This Entomologist is Fighting to Bring History and Science Together
We talked to Gene Kritsky about how he uses science AND history to make exciting discoveries about Ancient Egypt
InterviewLongread November 30, 2015 Caroline Wazer 1One of the most storied rivalries in modern culture, up there with the Hatfields vs. the McCoys, the Capulets vs. the Montagues, and Yankees fans vs. Red Sox fans, is that of the humanities vs. the sciences. Here at HistoryBuff, we’re equal-opportunity nerds, so we think it’s kind of a buzz-kill whenever we see historians turning up their noses at the work of scientists, and vice versa. On the other hand, we absolutely love it when we come across people who jump at opportunities to bring the humanities and the sciences together.
Recently, we spoke with one such bridge-builder, entomologist Gene Kritsky, about his new book The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt (published by Oxford University Press), as well as his experiences using science to answer historical questions, and history to answer scientific ones. We’re still a little skittish about bees, but we’re infinitely more optimistic about the future of collaboration between scientists and historians.
HistoryBuff: When did you first start working on historical questions?
Gene Kritsky: Well, I’ve often been called a frustrated historian. My first major project was on the 17-year cicadas. You’re in New York, so you have Brood 2, which you saw just a few years ago. These insects that are underground for seventeen years, then come out in massive numbers—well, I’ve done a lot of work on that, I’ve written two books on them. And we have a sort of spotty record of when they emerged. So after I finished my PhD, where I was teaching at the time, my academic dean was a Civil War historian. So I sat down with him and asked him, how do you do historical research? What’s a good record?
We got into primary documents and secondary documents and things like that, and I decided to apply those protocols to the study of 17-year cicadas, looking for these records. And in the process, I found 7000 historical records, many of which had not been documented in detail in terms of years and towns and counties. And I was fortunate, by wandering through old libraries, to find mimeograph sheets put up by the Bureau of Entomology in 1923 and 1936, not just when the cicadas emerged, but where they emerged, and all the previous records that the Bureau of Entomology had.
I was able to save a lot of that information and, using computer programs, to see how those patterns change and come up with hypotheses that we could later test on the origins of the cicada brood. So if I wasn’t doing the historical research for cicadas, I would not have been able to understand how the cicadas and their broods evolved.
HB: That’s a really cool project. I’m coming from an ancient history background, so I’m familiar with using ice cores and sometimes tree cores for this kind of environmental to compare with the historical one, but I’ve never heard of anyone using cicadas.
GK: Well, I’ve done a lot of work on the history of biology. I’ve worked with the Darwin family for many years, and about two sabbaticals ago, I worked with the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University, where I was transcribing all of Darwin’s little bits of paper, research notes that he was using to write On the Descent of Man. And that was all, essentially, working in primary sources. And as part of that process—Darwin’s handwriting was horrid, by the way—I realized, I’m sitting in this wonderful library, the Cambridge University library, and I started my research on the history of the beehive, which is a previous book I did with Oxford, and my questions were where the modern hive came from, and what were the influences on it all the way back to honey hunting in Spain back to the mesolithic.
HB: Why ancient Egypt in particular?
GK: First of all, I love ancient Egypt. I think there’s something fascinating for a lot of people. My interest in ancient Egypt started when I was a kid, 14 years of age, and I was going to a parochial school that was talking about Ussher’s chronology. They were talking about the earth being created in 4004 BC and the flood occurring in 2348 BC, and I remember thinking that this seemed a little recent. I thought, “I wonder what ancient Egypt could show me on this?” I started reading books on Egyptian history, and I realized that the pharaoh who was pharaoh the year before the flood was the pharaoh the year of the flood and the year after the flood, and that the pyramids were built 500 years before the flood. And I was kind of like, “Wow, am I the only one that gets this?” I was not very popular at school for a while.
HB: A lot of historians have that experience, yeah.
GK: But that really got me going in terms of turning me on to Egypt. There’s a serenity in Egyptian art that I’ve only otherwise seen in some Buddhist statues. And then when I was in grad school, the King Tut exhibit—that was ’76, when the King Tut exhibit toured the US, and then, you know, Steve Martin did the King Tut thing on Saturday Night Live.
I was at the University of Illinois, and I basically took a three month hiatus from my research just to immerse myself in Egyptology. The University of Illinois has the largest university library for a public university, housing about 12, 13 million volumes. I remember going up to the stacks and sitting on the floor in the Egyptology section, and just pulling volume after volume off the shelf, making notes, and spotting these things on insects—you know, I’m studying entomology, it seemed like a logical connection, and so that’s how Egypt took a real focus.
And then I was fortunate, just 5 years later, to receive a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Egypt. I was teaching soil ecology and entomology at Minya University, which is in Upper Egypt. And while I was there, I visited 94 archaeological sites and spent days at the German Archaeological Institute and the Cairo Museum and other research facilities, just taking notes, and gathering data—typical of a scientist, just observational stuff, getting primary sources.
After I left Egypt, I was able to turn some of my attention to work on this stuff, so I published some papers on flies and beetles of ancient Egypt. All along, I was really into bees, and that was always in the background. Then, an art history professor and I started taking student groups to Egypt. We’ve gone 4 times in the last 8 years. And that gave me the opportunity to visit some of the sites that weren’t open when I was living there.
HB: What was it like working with historians and archaeologists to put this book together? Did you have any culture shock coming from a science background?
GK: I’ve always been one to ask for help when I’ve needed it, so I’ve found no real obstacles in the process. People have been very cooperative, and in many cases, in conversations that you’d have over coffee or tea, while doing the research, I’ll learn a lot about the history and the archaeology and in the process, my background in entomology would make some of the beekeeping scenes or reliefs a little more understandable. So what we see going on right now, in the world of science, it’s very difficult for any one person to do everything. Though collaboration, we bring up the strengths of several disciplines, and I just love that. I think that’s fantastic.
This is one of the reasons why being at Mount St. Joseph has been very helpful. We’re a small liberal arts college—well, we just became a university three years ago. I’ve taught our introductory core course for all freshmen, for example, and when I taught that class I brought in things like history, architecture, literature, biology. For their thesis project, the students had to write their personal family history starting 2 million years ago. So there’s science, but also, what’s your family background? How do where you grew up and your religion and your ethnicity all contribute to what makes you unique as a person? And I love that interdisciplinarity.
HB: That’s nice to hear. Sometimes it feels like the sciences and the humanities are being pushed further and further apart, so it’s nice to hear about people trying to bring them back together.
GK: They’re not being pushed apart here, that’s for sure.
HB: The insect most identified with the ancient Egyptians in popular culture is the scarab beetle. Aside from the honey bee, are there any other insects that people might be surprised to learn were important to the Egyptians?
GK: Oh, certainly. In fact, I often call the Egyptians the first entomologists, although a lot of people give that honor to the ancient Greeks. But before the Greeks were involved—they did more of the pure scientific work—in addition to the scarabs and the honeybees, we find hieroglyphs of grasshoppers, we find amulets of grasshoppers, we also, in addition to the scarab beetle, there are metallic wood-boring beetles, in the same family in which we find the emerald ash-bore. There’s also the click beetles, which are found especially in the old kingdom, we find butterflies, we find praying mantis mentioned in a number of religious texts, there’s even a praying mantis that is been found wrapped in mummy linen and mummified.
HB: Oh really? Do you know what museum that’s in?
GK: I believe that’s in Brussels. I’ve not seen it, but I have a poor photograph of it. We also have flies. There are two kinds of flies that are seen, the large golden flies, which are supposed to be awards for valor, tenacity in battle, and these are large, 2 to 3 inches in length, for example, three of them that were on a necklace.
We also find a small flies on mummy necklaces. These are maybe a quarter of an inch in size, made from everything from faience to silver to gold. Those are quite common in the Egyptian mummy jewelry or amulet area. There appears to be some good evidence for darkling beetles or flour beetles. And they had some concerns about water beetles. There’s a spell in the book of the dead against water beetles and I found, when I was at the British Museum going through the amulet collection, there was one amulet that was very smooth and stylized, just like a water beetle, in the same shape as well.
I wrote a paper for Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, titled “Beetle Gods, King Bees & Other Insects of Ancient Egypt” a few years back—sort of a survey of all these different insects that you find in Egyptian literature and archaeology.
HB: Modern people tend to have ambivalent feelings about bees: we know they’re important for the ecosystem and we love honey, but most of us don’t really like being close to bees because we’re afraid of being stung. Did the Egyptians have a similar relationship with bees?
GK: The Egyptians are the first beekeepers that we have definitive evidence for. The oldest record of true beekeeping, which consists of providing the bees with an artificial cavity in which the bees can build honeycomb and raise their young and produce honey and what have you — that honor, right now, goes to the ancient Egyptians. They may not have been the first, but we have the oldest record of true beekeeping with the Egyptians. And we know from tomb paintings and temple carvings that they were not wearing any protective gear, so if they were afraid of being stung, it’s not being shown in their illustrations.
We know from the tomb of Rekhmire, an 18th dynasty vizier, there’s a scene where one of the beekeepers is actually holding an incense censer. And they’re giving the bees an offering of incense. Now of course we know today that we smoke the bees to quiet them down, and because they considered the bees the gift of the god Re, this offering seems like a logical thing to do from our read, that you’d honor your god with incense, but that smoke would also quiet the bees down. You can almost see the behavior change in the bees.
HB: Do you have any colleagues with backgrounds in biology or other sciences who are working on especially interesting projects about the past?
GK: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m also the editor of American Entomologist, the magazine for the Entomological Society of America, and we routinely publish papers by entomologists who are interested in art and art history. Sandra Schachat has a paper in the next issue about insects in Japanese art and how that influenced Art Nouveau. Carol Anelli has published on 19th-century entomologists who were advocates for the spread of Darwinism in North America and on the historical impact of Rachel Carson on entomology.
I’ve coauthored with Jessee Smith a book chapter on the diversity of insects that have influenced human cultural history. Next year, we’re holding the International Congress of Entomology in Orlando, with somewhere between 7000 and 8000 participants, and I’ve organized a symposium for the Congress exploring insects’ role in the global human experience, which includes insects in art, insects in literature, insects in music, insects as an inspiration for fireworks, and so on. We are looking at insects’ contribution to human culture. And I had no difficulty, when I put out the call for contributors, to fill the symposium with colleagues who have been working on those questions in different areas.
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