The Impact of Colonialism on the University of Nebraska Museum and on Archaeology as a Whole, as seen through the Egan Collection

Melina Morris, History 250: The Historian Craft, Spring 2023

In 1892, Patrick Egan, who was the minister to Chile at the time[1], donated a group of Peruvian mummified individuals, along with their grave goods, to the Nebraska state natural history museum. The group comprised of a man, a woman, and three infants.[2] These individuals were displayed almost continuously until sometime after the 1940s, when, for unknown reasons, they were put into permanent storage, where they remain today.[3] Throughout the almost 50 years that the individuals were displayed, they were viewed as exotic oddities by both the public and the scholars who studied them. No special consideration was given regarding their status as human remains because of the limited knowledge of preservation at the time. The University of Nebraska Museum’s acquisition and subsequent treatment of the Egan collection of mummified individuals exemplifies the impact that colonialism has had and continues to have on archaeology and academia as a whole.

It is unknown exactly how Egan first acquired the individuals, but he most likely bought them or received them as a gift during his diplomatic mission. Less than 10 years before his time as “Minister Plenipotentiary” (a diplomatic role ranking below an ambassador) to Chile, the country had fought against Bolivia and Peru in the War of the Pacific. By the end of the war, Chile had gained control over the Peruvian provinces of Tarapaca, Tacna, and Arica. All of these provinces are on the western coast of the South American continent.[4] The graves of the collection’s individuals were most likely found in this region. A short paragraph from The Nebraskan, which was the University newspaper at the time, describes the collection as being “from Victor Gully.”[5] It is unknown if “Victor Gully” refers to a place or a person. According to a 1941 newspaper article about the collection, it is believed to be pre-Incan and about 1000 years old.[6] The indigenous cultures that live in the area of Peru were known to care deeply for their mummified dead, especially those of high status.[7] A description of the individuals in the Egan collection states that they “were of a poorer class” (Nebraska State Journal 1941 42), referencing the quality of the burial shrouds that they were found with.[6?] It is unknown if their bodies were intended to be ritual displays like those of high-ranking individuals.

A variety of goods were buried with the individuals such as pottery, food, textile wrappings, a drinking gourd, amulets, and a pouch of coca leaves meant to be worn around the neck.[6?] The objects included in the burial are in line with pre-Incan burial practices. Many graves contained items that those buried used and needed during everyday life, such as food or sewing supplies.[7?] No personal items like these were listed as being among the collection. This could be for several reasons: first, not all of the objects that the individuals were found with may have been donated to the museum; second, not all of the objects might have survived until they were excavated; third, they were never buried with personal effects in the first place. If the third possibility were true, this would imply that the adult individuals were very poor during their lifetimes, perhaps working as agricultural laborers or even servants.

The three infant members of the collection are another matter entirely. It is unclear if they are the children of the man and woman with whom they are buried, or if family groups were usually buried together during this period. Mass graves of unrelated people were usually the result of human sacrifices, such as those at the Huanchaco site in northern Peru.[8] This is highly unlikely to be the case here since most findings of human sacrifice in Peru are from the north end of the country and date more recently than when the Egan individuals were supposed to have been buried. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the individuals may have had some sort of kinship ties.

Egan’s diplomatic career in Chile lasted from 1889 to 1893, so this donation was during the latter end of his ministry.[1] The accession book of the Nebraska Natural History Museum, which records when artifacts were added to the museum’s collections, states that the collection was acquired by the museum on October 12th, 1892.[2?] They were probably put on display soon after arriving since a segment from the corralled section of The Nebraskan that was published on November 1st of that year describes the exhibit’s opening week. Apparently, that opening week was very successful- the newspaper states that “A thousand sight-seers visited… those mummies the first week they came.” (The Nebraskan 1892 12).[5?] The museum did not keep any photographs of the exhibit, so it is unknown how the collection was presented. However, a museum bulletin published in 1924 states that the collection was displayed on the fourth floor of the building.[9]

The crowded state of the museum during the time when the collection first arrived is well documented and most likely did not serve the preservation of the collections well. In an article about the overcrowdedness of the museum, The Hesperian (a Lincoln newspaper) states, “[The] Peruvian mummies have been put in a case never designed for them.” (The Hesperian 1893 7-8).[10] This may have caused some preservation or display issues, since a 1903 Daily Nebraskan article describes the collection as containing two adult individuals and two infants, meaning that one of the infants was taken off display for an unknown reason.[11] In 1924, the individuals were placed in a new case which was exhibited during Engineer’s Night.[12] It is unknown 4 exactly when the collection was permanently taken off display, but it was most likely sometime between the late 1940s and the early 1950s. As of today, the collection is kept together in climate-controlled museum storage. The museum currently has no future plans for the collection, although the idea of repatriation has been raised.[3?]

Since writings about the collection are few and far between, public opinion about the collection during the time it was exhibited can be inferred by looking at writings about similar exhibits. An 1897 article from the Courier about the Field Museum in Chicago describes the Peruvian individuals there as grotesque and less “civilized” than Egyptian ones in the same exhibit.[13] In 1949 the American Natural History Museum in New York hosted a televised unwrapping of a Peruvian mummified individual dubbed “Paracas 49”, being the 49th individual found in the Paracas region that was unwrapped.[14 15] When the unwrapping was done, the individual’s remains were used as a window display for the shipping company that brought them to the United States until they were sent back to a Peruvian museum a year later. A man named George Kiefer owned a shop in 1889 in New York where he sold grave goods and corpses that he had found during the War of the Pacific.[14?]

These instances illustrate a complete disregard for ethics and preservation. No consideration was given to the fact that these remains were not intended to be disturbed or displayed, and especially not to be bought and sold as curios. Western scholars did not treat non-western, non-Christian remains with the care that they treated those belonging to their own cultural group. The only grave desiccation practice that is even vaguely similar that was practiced at Western grave sites was body-snatching during the 18th and 19th centuries when people would dig up recently deceased corpses and sell them to medical schools to be used in dissections. Body snatching was regarded as a disgusting and reprehensible practice, and was eventually criminalized in Britain.[16] However, the looting and desecration of indigenous Peruvian graves were regarded as a scholarly and profitable venture.[14?]

How should academic institutions atone for these ethical breaches? Many museums, such as the Vatican Museum, have repatriated mummified remains back to Peru.[17] This means that the remains will go to a different museum in Peru. However, the strategy that is probably the most ethical is also one that is the least practiced. In some cases, remains have actually been able to be reinterred at or near their original grave sites. An example of this happened just this year in Nebraska when the remains of a Fort Atkinson soldier who died in 1823 were reburied in a cemetery at the fort after his gravesite was discovered when it was disturbed by farm equipment in 1954. Between 1958, when his remains were excavated, and 2023, when he was reburied, the soldier’s remains were held in storage and studied by the Nebraska Historical Society, which was the group that had excavated his gravesite, the Smithsonian Institution archives, and other locations. Before the soldier was reinterred the Nebraska Historical Society used genealogical records to track down his descendants to see if any would claim his remains. Eventually, it was decided that he would be buried in the fort.[18 19]

While reinterment is arguably the most ethical way to treat human remains that were accidentally or purposefully uncovered since an ideal reinterment recreates how that individual was laid to rest by their original culture, it does prevent remains from being studied further by archaeologists. While there are many compromises and solutions that could merge these schools of thought, the fate of human remains should 6 ultimately be left up to those closest to the deceased. While this could easily be narrowed down to a select family group when dealing with more recent deaths, such as the remains of the Fort Atkinson soldier,[18?] the “next of kin” becomes a lot murkier when the conversation shifts to remains around 1000 years old, like the Egan individuals.[6?] This is where the concept of descendant communities comes in. Descendant communities are cultural or ethnic groups that are descended from earlier cultures that an archaeologist is studying. Descendant communities are also often indigenous to the areas they live and have faced oppression from colonial forces, and recent indigenous rights movements around the world, such as AIM (American Indian Movement) in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s,[20] have emphasized the mistreatment of indigenous remains by archaeologists and urge collaboration between archaeologists and indigenous peoples. An ethical archaeologist will consult the appropriate descendant community or communities during every step of research and excavation, especially when human remains are involved.[21]

Knowing all of this, what should the University of Nebraska Museum do with the Egan collection? Firmly establishing the origins of the collection, as well as the original location of the gravesite is critical since the region the individuals are most likely from is currently divided between Peru and Chile.[4?] Once this is resolved, the museum should begin discussions with the appropriate national government as well as authorities within descendant indigenous communities. These three groups working together should be able to come to a solution that benefits all. The best outcome would probably be repatriation or even reinterment, but that should be left up to negotiations.

Currently, the museum has no official stance on what will become of the Egan collection. The museum seems hesitant to give up control of the collection, most likely due to the idea that a scholarly resource will be lost once those at the university can no longer access the collection. To clarify, the museum currently prohibits the invasive photography or study of any part of the collection, and all research done on the collection must be approved and monitored by museum authorities. However, this does not mean that museum authorities don’t definitely view the collection as an extremely valuable resource.[3?]

One of the most important yet touchy subjects in archaeological ethics is the idea of ownership. Who “owns” what is excavated after it is taken out of the ground? Archaeologist in Patrick Egan’s time would argue that archaeologists, or whoever funded them, owns the artifacts, basically arguing “finders keepers”. Modern archaeologists argue that actual “ownership” is vague, but that descendant communities have the most claim to it. While this difference in philosophy seems trivial, it has had devastating consequences for both descendant communities and archaeological academia as a whole. These two groups that should be working together have often been on opposite sides because of the earlier “finders keepers” philosophy, which allowed archaeologists to steal many artifacts and remains from indigenous descendant groups. Even worse, many of these archaeologists' “findings” were used to justify racist government policies against indigenous people.

The most important example of this may be the 1839 book Crania Americana, written by Samuel George Morton. The book consists of lithographic illustrations of the skulls of North and South American indigenous people, including the skull of a Seminole man who was killed while fighting against his tribe’s forced removal from modern-day Florida by the United States government during the Seminole Wars. Lithographic illustrations are done by drawing a picture into a limestone block with wax, then using the block as an ink stamp to put the final product onto paper. The textured effect that lithographic illustrations give was used by scientists to claim that the skulls of Indigenous Americans were actually different and “weaker” than those of Europeans, therefore making them inferior. The book quickly caught on in the Western scientific community and was a foundational text for the topic of “race science”, the idea that humans of different races had distinct biological differences that made them superior or inferior.[22]

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the problem of the past looting and abuse of remains, nor is there one for addressing the untold amount of remains that are currently in the exhibits and storage spaces of museums and universities around the world, not just at the University of Nebraska. Some steps have been taken to try to heal the wounds, like the implementation of NAGPRA in 1990.[21?] But overall, the responsibility of righting the wrongs of the past lies on the shoulders of the institutions that perpetrated and benefitted from those wrongs. Archaeology is an extremely important field of study and when done right it can reveal truths about humanity that can help bridge cultural divides and create a more positive future for all involved. 


  1. Office of the Historian. n.d. “Patrick Egan - People - Department History - Office of the Historian.” History State Gov. Accessed 2023.
  2. Accession Book. 1892. N.p.: University of Nebraska State Museum.
  3. Trammel, Katelyn, and University of Nebraska State Museum. 2023. Interview.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica and Amy Tikkanen. 2023. “War of the Pacific.” Britannica.
  5. The Nebraskan. 1892. “Corralled.” November 1, 1892, 12.
  6. The Nebraska State Journal. 1941. “U. of N. Mummies Make The News.” May 18, 1941, 42.
  7. Heaney, Christopher, and Hiram Bingham. 2015. “The Fascinating Afterlife of Peru's Mummies | Travel.” Smithsonian Magazine.
  8. “Mass child sacrifice discovery may be largest in Peru.” 2019. BBC.
  9. Barbour, Erwin H. 1924. “A Preliminary Report on the Nebraska State Museum,” museum bulletin. University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska. pdf file.
  10. The Hesperian. 1893. “The Museum.” February 1, 1893, 7-8.
  11. The Daily Nebraskan. 1903. “Local and Personal.” November 5, 1903, 3. uvian.
  12. The Daily Nebraskan. 1924. “Arrange New Display for Engineer's Night.” April 23, 1924, 1. uvian.
  13. Prey, Annie. 1897. The Courier (Lincoln), August 7, 1897, 3.
  14. Heaney, Christopher. 2017. “Mummies Take Manhattan.” The New Yorker, April 7, 2017.
  15. Time. 1951. “Science: Old 49.” February 5, 1951.,33009,889026,00.html.
  16. Levinson, David. 2023. “Body snatching | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  17. Sansón, Sebastián. 2022. “Vatican returns three ancient mummies to Peru.” Vatican News. es-to-peru.html.
  18. Fowler, Eric. 2023. “A Soldier Returns to Fort Atkinson.” Nebraskaland, April, 2023, 36-41.
  19. Juza, Susan, and Steve Liewer. 2023. “Pioneer soldier to be reburied at Fort Atkinson Sunday, 200 years after his death.” Omaha World Herald (Omaha), May 9, 2023. ay-200-years-after-his-death/article_ac07fb40-d8a2-11ed-b7f0-475afbd247c3.html.
  20. Luebering, JE, and Lori S. Iacovelli. 2023. “American Indian Movement (AIM) | History, Goals, Significance, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica.
  21. Camp, Stacey L., and Robert Muckle. 2020. Introducing Archaeology. 3rd ed. N.p.: University of Toronto Press.
  22. Cambridge University, dir. 2014. Crania Americana- the most important book in the history of scientific racism. Featuring James Poskett. Youtube Video.

[Endnotes followed with ? were present in the original paper and did not appear connected to a specific citation.]

The Impact of Colonialism on the University of Nebraska Museum and on Archaeology as a Whole, as seen through the Egan Collection