Sunday, July 24, 2011

Writing History

Available at Amazon
Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History 
Patrick Hunt, Ph.D.

I was wandering the stacks in my local library, looking for something different from my usual reading material, when I came across this slim little volume. Hmmm, I thought, looks kinda interesting. And so I took it home. 

I was pretty familiar with most of the discoveries, like King Tut's tomb and the Rosetta stone. Others, like Ninevah's Assyrian Library, I had never heard of. I'm familiar with The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi's Code, but never realized the source of their discovery. 

One thing that struck me was how often the priceless treasures Hunt described are located not in their home countries, but in places like the British Museum. When he talks about the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, he makes sure to tell you it may not have air conditioning or air circulation when you visit. He says that Tut's treasures are amazing, but that the museum has them "poorly lit and crammed into cases" and "if the materials...were displayed according to the less-crowded standards of European or American museums, they would full nearly an entire museum of a large city." I got the distinct impression that Hunt thinks these treasures would be better off in such an American or European museum. Considering how much work people like Dr. Zahi Hawass have put into controlling their countries' artifacts, and thus, their cultural heritage, this is insulting, to say the least.

Hunt's privilege shows in other ways, too. For example, at the end of the chapter on the Olduvai Gorge, he quips that 

"...Lucy, who, if she was anything like one of her possible descendants millions of years later, would not be so glib about revealing her age or date of birth."

Was that really necessary? Ugh.

On an unrelated note, I wondered who the audience for this book would be. The chapters are short, and broken down into descriptive subheadings, and end with tidy "conclusion" sections. Hunt writes in a way that feels like you are following along an adventure, seeing what it may be like to find a major discovery. The chapters are more an introduction to their subjects, than comprehensive coverage. They may pique the interest of a reader and lead them to seek more information elsewhere. These features make it seem like high school students would be drawn to the book. However, some of the vocabulary is quite advanced. I'm not saying that students couldn't get a lot from this book, but they may need some encouragement, and a handy dictionary (ha! but seriously, works great). Of course, the more we read and are exposed to new words, the easier they are to understand.

Overall, the book was what I needed at the time. It was something that didn't take a whole lot of concentration, let me learn some things, and kept me mildly entertained. I could read it in small chunks, and didn't weigh down my bag, so it made a good commute read. 


Eva said...

Interesting! Although I think his privilege would drive me crazy. ;) Have you read Loot? Fascinating look at the way Western Europe, esp. Britain, has appropriated various other culture's heritage.

Also, I read a book by three anthropologists earlier this year and learned that no one actually knows for sure Lucy is female! It's just assumed because of the stature, but there's no way to confirm if Lucy's was male or female. Crazy, right?

MJ said...

Yeah, the privilege was quite irritating.

I will have to check out Loot - that sounds interesting. I had never heard that about Lucy, but it makes sense! I mean, who is she being compared to, and how would we know their sex? Labeling Lucy as female would certainly reinforce the "mother" stereotype.

Eva said...

Exactly! Actually, you might enjoy the book that mentions Lucy too: it's called The Invisible Sex & is about the role of females/women in prehistory (usually, I hate referring to women as females, but when we're talking about not quite homo sapiens, it doesn't seem quite so bad, lol). And Loot is by Sharon Waxman, which should make searching for it easier. ;)