A tooth and a little DNA

Editorial Notebook

June 30, 2007|By Ann LoLordo

Archaeologists never seem to tire of digging in the dirt.

With pick and ax and shovel and brush, they scour the sands of time for remnants of past lives, of great rulers and lowly tradesmen, of despised monarchs and tribal leaders, of royal kingdoms and primitive cultures, of heralded customs and vanquished societies.

It doesn't matter what they have found in the past, there's always more to discover. And theirs is necessary work in a society of values.

Take the announcement this week that archeologists in Egypt believe they have finally found the body of Queen Hatshepsut, the longest-reigning female pharaoh. Her mummy had been in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings that was discovered in 1903, but no one knew then or in the decades since whose body it was because the figure was simply lying on a floor absent any royal adornments.

Zahi Hawass, the lead archaeologist, relied on modern-day science - a CT scan and DNA testing - to identify her remains. That the announcement came the same week that the iPhone debuted, Dick Cheney's stealth vice presidency was on grand display and the first serious female contender for president reinforced her lead is oddly fitting: Hatshepsut was a powerful woman who ruled as a man, and technology has offered a chance to revisit her story.

A look back always offers perspective on the present and insight into the future.

Mr. Hawass has been at this business for 41 years, serving since 1987 as secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo. He's of the khaki shorts and wide-brimmed hat variety of archaeologist, a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. whose r?sum? of archaeological feats covers the gamut of personalities from Egyptian antiquity - just check his Web site.

As a conservator and explorer, he has achieved his share of fame and flash - his promotional skills are well known. But endurance is the virtue in this field, and taking the long view is the necessity.

Mr. Hawass' recent work on Hatshepsut is proof of that. It also illustrates how technology continues to serve a profession whose basic tools are more primitive than scientific. This is a Discovery Channel franchise with a CSI twist, the equivalent of a positive ID on a cross-dressing queen from the 15th century B.C. who donned a false beard and men's clothes to quell the fears - and overcome the prejudices - of her subjects. (A documentary on Mr. Hawass' work on the lost queen of Egypt airs in July.)

Technology isn't new to this field. Aerial photography was used in the early 1900s to map the area around Stonehenge. Before American chemist Williard F. Libby discovered radiocarbon dating in 1947, archeologists determined the age of an object by its depth in the soil.

Imaging radar, global positioning systems and virtual reconstruction all have become part of an archaeologist's tool kit. DNA testing in recent years has helped map the migration of Native Americans and study ancient bear populations in southern Germany.

For the past year, Mr. Hawass and his team have focused on the unidentified mummies of six women in their search for the lost Hatshepsut. A CT scan of a wooden box linked to the queen uncovered a liver and a tooth, which fit into the mouth of one of the unidentified mummies, a portly woman. And DNA analysis of the tooth showed a relationship to the matriarch of the 18th Egyptian royal dynasty, says Mr. Hawass.

"Archaeology was handicapped in the last century," says the 60-year-old in a telephone call from Cairo. "I was always against DNA because DNA had to be done in modern laboratories. If you do a mummy in a DNA lab that is used for other human bodies," it can contaminate the findings.

But the man of the pick and the ax is now a convert, so much so that he has established a special DNA laboratory for mummies in the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Some archaeologists are not yet ready to accept Mr. Hawass' mummy as the lost queen because of the difficulty of working with ancient DNA. That's in keeping with Hatshepsut's story. Upon her death, the name of the most successful female ruler of ancient Egypt disappeared from monuments, and her tomb was destroyed.

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