Count Byron Kuhn de Prorok was a popular – and highly
controversial – archaeologist active from the mid-1920's through the
early 1940's. In his classic Dead Men Do Tell Tales he describes
his 1933-34 African expedition into Abyssinia.
This is not an academic dissertation. De Prorok tells
about raiding tombs, flirting with native women, outrunning murderous
warlords, and wading hip deep in political intrigue in one of the most
remote regions of the world. One night, he was spying on cult ritual:
Crouching like animals, the dancers advanced and
receded to the savage rhythm. They were not only imitating, they were
impersonating lions, tigers, leopards, hippos, elephants, and smaller
animals; even to their cries and roars and calls. As they trumpeted and
grunted in their dance, the tempo of the rhythm increased gradually
until they worked themselves into a state of fanatical frenzy.
For the most part, de Prorok's cultural and political
observations are detailed and sound, and while the language is polite, he
doesn't often shrink from the grisly truth, as when describing the details
of orgiastic dances, human sacrifices, female circumcision, human-animal
relations, and slavery. For example, he tracks down a slave caravan and
gives us a graphic image:
Achmed led us to a door which opened on a courtyard
shaded by palms. Lying on the hard-packed, earthen floor were over
twenty women, sleeping soundly. So completely exhausted were they that
not one of them opened her eyes when we entered. They had no manacles or
chains; those were no longer necessary so far along the road toward
Arabia. Surrounded by the terribly desolate and waterless country,
escape was almost an impossibility.
But some of Byron de Prorok’s exploits are so fantastic
they defy credibility (this edition contains a fascinating biographical
profile of the man). That not withstanding, Dead Men Do Tell Tales
is awfully fun reading, as are his other books: Digging for Lost
African Gods (1926), Mysterious Sahara (1929), and In Quest
of Lost Worlds (1935). All are available from The Narrative Press.