Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Tale of Two Heads

Last October I did some handstands to get to Philadelphia's Franklin Institute to see National Geographic's exhibit on Egypt's famous Queen Cleopatra, whose formal name was Cleopatra VII Neos Philopator.  She was the last ruler of Egypt from the Ptolemaic dynasty of Macedonian Greeks that dated from the days of Alexander the Great.  She was also the last Pharaoh of Egypt, period.

"Pharaoh" is an amazingly cool title for a king, wouldn't you agree? They should bring it back, but I digress ...

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, especially the papyrus signed by Cleopatra where, in response to a request to do a favor for a friend of Mark Antony's (Marcus Antonius) she quotes Jean Luc-Picard, "Make it so."

But I found several aspects of the exhibit curious.  Under a transparent walkway entering the exhibit, I saw an impressive disembodied head.  They didn't identify it, but I knew who it was from an earlier book I had read on the archaeology of Cleopatra, Cleopatra's Palace: In Search of a Legend, by Laura Freeman.

The head was of Antonia Minor, a daughter of Mark Antony by his first wife, Octavia.  Archaeologists found it while digging up the old Ptolemaic palace district, which is now under water in Alexandria's East Harbor.

Iconic evidence of a daughter of Mark Antony is pretty important, yet you not only don't identify it, but you toss it under a walkway?

Worse was a head they did show and identify.  As Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy VX Caesar (all the males of the Ptolemies were named "Ptolemy," made family affairs -- no pun intended here -- easier since you didn't have to worry about remembering a relative's name), better known as Caesarion, or "Little Caesar." There appears to be no truth to the rumors that he had a habit of saying everything twice.

One problem: Freeman's book went into great detail about how that same head had been identified as Cleopatra's nemesis and Julius Caesar's nephew Octavius Caesar (aka Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Octavian; later Caesar Augustus), noting the positioning of the hair and the absence of the uraeus, the serpentine headband worn by Egyptian pharaohs.

Freeman's book had a few historical errors in it but was very specific as to archaeological evidence.  The tale of two heads made me wonder about the whole exhibit.

Don't get me wrong: I very much enjoyed the exhibit and I highly recommend it, but I think the complaints about it not living up to the hype are probably accurate.

The exhibit ended with a film narrated by Zahi Hawass, then Egypt's antiquities minister, about how they think they're close to finding the tomb of Antony, Cleopatra and the other Ptolemies at a place west of Alexandria called Taposiris Magna.

Two problems: one is that Hawass is now Egypt's former antiquities minister due in part to legal problems that earned him a jail sentence.

The other is that the theory of Taposiris Magna as a possible site for Cleopatra's tomb is being torn apart by archaeology blogs such as RogueClassicism and Aardvarchaeology.  Their complaints are too numerous and long-standing to list here, but they are fulfilling their peer review function.

Digging at Taposiris Magna has been stopped due to the revolution in Egypt.  They hope to resume in the fall.

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