03 May 2009

Cleopatra's nose, stylish hats, and a royal tomb?

Last week there was lots of media buzz about what might or might not be the discovery of Antony and Cleopatra’s tomb. Radar detected three chambers 65 feet underground near the temple of Taposiris Magna. Combined with the presence of some other royal burials nearby, the find of some of coins with Cleopatra’s name, and an alabaster mask fragment that may look vaguely like Antony, there is enough circumstantial evidence to make some flashy news articles. (Like this one and this one.)

The emphasis is definitely on the theatrical value in these articles: I found myself alternately amused and annoyed that issues such as Zahi Hawass’ stylish hat, or whether Cleopatra was really that hot (maybe she had a pointy nose and big chin! The horror!), occupied so much column space. So I turned to an actual Egyptologist, who prefers to remain anonymous, for commentary:
There are several reasons this particular episode inflames me, and I'll try to organize my thoughts coherently.

Regardless of whether they are correct about possibly finding the burial site of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the entire endeavor appears to be sensationalism of the worst kind. The CNN article that I read about the Cleopatra issue says that Kathleen Martinez is a "young archaeologist" and lawyer. It seems to imply that she has no formal academic qualifications in archaeology, ancient history, or Egyptology, but I cannot be certain of this without insider information (her wikipedia entry seems to only reinforce her lack of qualifications). As far as I know, she has no institutional affiliation. It seems that this young lawyer, who is concerned with "restoring the reputation of Cleopatra", has glossed over every need to be academically or professionally legitimate.

Even if this expedition were being directed by the most distinguished Egyptologist out there... Well, it wouldn't be, because no legitimate scholar would claim that "restoring Cleopatra's reputation" or "finding a lost tomb" is a valid research goal. This whole debate about whether Cleopatra was beautiful is along the same lines: Cleopatra must have been beautiful! Consider who she seduced! My response? Who the hell cares? Since when is the physical beauty of Cleopatra a legitimate research paradigm? This sort of "scholarship" is so patently absurd that no one within the discipline takes it seriously. My complaint is that regardless of the fact that we Egyptologists know it's foolish, the public doesn't. The public thinks this is real archaeology. They are continually fed these ridiculous notions of what research is. And Kathleen Martinez is no better: "Cleopatra was a philosopher, a poet, a goddess, a warrior." Such obsequious preening to a historical figure belongs at least a hundred years in the past.

I recently read a CNN article entitled "how to make it as an archaeologist", where the author says that if you want to make a name for yourself, you have to single-mindedly pursue only spectacular finds. At the time, I thought they were wrong: while it's true that when papers discuss some new statue, tomb, or monument they draw big crowds in conference venues (and maybe mentioned on CNN), it's not considered to be serious archaeology if the pursuit of a "lost tomb" characterizes the extent of your research goal.

Unfortunately, I am being proved wrong. The sort of media coverage this Cleopatra thing is generating completely misrepresents what real archaeologists do - as you well know, someone whose professional goal is to find the Ark of the Covenant, or the lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra, wouldn't even get into grad school. It's a pathetic sham of what scholarship is, or should be.

And I fear that I have gotten carried away by my frustration, so I will end my venting here...


  1. Kudos to the anonymous Egyptologist. My thoughts exactly.

  2. The author hit the nail on the head; sensationalism is unfortunately the sexiest currency among certain scholars...(and I leave open the question regarding Hawass' designation as a scholar...)

    Good essay!