Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gods, Graves, and Scholars

Archaeology is a popular topic these days judging by the number of televised series dedicated to it. There is Time Team, presented by Tony Robinson (of Baldrick in Black Adder fame), where a team of archaeologists dig up bits of the United Kingdom to verify historical facts about the location. And there other shows that tackle historical sites such Little Big Horn and the battlefields of World War I.

However, that is not the reason I am currently reading Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C W Ceram. In fact, I recently rediscovered it gathering dust on a bookshelf and recalled that when I had first read it back in 1974 I had enjoyed it immensely.

Subtitled, the Story of Archaeology, Gods, Graves, and Scholars is just that and more. It reads like a boys own adventure story or an episode from Indiana Jones, and is quite fascinating. It covers all the famous discoveries from the 18th Century to 20th Century – starting with the influential Winckelmann who developed a system for identifying and interpreting ancient art, around the time of Pompeii’s excavation, it moves onto the fantastic story of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy by taking Homer literally, then onto the unearthing of Cretan culture by Arthur Evans. The archaeology of Egypt naturally consumes several chapters starting with the extraordinary Vivant Denon in the train of Napoleon’s army, Champollion who unlocked the Rosetta Stone. After following the exploits of Belzoni, Lepsius, Mariette, Petrie, the Egyptian section culminates in Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen,

The history of archaeology appears to feature larger than life characters, men of unusual genius who have inspiring insights as well as extraordinarily lucky hunches. Ceram‘s approach to the subject is infectiously enthusiastic and he provides plenty of background detail on the major sites and their discovery. In chapter 14, I was thrilled to come upon the origin of Cairo Martyr’s source of mummies in the Edward Whittemore novel, Jerusalem Poker, and maybe even the inspiration for Cairo Martyr himself.

Though Gods, Graves, and Scholars could be regarded as a popular history of archaeology, the amount of scholarly attention to detail, and the graceful old fashioned style in which it is written, raises it above the common run of such books. It was first published in 1953 and revised in 1972. C W Ceram was the pseudonym of Kurt W Marek, a journalist and drama critic. He went on to write more books on archaeology including The Secret of the Hittites.

As I write this review. I am about two thirds through the book, presently delighting in ancient Babylon. In a couple of chapters I will have reached Book 4, The Book of Temples, - The Empires of the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Toltecs.

If you have an interest in archaeology, or even if you don’t, I heartily recommend this engrossing and exciting piece of non-fiction.

No comments: