First Discoveries and Closeness to the Past

For myself personally, the most “Important, captivating, interesting, [or] exciting” things we discussed in Anthropology 264 have not been places per sae. While I found each of the sites we discussed to be interesting, it was not the stone left overs of a bygone civilization in and of themselves which were so intriguing to me, as much as it was the stories of their [re]-discovery, and the people who had once occupied the sites. From this perspective the discovery of Chauvet cave was particularly interesting to me.  I would be willing to give a lot of money to have been one of the three French cave explorers who re-discovered the cave, thousands of years after it was sealed off from the outside and forgotten. The vivid description of what those first moments of discovery were like for one of the explorers, who made a statement along the lines that he had felt as though he had stepped back in time 10,000 years, really caught my imagination- to feel that close to people who are so distant from us now is truly a rare experience. The description of so many details which may still be seen in Chauvet cave, down to ash scrapings on the wall (from the ancient visitors to the site scrapping their torches down to allow them to continue burning before continuing deeper into the caves), make our ancient predecessors seem as alive to us as they once truly were- they were not simple statistics in the evolutionary progression towards advancement and modernity, they were very real, very alive, and in more ways then not, very much like us.

     Likewise, the story of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen was intriguing to me, because of the moment of discovery in which the last people to exit the tomb of the young pharaoh, and first people to re-enter, after thousands of years, could have felt as though they were separated from those ancient people by mere minutes, rather than eons. These profound moments of rediscovery, where one is able to imagine an ancient man or woman setting down an artifact and leaving, and for some reason unable to return to retrieve the artifact left behind, somehow seems to bridge the gap of time in a way that nothing else can. Those men and women who went before us are more distant and unreachable to us than the bottom of the ocean or the edge of the universe- they are gone. But they remain important- their thoughts and the lessons that can be learned from their lives are of value, and are worth remembering. That, to me, is the value of archaeology, and what makes the discipline so unique, rewarding, and continuously relevant.

Better Appreciation

Throughout our course ‘Great Discoveries in Archaeology’, we see patterns in the responses of modern (or at least, relatively modern) Westerners to each great discovery we have covered. With each new discovery, even if they are separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles of geography, the Westerners progress through a series of stages of denial. In some cases the denial theories, frequently arguing that Ancient wonders were built by biblical, extraterrestrial, or lost European(ish) civilizations such as the Atlantians or a lost tribe of Israel, have died out of the mainstream only recently. As late as the nineteen sixties we see books being published such as Chariots of the Gods, continuing to promote outlandish claims of extraterrestrial involvement in Ancient construction, and reaching best seller status. Even today we see numerous TV shows on channels claiming to be oriented on history, where the main TV personalities take possibilities that Aliens may have, in fact, been responsible for ancient constructions like the Egyptian pyramids seriously (although, these reality style TV shows can hardly claim to represent any sort of ‘mainstream’ consensus about historical realities).

                The wonder and incredulity which these sights inspire in those who see them personally seems highly understandable to me. In some cases, although we are relatively certain of who built the structures (Stonehenge, Mississippian Mounds, the Pyramids, etc.), how exactly these ancient peoples constructed the sites in question is still a matter of heated debate among archeologists, historians, and other academics.

                What we do know, and what these incredibly large constructions obviously demonstrate, is that the societies who constructed them must have been highly organized—after all, to become a dedicated artisan, focused on an aspect of monument construction (a trade which does not directly provide you with the means to subsist—i.e. food and water), there must be some sort of tax system in place, and a government to distribute the collected funds to the artisans responsible for construction activities. Understanding how major construction projects were undertaken in places like Egypt, both in the cases of the Giza Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, with worker villages and full time work site managers overseeing construction, gives us a potential model to apply to ancient wonders (such as Stonehenge or Mississippian Mound sites) where there is much less of a recorded history for modern historians to work off of. Knowing the level of organizational complexity present in the case of the Egyptians in order to sustain their construction projects gives us a better appreciation for Native American or ancient British peoples, who left us only the final products of their greatest undertakings.

Egypt in the Public Eye: Tragedy, but no Surprise

The lectures of the last few weeks have provided an interesting new perspective on Egyptian history in the public consciousness. Growing up, I personally tended to take for granted the fact that Mummies were a part of popular culture. In fairness, the average eight or nine year old does not spend a lot of time considering the origin of culture, but in retrospect, the fact that dead Egyptian Pharaoh’s should be a common (and rather constant) presence in movies, cartoons, and even Halloween costumes in the United States does seem rather strange. This is particularly the case given that our society has no obvious, direct link to Ancient Egypt—our culture evolved quite separately from Egyptian culture, a majority of our citizens are not tied to Egypt by way of ethnicity or religion, we never colonized the region, or even considered them a major trading partner or political ally until quite recently. That being said, every cartoon I can remember watching as a kid growing up had a reference to Egyptian mummies in it somewhere. What’s more, Mummies and references to Ancient Egyptian Pyramids in pop culture are not unique to our generation.
I found the lectures on ‘Pyram-idiots’, early tomb raiders and related goons to be of particular interest. Here we caught a glimpse of the first encounter between Western societies and Ancient Egypt, following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and his subsequent removal by the British. The early results of that first encounter appeared to be particularly ugly—we as a class were introduced to the likes of Italian explorer Giovanni Belzonni, a glorified tomb robber, Howard Carter, an English painter who stumbled upon perhaps the greatest discovery in Egyptology, and learned about a period when Egypt was the treasure-hunting playground of the world, open to any interested European looters. Further, we discussed a whole range of outlandish theories and myths which Europeans developed to explain the presence of so many incredible, ancient landmarks in the Egyptian desert, including everything from extraterrestrial alien involvement to connections to the ‘Lost City of Atlantis’. While this period was tragic in terms of the damage done to the historical record by amateur archeologists, treasure hunters, and tomb raiders, I can’t say that I am shocked by any means that the Europeans of this period reacted in the manner that they did. Confronted with sites of such magnitude, constructions of a scale which nothing in Europe could compare to, not to mention dozens of splendid tombs with strange and fantastic decorations, is it so hard to believe that this all would have registered as incomprehensible for 18th and 19th century Europeans? I tend to think it would have been stranger if they had not reacted with wonder and excitement—it’s just a terrible shame that that wonder and excitement led them to vandalize and pillage some of the worlds most interesting historic sites.

Modern Connections with Ancient Egypt

In this week’s readings on ancient Egypt, I found it interesting that although, “Most explanations for the origin of the state focus on population growth and competition for land and natural resources.” (Fagan, 2011) this was not actually the case for ancient Egypt. In fact, Fagan tells us that states began to form before the creation of large population centers or even before there was any significant competition for land (Fagan, 2011). Instead Fagan explains that the seeds of Egyptian Empire were sown, beginning as a patchwork of communities along the Nile river which over time consolidated in to ever larger and more powerful groupings. What I found interesting was that one of the primary motivations for this growth and consolidation, which culminated in the unification of the Upper, Lower, and Middle Kingdoms, was a desire on the part of the Egyptian people to be protected from external chaos and live in an ordered society. This suddenly makes ancient Egyptians seem far more relatable. They had the same concerns we do today—we still vote for leaders and policies based heavily on a desire for law & order. For me personally, thinking about those ancient Egyptians and their desire for order, stability, and societal “rightness” or “ma’at” (Fagan, 2011) as they put it, brought home the human element of what archeologists are really all about- people. In spite of the thousands of years of separation we still have similar desires.
What’s more, this desire for law and order shows that ancient Egyptians were not simple or un-intelligent people—they were able to perceive that by organizing themselves they could meet the serious threats which faced them. For us, college educated modern Americans who have the gift of thousands of years of historical hindsight, this may not seem to be any extraordinary revelation, but for the ancient Egyptians, organizing on the scale which they eventually did was unprecedented (at least, so far as they were probably aware). The Egyptians did not have the Greek, Roman, British, or any other models to look to and say, “They did it- we can too”. The Egyptian goal of gaining “ma’at” was not achieved over night, but was brought through hundreds of years of continual political and military efforts. The ancient Egyptians doggedly pursued improved stability and strength through organization, out of a desire for safe, prosperous lives—just like us. It’s those kind of connections that make history real for me.

Fagan, Brian. (2011). World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Pearson Prentice Hall.