A Thousand and One Tales of Archeology:
C. W. Ceram’s Attempt at Being an Archeological Scheherazade
Reviewed by Jennifer Williams
(For CSUB 303)
Gods, Graves & Scholars
by C. W. Ceram
New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1979
Imagine a dust-covered adventurer, torch held high, as he stumbles over some fallen masonry and looks upon a vast, golden horde that human eyes have not laid upon for centuries. Such a scene would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie, nor out of place in Ceram’s recounting of early archeology. There lies the greatest aspect of his Gods, Graves and Scholars, originally published in Germany in 1949 and since translated into twenty-six languages and released in a second, revised edition in 1967.
Written to be enjoyed by the general reader as well those with some knowledge about the field of archeology, Ceram takes readers chronologically through the breakthrough discoveries of ancient sites in Greece, Egypt, Assyrian, Babylonia, Sumeria, and the Central and South American empires of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Toltecs. He introduces key players in the development of archeology and entertainingly explains not only their discoveries but also their contributions to the development of archeology as a science, which is truly what his book is about. Ceram read through endless accounts in dozens of books on archeology, and boiled his findings down to the most exciting narratives about key players and their contributions to the science of archeology as a whole.
The key strength of Ceram’s book is the way in which he chronicles the findings and development of early archeology. Like Scheherazade’s tales in A Thousand and One Nights, Ceram weaves endless tales and anecdotes about archeology together to form an epic about archeology and the people who developed it. Told with an eye for drama and romanticism, Ceram’s book focuses as much on the adventure and sensationalism attached to each historical figure as what that figure accomplished. Readers learn of the fairy-tale like birth of Champollion, as well as his work to translate the last hieroglyphic section of the Rosetta stone, unlocking this previously incomprehensible form of writing. In this way, too, Ceram narrates the evolution of archeology as a science, from its treasure-hunting beginnings for interesting decorations for the rich and noble, to the more precise and catalogued process modern readers are familiar with today.
It is this attention to the story Ceram weaves as much as the accounts he is reporting that make this book the classic it is. Certainly the argument can be made that simply the mountainous amounts of factual information, presented in a way that any reader could enjoy, is what has given this book its popularity and staying power. It is the adventurous tone and level of suspense that Ceram maintains that make this book truly appealing, however. Readers familiar with archeology today are likely to picture rope grids and careful excavation, with paintbrushes carefully, and achingly slowly, revealing layers of history to the eye. This picture is in sharp contrast to Ceram’s story, which takes the reader back to the days of careless adventurers dynamiting their way into hidden tombs, of brilliant scholars fighting to keep ancient sites from being despoiled and battling grave robbers to save the past for the future, and paints a picture of political conquest and upheaval constantly shifting the sand on which these adventurers had to stand in order to accomplish their stunning feats. There is an excitement to this book that lures in readers otherwise wary of dry facts and the dullness of historical facts.
There are, of course, some flaws in any book of this age that discusses events that are constantly being added to. Ceram’s views on ethnicity are certainly dated (the term Negro is certainly not a term deemed acceptable to use in modern conversation, yet is peppered throughout Gods), as are his seeming attitude towards the native inhabitants of the lands in which his European adventurers explore (which seem to vacillate between ignorant exploiters and noble savages). His views on what is important to archeology limit his presentation to the areas around the Mediterranean and the Central and South Americas and certainly smack of the pretentious “old-white-man” domination of Western history. There is also the ever-present mountain of new information and re-evaluations on these sites that simply cannot be added to an already long book. Equally shaky is his adherence to the scientific method in his book, which he claims in the introduction to the revised edition. Terms like “most beautiful,” which are subjective rather than scientific, and sentences like “If the devil’s children, as they say, have cloven feet, it is not surprising to find some modest signs of prenatal influence where a magician has been at work” (101) in regards to the “miraculous” birth of Champollion are arguably not for the benefit of science, but for the benefit of storytelling. These flaws can certainly be forgiven by keeping them in the context of the times in which Ceram was writing as well as the times Ceram was writing about.
Ceram’s book comes complete with photos of archeological sites discussed in the book, maps, illustrations, and tables showing the decipherment of ancient writing. The bibliography is broken down for each section of the book, and an index at the end makes it easy for readers to pinpoint specific information. The entertaining method of chronicling adventure and discovery Ceram employs certainly make this book a valuable resource to the general reader as well as the reader interested in history and archeology. What flaws the book has are inconsequential in relation to the grander tale that is told well, which is full of facts as well as adventure.