Television

Digging into the past

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Nat Geo will telecast live an excavation of Egyptian pyramids later this month. The principal archaeologist leading the venture, Dr Mark Lehner, spoke to indiantelevision.com in New Delhi recently about his passion for the art and science of his craft and what he hopes to unearth during the novel exercise...

He looks more like a university professor, which he was, rather than an active archaeologist.

But Dr Mark Lehner, a National Geographic Society grantee is an interesting person anyhow. "I am a sceptic," he says when asked about curses which are associated with Egyptian pyramids, "I don‘t disbelieve them, but don‘t believe in them either."

Curses or no curses, the 50-something Dr Lehner believes archaeology is not just about excavating ancient cities, but that it is a science which tells modern human beings what life was like many years before their own existence and answers some of the bigger questions like human culture and its evolution.

"Take, for example, the excavations we just completed in June in Egypt. We discovered a virtual city which is almost 4,500 years old and the various findings (big and small) tell us a tale : how people lived then, their eating habits and what all they did for a living. It‘s so fascinating," he says.

Dr Lehner will feature in a programme which will be telecast live on National Geographic Channel live later this month. In the Nat Geo funded excavation which was also turned into a production for telly, In Egypt: Secret Chambers Revealed,‘ Egyptologists Dr Mark Lehner and Dr Zahi Hawass will take viewers deep within Khufu‘s Great Pyramid to the Queen‘s Chamber, where architecturally complex shafts remain a mystery - their function and purpose unknown.

"What still surprises me is how modern ancient Egyptian cities (like any other ancient civilisation, including the Harappan civilisation) were. If I can say the cities were very modern," Dr Lehner says with a child-like passion on a subject, which probably is more dear to him than his own self. Citing another instance of the information that they are in the process of culling from their findings, Dr Lehner says the various kinds of animal bones, including fish bones, found at the site (only partly excavated) tell us that the people who lived in that part of the city (which probably was a boarding school or barracks) led a very regimented life, but were also fed very well.

The bones which have been found, and the quantity that has been uncovered, indicates people living then consumed all sorts of meat, including beef, says Dr Lehner, giving an insight into the lifestyle of the people living then. "The excavations also tell us that they were burning the tree cover around them for baking purposes and making tools that need good amount of fire," he adds.

Did they feel uncomfortable while excavating because of the obtrusive presence of the whirring TV cameras? Not Dr. Lehner. Simply because he has done similar work earlier too which have been turned into great programmes and documentaries for the small screen. "I have been associated with a number of films, including the Horizon which was aired on BBC (in the UK) and so am used to this. In fact, the present excavation work and production (of the TV programme) went hand-in-hand," says the archaeologist who is so unlike many of his ilk, portrayed in numerous Hollywood productions.

Dr Lehner is an acknowledged authority on Egyptian archaeology whose contributions, theories, and discoveries have opened a new era in Old Kingdom studies. A research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and at Harvard University‘s Semitic Museum, Dr. Lehner‘s fourteen years of excavations on the Giza plateau have uncovered the missing city of the pyramid builders, including their dwellings, bakeries, storage warehouses, food production facilities, and workshops. While Egypt during these early years has been described as a "civilization without cities," Dr Lehner‘s study of the pyramid builders‘ urban settlement is changing such notions about this ancient land.

Now recognized as one of the world‘s foremost experts on the Giza monuments, Dr Lehner originally came to Egypt in 1972 as a tourist. After spending time examining the monuments of Egypt, he began studying traditional Egyptology. He received his BA in Anthropology from the American University in Cairo in 1975, and his PhD in Egyptology from Yale University, where he was awarded the Sterling Prize Fellowship and the William J. Horowitz Prize, in 1991. Between 1979 and 1983, Dr Lehner was the field director for the Sphinx for the American Research Center in Egypt, which documented and studied the great Sphinx. Since 1984, he has directed the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, which conducts excavations of Old Kingdom settlements, tombs, and temples near the Sphinx and pyramids for topographical and archaeological survey and mapping.

Does Dr Lehner feel that he and his associates can excavate the whole Egyptian city, part of which will be aired on NGC ? "I don‘t think we‘ll be able to excavate the whole city. Even if the Egyptian government gives us concessions, then too I can spend my whole life digging there and still keep on finding new things," he says modestly, hinting that the present find is indeed huge as the city (footprints of which are being put together) spreads almost over an area of 300 hecatares and the excavation work completed is "just about 10 per cent."

Apart from the much publicised findings, what were the other valubales dug up? Some 18,000 pieces of chip stones, 400,000 pieces of pottery and 300,000 pieces of charcoal (evidence of tree burning). May sound like trivia, but for experts like Dr Lehner, all these findings will unravel various tales and give the modern day human an insight into ancient civilisations.

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