No Sign of Cleopatra

i-ae543b86671b97dc989e70baf4088b95-a05b.gifI suddenly have this unaccountable urge to comment on the current issue of National Geographic Magazine. Maybe that isn’t so strange. I mean, after all, I like reading the mag and I’m on record as saying, in the Swedish Skeptics quarterly no less, that my ideal museum exhibition would be a 3D version of a Nat Geo feature story. Though I wonder if that’s the only reason. Well, anyway:

Nat Geo covers quite a bit of archaeology, usually of the same Great Civilisations and Opulently Furnished Tombs of Antiquity kind that we meet with in more specialised international pop-archaeomags such as Current World Archaeology. Thus, in the July issue, we find a feature by Chip Brown on the tomb of Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She was born in 69 BC, ascended to the throne at age 18, ruled successfully for two decades, and committed suicide for political reasons at age 39 in 30 BC. The study of her time is historical archaeology in Egypt, while Sweden where I work wasn’t even mentioned briefly in writing until the century following hers.

Cleopatra is said to have killed herself in a tomb stuffed with riches after Octavian’s successful invasion put an end to Egyptian independence. But nobody knows where the tomb was located. The most energetic of the people involved in the search is one Kathleen Martinez, a non-archaeologist from the Dominican Republic, who comes across as quite obsessive in the feature piece. She thinks the tomb may be somewhere at Taposiris Magna, a not very well-known city of Cleopatra’s time.

Why there? Because it had a cult of Osiris and Isis, which was not uncommon, and because Cleopatra used the imagery of Osiris and Isis in her propaganda, and… Well… Because Martinez has a hunch.

Has any evidence supporting her ideas surfaced in five seasons of fieldwork? No.

I think this is a pretty ridiculous story for Nat Geo to run.

Comments

  1. #1 Deborah
    July 1, 2011

    I haven’t read it, but … maybe she thinks she’s channeling Howard Carter.

  2. #2 owlfarmer
    July 1, 2011

    While it’s true that I’m a lapsed archaeologist who had very little time in the field before she got herself knocked up and ran off to raise babies, become a sort-of philosopher, and eventually teach about archaeology, I still find myself continuously irritated by the number of amateurs or unaffiliated “archaeologists” who get so much press these days in pursuit of the sensational. When PBS ran its “Secrets of the Dead” episode on the Minoans I nearly hit the ceiling (and made some snarky comments on their web page). Some would say that this kind of exposure is good for archaeology (I guess in the same way that Indiana Jones has been), but it just makes my job harder. Teaching students how to think logically about evidence (rather than romping off into the New Age mythosphere) is hard enough without reputable institutions’ climbing onto the “edutainment” bandwagon, and in the process cheapening their scientific credentials.

    Thanks for the post, and for giving me an opportunity to blow off some steam.

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 1, 2011

    Oh yes, I have completely given up on the History Channel & Co.

  4. #4 Phillip IV
    July 2, 2011

    Now that sounds like a really solid case – a hunch based on an idealistic re-imagining of a historic figure and then requiring a completely speculative chain of events to work. I think I should immediately dig around in my garden for a bit – who knows, I might find the tomb of Attila the Hun.

    No doubt, though, that Zawi Hawass already considers the dig a success – precisely because there is a NatGeo story on it. Something like that translates directly into tourism dollars. NatGeo has likely, once more, affirmed his conviction that archeology in Egypt only pays off if it involves one of the big names: Cheops, Ramses, Echnaton, Nofrete, Tut Ankh Amen, Alexander or Cleopatra. With one of those names involved, you get a major story whether you find anything or not, every other pharaoh is only interesting enough when some really impressive artifact is found. I think we’ll be seeing more of this – as far as Hawass is concerned, the “Hunt for the tomb of Cleopatra” could become a major motor of tourism for Egypt.

  5. #5 Birger Johansson
    July 2, 2011

    There is nothing to be done about people who think “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is a documentary. You can’t fix stupid, but maybe try to keep it out of magazines with pretensions of quality.
    — — — — —

    (OT) Here is some serene music to help you chill out during the weekend.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9G_HAjTkyU Hmm…an ordinary day in Stockholm? The kids appear to have escaped from “The Midwich Cuckoos”. The lightbulb guy…George Bush? He has quite a head on his shoulders.

    Neo has a quiet vacation day in New York http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7LwBllYARg

  6. #6 Thomas Ivarsson
    July 3, 2011

    Some of History Channel’s content is OK for us non professionals to get a start with places, findings and time lines.

    I have a list with pure rubbish from this channel that also appear in Discovery Channel:

    Templars and the Holy Grail
    The Pyramids as an early star telescopes
    Noe’s arc on a mountain in Turkey
    Most of what they produce about Stonehenge

    BBC is superior and I love the TimeTeam show.

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    July 4, 2011

    Speaking of the History Channel and Discovery Channel:

    Tonight Discovery had the program Extreme Survival, about surviving in an urban environment, using your skills to scavenge ruins for shelter, tools or food.
    Yes, that knowledge will come in *really* handy when the zombies arrive.
    Or the xenomorphs (flashback to “Aliens”) -”They are are inside the walls! They coming through the goddamn walls! AAARRRGGGHHH!” (crashes of torn metal, inhuman chittering noises, bursts of gunfire)

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist the temptation.

  8. #8 Sara
    July 5, 2011

    I was furious after I read this article. The problem is that National Geographic does have (deserved or not) a decent reputation. Since it’s a general interest magazine, the average reader will not be particularly well-informed about any particular article, but (and this is a positive thing) will be curious about many of them, and read with interest. However, their coverage of some subjects about which I /do/ have better-than-lay knowledge (i.e., archaeology, anthropology), is, well, let’s put this kindly, disappointing. The article about Cleopatra is such a wasted opportunity to discuss the process of real archaeology in relation to a real, and still attention-getting, historical figure. As far as I can tell, the “archaeologist” profiled in the article is not actually a crackpot, but that may be the nicest thing I can say. This quote, in particular, has me concerned: “Kathleen Martinez was teaching archaeology at the University of Santo Domingo, but it was an avocation; she’d never been to Egypt or handled a trowel.” The article is cagey on this point, but they have chosen not to clarify whether or not she had ever been on a real dig by the time Hawass gave her free rein to go out on a treasure hunt for Cleopatra’s tomb. Don’t even get me started about Hawass… Real archaeologists spend a lot of time in the field (and in school, studying their field) before directing an excavation. Real archaeologists don’t treasure hunt. For what it’s worth, my own background is much like that of Owlfarmer (post #2), although I haven’t yet gotten back to teaching. Thanks so much for the post!

  9. #9 I. Snarlalot
    July 10, 2011

    Well, I thought it was a little cheesy, but having said that, they perhaps could have taken the opportunity to push further a couple of different themes, like the long line of colorful characters who have played a role in Egyptian archaeology (Belzoni and Napoleon pop into mind –and perhaps even Zahi Hawass himself). And they surely could have devoted more space to what has actually been uncovered at Taposiris Magna. It would have made for a more interesting story.

    Some of the graphics were nice, although not so much the exaggerated fashionista jaw line that they slapped on Cleopatra’s face for the cover.

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    July 17, 2011

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  11. #11 Martin R
    July 17, 2011

    Gene, I believe you will make a better impression publicity-wise if you quit writing everything in capitals.

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