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Egypt, Archaeology, Antiquities, Bureaucracy

by Stephen Hebert on Sunday - 15 July 2007

in This and That

The Discovery ChannelToday, my wife was not feeling well. Since it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, we settled into our room with some snacks and watched the Discovery Channel, dozing off here and there. It’s actually a fantastic way to spend a Sunday. You should try it some time!

Today’s programming was all centered around Egyptology, especially the identification of various mummies from ancient Egypt. First, there was a show on Dr. Vassil Dobrev who has some interesting theories about the Sphinx. Next was a show on Dr. Joann Fletcher (who has really cool hair!) and her controversial identification of a certain mummy as Queen Nefertiti. Then there was a show about the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was followed by a show on King Tut, then Queen Hatshepsut, and finally Imhotep (I am really a fan of this dude!).

DISCLAIMERS: One, I realize that the Discovery Channel is not the best source of information. Egyptology is not my particular field, and I have no idea whether or not these shows were trustworthy. I am, generally speaking, skeptical. Second, I feel pretty much the same way about Wikipedia—I just find it convenient. Three, I really know nothing about all of these archaeologists, and have nothing to say about them personally. I’m just commenting on the Discovery Channel and the various bureaucracies that countries have setup to protect their antiquities.

So, as we are watching all of these shows, I must admit that I got a little creeped out. Was it the mummies that were creeping me out? The inexplicable riddles of the Sphinx? The thought of excavating in such ridiculous heat? No. None of the above. What began to creep me out was Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt.

First of all, Dr. Hawass seems like a charismatic, passionate dude. I really enjoy watching him talk about this stuff because he clearly has a passion for it. He is overflowing with exuberance and enthusiasm. You just have to love someone who has found their passion and gets to engage it every single day. Kudos to Dr. Hawass for this.

But, I found it strange that he was on every one of these shows. It would be one thing if, as Secretary General, he made an occasional appearance to give his two cents on an archaeologist’s claim. Instead, it just seemed like he was intricately involved in every excavation. I’m not an archaeologist, so I don’t know if it’s normal at all, but it just seemed a little weird.

The Secretary General’s omnipresence made me think of the media mongering of the Jesus Seminar which is so heavily criticized by Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus. I began to question just about every “discovery” made on these programs, simply because I wondered how much of it was done in the hopes of creating a media frenzy.

As a non-archaeologist, I am led to ask the following questions:

  • How is Egypt’s department of antiquities organized? Does Dr. Hawass hold some sort of supreme power? How responsibly does he wield that power?
  • How does this compare to other countries? Greece? Turkey? Italy?
  • What should we think about government bureaucracy and its role in research?
  • Finally, what do people think about the Discovery Channel and National Geographic? Do you feel that their programs are fair?

Again, I am really not trying to cast aspersions on Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and its Secretary General. I am genuinely curious about how these various organizations are organized, and what their role is within field research. As I said, Dr. Hawass seems like an amazing guy who is passionate about his field.

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