Emojis vs. Hieroglyphs: why is ancient Egyptian writing still dismissed as primitive almost 200 years after its decipherment?

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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.

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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!

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Glazed steatite scarab incised with the lion-hunt text of Amenhotep III, 18th Dynasty (A.1960.572). Image © National Museums Scotland.

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).

pr hieroglyphs

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.

Limestone ostracon inscribed with poem written in hieratic praising the king on his war-chariot, probably from Thebes, late 19th Dynasty. Image © National Museums Scotland.

Limestone ostracon inscribed with poem written in hieratic praising the king on his war-chariot, probably from Thebes, late 19th Dynasty. Image © National Museums Scotland.

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.

Evolving alphabets chart from the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Evolving alphabets chart from Orly Goldwasser, ‘How the Alphabet Was Born from Egyptian Hieroglyphs’, Biblical Archaeology Review 36.2 (2010).

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’.

'This is the taste of death': Dd.n.i dpt mwt nn

I said: ‘This is the taste of death’: Dd.n.i dpt mwt nn

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.

Ostracon inscribed with an excerpt of the 'Tale of Sinuhe' (BM EA 5629) © Trustees of the British Museum

Ostracon inscribed with an excerpt of the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ (BM EA 5629) © Trustees of the British Museum

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!’.

To sample more ancient Egyptian poetry in translation, I recommend Professor Richard Parkinson’s book ‘The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems’.

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.

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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’.

Oldest papyri ever discovered document pyramid building, or More reasons why the aliens did not build the pyramids

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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.

One of the galleries at Wadi el-Jarf, used for storing dismantled boats, photo by G. Marouard

One of the galleries at Wadi el-Jarf, used for storing dismantled boats, photo by G. Marouard

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.

Merer's logbook, including mention of pyramid ('Horizon of Khufu')

Merer’s logbook, including mention of pyramid (‘Horizon of Khufu’)

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.

Wadi el-Jarf papyri in situ, photograph by G. Pollin

Wadi el-Jarf papyri in situ, photo by G. Pollin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Bust of Ankh-haf (MFA 27.442), photo by K. Schengili-Roberts

Bust of Ankh-haf (MFA 27.442), photo by K. Schengili-Roberts

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 final 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.

Heit el-Ghurab Galleries III.3 and III.4 at Giza, photo by Y. Mahmoud

Heit el-Ghurab Galleries III.3 and III.4 at Giza, photo by Y. Mahmoud

History is in the making, but can we piece it back together again?

UPDATE 5th Feb 3pm: Dr. Salima Ikram states damaged mummies were Late Period fragmentary mummies used to test the CT machine
UPDATE 5th Feb 8:30pm: Dr. Hawass says Saqqara, the Memphis Museum, and all of Egypt’s sites are safe; a National Geographic reporter gives a report direct from Saqqara
UPDATE 6th Feb 1pm: Dr. Ikram confirms more sites as safe; a guide to US seizure laws & Border & Customs protection; Dr. Hawass interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show
UPDATE 6th Feb 8:50pm: an eye-witness report of Saqqara looting from Prof. Philippe Collombert; damaged objects from the museum to be repaired & on display in 5 days
UPDATE 6th Feb 10:20pm: Dr. Hawass’ latest statement, an Amarna statue slightly damaged
UPDATE 7th Feb 10:30am: National Geographic article says only 20-25 objects damaged at museum, including the statue of Tut on a small boat
UPDATE 7th Feb 12pm: a report from an inspector at Saqqara has been posted by the Dutch team
UPDATE 7th Feb 5pm: Dr. Hawass’ latest statement on restoration work at the museum
UPDATE 8th Feb 12pm: WSJ article from the Egyptian Museum; photo of smashed coffin; interview with the museum’s wood conservator
UPDATE 8th Feb 3pm: an emotional interview with the director of the Dutch mission at Saqqara; another update from Dr. Hawass
UPDATE 11th Feb 12:30am: more contradictory reports of looting or lack thereof; more stolen Qantara objects recovered; lots of photos & footage of restoration work in the Egyptian Museum
For the latest updates, check the new blog post

It is hard to believe that only a week has passed since I initially wrote my last post in response to the images of damage at the Egyptian Museum. Over that period of time, many of us who blog about ancient Egypt have been caught up in the panic of trying to assess the antiquities situation despite the difficulties of communication. But it hasn’t been worrying over the antiquities that has kept me up at night. The scenes in Tahrir Square and the streets of Alexandria have never left my mind. On the Berkeley Blog, Rosemary Joyce urges us to keep everything in perspective. I have always loved my time spent in Egypt, visiting the monuments, working on sites, and living with local families on farms and in small villages and getting to know the people, from antiquities inspectors to local shopkeepers. Somehow though, I never quite realised just how much I love the country and the people until these past few days.
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No one who has worked in Egypt is surprised by the brave actions of the ordinary Egyptians and SCA officials who have stood guard over their heritage, but their actions are still powerfully inspiring and give great hope to all who have been concerned over the future of Egypt’s past. Finally stories are emerging from Egyptians themselves and they should be celebrated. Ramadan B. Hussein, who works for the Supreme Council of Antiquities, posted his take on the museum break in and the efforts of locals around the country on Facebook (reproduced below). A moving story of locals in Luxor protecting Karnak temple was posted on the Looting Database and conveys their passion. A post from Francesco Tiradritti from the Italian Mission to Luxor also gives an account of the locals protecting Karnak. Also, the youth of Alexandria banded together to protect the great library there. It is terrifying to imagine what the worst case scenario could have been, but it is because of the people of Egypt that it did not come to pass, indeed, could probably never happen because of the love and pride that so many people there feel for their heritage.

But can we now piece history back together again? Can the damage truly be undone, and can we ever recover what has been lost? Some people have been commenting, blaming Egypt for allowing this to happen, but we should also remember the damage done by early archaeologists in their often destructive hunt for valuable antiquities. In my current PhD work, I found that a number of the wooden models I’d wanted to study, similar to those of Meseti’s that were damaged in Cairo, no longer exist. They were housed in the museum at Liverpool, and during World War II they were destroyed by the bombing. All I have to work with is a couple of insufficient photos. Other models that were excavated in the 19th century do not have any recorded location and seem to have vanished without a trace. Objects that are lost are not not only lost in terms of something beautiful to look at, but as a source of knowledge for future generations.

People often think that once a tomb’s been discovered or an artefact’s been found and put in a museum, that’s the goal achieved, it’s purpose fulfilled. Someone must have thoroughly recorded and studied it at some point, right? Not necessarily. Especially with sites excavated in the 19th and early 20th century, so many tombs and artefacts were discovered in a short space of time with less than rigorous recording. Many objects in museums have barely been looked at, let alone been part of a focussed study. Even the treasures of Tutankhamun, which I expect people will assume are some of the best known artefacts from Egypt, many of them have not yet been properly published at all.

And even if objects and sites *have* been looked at in a number of detailed studies, focus of investigation can evolve over time and details that were overlooked in the past can become important for new avenues of understanding. What has happened at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a reminder to all of us to never take for granted what we already have in the glass cases and storage rooms of our museums. These objects are ripe for study and the stories they can tell us have not yet been exhausted. As tantalising as it is to find the next great discovery hidden in the sands of Egypt, we must not ignore what we already lucky to have.

Usually whatever has been guarded by the sand for up to the past 5000 years is fairly safe there, but as well as museums and excavated tombs being targeted, the reports of widespread illicit diggings going on at Saqqara and perhaps to a lesser extent in the Fayum and elsewhere, suggest that Egypt’s undiscovered heritage is threatened as well. I am constantly surprised by how often I get asked by people, ‘is there still anything left to be discovered in Egypt?’. Considering that millions of people lived and died there for over 3000 years, there is still plenty to be found. A town and temple site excavated over almost a decade would probably uncover less than a 10th of what’s actually beneath the ground. Even if the random diggings of uninformed looters fails to uncover the statues and golden treasures they’re looking for, the potential damage could hurt our understanding of the day-to-day use of the site and how it evolved over time.

One of the sources of the problem with looters right now is sadly a legacy of the early days of European treasure hunting in Egypt and the global obsession with ancient Egyptian gold. Many Egyptians in rural areas believe that modern excavation is still an aim to find gold, rather than a desire to better understand the lives of the ancient Egyptians. Today, our knowledge is better served by finding mud brick walls, seal impressions, scrawled notes on broken pottery sherds, and analysing soil samples. More work needs to be done to educate local populations about local history and the current aims of modern Egyptologists. Some excavation projects already do this, for example the British Museum excavation at Kom Firin shared information about their work through leaflets made available in Arabic. More of this should be encouraged.

We are still waiting for more thorough news from across Egypt- there is reason to be concerned about the situation there but also much reason to be hopeful. My thanks go out to the people of Egypt for their protection of the past, as well as my thoughts and prayers for their future.

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Friends in Egypt

Sunrise in Minya

Sunrise in Minya

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UPDATE 5th Feb 3pm:

Dr. Sarah Parcak has posted another update from Dr. Salima Ikram on the Facebook group Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum. Dr. Ikram states that the damaged mummies were Late Period fragmentary mummies used to test the CT machine.

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UPDATE 5th Feb 8:30pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass has issued another statement on his blog, again reassuring everyone that Saqqara is safe, including the tomb of Maia, and that the Memphis Museum was not looted, which is wonderful news. He also confirms what Dr. Ikram said earlier today that the mummies were not royal but fragmentary ones used for CT scans.

There is also an article from a National Geographic reporter who was given a tour around Saqqara to show that everything there is indeed safe. He was shown the entrance to the tomb of Maia, now bricked up for safety, and was assured that the tomb of Maya is also safe.

UPDATE 6th Feb 1pm:

Dr. Salima Ikram has posted on Facebook:
“I know that the Sohag area is secure. Natrun seems to be fine, and the areas w/in or next to the monasteries are well protected. All the Luxor and south area sites are totally fine.”
“Egyptian museum continues to be secure. Curators and directors working inside. Southern sites secure and being defended by inspectors and guards and villagers, for the most part. Tremendous sense of national pride. Army remains at the Memphite necropoleis to continue to secure it. No new reports of looting there since initial reports. The Egyptian people are standing proud.”

To guard against any potential future problems with illegal antiquities smuggling, Rick St. Hilaire, a cultural heritage lawyer, has written a helpful guide to US Seizure Laws and How to Make a Report to Customs and Border Protection. If you’re in the US and come across anything suspicious, just fill out the secure form at https://apps.cbp.gov/eallegations/. You can also make a report by telephone by calling 1-800-BE-ALERT.

The International Archaeological Community has also issued a statement calling for measures to be taken to protect Egypt’s archaeological heritage.

Dr. Zahi Hawass was on the Andrew Marr show on the BBC this morning. If you’re in the UK, you can watch it on iPlayer here at the 30min mark, otherwise a transcript should be posted sometime soon here. A short summary can be found on the BBC’s live updates page.

An article by ‘Archaeology’ correspondent Mike Elkin, says that a member of the French mission at Saqqara has stated: ‘People were saying that my site in south Saqqara was destroyed, but in reality only two tents were damaged’, although other archaeologists there say ‘added that storage facilities were robbed’. Miriam Seco, director of the excavation of the Temple of Thutmose III in Luxor, says “I’ve been in contact with the curators at the Cairo Museum, and many are sleeping there at night. The army is outside, but they are staying there to protect the antiquities. In Luxor, there were warnings on January 29th and 30th about armed looters so all the Egyptian archaeologists, who live on the East Bank, crossed the river to take turns standing guard with sticks and anything else to protect the sites. Thank god there were no such attacks.” Seco said that missions pressing on with work include Chicago House in Medinet Habu, her excavations at Thutmose III’s temple in Luxor, a French team at Karnak, and the Polish team at Deir el Bahri.


UPDATE 6th Feb 8:50pm:

The Tribune de Geneve has an interview with Prof. Philippe Collombert who reports what he saw first-hand of the looters at Saqqara:

«C’est alors que j’ai vu
une chose inouïe se produire: les pilleurs se sont précipités.
Cent, deux cents jeunes gens de 10 à 15 ans, venus des villages
de Saqqara et d’Aboussir tout proches, ont déferlé par groupes
de dix. Certains étaient armés de pistolets et tiraient en l’air
pour faire partir les ghafirs (les gardiens). Profitant du chaos, ils
espéraient trouver des trésors.» Volant les pelles, pioches et
couffins des archéologues, ils se mettent à creuser frénétiquement
chaque fois qu’ils devinent quelque chose sous le sable. «Ce
sont des jeunes gens sans éducation. Ils pensent trouver là
de l’or, des bijoux, le masque de Toutankhamon…»

In English, via Google Translate:

“Then I saw
something incredible happen: the looters rushed.
Hundred, two hundred young people from 10 to 15 years, from the villages of
Saqqara and Abusir nearby, swept by groups of
ten. Some were armed with pistols and fired into the air
to ghafirs from the (guards). Taking advantage of the chaos, they
hoped to find treasures. “Wheeling shovels, picks and
baskets, they began to dig frantically
Each time they guess something under the sand. “These
are young people without education. They believe they will find
gold, jewelry, the mask of Tutankhamun …

Ahram Online reports that the roughly 70 damaged objects from the Egyptian Museum are due to be repaired soon and back on display.


UPDATE 6th Feb 10:20pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass’ latest statement, ‘Uninformed Statements and Clarifications’:

On another note, I went to the Egyptian museum today with reporters from the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers.
We reviewed every smashed vitrine. One showcase in the Amarna galleries was smashed; it contained a standing statue of the king carrying an offering tray. While the showcase is badly damaged, the statue sustained very minor damage and is repairable. Another vitrine that was smashed contained one of King Tutankhamun’s walking sticks. The gilded stick is broken into two pieces, and can be restored. The other King Tutankhamun object that was damaged was the wooden statue of the king standing on the back of a panther.

The reference to the statue of Akhenaten carrying an offering tray would suggest that it *might* possibly be this small statue on the left from the Egyptian Museum that has been slightly damaged. Luckily it sounds like the damage is minimal.

Amarna exhibit at the Cairo Museum, photo from the site Egyptian Monuments http://egyptsites.wordpress.com/

Amarna exhibit at the Cairo Museum, photo from the site Egyptian Monuments http://egyptsites.wordpress.com/


UPDATE 7th Feb 10:30am:

A National Geographic article says only 20-25 objects damaged at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo rather than 70, which is great news. Damage to the gilded statue of Tutankhamun on the papyrus skiff is also confirmed.


UPDATE 7th Feb 12pm:

A report from an inspector at Saqqara has been posted on the Dutch team’s website and suggests that, while there has sadly been illicit digging and looting of magazines, there may only be a small amount of damage to the tombs themselves:

From January 29, a lot of people attacked the antiquities area, from Abusir North to Lisht. Although many tombs and magazines were opened, few things were stolen. Some destruction happened, but not too much, because the stupid robbers searched only for gold and precious things and were not interested in limestone blocks. There was a lot of pit digging in the whole area, but generally this caused no problems. The Dutch site is o.k., except that the magazines of pottery, small objects and bones in the tombs of Maya, Horemheb and Ptahemwia were opened. We closed them again, the wall reliefs are o.k, and nothing was stolen or plundered or damaged. We try to save the sites and do some protection, then later we shall arrange some committee to account for the magazines of Saqqara.

The Leiden excavation team who work in the New Kingdom necropolis at Saqqara also posted this statement:

We know from other reports that the local inspectors fought very bravely to protect the site and want to thank them and the Egyptian army for their efforts. Whether indeed no damage was done remains to be seen. The main thing is that the precious reliefs seem to be safe. We suppose that objects in the magazines cannot have escaped damage or destruction, and that there will be some loss of archaeological information. However, most of the remains kept there have already been studied by the expedition and we hope that the losses will be minimal. We shall try to inspect the situation in person as soon as everything has calmed down in Egypt.


UPDATE 7th Feb 5pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass’ latest update discusses the restoration work on damaged objects at the museum. He mentions ‘a small statue of Akhenaten wearing the blue crown and holding an offering table’, which is likely the statue pictured here above and below, and refers to a ‘New Kingdom coffin’, which ‘can easily be restored’. He assures everyone that the rest of the Tutankhamun objects, apart from the statues, sticks, and fan, and the royal mummies are all safe. Here is a photo of the Akhenaten statue as it looked in its case at the museum:

Photo by sergiothirteen

Photo by sergiothirteen

I have also been wondering whether the travertine calcite (alabaster) object shown in the al Jazeera footage might be one of the lids of Yuya and Tujya’s canopic jars, seen here as displayed in the Egyptian Museum. The shape and the dark lines at the front that would correspond with the eyes seem to fit. This photo shows one of the lids from above. This is very speculative though. Thankfully, whatever it is it doesn’t look damaged in the footage, and hopefully nothing else from that case is either.


UPDATE 8th Feb 12pm:

The interview with the Wall Street Journal mentioned in Dr. Hawass’ blog yesterday is now up. The article by Christopher Rhoads mentions that various amulets have been damaged, as well as Tutankhamun panther statue, his gold fan and gilded stick, and the Akhenaten statue, but there’s still no mention of the late Eleventh Dynasty models of Mesehti from Assyut. Rather bizarrely, it states that over a thousand people broke into the museum, which is nothing like anything we’ve heard elsewhere. Restoration work at the museum is ongoing but there have been some reports of illicit digging. The article refers to how the national antiquities situation is being monitored:

Some young Egyptologists now manage a control room in the antiquities department, responding 24 hours a day to any break-in reports from the country’s 42 museums, and other sites. Each location checks in every three hours.The room has direct lines to the branches of the military and police that have been used 17 times, according to one official. On Monday, there were a handful of reports of unauthorized digging at archaeological sites.

An article by Rossella Lorenzi for Discovery News features an image of the smashed New Kingdom coffin. From the white background with bands, it appears to be early 18th dynasty in date:

There is also an interview with Dr. Nadia Lokma who is working on the restoration of the damaged wooden objects at the museum. She took 8 years to restore a chariot of Tutankhamun and she’s obviously very passionate about her work. It’s wonderful to know that the objects are in good hands:

In the article, Dr. Hawass says of the looting of the museum’s gift shop: “The funny part of the story is that only the books of the gift shop remained untouched. Looters are never interested in books, I guess”.


UPDATE 8th Feb 3pm:

Radio Netherlands has an emotional print interview with Dr. Maarten Raven, the field director for the Dutch mission at Saqqara. Speaking about the illicit digging there, he says:

I’ve always been afraid this would happen. All we can do now is look on and weep.

Another update from Dr. Zahi Hawass mainly discusses a visit with journalists to Giza and plans to reopen the site to tourists. He discusses Saqqara, but not the site as a whole, referring to certain specific tombs as being safe:

I would once again like to say that the rumors claiming that the tombs of Maya, Nefer, and the Two Brothers in Saqqara were recently damaged are not true. The Imhotep Museum and the storage magazines of Saqqara are also safe.

UPDATE 11th Feb 12:30am:

Sorry for the delay in updates everyone- I still have PhD research and teaching to do despite everything! And a huge thank you again for everyone who has contributed comments to the discussion and to what we know about the ongoing situation.

There have been more contradictory, unverified reports of looting or lack thereof, this time in Kharga Museum. Posts from three local Egyptians on Facebook and Twitter suggested attacks on the museum and looting. However, Dr. Salima Ikram says that despite violence in the area and threats to the museum, it had not in fact been looted: “Kharga: police station attacked because police killed 5 people there. Hospitals busy with this there and in Asyut. Apparently all the magazines and museum and Hibis et alli are safe. In the absence of police etc, thieves and robbers are around. Potentially attacking houses and maybe this will extend to antiquities. However, all the inspectors and the people are patrolling the areas trying to keep everyone and everything safe. Will report further in the morning. S”. An article in Ahram Online (via Andie Byrnes) says an official statement denied any damage to the museum.

An article in Al Masry Al Youm says that the museum in Asyut is a target of people’s anger with the government but doesn’t specify what form that anger has taken. There is no direct reference to looting or damage though.

Dr. Hawass has posted again on his blog and states that five more stolen Qantara objects have been recovered. Another National Geographic article again reiterates that the tomb of Maya the treasurer is safe, while the tomb of Maia the wet nurse is completely bricked up.

There are also lots of photos and footage from various sources of the ongoing restoration work in the Egyptian Museum. I will comment further on these in the next day or two. Here are some photos from the BBC.

Video from CNN:

Video from National Geographic:

Statues of Tutankhamun damaged at the Egyptian Museum

For the latest updates, see the new blog post.
UPDATE Jan 30th, 12pm: the mummies of Tutankhamun’s great-grandparents damaged?
UPDATE Jan 30th, 2pm: golden fan of Tut damaged, Dr. Zahi Hawass confirms damage to at least one Tut statue
UPDATE Jan 30th, 4:30pm: confirmation of theft from the former director of the Egyptian Museum; Memphis Museum also looted
UPDATE Jan 30th, 5:30pm: statement from Dr. Zahi Hawass posted on his blog
UPDATE Jan 31st, 11am: at least two of Tutankhamun’s gilded statues safe
UPDATE Jan 31st, 1:40pm: new photo showing damaged mummy heads, Hawass appointed Minister of Antiquities
UPDATE Jan 31st, 2:50pm: damaged mummies very unlikely to be Yuya & Tjuya
UPDATE Jan 31st, 3:50pm: raw footage used by Al Jazeera shows Tut figure from panther statue still in the museum
UPDATE Jan 31st, 11:20pm: various reports about extensive damage or lack thereof at Saqqara & Abusir from an Egyptian antiquities inspector, Professor Miroslav Bárta, & Dr. Hawass
UPDATE Feb 1st, 12:45am: two new photos of damage from the Egyptian Museum
UPDATE Feb 1st, 9:40pm: another update from Dr. Hawass and further worrying reports suggesting damage/looting at Saqqara & Abusir
UPDATE Feb 2nd, 12:45am: Facebook group Egyptologists for Egypt says reliefs from the tomb of Maia at Saqqara hacked out EDITED-Maia or Maya?
UPDATE Feb 2nd, 11pm: further suggestions of looting at Saqqara; Salima Ikram trying to assess the situation on the ground
UPDATE Feb 3rd, 9:20am: Salima Ikram reporting from Saqqara
UPDATE Feb 3rd, 4pm: another statement from Dr. Zahi Hawass, photos from the museum, including one of the mummies
UPDATE Feb 4th, 1am: an update from the Dutch team at Saqqara says Abusir & Saqqara looted, a report of pharaonic statues seized in Algeria
UPDATE Feb 4th, 11:50pm: more reports of Saqqara & Abusir under attack, Dr. Hawass says untrue; a report from the Fayum; and supposedly looted statues in Algeria are fakes
UPDATE Feb 5th: for the latest updates, see the new blog post

Devastating footage from Al Jazeera posted on Twitter and Flickr now shows significant damage and destruction in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Some of these images can be found at these sites. The footage appears to show wooden statues from the tomb of Tutankhamun with the gilded figure of the king ripped from the smashed bases. Images below show the statues in their original state, and their current condition:

Gilded statue of Tutankhamun hunting on a papyrus skiff

Gilded statue of Tutankhamun hunting on a papyrus skiff

Gilded statue of Tutankhamun astride a panther

Tut boat
tut panther

Middle Kingdom models of daily life and their have been smashed. The damage on the famous army of Mehseti doesn’t seem to be too severe thankfully, but other beautiful models are broken and strewn on the floor.

Soldiers of Mehseti, Asyut, 11th dynasty

Soldiers of Mehseti, Asyut, 11th dynasty

assiut soldiers

model boat

It is an incredibly sad state of affairs as we await news of the full extent of this destruction of history.
UPDATE: I’ve now identified the smashed wooden boat as also belonging to the tomb of Meseti at Asyut (Cairo 4918). It’s one of the largest model boats in existence, measuring over 1.5 metres, and it dates to approximately 2000BC, so over it’s 4000 years old. Very sad.
Here’s a photo of it from it’s original publication back in 1913, but you can also follow this link to see a photo of it as it looked in the museum.
meseti boat
UPDATE: Watching the actual video footage of the museum from Al Jazeera, I regret to say that I think you can spot at the 1 minute mark (see a screen capture and the video itself below), footage of another destroyed statue of Tutankhamun, one of the two statues depicted below (photos care of the Griffith Institute Archive‘s Tutankhamun collection). Amendment, Jan 31st: it appears that these gilded sandaled feet also belong to the panther statue. See update from Jan 31st, 11am below for further info.
For a colour photo of these statues, see these photos from the blog of Richard Seaman.
Tut feet 2



ANOTHER UPDATE, 30th Jan 12pm:
In the comments, Tamakazura has correctly identified the gilded open work cartonnage case shown on Al Jazeera as belonging to Tjuya, mother of the great Queen Tiye and great-grandmother of Tutankhamun. Below you can compare a photo from The Complete Valley of the Kings, p. 176 and the still from Al Jazeera. The case was placed directly on Tjuya’s body, so it is doubtful that it could have been removed without damaging her mummy. This suggests that the two mummies mentioned by Dr. Zahi Hawass as being beheaded and severely damaged may be those of Yuya and Tjuya. Aiden Dodson has been able to confirm that the case was displayed separately from Tjuya, so her mummy has not been damaged. They are important historical figures as well as two of the best preserved mummies from ancient Egypt, so it would indeed be tragic if this is true. I hope that the incredible burial assemblage found with them, one of the most celebrated discoveries in Egyptology, has not suffered also.
tjuya

Also, in this Al Jazeera report, Dr. Zahi Hawass, comments on the damage at the museum:

UPDATE, 30th Jan 2pm:
The gold fan head featured in the Al Jazeera footage appears to be a fan belonging to Tutankhamun. Here is a photo from the original excavations courtesy of the Griffith Institute- the fan in question is on the far left- and a screen shot of the fan lying in the museum. At least it appears that only the shaft has been broken off and the decoration has been left intact.


Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has confirmed damage to at least one statue of Tutankhamun. I fear it may be more, but I hope that Dr. Hawass is correct that the damage is minimal. At least his comments are reassuring about the current security situation at the museum, as well as some inspiring words for the Egyptians who attempted to protect the museum.

UPDATE, 30th Jan 4:30pm:
Zeit Online (in German and translated into English) has posted an interview with Wafaa el-Saddik, the director of the Egyptian Museum up until very recently, who says that 13 cases have been smashed, some objects have definitely been stolen, the looting of the museum was an inside job by guards and police, and that the museum in Memphis has also been looted.
UPDATE, 30th Jan 5:30pm: Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted a statement on his own blog. He confirms the destruction of one of the Tutankhamun panther statues. I should also clarify concerning the Tutankhamun statues that have been smashed, that each of them belongs to a pair of statues, and one can only hope that the statues’ twins have survived the damage. See below for images from the wonderful Griffith Institute of the statues as they were found in situ in the Valley of the Kings:


I should also mention that this Al Jazeera screen capture shows a soldier uprooted from the great model army of Meseti, from Asyut, which I mentioned above. At least four of these figures appear to have been torn from the 4000 year old model.

UPDATE, 31st Jan 11am:

In the comments, Mellady mentions that two of the gilded Tutankhamun statues, which are mentioned above shown wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt (the ones *not* on the papyrus boat or the panther), are probably still on tour in the USA with the ‘Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’ tour. You can see photos of the statues in questions on at these exhibition links. The exhibition was just in New York until January 17th, 2011, and it’s due to open again in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 18th, 2011. If you factor in the time needed to move the objects and set up the new exhibition space, they must be in one of those cities. I have contacted the exhibition organisers to see if I can confirm this. This would suggest that the broken sandalled feet shown in the Al Jazeera footage belong to the figure of Tutankhamun from the panther statue.

Other objects shown in the footage but difficult to specifically identify appear to include a smashed shabti figurine, a bronze statuette of the Apis bull, a travertine calcite (alabaster) vessel, faience jewellery, and a faience hippo figurine from Lisht. The large wooden statue shown in the screen capture below comes from the Meseti boat model. Another model figure shown in the footag, kneeling and armless, also appears to be from the same model.

There are worrying reports of archaeological sites and museums around the country being targeted but no concrete information as of yet. Nevertheless, I am still inspired and awed by the valiant efforts of ordinary Egyptian citizens taking a stand to protect the heritage of which they are so proud. For whatever damage has been done, it’s possible that it could have been much worse without their help. My focus on this site is on the artefacts because that is what I’m best able to comment on, but my thoughts are with the Egyptian people.
mehseti man

UPDATE, 31st Jan 1:40pm:

Via Kate Phizackerley: there is now a photo, purportedly from the Associated Press, showing two damaged mummy heads, posted on this site. I’m not sure about the source of this photo, but the mummies don’t look particularly like Yuya or Tjuya. It’s possible that severe damage has may them harder to identify, or we could be dealing with different individuals. Also, Dr. Zahi Hawass has reportedly been appointed to the new government position of Minister of Antiquities, and Gaber Asfour has been named Minister of Culture.

UPDATE, 31st Jan 2:50pm:
According to Egyptologist Aidan Dodson, the damaged mummies are very unlikely to be Yuya and Tjuya: ‘the gold mummy-cover of Tjuiu was not actually on her body any more… Both mummies were inside their coffins – the photo of Tjuiu shown earlier was from an old display of 1910.’
UPDATE, 31st Jan 3:50pm:
Raw video footage that has emerged on youTubeis no longer on youTube showing more images than first seen on Al Jazeera, including the gilded figure of Tutankhamun from the panther statue, lying in another case at the 0:50 mark. This confirms that the statue was not removed from the museum at the time of damage.

UPDATE Jan 31st, 11:20pm:
There are a number of reports out there, from various people such as an Egyptian antiquities inspector and Professor Miroslav Bárta, suggesting that there may have been a fair amount of damage at Saqqara & Abusir. However, we don’t have much concrete information yet. Dr. Hawass has stated that while tombs have indeed been broken into, nothing has been taken damaged. Vincent Brown’s Talking Pyramids site has a very good compilation of all these reports. In terms of following future stories about the archaeological situation in Egypt, Kate Phizackerley has set up a database of information on sites and museums.

UPDATE Feb 1st, 12:45am:
In the comments, Nicko kindly directed me to some new AP photos of damage in the Egyptian Museum. The two new images appear to show a smashed and emptied case in the foreground with a few gilded canes and sticks lying on top. In the background, you can see the display of chariots and off to the right, the huge golden shrines of Tutankhamun. National Geographic now has a higher resolution version of one of the photos, which shows that Tut’s gold fan mentioned above is also lying on top of the case. A large number of staff, canes, and sticks were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, shown in the following photos from the Griffith Institute Archive, and it is possible that some these are shown in the images.

I would also like to thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion in the comments and I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to reply to all your remarks!

UPDATE Feb 1st, 9:40pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, released another statement earlier today stating that 288 objects stolen from the magazine in Qantara have been returned. [Considering the magazine reportedly contained 3000 objects, this may not be the best news] He says that 70 objects in the Egyptian Museum suffered damage, including the Tutankhamun panther statue, but it should be possible to repair them. He notes that most of the damage was done because the looters couldn’t see what they were doing in the dark. He says that all other museums and sites are now safe, being guarded by the army and also local Egyptians.

An excellent article at The Art of Counting has reports from a number of Egyptologists. The article states that Maarten Raven, an Egyptologist at the Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, says that the Dutch excavation projects at Saqqara have been looted and destroyed. Richard Wilkinson at the University of Arizona says that the army and neighbourhood watch groups are protecting sites on the west bank at Luxor. Carol Redmount at Berkeley states: “Mme Nadia visited El Hibeh today and said the site has been looted, but should be okay from now on as they are expecting guards to be in place. I also heard that Ihnasya el Medinah had been hit. The Beni Suef Museum is safe.”

UAE newspaper the National also has varying reports about possible damage at Abusir and Saqqara. A rather sensationalist article in the British tabloid the Sun has reported extensive damage at Abusir and in the magazine in Qantara. Overall, there are very worrying reports, especially from Saqqara and Abusir, but also reassurance about many other sites.

Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director Peter Bouckaert is reported to have stated that some of the looters at the Egyptian Museum and elsewhere were found to have been carrying police identification cards. A further approximate 50 individuals have been detained by the army trying to break into the museum.

UPDATE Feb 2nd, 12:45am:

The Facebook group Egyptologists for Egypt has posted the following information: ‘From our Senior Guide. A Sakkara inspector told him that in the last few days Sakkara has been ransacked. Maia is destroyed and even the reliefs in the burial chamber have been hacked out. There is mass digging around the Unas area in particular. The inspector could not get as far as the Teti area as he was threatened with guns but the mastabas will have suffered the same fate. A black day (via P.Allingham).’

This information does not make it clear whether the tomb referred to is that of Maia, wet nurse of Tutankhamun, or that of Maya, the Overseer of the Treasury and Overseer of Works under Tutankhamun. I originally assumed because of the spelling that it was more likely to refer to the lady Maia, but I should stress that with very little information so far, we cannot really be sure. Because of the comments on the damage by the Dutch Mission it seems more likely that Maya’s tomb is the one that has been hit. I’m posting information about both tombs below until we can get any further news. Either way, if the reports are true, then it seems that artefacts from that particular period of Egyptian history have suffered especially.

Dr. Maarten Raven, the Field Director of the Dutch Mission, has posted this statement: ‘There are various reports circulating on the internet about widespread looting in Saqqara and Abusir. However, we would like to stress that so far we have not been able to obtain any confirmation of this, except the following. On Saturday 29 January our restoration architect in Cairo told us that his contractor at Saqqara confirmed the looting in Saqqara. On Sunday 30 January the SCA Director of Saqqara told us that the site of the Dutch expedition has been involved in the looting. He would or could not give further details, and that is still the current situation. We have so far been unable to establish direct contact with people who know more.’
I suggest following the Egyptological Looting Database for further updates on the Saqqara.

The tomb of Maya and his wife Merit was originally discovered by Lepsius in 1843 and then lost until its rediscovery in 1986 by a joint mission of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden and the EES. Maya served under both Tutankhamun and Horemheb.

The tomb of Maya, Overseer of the Treasury, from the Dutch Excavations

The tomb of Maya, Overseer of the Treasury, from the Dutch Excavations

Maia was the wet nurse of Tutankhamun and a high ranking woman. Her tomb was discovered at Saqqara in 1997 by Alain Zivie and the French Mission (info in English). The following video shows scenes from the tomb of Maia with Alain Zivie.

A relief from the tomb depicting Maia and the young Tutankhamun

Photo of a tomb relief depicting Maia and the young Tutankhamun

UPDATE Feb 2nd, 11pm:

No further news of sites being attacked today, hopefully this is a good sign, but there have been a few note-worthy posts on the Facebook group Restore + save the Egyptian Museum, which I’d recommend following for updates directly from Egyptologists, some relayed from the field. I’m posting screen captures of them below: another report of Saqqara looting, a pledge by Dr. Salima Ikram in Egypt to gather further info about sites, and an impassioned plea from Tahrir Square by a member of the group. Also, the IAE has posted this statement and Dr. Mark Lehner, director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, is still planning to head out to Egypt next week.
sarah saqqara
salima
tahrir

UPDATE Feb 3rd, 9:20am:

Peter Allingham reports on behalf of Dr. Salima Ikram from Saqqara, again from the very helpful Facebook group Restore + save the Egyptian Museum:
salima 2

Update: Feb 3rd, 4pm:

Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted another statement reassuring everyone about the safety and security of the museum and other sites, and has uploaded photos from the museum showing the heavy security in place. Dr. Hawass also expresses his frustration with reports of damage elsewhere, which he insists is not true, including Saqqara. I hope he will understand that the only reason everyone is concerned about possible damage is because of our love for Egypt and its incredible antiquities. The photos on Dr. Hawass’ site also include a new image of one of the damaged mummies’ heads (still unidentified) and the broken vitrine with the fan and canes.

Update: Feb 4th, 1am:

A news update from the Dutch excavation team at Saqqara:
‘Thursday 3 February 14:00 – A reliable source in Cairo (who had this directly from one of the SCA inspectors at Saqqara) confirmed that the Czech magazine at Abusir and the Cairo University magazine at Saqqara have been looted. No confirmation could be had about private tombs. Apparently doors have been forcibly opened but whether reliefs have been taken is not clear. The inspectors themselves have not yet had access to all parts of the site.’

A story from the Times of Algeria posted by Kate says that two pharonic statues were found in the possession of four individuals who have now been arrested. There are no images or further details so the identification of the statues might not necessarily be accurate.

Update: Feb 4th, 11:50pm:

Two reports from CultureGrrl and Science said to be from unnamed Egyptologists say that there has been a lot of damage in Saqqara and Abusir, while another statement from Dr. Zahi Hawass says that the reports are untrue.

A report from the Hungarian team at Lahun says there has been some illicit digging in the Fayum area but an attempted looting of Karanis magazine was stopped by the SCA and local Egyptians.

The story from Algeria yesterday about smuggled stolen Egyptian statues being found turns out only to involve fakes, which is apparent from the new photo that has been posted.

Echoes from the past, fears for the future

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

the Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All

from the poem The Prophecy of Neferti,
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. The people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, but the fire and chaos in Cairo is threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tweets are reporting Al Jazeera showing scenes of looting within the museum. The sad news has come of Dr. Zahi Hawass confirming damage and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.

To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations. Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient, but I am consoled by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then perhaps it will take quite a lot more before this particular old man goes anywhere…
I shall show you the land in catastrophe,
what should not happen, happening:
arms of war will be taken up,
and the land will live by uproar….
To the heart, spoken words seem like fire;
what comes from the mouth cannot be endured.
Shrunk is the land–many its controllers.
It is bare–its taxes are great.
Little is the grain–large is the measure,
and it is poured out in rising amounts.
The Sungod separates Himself from mankind.
He will rise when it is time,
but no one knows when midday occurs, no one can distinguish His shadow
~from the poem ‘The Prophecy of Neferti’, written over 3500 years ago
With all of the ongoing change happening in Egypt right now, there is the danger that what has existed there for millennia could be lost in just a moment. While the people have been fearlessly standing up and making their voices heard, the fire and chaos in Cairo has been threatening the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reports coming in via Twitter told of the protestors forming an incredible human chain around the museum to protect it until the army could come to take over. Now tragic reports have come in from Dr. Zahi Hawass himself of some damage by looters and the destruction of at least two mummies. With the continuing upheaval, I am fearful for both the people of Egypt and the vast repository of beauty, wisdom, history, and monumental human achievement concentrated in that one building. Many know the museum as the home of Tutankhamun’s treasures, the single greatest collection of burial goods from ancient Egypt, including not only the gold mask, but everything from chariots to underwear. But the museum holds so much more.
To any student of Egyptology who visits for the first time, the experience is mind boggling. Object after object is a masterpiece, telling fabulous stories of the birth of civilization, genius architects, powerful kings, master artists, great generals, eloquent writers, and the ordinary people who lived and died on the banks of the Nile. From the serene beauty of the statues of King Menkaure or the dazzling treasures of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, to the delicate perfection of the painting of the Meidum geese or the exquisite Middle Kingdom jewellery, copied by Art Deco jewellers.
Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Statue of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh and pyramid builder Menkaure

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Meidum geese, from the mastaba of Nefermaat & Itet, approx. 2600BC

Papyrus Boulaq 18 records the day-to-day working of an ancient Egyptian palace, including the wages that were paid, while the actual beautifully decorated floors from the palace at Amarna, on which Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have walked, are also preserved in the museum.
The magnificent models from the tomb of Meketre come from another time of transition in Egyptian history. Meketre served the king who managed to reunite the country after its first long period of decentralization. The enormous wooden model depicting cattle stocktaking is absolutely unique in ancient Egypt. The amount of detail in this, and other models, give us insight into daily life, ancient technology, and social relations.
Cattle count model of Meketre

Cattle count model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Weaving model of Meketre

Even the bodies of the pharaohs themselves lie in state in the museum, like Ramesses III, who battled invasions by the Sea Peoples and whose wife, son, and officials conspired to assassinate him.
What I am possibly most afraid for though is all the unknown, undocumented treasures that lie buried in the basement of the museum. Most museums only have a few percent of their entire collections on display, but in the Egyptian Museum the number of artefacts in storage is so vast that no one entirely knows what’s down there. There are often stories of amazing artefacts being ‘rediscovered’. The first 30 seconds of the video below gives just a glimpse of the labyrinth of objects that lies below the museum. If anything were to happen to these pieces, not only would they be lost to future generations, but the potential knowledge they offer would never come to light. Their destruction would be complete, as if they had never existed.
For now, my thoughts are with the people of Egypt, both the modern and the ancient. I am watching with baited breath for further news of the fate of the objects kept in the museum, a repository of the country’s history and a monument to human achievement. My hopes are buoyed only by the thought that if Ramesses the Great, who may have been up to 90 years old when he died, has managed to survive for over 3000 years with even his hair dye still intact, then hopefully this particular henna’d old man is not going anywhere…

Wonderful new gallery of Ancient Egyptian Life and Death at the British Museum now open

It may have seemed just a typical grey winter’s day in London yesterday, but in a small room on Great Russell Street some very different scenes were unfolding. Beautifully attired men and women gathered for a banquet, watching musicians and dancers, with huge vats of wine wreathed with floral garlands and tables heavily laden with a rich array of food and bouquets of exotic flowers. Nearby, a family was out together on the water for a pleasure cruise and hunting trip, enjoying the beauties of nature as flocks of brightly coloured birds, fish, and butterflies rose in great swirls of movement around them.

Yesterday at the British Museum, the tomb paintings of Nebamun, some of the most famous images in Egyptian art, were finally unveiled again in a new permanent gallery after 10 years of conservation.

On Tuesday night I attended a reception for the opening of the gallery. It was a moment that many people worked long and hard for, from the conservators to the museum assistants, and not least its curator Richard Parkinson. And it was a triumph. It is not only the extraordinary paintings, beautifully restored, that make the gallery such a success–the remarkable reorganization of their display and the design of the gallery completely transforms the way visitors will interact with the museum’s Egyptian collection.

In the past, hundreds of monumental stone sculptures and crowd-thrilling mummies have dominated the museum’s displays, but now visitors will have a chance to see the Egyptians as ordinary people just like them, filled with hopes, fears, and desires. The design of the gallery with its lovely limestone panelling conveys the feeling of the actual tomb. The gallery is small enough to give it a feeling of intimacy, without feeling confined–I only hope it can withstand the extent of the crowds that often swarm through the museum.

Before the paintings were removed from display for conservation purposes (a complex process that involved everything from removing harmful plaster of paris backing to reversing Victorian ‘corrections’ made to the paintings!), they were previously displayed in frames, arranged along the wall as if in an art gallery. The paintings are now arranged according to their likely original locations in the tomb, exhibited on a slightly reclining angle to protect them. Their new integrated display allows the tomb’s message to speak, rather than imposing a Western concept of art on them. It allows the paintings to be exhibited in a way that conveys a sense of their original connectedness, giving a sense of the original unified design space–a place commemorating Nebamun, where friends and family could visit and bring offerings for his spirit in the afterlife. To further convey the sense of what the tomb would have been like, there is video display of a digital recreation of the site and tomb interior, which should also be online soon in an interactive version.

Another remarkable touch is that if you look through the cases that display daily life objects from that era, you can see through to the paintings hanging beyond and actually see the painted depictions of incredibly similar items being used by Nebamun, his friends, family, and workers. Amazingly the cases containing the paintings themselves use non-reflective glass so there’s no glare to impede your view- it almost feels like the glass isn’t there at all.

Several people spoke during the evening, including the director of the museum and the Times Briton of the Year, Neil MacGregor, who spoke amongst other things about how the gallery would bring visitors in touch with real ancient Egyptian people, for example the amazingly preserved loaf of bread that still bears the fingerprints of the baker.

Sir Ronald Cohen, known as the father of venture capitalism, who generously contributed to the funding of the gallery. His personal involvement in the region is an extraordinary story. Cohen is the British son of a Syrian Jew and was born in Egypt. In 1998, he was presented with Israel’s highest tribute, the Jubilee award, as “one of the visionaries who have done the most to facilitate Israel’s integration into the global economy”, and then in 2005 he established the Portland Trust to help the Palestinians “build up a powerful economy . . . based on a deep level of interdependence with Israel”. He spoke very eloquently about naming it in honour of his father Michael Cohen, a lovely gesture that echoes the image of Nebamun being honoured by his son.

The new Egyptian ambassador to Britain, who officially opened the gallery, used his speech to highlight parallels between the current situation in the Middle East and the Amarna correspondence, written shortly after Nebamun’s life, in which chieftains in the region of Palestine wrote to the Egyptian pharaoh asking for help defending themselves against attacking forces. During the course of the evening, I also spotted Cherie Blair eagerly looking around the gallery.

If you’d like a little taster of what to expect, there are some great videos featuring footage of the paintings and the new gallery itself and interviews with Dr. Richard Parkinson, the Egyptologist who masterminded the whole project at the Telegraph and the Times.

Much has been written about the gallery over the past couple of weeks. One of the most informative is a wonderful piece in the Guardian Weekly in Dr. Parkinson’s own words. There have been numerous other very positive and well-written articles about the gallery, all of which I’ve found interesting reading, for example in the Guardian, and also from an Egyptian perspective,
Over the past few years, I myself was very lucky to have  the amazing opportunity to work the paintings over the summer months that I spent as a curatorial intern at the British Museum. When I was a teenager, I actually had a poster of the painting of Nebamun fowling in the marshes in my room, so needless to say it was an extraordinary experience. One of the things I was able to do was contributing to the descriptions of the paintings  in Chapter Three of the book ‘The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun: Masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art in the British Museum‘.

Nebamun

The Nebamun tomb paintings in storage
For this task, my fellow intern Ally and I sat in front of them for hours, examining them in minute detail and considering the individual brushstrokes. Every time I looked at them, a new detail would catch my eye. The paintings are incredibly skillfully produced, exhibiting numerous delicate techniques used to produce various textures and effects. But at the same time, they are no means perfect, the erosion of the paint revealing original sketch lines, corrections, and gridlines. There is a liveliness to the innovative composition, tightly interweaving figures to produce both movement and a wonderful sense of harmony. While many of the images are standard scenes that had been appearing in tombs for hundreds of years, the artists managed to breathe fresh life into them, in ways never seen before in Egyptian art.

In the course of their conservation and examination, wonderful details were newly noted that had somehow never been observed before since the paintings arrived at the British Museum 190 years ago, such as the real gold used on the cat’s eye and the green paint on the left-hand side of the garden scene that can be reconstructed as a large sycomore fig tree.

The value of the paintings lies not only in their artistic merit though, but also in what they can tell us about Egyptian life. The gallery isn’t solely devoted to the paintings of the tomb chapel of Nebamun. Under the curatorship of Dr. Richard Parkinson, objects that further illuminate the lives of the people illustrated in the paintings have been woven into the gallery to infuse our understanding of the idealized Egyptian life depicted in the paintings with details of the realities. You can see the colourful painting materials and slightly unwieldy-looking brushes with which the artists worked their magic, as well as the possessions of both the rich and the poor, from fishing nets to board games to dazzling jewellery.

It was very interesting to see the process of choosing the objects to be displayed go through various stages of selection and whittling down. Like most museums, the British Museum can only display a fraction of their collections, partially due to space limitations and repetition of objects, but also because there is a delicate balance to be achieved in what is useful to furthering visitors’ knowledge and how much they can absorb. While it would be nice to include as many objects as possible, cluttering a small space might mean that people miss seeing key artifacts and lose sight of the message the gallery is trying to convey. It’s not just a desire for clarity that can be restrictive though, there is also consideration of the preservation of the objects. The most impressive object that didn’t make it into the final gallery was a magnificent finely-woven linen tunic, which would have needed such low lighting to preserve it from further degradation that you wouldn’t have been able to see the rest of the objects!

One of the other tasks I helped out with in preparation for the new gallery was a final desperate attempt to shed more light on the whereabouts of the lost tomb from which the paintings had been brutally removed so long ago. Although we know Nebamun’s tomb was located in Dra’ Abu el-Naga, we know little more. In vain, I scoured published archaeological records like Friederike Kampp’s survey of Theban tombs for any shred of evidence that might point to a known tomb being a potential location for Nebamun. While there were quite a few other Nebamuns buried in the area, all of them had details that ruled the BM’s Nebamun out. I wasn’t even able to identify a single tomb dated to the right era that was lacking any other defining information. There is a slim possibility that Nebamun’s tomb may still lie buried under further accumulations of debris, waiting to be rediscovered, but it may be so completely destroyed that it will forever remain unidentifiable.

The good news though is that now that the paintings have been restored and put on display again, Nebamun can be rediscovered by millions of people from around the world, and the gallery will breathe life once again into our understanding of the lives of the ancient Egyptians, who were so much more than just the sum of their statues and mummies.

Qurna

Egyptian Revival in Hollywood

As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.

Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.

I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.

As Handy states:

‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that “every star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,” Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood.

Grauman theater

Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theater’s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing “a jam of people and motor cars … extending in all directions” while “the picture stars were wildly greeted” and numerous photos taken of the “kaleidoscopic human spectacle.”

The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as “fascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.” The screen itself, one of the interior’s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummy’s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…

Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Grauman’s Egyptian “is not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.”

For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Grauman’s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theater’s “playful” design elements, but noted, “Nothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.” He pointed to the decoration of the theater’s massive lintel: “A winged scarab flanked by what—swans? No, that doesn’t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I don’t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didn’t appear in the art really”.’

Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.

Grauman detail

Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor

But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient world’s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the West’s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.

Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.

Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:

‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. “The Egyptian style,” writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, “captured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another ‘first civilization’ … They nicknamed the Mississippi the ‘American Nile’ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.” Perhaps the most famous example of our forebears’ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’

Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.

Although Grauman’s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.

The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.

As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:

‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloff’s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Victor Buono’s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martin’s novelty song “King Tut” (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a “condo made of stone-a”), or Brendan Fraser’s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egypt’s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.

None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.

I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.

I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.

For further reading on Egyptomania, I can recommend Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture, a nice collection of essays on examples from around the world.

Grauman sign

Sign for Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Kevin Stanchfield.

Seeing Ancient Egypt with new eyes

Although I’ve travelled to Egypt a few times now myself, it always interests me to hear people’s first impressions of the country, especially when they are less familiar with the ancient society. Lynn Barber has written a delightful article in the Guardian on ‘how she fell for Egypt’, and it gives a wonderfully fresh insight on how the country and its landscapes, people, monuments, and artwork can captivate and capture the imagination so instantly and entirely.

It’s wonderful to hear about someone else falling for the first time for something you love too and it makes me recall my first trip to Egypt. To me Egypt was a civilization that I already knew very intimately, but to finally be there, I was just as astonished as Barber, or even more so.

I still vividly remember my first visit to the museum in Cairo. When I was a child, I delighted in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, but was awestruck when I finally encountered the more extensive collections of the British Museum and the Louvre- what treasure troves of wonder! But everything I had yet seen paled in comparison when I first visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. While the museum conditions are not ideal and the labelling is rather sparse, the collection of artifacts is incredible and not to be missed. Despite the rather shabby setting, I gasped in awe not just at each new room I entered, of which there was an astounding, seemingly endless number brimming with antiquities, but at each object that met my eye; many of them were familiar to me as significant pieces appearing in countless books, and the rest were new and thrilling, each one a tiny time capsule revealing some insight into the ancient Egyptians. From the imposing colossal statue of Amenhotep III and his wife Mut, who preside over the great statue court at the heart of the museum, to the thousands of tiny, delightful pieces stuffed into the rooms that tourists seem to ignore entirely in their dash for King Tut’s mask–they all made me fall in love with Egypt all over again.

Hippo and cow

A delightful unintentionally funny display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

My first sight of the great hypostyle hall at the temple of Karnak was one of the few experiences in my life that’s been literally jaw-dropping, as in actually being unable to keep my upper and lower jaws attached. Karnak is the grand temple of Egypt, the one that every king had to add to until it became positively labyrinthine, and apparently the largest ancient religious site in the world. The hypostyle hall is its crowning glory: 134 massive limestone stone columns in the form of papyrus plants, some standing up to 80 feet high, form a veritable stone forest. I am sadly unable to find the words to describe the strange humbling yet inspiring feeling I felt standing dwarfed in the midst of that massive monument. I can only say, if you’ve never been, you need to go.

On one point in Barber’s article I’d have to disagree though- she describes her visit to the Valley of the Kings and says that while the main ticket allows entrance to three tombs, ‘if you want to see more tombs, you can buy another ticket or go to the Valley of the Queens, and the Valley of the Nobles, but three is probably enough’. I can understand that seeing a myriad of tombs might be overwhelming for those new to Egypt and three tombs in the Valley of the Kings specifically might indeed be enough, but missing out the Nobles and the tombs of Deir el Medina is a mistake that many tourists seem to make- both were deserted when I visited. The tombs of the kings and the tombs of the nobles, and also of the workers who made the kings’ tombs, are very different in style indeed. The royal design is understandably quite formal and focussed on religious motifs, and personally I think that the average person would probably enjoy the tombs of the Nobles and Deir el Medina much more with their lively decoration and relate more to the scenes of daily life.

Ramose
A relief in the tomb of Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles, photo by Becky Ragby

The art in those tombs is truly superb and not to be missed. Actually, it’s hardly surprising that the artists who decorated the tombs of the kings did a rather wonderful job on their own tombs too! It was wonderful to read Lynn Barber describe Egyptian art in such glowing terms: ‘I expected to find ancient Egyptian art interesting: what I didn’t expect was that I’d find it as thrilling as, say, Florence or St Petersburg’. Sadly, Egyptian art has always historically been viewed as inferior to classical art, but I’m glad it’s not just the Egyptologists who’d disagree with this.

I’m not convinced either by her claim that ‘most of the tour guides in Egypt are fully trained Egyptologists’ since sadly I’ve heard numerous guides spouting ridiculous nonsense to rapt audiences of tourists. I’ve met a number of the Egyptian summer trainees at the British Museum and they’re actually curators and antiquities inspectors not tour guides.

Egypt can have a profound effect on its visitors, however Lynn Barber’s final comments in her article were incredibly amusing to me as an Egyptologist-in-training who decided on her career at the age of 6. Unfortunately Barber’s words of wisdom come perhaps slightly too late for me: ‘Incidentally if you have children of an impressionable age, do not take them to Egypt because it will inevitably make them want to become archaeologists when they grow up and then they will spend their adult lives sorting shards in some dim county museum… Egyptology is an incredibly alluring subject, but a disastrous career, I suspect’.

Copywriting the Pyramids

You’ve probably all heard about this story already since it broke in all the newspapers awhile ago. It wasn’t an April the 1st story, though you’d be excused for thinking it. The announcement that the Egyptian government was planning to pass a copyright law on its antiquities has flabbergasted just about everyone.

Apparently the draft bill was formulated in the wake of attacks by the Egyptian media against the famous pyramid-shaped Luxor casino in Las Vegas. The newspaper Al-Wafd published an article stating that ‘Thirty-five million tourists visit Las Vegas to see the reproduction of Luxor city while only six million visit the real Egyptian city of Luxor’. (They fail to note that while the casino is called the Luxor, it has nothing to do with the city of Luxor and is actually a copy of the Great Pyramid at Giza located almost 700km away).

So, at first glance, it appears that the entire point of this law would be to get a slice of the biggest, most successful exploiters of Egyptian cultural heritage. But then comes the strange twist in the whole story: the Luxor Casino would be exempt from the law, supposedly because it’s not an ‘exact’ replica, even though it is blatantly meant to represent the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. According to Zahi Hawass, ‘It is a resort that doesn’t look like anything from antiquity, it is a replica of imagination, I can’t stop them from doing that’. Besides, “it is an ugly pyramid with fake hieroglyphics inside’.

But why would places like the Luxor casino be exempt? If they’re not the target, then what is the point of the law and who would they be going after? If the reproductions have to be 100% accurate for the copyright to apply, how many objects will this actually affect? Such a law would just encourage businesses to make even more dreadfully ugly and inauthentic reproductions than they do already, just to avoid being accused of copying.

Also, how would the Egyptians actually manage to enforce the law internationally? I suspect that the government would only really be able to enforce the law in its own country, and thereby only succeed in hurting its own economy, tourism being its primary industry. And if they didn’t enforce it in their own country, how could they justify going after anyone outside it?

Deciding who copyright belongs to when the artists, craftsmen, and architects are unknown and so long dead seems like a minefield in itself. If artifacts are kept in museums outside of Egypt and have been there for centuries, does the copyright still belong to Egypt? The bill raises so many baffling and ludicrous questions and the whole concept seems to rest on very shaky ground.

The way I see it, reproductions are actually free advertising for the Egyptian Tourism Board. In my experience, the plastic (rather grotesque) King Tut mask that my mom got me for Hallowe’en when I was a child only further fueled my desire to one day visit Egypt myself. Around the world, similar trinkets and architectural homages only remind us of the much greater wonders that lie in Egypt itself. In the International Herald Tribune, the lawyer Jeffrey P. Weingart states: ‘Anytime someone seeks to promote and profit from artistic or photographic expression, one walks a fine line between promoting its use on the one hand and protecting material on the other’.

Whatever the Egyptian government’s confusingly unclear motives are, either trying to snatch a slice of the profits from ancient Egyptian spinoffs or impose control on use of Egyptian images, the whole concept comes across as hollow threats, all rather bizarre and futile. I certainly support finding as many ways possible to fund the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ efforts to preserve ancient Egyptian monuments, but there surely must be more effective ways than a worldwide fake pyramid hunt. In the meantime, I guess we’d all better be careful about posting our holiday snaps of the pyramids on the internet, otherwise we might find Zahi and his lawyers on our doorsteps…

For a very amusing commentary on the copyright story, check out this blog entry at the Guardian entitled ‘Quick! Hide your pyramids!’.

The Senior Copyright Counsel for Google has also written an interesting response to the issue at his blog: ‘You can walk like King Tut, but don’t copy him’.

For more articles, check out Andie Byrnes’ brilliant blog where she has been rounding up all of the media coverage on the story.

Glory

Egyptological theories magically become fact in news stories

Very often, when people find out I study Egyptology, they excitedly tell me about how ancient Egypt was a passion of theirs when they were younger. It is always gratifying to see that so many other people share my enthusiasm for Egypt, but it is disappointing too to see so many of them misled by the media in their casual attempts to learn more. Anyone who has ever loved Egypt will always prick up their ears whenever the latest news story about a new discovery hits the headlines. However, many of these news reports fail to present a balanced picture.

Generally, a new theory should be critiqued by peers and subjected to a certain amount of analytical scepticism before it is accepted. Apparently this is beyond many news publishers, at least when it comes to Egyptological stories. It seems like all it takes these days is issuing a press release.

I’d been thinking about writing about this topic for a while, when the story about the ‘discovery of Hatshepsut’s mummy’ broke. The treatment of the item in the Guardian, a UK paper I generally enjoy reading, left me horrified.

Hatshepsut is famous as a woman who became pharaoh of Egypt, taking control of the country and portraying herself using male royal iconography. Her magnificent funerary temple is located at Deir el-Bahri, but her body was never been found. Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s antiquities, has announced that a previously unidentified mummy may be Hatshepsut. While it is possible that this may be true, the announcement seems slightly hasty. The evidence does not seem conclusive and I’d like to hear more information before I make up my mind about the matter, but that’s not the point here.

The article in the Guardian though presents the matter as concrete fact, and then goes on to present contradictory statements from the researchers. The title of the article is the very definitive statement: ‘Mummy is missing female pharaoh’. The author seems thoroughly convinced when she states unequivocally: ‘Egyptian authorities confirmed yesterday that thanks to DNA analysis and an ancient tooth, they have identified a mummy found a century ago as the remains of the pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut’. She quotes Dr. Hawass as saying, ‘We are 100% certain’, but then goes on to say that the DNA testing has not actually been completed: ‘While scientists are still matching those mitochondrial DNA sequences, Dr Gad said that preliminary results were “very encouraging”’.  Whatever ‘very encouraging’ means in terms of results, it certainly cannot be the categorical proof that the article suggests it is at the beginning. I very much doubt that it would stand up in the general scientific community.

The article also fails to note that the Discovery Channel wanted to find Hatshepsut for the purposes of a documentary programme and that the study was funded by them.

While I know that journalists are not afforded the same sort of opportunity for editorial criticism in their writing, I hope that they aren’t all quite as lacking in critical approach and can take a less blindly accepting approach to news stories.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated case. For example, a few months ago, a story about the Great Pyramid made news headlines across the world, and prompted a couple of my friends to approach me concerning what I thought about the ‘discovery’. The general idea they’d been given by newspapers and websites was that the question ‘how did the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids?’ had finally been answered once and for all.

The headline of the article on the BBC was: ‘Mystery of the Great Pyramid “solved”’. The impression given by the title is incredibly misleading, even though there are quotation marks around the word ‘solved’. The article gives the impression of simply being a regurgitated version of the theorist’s press release. Using a few more cautionary words to indicate that the theory was merely yet another addition to an ever-growing catalogue of hypotheses concerning the building of the pyramids wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The BBC’s website only offers short pieces highlighting main news stories, however, with an enormous international audience they wield a great deal of power over people’s perception of the news, and they shouldn’t just offer up as fact whatever theories are sent their way.

I don’t expect journalists to be experts on ancient Egypt, but when the general population recognizes the authority of a respected news source as proof of a story’s validity, I wish they would be a little more careful about how they present their idea of what’s going on in Egyptological research. For many people, the news is one of their only sources of information on Egypt, and it’s not very encouraging that their perceptions can so easily be manipulated by the media savvy and compliant news services. The ancient Egyptians had their share of official propaganda, but that shouldn’t mean we have to too.