The picture above, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, clearly shows two workmen using power tools. There is some debate as to the power source they are using. Some people think that the cables attached to the tools are electrical, whereas others suggest they could be hydraulic or pneumatic hoses.
This graphic exposes one of the major problems faced by archaeologists. That of context. In some situations a picture paints a thousand words, and we can understand what is going on by looking at the picture. In others, because we do not understand the nuances of context and culture, we struggle to understand what is going on.
This opens the door for the lunatic fringe. The people who do not believe that ancients had the ability to design and construct the great monuments of Bronze Age civilizations. Those who read books such as “Chariots of the Gods” and believe the theories about aliens landing on earth, creating runways in the deserts of Peru and building Pyramids in Egypt, Sumer, Mexico and Cambodia all at the same time.
When we see a graphic such as that above, it is our natural instinct to try to make sense of it. We try to contextualise it in terms of what we see about us every day. You see workmen in the street using jack hammers to open the road, and you think “wow! That is exactly what this looks like.”
Maybe those things on their heads are an early form of hard hat. Perhaps the original painted stone would show they are wearing high-visibility safety vests. Now if we could just explain why that dog-faced guy is attacking them with the knife! Is he a mugger?
One of the most important qualities of a good archaeologist is the ability to deal with uncertainty. The ability to contain the natural human desire to complete puzzles. To resist the temptation to explain what is going on. To say “we don’t have enough evidence or understanding to build a theory”.
In this sense the work of an archaeologist is very similar to the work of a detective. A policeman may know with a certainty who is guilty of a crime. But he has to rein in his certainty and emotions. He has to ask “do I have enough evidence to prove this in a court of law, absent of doubt?” The archaeologist has to do this for another time, another culture, in the absence of witnesses, using only the barest scraps of evidence.
So, if they aren’t power tools. What are they? Why is one slightly different to the other, the one on the left has a supporting brace on the second disk, and the top disk is not joined directly to the body housing. Why are the snakes different? Is dog face holding a knife? Could it be a quill, or a reed?
Here I give you a poem to rival some of the greats.
I think this ‘very descriptive’ poem could contend with William McGonagall and would be a worthy winner of the annual Alfred Joyce Kilmer memorial contest in Columbia University.
Ancient Egypt: by Meriam Joseph
Ancient Egypt, ancient time,
Everyone wore robe and not a tie,
They invented a calendar much like the ones today,
They believed in animal gods until today.
The Nile flooded its banks every July,
The black mud there was really fertile,
They planted the seeds every November,
March is the month for every harvester.
There were many skilled artists and craft persons in Egypt,
They decorated the palaces and all the temples,
Weavers wove cloth for dresses and bedding,
Ship builders built sailboats and barges for travelling.
Egyptians pictured their Gods and Goddesses,
Everyone wore linen dresses,
Some were men and some were like animals,
Many were half humans and half-animals.
Well, ancient Egypt had lots of surprises.