The Residue of Bias

Over the last few days, I’ve watched a documentary on Netflix: Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb.  It shows a dedicated team of archaeologists, historians, workers and even a medical doctor.  They dig, uncover relics, decipher hieroglyphics on interior walls, study skulls and bones … and add to the story of Egyptian history.  I was fascinated.

One thing I love about me is my welcoming of everyone, regardless of age, gender, culture, sexual orientation and personality.  Watching this show, however, has shone light on my dark side, on my old assumptions about people.

Take the title of the documentary, for instance.  “Why doesn’t ‘Saqqara’ have a ‘u’ after the second ‘q’?  Surely to do so is normal.  We all know how to spell ‘quiet’.”  Western civilization goes with “qu”, but so what?  Who is this “we all” that spells this way?  Growing up, I absorbed the values of my parents and friends, as well as those of Canadian culture.  My view of the world was narrow.  I was swimming in the waters of ethnocentrism: “evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in the standards and customs of one’s own culture”.  Today I say “No thanks” to such distorted vision.  But I didn’t have the eyes to see when I was twenty.

Temperatures at the dig were usually over 30º Celsius (86º Fahrenheit).  People working there either wore long-sleeved shirts and jeans or traditional dress that covered the arms and legs.  “Boy, they must be hot!  Why don’t they wear t-shirts and shorts?”  How my bias leaks out … unconsciously.

Another unexamined thought of mine apparently is that women wearing traditional African dress, including the Muslim headscarf called a hajib, would not be doing professional work.  Once the team found the entrance to Wahtye’s tomb, and began excavating, the paintings on the wall were interpreted expertly by a woman wearing a hajib!  My pause as I listened to her speak about the family relationships on those walls showed me that my spiritual development is incomplete.

Next to open my eyes was a medical doctor who was an expert on human bones and the stresses she saw there.  She theorized that the reason children’s skeletons were buried with their parents was that this part of Eqypt was rocked with a malaria outbreak around 600 B.C.  She analyzed the way people walked from how their leg bones fit together.  “This bone should be more externally rotated if Wahtye was healthy.”  Once again, while my current spirituality praises the insights of the doctor, somewhere lurking inside me are vestiges of a kid who learned that women don’t do important work.  (Sigh)

Towards the end of the film, various folks working on the dig talked about Wahtye and his family.  Their sensitivity to these ancient ones, their clear feeling of relationship with them, shone through:

The only place I sensed true sadness was in his burial chamber.  There were no signs of luxury or indulgence.  The coffin was just regular wood, and he wasn’t even mummified that well.  Maybe the shock of his children’s death brought him to this.

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We still need to find out how he died but it’s something very beautiful, which fills your heart with joy, to reveal the face of Wahtye.

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I think this skull is Wahtye.  At last I meet him!  Something was happening in this bone.  I’m trying to feel his pain and suffering.

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On the walls, we see the dreams of Wahtye, what he hoped his afterlife would be.  In his bones, we see the real story – one that is just like ours.

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I am humbled, by human beings of the past and present
I still have much to learn