The Trouble of Preexisting Narratives

Throughout history, one of the greatest problems encountered by academics of all kinds in revealing new information has been the very human tendency create narratives.  These narratives are necessary to human being – we use them to explain the world around us and arrange the cosmos in a way that makes some semblance of sense.  The trouble is that new information often requires the creation of a new narrative, a new worldview, and the preexisting ones must be fundamentally altered or gotten rid of entirely.  More often than not, people are more than willing to simply ignore fact to preserve the way they see the world.

Take, for instance, heliocentrism.  It does not seem, to the modern person, to matter all that much to the daily life of any given person whether Earth orbits the sun or the other way around.  When heliocentrism was first conceived of, however, it was difficult for people to accept because the idea that the earth was the center of the universe was an important part of their narrative for existence.  If the earth was just a proximal part of even our solar system, then humanity might not be what everything is all about after all.  It’s very easy for people to accept this today because we were taught it from birth, but when it contradicts a preexisting worldview, controversy ensues in the face of facts.  This happened not only with heliocentrism, but also with evolution, the origin of ancient monuments like the pyramids, the debunking of scientific racism, and the gradual realization of people all over the world that their kingdom/nation/city was not the center of the world.

The sad part about this is that so often it seems like variations of the same narrative need to be broken over and over again.  Almost every time science, history, or archaeology run up against a worldview, the basic problem is that accepting the necessary changes to that worldview would somehow take the holder’s ego down a peg.  People, it seems, almost always form narratives in which the world is in some way about them.  Therefore they cannot accept that the earth is not the center of the solar system, or that humans are descended from a common ancestor with great apes, or that non-Europeans are not inherently less intelligent than their white counterparts and could even have built the pyramids.  The good news is that this means that when narratives are rewritten, in spite of what might be said about violating the sanctity of whatever or lowering whoever to whomever else’s level, the world is becoming a gradually less egocentric place.  We must simply remember to always keep an open mind and never reject fact for the sake of sentiment.

Lions, and Tigers, and Mummies! Oh, My!

Known as the masters of mummification, Ancient Egyptians have managed to secure their mark on the modern world.  Through the assitance of an arid climate, the process of embalming became a natural phenomenon throughout the Nile River Valley.  Overtime, mummification became so popular that the promise of an eternal life was bequeathed not just to royalty but also to the wealthy and middle class. However, one needs to remember that the intention of mummification was that relating to religion. If this be the case, why did not other ancient civilizations also practice the art of embalming their dead?

Perhaps the Ancient Egyptians were the only civilization to believe in an eternal life. Perhaps others civilizations attempted their own acts of mummification, but their climate could not preserve the dead as well as the sands and heat of the Egyptian desert.  In the end, the Ancient Egytians are recognized as the masters of mummification; however, the Ancient Incas, believe it or not, also participated in the art of mummification. It is said that an ancient tribe from northern Chile, known as the Chinchoros, began embalming their dead around 5000 B.C. The Chinchoros would disassemble their dead in order to treat them for preservation. Afterwards, the corpse was reassembled and supports were added along the arms and legs. Thus, the deceased would appear whole again. Instead of covering their dead in fabric, like the Egyptians, the Chinchoros coated their deceased in clay. However, the dead were still embellished in elaborate moldings and buried with offerings, such as food and clothing.

Mummification in South America continued on into the time of the Incan Empire. Many believe that the dry climate and high salt content of the Andes helped in the preservation of so many mummies. Just like Egyptian mummies, the dry air would prevent bacteria growth and evidently decay. Unlike the Egyptians, who only embalmed their elite (or those who had enough coin), historians believe that the Incas mummified everyone. I wonder if the Incas, like the Egyptians, were trying to obtain eternal life through mummification? I would guess that their reason behind perserving their dead are also religiously linked. In the end, it was religion that eliminated the process of mummification throughout the South America. In the end, the spread of Christianity to Egypt and South America stopped the thousand year old process. Honestly, I think it is exceedingly fascinating that human beings were able to construct a process to preserve their dead for thousands of years. Not to mention that this process was conducted with far less resources and natural knowledge of the environment. It is also interesting that two cultures that never crossed paths were able to find two different way of embalming their dead. In the end, mummies have been found on almost every continent. Sometimes the dead were initially embalmed, and sometimes, it was an act of nature; nevertheless, through mummies we are able to catch a glimpse into the past.

I recieved my information from Nova; therefore, for further information go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/peru/mummies/mworld2.html

Blog post #2

I remember at a very young age I learned all about the pyramids and Pharaohs. I especially remember learning about King Tut. I didn’t know his full name was Tutankhamun. I think it’s really interesting how his name was previously Tutankhaten, but he changed it. I was very interested in these topics even at a young age. Being so young, my classes did not go into much detail.

I never knew how King Tut was found. I thought it was very interesting how Howard Carter excavated King Tut’s tomb, and I never knew that he accidentally pulled off King Tut’s skull. I always thought that mummies were just in the sarcophagus itself. I did not know that there were three layers in the sarcophagus until the mummy itself. I never knew how intricate the sarcophagus’ were, and I can even imagine how much gold was used for the whole entire thing to be solid gold.

When I was younger I would always watch movies about mummies and the mummy curse. I believed the myths. Then I learned that the newspapers created these myths because they couldn’t find anything out about the pyramids. I think that’s pretty crazy and I cant imagine how they got away with it and got people to believe it.

After this lecture in class I was very interested in King Tut and I wanted to learn more. I think it’s really interesting how he died at such a young age and his cause of death is a complete mystery. I thought it was really weird how he didn’t make an impact at all, and if Carter did not excavate King Tut’s tomb he wouldn’t even be as known as he is now. One thing I learned while I was trying to learn more about Tut is that his original name, Tutankhaten, means “living image of Aten.” Tutankhamun, Tuts name when he changed it, means “living image of Amun.” Tut took the throne at the age of 9 or 10, I cant even image being so young and having to take throne. I also didn’t know that when Tut became king he married his half sister—Ankhesenpaaten. Tut and his wife had two daughters, but both of them died still in the womb. One of the daughters dies at 5 or 6 months of pregnancy, and the other died at 9 months. I think everything we’ve learned in class has been incredibly interesting and I cannot wait to learn more.

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.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know… Or Do You?

You don’t know what you don’t know. This is my favorite tautology for many reasons. However obvious the meaning is, many do not follow this simple sentence defined by itself in life.  When something astounding or unpredicted happens it seems as though the concept of logical thinking and, in fact, remembering that you don’t know what you don’t know for some reason just goes out of the window.  Just in my own experiences I can speak of two examples where such lack of reasoning and archaeology have crossed paths.

My first experience begins when I was only eight or nine years old on the sunny beaches of Florida. I was on vacation with my family bored on the beach, so I did what any boy would do and dug giant hole. Ignoring my inevitable sunburn, I dug for hours. Nearing the end of the day I put a chair down in what I believed to be my masterpiece to lay back and relax. As I sat down in a hole that was easily 4 feet deep I stepped on something sharp. I looked down and it was a carved piece of stone. It resembled an arrowhead only it was the size of my hand. Being only eight or nine years old I didn’t think much of it and though it was a perfect tool to carve out what was now becoming dense sand and rocks.  About another hour goes by as my mother comes by to gather me in for dinner only to find her son has seemingly dug himself into a hole he literally could not get out of. ( spoiler: she fetched a rope and I got out.. obviously ) I brought the hand sized sharp arrowhead like digging tool with me. After sharing it with my family we decided it must have been an old tool used by the Native Americans hundreds and hundreds of years ago. For a few days, I thought I had discovered a lost civilization or the like. The bittersweet outcome was that the hand sized sharp arrowhead like device I used for a digging tool was actually a huge shark tooth (which I obviously thought was much cooler… because I was nine years old).  The point of this story was myself, and my family, uneducated in the science of archeology, cultural history of the region, and wildlife history of the region were quick to jump to a conclusion simply because we didn’t know the facts. We had to make assumptions to fill in the gaps and that is not how one should discover what they don’t know.

The second story comes from 2006 when I was swimming in the blue waters of Capri, Italy. I once again stepped on something sharp ( I guess you could call it my lucky foot ) in the water. It turned out it was just coral but as I reached down to see what it was I noticed a white and blue painted rock. The rock was not just painted; it looked as though it was from a mosaic and there were layers upon layers of human elements added to the surface of this rock that was roughly 1 inch in diameter. I took it with me back on the tour bus and showed the 30 or 40 bus riders. When it reached our guide he gasped and said, “This could be pottery from Pompeii!” ( We were visiting Pompeii earlier that morning. ) Everyone on the bus gasped and instantly believed that I had discovered, once again, some kind of unknown deposit of cultural artifacts. Per Italian law I was forced to give up the object for research. I was notified a few months later that carbon dating put the piece from around the early 1900’s, much to recent to belong to someone who lived in Pompeii. Again, too often people make assumptions to fill in the gaps. I instantly had 30-40 fellow travelers believing something that was not true.

In archeology it is much more important to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know than to assume you know something you may not know as fact. Good science does not have to explain every detail, but only those that can be proven with fact. Good archeologist must also realize that they have no way of knowing what they don’t know and never attempt to fill in the gaps with something other than fact.

Akhenaten, the Unorthodox King

The rule of Amenhotep IV was easily one of the most controversial periods in Egyptian history as we know it.  When he was crowned king in the temple of Karnak, he immediately moved to make huge changes within the Egyptian government.  The biggest thing he did was declare the sun God Ra and the actual sun, or “Aten” , as they called it, separate entities.  He also changed his name to Akhenaten, or servant of the Aten.  The sun was seen as a giver and protector of life.  These new views did not sit very well with the society, as it has been shown that even the lowest levels of the community did not depart from their old ways.  Only the upper echelons of society embraced the new culture.  It is believed that although the upper class conformed with the new ideals, they did not actually believe in them themselves.

Along with the change of deity, the new king also invoked a good amount of other changes.  For one, he ended up moving the capital city to an entirely new location.  The site where the new city was built was a completely new area with no past significance.  The new city that was built would be called el-Amarna.  The archaeological record indicates that the new leader did not seem to have much influence throughout Egypt at all.  The only major effect was the dismantle of the priesthood and the closing of the temples that went along with them, which would later be reestablished after the king died.

With an entirely new city also came significant changes in art style, as well as differences in power of the Queen.  This new art style had to do with the artistic perception of the royal family, with the king having an elongated head, drooping chin, and a large stomach.  Along with this, the new sun god Aten was perceived as a red disk over the king’s head.  It was drawn like this because the king claimed that only he was able to personally connect with Aten.  This clearly did not sit so well with the general population and led to the eventual fall of the Akhenaten era.  With regard to the change in the queens power, these changes brought, for the first time, a large amount of power to the queen herself.  This power appeared to be almost at the level of the king, and was seen throughout the art of the era, dominating most of the art spread throughout the temple of the Aten at Karnak.

Akhenaten’s unorthodox rule came to an abrupt end when he died what was believed to be 16 years into his rule.  The city of el-Amarna along with the Aten dynasty diminished back to the traditional methods shortly after his death, when his son, Tutankhamun, took over the royal seat in his place.  This could also help to explain why king Tut’s rule was so short and insignificant.  Akhenaten’s era was a very experimental and controversial, and because of this, created a big ripple in the Egyptian culture that is still very significant to this day.

Historical Accuracy in Pop Culture Movies

My favorite movie series is “The Mummy”. That being said, I love it when historical movies like that are 100% factual. The clothing used in the movie was surprisingly similar to the clothing that would have been worn at that time in ancient Egypt, except for the almost complete nudity seen on Anck Sun Amun at the beginning – complete nudity was very rare and only done by extremely rich and powerful Egyptians. As for the historical characters, I know for a fact that Imhotep was real; he was an architect, engineer and physician who served under Djoser in the Third Dynasty. I’m fairly certain that Anck Sun Amun was one of the six daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. The plot that the movie follows is somewhat hit and miss. During the opening, we are introduced to King Seti I, Imhotep and Anck Sun Amun. Anck Sun Amun was supposed to marry Seti, but she was in love with Imhotep. Seti soon finds out about it and is infuriated. Imhotep and Anck Sun Amun end up stabbing Seti to death, guards go after Imhotep and Anck Sun Amun commits suicide. Later, Imhotep tries to resurrect Anck Sun Amun at Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, with the black book of the dead. Although this makes for an interesting plot twist, none of it ever actually happened. The book of the dead, as well as the book of the living, did actually exist, but they were instruction manuals buried with royalty to help them transition to the after life. In the movie, Imhotep used five canopic jars to hold Anck Sun Amun’s organs during her resurrection: this is completely false, every basic Egyptologist knows that only four canopic jars were needed to hold the necessary organs for mummification. The city of Hamunaptra does actually exist, but it is not nearly the grand city of the dead the movie makes it out to be. In reality, it is a poorly built city with no plan behind it. Much less impressive. Imhotep’s punishment for touching Seti’s future bride was to have his tongue cut out and to be mummified alive. He also had scarab beetles poured inside his coffin that ate him alive. This also never actually happened. There was not a scarab beetle in existence that had the capability to burrow under a person’s skin and eat them from the inside out. The worst they could have done was to cause a bad rash and infection.

Origin of the Mounds: Stupid Ol’ Europeans…

In february 28th’s lecture we began discussing the mounds found all around the american midwest and southeast. The part of discussion which interested me most, and also made me a little angry with european ideals of the 1700’s and 1800’s, was the fact that men could not, or would not, even consider the fact that these  mass-grave mounds, earthworks, and complexes were constructed by ancestors of the Native Americans, who happened to be living among them when explorers arrived. Although advanced enough to commence in trade and business with explorers, the natives were so “primitive” that they could never have constructed such feats of planning, architecture, and physical labor. It obviously had to have been some mystery race that left no trace of existence, right?

The europeans’ ethnocentrism lead them to look at Native Americans as savages, less-human than their own selves in a sense, just because they were a foreign culture and people with a different way of living and thinking. But, then again, that is how most of the more advanced and powerful civilizations looked at many less tech-savy cultures back in those days; using the same kind of ideas towards their justification for the capture, enslavement, and trade of all the so-called “inferior” africans. So I guess i may have expected too much of the europeans when learning  about the way they approached the mystery of the moundbuilders.

The evidence in favor of the mounds being constructed by native ancestors just seems too great for any other speculations of white men back then to have seemed reasonable in any way. Artifacts uncovered around all of the mound sights and complexes included various pieces like tools, projectile points, and weapons fashioned from bone or different kinds of stone; to me, all of these seem curiously similar to the tools and weapons known to be made and used by Native Americans. Also similar to jewelry and pieces worn by America’s natives are the carved shells and rocks that are so very common among these archaeological sites. The earthworks all around the midwest and southeast US include large mounds in forms of mythical and real animals such as birds or snakes, and  rock slates uncovered at sites are carved to portray a bird-man. To me, and probably countless others before, it’s a direct relation to all of the animal spirit and earth based beliefs/rituals of the Native Americans that came later.

It seems to me that the europeans back then had a major ego problem to the extent that they tried to make things up  and give credit to their own cultures. Now thats just stubborn and immature.