Egyptologist pulls together threads woven through ancient civilizations

Egyptologist pulls together threads woven through ancient civilizations

UCLA professor Kara Cooney illustrates the parallels between six traditions across 12 cultures and 10 countries in a six-part Discovery Channel series airing this summer.

Humanity seems to create the same patterns again and again.

By Meg Sullivan for UCLA Today

In 2560 BC, the ancient Egyptians built the Giza Pyramid. Nearly 2,700 years later and some 7,700 miles away, the Aztecs erected a similarly imposing pyramid.

A coincidence? Or the result of secret contact between two disparate cultures? Evidence, perhaps, of the intervention of aliens?

"Believe me, I've heard it all," said Kara Cooney, laughing. Formerly with the Getty Research Institute, she recently joined the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Culture and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

But where others may break into the theme song for "The Twilight Zone," the Egyptologist goes one step beyond and offers a more rational viewpoint. In a new six-part series scheduled to air this summer on the Discovery Channel, Cooney lays out reasonable explanations for parallels in religious and burial traditions and settlement patterns across a range of cultures with no documented previous contact with each other.

In "Out of Egypt," she expertly traces themes and variations on six traditions across 12 cultures and 10 countries. In addition to the proliferation of pyramids, Cooney looks at the prevalence of the belief in the devil, intermixing of religion and violence, burial traditions, use of religious relics and certain social repercussions of city life.

"When faced with the same materials on this Earth, the same biological matter and laws of physics, and similar societies based on inequality and the need to demonstrate dominance and power, people will come up with very similar strategies independently of one other," Cooney explained in "Out of Egypt." "Humanity seems to create the same patterns again and again."

Cooney's perspective appears to be a winning one. The June 5 issue of Entertainment Weekly counted "Out of Egypt" among the "14 TV shows we can't wait to see." It has also gotten a thumbs-up from Daily Variety.

Scheduled to air in two-hour blocks on the second, third and fourth Mondays in August, the series is the brainchild of Cooney and her screenwriter husband, Neil Crawford. Crawford created and produced "Out of Egypt," the couple's first jointly produced project. Meanwhile, Cooney serves as the host, lead researcher and writer for the show.

It's a long way since her first foray into communication beyond the classroom. As one of three curators of the 2005 exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she found herself being interviewed on "The Today Show."

"We pushed her into it, but she was great," said Nancy Thomas, the deputy director of LACMA and a 1980 UCLA alumna. "She has a natural aptitude" for television.

Since that time, Cooney has provided expert commentary on three other documentaries related to her expertise in funerary arts and the anthropology of funerary rituals and beliefs from ancient Egypt's New Kingdom — a period between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. She also has appeared four times on CBS' "Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson," the last time to discuss her 2007 scholarly book, "The Cost of Death: The Social and Economic Value of Ancient Egyptian Funerary Art in the Ramesside Period."

"Kara has the rare blend of scholarly knowledge and understanding of how to interpret a complex ancient culture for a contemporary audience," said Thomas. "There's a great fascination with Egypt, and either it's presented in a really dry or an overly spectacular way. She's able to be both engaging and appropriately scholarly."

Take Cooney's perspective on pyramids, for instance. Typically, they are designed to serve as a physical manifestation of a ruler's claims to somehow have the ability to connect heaven and earth, she explains in series. The form is also the result of limitations on construction technology in civilizations that have yet to discover the wonders of steel.

"If you're going to build something high — something that can be seen across the landscape — it doesn't matter if you're in Mesoamerica, Egypt or Sri Lanka. You need to build wide at the base and narrow at the top because if you don't have rebar and steel reinforcement, you can't build straight up."

Each episode begins in Egypt, cradle to a particularly vivid example of the tradition being explored. In Egypt, the New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 B.C.) specialist serves as the episode's authority. But once Cooney leaves the Nile Valley, she queries 40 other authorities, ranging from highly decorated academics to humble cemetery caretakers. The educator and authority clearly relishes the role.

"I'm not expected to be the expert, and that's very liberating," Cooney said. "I love asking stupid questions, and I love being surprised. That, for me, is the joy of learning."

For air times and dates go to the Discovery Channel's website. To see Cooney's interview on the "Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson," go here.

Published: Tuesday, June 30, 2009