It’s hard to make up my mind about David Gibbins’ “Pharoah”. He has a lot going for him, from my point of view. He has professional expertise in archeology, underwater archeology in particular, so his descriptions of field work are both interesting and convincing. The subject matter is also fascinating, dealing, in this book, with both the Pharaoh Akhenaten and the British expedition to rescue General Gordon in the Victorian era. And he has the scientific approach of doing thorough research and even, in notes at the end, explaining which parts of his story are fictional and giving references for those that are not.
Those notes almost make me forgive him for the invented dialogue attributed to actual historical characters and, even worse, having Gordon’s death at Khartoum come at the hands of a British sharpshooter sent by his own government.
It has occurred to me that archeology must be a very frustrating occupation, because so much of the evidence needed to understand the past is missing, and it’s often impossible to know whether our interpretations of the evidence we do have is correct. There is an old comedy sketch in which a super serious professor with a German accent assures his audience a thousand years in the future that the capitol of the American Empire was a city called Poundlaundry. What makes this funny is that we don’t think it’s impossible.
So I can understand why an archeologist might enjoy writing fiction in which an archeologist discovers amazing and meaningful artifacts and and almost effortlessly finds out exactly what they all mean. Because in real life, an archeologist had better adopt the philosophy revealingly expressed by the protagonist in this book:
“If there was anything he had learned from being an archeologist, it was this: that too often the treasure at the end of the quest was an illusion, an ever-receding mirage, and the real discoveries were the ones made along the way, revelations of ancient and present lives, voyages of self-discovery, and friendship.”