Gods, Graves, and Scholars Essay - Critical Essays

Kurt Willi Marek


C. W. Ceram (the pen name of Kurt Willi Marek) was not a professional archaeologist. A journalist who became interested in the subject while a prisoner of war in Italy in 1945, he delighted in celebrating the contributions of amateurs to the field. Schliemann represents his ideal, the grocer who proved the experts wrong. Other figures include Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a twenty-seven-year-old schoolteacher when he began deciphering cuneiform, and Henry C. Rawlinson, who added to the knowledge of the subject after serving in the Persian War Ministry.

Because he was not a trained archaeologist, Ceram offers no firsthand discoveries. Even his descriptions of the excavations were based on his imagination of what explorers would have seen, heard, and felt. He also minimizes the conflicts between the amateurs whom he praised and their professional colleagues, who often rejected the discoveries of less well trained explorers. Naturally enough, Ceram focuses on successes, but in so doing he ignores the many failures and frustrations that beset archaeologists. A careful student of the literature, Ceram made few mistakes, although he does erroneously claim that the monotheistic pharaoh Ikhnaton called his new city Tell-el-Amarna, the modern name for Akhetaten.

Ceram uses his journalistic skills to enliven his subject. He succeeds in making what might appear to be a dusty field “bubble forth again” and bringing the dead civilizations of the past to life. What he discusses he treats well, but his work ignores certain important areas. The Far East is a world in itself, so he may be pardoned for not including that region in an already lengthy text. His decision not to discuss Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Pichu in Peru is more curious. Bingham was an amateur archaeologist, although trained in history, and so should fit into Ceram’s panoply of nonprofessionals who contributed to the field. Moreover, Ceram discusses in some detail the Aztec and Mayan cultures; the world of the Incas merits a place in his “Book of the Temples.” Ceram did not revise his work substantially in later printings and editions. He made slight additions—noting, for example, Michael Ventris’ 1953 success in deciphering Linear B, an ancient Greek language—but gave few details of this and other important developments in the field in the 1950’s and 1960’s.