Friday, April 03, 2009

Yellow journalism

Some of you in my generation may remember National Geographic's "Everyday Life in Ancient Times" series of articles in the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cut down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C. makes her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashes the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete do handsprings between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne poses nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, defeats Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.

This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation. Scattered among scenes of nakedness and carnage were others that illustrated the origins of agriculture, writing, mathematics, music, coinage, civil engineering, law, medicine, and democracy.

All of this information had been dug up out of the ground by the archaeologists of the preceding century, many of whom themselves lived lives of Homeric scale.

Among the giants of early archaeology were Heinrich Schliemann, who as a boy read stories of Homer's heroes, Paris and Helen, Achilles and Hector, and of mighty Troy, burned and leveled by the Greeks, and after a lifetime of dreaming found the fabled city on the Anatolian plain, and in it "Piram's Treasure"; Arthur Evans, who unearthed at Knossos in Crete the fabulous palace of Minos, the legendary king, and the labyrinth of the minotaur; Howard Carter, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamen, filled with priceless treasure, only to be haunted by "the curse of the Pharaohs"; Leonard Wooley, who excavated the royal tombs of the kings of Ur, where richly attired queens were laid to rest with murdered ladies of the court.

Somewhere along the way from Schliemann's excavations of the 1870s to Wooley's Babylonian adventures of the 1920s, archaeology changed from a treasure-hunt into a science. Archaeological expeditions are still called campaigns, in the style of Napoleon's monument-snatching adventure in Egypt, but sensitivity to local cultures has replaced the imperialist attitude that the past belongs only to the privileged museums of Paris, London, and New York. The goal of archaeology has become exact description and cautious interpretation. The computer and the mass spectrometer now supplement the shovel and the pick.

National Geographic changed too. When I got married and started a family, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the magazine. By the time our kids were grown and we canceled our subscription, we had a closet full of yellow spines. The articles are no longer quite as titillating as they were in my youth, but the magazine remains one of the great instruments of family education.