Over the semester we covered pretty much everything I would expect to cover in an Egyptian archaeology class. However, I feel that discussion of some pseudo-archaeology may have been appropriate. As I understand it, there is an entire course on this subject so it may not seem economical to cover it twice. But I feel that it still applies to our conversations in the class. We spoke about misconceptions of Egypt, and the effects of Egyptomania and these forms of pseudo-arch are a direct extension of that. My only other suggestion is in regards to the blog entries. I enjoyed the format and purpose of the blogs, but I feel that they may have served more of a purpose for the class if they were given a little more direction. For example a chosen prompt on which to write that corresponds to a specific idea covered in class. We were given liberty to pick a topic that we found interesting, yet that applied to our conversations about Egypt, and I think that was fine. It could be perhaps an option for those who can’t find anything better to comment on. But all in all the class was fun and enjoyable, and I gained plenty of useful knowledge (pertinent even to my field, as my final paper can attest to.)
Egypt in Celluloid
The image of Egypt is an ever-shifting form. It was shaped early on as a mysterious and exotic land. While advancing significantly in the academic realm of study, our public understanding seems to be dwindling. ‘Educational’ programs and films depicting Egypt in a skewed fashion detract from the mass populace’s understanding of this once great civilization. The media is certainly the source of this problem, they are promoting shows like Ancient Aliens and other sources of pseudo-archaeology. However, these programs are only the most recent development of a long tradition of misrepresentation. Film, from early cinema to recent CGI-orgies, has been a major driving force in this rationalized perversion of fact. As our academic understanding has grown, the film industry has moved in the complete opposite direction, by further mystifying and confusing the culture of ancient Egypt.
First, we must lay the groundwork for what we will be dissecting. What are the films that feature mummies as pivotal aspects of the plot? Films featuring just the country Egypt would generate too vast of a list, without a any real common thread running through them besides setting. While movies dealing with mummies ensure that Egypt and it’s culture play a pivotal, if misinformed, part in the plot. Not only that, but mummies, pyramids and their ancient theology are all rooted in the archaeology of the area – which generates another strong common theme.
These films are: The Mummy (1932), The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971), The Mummy (1999). A clarification in regards to the list is necessary I feel. There are many more that would be on this list, but they are spawned as sequels. However important they may be to a cinematic evaluation, a digression into a subset of films would only detract from the overall argument.
Secondly, we must identify what has advanced in the film industry to allow for the expansion/re-development of ideas about Egypt. The first, and most obvious leap in technology is CGI and special effects. Moving from the bandage wrapped Boris Karloff, up to the completely digital rendering of the newer Mummy. An understated advancement that is directly in line with SFX would be the severing of tethers created by microphones and cameras. Originally, all recording information was corded and quite cumbersome (thus the slowly pace, stock framing found in most early films.) This was followed by a boom of inventive camera angles and effects that have become such a standard, anything else looks foreign.
Initially spurred by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, early cinema had some loose roots in reality. Characters in the Boris Karloff vehicle, The Mummy are textbook descriptions of famous archaeologists at the time. They had a very conscious view of Egypt. But as time and technology have advanced we have strayed further and further from a realistic depiction of Egypt. This is drastically noticed when one watches the newer mummy films right after one of the old ones. The use of CGI has led to an abundance of a supernatural presence in films. This supernatural tendency finds a comfortable home with a culture associated with the somewhat macabre topic of death and immortality. If examined correctly, the trend in entertainment regarding Egypt will progress in the opposite way one would assume. With further understanding of this early culture, our reflection of them would hopefully progress toward more and more realistic terms. But, instead we see the opposite. Initially we had a conservative, and very loosely accurate portrayal of Egyptian archaeology, which has given way to an ever devolving representation of an already misinterpreted source.
The recent boom of technological advancement has led to some incredibly innovative ideas in all aspects of life. Archaeology has seen a novel use of satellite imagery to aid in site discovery. This is phenomenal, especially when you think that only about a hundred or so years ago Michigan’s map looked like the Penguin-boy’s hand at the travelling freak show. We are now able to use images taken from space to pin-point exact locations and see what they may hold.
However amazing this ability is, there will always be the quacks who claim to be using it properly. I say claim because recently an amateur satellite researcher, Angela Micol, claims to have found evidence for undiscovered pyramids. They would dwarf the Giza pyramids were they real, but we can’t tell just from satellite pictures. She makes the ever-dubious claim that ‘We won’t know until we go there.’
My issue with this “discovery” is obviously with its source. She is an amateur satellite researcher from North Carolina. That is all the information I’ve been able to find one her. I did find her Facebook and Twitter, but they don’t supply any real information. There is no resume, no schooling list, no prior work list given for this “researcher.” To me it sounds like someone having a hobby. I could be wrong, she could be qualified – but I should be able to find that information as well.
Sarah Parack, who actually is an expert responded wonderfully:
“These Google Earth reports are coming from someone who is neither an Egyptologist, an archaeologist, or a remote sensing specialist, and from an area where there is no earthly reason to have a pyramid — 8 miles to the west of the Nile Valley edge in upper Egypt. … I get emails constantly from people who have claimed to find features. ”
I find it troublesome that anyone with spare time and a computer can throw into question research and study that people spend their entire lives to achieve. This also is showing signs for questioning the authority aspect of information gathering. We use experts, museums, and the like to know that we are going to get reliable information. These institutions and people have something at stake, so you can be sure that they triple-check the hell out of everything. But now, any noob with the internet and blog can just say things without consequence. This disrupts our flow of information and frustrates the relationship we have with the sources of information.
I don’t have too much to speak to today, but I found a fascinating article online. It comes from a blog-esque site, but the author uses reliable sources to bolster his argument. She speaks about the construction, layout, state-formation – anything and everything that needs to be clarified to rid us of this ‘E.T.-based phenomenon.’ It’s by no means the final word on the subject, but it certainly adds light to situation. (There’s a Fifth Element joke there, for those that want to try for it.)
I enjoyed how absolutely thorough this shaming was. I know there is at least one gullible person in my life that I will be sending this to. I think more awe-inspiring to me than the pyramids themselves, is that so many people believe something as inane as ‘Ancient Aliens.’ It’s a shame.
Here’s the article:
An unavoidable fact of education is that sometimes, you’re just not going to reach people. Given how much work it takes just to sound competent in an Intro the Archaeology class, it is understandable why most people accept what they see in documentaries and movies. The pitfall of this lies in grossly misinformed facts, evident in the popularity of shows like Ancient Aliens. In order to reach people and actually present them fact, educators must engage in what already has their attention. Movies are a great place to start.
Lucas Film has coupled with National Geographic and the Discovery Center in Santa Ana, California to make an Indiana Jones exhibit. Showing famous props and costumes from the movies while coupling them with actual artifacts from around the world. It introduces real archaeology in a way that is familiar to the crowd – their favorite archaeologist, Indiana Jones.
They have many artifacts, ranging from around the world, with a few from Egypt in particular. They have on display a funerary stela, and a papyrus fragment from the Book of the Dead, in addition to things from numerous other cultures. These are fantastic ways to introduce a realm of education that may not reach a lot of people. With a Museum Studies specialization, I have interest in museum shows and how innovative they can be. I would love to see more of these types of shows in the future – Jurassic Park, and The Mummy, the list goes on and on.
The 1932 film The Mummy, featuring Boris Karloff as the ancient Egyptian high priest, Imhotep, kicked off the craze of films about Egypt. These films often fall under criticism due to their inaccurate portrayal of Egypt and the archaeology of it. However, many of these concerns are rooted in our misunderstanding of the Hollywood system during the time. Certain scenes in the original Mummy can give evidence to this subtle form of cultural propaganda.
The film is very conscious of the issues surrounding Egyptian archaeology. The excavation of King Tut’s tomb had been in the newspapers on and off for about five years before Tut’s sarcophagus was opened. In another six years The Mummy was released, and became an icon.
Opening on the interior of a tomb, two men discuss the situation of their find. Sir Joseph Whemple, a dapper man in suit and tie, pieces together a stone tablet. He is heckled by Ralph Norton, an uppity man in tan desert gear. In this dynamic there is evidence for an understanding of the tensions surrounding archaeology at the time. Sir Whemple is a vague form of August Mariette, the influential fore bearer of Egyptian archaeology and the politics thereof. When Ralph asks him how much longer he’s going to take playing around with those rocks, Sir Whemple replies, “Method is everything in archaeology, my boy, we must always keep the finds of the day in order.” The understudy retorts, “Well, it seems to me that today, that box we dug up with the very peculiar gentlemen in it over there, is the only find that we’ve made in the past two months that’ll bring this expedition any medals from the British Museum.” And finally, he is silenced; “We didn’t come to dig in Egypt for medals. Much more is learned from studying bits of broken pottery than from all the sensational finds. Our job is to increase the sum of human knowledge of the past. Not to satisfy our own curiosity.” This exchange demonstrates the discourse over how excavations were handled.
Eventually, under guidance from August Mariette, laws set forth in 1854 aided in cultural preservation. The export of antiquities out of Egypt was prohibited. All antiquities were to be brought to the National Museum in Cairo. And most obviously, it was strictly forbidden to destroy any antiquity, while the government would actively move to preserve it. These laws changed the game significantly, yet Egypt was still targeted for the possibilities of glory that it held.
Treasure hunters, not necessarily trained archaeologists, would try to find their glory. This could be said of Carnarvon and Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tut. Carnarvon funded the expedition and Carter took lead – eventually finding one lone step after a long drought of excitement. This scene is reflected directly in The Mummy where the first sign they find of a new tomb is the first level of stairs.
Despite cute nods to the actual excavation, there is evidence for the greater battle of ethnocentrism and cultural bias. While the West was still exploiting Egypt for the tales of glory, brought by newspapers and books – there was a social dissonance with which The Mummy toys with.
The Non-Egyptian characters are portrayed with an aura of elitism, while locals are decidedly less “civilized.” This is clear throughout, even when Boris Karloff’s Imhotep comes back into the picture. When he was excavated, Ralph Norton reads from the forbidden scrolls, found in a sealed chest that resided at the base of a godly statue (there are simply too many similarities between the original mummy and the newer ones, which was a surprise to me – I thought they were detached.) This summons Imhotep from the grave and allows him to walk again, he steals the scrolls and frightens Norton into a delirious craze. Ten years later, Imhotep has disguised himself as Ardath Bey, a modern Egyptian and guides some new archaeologists to the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon – his long lost love.
During their meeting Imhotep makes two important statements for the discussion of ethnocentrism. One: “Excuse me… I dislike being touched… An Eastern prejudice.” And, two: “We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead.” Both of these statements paint the Egyptians, ancient and modern, as “other.” The first statement lending itself to the understanding that these others are prejudice and somewhat hostile against the British and others. This has the effect of furthering the other effect, making it harder for identification with those who were being exploited. The other phrase implies a Western superiority, only they would know what to do with such treasures – the locals wouldn’t be able to do things right. This is disguised by Imhotep claiming it is forbidden, but after any form of research that is found to be untrue. Mariette’s laws helped to assure that they can, in fact, handle their own history.
Much as movies during the Cold War reflected the social paranoia and hostility of the time, so too does The Mummy. By subtle manipulation of the native elements of Egypt, but with acknowledgement of the tension, The Mummy aligns itself with Western thinking of the other, and claims its superiority.
The Merimda Culture was of personally interest today during class. In specific the head form sculpture caught my eye. After looking into it a bit more, I learned that there are “pierced spots were made atop and at the lower part to receive hair imitating the beard.” Being an anthro minor, ensures that I have a basic interest in human culture, but also being an English and film major, I have a deep appreciation for arts. Such early evidence of this skill developing is indicative that this tendency has been with us for some time. Obviously we have cave art that provides us with even earlier awe, but the advance that was made, even in switching to a different medium, is incredible. I was particularly impressed with the attention to detail the sculptor gave by providing attachments for a faux beard.
Unfortunately, the egyptomania factor spoiled us with early visions of hieroglyphics – and have kind of lost their muster. Growing up with visions of the truly inspirational art has kind of lessened the effect they have on us, and makes these major steps forward seem a little less significant. But when actually able to delve in and examine ancient art, it is incredibly vital to an understanding of our culture.
In one of the small insets was a section on the Neolithic economy where the author mentions Guns, Germs, and Steel. I latched onto this section because the Neolithic revolution has been of interest to me when covered in my Anthro classes. I don’t read about it as a hobby though. The appearance of domesticated plants and animals being one of the most important stages in human evolution, but I find the appearance of towns and communities much more interesting. When referencing Jared Diamond’s book, they introduce the thought that with close, domestic quarters, disease can be spread easier. This is undeniable – The Bubonic Plague, the Bird Flu – we have many examples of this. What fascinates me, is that in these foundational stages disease didn’t wipe them out entirely. We have a relatively cushioned view of disease – it’s not a constant fear as it was in ye olde times. We have vaccines, medicine, and things to fix you now. The early settlements had nothing anywhere near that, and they had some pretty impressive diseases to contend with. I find it all the more astounding that they actually made it into the next stage.
If that didn’t get them, the new setting might have. “Without socially acceptable outlets, the psychological effect of more people living together in permanent settlements can also lead to increased tension and violence” (83). I’d venture so far as to say that that is still a modern trend. On top of disease, the possibility of killing each other makes the situation that much more absurd, and that much more impressive that they found ways to solve those problems and continue to advance and move forward.
I spoke prematurely in one post about the dubious Jewish enslavement in Egypt, after writing that post I read Hassan’s article and was surprised at the connection. She traces the evolution and mutation of certains beliefs as they morph into others through time, going so far as to make a claim as to why.
She identifies the many basic traits of Egyptian gods and connects them effortlessly to Christian dogma (though she does speak about Judaism, the connections to Christianity are my main focal point). Horus and Jesus, the “nursing Isis’” relation to the “nursing Mary,” even the general notion of the Trinity. On and on they go, there’s no point regurgitating them here. What I find most interesting about this, though it relates very little to the actual archaeology of Egypt, is the blatant evidence for cultural re-appropriation. It isn’t even hard to determine, nearly every aspect of Horus’ story is echoed by ‘The King of King’s’ story.
Not only did Christians manipulate Egyptian dogma, but the other most easily recognizable perversion would be Wiccan and other ‘pagan’ religions. The pentagram, pointed witch’s hat, even cats become a symbol for evil – again the list goes on and on. These symbols are not necessarily tied to Biblical sources, but instead surround it and add to the mythos. Even ‘traditional’ imagery is called to question – most conceptions of Satan stem from Milton. It becomes increasingly easy to spot the points where Christianity absorbs its predecessor and mutates it to create new symbols of evil. As “Egypt was the counter-image, a polemical counter-construction created by “normative inversion” – the creation and perpetuation of a binary opposite needed for contradistinctive self-definition” (Hassan, 262). This principal certainly applies to our studies of ancient Egypt, but it can quite easily be applied to anywhere “the good word” spread.
I enjoyed Ward’s argument about Egyptian chronology, though I know very little in terms of dates and names yet, I still followed his points – agreeing with the majority of them. Challenging ideas that may be regarded as ‘basics’ is a fundamental part to any scientific inquiry, and I thought Ward did it very thoroughly.
Assuming that Egyptian calendars worked in a similar way to ours seems to be a precarious notion. Anthropologists should be extremely hesitant to speak in absolutes, as new data may always change that ‘fact.’ One borders on being culturally biased, assuming that the Egyptians used their calendars in the same ways we conceive ours. Ward states that ‘it must be emphasized that the lunar and civil calendars were not opposed or in competition with each other but were used concurrently for entirely different purposes” (Ward, 57-58). It would be safe to assume, in agreement with Ward, that we are forcing the issue – and they are in fact, two totally different entities, working for two different spheres of their society. This lends credit to the notion of ‘the wandering year,’ which I thought was an interesting way to explain these two unconnected calendars. The ‘looser’ calendar, with the wandering year, aided in less complicated facets of their schedules. Agriculture and religious activities would ebb and flow in concert with environmental factors – tides, the rise of Sirius and the phases of the moon come to mind. However, government administration needed more precise methods of measurement (Ward, 57).
Though some of the dates, and their context, were lost on me due to unfamiliarity, I agree with the essay’s arguments. There may not always be a complete record of evidence for something, and it must therefore always be open to reassessment and exploration.