Ancient Egypt Transformed: Middle Kingdom Egyptian Objects on Loan from National Museums Scotland to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wooden statuette of a foreign woman excavated at Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1911.260]. © National Museums Scotland

Wooden statuette of a foreign woman excavated at Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1911.260]. © National Museums Scotland

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.

A wooden tomb model of a bakery from Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1914.71]. © National Museums Scotland

A wooden tomb model of a bakery from Beni Hassan, Egypt [A.1914.71]. © National Museums Scotland

Whether they represent individuals or a stereotype is uncertain, and where they came from is debated, but possibly the Eastern Desert or Levant like other foreigners depicted in a tomb painting at Beni Hassan. These depictions of foreigners in the tombs of wealthy Egyptian officials may have been intended to lend prestige and clout to ‘overseers of the Eastern Desert’, or they may have evoked ritualistic connections to the goddess Hathor, mistress of foreign lands, who was an important deity in Middle Egypt.

Wall painting of a group of foreigners in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan, Egypt. © Margaret Maitland

Wall painting of a group of foreigners in the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan, Egypt. © Margaret Maitland

The statuette of the foreign woman and child, the only one of its kind ever discovered in Egypt, eventually made its way to National Museums Scotland, and more recently it has travelled further than ever before, along with other National Museums Scotland’s objects, to be part of a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ancient Egypt Transformed focusses on the Middle Kingdom (c. 2030-1650 BC), a period of Egyptian history that was as celebrated in ancient Egyptian times as it is largely unknown to wider audiences today. Its literature became the classic poems and stories that continued to be read in Egypt for over a thousand years, while its powerful kings became the stuff of ancient legend.

The Middle Kingdom arose out of a previous period of disintegration and civil war. Earlier kings used their immense wealth and power to build the astonishing pyramids at Giza, but their power had waned and control of Egypt became fragmented. From among the warring local rulers, finally one emerged victorious: King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II of Thebes (c. 2051-2000 BC), the founder of the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptian concept of kingship unifying the Two Lands of Upper and Lower had been shaken, but the victory of Montuhotep II reinvigorated it. His innovative mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank of Thebes became a symbol of reunification and the focal point of building activity for many subsequent rulers who sought to align themselves with his successful image.

Relief fragment depicting King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II from his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, Egypt [A.1906.349]. © National Museums Scotland

Relief fragment depicting King Nebhepetre Montuhotep II from his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, Egypt [A.1906.349]. © National Museums Scotland

The Metropolitan Museum exhibition provided the opportunity for the reunification of several relief fragments from the tomb of the wife of Montuhotep II, Queen Neferu. Met curator Kei Yamamoto spotted the connection between the two fragments and they were re-joined in the exhibition for the first time since antiquity. The scene depicts a procession of offering bearers carrying decorated wooden boxes, containing cosmetics, jewellery, and clothing, to the tomb to provision the queen in the afterlife. Carefully crafted mounts were designed to hold the relief fragments in position as close as possible without actually touching. In the exhibition, they are displayed alongside actual examples of beautiful wooden boxes, wonderfully preserved, just like the ones depicted on the tomb wall of the queen.

Private stone statuary dating to the Middle Kingdom [A.1952.158 and A.1965.8] © National Museums Scotland

Private stone statuary dating to the Middle Kingdom [A.1952.158 and A.1965.8] © National Museums Scotland

The Middle Kingdom witnessed an artistic renaissance, including extraordinary humanising royal sculpture, which subsequently provided inspiration for the statuary of private individuals.

Some of the finest Middle Kingdom craftsmanship produced extraordinarily delicate gold jewellery. The exquisitely crafted gold catfish pendant currently on loan from National Museums Scotland to the Met is astonishingly lifelike in its detail, achieved through careful chasing, engraving and almost invisible soldering. It was excavated in the tomb of a young girl at Haraga near the pyramid of King Senwosret II, along with other gold jewellery items that have recently been the subject of scientific analysis at the museum.

Unpacking the gold catfish pendant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [A.1914.1079]. © National Museums Scotland

Our museum conservators carefully packed the objects to ensure their safe transport to New York, and it was a thrill to finally unpack them and reveal them to eagerly awaiting colleagues at the Met, where they took their place among a carefully curated selection of over 230 objects documenting an extraordinary, transformative period in Egyptian history. They are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Sunday January 24, 2016, after which they will return to form part of our Ancient Egypt gallery currently in development for 2018.

Installing the statuette of a foreign woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. © National Museums Scotland

Installing the statuette of a foreign woman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. © National Museums Scotland

This blog post originally appeared on the National Museums Scotland blog.

Treasures from Harageh Tomb 72 at National Museums Scotland

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.

gold fish

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.

Pyramid_at_Lahun

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.

 

Image Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

Plan of Tomb 72 Courtesy of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL

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.

Harageh semi precious beads copyThe 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.

Harageh tomb finds

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.

A girl wearing a fish pendant, from the tomb of Ukhhotep III at Meir

A girl wearing a fish pendant, from the tomb of Ukhhotep III at Meir

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.

fish 2

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 multichambered 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.

Hieroglyphs from the North: new Champollion correspondence on the 190th anniversary of his decipherment

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.

Pharaoh: King of Egypt, my new book

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 Tutankhamun’s widow 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 Egypt will 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 – 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March – 9 June, 2013.

 

On Howard Carter’s birthday: recent research on Tutankhamun and the restoration of his damaged artefacts

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 furniturefound 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.

The Women of Egypt and Egyptology: ancient, past, and present

In honour of international Women’s Day, an offering of a brief post celebrating the women of Egypt.

Women in Egypt were probably better off than in other ancient cultures, as they could travel and conduct business freely, retain control of their dowries, divorce their husbands, and inherit property, but their lot was still not an equal one and the rudimentary medicine of the age meant childbirth could often spell a death sentence. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring women of the age, not least the dazzlingly influential queens of the New Kingdom. Queen Ahhotep was praised by her son King Ahmose as ‘one who cares for Egypt. She has looked after her (Egypt’s) soldiers; she has guarded her; she has brought back her fugitives, and collected together her deserters’. She was awarded the military honour, ‘the golden fly of valour’.

Many Eighteenth Dynasty queens used powerful, kingly imagery. For example, Tiye appears as a sphinx at the temple dedicated to her at Sedeinga, Sudan, and Nefertiti is depicted smiting foreign enemies.

As Laurel Ulrich’s oft-quoted saying goes, well-behaved women rarely make history: Cleopatra VII, the famed last queen of ancient Egypt, came to the throne at 18 and was supposed to share power with her 10-year old brother, but instead took control of the country for herself. She was the first member of her Macedonian-Greek ruling family in almost 300 years to actually learn the Egyptian language!

As well as the ancient women who continue to fascinate us today, the achievements of women in Egyptology, both the pioneers of a hundred years ago, and the scholars of today should also be celebrated. Amelia Edwards, author of ‘A Thousand Miles Up the Nile’, is justly celebrated as instrumental to the foundation of the Egypt Exploration Society, the Petrie Museum, and the Egyptology chair at University College London. She bequeathed the foundation to UCL as it was the only place in England at the time where degrees were given to women.

But in addition to Amelia, there are many other women (too many in fact to enumerate here), often overlooked, who made significant contributions to the early development of Egyptology. Margaret Murray worked at Manchester Museum, excavated alongside Petrie, was an active suffragette, and was appointed Assistant Professor of Egyptology at UCL in 1924.

Many early Egyptology greats were accompanied to Egypt by their wives who helped run the excavations, as well as recording and drawing finds. Winifred Brunton, wife of Guy Brunton, drew all the illustrations for his publications of sites such as Qau el-Kebir and Badari, and drew the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. She also painted very beautiful reconstructed portraits of Egyptian rulers. Lady Hilda Petrie even joined an all-woman expedition to the tombs of Saqqara.

Today, women in academia are still underrepresented; the higher up, the fewer women. As this study shows, in the US, only 24% of full professors are women and they earn 20% less on average. As such, today on Twitter, I’ve been gathering suggestions of inspiring women Egyptologists from around the world today. This very very short list only beings to scratch the surface, in terms of both individuals and their achievements, and there are so many more scholars I’d like to add, but the exercise has certainly made me think about just how many great women Egyptologists are out there! I hope readers here will share their own suggestions here in the comments.

  • Janet Richards has done great work on Egyptian society and social hierarchy, especially her Society and Death in Ancient Egypt. You can also read about her work at the tomb of Weni the Elder.
  • The work of Dorothea Arnold, curator of Egyptian art at the Met, has influenced our understanding of the Old and Middle Kingdom. You can read her paper ‘Amenemhat I and the Early Twelfth Dynasty’ here and watch her discuss the tomb of Perneb in an iTunes U video.
  • Yvonne Harpur’s ‘Old Kingdom tomb scenes’ is a great achievement and her online Scene-details Database is a very useful tool.
  • Willeke Wendrich & Elizabeth Frood lecture at UCLA & Oxford and edit the online UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, which makes available online introductory but scholarly articles.
  • Julie Anderson of the British Museum excavates at Dangeil in the Sudan & discovered the most southerly royal Egyptian statue yet found.
  • Kate Spence who lectures at Cambridge has excavated at Amarna, and in this video she introduces Akhenaten, his religious revolution, and his new capital at Amarna.
  • Ann Macy Roth is associate professor at New York University and Director the Giza Cemetery Project. Online you can read her book A Cemetery of
    Palace Attendants
    and articleLittle women: gender and hierarchic proportion in Old Kingdom mastaba chapels’.
  • Janine Bourriau, Elisabeth O’Connell, Renee Friedman, Salima Ikram, Patricia Spencer, Gay Robins, Joanne Rowland, Dominique Valbelle, Christina Riggs, Maria Cannata, Angela McDonald, Angela Tooley, Rosalind Janssen, Rita Freed, Denise Doxey, Joyce Tyldesley, Lana Troy, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood,  Janet H. Johnson, Diana Craig Patch, Catharine H. Roehrig, Patricia Usick, Susanne Woodhouse, Marie Vandenbeusch, Chloe Ragazzolli, Nadine Moeller, Lynn Meskell, Katja Goebs, Sally-Ann Ashton, Hourig Sourouzian, Irene Forstner Mueller, Emily Teeter, Lise Manniche, Fayza Haikal, Ola El Aguizy, Tohfa Handoussa, Zeinab El-Kordy and many many many more

In the meantime, in Egypt itself over the past year, Egyptian women have made some remarkable achievements in striving for equality, but the struggle is ongoing:

In the country’s first election after Mubarak’s ouster, parliament saw very low female representation. Eight women elected and two appointed women make up less than 2 percent of the 508 seats in the People’s Assembly. Considering the proportion of women who applied, the chances weren’t big. In Cairo for example, only 80 women ran compared to 1,010 men. –dailynewsegypt.com

However, today thousands of women marched the streets of Cairo in protest. Presidential hopeful Khaled Ali, who was among the protesters, said everyone should support the demands of Egyptian women. “Women are an integral part of Egyptian society and the Egyptian revolution, and so [they have] to be fairly represented in the constitution and constituent assembly,” he said, suggesting that women constitute at least 30 percent of the assembly.

This excellent slideshow celebrates some of the many who are striving for women’s rights in Egypt today.

Prominent columnist Mona Eltahawy also joined the march saying that as a feminist, she believes “the women’s revolution is the most important revolution.”

“Women in Egypt have two revolutions; one against an oppressive regime and one against an oppressive society,” Eltahawy told Daily News Egypt. Eltahawy added that the large turnout sends a strong message that women are an integral part of the revolution and are demanding their rights. “We are here and we are not going anywhere,” she said.

‘When belongings are snatched by the deprived…’

Here in the UK these days, most people are preoccupied by the widespread unrest in our cities. Now I don’t write about politics, but I do research and write about social differences in ancient Egypt. I find it interesting to note that the debates we’re having today about criminality, deprivation, & social responsibility can also be found in ancient Egyptian poetry dating back to almost 4000 years ago. Despite the vast inequality in ancient Egyptian society between pharaohs and peasants, despite corporal punishment being commonplace and literacy rare, an Egyptian poet was still able to eloquently question the condemnation of criminal acts by the poor over those of the rich. The poem entitled ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ (the inspiration behind the name of my blog) tells the story of a peasant whose only possessions are stolen by a wealthy official and his subsequent articulate pleas for justice, which move even the pharaoh.

This is the passage that came to mind recently:

A lord of bread should be merciful, whereas might belongs to the deprived,

theft suits one without belongings, when the belongings are snatched by the deprived;

but the bad [are those who] act without want—should it not be blamed? It is self seeking.

Criminal responsibility is a controversial topic. Although one can’t really properly contrast a fictional robbery committed by a government official in ancient Egypt with the rioting of thousands of teenagers in deprived areas, it is fascinating to see that the social issues we struggle with today are the same as those of ancient Egypt. Humans have been around for tens of thousands of years, but human nature has not greatly changed in the past few millennia. Plus ça change…

You can read the rest of ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ in Richard Parkinson’s book of translations of ancient Egyptian poetry, ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’. I’ll be giving a talk on the lives of the rich and poor in ancient Egypt in the Nebamun gallery at the British Museum this Friday, August 10th.

‘It’s not just a game, it’s a religion’: games in ancient Egypt

Games in ancient Egypt
“God moves the player and he, the piece.
 What god behind God originates the scheme?”
– Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
One of the things I love most about studying ancient Egypt is that although mummies and pyramids make the Egyptians seem exotic, the more you learn about them, the more that you see that they were just ordinary people with more similarities to us today than you might imagine. There are certain basic, innate human impulses shared by all of humanity- and gaming is one of them. Although games have often been viewed rather dismissively in scholarship, their importance to society and culture is undeniable. In fact, humanity created games long before other more ‘practical’ ancient inventions such as pottery, writing, or the wheel.
This past weekend, I attended an event in London on board games and said a few words about ancient Egyptian games that I thought would be nice to share here as well. It was quite amazing to get people there playing the board game Senet, which was created in Egypt 5000 years ago! (Another post will follow this about the actual experience of playing Senet and how the game play may relate to Egyptian conceptions of society).
Even more incredible though is that there are much older games in existence. They are one of the oldest human creations, dating back 8000 years ago. The earliest evidence for board games in the world comes from the Neolithic Near East, dating to around 6000BCE onwards. Archaeologists in the Levant and Iran have discovered 12 possible gaming boards made of either limestone or plaster with lines of holes or hollows as well as possible gaming pieces (Simpson 2007).
Irving Finkel (2007) discusses the conditions and motivations surrounding the emergence of board games: ‘from the context of their discovery, it is evident that their appearance on the stage of human social evolution coincides with the development of structured and sedentary communal living, associated with shared responsibility and labour. It is under these circumstances that leisure first makes itself apparent, and it is surely leisure that is the prime requirement for the invention and play of board games. In India, there is a prime and eloquent word for this, namely “time-pass”. It has probably always been largely time-pass that has governed the role of board games in the world’.
Games, like life, combine both skill and chance, and they embody a number of primal human preoccupations: survival, competition, the battle, the hunt, the race, social organisation, and counting. A variety of different board games were played in ancient Egypt (others which are not discussed here are Twenty-Squares, originally Mesopotamian in origin, the marble game, and Men ‘endurance’).
Hounds and jackals
Hounds and jackals was a 2-player race game with a shield-shaped board divided into two tracks, one for each player. Each side had had 29 holes, an outer row of 19 and an inner row of 10, with a shared 30th hole in the middle that marked the finish. The playing pegs were long pointed pieces that could be inserted into the holes; 5 had the heads of jackals, and the other 5 had the heads of dogs. Each player would race their 5 pegs to the finish. To make things more interesting, lines drawn connecting holes 6 and 20 and holes 8 and 10 served as either shortcuts or setbacks depending on which end you landed on, and the hieroglyph sign for good marked at holes 15 and 25 may have indicated an extra turn. The game may have been invented around 2100BCE and it spread throughout the Near East (for more information see Hoerth 2007).
Mehen
One of the earliest games in ancient Egypt is known as Mehen, or the serpent game. Mehen was played on a circular board in the form of a coiled snake with the head at the centre and the body divided into squares. It’s the only known multi-player game and representations depict it being played with 6 lion-shaped gaming pieces and 6 marbles. Unfortunately, how these were used is still uncertain. Captions from tomb scenes showing the game being played suggest that it involved the use of strategy, and that part of the game was to capture something, perhaps the opponent’s pieces (for more information see Piccione 1990b; Rothöhler 1999; Kendall 2007).
Senet
The game called Senet, which means ‘passing’, was the most popular game in Egypt. It was played for over 3000 years and a possible derivation of the game survived into 19th century Egypt in the form of the game known as al-tab al-sigah. Senet is also comparable to backgammon in game play. Although there is no recorded set of rules for the game, examination of the 120 examples of game boards that survive, the many representations of the game being played, and various texts that describe it being played, has allowed the reconstruction of the game play.
The game was two-player and essentially a race, each player moving a team of 5 draughtsmen (originally 7 before the New Kingdom) across a board of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares. The objective was to be the first player to move all of their playing pieces off the board. Players could pass and block their opponents’ pieces and possibly even capture them and sent them back to restart from the beginning of mid-point of the board.
Dice-like casting instruments- either 4 casting sticks or 2 knucklebones- were used to determine the number of moves. The casting sticks were semi-cylindrical – one side was flat and painted white, while the other side was rounded, dark coloured, and incised with lines.The sticks were probably used in a similar to the manner in which they were used in modern Egypt as late as the 19th century: The 4 sticks were thrown together and counting number of white or flat sides facing up gave the number of moves. If all of the sticks ended up laying face down, ie. with black, curved side facing up, it counted as 5.
Senet was played by both the rich and the poor. Even though who were less well-off would scratch graffito boards into the ground or onto slabs of stone or broken pottery. We even have a few examples where bored priests scratched the game into the walls of ancient temples! On graffito boards, pebbles or chips of broken pottery would have been used as playing pieces. Formal playing pieces were initially all conical in shape, differentiated with colour and one set being taller than the other, but they evolved into all sorts of different shapes, like animal heads.
More elaborate boards owned by the rich would often have Senet on one side of the board, and a game known as Twenty-Squares that travelled to Egypt from Mesopotamia on the reverse side. The narrow sides of the board had drawers containing the playing equipment. Tutankhamun was buried with 4 senet boards in his tomb.
Senet was not simply a matter of luck because the number of moves thrown with the sticks could be apportioned among the pieces as the player saw fit. For example, if a player rolled a 4, they could choose to move one of their pieces forward four spaces and another piece just one space. Certain squares on the board offered advantages or pitfalls. Sometimes these were indicated by symbols inscribed on the squares, though often they were left blank and just understood, or only inscribed the most important squares. From the last 3 squares, the players had to throw the exact number needed to move off the board. Strategy could be used to avoid dangerous squares or block an opponent pieces from progressing. Moving pieces together in groups protected them from being taken by one’s opponent.
Senet was incredibly popular form of entertainment: a representation of senet in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Nefer-renpet is accompanied by the inscription: “You sit in the hall; you play Senet; you have wine; you have beer” (Decker 1992, 124; Pusch 1979, 87, pl. 24.b). Even as a form of leisure, it wasn’t without intense competition and rivalry. Many other depictions show players exchanging  taunts and insults: in the Old Kingdom tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir (approx. 2300 BCE), one player says: ‘Be happy my heart, for I shall cause you to see it [your piece] taken away!’. His opponent responds: ‘You speak as one weak of tongue, for senet is mine!’.
The evolution of senet and Egyptian afterlife beliefs
Initially Senet was an abstract game and purely secular, however Egyptian culture and their beliefs and fears influenced the game over time so that it developed an accompanying narrative, a story that gave it meaning. Today, most new games are fleshed out from their basic game mechanic with themes and ideas that are meaningful to us, our culture and history, our desires and fears. Similarly to Richard Parkinson’s argument for Egyptian literature offering a permissive context for subversive discourse (e.g. Parkinson 2002, 98-107), games can offer a safe place in which to confront fears and concerns. Even today this is true, for example, numerous modern games draw on the current war in Afghanistan, while the game ‘Flower’ presents a world ravaged by environmental disaster, and the online game ‘Smokescreen’ addresses the potential dangers and privacy issues inherent in social media. For the ancient Egyptians, back in a time when life expectancy was around 30-36 (Nunn 1996, 22; Meskell 2002, 13), death was their greatest fear and their greatest hope was survival for eternity in an idyllic afterlife.
The struggles in the game of Senet began to be associated with the dangers of the journey to the afterlife and the game integrated key narratives of Egyptian religion, telling the story of the struggles of the sun god Ra traversing the underworld by boat each night and fighting off an array of deities, demons, and obstacles. Various elements of game play- certain moves and squares- became associated with specific actions and events in these stories. This change is very understandable, as in ancient Egypt there was no division between secular life and religion: almost everything was imbued with religious belief. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, the board had been transformed a simulation of the netherworld with it’s squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife. Originally in the Old and Middle Kingdom, the last 5 squares of the board had the straightforward and practical meaning of good, bad, three, two, and one, the numbers indicating the exact throw of the sticks you’d need to exit the board. Later on, they developed a more mystical significance and the three numbers were instead usually indicated with a group of three gods or three bas, two gods, and a single figure of the sun god.
The first square in the upper left-hand corner was called the ‘House of Thoth’ since this ibis-headed scribal god held the role of announcing the deceased in the court of judgement. Square 15 at the middle of the board was called the ‘House of Repeating Life’ and was often decorated with the image of a frog, an Egyptian symbol of resurrection. Square 16, the House of Netting, entrapped the player so they missed a turn. Square 27, the Field of Water, could drown the piece that landed there and send it back to square 15 to be  ‘reborn’. The image of the sun god on the final square signified rebirth with the sun god, and whoever moved all of the pieces off the board first would supposedly take his place with the gods.
The story attached to the game enriched it, taking it from simply a form of entertainment and competition, to a meaningful experience: a journey with a sense of urgency and danger. But not only did religion influence the narrative of the game, it actually became part of Egyptian religious beliefs and texts, such as the Book of the Dead, as one of the challenges the deceased could face in his journey to the afterlife. Earlier in Egyptian history, tomb scenes had depicted the tomb owner playing the game with another person, or watching two other people play, purely as a form of entertainment, but when the game became associated with the idea of resurrection and the struggle to reach the afterlife, tomb scenes began to show the deceased playing an invisible opponent as a means to entering the afterlife.
Religious gaming texts describe the journey of the soul through various regions of the afterlife as if it were moving across a senet board. The ‘great game text’, which survives in three sources, describes playing of the game against an unnamed opponent as a way of achieving rebirth and joining the gods in the Afterlife, so:
“[that they might permit] me to enter the Council Chamber of the Thirty, (related to the thirty squares of the game board)
[so that I may become a god, as the thirty-first] (god).
[I will approach Mehen,
and I will deliver] his draughtsmen (to him).
…
<I> will fight as a god with him,
….
My heart is shrewd;
it [is not forgetful].
My heart is clever in determining his play against me,
that <his> draughtsmen might turn backward <on him>.
His fingers are confused,
and his heart has removed [itself] from [its] place,
so that he does not know his response.
….
[I] will pass by [as] one who sails with the breeze together with the Sun Disk to the House of [Repeating] Life,
while my opponent is stopped in the [House of] Netting, which humbles him (holds him back) by means of the meshes’ (Piccione 1990a, 123-38).
This religious association of senet with the afterlife may have been initially born out of the Middle Kingdom concept that living persons could bridge the gap between themselves and their deceased family by playing senet with them. Coffin Text Spell 405 states: ‘Let him play senet with those who are on earth. It is his voice which is heard, (although) he cannot be seen’ (Piccione 1990a, 84). Graffito senet boards have been found scratched into the floors of tomb chapels, possibly as part of a ritual, which could have been conducted during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, when Egyptians visited the tombs of their ancestors.
Games and ancient Egyptian culture
However, it wasn’t just the game of senet that changed in response to Egyptian religion, the games themselves influenced Egyptian life and culture in a myriad of ways. For example, the snake game Mehen influenced religious beliefs long after it stopped being played at the end of the Old Kingdom. In New Kingdom religion, the snake of the board game became a god. Mehen was an immense coiled serpent who encompassed the sun god Ra in his many coils, protecting him and guiding the passage of the sun’s boat through the netherworld each night to be reborn again each dawn. His board game origins seem to have been carried over in the role he took on as the patron protector god of senet players trying to enter the Afterlife. In the Coffin Texts, this dangerous path was called the ‘roads of Mehen’ (Piccione 1990b).
Games, especially senet, also formed a rich part of Egyptian culture, featuring in their writing system, literature, and art. The image of the senet board was used as an important hieroglyphic symbol from the very invention of writing, standing for the phonetic sound ‘mn’. Games feature frequently in art, but not just within tombs, for example the Satirical Papyrus, which shows a lion and an antelope engaging in a (friendly or competitive?) game of Senet.
A demotic tale from the third century BCE tells the story of Setne Khamwas, who breaks into the tomb of the prince and magician Nineferkaptah to acquire the magical ‘Book of Thoth’. There, Setne is challenged by the ghost of the magician to play senet for possession of the book. Setne is beaten three times and after each loss, the ghost beats him over the head with the game box, driving him into the earth. Setne only manages to escape when outside help arrives. As Peter Piccione (1994) has pointed out, here senet once again become associated with rebirth from near-burial, and the supposed protection of the text by a coiled serpent is another reference to Mehen, the snake game/god.
Most people would acknowledge that games can reflect important cultural concepts but the impact they can have on a wider cultural sphere, enriching creativity and even influencing our view of the world, shouldn’t be underestimated, diminished, or disparaged. Ancient Egyptian games teach us that gaming is a universal aspect of humanity: a reflection of who we are, a means of expressing our desires and fears and enacting basic human impulses, and most of all, good fun.
References are listed below, as well as links to where you can play senet online, buy your own board, or find more information. Credit for the research that made this post possible goes especially to Peter Piccione, as well as Edgar Pusch, John Tait, Wolfgang Decker, and Irving Finkel, the organizer of the first colloquium of ancient board games.
Scholarly sources of information online:
‘In Search of the Meaning of Senet’ by Peter Piccione, Archaeology 33 (1980):
www.cofc.edu/~piccione/piccione_senet.pdf
‘Mehen, God of the Boardgames’ by Benedikt Rothöhler, Board Game Studies 2 (1999): www.boardgamestudies.info/pdf/issue2/BGS2Rothoehler.pdf
On senet by Peter Piccione:
http://spinner.cofc.edu/~piccione/senet_web.html
The Journal of the International Society for Board Game Studies:
http://boardgamestudies.info/
Play Senet online:
British Museum: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html
Play Senet and other Egyptian games on an iPhone: http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html
http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/senet-deluxe/id285831220?mt=8
http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/egyptian-triad/id364907629?mt=8
Where you can buy your own senet board and other ancient games:
In the UK:
Senet: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/senet.htm
Hounds & Jackals: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/hounds-and-jackals.htm
Senet, Royal Game of Ur, & Duodecim Scripta all together (paper boards): http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmc31122/?stylecat=family_gift_shop
Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/ur.htm
http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmcp76360/
Roman Duodecim Scripta: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/duodecim-scripta.htm
Ancient Indian Chess: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/chaturanga.htm
African Mancala: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/mancala.htm
In the USA:
Senet: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Senet/dp/B00005TNHI/
http://www.etsy.com/listing/52919159/senet-board-game-from-ancient-egypt
Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Game-UR/dp/B00005TNHO/
African Mancala: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Folding-Mancala/dp/B000FP30RU/
Viking King’s Table game: http://www.amazon.com/King-27s-Table-Game-2d-9-22/dp/B00005TNHQ/
In Canada:
Senet: http://www.boardgames4us.ca/wex-49-2316.html
http://www.boardgames.ca/senetgame.aspx
References:
Ahern, Emily Martin 1982. Rules in oracles and games Man 17: 302–12.
Decker, Wolfgang 1992. Sports and games of ancient Egypt (trans.) Allen Guttmann. Sport and History Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Finkel, I. L. 2007. Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press.
Hoerth, A.J. 2007. The Game of Hounds and Jackals. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum, 64-8.
Kendall, Timothy 2007. Mehen: The Ancient Egyptian Game of the Serpent. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 33-45.
Meskell, Lynn 2002. Private life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Murray, H. J. R. 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Nunn 1996. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— 2002. Poetry and culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: a dark side to perfection. Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. London and New York: Continuum.
Piccione, Peter A. 1980. In Search of the Meaning of Senet. Archaeology 33: 55-8.
— 1990a. The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and its Significance for Egyptian Religion: University of Chicago.
— 1990b. Mehen, Mysteries, and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27: 43-52.
— 1994. The Gaming Episode in the Tale of Setne Khamwas as Religious Metaphor. In David P. Silverman (ed), For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago, 197-204.
— 2007. The Egyptian Game of Senet and the Migration of the Soul. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 54-63.
Pusch, E.B. 1979. Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten. Munich.
— 2007. The Egyptian “Game of Twenty Squares”: Is it Related to “Marbles” and the Game of the Snake. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 69-86.
Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rothöhler, Benedikt 1999. Mehen, God of the Boardgames. Board Game Studies 2: 10-23.
Simpson, St John 2007. Homo Ludens: The Earliest Board Games in the Near East. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 5-10.
Tait, W. J. 1982. Game-boxes and accessories from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s Tomb Series 7. Oxford: Griffith Institute.
— 1998. Dicing with the gods. In Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (eds), Egyptian religion, the last thousand years: studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. Leuven: Peeters, 257–64.
— 2007. Were there Gamesters in Pharaonic Egypt? In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 46-53.
Tyldesley, Joyce 2007. Egyptian Games and Sports. Princes Risborough: Shire.

‘God moves the player and he, the piece. 
What god behind God originates the scheme?’ – Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

One of the things I love most about studying ancient Egypt is that although mummies and pyramids make the Egyptians seem exotic, the more you learn about them, the more that you see that they were just ordinary people with more similarities to us today than you might imagine. There are certain basic, innate human impulses shared by all of humanity- and gaming is one of them. Although games have often been viewed rather dismissively in scholarship, their importance to society and culture is undeniable. In fact, humanity created games long before other more ‘practical’ ancient inventions such as pottery, writing, or the wheel!

This past weekend, I attended an unconference in London on board games and said a few words about ancient Egyptian games that I thought would be nice to share here as well. It was quite amazing to get people there playing the board game Senet, which was created in Egypt 5000 years ago! (Another post will follow this soon about the actual experience of playing Senet and how the game play may relate to Egyptian conceptions of society).

Even more incredible though is that there are much older games in existence. They are one of the oldest human creations, dating back 8000 years ago. The earliest evidence for board games in the world comes from the Neolithic Near East, dating to around 6000BCE onwards. Archaeologists in the Levant and Iran have discovered 12 possible gaming boards made of either limestone or plaster with lines of holes or hollows as well as possible gaming pieces (Simpson 2007).

Irving Finkel (2007) discusses the conditions and motivations surrounding the emergence of board games: ‘from the context of their discovery, it is evident that their appearance on the stage of human social evolution coincides with the development of structured and sedentary communal living, associated with shared responsibility and labour. It is under these circumstances that leisure first makes itself apparent, and it is surely leisure that is the prime requirement for the invention and play of board games. In India, there is a prime and eloquent word for this, namely “time-pass”. It has probably always been largely time-pass that has governed the role of board games in the world’.

Games, like life, combine both skill and chance, and they embody a number of primal human preoccupations: survival, competition, the battle, the hunt, the race, social organisation, and counting. A variety of different board games were played in ancient Egypt (others which are not discussed here are Twenty-Squares, originally Mesopotamian in origin, the marble game, and Men ‘endurance’).

Hounds and jackals

Hounds and jackals was a 2-player race game with a shield-shaped board divided into two tracks, one for each player. Each side had had 29 holes, an outer row of 19 and an inner row of 10, with a shared 30th hole in the middle that marked the finish. The playing pegs were long pointed pieces that could be inserted into the holes; 5 had the heads of jackals, and the other 5 had the heads of dogs. Each player would race their 5 pegs to the finish. To make things more interesting, lines drawn connecting holes 6 and 20 and holes 8 and 10 served as either shortcuts or setbacks depending on which end you landed on, and the hieroglyph sign for good marked at holes 15 and 25 may have indicated an extra turn. The game may have been invented around 2100BCE and it spread throughout the Near East (for more information on Hounds & Jackals see Hoerth 2007).

Hounds and Jackals board in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hounds and Jackals board in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mehen

One of the earliest games in ancient Egypt is known as Mehen, or the serpent game. Mehen was played on a circular board in the form of a coiled snake with the head at the centre and the body divided into squares. It’s the only known multi-player game and representations depict it being played with 6 lion-shaped gaming pieces and 6 marbles. Unfortunately, how these were used is still uncertain. Captions from tomb scenes showing the game being played suggest that it involved the use of strategy, and that part of the game was to capture something, perhaps the opponent’s pieces (for more information on Mehen see Piccione 1990b; Rothöhler 1999; Kendall 2007).

Mehen board and playing pieces in the British Museum

Mehen board and playing pieces in the British Museum

Senet

The game called Senet, which means ‘passing’, was the most popular game in Egypt. It was played for over 3000 years (from the First Dynasty around 3000BCE until the 1st century CE) and a possible derivation of the game survived into 19th century Egypt in the form of the game known as al-tab al-sigah. Senet is also comparable to backgammon in game play. Although there is no recorded set of rules for the game, examination of the 120 examples of game boards that survive, the many representations of the game being played, and various texts that describe it being played, has allowed the reconstruction of the game play.

New Kingdom ivory senet board in the British Museum

New Kingdom ivory senet board in the British Museum

The game was two-player and essentially a race, each player moving a team of 5 draughtsmen (originally 7 before the New Kingdom) across a board of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares. The objective was to be the first player to move all of their playing pieces off the board. Players could pass and block their opponents’ pieces and possibly even capture them and sent them back to restart from the beginning of mid-point of the board.

Dice-like casting instruments- either 4 casting sticks or 2 knucklebones- were used to determine the number of moves. The casting sticks were semi-cylindrical – one side was flat and painted white, while the other side was rounded, dark coloured, and incised with lines.The sticks were probably used in a similar to the manner in which they were used in modern Egypt as late as the 19th century: The 4 sticks were thrown together and counting number of white or flat sides facing up gave the number of moves. If all of the sticks ended up laying face down, ie. with black, curved side facing up, it counted as 5.

Graffito senet board scratched into a platter, in the British Museum

Graffito senet board scratched into a platter, in the British Museum

Senet was played by both the rich and the poor. Even though who were less well-off would scratch graffito boards into the ground or onto slabs of stone or broken pottery. We even have a few examples where bored priests scratched the game into the floors of temples! On graffito boards, pebbles or chips of broken pottery would have been used as playing pieces. Formal playing pieces were initially all conical in shape, differentiated with colour and one set being taller than the other, but they evolved into all sorts of different shapes, like animal heads.

More elaborate boards owned by the rich would often have Senet on one side of the board, and a game known as Twenty-Squares that travelled to Egypt from Mesopotamia on the reverse side. The narrow sides of the board had drawers containing the playing equipment. Tutankhamun was buried with 4 senet boards in his tomb.

Senet game board from the tomb of Tutankhamun, photo from the archive of the Griffith Institute

Senet game board from the tomb of Tutankhamun, photo from the archive of the Griffith Institute

Senet was not simply a matter of luck because the number of moves thrown with the sticks could be apportioned among the pieces as the player saw fit. For example, if a player rolled a 4, they could choose to move one of their pieces forward four spaces and another piece just one space. Certain squares on the board offered advantages or pitfalls. Sometimes these were indicated by symbols inscribed on the squares, though often they were left blank and just understood, or only inscribed the most important squares. From the last 3 squares, the players had to throw the exact number needed to move off the board. Strategy could be used to avoid dangerous squares or block an opponent pieces from progressing. Moving pieces together in groups protected them from being taken by one’s opponent.

Senet was incredibly popular form of entertainment: a representation of senet in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Nefer-renpet is accompanied by the inscription: “You sit in the hall; you play Senet; you have wine; you have beer” (Decker 1992, 124; Pusch 1979, 87, pl. 24.b). Even as a form of leisure, it wasn’t without intense competition and rivalry. Many other depictions show players exchanging  taunts and insults: in the Old Kingdom tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir (approx. 2300 BCE), one player says: ‘Be happy my heart, for I shall cause you to see it [your piece] taken away!’. His opponent responds: ‘You speak as one weak of tongue, for senet is mine!’.

Senet game in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir

Senet game in the 6th Dynasty tomb of Pepi-ankh at Meir

The evolution of senet and Egyptian afterlife beliefs

Initially Senet was an abstract game and purely secular, however Egyptian culture and their beliefs and fears influenced the game over time so that it developed an accompanying narrative, a story that gave it meaning. Today, most new games are fleshed out from their basic game mechanic with themes and ideas that are meaningful to us, our culture and history, our desires and fears. Similarly to Richard Parkinson’s argument for Egyptian literature offering a permissive context for subversive discourse (e.g. Parkinson 2002, 98-107), games can offer a safe place in which to confront fears and concerns. Even today this is true, for example, numerous modern games draw on the current war in Afghanistan, while the game ‘Flower’ presents a world ravaged by environmental disaster, and the online game ‘Smokescreen’ addresses the potential dangers and privacy issues inherent in social media. For the ancient Egyptians, back in a time when life expectancy was around 30-36 (Nunn 1996, 22; Meskell 2002, 13), death was their greatest fear and their greatest hope was survival for eternity in an idyllic afterlife.

The struggles in the game of Senet began to be associated with the dangers of the journey to the afterlife and the game integrated key narratives of Egyptian religion, telling the story of the struggles of the sun god Ra traversing the underworld by boat each night and fighting off an array of deities, demons, and obstacles. Various elements of game play- certain moves and squares- became associated with specific actions and events in these stories. This change is very understandable, as in ancient Egypt there was no division between secular life and religion: almost everything was imbued with religious belief. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, the board had been transformed a simulation of the netherworld with it’s squares depicting major divinities and events in the afterlife. Originally in the Old and Middle Kingdom, the last 5 squares of the board had the straightforward and practical meaning of good, bad, three, two, and one, the numbers indicating the exact throw of the sticks you’d need to exit the board. Later on, they developed a more mystical significance and the three numbers were instead usually indicated with a group of three gods or three bas, two gods, and a single figure of the sun god.

Senet board with secular markings from the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

Senet board with secular markings from the Brooklyn Museum, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The first square in the upper left-hand corner was called the ‘House of Thoth’ since this ibis-headed scribal god held the role of announcing the deceased in the court of judgement. Square 15 at the middle of the board was called the ‘House of Repeating Life’ and was often decorated with the image of a frog, an Egyptian symbol of resurrection. Square 16, the House of Netting, entrapped the player so they missed a turn. Square 27, the Field of Water, could drown the piece that landed there and send it back to square 15 to be  ‘reborn’. The image of the sun god on the final square signified rebirth with the sun god, and whoever moved all of the pieces off the board first would supposedly take his place with the gods.

Senet board with religious markings in the ROM, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

Senet board with religious markings in the ROM, photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts

The story attached to the game enriched it, taking it from simply a form of entertainment and competition, to a meaningful experience: a journey with a sense of urgency and danger. But not only did religion influence the narrative of the game, it actually became part of Egyptian religious beliefs and texts, such as the Book of the Dead, as one of the challenges the deceased could face in his journey to the afterlife. Earlier in Egyptian history, tomb scenes had depicted the tomb owner playing the game with another person, or watching two other people play, purely as a form of entertainment, but when the game became associated with the idea of resurrection and the struggle to reach the afterlife, tomb scenes began to show the deceased playing an invisible opponent as a means to entering the afterlife.

Queen Nefertari playing senet, photo from The Yorck Project

Queen Nefertari playing senet, photo from The Yorck Project

Religious gaming texts describe the journey of the soul through various regions of the afterlife as if it were moving across a senet board. The ‘great game text’, which survives in three sources, describes playing of the game against an unnamed opponent as a way of achieving rebirth and joining the gods in the Afterlife, so:

[that they might permit] me to enter the Council Chamber of the Thirty, (related to the thirty squares of the game board)
[so that I may become a god, as the thirty-first] (god).
[I will approach Mehen,
and I will deliver] his draughtsmen (to him).
…
<I> will fight as a god with him,
….
My heart is shrewd;
it [is not forgetful].
My heart is clever in determining his play against me,
that <his> draughtsmen might turn backward <on him>.
His fingers are confused,
and his heart has removed [itself] from [its] place,
so that he does not know his response.
….
[I] will pass by [as] one who sails with the breeze together with the Sun Disk to the House of [Repeating] Life,
while my opponent is stopped in the [House of] Netting, which humbles him (holds him back) by means of the meshes” (Piccione 1990a, 123-38).

This religious association of senet with the afterlife may have been initially born out of the Middle Kingdom concept that living persons could bridge the gap between themselves and their deceased family by playing senet with them. Coffin Text Spell 405 states: ‘Let him play senet with those who are on earth. It is his voice which is heard, (although) he cannot be seen’ (Piccione 1990a, 84). Graffito senet boards have been found scratched into the floors of tomb chapels, possibly as part of a ritual, which could have been conducted during the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, when Egyptians visited the tombs of their ancestors.

Games and ancient Egyptian culture

However, it wasn’t just the game of senet that changed in response to Egyptian religion, the games themselves influenced Egyptian life and culture in a myriad of ways. For example, the snake game Mehen influenced religious beliefs long after it stopped being played at the end of the Old Kingdom. In New Kingdom religion, the snake of the board game became a god. Mehen was an immense coiled serpent who encompassed the sun god Ra in his many coils, protecting him and guiding the passage of the sun’s boat through the netherworld each night to be reborn again each dawn. His board game origins seem to have been carried over in the role he took on as the patron protector god of senet players trying to enter the Afterlife. In the Coffin Texts, this dangerous path was called the ‘roads of Mehen’ (Piccione 1990b).

Mehen the snake god coiling around the sun god in protection, photo by dalberal

Mehen the snake god coiling around the sun god in protection, photo by dalbera

Games, especially senet, also formed a rich part of Egyptian culture, featuring in their writing system, literature, and art. The image of the senet board was used as an important hieroglyphic symbol from the very invention of writing, standing for the phonetic sound ‘mn’. Games feature frequently in art, but not just within tombs, for example the Satirical Papyrus, which shows a lion and an antelope engaging in a (friendly or competitive?) game of Senet.

A senet game on the Satirical Papyrus at the British Museum

A senet game on the Satirical Papyrus at the British Museum

A demotic tale from the third century BCE tells the story of Setne Khamwas, who breaks into the tomb of the prince and magician Nineferkaptah to acquire the magical ‘Book of Thoth’. There, Setne is challenged by the ghost of the magician to play senet for possession of the book. Setne is beaten three times and after each loss, the ghost beats him over the head with the game box, driving him into the earth. Setne only manages to escape when outside help arrives. As Peter Piccione (1994) has pointed out, here senet once again become associated with rebirth from near-burial, and the supposed protection of the text by a coiled serpent is another reference to Mehen, the snake game/god.

Games can reflect important cultural concepts and the impact they can have on a wider cultural sphere, enriching creativity and even influencing our view of the world, shouldn’t be underestimated, diminished, or disparaged as often is the case today. Ancient Egyptian games teach us that gaming is a universal aspect of humanity: a reflection of who we are, a means of expressing our desires and fears and enacting basic human impulses, and most of all, good fun.

References are listed below, as well as links to where you can play senet online, buy your own board, or find more information. Credit for the research that made this post possible goes especially to Peter Piccione, as well as Edgar Pusch, John Tait, Wolfgang Decker, and Irving Finkel, the organizer of the first colloquium of ancient board games.

Scholarly online sources of information:

‘In Search of the Meaning of Senet’ by Peter Piccione, Archaeology 33 (1980)

‘Mehen, God of the Boardgames’ by Benedikt Rothöhler, Board Game Studies 2 (1999)

On senet by Peter Piccione

The Journal of the International Society for Board Game Studies

Play Senet online at the British Museum website:

http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/life/activity/main.html

Play Senet and other Egyptian games on an iPhone:

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/senet-deluxe/id285831220?mt=8

http://itunes.apple.com/au/app/egyptian-triad/id364907629?mt=8

Where you can buy your own senet board and other ancient games:

In the UK:

Senet: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/senet.htm

Hounds & Jackals: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/hounds-and-jackals.htm

Senet, Royal Game of Ur, & Duodecim Scripta all together (paper boards): http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmc31122/?stylecat=family_gift_shop

Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/ur.htm

http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/invt/cmcp76360/

Roman Duodecim Scripta: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/duodecim-scripta.htm

Ancient Indian Chess: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/chaturanga.htm

African Mancala: http://www.mastersgames.com/cat/board/mancala.htm

In the USA:

Senet: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Senet/dp/B00005TNHI/

http://www.etsy.com/listing/52919159/senet-board-game-from-ancient-egypt

Mesopotamian Royal Game of Ur (similar to Twenty Squares): http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Game-UR/dp/B00005TNHO/

African Mancala: http://www.amazon.com/Wood-Expressions-Folding-Mancala/dp/B000FP30RU/

Viking King’s Table game: http://www.amazon.com/King-27s-Table-Game-2d-9-22/dp/B00005TNHQ/

In Canada:

Senet: http://www.boardgames4us.ca/wex-49-2316.html

http://www.boardgames.ca/senetgame.aspx

References:

Ahern, Emily Martin 1982. Rules in oracles and games Man 17: 302–12.

Decker, Wolfgang 1992. Sports and games of ancient Egypt (trans.) Allen Guttmann. Sport and History Series. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Finkel, I. L. 2007. Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press.

Hoerth, A.J. 2007. The Game of Hounds and Jackals. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum, 64-8.

Kendall, Timothy 2007. Mehen: The Ancient Egyptian Game of the Serpent. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 33-45.

Meskell, Lynn 2002. Private life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Murray, H. J. R. 1952. A history of board games other than chess. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Nunn 1996. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Parkinson, Richard B. 1998. The Tale of Sinuhe and other ancient Egyptian poems, 1940–1640 BC. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

— 2002. Poetry and culture in Middle Kingdom Egypt: a dark side to perfection. Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. London and New York: Continuum.

Piccione, Peter A. 1980. In Search of the Meaning of Senet. Archaeology 33: 55-8.

— 1990a. The Historical Development of the Game of Senet and its Significance for Egyptian Religion, Ph.D. thesis. University of Chicago.

— 1990b. Mehen, Mysteries, and Resurrection from the Coiled Serpent. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 27: 43-52.

— 1994. The Gaming Episode in the Tale of Setne Khamwas as Religious Metaphor. In David P. Silverman (ed), For His Ka: Essays Offered in Memory of Klaus Baer. Chicago: Unversity of Chicago, 197-204.

— 2007. The Egyptian Game of Senet and the Migration of the Soul. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 54-63.

Pusch, E.B. 1979. Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten. Munich.

— 2007. The Egyptian “Game of Twenty Squares”: Is it Related to “Marbles” and the Game of the Snake. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 69-86.

Rasskin-Gutman, Diego, and Deborah Klosky 2009. Chess metaphors: artificial intelligence and the human mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rollefson, Gary O., A Neolithic Game Board from Ain Ghazal, Jordan, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 286 (May, 1992), 1–5.

Rothöhler, Benedikt 1999. Mehen, God of the Boardgames. Board Game Studies 2: 10-23.

Simpson, St John 2007. Homo Ludens: The Earliest Board Games in the Near East. In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 5-10.

Tait, W. J. 1982. Game-boxes and accessories from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s Tomb Series 7. Oxford: Griffith Institute.

— 1998. Dicing with the gods. In Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (eds), Egyptian religion, the last thousand years: studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. Leuven: Peeters, 257–64.

— 2007. Were there Gamesters in Pharaonic Egypt? In I. L. Finkel (ed), Ancient Board Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium with additional contributions. London: British Museum Press, 46-53.

Tyldesley, Joyce 2007. Egyptian Games and Sports. Princes Risborough: Shire.

A Guide to Ancient Egyptian London

London has always had a fascination with ancient Egypt dating back to the ‘Egyptomania’ of Victorian times and today the city is recognized as one of the foremost centres of Egyptological research. The collection of the British Museum is world renowned, as is its most famous exhibit, the Rosetta Stone. But there are many other less well-known but equally fascinating Egyptian treasures hidden throughout the city, from the great sarchophagus of King Seti I amongst the overflowing collection of curiosities at the Soane Museum, to Howard Carter’s grave, and Victorian houses adorned with sphinxes and obelisks.

Google recently added a new feature that allows you to make your own customized maps, so I decided to compile a list of all the Egyptological places in London, many that I love and others that I hope to visit soon myself.

To explore London’s ancient Egyptian side, please go to the full screen version of the map here.

And here’s a link to the Google Earth KML file.