Digging in the Wrong Place: “Undiscovered”

Pic: Tutankhamun’s iconic funerary mask

Undiscovered; Treasure Hunter Security #1 – Anna Hackett (2016)

It’s time for my first edition of Digging in the Wrong Place! In case you missed my initial post about it, my plan is simple: I’m going to read a bunch of books (mostly fiction) involving archaeology and then talk about the archaeology involved, paying careful attention to what the authors get wrong. And then I’ll explain why it’s wrong. It’ll be fun, I promise.

On that note, I’ve decided to start the series with a fun book I read recently on my Kobo. Because I have an e-reader, it was recommended I join BookBub. For others with e-readers, BookBub is an awesome source for e-books. In short, you sign up (for free), tell it what kind of e-reader you have an what kinds of books you like, and then you get an email every day with offered books that are on sale or free. Almost every email includes one or two free books. I usually download the free books. They are free, after all. Some books have been winners. Others have been…interesting.  Undiscovered was one of the free books. As soon as I read “archaeology” in the little email excerpt, I hit download.

Undiscovered post
The cover for Undiscovered

Undiscovered is the first in the “Treasure Hunter Security” series, which revolves around a security team comprised of ex-military men and women who are specialized in protecting anything archaeological, be it a site, person, or artifact. The series is written by Anna Hackett, and it looks like she has a couple of series involving archaeology (the other involving archaeologists of the future living on other planets) There’s a half naked man on the front cover and you know what that means – there will be sexy times.

Undiscovered involves an ex-Navy SEAL character named Declan Ward, who owns the Treasure Hunter Security firm. The firm is hired to protect Egyptologist Dr. Layne Rush, who is attacked on her archaeological dig in Egypt, somewhere west of the Nile and a couple of hours southwest of Dakhla Oasis. While excavating a new tomb, a dog amulet was uncovered with inscriptions naming the mythical city of Zerzura. When Rush and her site are attacked by Ronin Cooper (a shady man from Ward’s past), this amulet is one of the artifacts stolen. And so begins the romantic adventure of Ward and Rush trying to a) stay alive, b) catch Cooper and get the artifacts back, and c) find out if the mythical city of  Zerzura actually exists.

All in all, it was a fun read with the right level of ridiculous to it. Especially the ending. It’s clear that the author did quite a bit of studying on ancient Egypt, though I will say that I’m pretty convinced the story of Zerzura that we get in chapter 3 was paraphrased from the same Wikipedia article I’ve linked to. Looters, which are an important part of this story, are a very real problem that archaeologists around the world do have to be cautious of. Being in part a romance novel, we’re also subject to the obsessive commentary on the characters appearances. Which leads me to an important bit of advice – don’t have sexy times on archaeological sites or around archaeological artifacts. Sites and artifacts can be damaged or contaminated. Could you imagine having to explain why running a residue test on an artifact or special feature of a site might not work? Awkward.

I did find one part of the book that’s worth real discussion. In chapter 3, Ward and Rush are having a conversation with a black market antiquities dealer about Zerzura when the topic of genetics comes up. Rush says to Ward, “Did you know that Ramses II and several other pharaohs were fair-skinned with red hair?” The antiquities dealer adds in, “DNA analysis links Tutankhamun to Western European ancestors.” King Tut was European, eh? That’s a pretty bold claim to make, a claim which in reality is incorrect. In fact, its history lies in a screenshot from a Discovery Channel show. Seriously.

A scene from King Tut Unwrapped

In 2010, a 2-part, 4-hour special program called King Tut Unwrapped aired on the Discovery Channel. A special team led by Egyptologist Zahi Hawass delved into an unprecedented, in depth investigation into the life and death of the famous young pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Part of this investigation included an attempt at studying Tutankhamun’s DNA. Not just Tutankhamun, but 10 of his suspected relatives as well. Now, ancient DNA (aDNA) is tricky to work with. It doesn’t preserve well and is susceptible to contamination, especially from improper handling techniques. Hotter climates aren’t great for aDNA preservation, and at the time the documentary was being filmed (2008) it was contested whether or not aDNA could ever successfully be collected from Egyptian mummies. Mummies were not only subject to hot climates but also a variety of mummification techniques and materials, all of which could easily contaminate the DNA over time.

When it was announced that aDNA had been successfully collected from Tutankhamun and would be included in this Discovery Channel program, the announcement was met with healthy skepticism. Tutankhamun was in poor shape thanks to the embalming materials used and had been handled by many ungloved researchers since his tomb had been discovered. Had scientists in the documentary really been able to account for all of that contamination and still successfully sequence his DNA? Well, it looked as though they were successful enough to claim that the 10 suspected relatives were, in fact, relatives of Tutankhamun. These results were again met with skepticism, due in large part to worries of contamination and poor preservation.

The results of Tutankhamun’s DNA analysis were included in the first part of the documentary. Seen in some of the scenes were computer screens showing some of the aDNA results, which appear as brightly coloured lines and peaks against a white background. Researchers from a Swiss genetics company called iGENEA noticed the few images of those brightly coloured lines. Now, if you watch the documentary or read the published paper about the aDNA results, you’ll notice that not once was geographic ancestry mentioned. The only results discussed were Tutankhamun’s relationships to the other mummies tested. But iGENEA decided there was more to be said. They claimed that from the images of the computer screens shown in the documentary, they were able to determine that Tutankhamun’s DNA belonged to haplogroup R-M269, a paternal haplogroup found on the Y-chromosome that over 50% of Western European men also belong to. In iGENEA’s mind, this meant that Tutankhamun was, in fact, of European descent. They even developed a genetic test kit available for purchase in their search for Tutankhamun’s European relatives.

Tut DNA 3
My own screenshot of the aDNA results in King Tut Unwrapped, from which iGENEA based their ancestry claims

As per usual, the truth behind the genetics is much more complicated. Sharing a haplogroup with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re descended from that person. It means you share a common ancestor. To examine descent, you need to try to understand when and how a haplogroup spread. The spread of R-M269 through Europe is highly debated. It has been argued that R-M269 spread through Europe with the Neolithic revolution. Another study determined that there were subgroups of R-M269, one of which made its way into Europe via the Neolithic revolution. The most recent study agreed that there were two subgroups of R-M269 – one which spread through Europe and one which spread through Eurasia. Importantly, they also argued there was not enough evidence to determine the timeline for the spread of R-M269. In other words, scientists don’t actually know when R-M269 split into the European and non-European sub-groups, and thus don’t know where the split happened. Did it happen once R-M269 was already in Europe? Or did the split happen before it reached Europe?

Turning our attention back to Tutankhamun, hopefully you can now see that the R-M269 haplogroup doesn’t actually mean much for iGENEA’s claim he was of European descent. We don’t know which subgroup of R-269 Tutankhamun was part of. Even if we did know, we still don’t know when and where that subgroup formed (pre or post Europe). But the most important point here is that the theory of Tutankhamun being of European descent was literally based off a screenshot from a TV show and isn’t worth an ounce of consideration without seeing the actual genetic results.

So there you have it. My first edition of Digging in the Wrong Place. Each edition will be different, depending on what I’ve found in the book I’ve read. I hope you’ve enjoyed my discussion on Undiscovered, and learned a new thing or two!

See Also:

A 2017 study of maternal (mitochondrial) DNA (mtDNA) has determined a genetic connection of ancient Egyptians to the Levant region


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