Archaeologists in Israel have just published a new study on mysterious funnel-shaped lines that stretch for miles across the deserts of Israel, Jordan and Egypt. In all likelihood, they suggest, the lines are part of an elaborate system of drive lanes and a pit trap for hunting gazelle. In my regular end-of-the-month blog post for Archaeology magazine, I explore the antiquity of these big game traps, once used to hunt everything from caribou to antelope, horses to bison.
I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun. Over the past twenty-four hours, journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments. I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage. Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,” while others took lower aim. One online rag, for example, informed readers that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”
If you ask me, these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are becoming media circuses. All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women, baring their physical frailties and secrets for all to see. In recent years, we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come. I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci. And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.
None of the subjects, I might add, has given consent for such scientific study. And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers. The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example, want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause. This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.
In future, I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum. Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains just to satisfy a point of idle curiosity. So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?
When I was writing my book, The Mummy Congress, I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made jokes at the expense of the dead or talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments. Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies, they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.
Poor Tutankhamun. I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.
I started this week railing against a British television producer who is hunting for a terminally ill person to mummify in a new uber-sensational reality-based television show. All week this story has left a really bad taste in my mouth. To wash it away, I found a superb short video on mummification that was shot by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The curators based on the video on the techniques used by an Egyptian mortician some 2000 years ago to mummify a young man named Heracletes. Short, sweet and to the point. And no cashing in on the misery of a terminally ill patient. Bingo.