Egyptology's New Frontier - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Egyptology's New Frontier May 23, 2005
by Mark Rose

A documentary looks at the subject's roots and an ambitious project to document the Nile's ancient civilization.

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Two shows are somewhat awkwardly stuck together in The Search for Eternal Egypt, which premieres on the History Channel, Sunday, June 12, 7 pm ET/PT. One half of the show is an overview of the development of Egyptology featuring prominent scholars, mostly filmed on-site. The other half of the show focuses on an ambitious partnership between Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities and IBM that aims at making ancient Egyptian culture available to all. The documentary bounces back and forth between these two themes, but the feel of the two parts is very different, and the transitions from talking heads in the field to computer specialists and digitized images are abrupt despite the efforts of narrator Omar Sharif.

Statues of Rameses the Great at Abu Simbel (Graham Judd) [LARGER IMAGE]

The history of Egyptology given is necessarily abbreviated, but the high points are here, presented by means of focusing on specific individuals. For the rise of Egyptology, emphasis is placed on Dominique Vivant Denon, one of the savants who accompanied Napoleon's 1798 expedition to the Nile, and Thomas Young and Jean-Fran¸ois Champollion, with their work deciphering hieroglyphs. This is followed by the work of John Gardiner Wilkinson, recording thousands of texts, and Giovanni Belzoni, exploring the tomb of Seti I and, through his collecting efforts, bringing ancient Egypt front and center in European popular culture. The mid-nineteenth century is represented by Auguste Marriette, head of the anitquities service, and Amelia Edwards, author of A Thousand Miles up the Nile and founder of the Egyptian Exploration Society. Flinders Petrie rightly stands at the transformation of the field to a more disciplined level with his excavations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discovery of Tutankhamun and excavations at Tanis round out the overview.

These historical nuggets are presented by modern scholars: Kent Weeks, Mark Lehner, Salima Ikram, W. Raymond Johnson, and Zahi Hawass. For the most part, the commentaries are balanced. But it must be remembered that looting or removal of monuments in the nineteenth century wasn't just the work of outsiders--it involved local political authorities and people. With the royal mummy cache at Deir el-Bahri, for example, we are simply told that it was a find made by locals in Luxor, not that the locals were plundering it for a number of years before the authorities caught them. Belzoni comes in for a little criticism and the presence of Seti I's magnificent stone sarcophagus in a London museum is seen as a lamentable outcome of this era.

The modern era of Egyptology is summarized as a series of discoveries, some made by the individuals who appear in this show: Khufu's boat at Giza, the "lost city of the pyramids" (Lehner), tombs of the Giza workers (Hawass), Minoan frescoes at Tell el-Dab'a, Alexandria, and KV5 (Weeks). This list omits important finds at Abydos and Saqqara, among other sites. One undertaking included on the list is the Nubian salvage project, the rescue of some 43 monuments from the rising waters of Lake Nasser after construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The UNESCO-guided project is presented as a triumph, as it usually is. In fact, the losses to archaeology and world heritage were great (far more of a tragedy than the current location of Seti I's sarcophagus).

The last archaeological discussion in the show addresses today's threats, citing pollution and mass tourism (construction ought to be in there, too). Recording and conservation of sites are the watchwords from now on, rather than excavation.

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The SCA-IBM Eternal Egypt Project is treated with interpolated sections throughout the show, but these suffer from an "infommercial" feel and computer graphics and website images that appeared soft when seen on television. This is a worthwhile project, and IBM and Egyptian government officials do a good job talking about it here. But it is probably better to see it at www.eternalegypt.org.

The Search for Eternal Egypt looks a bit patched together and you couldn't call it a brilliant effort, but it's not bad. If you like ancient Egypt, you could find worse ways to spend an hour.

Mark Rose is executive editor/online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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