Interview with Andrew Lawler, Author of "A Mystery Fit for a Pharaoh" | History | Smithsonian

Interview with Andrew Lawler, Author of "A Mystery Fit for a Pharaoh"

Andrew Lawler discusses imperialism and the natural romance of studying ancient cultures.

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You described Otto Schaden as a 19th century British gentleman explorer. You've written extensively about archaeology, and no doubt met many different types of archaeologists. Do you find yourself more attracted to this romantic aspect of archaeology, or do you tend to think about archaeology like a 21st century scientist?

There are different kinds of romance in archaeology—there's not an archaeologist alive who is in the business purely because they like to collect scientific data. There is a passion and a romance that goes along with understanding and studying ancient cultures. This goes back to most people's childhoods. Otto is a fantasist, and in a way his romance is with the 19th century as much as it is with ancient Egypt. He is caught up in that age of Victorian times when you wore pith helmets and you would go in and dig up exciting things, which is not something I've found with most other archaeologists these days. Most of them tend to be passionate about ancient cultures, but often they're very critical of their predecessors, whose methods are considered quite crude. So I think it's a question of what romance you're living in.

Among the 21st century types, as opposed to Shaden, is there a concern that the 19th century archaeological pioneers gave the profession a bad image, since they were actually colonials?

Yes, absolutely, I think most archaeologists feel that, because they recognize the impact that imperialism had. There's an ambivalence about it, because on the one hand there were many great scholars and archaeologists who kicked the field off in the 19th century, but on the other hand this was a time when these countries were being controlled by foreign invaders—the same countries from which archaeologists are coming today. So archaeologists feel that it's very important to respect the people who live in the country, and educate archaeologists who are actually from the country.

Sometimes archaeological digs are very controversial—people will protest that it's disrespectful to disturb the dead. Does one find any of that response in Egypt, or do the Egyptians realize that this is good for their economy and their public image?

Tourism is the number one industry in Egypt, so a lot of people live off archaeology and the ancient monuments. There's also an understanding that what the archaeologists are doing is not disturbing the dead so much as showing the glory that was Egypt's past. There's a pride that Egyptians feel about that, because their country is so ancient. On the other hand, there's a sense of separation there, because Egypt is now an Islamic country, and the ancient monuments were built before Mohammed. You would find a different attitude if people were digging up Islamic graves.

What about outside Egypt?

Often there is controversy—for example, at Native American sites. If you have a living people who feel a connection to the people buried on their land, then that creates trouble. That's an issue that archaeologists have to be able to discuss with the people that live on that land. In Egypt and most of the Middle East it's not an issue, so long as you're not dealing with Islamic cemeteries. Plus there's a long history of archaeology in the Middle East. Archaeologists have been there and worked in the villages and provided jobs, and they work closely with the communities. They're not in the big cities staying in hotels like most westerners. So often archaeologists are very sensitive to cultural issues.

What drew you to archaeology? You mentioned that for many people interest in archaeology goes back to childhood.

Well, I have to admit I did see the King Tut exhibit as a kid, but I have a bit of a bad attitude toward Egypt. And I can't quite explain it except to say I was always drawn more to Mesopotamia, which always got the glory and was more obscure.

Were you drawn toward the underdog?

Well maybe a little of that. It's nice to travel on a path that's not so trodden upon, and Egypt is so flashy and so obvious. It's all about gold and mummies, things that are neat and cool but which feel overdone in our culture. There was actually a part of me that was sort of resistant to doing an article about this tomb. But then as I got into it and began to meet the characters, and that made the story come alive, and I dropped my attitude a little. And this isn't a story about gold or mummies, because there were no gold or mummies. The international press actually left when they found that out—they just vanished because it's not a flashy Egyptian tomb find. So for me it became a path that was a little less trodden.

How did you first become interested in Mesopotamia?

I was always fascinated with the ancient Sumerians, because in so many ways they were the first people like us—they lived in cities, they knew how to write, they had a pretty sophisticated culture and economy, and it's always fascinated me: why there? Who were these people? How did they come up with these tremendous and important concepts and put them into practice? And they were somewhat obscure compared to the flash of Egypt.

What was the most interesting dig you've been too?

In Southern Iraq, we were at a site called Umma, and the excavators had uncovered a very large wall that was very early, definitely Sumerian. It was the beginning of what was clearly going to be a fascinating find—and then, the war started. Now the site is largely destroyed, the site is gone. At the time I didn't realize that what I was seeing would vanish within a couple of years, which is one of the tragedies of Iraq, that the remains of what may be the most ancient civilization are being devastated.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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