Almost 4,000 years ago, a woman travelled hundreds of kilometres to Egypt carrying an infant child on her back, seeking to trade or perhaps to settle there, presumably looking for a better life. They were immortalised in an extraordinary wooden statuette, which was excavated in a tomb at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt thousands of years later. She stands only 15 cm tall but her face is full of character. Her appearance is very different from depictions of ancient Egyptians: her skin is yellow and she wears a long red woollen cloak and boots.
This type of small wooden statuette was usually part of a larger group of wooden figurines depicting scenes of food production and craftsmanship on the tomb owner’s estate, so they may originally have been part of a larger processional scene. The woman and child are also unusual in the level of detail in the carving, which is unlike most other wooden tomb models. The modelling of the woman’s face is deeply furrowed and highly expressive.
4000 years ago, a learned Egyptian scribe penned this advice: ‘Do not be proud because you are wise! Consult with the ignorant as with the learned! Perfect speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found with the maidservants at the millstones’. While wisdom may be found in unexpected places, unfortunately ignorance may be also. I was disappointed last week when the BBC and the Guardian published articles that inaccurately dismissed hieroglyphs as a more primitive form of writing than emojis.
Professor Vyv Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, was quoted as saying: ‘As a visual language emoji has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop’. While emojis are a fun and creative method of casual digital communication, they’re definitely not yet on the same level as ancient Egyptian, which was actually a structured, grammatical language capable of communicating complex, abstract ideas.
To compare the two, you can look at some fun emoji news headlines that the BBC put together. They manage to convey some very basic ideas, but only really work if you’re already familiar with the news stories to which they allude. For example, this one which is apparently ‘One in four people don’t know the dodo is extinct, a poll finds.
Compare an equivalent ancient Egyptian news-vehicle: the commemorative scarabs of King Amenhotep III. These were circulated with short inscriptions to celebrate the pharaoh’s successful hunts, marriage, and building projects. Much more can be conveyed since the script includes numerals, has phonetic symbols to spell out names, and has a grammatical structure through the use of word order, adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns. This scarab gives the names and titles of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiye and celebrates the fact that between years 1 and 10 of his reign the king shot a total of 102 lions!
Following Evans’ BBC interview, Jonathan Jones wrote a rather scathing blog post in the Guardian, condemning emoji as a sign of modern cultural degeneracy and ancient Egypt as a form of dark ages: ‘After millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age. Such ethnocentric attitudes exhibit a disappointing cultural chauvinism in judging the ‘evolution’ of other societies by Western values. But it’s not entirely surprising. Even the misinterpretation of hieroglyphs dates back to ancient times.
After Egypt had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, the last known hieroglyphic inscription was carved by a priest on August 24, 394 AD on the island of Philae, and the script was subsequently forgotten. The misconception of hieroglyphs as ‘picture writing’ began with the 4th century Greek grammarian Horapollo, who encouraged speculation about their mysterious symbolic significance. It was not until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion that script was finally understood again.
Hieroglyphic symbols don’t simply function as pictograms that stand for what they depict. Some do, but most symbols actually hold phonetic values and represent sounds. Often symbols have multiple functions depending on their context. For example, the ‘house’ hieroglyph can be used as a pictogram to write the word pr, meaning‘house’ (left below), but it also holds the phonetic value pr, which can be used to write other words, such as pri, meaning ‘to go forth’ (right below).
Modern Chinese writing is presumably not dissimilar–the characters are more stylised of course, but most people probably don’t realize that hieroglyphs were actually only used for monumental inscriptions and religious texts. In ancient Egypt, everyday documents, such as accounts, letters, and even literary texts were written using pen and ink in a cursive form of the language known as hieratic.
The article goes on to state:
The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture. They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology – then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.
These jumped-up Aegean loudmouths, using an abstract non-pictorial alphabet they got from the Phoenicians, obviously and spectacularly outdid the Egyptians in their range of expression. The Greek alphabet was much more productive than all those lovely Egyptian pictures. That is why there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey.
There are quite a few incorrect statements to deconstruct here. While the ancient Egyptians deeply valued tradition, their culture, language and writing systems were certainly not static. It might seem that way to the uninformed casual observer, especially since the media and schools often present a monolithic picture of Egypt, but I won’t go into an extensive discussion of the history Egyptian art and architecture here. Suffice to say, that such generalisation could just as easily characterise much of Western architecture as static for its obsession with the Classical traditions of Greece and Rome.
Furthermore, those Greek and Phoenician alphabets that are so superior to ‘Egyptian pictures’? They actually evolved out of hieroglyphs via proto-Sinatic, as did most modern alphabets.
Jones argues that Egypt did not have a ‘flexible, questioning literary culture’ and ‘there is no ancient Egyptian Iliad or Odyssey’, however numerous literary texts survive from ancient Egypt. While one could argue about literary merit and aesthetics, the fact remains that poetic compositions were created and written down in Egypt at least 1000 years before Homer lived, and almost 2000 years before the earliest surviving manuscript fragments of the Iliad and Odyssey. Ancient Egyptian literary compositions such as the celebrated ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (c. 1900 BC) are epic in scope, if not length. They employ evocative imagery and metaphors, and present ambiguous explorations of themes such as Egyptian identity, justice, and kingship.
For example, in the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (the subject of an excellent episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘In Our Time’), the official Sinuhe flees Egypt when he hears of the king’s assassination and spends years in exile. The poem hauntingly describes his escape, when he gets lost in the desert, before his dramatic rescue: ‘Thirst’s attack overtook me, and I was scorched, my throat parched. I said: ‘This is the taste of death’.
After many adventures abroad, living amongst foreigners as a champion and leader of his own tribe, Sinuhe grows old and begins to wish to return home. In his emotional appeal for divine aid, he says: ‘Whatever god fated this flight – be gracious and bring me home! Surely You will let me see the place where my heart still stays! What matters more than my being buried in the land where I was born?!’. The new king of Egypt finally writes to Sinuhe, pardoning him and urging him to return, where he is welcomed home and finally dies in the favour of the king.
Another poem known as the ‘Dialogue of a Man and his Soul’ presents a man who despairs of his life and wishes to commit suicide. He debates the merits of life and death with his ba (soul/personality), who tries to convince him to live. Imbued with existential anguish, dramatic tension, and vivid imagery, the poem is remarkably moving, even thousands of years after its composition. For example, the man exclaims: ‘Who can I talk to today? For brothers are bad, and the friends of today do not love’. He describes the seductive appeal of death’s oblivion: ‘Death is to me today like a sick man’s recovery, like going out after confinement. Death is to me today like the smell of myrrh, like sitting under a sail on a windy day’. In the end, the man’s soul manages to reconcile him to life, promising ‘I shall alight when you are weary; so shall we make harbour together!’.
In the 21st century, I’d hope we can begin to move beyond the colonialist attitudes and Orientalism that have often dismissed ancient Egypt and other cultures as primitive and inferior to Classical civilisations. However, even when Egypt’s achievements have been admired, some scholars have tried to whitewash its people and culture, for example arguing that Egyptian civilisation could only have been founded by invaders from Mesopotamia (read Europeans). It’s about time that we gave the ancient Egyptians credit for their achievements and learned a bit more about them–in their own words. An ancient Egyptian eulogy to writers says: ‘They did not make for themselves pyramids of bronze … they made heirs for themselves as the writings and teachings they begat … Departing life has made their names forgotten; writings alone make them remembered’. Over 200 years after the decipherment of hieroglyphs, their words are able to speak once again – louder than any emoji.
Update: Professor Vyv Evans contacted me on Twitter to state: ‘I have never dismissed hieroglyphs as primitive’. He justified his statement to the BBC saying: ‘Emoji has stormed the world: 2 billion users in under 3 years. That is the claim, based on findings of fact’, and argued that the comparison between emoji and hieroglyphs was appropriate ‘due to the visual representational channel of over 6 million years’.
I was recently interviewed by David McRaney for a fun podcast called You Are Not So Smart, about self-delusion and the nature of belief. He asked me to debunk the ever-popular aliens-built-the-pyramids-theory, which I blogged about here back in 2007. I don’t think I realized until our discussion that some people believe the pyramids couldn’t have been built by humans because they think they were built in isolation in the middle of the desert (completely untrue, despite the strategic angling of photographs taken at Giza- check it out for yourself on Google Streetview!). You can listen to our discussion in the full podcast here. Re-visiting the topic prompted me to write a short update about some of the recent discoveries that further prove the true origins of the pyramids.
Despite what the media might lead you to believe, we actually know quite a lot about the Giza pyramids and their construction, but new discoveries are constantly expanding our understanding. One of the most interesting recent finds has taken place at a site far away from Giza, at Wadi el-Jarf, where archaeologists have been excavating the oldest known port in the world, dating back about 4,500 years to the time of the pyramids.
Excavations at the Red Sea site led by Pierre Tallet from the University of Paris-Sorbonne, and Gregory Marouard from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, have revealed the remains of dismantled boats used for trade and mining expeditions stored in remarkable galleries, measuring up to 34 metres in length, carved into the rock cliffs. But their most fascinating find so far has been a group of papyrus fragments, which forms the journal of a team who helped built the Great Pyramid at Giza.
This is an astounding discovery: actual documentary evidence of the pyramid building process.
Over a hundred fragments make up a personal log book recording the daily activities of a team led by the inspector Merer, who was in charge of a team of about 200 men. A timetable written up in two columns records the transportation of fine limestone blocks from quarries at the site of Tura to Giza, where they were used for the outer casing of the pyramid. It took four days, using the Nile and connecting canals, to transport the blocks about 10km to the pyramid construction site, which was called the ‘Horizon of Khufu’. The logbook documents these activities for a period of more than three months.
Merer’s journal mentions regularly passing through an important administrative centre, ‘Ro-She Khufu’, en route, one day before his arrival at the Giza construction site. The text specifies that this site was under the authority of Vizier Ankh-haf, half-brother of Khufu. It was previously known that Ankh-haf had served as vizier and overseer of works for King Khafre, Khufu’s successor, and it is thought that he probably oversaw the building of his pyramid and also the Sphinx. Merer’s log book now confirms that Ankh-haf was also involved in some of the final steps of the construction of the Great Pyramid.
The journal was found alongside administrative accounts dated to the reign of King Khufu, the year after the 13th cattle count. Since the cattle count regularly took place every two years, this indicates regnal year 27, the highest attested year for Khufu’s reign. This suggests that the outer casing of the pyramid was being completed at the very end of the Khufu’s reign.
But how did papyri documenting the building of the Great Pyramid end up in a port on the Red Sea? The documents may have been present at Wadi el-Jarf because one of the teams at Giza was later responsible for work at the port, perhaps related to the acquisition of copper in the Sinai for tools used at Giza, or to perform the final closing of the port’s galleries with monumental stone blocks. The papyri haven’t altered our existing understanding of pyramid construction, but they’ve contributed to confirming it, as well as hugely enhancing our knowledge of processes, practices, and people behind the construction of the Great Pyramid.
Excavations at another port, but rather one at the actual site of Giza, has also been revealing further information. Mark Lehner and the AERA team have been excavating the possible harbour and pyramid workers’ town known as Heit el-Ghurab. Evidence from drill cores may suggest there was a large man-made harbour carved into the floodplain and connected to the Nile, which would have facilitated the delivery of stone from quarries, exotic goods from expeditions abroad, and other supplies. Numerous huge galleries there may have served as barracks and/or storage areas. Discoveries there have been providing information about the practical issues at the site, including how pyramid workers were fed.
The pyramid journal papyri have yet to be fully published, and excavations are ongoing at both ports of Wadi el-Jarf and Heit el-Ghurab, which may yet reveal further secrets and enhance our understanding of the complex processes behind the construction of the last surviving ancient wonder of the world.
The cultural achievements of Middle Kingdom Egypt are many, but its jewellery must surely be counted as one of the greatest: the craftsmanship of the period was never surpassed in its attention to intricate detail and technical skill. One of the finest examples, a gold pendant in the form of a catfish (A.1914.1079), resides in National Museums Scotland. The intact burial assemblage in which it was discovered was excavated at the site of Harageh by Reginald Engelbach and Battiscombe Gunn for the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. They excavated this site in one season during the winter of 1913-1914, which they published later in 1923.
The site of Harageh is a series of cemeteries dug in an area which lies like an island of desert sand and bedrock surrounded by cultivated land between the river Nile and the Fayum. The cemeteries there date to various periods ranging from the earliest period of Egyptian civilisation to the Coptic Christian era. Middle Kingdom burials relate to the nearby pyramid of the 12th Dynasty King Senwosret II (c. 1880-1874 BC) and the town of Lahun, which was home to the workers who built the pyramid and served the king’s cult.
Many of the tombs at Harageh were robbed in antiquity. While Englebach and Gunn were excavating Cemetery A, they found a tomb (no. 72), which at first appeared to have suffered the same fate, but they were soon to discover a hidden chamber that the ancient robbers had missed. Tomb 72 was a large tomb consisting of a vertical shaft cut about 2.5m deep into the bedrock leading to two chambers on the north, and one chamber on the south, each measuring about 1.5m2. All of these had been robbed, although they still contained a large quantity of gold leaf, probably lost from wooden coffins, and eight ceramic vessels.
However, on the west side of the south chamber was another shaft just under a metre deep, which appeared to be untouched. It contained the burial of a young girl, wrapped in linen in a wooden coffin, which had decayed. Her body was adorned with a large quantity of beads: three necklaces of gold foil beads, Red Sea shells tipped with gold, and hundreds of beads made from semi-precious stones – carnelian, amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli. These probably formed six necklaces. One of the beads was in the form of a tiny green frog.
The other finds included a scarab of glazed steatite, the base decorated with scroll-work and rimmed in gold, two uninscribed turquoise scarabs, cosmetic vessels in calcite, and a pottery vessels, whose form indicated the burial dated to the late 12th Dynasty. The British School of Archaeology in Egypt donated this grave group to National Museums Scotland.
The most spectacular objects found in the burial were five gold catfish pendants, three larger ones and two very small ones. Ancient Egyptian representations, such as a cosmetic jar in the form of a girl (BM EA 2572) and a tomb relief depicting the daughter of Ukhhotep III at Meir, depict fish pendants being worn by girls at the end of plaits. A fish pendant also serves as a central narrative device in a story about King Sneferu in Papyrus Westcar, a Middle Kingdom literary composition (P. Berlin 3033). The king is bored, so his chief lector-priest arranges a boating party rowed by young women dressed only in fishing nets; when the lead oarswoman’s fish pendant accidentally drops into the lake, she refuses to row any further until the priest uses his magic to retrieve it.
Of the five Harageh fish pendants, the modelling of the main fish is incredibly lifelike and the details of its speckles, gills, and fins are intricately worked, despite measuring only just over 3cm in length. The incredible high quality of the main fish pendant is comparable to the gold craftsmanship found in the burials of 12th Dynasty royal women at Lahun and Dashur. However, the other fish found in the same burial, while very similar in form and size, are of much lesser workmanship. Could it be possible that the main fish pendant was a royal gift? Perhaps the others might then have been commissioned to complement it.
It is not only the gold fish that indicate the importance of the family who was buried in tomb 72. Many of the other materials used were obtained from distant places, which would have increased their value: turquoise from the Sinai, shells from the Red Sea, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. The level of effort expended on excavating the multi-chambered rock-cut shaft tomb, and the level of material wealth in the grave, not all of which actually survived, suggests that the family of the young girl in tomb 72 would have been wealthy state officials who served the king, perhaps even at the pyramid town of Lahun.
At National Museums Scotland, we are currently in the process of analysing the jewellery from this tomb, as part of a larger project (PICS 5995) investigating ancient Egyptian gold in collaboration with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), so as to better understand the techniques and materials used to make these beautiful objects. We will be presenting our results at a workshop at the National Museum of Scotland on Thursday October 16th, along with other papers from distinguished speakers such as Ian Shaw, Marcel Maree, Campbell Price, and others. There are a few places still available for the workshop, which can be booked online here.
This box of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, decorated with an image of the protective god Bes, is one of the finest examples of decorative woodwork to survive from ancient Egypt. It is thought to have been found by pioneering Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind in the mid-19th century.
The fragmentary box is richly decorated with exotic materials from different areas of the ancient Mediterranean, signifying the extent of the king’s empire and its wealth. The main body is made of cedar wood, which was imported from Lebanon and valued for its quality, as suitable sources of wood were not abundant in Egypt.
The gold may have been mined in Egypt’s Eastern Desert or in Nubia (ancient Sudan). The box is overlaid with ivory plaques, made from either hippo or elephant tusk. Elephants were not native to Egypt and ivory was imported or given as tribute from further south in Africa. The veneers of ebony, a highly-prized dark hardwood, probably came from the land of Punt with whom the Egyptians traded. Our name for this wood, ‘ebony’ actually comes from the ancient Egyptian name for it, hebeny.
The box is a much more elaborate version of the types of wooden containers often found in ancient Egyptian tombs, other examples of which are on display in the Ancient Egypt gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. The decorative box of Amenhotep II was probably used to hold cosmetics or expensive perfumes. It likely belonged to the king himself or a member of his family, although it is also possible that he could have given it as a gift to an important high official. The closest parallels to such an elaborate wooden box as this are those found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC), and in the tomb of his grandparents Yuya and Tjuyu.
Amenhotep II was not originally the intended heir to the throne; he only became crown prince after his elder brother died, and he came to the throne at age 18. While still a prince, he served as a military commander, and he was renowned for his athletic prowess, much like his father. It was said that he once shot four arrows through four copper targets, each one palm thick, while riding on horseback.
The stela (large inscribed stone slab) of Amenhotep II at Giza tells of his strength and endurance:
Strong of arms, untiring when he took the oar, he rowed at the stern of his falcon-boat as the stroke-oar for two hundred men. Pausing after they had rowed half a mile, they were weak, limp in body, and breathless, while his majesty was strong under his oar of twenty cubits in length. He stopped and landed his falcon-boat only after he had done three miles of rowing without interrupting his stroke. Faces shone as they saw him do this.
Amenhotep II led numerous military campaigns over the course of his reign, but later in his reign he seems to have achieved peace with Egypt’s neighbours.
The protective household god
The main figure depicted on the decorative box of Amenhotep II is a protective god and household guardian known as Bes. A number of similar such deities are known from ancient Egypt, but in the absence of an inscription identifying the figure specifically, he is usually referred to as Bes.
Bes is depicted as a dwarf with lion-like features and sometimes wears a Nubian-style headdress with feathers. In ancient Egypt, dwarfs were thought to be emblematic of good fortune and many such individuals worked as entertainers; they were also considered to be very skilful, working as expert craftsmen, or even as important state officials to the king.
As a joyful symbol of good luck, Bes is sometimes shown dancing and playing the tambourine, while his protective role is evident from his rather fearsome appearance, which was intended to scare off potential dangers and evil spirits. He is often depicted brandishing knives and sticking out his tongue. He is somewhat comparable to more modern European gargoyles whose presence on churches was intended to ward off evil. Bes’ popularity spread throughout the ancient Mediterranean and depictions of him have been found in Cyprus, Assyria, and elsewhere.
As a household guardian and protector of the family, Bes frequently appears as a decorative and protective element on amulets, and household items such as headrests and furniture. Another wooden figure of Bes in the National Museums Scotland collection probably comes from a piece of furniture, possibly from the back of a chair.
Although he is generally thought of as a domestic god, worshipped in the home, as opposed to one of the state gods, such as the sun god Ra, who was worshipped in huge temples built by the pharaohs, Bes was obviously still considered worthy enough to feature on a household item in the palace of a king.
A rich symbolism
The box of Amenhotep II features a number of other decorative elements in addition to the main figure of the god Bes. The oval-shaped ivory plaques depict a name of Amenhotep II within a cartouche, an oval used to encircle royal names, which symbolised eternity. Ancient Egyptian names generally took the form of phrases that described their owner in positive terms, often in relation to a god or goddess.
An Egyptian king generally had five names: his birth name, plus four new names which he adopted at his coronation in order to emphasise his divine right to rule and convey a kind of mission statement for his reign. Two of the king’s names were typically written in cartouches, the birth name and the throne name.
Only Amenhotep II’s throne name, Aakheperure, appears on the box, but it is clear that there are several inlays missing which would have contained his birth name, Amenhotep. Aakheperure means ‘Great are the manifestations of the sun god Ra’, while Amenhotep means ‘the god Amun is satisfied’.
Together all of the decoration on the box served to ensure a long and successful reign for King Amenhotep II.
A pioneering Scottish Egyptologist
The origin of the Amenhotep II box is something of a mystery, although it is thought to have probably been brought back from Egypt by Alexander Henry Rhind (1833-1863), a young Scottish archaeologist, who was the first person to pioneer archaeological recording in Egypt in the 1850s.
2013 marks the 180th anniversary of his birth in Wick, Caithness on July 26th, 1833. The National Museums Scotland holds several hundred objects brought back by Rhind, including a complete burial assemblage from an intact Roman Egyptian tomb, which he discovered in Thebes. The start to his remarkable career was cut short when he died at the age of just 29, but the legacy he left to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland continues in their annual Rhind lectures.
2013 marks the 180th anniversary of his birth in Wick, Caithness on July 26th, 1833. The National Museums Scotland holds several hundred objects brought back by Rhind, including a complete burial assemblage from an intact Roman Egyptian tomb, which he discovered in Thebes. The start to his remarkable career was cut short when he died at the age of just 29, but the legacy he left to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland continues in their annual
Despite Rhind’s high standards of recording for the era, the exact origin of the box is not clear. It was reportedly found broken in several pieces in a box of Rhind’s miscellaneous finds by the curator of the National Museum of Antiquities, Joseph Anderson (1832-1916), in the late 19th century.
A later museum curator, Egyptologist Cyril Aldred (1914-1991), proposed that the box must been excavated by Rhind in the same tomb in which he had made another remarkable discovery: the mummies of the daughters of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 BC), the son of Amenhotep II.
The tomb in which they were found, in Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna on the west bank of Thebes (modern Luxor), would not have been their original burial place. To protect the royal mummies from the extensive looting going on during the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC), they were carefully labelled with each of the princesses’ names and titles, and then reburied in a more hidden and anonymous tomb.
Although the mummies found by Rhind were the granddaughters of Amenhotep II, there is no evidence the decorative box was found here as well, as Rhind did not mention it in his published account of the discovery of the tomb. Its exact origin remains a mystery.
The box of Amenhotep II survived in a fragmentary state. Curator Cyril Aldred meticulously recorded the box in its original state in a detailed line drawing and watercolour before he commissioned its restoration, probably in the 1950s. The lid, base, and back of the cylindrical box are still missing, but other damaged elements of the figure of Bes have been restored. If you compare the drawings to the object today, you can see that Bes’ right arm and foot as well as his tongue were originally missing and have now been reconstructed.
The box drew the fascination of another pioneering archaeologist, Sir Flinders Petrie, who wrote an article on the box in 1895. Petrie is often called the ‘Father of Egyptology’. Alexander Henry Rhind first employed systematic recording techniques almost 30 years before Petrie started working in Egypt, but his young career was cut short while Petrie was able to develop further advanced techniques over the course of his career of almost 60 years.
Petrie was intrigued by the Amenhotep II box’s beauty and decorative symbolism, and concluded his article by writing:
The whole piece is a very interesting example of the fine work of that most wealthy and luxurious period, the 18th Dynasty.
Today, the box of Amenhotep II remains a masterpiece of craftsmanship, one of the best examples of decorative woodwork to survive from ancient Egypt.
Today, 90 years ago on 26 November 1922, a small group gathered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt at the entrance to a tomb after five years of excavating. They waited as archaeologist Howard Carter painstakingly chiselled an opening through the sealed door. Initially he could see nothing in the flickering candle light, but he described how as his eyes adjusted to the light:
‘The details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold everywhere the glint of gold. Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” It was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things”.’
That day transformed our knowledge of ancient Egypt forever. Despite being a hastily arranged burial for a relatively minor king who died in his teens, the contents of the tomb over six hundred objects, ranging from thrones and chariots to game boards and underwear was one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, an unparalleled time capsule from 14th century BC Egypt.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb fuelled many Egyptologists’ early interest in the subject, including one of our former curators, Cyril Aldred, a notable Egyptologist who served from 1937-1974. While still at school, he met Howard Carter, who tested him on his Egyptological knowledge and was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to the great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Carter urged Petrie to take the young man on excavation with him, but Aldred was deterred when Petrie requested that his father contribute to financing the excavation! Despite this initial set back, Aldred had a long and influential career in Edinburgh.
When I arrived as the new curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the National Museum of Scotland just one month ago and started exploring the incredible ancient Egyptian collection here, I felt something akin to what I imagine Howard Carter must have felt.
Knowing how famous Tutankhamun is today, it is hard to believe that a hundred years ago he was almost completely unknown, even to Egyptologists. Very few occurrences of his name had been found before the discovery of his tomb, but it is possible that an object in our collection may have been amongst the very earliest a bright blue bezel finger ring stamped with the throne name of Tutankhamun. It is known to have been in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in 1900 (the National Museum of Antiquities later merged with the Royal Scottish Museum, to form what is now National Museums Scotland). This suggests that it was amongst the objects brought back from Egypt in the 1850s by the Scottish antiquarian and early archaeology pioneer Alexander Henry Rhind. Rings like this are thought to have been produced because the divine nature of the king’s name held magical, protective qualities.
One of the discoveries that led Howard Carter to find Tutankhamun’s tomb was a find made ten years earlier by Theodore Davis of another tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV58, which contained gold foil, probably from a royal chariot, and faience furniture knobs decorated with the name of Tutankhamun’s successor Ay. Davis mistakenly ascribed this tomb to Tutankhamun and declared ‘I fear that the Valley of the Tombs [i.e. the Valley of the Kings] is now exhausted’. Rarely has anyone been proven more wrong! Moreover, it was these objects that suggested to Carter that Tutankhamun’s tomb must be nearby.
National Museums Scotland has an object very similar to those first furniture handles found by Davis. It is made from a glazed ceramic composition called faience, decorated with Tutankhamun’s throne name, and would have originally adorned an elaborate, decorated wooden box. All of the beautiful wooden boxes from Tutankhamun’s tomb have very similar handles.
In addition to these small finds, the museum also holds two somewhat mysterious statue heads, which certainly date roughly to the era of Tutankhamun, but over which scholars have debated for decades. Cyril Aldred wrote that he and Bernard V. Bothmer of the Brooklyn Museum had argued over the head for years without reaching finality.
Both heads are made of granite and wear the royal nemes headdress and have been variously identified as Tutankhamun; an elderly Amenhotep III, Tutankhamun’s grandfather; Ay, Tutankhamun’s vizier and immediate successor, and Horemheb, Tutankhamun’s general who succeeded Ay as king.
Their hooded eyes and deep furrows from the nose to the downturned mouth are strongly reminiscent of late Amarna art and I can certainly see the resemblance to other statues identified as Tutankhamun. Further research is required, but it is important to remember that royal statues were never intended as portraits and were executed by different artists, so definitive attribution is unlikely. Many scholars have had different opinions on who our mystery pharaohs are what do you think?
190 years ago today, on the 27th of September 1822, a young scholar delivered a paper just eight pages long and rather unassumingly titled ‘Letter to Monsieur Dacier’, but which would completely change the world’s understanding of ancient history. The scholar was Jean-François Champollion and his paper was the first truly significant breakthrough in the decipherment of hieroglyphs. By cracking a code that had defeated scholars for hundreds of years, he revealed the key to ancient Egypt’s secrets, opening up over three thousand years of history and one of the world’s oldest civilisations. After almost two millennia of relying on ancient Greek and Roman historians’ somewhat spotty understanding of the much older history of Egypt and the persistent misinterpretation of Egyptian writing as purely symbolic, with Champollion’s breakthrough the ancient Egyptians were finally able to speak for themselves. Champollion’s achievements were certainly the work of a genius but he also worked unbelievably hard, which probably contributed to his sudden death at age 42, and his great grammar and dictionary had to be published posthumously by his brother. Arguably the first Egyptologist, despite a relatively short career, he was already a hard act to follow.
Although the French scholar is famed for his work on the Rosetta Stone, the trilingual Egyptian inscription now in the British Museum, he was more interested in the insights it could offer than the text itself. In fact he never actually bothered to publish a full translation! When I began my work with the British Museum’s Future Curator programme, it was unsurprisingly that I got drawn into answering public enquiries about the Rosetta Stone and learning more about Champollion’s work. But I little expected to continue this research at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was posted for a year as part of the BM programme’s expertise sharing.
To my astonishment, the archivist there, June Holmes, casually mentioned that the museum had in its possession an incredibly rare letter written by Champollion, part of the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Egyptian collection. I was astounded. Further investigation revealed an additional letter, though preserved only in copied translation, written even earlier, just one year after Champollion’s initial breakthrough, when his understanding of the ancient Egyptian language was still in its early stages. Object enquiries are now a routine part of museum work, so it was rather delightful to instead find the museum itself applying to someone else to interpret its objects! It was exhilarating to read Champollion’s sometimes faltering yet surprisingly confident and competent early work on one of the objects on display in the museum, the mummy of Bakt-en-Hor. Before Champollion was able to decipher the inscription, absolutely nothing was known about her and the usual stereotypical assumptions about her being a ‘princess’ abounded. Though he did not succeed in reading her name, his efforts gave the first real insights into her identity and beliefs.
It was also just fascinating to read the words of the great man himself and find a rather different story to the generally accepted narrative of ‘the usual rivalry and animosity between the British and the French’ (Usick 2002, 77). Access to the Rosetta Stone and accurate copies of its inscription had been the source of some friction between Champollion and his English rival Thomas Young. When Champollion later failed to acknowledge a debt to Young’s early insights, his relationship with English scholars grew even frostier. The letters somewhat contradict this though, revealing a warm correspondence between the great man and the liberal scholarly community in the North East, which likely stemmed from a mutual interest in Egypt and shared political beliefs.
Newcastle was home to an enlightened scholarly community community at the time (the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society was host to the first public room to be lit by electric light, as well as many other scholarly achievements), as well as having rather radical political leanings towards social, political, and religious reform, including strong support for the French Revolution. The Champollions’ reformist ideals and dangerous support for Napoleon over the monarchy certainly adversely affected their careers. At the time, Champollion’s initial achievements were questioned, but the forward-thinking scholars of Newcastle upon Tyne embraced his breakthrough. The letters demonstrate that the inscription on the Great North Museum: Hancock’s mummy, Bakt-en-Hor, was amongst the earliest hieroglyphic texts read by Champollion, and offer new insights into the early process of his decipherment.
For Champollion, at a time when he had not yet been able to achieve his dream of travelling to Egypt, any hieroglyphic texts were precious and vital to his continuing progress with the script and language. As Richard Parkinson has stated, ‘The decipherment of the Egyptian scripts is not a single event that occurred in 1822, but a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artifact. Like any process of reading, it is a dialogue.’
Before leaving Newcastle next week at the end of my post, I wanted to seek a new dialogue by bringing those historic dialogues to light again- both Champollion’s dialogue with the ancient Egyptian language and with the scholars of Newcastle. On Thursday 4 October I will give a free lecture at the Great North Museum: Hancock to share my findings and honour the 190th anniversary of the decipherment. I will be presenting a work-in-progress, but I hope to finish this very soon and publish the letters. Many readers won’t be able to make it to the lecture, but to learn more about Champollion, I highly recommend Andrew Robinson’s recently published very readable and informative biography Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, and Richard Parkinson’s Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, from the British Museum 1999 exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the Stone’s discovery.
In over three thousand years of history, ancient Egypt was ruled by hundreds of kings; to the untrained eye, they may often seem undistinguishable in their idealised representations, but their stories are more varied and extraordinary than might be imagined. In my new book, written to accompany the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, I explore many of these fascinating stories through the fabulous objects in the British Museum’s collection, from beautiful gilded palace tiles to a papyrus account of royal assassination. The aim of both the exhibition and the book is to juxtapose the ideals of kingship with the more complex realities faced by Egypt’s rulers.
For example, Amun-Ra, king of the gods, was frequently invoked by the Egyptian kings who sought to align themselves with him, but no one could have imagined the many ways in which his name would be used by the pharaohs over the centuries: Hatshepsut, who declared herself the first female king (not queen), told of her own birth as resulting from an assignation between her mother and Amun-Ra in disguise as her father; the kings of Nubia (ancient Sudan) justified their invasion of Egypt as a rescue mission for Amun-Ra, who they alleged was no longer being properly honoured in his own country; Alexander the Great sought out the oracle of Amun-Ra at Siwa Oasis where the god (or his nervous priests) acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror as his son.
The book has been a joy to write, but it actually almost never happened. The plan for the exhibition had always been to focus on creating an open online catalogue so we could offer free access to further object information, which is exactly what we did and you can visit the online catalogue here. It was only just as the exhibition was opening that BM Press broached the possibility of creating of a small affordable illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. The objects themselves are so stunning, from the huge wooden tomb guardian statue of Ramses I to the most delicate gold jewellery of the Middle Kingdom, that the prospect of working further with them was very appealing. In some ways the late start proved quite useful because it offered the opportunity to explore in the book some of the great stories that hadn’t made it into the exhibition.
For example, almost everyone knows of the boy-king Tutankhamun and the incredible discovery of his tomb’s treasures, but fewer will be familiar with the confusion over royal succession after his untimely death. Having died barely out of his teens, Egypt was left without a royal heir to inherit the throne, his only two children having been still born and interred with their father. It’s recorded that a royal widow of that period, probably Tutankhamun’s, wrote in her desperation to a foreign ruler, the Hittite king: ‘My husband died. I do not have a son. But, they say, many are your sons. If you would give me one of your sons, he would become my husband’. But the Hittite prince never made it to his coronation. En route to Egypt, the Hittite prince was murdered and Tutankhamun’s vizier Ay took the throne instead. Ay performed the traditional ceremonies usually carried out at the pharaoh’s funeral by his son, thereby smoothing the path to his succession. Over and over through ancient Egyptian history, the ideals of kingship were used to help soften the much harsher realities of ancient life and maintain stability and power.
While the exhibition consists of 14 sections ranging from royal titulary to temple building, family life to war iconography, my approach for the book was to condense these into a simpler framework of five chapters, each one exploring a key aspect of the king’s duties and mythologized roles, and how different the reality often was from the ideal:
‘The son of Ra’, supposedly descended from the gods, but often crowned through circumstance, conspiracy or invasion
‘The Lord of the Two Lands’, responsible for maintaining order and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, though their failure sometimes plunged the country into civil war
‘He who builds the mansions of the gods’, serving as high priest, building temples, or rather taking the shortcut of reusing older monuments
‘A champion without compare’, a warrior-king, supposedly protecting Egypt from her enemies, but being conquered in turn just as often
‘Lord of Eternity’, when the pharaoh was buried and thought to become one with the gods, after which he might subsequently be worshipped, maligned or forgotten
Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with brand new colour photographs and introduced by two quotations, one framing the idealised vision of the pharaoh in a particular role, the other presenting a starkly different view, to give the ancient Egyptians a chance to speak for themselves in their own words.
For the final chapter, ‘Lord of Eternity’, a quotation from the poem The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates the mythological beliefs surrounding the death of the king and the manner in which his subjects were expected to honour him:
“The God ascended to his horizon; the Dual King Sehotepibre, mounted to heaven, and was united with the sun, the divine flesh mingling with its creator. The palace was in silence, hearts were in mourning.”
In reality, deceased kings could generally expect to be treated much more harshly, as this account by tomb robbers in the Amhurst Papyrus demonstrates:
“We stripped off the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. We found the royal wife likewise and we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins.”
I hope that the book Pharaoh: King of Egyptwill be an enjoyable introduction to ancient Egyptian kingship and some of the amazing objects in the British Museum’s collection (and it’s only £9.99!). For those in the UK who haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it’s currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 14 October, after which it will be in Glasgow from 3 November 2012 to 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March to 9 June, 2013.
As most of you’ll have noticed from the Google doodle posted today, May 9th 2012 is the 138th birthday of Howard Carter, the archaeologist celebrated for discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. While many know him for that achievement, his original training was as an artist and some of his most notable work may actually be the incredible artistic records he produced, some of which may be viewed here.
While other Egyptologists such as Champollion and Petrie were famed for their scholarly advances, Carter superseded them in the public imagination with a discovery borne out of perseverance and a bit of luck. The discovery undeniably advanced our understanding of ancient Egypt massively overnight, and the vast range of objects in such a hastily assembled, minor king’s tomb is but a hint of what would have been discovered in the tombs of the greatest kings of the New Kingdom. The discovery has inspired future generations of Egyptologists and archaeologists, and the objects themselves have contributed to our understanding of everything from ancient Egyptian flora and clothing to boats and furniture.
Recording and removing the objects from the tomb took Carter 10 years, and with this sheer volume of objects, the finds are still being published today. It has been estimated that if publication continues at the present rate, it will be another 200 years before thorough records and studies of the finds are made! Luckily the Griffith Institute Archives in Oxford, which I’ve written about previously more fully here, has digitized the thousands of record cards, photographs, and diaries from the excavation and made them publicly available online. This important endeavour has taken fifteen years and I highly recommend exploring the site if you haven’t already!
It may be that the populist appeal of the tomb’s treasures and often sensationalist slant to the endless media interest have put off some scholars from working more on the Tutankhamun objects. Nevertheless, research continues today on the objects, and in addition to Joyce Tyldesley’s recently published general interest book, publications in the past few years include works on the various chairs and seating furniture found in the tomb, Tutankhamun’s footwear, and DNA testing performed on his mummy. Further research on the chariots found in Tutankhamun’s tomb will be presented at the First International Chariot Conference in December later this year.
Despite these advances, last year, the legacy of Carter’s discovery was threatened by the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The following video of a powerpoint presentation from the second seminar of the World Wide Archaeology Commission in cooperation with the Egyptian Museum shows which museum cases were broken into and, using before and after photos, demonstrates the extent of the damage to the objects, the restoration process, and the final result. Although some of the stolen Tutankhamun objects were recovered, many remain missing today.
Archaeology is fundamentally a destructive process and it is only through keeping thorough records that we can hope to make sense of what we discover about our past. Howard Carter’s initial involvement in Lord Carnarvon’s search for Tutankhamun resulted from his recommendation as an assistant to ensure proper archaeological recording. The best way to protect and preserve the objects of Tutankhamun’s tomb for the future is to continue to pursue their careful study and publication and share our knowledge with all.
Update March 10th: Excavator of the site Carol Redmount is posting to a newly founded Facebook group ‘Save El Hibeh Egypt’. For those without Facebook access,Â Glenn Mayer has posted her appeal in the comments on this page.
This Egyptian news video (click here to view) reports on looting in El Hibeh. Photographs of ransacked tombs and scattered human remains are shown from the 7.20 mark. These heartbreaking images bear witness to a heartless attack on Egyptian history and human dignity.Â An article about the looting has also been posted to alwafd.org and Glenn Meyer has provided a translation of the Arabic:
â€œWhile political parties are wrestling to reformulate the constitution andÂ members of parliament are competing to gain as much media attention as they can. While politicians are busy attacking / defending the Military Council and economists are concerned about the bad financial situation of the country. While the Ministry of Interior is busy with the battle over whether to allow beards or not, while other activists are jostling to impose their opinions in the media throughout Egypt and while the elite are busy with these cases, there is a mafia is devoted to looting antiquities what the ancient Egyptian civilization left us. They are no longer practicing their crimes in darkness, but in the middle of the day with bulldozers while the Ministry of Antiquities and the police are in silent!!â€
Because the Bulldozer has no heart and the mafia has no conscience, theyÂ have destroyed priceless antiquities, demolished temples that were beacons for the world, desecrated tombs and looted mummies leaving them in open air.
Horrible information has emerged about crimes that these antiquities mafia are committing in many areas in Egypt such as in Abu Sir, Abu Rawash, Sakkara and Beni Suef etc.Â Tonnes of Egyptâ€™s antiquities have been stolen in the last couple of months, much of it transferred by trucks to hiding places controlled by this mafia.
The Egyptian soil still contains much that excavations continue to find, these excavations areÂ conducted by specialized people under the protection of the state with the support of officials.Â Police have withdrawn from all the antiquities sites leaving them to thieves who do what they like.
It is unbelievable what is happening now to our history, you can just go to el Heba, Feshn office, Beni Suef and you would see an example of this wonder.
El Heba contains an exceptional collection of antiquities extending from theÂ Pharaonic dynasties to the Coptic and Islamic Periods. Â Antiquities that provide information about three consecutive periods of Egyptâ€™s history.
Because of is very dry environment, the pharaohs chose el-Hiba to establishÂ a Pharaonic archives center where they kept copies of papyrus documents, laws and stories. King Sishonk constructed a large temple similar to the temple of Karnak and sealed his name on every single stone.
Ancient factories were built around the temple and workers built theirÂ houses around these factories. Â They built two huge cemeteries at the east and west sides of the city and surrounded it with fence to protect it.
When the Coptic era started in Egypt, the place became a unique area containing many Coptic antiquities and the same happened during the Islamic Period.
In short, El Hiba is an example of a rare location that contains antiquities from three differentÂ eras, Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic. Â When this city was discovered in 1896 by the Egyptian Egyptologist, Mr. Ahmed Kamal, this was a great discovery.
Foreign missions started to come to this area with the hope of uncovering the antiquities while local police provided a specialist protection to this site.
As soon as the Egyptian revolution started and the police withdrew, the police left the area to the looters to find these priceless treasures. Â The leader of the El Hiba mafiaÂ is a man called â€œAbou Atia,â€ who escaped an execution order. He has got hold of a bulldozer and hired tens of men equipped with guns and dynamite and are currently digging el Hiba looking for antiquities and gold within the tombs.
However, Abou Atiaâ€™s gang took different kind of antiquities from el Hiba,Â some of these have been moved to private magazines in order to be sold. Â Tens of tombs were robbed, some mummies and sarcophagi were kept in places and others were left in the open air, small statues and some golden pieces were also stolen from the tombs.
Abu Atiaâ€™s gang has been looking for antiquities for a year now, they have dug 400 holes in the 2km city, the depth of some of these holes is more than 15 meters.
Because of this mafia, the beautiful and the important city of Hiba has turned into a battle fieldÂ that our predecessorsâ€™ skulls and bones scattered all over the ground. Â The whole area is covered by holes that these looters have made, the temple, most of the houses and tombsÂ dated to 1700 B.C. are now demolished.
So the Ministry of State for Antiquities has found no one to protect them and it looks as though the Ministry believes that their only possibility is to protect the Egyptian Museum.
Sadly, foreign missions are more concern about Egyptian history / antiquities than the Egyptians themselves. Â Are we waiting to ask the international community to interfereÂ to save out heritage after we failed in protect it?
I met with Dr. Carol Redmount, specialist in Egyptian antiquities and a Professor at Berkeley,Â California and I asked her about what she observed after the latest securityÂ chaos. Â Sadly she said that the condition of the Egyptian antiquities is painful after the Egyptian authorities left it with no protection against the looters. Â She said, I live in Egypt many months every year and I visited all the antiquities sites in Delta and I have a passion for them that I feel they become part of me.
Q. Â Â Did you visit El-Hiba in Beni Suef?
A. Â Â I did, and I spent many years there excavating from 2001 â€“ 2007 under
Egyptian supervision and I returned back in 2009.
Q. Â Â How did you see this area?
A. Â Â It is a complete antique city, very beautiful and the only one that
tells how the regular Egyptians used to live in the Pharaonic time because most of the habitants were regular people, farmers or workers.
Q. Â Â Did you know what happened to this area in the past months?
A. Â Â Unfortunately I knew, some people called me and told me about these
crimes happened in Al Heba, then I called the people at the inspectorate office and informed
Q. Â Â What did they say?
A. Â Â We are so upset
Q. Â Â Just upset?
A. Â Â No, they said they tried to protect the city and they informed the
police and asked for help
Q. Â Â What was the police answer?
A. Â Â Nothing
There is only one meaning to what the antiquities expert said, this is that the Egyptian authorities protect the Egyptian mafia.
I express one phrase to these people who are protecting this mafia, that Dr. Andy Daily, an American Professor of History said to me â€œI love Egyptian history and every Egyptian must feel shame of whatâ€™s happening to the Egyptian antiquities from this mafiaâ€. We really
need to feel shame.
Update March 12th: Here is the press release issued by the El Hibeh expedition and also a link to the latest Egyptian television coverage.
Press release on the looting of El Hibeh
–The El Hibeh Expedition
Massive looting of archaeological sites in Egypt continues as security forces turn a blind eye to thugs plundering Egypt’s cultural heritage.
After Egypt’s revolution, priceless artifacts were stolen from the nation’s world-famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo as well as from innumerable storehouses scattered throughout the country.
Today the continued plundering of archaeological sites, which comprise Egypt’s cultural heritage in its most pristine state, presents an even more critical challenge as sites are often remote and protected by low-paid guards and state security seems unable or unwilling to halt the mayhem.
El Hibeh is one such site. On the east bank of the Nile in a particularly impoverished area of Egypt three hour’s drive south of Cairo, the archaeological site occupies about two square kilometers and includes cemeteries and the ruins of a walled ancient provincial town with a limestone temple, industrial facilities, houses and possible fort and governing residence. The remains date from the late Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and early Islamic periods (approximately 11th century BCE to eighth century CE). Hibeh is of special importance because it is one of very few relatively intact town sites remaining in Egypt and because of its extensive archaeological deposits dating to the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt’s last “Dark Age” and an era particularly poorly known archaeologically.