A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Do great individuals guide the course of history, or do historical circumstances inspire great individuals? The Real Scorpion King (airing on the History Channel April 23 at 9:00 p.m. EST) opts for the former in ascribing the foundations of Egyptian civilization to the work of King Scorpion, a ruler of Upper (southern) Egypt around 3250 B.C. If the pharaoh Narmer is to be credited with the final unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, it was his predecessor, King Scorpion, who made it possible--conquering his neighbors while also ordering the invention of writing, coming up with monumental architecture, and putting the culture on the road to pyramid building. It isn't a bad resumé, but if the program has a weak point it is the relentless attribution to one person of the coalescence of an entire civilization.
When it comes to archaeology, the show has some great sequences. Renée Friedman, a director of excavations at Hierakonpolis, decodes the scenes carved on the Narmer Palette, a large slate tablet that shows the pharaoh smiting a captured rival with his mace, perhaps the last act in the unification of the country. On one side of the palette Narmer appears with the crown of Upper Egypt, on the other he wears the crown of Lower Egypt. Friedman also discusses connections between Scorpion and Hierakonpolis, where the palette was discovered more than 100 years ago along with a carved ceremonial mace head that depicts the king.
Günter Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute describes his finds from a tomb at Abydos, including an ivory crook that marks it as a royal burial, and 160 small inscribed bone and ivory tags. Dreyer explains how he deciphered these tags, concluding they were labels identifying from where various goods in the tomb had come. Identification tags or tax receipts, they may be the earliest-known writing. Whose burial was it? Painted on many jars found in the tomb was a sign indicating the owner: a scorpion.
What is really new and intriguing is a carved panel found by Yale Egyptologists John and Deborah Darnell at a desert site named Gebel Tjauti, halfway between Abydos and Hierakonpolis and not far from Naqada, another important early site. If their interpretation is correct, the engraving, which they call the Scorpion Tableau, portrays a victory procession in which a mace-wielding King Scorpion parades his defeated rival, the ruler of Naqada. Key to the reading of the rock panel is the appearance of a falcon above a scorpion, which the Darnells read as Horus Scorpion (Horus was the patron god of kingship in ancient Egypt). Their belief is that King Scorpion had this inscription carved to commemorate his victory over Naqada and that the pass at Gebel Tjauti, leading from the desert down to the Nile Valley, provided Scorpion's forces a way to sneak around that city's defenders. John Darnell shows how this might have happened by moving coins representing various detachments around on a large map of the area--a low-tech visual aid that is humorously refreshing given the use of fancy computer graphics to reconstruct various monuments elsewhere in the film. He concludes that King Scorpion consolidated Upper Egypt into a single kingdom, setting the stage for Narmer's final triumph.
U.S. Army Major Scott Stockwell, an expert on scorpions, provides an interesting interlude: scorpions have been around 420 million years, they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, there are 1,500 species of which 20 have neurotoxins powerful enough to kill people, and they have names like southern mankiller and death stalker. Drooling is a side-effect of being stung by one. It's a bit of a digression, but it breaks up the blocks of hard-core archaeology.
Viewers also benefit from the insights of professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock, who notes that Scorpion was "a pretty bad dude in his own right." What's the Rock doing here? There's a tie-in between this documentary and the Universal picture The Scorpion King, which opens the week before the television program airs and stars Johnson. I found the occasional clip from the movie unnecessary and a little annoying, less so a cut-to-commercial scene with Johnson on the phone talking to his agent: "No, no, no. I'm the Rock. So either I keep the camel for free or I don't do the movie." Who knows, maybe this will get some younger viewers to sit through the documentary, which is a good, but pretty intensive, two-hour course.
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