My Interest in Egypt

Out of all the discoveries and topics in this course, I think that Egypt was the most fascinating to me for a couple reasons.

First of all, it cleared up a lot of confusion and misconceptions about ancient Egypt.  I enjoyed hearing about all the things that the public believes to be true, but really isn’t.  For example, there was the misconception that Napoleon blew off the nose of the Sphinx as target practice.  Although this seems very possible, it just isn’t true. Furthermore, many believe that the pyramids were build by slaves.  This also just isn’t true, and there is a lot of evidence and facts to support the fact that the pyramids were built as a form of tax to the state. As a man of science and facts, I enjoyed hearing the evidence and truths behind these myths.  It is very comforting to know that science is being conducted and analyzed to find out what really happened in Ancient Egypt, and why.

Another reason I loved Egypt is because it seems very foreign and interesting to me.  I don’t mean to bash on the Mississippians, but a bunch of mounds in America is not really that interesting.  However, the state of Ancient Egypt is all new and interesting.  It is not everyday that you get to learn and see pictures about pharaohs, pyramids, and the desert.  It all just feels like a mystical other world, something that I would not come in contact with in my life. Egypt was the place of stories and tales, where dangerous adventures and great treasures could be found.  Although this class kind of ruined that mystical world, I feel that it was exciting to know the truth.  The truth that Egypt was like any other society, besides the giant pyramids and sphinx. And it was great to know that.  It is cool to know that an Egyptian was just like me.  They were a group of people that had their taxes, their cities, their rulers and laws.  It brings this “mystical world” feeling closer to home. This class has really given me insight into how the Egyptians lived, and why their civilization was important to the creation of the modern world.

Many of the topics covered in this course were very interesting.  Learning about the Mayans, Incas, and Stonehenge all attracted my interest and curiosity.  However, Egypt took the cake as to being the most interesting, because of its fame and mystery.


The Advances that led to Modern Medicine

Recently, due to construction at the London Hospital, a massive burial ground was found on the grounds of this great hospital. Interestingly enough, this was no normal burial ground.  Within these burials, a great number of dismembered bodies and an assortment of body parts were found.  But why were they there?  What purpose did they serve?

In the early 1800s in England, there were many reasons that people died.  Numerous dock workers died due to perilous work conditions.  Beyond that, various diseases had little to no treatment at the time.  Medicine at the time was also very primitive, and surgeries provided little help for patients.  Often, a broken bone would mean that the patient would have to get an amputation, without anesthesia.  Therefore, the London Hospital, one of the biggest at the time, had quite the workload to keep it busy.  But this does not lead us to why these bodies were cut up.

At the time, obtaining cadavers was basically illegal.  People known as “resurrection men” would dig up fresh corpses, and sell them to hospitals as cadavers for the medical students.  These corpses found in the grounds of the London Hospital provide a great deal of knowledge on how modern medicine came to be.  These bodies and parts were the remnants of practice from medical students.  Modern medicinal techniques, such as trephining, can be seen practiced on these corpses.

Beyond the medical advances, behavior changes in the field of medicine can be seen as well. The Anatomy Act of 1832 allowed the legal sale of corpses to medical institutions, to combat the illegal trade of resurrection men.  The bodies found in this forgotten burial ground date from both before and after the Anatomy Act.  This means that the archaeologists could see whether the medical students treated their cadavers differently since they knew that these were legally traded corpses or illegally traded.

However, the difference is almost non-existant.  It seemed that the Anatomy Act was simply a formality, and a way to persecute resurrection men. Little to no difference in the treatment or burial of these bodies before and after this act was found.  Even though the act says that these corpses should be properly buried, they were put in the same old, wooden boxes as the old cadavers.

Besides the defiance of this act, many interesting things can be taken from this site.  Although modern medicine is much different than the medicine used at the time of these cadavers, many practices seen there can be connected to modern techniques.  Using this information, the chronology and development of modern medicine can be properly documented.


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The Importance of Context

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel with the Women’s Basketball team here at MSU.  Their first and second round of the NCAA tournament took us to Maryland, and even better, a trip to Washington D.C.  For those of you who have never been to DC, it is basically an archaeologist’s dream.  With all the Smithsonian Institutions around, and all free of charge, there is plenty do and explore.  However, I found one thing that was missing.  Where was the context?

The importance of context has been pounded into our brains, and will most likely continue to be pounded into our brains for the rest of the semester.  Most students will realize that this is because the context gives the artifact importance, and go along with their day.  However, I do not think the importance of context can be fully grasped until one visits an institution such as the Smithsonians.

As I wandered and explored the exhibits, I often found myself aimlessly gazing at the objects available.  Hey look, that’s a coat used in the Revolutionary War.  Cool… Wow, that is a skeleton of an early human.  Pretty neat. As these thoughts came and faded from my mind, I realized something in common with them all.  There was no context.  These were just artifacts, or more commonly replicas, in a museum.  The meaning, the importance, the relationship with all other artifacts was not present.  All of the wonderful information that comes from context was compacted into a single feeling of that’s kinda cool.

But that singular, compact feeling left me sad.  The archaeologist inside of me was looking for all the little details, the relationships, and the context of the artifacts.  I was searching for a deeper meaning, that not even the Smithsonians alone could offer me.

As we all move on with our careers, whether they be in archaeology or not, I hope that this true meaning of context hits you.  Without context, these artifacts are simply antiquities, a collection for the rich and powerful to keep.  That is not what archaeology is about.  I hope that the non-archaeologists among you remember this, and search for the context from all sources possible.  And I urge the archaeologists among us to remember the importance of context.  Without it, all science of archaeology is lost, and the once great pieces of the past turn into a collection on some shelf, lost with time.

Modern Revolutions in Archaeology

I find it very interesting at how much modern technology can help us advance our knowledge of the past, and of archaeology.  Previous to the 21st century, much of the information gained from archaeology had to be gathered by hand.  But now, with revolutions in science and medicine, we don’t even have to touch the artifacts to gain knowledge from them.

One revolution in archaeology would be the use of MRI and other medical techniques to view an artifact without touching it.  In the case of Egypt, this method is very useful, because archaeologists can view mummies without ever opening their sarcophagi.  This means that these mummies can be preserved even better, and perhaps will last long enough to see the next revolutions within technology.  Using medical techniques on mummies, we can also find out many things about who a person was, and how they lived.  For example, with Tutankhamen, scientists and archaeologists were able to collaborate, and create an image of what he may have looked like.  Beyond this, they were also able to find that Tutankhamen may have had Marfan Syndrome.  This lead to the discovery of how Akhenaten may have been Tutankhamen’s father, because they share this genetic disorder.

Beyond the use of medical techniques to examine artifacts, the discovery and overview of sites has been revolutionized by satellites. Nowadays, many archaeologists would use Google Maps as a resource to get a quick preview of a site.  Sometimes, simple methods like this have led to the discovery of new sites.  This method also allows archaeologists to look at the big picture of sites.  From the ground, some massive structures that do not exist anymore may not be easy to see.  However, from discoloration of the Earth, these sites can be viewed more readily from space.  Beyond satellites, archaeologists also have many other detection devices that help them see what is underneath the ground.  From the use of magnetics to radar, archaeologists no longer have to dig to see what is under the Earth.  This means that less time is spent digging and destroying potential artifacts, and more time can be spent on analyzing the importance of the site itself.  Without these devices, archaeologists would still be digging massive amounts of sites, and many sites may have never been discovered.

Although archaeology deals with some of the oldest remaining artifacts on Earth, the methods used to collect and analyze these artifacts are state of the art.  Without many of the technological revolutions, much of the sites and discoveries in archaeology would not exist today.

Digital Archaeology

As a non-archaeologist, I thought this class would be simply for fun.  Who doesn’t like to learn about the Pyramids and Stonehenge and other cool sites?  As a computer scientist, I thought archaeology was the furthest thing from being useful to me.  I, however, was wrong.

Digital Archaeology is an exhibition created by Jim Boulton to try and  uncover the old websites that helped shape the culture that is the internet today.  Much like field archaeology, these sites are put in chronological order, as archaeologists try to understand their context.  Why was this website here, and why was it popular?  With something as massive as the internet today, it can be hard to try and put all the pieces together.  However, this information can be very useful.

Questions like “How did social media evolve?” or “Why did certain sites gain the popularity they did?” can be answered using digital archaeology.  It is the understanding of the development of human culture over the web.  Information gained from digital archaeology can be used by multitudes of web developers and programmers to try and understand what the next move in the web should be.  Much like historians try and learn from the past so that they don’t make the same mistakes, the studies of digital archaeology can help us prevent massive online failures, and show what directions that web has moved, and will be moving within popular culture.

Beyond useful facts, the history if the internet can also be a source for nostalgia and enjoyment.  Subjects at the exhibition include the first ever website to connect and share documents via the internet, created at CERN laboratories.  Remains of the popular web service AOL, and dial-up, can also be found at the exhibition.  For those who lived through it, internet connected through phone lines seems like a silly memory.

Although computer science and archaeology seem like two completely separate fields, similarities between them can be found in Digital Archaeology.  Not only is it fun to marvel and the antiquities uncovered through the histories of the internet, but it can also be useful to see how the web has changed and evolved from its first form.  As the symbol for complete freedom and creativity, I feel that it is just as important to document the history of the internet than it is to document the events of human history.  As we move forward from the stone, bronze, and iron ages, it becomes even more important to keep documents of the ever-evolving age of computers.


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