Wonderful Things

If you have not had a chance to drop by Google yet today, make sure you do so to check out their beautiful “doodle” logo honoring the birthday of American archaeologist Howard Carter – arguably the most famous archaeologist of them all – who discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. As someone who has been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians for decades, I was really pleased to see it. Yet the occasion also gives me a chance to encourage you as an individual, as well as those of you who are parents providing examples to your children, to make time for the study of science, regardless of what your chosen profession may be.

I suspect that many of my childhood dreams about what I would be when I grew up were no different from those of most American boys who grew up over the past several decades. Sometimes I wanted to be a superhero, or a policeman, or a knight. I liked to imagine that I could do what I read about in comic books or saw on television and in the movies: saving damsels in distress, fighting bad guys and monsters, and having all sorts of exciting adventures. Other fantasies were perhaps a bit more specialist, such as being fascinated by elves and wizards in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was difficult to “play” with my younger siblings who had not read the books, as I made them tramp along with me and my friend as we acted out the shall we say “taller” roles, and they played humble hobbits.

Perhaps somewhat unusual as compared to some of my peers was a very early fascination with the sciences, from astronomy to entomology, paleontology, geology, and so on. I virtually inhaled books about subjects such as prehistoric animals, geological formations and epochs, and theories about planetary formation and space travel. Yet of all the sciences the one that probably attracted me the most, and in a way ultimately led me to the intellectual interests I continue to pursue in my spare time today, was that of archaeology, and specifically Egyptology, i.e., the study of Ancient Egypt.

One of the things which my parents did very well with all of us, if my siblings will not think it too presumptuous of me to speak on their behalf, was that in general, if they approved of an interest that we had, they would do their best to provide us with materials or opportunities to explore it. So if someone wanted to learn how to ice skate, for example, they would obtain skates and take them to skating lessons; a child who was interested in numismatics would be given coins, and books about them, and taken to coin fairs. Not every whim was indulged, but on the whole they did their best to try to encourage us to have as broad a set of interests as we were willing to explore.

In my case, I was very happily provided with many books about Ancient Egypt. Though because I was a rather precocious reader – having learned to read at the age of 2 – this often took the form of lavishly illustrated catalogues from museum exhibitions, or scholarly works with few pictures but plenty of footnotes. I taught myself about such things as how to read and write some of the simpler hieroglyphics; the chronological order of the major kings and dynasties; and about the development of different construction methods, theological beliefs, burial practices, and so on.

Tied into this study, and indeed a very essential component of it, was an understanding of how styles and ideas both changed and yet remained constant in Ancient Egypt over time. A sphinx for example, is a beast found at the time of the earliest pharaohs, but is also found well into the Greco-Roman period many centuries later, when Egypt lost its empire and became a colonial province. Some gods became more or less popular over time, and art, object design, and architecture changed to reflect the shift in popularity from one to another. The subtle, naturalistic beauty of the brief Amarna period under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun can be easily contrasted with the pumped-up, masculine style preferred by Ramses the Great.

Of everything that I studied, nothing was as exciting as the work of Howard Carter, which was partially due to the fact that he found a nearly-intact tomb, with a host of artefacts to study that provided an enormous wealth of information on all aspects of Ancient Egyptian life. This included not only theological and political subject matter, but also practical things, such as the kinds of foods they ate, and the clothing, footwear, and personal adornment they wore. Carter’s discoveries also told us about the way the Ancient Egyptians looked at each other, within their own families.

For example, you may not be aware of the fact that buried alongside Tutankhamun in his tomb were the mummified bodies of two unborn baby girls: one who died at about 5-7 months of pregnancy, and the other at approximately 7-9 months. One of these little bodies had enough remaining genetic material for later scientists to be able to prove conclusively Carter’s theory that at least the one girl, and probably the other as well, was the daughter of Tutankhamun. Although she and her sister had been stillborn, both were honored with a royal burial alongside their father including mummification and traditional funeral masks, just like any other Egyptian princess. Next time a Planned Parenthood supporter gets in your face about a “fetus,” hit them with the historical fact that even the Ancient Egyptians did not believe a fetus was simply a blob of tissue, but rather a human being with an immortal soul.

In any case, while in the end I never became an Egyptologist or archeologist like Howard Carter, I remain fascinated by these areas of study to this day, as I do many other areas of the sciences. I do not engage in any sort of scientific practice for a living, and yet if I spot an interesting article about discoveries of new planets or hitherto unknown species of sea creatures, I am once again filled with a childlike curiosity and sense of wonder about the universe. Listening to Ian Maxfield’s podcasts over on The Catholic Laboratory, about how faith and science have often worked together, whatever anti-Catholic voices may have told you to the contrary, is not only enlightening but also wonderfully entertaining. Even if like me, your profession is not in the sciences, they are a rich area for exploration and mental stimulation: however you may have done in science at school, to have a diversity of interests and a desire to learn more about the world in which one happens to live should be a joy, not a burden.

When Howard Carter first opened a hole in the sealed doorway leading into the tomb of Tutankhamun, he was asked by Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s chief financial backer, whether he could see anything; Carter famously whispered, “Yes! Wonderful things.” I would encourage those of you who are parents to foster this same kind of curiosity and wonder in your children, as my parents did with me. Even if they do not grow up to be chemists, physicists, or biologists, you will kelp them to lead richer, fuller lives by picking up on their budding scientific interests, and perhaps even learn something yourself in the process. A lifetime of learning is not enough to absorb all of the wonderful things there are to be explored in the world.

Archaeologist Howard Carter and friend in The Valley of the Kings (1922)

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