Sunday, August 29, 2010

Geographica: The Curse of King Tut!

When he was asked what he thought of P.T. Barnum's “Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” Henry Adams once said “I have no objection to him – provided he remembers he's not Agassiz, and provided his audience remembers it.”

He was referring to that internationally esteemed Harvard luminary Louis Agassiz, perhaps the pre-eminent zoologist and natural historian of the day, and his point was simple: the only danger involved in popular entertainments like Barnum's (with its “life-like” tableaux of cannibals, and its “Fiji mermaid” and the like) was the possibility that large segments of the public would mistake them for the scientific facts and conclusions of which Agassiz was a master. Adams would have been appalled by the young people who earnestly debate the motivations of characters on so-called 'reality' TV as if those characters were living anything remotely approaching authentic lives. And Adams would have been appalled by the latest National Geographic.

The issue has its usual blend of stunning visuals and far-ranging reporting, but the centerpiece article is about the “family secrets” revealed by a recent DNA study of the mummified remains of King Tutankhamun and several other Amarna-period individuals. The article purports to be written by Zahi Hawass, the so-called secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and that should serve as the first sign of trouble, since Hawass hasn't written a memo unghosted in about thirty years, let alone a full-length National Geographic article. So this won't be one of those display-articles the magazine sometimes shows us, where every line is meticulously red-penciled for accuracy and clarity. This will, we can legitimately fear, read more like a press release.

And it does, dolorously so. Hawass (we'll refer to him as the piece's author until the guilty party chooses to step forward) has previous experience in press releases: five years ago, he amassed funding sufficient to perform a modern CT scan on Tutankhamun's remains, with results he has since characterized in only one way, which he recaps again here:
… by carrying out CT scans of King Tutankhamun's mummy, we were able to show that he did not die from a blow to the head, as many people believed. Our analysis revealed that a hole in the back of his skull had been made during the mummification process.


Never mind that his team's analysis “revealed” nothing of the sort, never mind that their determination, ginned up for public consumption, could be exactly wrong on the flip of a coin. The hole shows none of the necrosis associated with natural causes, but it wouldn't show those signs if mummification was performed soon after what could have been an injury – or, in certain fictional imaginings, murder; so the analysis of Hawass' paid scientists is only right if it isn't wrong, which is hardly worthy of a press release. But this also should have served as a warning sign.

The problem with CT scans and scientific teams to analyze their results and then guess about them on Egyptian TV is that such things cost money. Press attention generates tourism, and that in turn generates money (forget about the periodic flooding of the Nile: hordes of credulous tourists have always been Egypt's most reliable natural resource). Since this looks like a self-feeding process, you might wonder what the problem with it could possibly be.

But it's only a self-feeding source if the appetite stays constant. And in Zahi Hawass, Egypt has found an appetite for attention so deep as to be bottomless. The hoopla associated with that CT scan eventually faded, and all that remained was the boring old field work being done by boring credentialed Egyptologists who've never been profiled in The New Yorker and who wouldn't dream of referring to themselves as a 'modern-day pharaoh.' It's doubtful Hawass even knows such wretched creatures exist; he certainly has no interest in their miniscule, responsible findings. If the world's attention has wandered away from Egyptian antiquities, that attention must be drawn back, and there's one sure way to do that: more technology!

Hence, this article. Hawass has the brazen effrontery to start it off with the line, “I believe we should honor these ancient dead and let them rest in peace.” I don't know about the rest of you, but a horrific scene like this:


sure as Hell doesn't look like resting in peace to me. I think Hawass himself might feel different about the whole process if it were his grandmother's corpse plopped down on that tarpaulin – but alas, there's no money to be made from gawking at her remains under strobe lights.

The project this time around is to use modern DNA analysis to look for genetic markers held in common by Tutankhamun and several of the other mummies, in hopes of establishing concrete relationships between some or all of them (historians haven't been able to say with certainty who Tutankhamun's father was, for instance, with opinion split between Amenhotep III and the heretic-pharaoh Akhenaten). Hawass portrays himself as a reluctant convert:
In the past I had been against genetic studies of royal mummies. The chance of obtaining workable samples while avoiding contamination from modern DNA seemed to small to justify disturbing these sacred remains. But in 2008 several geneticists convinced me that the field had advanced far enough to give us a good chance of getting useful results.


A child (one with a good moral grounding, anyway) will have spotted the trouble with this: respect is an absolute. Remains don't become less 'sacred' in proportion to how 'useful' the results are that can be extracted from them. Calling something 'sacred' while in the process of defiling it is generally considered a false piety. The ancient Egyptians themselves had stronger terms for it, and stronger penalties than getting on the cover of National Geographic.

Granted it's distasteful, some readers might say, but if it really does advance our knowledge of the past, isn't it worth it?

The answer to that question is 'no' (always awkward when rhetorical questions turn out to have actual answers, but it can't be helped), but even if it weren't, the point is moot: there was never any chance of legitimately advancing our knowledge of the past here – there has never been such a chance associated with anything Hawass has ever done in the entire course of his professional life. It's true that he tells us his team found some of the 'family secrets' they'd been instructed to find:
Once the mummies' DNA was isolated, it was a fairly simple matter to compare the Y chromosomes of Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun and see that they were indeed related … But to clarify their precise relationship required a more sophisticated kind of genetic fingerprinting. Along the chromosomes in our genomes there are specific known regions where the pattern of DNA letters – the A's, T's, G's, and C's that make up our genetic code – varies greatly between one person and another. These variations amount to different numbers of repeated sequences of the same few letters. Where one person might have the same sequence of letters repeated ten times, for instance, another unrelated person might have the same sequence stuttered 15 times, a third person 20, and so on. A match between ten of these highly variable regions is enough for the FBI to conclude that the DNA left at a crime scene and that of a suspect might be one and the same.


But any reader who thinks obtaining viable DNA samples of 3000-year-old mummified bodies is akin to collecting fresh DNA samples from a crime scene is just asking to be duped. They are exactly the kind of audience Hawass wants, and he'll always be ready to sell them a certain bridge in Brooklyn. Considering that a strong genetic match can be obtained between any human being and the hamburger they had for supper last night, the level of discrimination necessary to start sending Father's Day cards around the suburbs of Luxor is simply not possible with non-Star Trek technology. Even Hawass isn't prepared to gloss over all the difficulties, and some of those difficulties should give pause even to the truest of believers:
If the extraction and isolation succeeded, [Tutankhamun's] DNA would be captured in a clear liquid solution, ready to be analyzed. To our dismay, however, the initial solutions turned out to be a murky black. Six months of hard work were required to figure out how to remove the contaminant – some still unidentified product of the mummification process – and obtain a sample ready for amplifying and sequencing.


Six months of 'hard work' were no doubt required to transform a 'murky black' solution into something clear enough to support modern analysis, but surely that studiedly offhand mention of 'amplifying and sequencing' will raise an air-strip full of red flags? Once upon a time, we all banded together to make “Jurassic Park” the #1 movie in the country – have we so soon forgotten its lessons (not only about spotty science but about showmen marketing flea circuses)?

In the end, this National Geographic article might raise all sorts of speculation to new heights – was Tutankhamun really the son of Akhenaten and the grandson of Amenhotep III? Did he have a club foot? Was he entombed with his wife's miscarried fetuses? - but it takes one speculation and banishes all doubt: there is at least one grave-robber still active in the Valley of the Kings, cracking open 'sacred' bones in search of media gold. Shame on him for so often betraying his 'sacred' trusts in order to hog a little spotlight, and shame on National Geographic for continuing to fund his serial sacrileges.


JC said...

Fantastic piece, Steve! I can't say I agree with your definition of what ought to be sacred (I don't care how often I'm prodded after I'm dead -- I won't be around to be disgusted by it) but I share your disdain for Hawass' whoreishness.... You know, in related news, I started reading P.T. Barnum's autobiography on the train the other day and I found myself really unexpectedly turned off by it. American's are supposed to have a deep, wryly smiling love of hucksterism, but I seem to be missing that gene. Does Louis Agassiz' have an autobiography?

Sam said...

Agreed, fantastic post! I request you try to work Henry Adams into as many posts as possible. What about A Week with the Adamses?

Steve Donoghue said...

Ah, John, but you DON'T disagree with me about what constitutes sacred - in typical John fashion, although you don't care a rip about something for yourself, you're absolutely FEROCIOUS about it when it comes to those you love! When I picture how you'd react if Hawass dug up your grandfather in order to suck out some of his DNA and prove he was really your grandmother's brother, I know you agree with me.

And Sam - a week with the Adamses? Do you have any idea how ... well, DETAILED such a week might get? Even by my own standards, I know a rather freakish amount about virtually all of them, especially Samuel, one of my personal quintet, as you know!