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Monday, July 30, 2012

Art Archaeology

Egypt's Valley of the Kings--archaeology at its best...and worst.
In May, 1995, archaeologists working in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, some 300 miles South of Cairo, discovered a "new" burial complex containing well over 60 tombs. They are believed to hold the remains of Rameses II's 52 sons. All the tombs appear to have been untouched for thousands of years. That means they were missed by looters as well as the many archaeologists who have swarmed over the area in that time. It's hard to say why looters missed this treasure trove of royal wealth but it would appear that the reason archaeologists had missed it up until then was that the entrance to the complex had apparently been obscured by debris from an even greater archaeological find some seventy years before. In 1922, a British archaeologist, Howard Carter, almost literally stumbled upon the magnificent cache of gold, and of Egyptian artifacts that were the tomb of Egypt's boy-king, Tutankhamen. In their rush to unearth their find, they essentially buried yet another.

The Rosetta Stone, discovered and interpreted
by the French in the early 19th century.
Of course this bungled bit of archaeology was hardly the first. We have Napoleon to thank (or blame) for unleashing the first so-called "Egyptologists" on the land of the Nile. When he landed with his armies in hopes of conquering the desert kingdom in 1798, he brought with him some 200 French antiquities experts (calling them archaeologists would be too kind) and charged then with exploring, mapping, excavating, and studying ancient sites. We could also add the word "looting" to their list of tasks, judging from the Louvre's massive store of Egyptian relics. Although the inclusion of such scholars was unusual for its time, and their subsequent discovery of the Rosetta Stone was the key in unlocking the secret of hieroglyphics, it's questionable whether Napoleon's failed military expedition may not have done more harm than good archaeologically speaking. After all, it was they, legend has it, who got into an artillery duel with the Giant Sphinx guarding the Great Pyramids. The Sphinx lost (by a nose).*

Kitora tomb murals, Amura, Japan
--archaelogy Japanese style.
Over a decade ago, on the other side of the world, in Japan's Nara Prefecture, near the small town of Amura, Japanese archaeologists came upon an ancient tomb dating from the Asuka era 552-645 CE. Unlike the Egyptian tombs, this one had been discovered by grave robbers sometime in the past. They'd left a small hole. But unlike the blundering archaeologists of Egypt, this team made no attempt to excavate the tomb. Instead, the Japanese simply inserted through the hole a long pole on the end of which was mounted a digital camera. Using a remote control device, they shot some 97 images inside. What they saw were four wall murals, each about 60 centimetres wide and some 20 centimetres high. Three of the figures in the murals were familiar to them. They consisted of mythical creatures guarding the compass points. On the west wall, the Byakko (white tiger); on the east wall, the Seiru (blue dragon); and on the north wall, the Genbu (a Chinese mythological creature that is half snake, half turtle). The fourth image, known to exist but never seen before, was the Suzaku (red sparrow) which represents the South in ancient burial paintings. Taken together, the four images within the same tomb provided proof of the direct influence on both Chinese and Korean cultures during the Asuka period. The round, mound tomb itself, some 14 meters in diameter, is believed to be that of the son of an emperor. The Japanese marked and sealed the tomb as a means of preserving the murals and had no plans to make further incursions. Of course times change and methods improve, the murals have recently been rephotographed, but maybe Egypt might do well to import some Japanese archaeologists next time they go poking around among their dead. The Japanese are so much neater at it.
The Suzaku, (red sparrow), mural recently rephotographed.

*Other sources blame the Turkish Marlmalukes (1380) for the Sphynx's nose job.

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