Home > Popular Archaeology > Zahi Hawass in the New Yorker

Zahi Hawass in the New Yorker

Two weeks ago there was a longish article on Zahi Hawass, the outspoken secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, in the New Yorker (I. Parker, “The Pharaoh” New Yorker (November 16, 2009), 52-63).  I had expected it to create more of a buzz in the blogosphere (and maybe I missed it over the holidays and all), if for no other reason that Hawass seems to be a polarizing figure. I neither work in Egypt professionally nor have a professional interest in Egyptology, but I still found this report on Hawass to be interesting because of how it understood archaeology as a discipline. 

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the article is how little it talks about Hawass as a practicing archaeologist.  While I hardly think that the New Yorker is the place for an in-depth critique of his archaeological procedures and methods almost nothing in article discussed archaeological methodology at all.  This struck me as quite odd since within the discipline of archaeology the most regular critique of any scholar typically centers around his or her competence in the field and in almost all cases this involves a comment on their methods and practices.  In fact, there are plenty of overbearing, pretentious, outspoken, popularizing, self-promoting, funny hat wearing archaeologists who are quite good in the field or, on a larger scale, run sophisticated archaeological projects.

The critique of Hawass focused mainly on his personal management style and his propensity to promote his own projects.  The former is relatively uninteresting to me (and I felt some of the critique tapped delicately into longstanding colonialist (or even Orientalist) attitudes about the role and attitude of civil servants in countries which contain archaeological material of “global” (read: Western) significance).  The latter, of course, could be more problematic, except that in a place like Egypt (and across the Mediterranean more generally) there are almost an infinite number of potential project (almost!) and a distinctly finite amount of resources (both intellectual and economic).  In such an environment, it is difficult to prioritize any one project about another in an absolute and definitive way.  As a clever friend of mine is prone to remind me: there is always more archaeology.  While it is frustrating to scholars with professional aspirations that one project is privileged over another, it is so common in archaeology that this is hardly worth comment, particular in a country where there will always be field work that needs to be done, always architecture, objects, and landscapes at risk, and always eager foreign and domestic archaeologists wanting to participate.

A few of the seemingly oblique references to how archaeology has been carried out in Egypt did not exclude the possibility that these projects were methodologically sound and capable of producing valid historical and archaeological knowledge.  Hawass’s dig at Taporis Magna, for example, was done in collaboration with an amateur archaeology enthusiast and often featured enormous numbers of excavators.  Nothing in this seems inherently problematic to me, which is not to say that something funny or irregular isn’t going on.  The moving of villages upsets my sensibilities somewhat, but these kinds of practices continue wherever archaeology is practiced (and I know for a fact many archaeologists would move parts of villages in search for important finds if it was practical).  In fact, later levels have to be removed to get to earlier periods! And excavation “excavating down to the bedrock” in search of new tombs does not necessarily equate to archaeology being a treasure hunt (as Parker quotes one critic of Harwass as saying on page 63)

What I am trying to say here actually has nothing to do with Hawass.  I was just struck by how foreign this article was to how archaeologists critique one another.  It seems to reflect that archaeological method remains subordinate to the objects discovered.  The production of archaeological knowledge is rooted in a well-considered method, consistent field procedures, and careful documentation of every step of the process.  The author does not even reference any of this tedious, but essential archaeological nitty-gritty throughout the article.  The article seems intent on portraying Hawass as a larger-than-life individual seeking larger-than-life archaeological achievements, and the principle critique seems to be that his achievements do not correspond with his personality.  One almost feels that if Hawass made some great discovery all will be forgiven and his personality validated.  Among archaeologists, the care with which Hawass achieved even the most modest discovery will likely weigh just as heavily as the magnitude of any discovery in the popular imagination.

Categories: Popular Archaeology
  1. December 1, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    One point that is barely mentioned in the New Yorker article is that Z. H. has now achieved total authority over the entire antiquities service. For those of us who love Mediaeval Cairo, this is, at very least, disturbing. It suggests that we can expect the neglect and destruction of Tulunid, Ikhshidid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and even Ottoman Cairo to go on inexorably. In 1965, it was pointed out to me that for any given year of the 1960s, the budget for Pharaonic archaeology and preservation was larger than the entire sum of all annual budgets for mediaeval archaeology and preservation since that service began. The results are obvious to anyone who visits Cairo with the Cresswell map of the city in hand. (Even if this is out of date, it is the only well constructed guide to Cairo.)
    As an example, Cresswell made a start on the recovery of the great bath of Muayyad Sheikh, near Bab Zuweyla in the 20s or 30s, but try and find it now.
    Visitors to Cairo rarely discover any part of the non-Pharaonic heritage of the city except the dully conventional mosque of Mehmed Ali in the citadel. They need help and guidance for the rest. Does anyone think they will get such help from a service dominated by the crowd-pleasing juggernaut of Pharonic archaeology that Z. H. seems to favor.

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