Catching Up with Cleo

Cleopatra is suddenly popping up all over the place again, so it’s probably time for a cranky post to bring folks up to speed thereon. But by way of captatio benevolentiae, however,  I’ll mention again my trip to the Royal Ontario Museum last month and one of their ‘iconic pieces’ which (again) I’ve managed to miss on several visits there.  It is what they believe is an image of Cleopatra … ecce:

At the ROM, there is a little screen where you can listen to Roberta Shaw give the details of where this is from and why they believe it to be an image of Cleopatra:

In case you’re wondering about the ‘pillar’ they mention:

I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t have a photo of the ‘companion piece’ that went with this for comparison purposes (although it is possible that I missed it). To my untrained-in-Egyptian/Ptolemaic-art eye, however, this does seem similar to the  statue in the British Museum which is usually acknowledged as being Cleopatra (see our previous post: Statues of Cleopatra).

Now on to more critical business. In the July issue of National Geographic, Cleopatra is the cover girl and there’s a major feature on her which also happens to be online (it does seem to match the print version as far as I can tell). The purpose of this piece seems to be to give some legitimacy/credence to Kathleen Martinez and Zahi Hawass’ claims in regards to Taposiris Magna, which we’ve dealt with ad nauseam in these cyberpages. Here’s an excerpt from near the end just to refresh your memories:

During the 2006-07 season the Egyptian-Dominican team found three small foundation deposits in the northwest corner of the Osiris temple, just inches from where the Hungarian expedition had stopped digging. The deposits conclusively linked the Osiris temple to the reign of Ptolemy IV, who ruled a century and a half before Cleopatra. In 2007, further supporting the view that the site was very important to the Greeks of ancient Egypt, the excavators found a skeleton of a pregnant woman who had died in childbirth. The tiny bones of the unborn baby lay between the skeleton’s hips. Her jaw was distended, suggesting her agony, and her right hand was clutching a small white marble bust of Alexander the Great. “She is a mystery,” said Martinez, who had a coffin built for the remains of the mother.

In six years Taposiris Magna has become one of Egypt’s most active archaeology sites. More than a thousand objects have been recovered, 200 of them considered significant: pottery, coins, gold jewelry, the broken heads of statues (probably smashed by early Christians). An important discovery was a large cemetery outside the temple walls, suggesting that the subjects of a monarch wished to be buried near royal remains.

Yet the tomb of Cleopatra still hovers out of reach, like a tantalizing mirage, and the theory of who is buried at Taposiris Magna still rests more on educated speculation than on facts. Might not Cleopatra’s reign have unraveled too quickly for her to build such a secret tomb? A fantastic story, like a horse with wings, flies in the face of the principle of parsimony. But it’s a long hard haul from not-yet-proved to disproved.

Critics of Martinez’s theory point out that it is rare in archaeology for someone to announce they are going to find something and then actually find it. “There is no evidence that Cleopatra tried to hide her grave, or would have wanted to,” says Duane Roller, a respected Cleopatra scholar. “It would have been hard to hide it from Octavian, the very person who buried her. All the evidence is that she was buried with her ancestors. The material associated with her at Taposiris Magna is not meaningful because material associated with her can be found in many places in Egypt.”

“I agree that Octavian knew and authorized the place where she was buried,” Martinez says. “But what I believe—and it is only a theory—is that after the mummification process was complete, the priests at Taposiris Magna buried the bodies of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in a different place without the approval of the Romans, a hidden place beneath the courtyard of the temple.”

As might be expected, that the NG made this their cover story is big news back in the Dominican where Martinez is from: Cleopatra hunter Martinez makes Nat-Geo’s cover. Sadly, however, there is nothing new in this article and it’s really uncharacteristic that National Geographic has actually given this any attention (feelings mirrored by Martin R. over at Aarvarchaeology) … That said, a few weeks ago while killing time in a bookstore, I was looking at the book which was spawned by the Cleopatra exhibition (which is soon heading to Milwaukee) and read similar sentiments therein. Of course, National Geographic is a sponsor of that exhibition and it strikes me that they are using their otherwise excellent magazine with an incredible history and reputation to hype the exhibition, albeit indirectly. Whatever the case, I am growing increasingly impatient with National Geographic, which seems increasingly to be going the way of its television channel (which is mostly owned by Fox) and choosing sensational over factual.

What makes it worse, however, is that National Geographic’s attention and reputation in this seems to have led astray a writer at the otherwise excellent Past Horizons blog: The search for Cleopatra continues. As presented, that item makes it sound like digging is actually going on right now at Taposiris Magna and — apparently relying on a ‘press release’ from Zahi Hawass’ site (someone please tell me if I err in this regard) — talks about such novelties as ground penetrating radar surveys being done by Richard Vickers and identifying three places of interest. Sadly, however, it has to be pointed out that the press release actually comes from April 2009 (we mentioned it in a previous post, of course: Cleopatra’s Tomb Again!!) and once again we might wonder why Dr Hawass never bothered to put dates on items. Even if we forgive that, however, we wonder why Past Horizons didn’t notice the November 2009 date of the Heritage Key video (via youtube) which they also link to … This is clearly not news. We might also mention in passing that they link to Kathleen Martinez’s “blog” which is little more than a business card website.

Why this bothers me is that the Past Horizons blog is a rather reputable source — I sometimes link to its items in my Explorator newsletter — and it seems to have the bona fides for people to believe what it says. Indeed, there are already blogs (e.g. Being Cleopatra) which are linking to this piece as if it represents the current state of affairs. For what it’s worth, the last we heard (in February), the dig had been suspended until it was ‘safer’ … the National Geographic piece closes with Martinez’s hopes to return in the Fall. There is nothing new here …

One thought on “Catching Up with Cleo

  1. Being Cleopatra here! Great blog! I’ll be sure to update my posts with a link to your blog! While I may be well versed in Cleopatra’s portrayal in classical music, I am no expert on Cleopatra herself…I’m merely an opera singer interested in learning more about her. Thanks for this post!

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