Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.

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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)