Off Beat: Egyptologist finds parallels between ancient, modern societies

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An authority on ancient Egypt provided her expertise recently when The Columbian previewed a new exhibition at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Kara Cooney enjoys finding modern parallels for ancient concepts. Lots of things can change over the centuries, she said, but people are still people — “Often with the same DNA, and the same social systems and inequalities.”

She says that shared humanity is why “being in the presence of a mummified body is very humbling. They were a living, breathing person.”

“We’re not invulnerable. We’re just like them,” said Cooney, associate professor of Egyptology at UCLA. “You will be what they are.”

Cooney produced and created a series for the Discovery Channel, “Out of Egypt,” showing the ancient roots of elements of modern society.

“It’s fun for me. There is a lot of stuff on TV where the producers get it wrong,” she said.

She was on Craig Ferguson’s late-night TV show last week, discussing how political unrest has threatened the security of Egypt’s museums and cultural treasures. (The segment is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pf3iO4NxWc8).

‘Lost’ assignment

On another TV series, however, her job wasn’t to explain: It was to mystify. The producers of ABC’s “Lost” asked Cooney to write Egyptian hieroglyphics that could be sprinkled through episodes of the show.

“They had me do words like death and fear or foreboding,” Cooney said.

“I put it into hieroglyphics and they put it into the show. They were meant to be harbingers of what was cooking.

“When they put a symbol on a plane ticket stub or something, fans froze the DVR and would do a screen capture.”

She forwarded an example that showed a man who was knocked to his knees after being hit on the head.

“This is the sign for death,” she wrote. “Note the blood pouring from the dead guy’s head. Pretty evocative.”

Some hard-core fans would get together online and try to figure out what those hieroglyphics were all about.

“People were able to translate it too easily,” she said.

So, Cooney wrote the symbols in reverse order, adding another twist to the theme of “‘Lost’ in translation.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.