Forte Vitali bridges the gap between academic and intrigued, morbid observer in her monthly “Death and the Occult in the Ancient World” lecture series.
Who can forget poor Frank Whemple in THE MUMMY (1932), sifting through a tomb and confessing the ardor its artifacts sparked within his romantic archaeologist heart for the wizened, mummified corpse of the princess occupant—only to have the alluring Helen Grosvenor saucily taunt, “Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?”
Perhaps that bit of epic snark has thus far kept your inner Whemple suppressed. If so, head on down to the Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum in Brooklyn this March 27 where Vitali will help you let your freak mummy-wrap fly via her latest, illustrated talk “The ‘After’ Life: Death in Ancient Egypt.”
“We’re probably all a little eccentric,” Vitali concedes. “No one goes to a place called the Morbid Anatomy Museum expecting puppies and kittens—well, not unless they’re taxidermied puppies and kittens, anyway. But there really isn’t a sense of doom and gloom hanging over the room. It’s more like an atmosphere of genuine excitement and eagerness to learn. Here’s a place where we can discuss those topics and ideas we find fascinating but might be considered gruesome in most other settings.”
Turns out, those harboring an interest in ancient mummification methods, amuletic protection, or apotropaic magic are not as isolated as they might suspect. Vitali’s first lecture, “The Ancient Egyptian End of the World and the Mythology of Beer,” garnered a standing room only crowd. And with upcoming “Possession and Prophets,” “Ancestor Cults in the Ancient World,” and “Jewelry of the Damned” on the horizon, the scarab beetle buzz will no doubt only grow.
For Vitali—whose own interest in the subject matter was kindled amidst forays into the ancient Egypt room during childhood trips to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with her artist mother—the series is a welcome opportunity to help establish the sort of dialogue between the interested public and specialized academics that she believes is woefully neglected.
“At the last lecture people kept thanking me [for the presentation], and I was like, ‘No, thank you for actually wanting to hear it,’” she laughs. “For me, it’s fun to pull the veil back and realign people’s perceptions a bit; to maybe even make them think twice about their own culture and how they make their way through the world.”
It’s difficult to imagine a messenger better suited to the task—Vitali speaks about Egyptology with an enthusiasm and vivacity that suggests a passion undiminished since those early days when the monumentality and iconography of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Giza archives exerted more gravitational pull on her than Gaugin.
“The ancient Egyptians were very quirky in terms of how they viewed the world,” she says. “Magic was all around; it was very real to them. Not only would they build false doorways in the tombs for ancestors to come out but in some cases they’d add passageways in their own houses for the spirits of the deceased to come in through. Demons were regular everyday facts of life to combat against or employ in your own service—not otherworldly, but just another accepted part of the natural world… They also had something called the multiplicity of approaches. So if I said the world was a mound that rose out of primordial waters, that was okay. And if someone else said the world was something the creator god masturbated out…that was okay, too. The contradiction wasn’t a problem for them.”
Still, Vitali stresses that ancient Egyptians were more than the sum of their mythologies.
“We talk so much about these giant, famous colossi, temples, and pyramids that we sometimes lose sight of the people behind them,” she says. “You have to realize that, because of geography and climate, ninety-eight percent of the population lived on three percent of the land—and people today are still living on the land their ancestors occupied during antiquity. So while the tombs in the desert are largely untouched, we don’t have much of the domestic architecture. Which means the evidence we do have of roles and traditions are not necessarily representative of what people were doing in their day-to-day lives. And it’s the human moments, I think, that are often most compelling.”
That said, Vitali acknowledges the field-savvy archeologist’s take on the world might be somewhat…skewed.
“Not long ago I was walking down the street talking to a friend of mine about a site in Egypt we had both excavated at during different seasons,” she recalls. “When I mentioned my very last day we had found a baby burial site, she said really loudly, ‘Oh my god, I saw your baby burial. It was so cool!’ Some poor lady was walking by at just that moment. Her jaw dropped and she just had this look of abject horror on her face. She obviously had no idea we were archaeologists. And what archaeologists find interesting is a little it quirky, a little strange, and, yeah, a little…morbid.”