The BBC invents its own Cleopatra.

 

Here’s what passes for historical scholarship in mainstream culture — from the BBC:

Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was part African, says a BBC team which believes it has found her sister’s tomb….

[R]emains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton….

That’s the conclusion of Hilke Thur of the Austrian Academy of Sciences:

It is unique in the life of an archaeologist to find the tomb and the skeleton of a member of Ptolemaic dynasty. The results of the forensic examination and the fact that the facial reconstruction shows that Arsinoe had an African mother is a real sensation which leads to a new insight on Cleopatra’s family and the relationship of the sisters Cleopatra and Arsinoe.

Now that would be exciting news, since anyone lightly familiar with antiquity knows that Cleopatra was ethnically Greek – Macedonian, really — not African. When Alexander the Great died unexpectedly on his Persian campaign in 323 B.C., his generals decided to stay and form their own mini-empires in the region. So Seleucus trotted off to found the Seleucid Empire around Syria, Antigonus went to Asia Minor, and Ptolemy — Cleopatra’s forefather —  headed to Egypt.

On what basis, then, can Thur claim Egyptian ancestry for Ptolemy’s offspring? Well, she argues that since Arsinoe has “African” features, she and Cleopatra must have had a native Egyptian mother. That sounds good… until you take a closer look.

Two points the BBC article neglects:

1. Dr. Thur has no compelling reason to identify the remains as those of Arsinoe, beyond the fact that they were found in an octagonal tomb in Ephesus. Arsinoe was associated with the lighthouse of Alexandria — an octagonal structure — and we know from Josephus that she was murdered in Ephesus (“She had her sister Arsinoe slain, by the means of Antony, when she was a supplicant at Diana’s temple at Ephesus.” Antiq. 15:4), so it’s certainly a possibility. But that isn’t much to build a case on.

2. Arsinoe’s alleged “African” features are revealed through a facial reconstruction. That’s quite a trick, since the skeleton they’re working from has no skull. The cranium was removed and promptly lost during World War II. The “reconstruction,” if it can even be called that, comes from measurements scribbled down in the 1920s — before the advent of modern forensic science. Basic skull dimensions can accomodate a range of ethnic and racial types; this is evidence of nothing.

So… an octagonal tomb, some carbon dating of the bones, and a facial reconstruction of a skull that no longer exists: That’s basically their case. While that may not satisfy those finicky historians who insist on the use of actual evidence and reason, it’s more than enough to get researchers their own BBC special, which will air next week. Apparently, the network has run out of Lost Gospels of Jesus to pimp during ratings week, so we’ll have to be satisfied with, “Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer.”

Brian Saint-Paul

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Brian Saint-Paul is the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

  • Eric Giunta

    Mr. Saint-Paul:

    Why is it so hard to believe that, in the centuries since her ancestor Ptolemy first set foot in Egypt, SOME intermarriage with SOME native Africans would have occurred?

    Heck, I’d find it more difficult to believe otherwise.

  • Peter Freeman

    This reminds me of the recently “discovered” Cobbs portrait of Shakespeare, which Stanley Wells is touting as the only portrait of Will done during his lifetime (and therefore the most accurate).

    The only hitch is that no one actually knows whom the portrait portrays.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Mr. Saint-Paul:

    Why is it so hard to believe that, in the centuries since her ancestor Ptolemy first set foot in Egypt, SOME intermarriage with SOME native Africans would have occurred?

    Heck, I’d find it more difficult to believe otherwise.

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks much for the comment.

    It is possible, though unlikely in the royal line (sex, definitely; marriage, no). But the point is, there simply isn’t any evidence for it. Why not assume Cleopatra’s mother was a Turkish dancer, visiting from the Steppe? Or maybe a feisty nomadic Semite from Arabia? We can’t just pull history from the air, just because it makes for a good story. I think that’s what the BBC has done here.

    This reminds me of the recently “discovered” Cobbs portrait of Shakespeare, which Stanley Wells is touting as the only portrait of Will done during his lifetime (and therefore the most accurate).

    The only hitch is that no one actually knows whom the portrait portrays.

    Hi Peter,

    Yes, I saw that as well. Interesting stuff. If I recall, the man in the portrait looks a good 20 years younger than Shakespeare would have been at the time. Maybe artistic convention, or maybe it’s just a different guy.

  • DN

    Don’t think the Brits do ratings week, especially as the BBC doesn’t carry advertising. Doesn’t excuse poor scholarship, but…

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Don’t think the Brits do ratings week, especially as the BBC doesn’t carry advertising. Doesn’t excuse poor scholarship, but…

    Ah. That’s a good catch, thanks.

  • Jeffrey Bardwell

    Whether Arsinoe’s mother was African or not is beside the point, since she and Cleopatra were half-sisters with a common father (not mother).

  • Alice ransom

    Brian, you look like you could be mix  with African –    Beach out African – 

    European and African ancestry were usually classed as mulattoes, or sometimes as black and sometimes as white, depending on appearance.  North Africa, is nothing more than Black and White mix….White people is only fool themselves.  White people  moved into Africa and mixed with Black African… 

    Cleopatra, is a mulattoes – she lived in Africa around all those black people….
    If you are born in US and you have one drop of Black Blood you are Black
    If you are born in Africa and you have one drop of White Blood you are White

  • Aliceransom37

    EUROPEAN FAIRY TALES ARE FINALLY COMING TO AN END!!!!
    African Empires: TaSeti (300yrs b4 KMT), 
    Nubia (9000BC) 
    Ancient Ghana (SONINKE civilization – 4000BC), 
    Ancient NOK (1000 BC), 
    Ile Ife Civilization , 
    Ancient South African Civilization (75,000 BC)
    There has been a 160K-200K yr old civilization discovered in S. Africa which they found Falcon Statues which is a prototype for Horus.  Please do the research on that. Egypt today as a whole is still dark especially in the South (Upper Egypt). The Ancient Egyptians were AFRICANS not Europeans or Asians. Egypt is in Africa not somewhere else in this world. Even the culture is still practiced by tribes such as the Dogons and Yoruba. Please asked the Dongons and Yoruba what race was Cleopatra?  These African know their history… If this was European History, white people would know; they would not have to be doing all  that dig in African Lands.   Now the white people are called these black African people brown skins Europeans –  Talked to the Black African – They have been for thousand of years…..

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