The Secrets of Ancient Egypt, as Told by Today's Egyptians
After centuries in which archaeological research in Egypt was dominated by foreigners, local scientists are taking control
This has been a year of exciting finds, one after another, in Egypt. Almost every month brought news of the discovery of a pharaonic grave site, generally accompanied by splashy headlines in the local and international press declaring the most important find of recent decades, or a necropolis in an excellent state of preservation, the likes of which have never before been seen.
Only recently, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities held a public unveiling of 59 spectacular sarcophagi at a splendid event in the presence of foreign ambassadors and representatives of the media, which included, for the first time in 2,000 years, the opening of one of the coffins publicly. In October, Netflix began screening "Secrets of the Saqarra Tomb," a documentary about one such tomb that was completely unearthed in 2018.
The media assault in recent months is ostensibly telling us about the feverish spate of excavations in Egypt, and more generally about the importance of the research that has been conducted in the Nile Valley for more than 200 years. But a critical look shows that this is not the whole picture. Below the surface, Egypt is sending a strong, clear message to the nations of the world to the effect that it is assuming ownership of its cultural treasures and taking control of the research narrative. The country is thus signaling the empires that poked around in its archaeological sites that a long period of cultural appropriation has come to an end.
During the two centuries following Napoleon's research expedition in the Nile Valley in 1798, whose aim was to document and collect the remains of the pharaonic civilization, almost all of Egypt's great discoveries were taken away from it. The Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, was brought to London in 1802 and has been on exhibit in the British Museum ever since; the magnificent sarcophagus of Seti I was exhibited in London even before the hieroglyphics were deciphered; and visitors to the Neues Museum in Berlin can see the painted bust of Queen Nefertiti, among the most outstanding artworks of the ancient world, which was found by a German expedition in 1912.
Even the most important discovery in the history of Egyptology, the unearthing of the tomb of Tutankhamun, is credited to a British expedition headed by Howard Carter and underwritten by the Earl of Carnarvon, with both men achieving everlasting glory for the deed.
In practice, until 1952, the Egyptian Antiquities Service, whose task was to protect the heritage of ancient Egypt at the time, was managed by officials of the French government. They issued the excavation permits to foreign expeditionary teams and decided which findings they could take back to their respective lands. That role was subsequently taken over by the service's successor, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but foreign expeditions continued to run most of the digs in Egypt, while research institutes in Europe and the United States effectively controlled the discipline of Egyptology.
So it's not by chance that the new film about the Saqqara treasures opens with the statement: "In November 2018, a small team of Egyptian archaeologists hunting for tombs in an ancient graveyard unearthed the discovery of a lifetime."
Seemingly, the word "archaeologists" would have been enough. It's clear to the viewer that he is in Egypt, and there should be no need to note that the archaeologists are Egyptian. There would have been a point in mentioning it if they were foreign archaeologists, in order to inform the viewer that the scene before him contains multiple identities. This unnecessary addition presages what's to come.
Ten minutes into the two-hour-long documentary, field archaeologist Hamada Mansour notes that at the excavation site "the whole team is Egyptian." He describes the harsh conditions they are working under: digging by manual means amid clouds of dust and in unbearable heat. However, Hamada insists, "we are the people who can best give a voice to our ancestors, because they are our ancestors. We are closer to them than the foreigner."
A reference to the people of the pagan pharaonic culture as "our ancestors" is not self-evident in modern Egypt. In the second half of the 20th century, following the Free Officers revolt in 1952, Egypt preferred to promote – at least domestically – its pan-Arab and Islamist identity over its pharaonic heritage. The reason: The latter was perceived as an identity constructed by the West in the course of some two centuries of European research in the Nile Valley, rather than by the Egyptians themselves.
The glorification of the pharaonic culture served Egypt primarily for tourism purposes – the source of the main flow of the country's economy along with the Suez Canal – and as a means for making diplomatic gifts, such as the ibis statuette on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which Egyptian President Anwar Sadat presented to the archaeologist Yigael Yadin in the context of the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979.
It's only in recent decades that the Egyptians have begun independently to delve into the question of their pharaonic heritage, in a way that is not bound up with the Western point of view, in a process that American historian Donald Reid called the "decolonization of Egyptology." This trend hasn't yet run its course, as even today a fledgling local Egyptologist is required to study and do an internship at a Western rather than an Egyptian research institute, and will thus adopt a dual approach that still resonates with the Romantic notions about ancient Egypt.
At the same time, this new generation of Egyptians is already sounding its voice in the Netflix movie by means of local experts who are the driving force of the story: the Egyptologists, the scientists, the linguists, the archaeologists, the foremen and the laborers. All of them are Egyptian, with the exception of the archaeo-zoologist Salima Ikram, who is of Pakistani origin. Some of them also speak Arabic in the interviews, in a kind of act of defiance against the colonial languages that rule the roost in studies of ancient Egypt: English, French and German.
In contrast, the ancient Egyptians are silent, their voice heard only through the excavations and research at Saqqara, a multi-period burial site close to the Step Pyramid, the world's oldest stone pyramid, south of Cairo. Among the many tombs uncovered before our eyes, the narrative focuses on one from the Fifth Dynasty (approximately 2400 B.C.E.), whose splendid entrance hall is the arena of the unfolding archaeological tale. The impressive sculptures and reliefs in this hall present the image of the tomb's owner, Wahtye, as a typical noble of the ancient kingdom: a stylized wig on his head, a pleated skirt around his waist and the scepter of power in his hand.
The blocked shafts in the floor of the entrance hall are the likely sites of the remains of those buried within, and the film's dramatic power lies in the way it follows the complex excavations in these deep and dangerous shafts, and accompanies the moments of discovery of the rare remains. Experts on ancient script and organic materials explain the findings for the viewer and uncover, cautiously, layer after layer, the life stories of the entombed.
The archaeologists among us will squirm uncomfortably in our chair as we watch this documentary. Excavation of an archaeological site is fundamentally a destructive process, as the uncovering of a find unavoidably detaches it from the sediment in which it is embedded, which constitutes part of the history of the object itself. Accordingly, modern excavation has adopted certain principles that have the goal of controlling the context from which the find is removed by means of marking, demarcation, documentation and systematic unearthing, from the surface into the depths, of the site being excavated. Finds are never pulled out of their place in the earth in a manner that disconnects them from their original context; they are uncovered slowly, with every bit of the artifact being preserved.
Scenes in the film showing many workers crowding around the discovery of one statuette or another that has been pulled out of its place with no documentation of its original condition – and with organic wrapping materials left on the ground – may reflect the enthusiasm of the excavators, but they are a little unorthodox. It's possible, of course, to find an excuse in the extreme conditions of the Saqqara dig, with the blazing heat, a meager budget and a tight schedule. To do so, however, would be to commit the sin of colonial condescension in defiance of what the Egyptians themselves are asking of us in this movie: to treat them as researchers with equal rights and status in the science of Egyptology, and as such, amenable to some professional observations.
This is not the first time an important dig was conducted by an Egyptian team with no foreign involvement. But for the first time the event was documented in rich cinematic language that gains the immediate and extensive viewing accorded by Netflix's well-oiled distribution machine. The ongoing public interest in the history of ancient Egypt, juxtaposed to the current national ambitions of the Land of the Nile, promise us many more cinematic glimpses of the mysteries of the pharaohs.
Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian is an Egyptologist and curator of Egyptian archaeology at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.