14 August 2009

An Insult to Archaeologists and Stamp Collectors Everywhere

Apparently the Egyptomania that took the news media by storm following the discovery of king Tut's tomb in 1922 didn't quite reach into every journalist's cubicle. In 1935, a rather dour individual wrote a review for the New York Times of James Henry Breasted's "The Human Adventure" - a short documentary about the excavation and research activities of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. Though it is ultimately a favorable review, it is only dubiously so. The review opens with the following statement: "Barring stamp collecting, archaeology would seem to be about the least likely subject matter for a motion picture. It is all the more suprising, then, to discover that even this science can be made into an entertaining film" (italics added). He digs himself even further into his hole when he describes the activities of Orientalists as "mole-like". Though this reviewer was obviously not gifted with a prescience for future motion picture trends in the vein of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, he was also puzzlingly oblivious to both past and contemporary popular culture of his own time. Tut's tomb had precipitated a media firestorm just a decade earlier, and the original The Mummy - with Boris Karloff in the title role - had been released in 1932, just two years before this review (not to mention the four Mummy sequels that would appear between 1940-44).

Despite his apparently negative attitude toward archaeology (perhaps it was still a thorn in the side of American newspapermen that the exclusive media rights to Tut's tomb went to the London Times?), the reviewer is forced to admit that "it would be a person with little imagination who could sit unmoved as loose-robed workmen's picks force back the earthy leaves of history and turn up the precious relics of long-dead civilizations - weapons made by men of the Stone Age, grains of Egyptian wheat that were sold in Joseph's time, the stables of King Solomon, the harem of Darius, the great obelisk of Persepolis, its lofty towers, the tablet of King Sargon on which was imprinted the impertinent footprints of a lowly mongrel."

Whoah. Another one succumbs to the Biblico-Orientalist fetishizing in which one can fantasize about swarthy cave men, remember the ingenuity of Joseph, praise the Persians and denegrate the Neo-Assyrians - all in one breath! And all of this is brought to you courtesy of native manual laborers in that oh-so-curious garb!

But perhaps I'm being a little harsh. It is those same basic elements of field archaeology that fascinated the reviewer which continue to fascinate people today and drive blockbusters like the 1999 remake of The Mummy. And if that movie is any indication, the tendency to portray Arabs as unscrupulous and slow-witted is still very much with us. (I did consider that the remade Mummy was entirely tongue-in-cheek, and then decided that that was attributing too much cleverness to Stephen Sommers.)

I'm left with just one final comment: why the unnecessary insult to stamp collectors? I'm not a collector myself, but anyone who still thinks it bereft of glamor and sexiness should see the 2006 movie Black Book. One look at Carice van Houten's smoldering offer of stamps (yes, stamps!) to Sebastian Koch, and you'll never look at stamp collecting the same way again.

p.s. Here's the link to the NYTimes 1935 review, but you'll have to sign in to see it.

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