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Seriously, did Zahi Hawass just spank Sarah Parcak?

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Zahi Hawass has responded to yesterday’s announcement, made through the BBC, that Sarah Parcak and the University of Alabama at Birmingham has revealed thousands of new sites in Egypt, including 17 ‘lost’ pyramids.

Minister of State for Antiquities (MSA) Zahi Hawass announced at the ministry in Zamalek that yesterday’s media reports that researchers from the University of Alabama in the United States had identified 17 lost pyramids and thousands of ancient Egyptian settlements via infrared images is not accurate.

Hawass told Ahram Online that satellite infrared images are only able to locate anomalies beneath the sand, which cannot be identified until archaeological research is carried out. “These anomalies could be anything: a house, a tomb, a temple or even geological features,” Hawass asserted.

He continued that these images offer assistance in discovering antiquities but are generally not accurate.

While it is true that infrared images show only “anomalies” under the sand that need to be confirmed through direct examination, dismissing this data out of hand as inaccurate ignores the incredible insights that can be gained through the use of these technologies.  These images DO assist in uncovering antiquities, even if the researcher does have to take them with a grain of salt and go into the process with the recognition that rather than being a true ‘map’ to an undiscovered site, these are guides that help direct to areas of incredible  interest in a sea of sand.  As Dr. Hawass’s response to the BBC situation on his blog points out, satellite imagery has been used for quite some time in Egypt, but is (rightly) one of several tools used in archaeological exploration.  The technology improves constantly, however, and what was impossible to discern from earlier images may now be quite clear.

(Photo: BBC)

The Art of Counting project has also encountered dismissive attitudes on occasion, as though statistical analysis is applicable to all other aspects of human existence but simply can’t reveal anything about ancient Egyptian imagery.  Happily, there have been many scholars who have already joined the Art of Counting team, but new technologies can be overwhelming and somewhat frightening to those who do not understand them.  Some scholars worry intensely that, with the advent of space archaeology and quantifiable analysis of iconography, ‘real’ Egyptologists will be pushed out and replaced by technology.

This couldn’t be further from the truth–both Dr. Parcak’s project and the Art of Counting are totally dependent upon the input of knowledgable scholars.  We are using these technologies as tools to help us reveal secrets of the ancient past in the same way that Flinders Petrie used his trowels.  Be honest–if Petrie had had analytical processes, relational databases, and space imagery at his disposal, you KNOW he would have jumped on it.  Those thousands of notecards he painstakingly created were as close as he could get with what was available at his time.  We’d be fools as scholars if we ignored the amazing potential of modern technologies.

It is likely that the biggest problem Dr. Hawass had with the announcement had to do with the fact that the Ministry of Antiquities didn’t make it.

For his part Harvey Lilley, producer of BBC Satellite project sent his apologies to Hawass. In an email obtained by Ahram Online, Lilley wrote: “Many apologies to you but this story was published before the official BBC press release was approved and released by us…. So as things stand I am not quite sure yet how the story broke without us doing you the courtesy of consulting you beforehand.”

According to MSA regulations, it is prohibited for any mission to announce a discovery before notifying and obtaining the approval of the MSA.

Now, I can understand when an archaeological mission is on the ground in Egypt and makes a discovery that it is the prerogative of the MSA to make the announcement to the world.  However, when someone is working on a project using remote technologies and makes a discovery, why does this same policy apply?  When the Art of Counting database is populated with thousands of objects and images and quantifiable analysis reveals a major pattern in iconographic appearance not previously recognized, do we have to ask the Ministry before announcing that discovery?  If the BBC article was incorrectly released and contained actual inaccuracies, then those should be addressed, but the implication that the MSA has jurisdiction in space? Hmmm…

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  1. david nystuen05-27-2011

    Hawass is a disgrace to archaeology and to Egypt. One must use all avenues of research available. Nor does one man command what is being done. It is time for Egypt to rid themselves of this pompous and ignorant man.

  2. David Kessler05-28-2011

    For years Zahi Hawass has been in a position of getting the kudos from other people’s discoveries simply because of his position as head of Egypt’s SCA. using his power to ban archaeologists, he has cornered the market in crowing and preening before the cameras. Now that monopoly is threatened by new technology and he doesn’t like it one bit. No wonder he was caricatured in Adam Palmer’s recent thriller. But if anything the caricature was more congenial than the real thing.

  3. Art of Counting05-29-2011

    Despite his obvious shortcomings and gigantic ego, until there is someone better and more effective to take his place, Zahi Hawass remains the current best choice. There are many good and effective things that Zahi has done during his time at the SCA, such as training teams of excellent Egyptian archaeologists, reducing corruption (albeit strategically) in the process, and fiercely and passionately protecting archaeological sites. However, Zahi has often pushed beyond the boundaries of his authority, and many foreign missions complain about his interference in their work. The recent protests within the SCA/MSA are also indicative of trouble brewing just below the surface.

    Calling for the removal of Zahi Hawass also begs the question: who to replace him?

    • david nystuen05-29-2011

      There are those who can, given a chance. In my mind it dosen’t matter, as long as hot wind is gone.

      • NADER SALEH06-06-2011

        I think that you’re not aware of what Dr.Hawass did for Egypt in the last few years, if you live in Egypt, you should visit many sites to recognize that he did a great job to preserve the Egyptian Monuments. You should also understand that his films made a big advertisement for Egypt all over the world, you’ll never know how much would it cost if Egypt will pay for it.

        Why Egypt has to be open for every crazy man wants to play with our history and heritage, some one has to control it and I believe that Dr.Hawass is the man.

        I’m Egyptian, working in tourism and I know very well what I’m talking about.

        • Art of Counting06-06-2011

          I am very aware that Zahi Hawass has done some incredibly great things for Egyptian antiquities, from training excellent Egyptian archaeologists to aggressively protecting your ancient treasures. He has made a huge impact during his tenure and has brought stability to a complex situation. Obviously some one must be in control, to decide who is and is not granted permission to work in the field, and there are much worse men than Zahi to have in such a position. On the other hand, Dr. Hawass has also shoved beyond the boundaries of his authority on occasion.
          What I am taking issue with in this instance is the implication that no one other than the MSA is permitted to make any announcements about discoveries related to Egypt, regardless of where or how the discovery occurred.

          • NADER SALEH06-06-2011

            There must be a system for everything. If you leave the door open for everyone to announce new discoveries, it’ll be disaster for Egypt, any one wants to make money or become famous will announce new discovery. I think the real archeologists will not mind that MSA take control over this issue and make sure that they’re right in what they publish.
            I have no idea bout other countries, but I’m sure that there are regulation for any archeologist working in any country.

          • Art of Counting06-09-2011

            There absolutely must be a system in place to protect Egypt’s monuments from misuse; no one is suggesting a free-for-all. Any expedition wishing to work in Egypt currently must submit extensive paperwork and every member of the team is vetted. Real archaeologists undergo this process every time because we DO appreciate the necessity of this type of weeding. Our work takes many years, even decades, of training–an untrained layperson loose on an archeological site would be disastrous. It is one of the functions of the MSA to make sure that those they allow to work on these treasured monuments are qualified to do so.
            Your last sentence seems to make my primary point–“archaeologists working in any country”. Exactly! If an expedition is IN Egypt, working IN the field, then of course the MSA has jurisdiction and justification to ensure the announcement is up to their standards. My issue was with the idea that even a researcher utilizing remote technologies would be required to put their findings before the MSA before they could present them.

          • NADER SALEH06-11-2011

            I think you’re talking about specific situation, if I’m right, it’s the recent announcement by the BBC and Sarah, there are many details in this issue. Do you think if they’re right, they would apologize to MSA ???

          • Art of Counting06-13-2011

            The current situation apparently requires that all discoveries go through the MSA. This circumstance, combined with issues regarding some details (as you point out and I mentioned in the original post), was the impetus for the apology from Dr. Parcak and the BBC.
            While this specific situation is what prompted my post on this topic, the broader question was my primary point.

        • Apollo Screed06-14-2011

          Mmmmm. The pyramids at Giza stand on a litter-strewn plateau infested with agressive camel drivers and trinket sellers whose sales tactics border on assault. In all his time at the top, Hawass hasn’t even managed to organise decent bathrooms at the site. For this alone he should have lost his job years ago, but bullying and string-pulling have carried him through. However, I agree that his departure might leave a vacuum. This is a sad indictment of the oganisation he has headed for so long…

  4. Shawabti06-13-2011

    Zahi has done a lot for Egypt as far as archaeology goes, however his ego is badly over-inflated. Yes, there must be a system in place for releasing archaeological findings but, when an excavator uncovers something and the SCA (Zahi) is informed, have you ever seen the excavator make the announcement? No. Have you ever heard Zahi name the excavator who found the item/temple/etc? Maybe once or twice but what usually happens is that Zahi gets on TV and says “I have discovered this, etc, etc, My team did such and such” not:

    “Dr. John Doe and his team from the University of Cambridge, have just discovered the mummy of Khufu, etc. This discovery came after Dr. Doe and his team spent 5 summer seasons working tirelessly in the scorching sun, searching for this mummy. And serious thanks to the Dinosaur Oil Company and our staunch philanthropists, Mr. and Mrs. Smith for their generous donations that enabled this project to function. Egypt and I (Zahi) are very thankful for such determined financial support and such creative intellectual genius and determination, etc, etc.”

    What you hear, time and time again, is Zahi saying, “I recently discovered this tomb,” “My team found the avenue of the Sphinxes,” “I, this,” “My, that,” I,I,I, mine, mine, mine, etc. That’s the part that gets really, really, old.

  5. david nystuen06-30-2011

    Much was done in Egypt before hawass, much will be done after he is gone. Having been in Egypt numerous times, I have seen its archaeology go downhill as hawass trys to rule the roost, but lacks the knowledge to do so.

  6. Bill Wyman07-22-2012

    I am not a big defender of Zaki Hawass, but I don’t find it unreasonable to question the claims of 17 pyramids and more than 1000 tombs without any field verification. It seems to be that the announcement that 17 pyramids and more than 1000 tombs had been “discovered” should have been made only after at least one had been verified, but I’m into science, not show biz.
    I am not an archeologist, but I am a scientist. In my field, we must verify a hypothesis through field work before making a claim.
    Did Dr. Parcak field verify any of the 17 pyramids or 1000+ tombs she claimed to have “discovered” before making the announcement?
    In my field, you would have had to verified all 17 pyramids and all of the 1000+ tombs before you could publish the claim. Archaeology, however, might be less rigorous.

    It seems like she put the cart before the donkey, but perhaps I am missing something.

    • Art of Counting07-22-2012

      You make a valid point, Bill. However, the BBC announcement noted that several findings (including two pyramids) were corroborated through excavation. Ideally, all of the potential sites *should* have been verified through excavation prior to announcement, but the correlation between the imagery of Tanis and the on site results indicate the potential impact of this technology.

      One such city, Tanis, lies below Egypt’s eastern delta. Almost none of the massive settlement has been excavated. Parcak used satellite imagery to collaborate with a French team working there.

      “From space you can see the whole settlement’s detailed network of streets and houses. Our map is incredibly clear; it literally looks like something you’d pull out to help you navigate a town you might visit today,” she says. The team found an 80 percent correlation between the houses they unearthed and what the imagery showed. “It’s not quite high resolution enough yet, but in the near future we’ll see even more. For me the ‘aha’ moment was realizing how accurate these maps can be. We’ve created a completely new plan of an ancient city no one has seen for 3,000 years.”

      The expense of fieldwork as well as the location of some of the identified sites makes it a significant challenge to excavate the 1000+ tombs, but one of Dr. Parcak’s main foci is training Egyptian archaeologists in the use of this technology in conjunction with their fieldwork. This is a great tool to add to the kit, but no one is saying that satellite imagery is a replacement for excavation! What it does provide is a method for increased efficiency and accuracy in the research of a massive field.

The Art of Counting is dedicated to the memory of Margery Meilleur, who first taught me to view history through the eyes of the images we create.