Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So, today I finally finished a forty-eight part lecture series, on two dozen cds, in four slipcases, courtesy of an extended loan from Jeff Grubb. It's one of the offerings from The Teaching Company, and a nice follow-up to the last one of theirs I borrowed, a joint history of Greece and Rome. I'd thought the lecturer of that series 'hearted' Greeks & Romans, but it was as nothing to Professor Bob Brier's enthusiasm for All Things Egyptian (ancient that is -- he covers the three thousand years from prehistory up to Cleopatra but ignores the last two milennia).  If you're interested in ancient Egypt but don't have an expert's knowledge, listening to this series is a good way to get sorted out who's who and what happened when, though I question Brier's judgment on some points (for example, his claim that Elizabeth Taylor's movie CLEOPATRA is extremely faithful to history). His enthusiasm is such that he ends by recommending mummy movies, mummy novels, tourist spots, societies you can join, and magazines to subscribe to to learn more.

My main take-away from this, oddly enough, is the fact that our word chemistry derives from Egypt: chemistry > alchemy > al-KMT, 'the Egyptian art'. That is, the best way the Greeks (and later Arabs) had for describing what we think of as chemistry was as that-thing-Egyptians-do. 
This is all the more interesting, because I just went back and re-read the chapters in BLACK ATHENA REVISITED (anti-Bernal) and BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK (pro-Bernal) about Science. In the first book, Robert Palter tries to demolish the idea that the ancient Egyptians knew much about science, math (aside from some geometry), or astronomy -- certainly, he argues, far less than the Babylonians and incomparably less than the Greeks. Bernal counters that this was certainly not the Greek's opinion, and produces his own evidence of Egyptian achievement. 

Out of all this, the things that impressed me the most was the discovery that (1) our 12 month calendar of 365 days was an Egyptian innovation and (2) the Egyptians had a sign for "zero" (nfr, meaning 'beautiful') -- not a place-holder like our zero, but a tally-up-together sign signifying satisfaction when all the numbers in a column balanced and came out right (it was also used in architecture to mark a leveled surface). It was also rather nice to learn that Imhotep, who designed the world's first stone building, was incidentally the inventor of blueprints, which makes sense.

I was also struck by what seemed to be an impossibly high standard of evidence on Palter's part. For example, in one case, we have a statement by Aristotle that both the Mesopotamians and Egyptians compiled astronomical records of conjuctions. By great good luck, some of the Mesopotamian records (on baked clay tablets) actually survive. Rather than conclude that this shows Aristotle knew what he was talking about, Palter concludes that it shows the Egyptians never had any such records, since no astronomical papyri survive.

That in the end is what the whole argument comes down to: what do you do in situations where absolute proof is not possible? Rule out anything you can't document beyond a doubt? Construct a plausible scenario that fits the known facts but extrapolates beyond them? Establish a grey area which takes into account second-hand evidence? Here's Bernal's take on the matter:

"I contend that the demand for [absolute] proof is inappropriate in academic debate on such distant periods*. . . I believe that all that is required . . . is . . . not proof  but competitive plausibility".

In any case, I find myself hankering for a visit to a good museum's Ancient Egypt section.

--John R.

*[say, Minoan borrowings from Egyptian religion circa 1400 BC]

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