Chasing Mummies - evidence and truth

Chasing Mummies is kind of like a cross between the reality showness of Deadliest Catch and History's Mysteries. I like these kind of shows. My kids like these shows. It's win-win.

The basic idea of this show is to follow this dude, Zahi Hawass- he is like in charge of all the Egyptian museums. Here is a youtube clip that gives a pretty good overview.

However, I do have a beef - well maybe it is just a small quibble. At the beginning of one show, Zahi is all pumped up about some new discovery. They found some tombs near the great pyramids that seem to be the tombs of workers that did all the construction. Zahi then goes on a small rant (it seemed like a rant to me) to the media and press claiming that THE BUILDERS OF THE PYRAMIDS WERE NOT SLAVES!!!! He seriously looked angry.

Before I go on, let me make something clear. I am not an archeologist - although I have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark like 200 times. So, the stuff I am talking about here is not really whether the builders were slaves or free. I want to talk about science. There are couple of things that Zahi keeps bringing up.

  • Truth
  • Prove

Let me go ahead and re-use my favorite Indiana Jones quote:


""If it's truth you are looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is down the hall"

Science is not about the truth. Science is about building models. So, maybe Zahi is supporting the historical model that it was not slave that built the pyramids. I am ok with that. But is it the truth? I guess we will never know - alas, but that is the way of science. This also goes along with the use of proof (or prove).

There is another small problem. Suppose the previous model of pyramid-buildingology says that it was slaves that built them. There must be some evidence for this, right? And not you get just one piece of evidence that says it might not be slaves, what does that mean? Actually, in this episode, Zahi goes on to show some other evidence regarding the builders - but when he talks to the media, he focuses on just these tombs.

The bonus is when Zahi explodes at one of his research students for suggesting the pyramids were built by aliens. That was golden.

More like this

Podcasts are great. While cleaning the car today, I listened to a new one - Stuff you missed in history class (itunes link). In one episode, they were talking about alternative theories about early visits to America. There was some guy that was claiming the Chinese visited the new world 70 years…
I have been meaning to write about this for quite some time. Really, I wanted to reply to Chad's article on science at Uncertain Principles, but you know how things go. So, here are my key and interesting points about science in random order. Science is all about models (not ball bearings)…
I have been meaning to write about this for quite some time. Really, I wanted to reply to Chad's article on science at Uncertain Principles, but you know how things go. So, here are my key and interesting points about science in random order. Science is all about models (not ball bearings)…
Despite this entry's title, this isn't an announcement of a new tour for Tutankhamen's remains and relics through high-profile museums around the globe. For those of you astute enough to realize a streak of ribaldry runs through Seed's editorial department, your initial lowbrow impression of this…

I am not an archeologist - although I have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark like 200 times.

But that was apparently already enough to recognize Hawass for the fraud he is - for you've got him down pat. He might be an archeologist by training, but by function he is a propagandist and politician (he is deputy Minister of Culture). His main interest is encouraging tourism, and he is a best lukewarm, often actively discouraging, of any kind of research that is not likely to result in international headlines.

In any research dispute, he takes the side that depicts Ancient Egypt more attractively to foreign tourists and more acceptable to the Muslim majority in Egypt - for him, there is no doubt the Pyramids were not built by slaves, no doubt the Ancient Egyptian were not supportive of homosexuality etc. etc. - despite the fact that these are all still quite open questions in reality.

As regards the building of the Pyramids, slave labour was the default assumption starting in the 17th/18th century - there was little concrete evidence of it, the assumption was mostly based on the view the Greeks and Romans had of the Egyptian culture, the example of the Mesopotamian cultures and the Biblical accord of slavery in Egypt. Admittedly, there was an element of Western cultural arrogance to it.
More recent research has challenged this assumption, mostly by trying to reconstruct the living conditions in the 'labor' camps, showing that these conditions were better than would be expected for slaves - leading many archeologists nowadays to believe that the Pyramids were built by workers who where paid, perhaps even in some sort of 'stimulus' project.
But the issue is still far from settled, so anybody who claims that there is a definite answer yet is either misinformed or (to be assumed in Hawass' case) consciously misleading.
(On a sidenote, if an answer is ever found, it might turn out a lot more complicated than a yes/no on slavery. In such a hierarchical, theocratic society there might easily have been societal ranks that would be quite difficult to clearly categorize as either 'slave' or 'free man'.)

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

We have the receipts for the salaries (onions and beer) paid to the workers who built the pyramids. We also have graffiti in which workers identify themselves. They weren't slaves. IIRC, most of the pyramid builders were farmers from the surrounding rural areas, who were otherwise unemployed for substantial parts of the year because of the seasonal nature of Nile agriculture.

Egyptians did practice slavery, but in the form of personal servants, not chattel slavery. Egyptians were a record-keeping people. If there were large numbers of chattel slaves kept in Egypt doing public works projects, there'd be some record of it.

Thanks for this, Rhett. Even as Dr. Jones suggests, some in those philosophy classes may argue that there is no single Truth at all. Anyways, I do feel like there is an actual truth out there and science can be about manipulating it to try to figure it out. I guess I sometimes forget that science is really a step removed from truth and is really a model approximation of reality.

You're right: the truth of this question has to be settled starting in the philosophy class. You have to start by deciding what is or is not a slave. It isn't so easy, because there have been a lot of different kinds of situation called slavery through the course of history.

Personally, I think questions that rely on difficulties of definition of value-laden words are the wrong question. But as we know it's often the sort of question these sorts of programs ask anyway. I've seen Hawass on more serious programs. I can't say I'm over-enamored of his personality, but I can entertain the possibility that he sometimes feels like an evolutionary biologist being asked to produce a missing link.

Real Egyptologists are always very circumspect when discussing Hawass. Look what happened to Joanne Fletcher, for example. He has absolute control over who digs where in Egypt. You need the best butter.

But, from the outside looking in it appears that if you make a significant discovery the cameras don't start rolling until Hawass turns up.

I don't think Hawass is exactly a fraud. I think he is a trained archeologist who has never been terribly good at it, has been an administrator for far too long and nevertheless likes to pretend he can still do it. I've known managers like that.

HP @2. The "recipts for the salaries". I think you are confusing the pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom with the tomb builders of Deir El Medina in the new Kingdom.

Yes, Dr. Hawass is definitely a politician. He is also a showboat, quite competent in his field of Egyptology, and has a positively evil sense of humor. Half the time he goes off on a rant, he is pulling someone's leg. It has been 20 years since I've known him, but ya, that is Zahi, all right.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

As ridiculuous as he might be at times, I sure wish the Saudis had someone like him in a similarly empowered position.

Well to be fair, it was white/western scientists who posited the "slave theory" with little to no evidence. And now it's considered the baseline even though as numerous commenters have pointed out there's evidence they were paid, many of them were in-demand skilled laborers, and it might have been part of some sort of government program to keep people employed. Is that guy a patriot who speaks in his country's best interest? Yes. But you'd probably get the same thing if you went almost anywhere. We let China feed us the line about what's going on right now I don't think we should be too angry he's got his own agenda.

Slave labor was an assumption of the West based primarily on the fact that most of the cultures of that time including the Greeks and Romans used slave labor for their projects. Of course the Jews claim credit for building of the Pyramids based on their legends and absolutely no historical or archeological evidence.

It's hard to for Western audiences to get a fair beat on Zahi Hawass because of the enormous animosity that Zionists have towards Arabs in general and Hawass specifically and their orientation towards Israel. Generally though the show is entertaining and informative. I wish more blogs were even-handed in looking at the show as you were Rhett

Chasing Mummies is hysterical. I laugh at Hawass' pharonic statements.

Sure the show is for idiots, Dr H is a total ass, and history channel drops the ball with that show...I would say the show should be called Chasing Dummies - The adventures of Dr Zahi Hawassh*le on History!!!!

By Eric THIERY (not verified) on 05 Sep 2010 #permalink

Iâm a bit behind in watching the show, but Iâd like to comment on the two episodes I just watched: Bats and Cursed. These episodes were excellent!!! The whiney interns were gone, and we really saw a lot in these programs:
Two beautifully painted 5th Dynasty tombs at Saqqara, Dr. Hawass went under the great Sphinx at Gizeh, and explored caves near the Great Pyramids, attended a wedding in a village, and received an Archadeological Award. (Omar Sharif was in attendance, too!)
Also, Zahi took us to the beautiful tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings, climbed the mountains overlooking the Valley, and viewed a model of the Valley made by famed Egyptologist, Kent Weeks.
Hawass also took us to a Falcon Gallery, and to the Avenue of the Sphinxes in Luxor, where workers are restoring the route that connected the Temples of Luxor and Karnak. Thus far 650 of the 1350 Sphinxes have been found.
This is the reason to watch Chasing Mummies. Sadly I have only one more episode to watch. Hopefully there will be more episodes in the future.
Read this blog for more:

By Dejah Thoris (not verified) on 19 Sep 2010 #permalink

I saw the same show as you Dejah, I enjoyed it a great deal. Thank heavens those interns are gone, my teenagers don't wine as much as the interns do and it takes away from the show. Hawass seemed more himself when he was able to just do what he does best, archeology/egyptology, without having to babysit a bunch of kids with s script to follow. The producers should stop trying to control everything and allow the show to do what I thought it was suppose to, teach us about ancient Egypt. We do not need a stupid soap opera. As far as Hawass's rants, well I would be ranting too if I had to put up with those fellow's, really, those kids are a bit much and would get on anyone's nerves.

By Bernadette Fowler (not verified) on 29 Oct 2010 #permalink

The show is fake. It's got nothing to do with real archeology/egyptology. Zoe is an actress. Thank god. We wouldn't want her to pie al over ancient monuments for real now, won't we!