A modern Atlantis: ancient Kush to be sunk by dam project

Abu SimbelMost people have heard the famous story about how Rameses the Great’s temple at Abu Simbel was rescued from being submerged entirely by the rising waters of Lake Nasser caused by the Aswan Dam project. The entire temple was dismantled and relocated block by block to higher ground in a project that cost 80 million dollars.

Another dam project is now threatening archaeological sites nearby. Further south along the Nile, at the fourth cataract, the Merowe Dam is being built, which will create a lake 2 miles wide and 100 miles long. The dam will flood ancient sites as well as displacing more than 50,000 people. But this time, with no monumental architecture to rescue, archaeologists are simply racing against time to try to uncover as many of the area’s ancient secrets before they are lost forever under the waters.

The area under threat was know as the land of Kush, and while we know something about the kingdom indirectly from ancient Egyptian sources, the archeology of the region previously received little attention. It was a land rich in gold and this wealth gave them the power that, despite the lack of a writing system, allowed them to maintain control over a kingdom as much as 750 miles. Archaeologists have found that the extent of the Kushite territory was much larger than previously thought; cemeteries have been excavated and a gold processing centre has been discovered.

While there is only a year left to excavate before the area is flooded, the archaeological salvage attempt has become an international effort. Geoff Emberling, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago states, ‘Surveys suggest that there are as many as 2,500 archaeological sites to be investigated in the area. Fortunately, this is an international effort-teams from Sudan, England, Poland, Hungary, Germany and the United States have been working since 1996, with a large increase in the number of archaeologists working in the area since 2003’.

The situation seems to be bringing the kingdom of Kush to the attention of more people as a fascinating society that contributed a great deal to Egypt, whose cultureMeroe was heavily influenced by their more famous neighbours, but yet was an important kingdom in its own right. Tragically, it comes at the cost of losing something we have only just begun to understand.

Andrew Lawler of the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition states, ‘The Fourth Cataract–after a brief emergence into the archaeological limelight–seems destined to slip back into obscurity, this time for eternity’.

A model discovery

There are still fascinating discoveries being made almost constantly in Egypt, but I am particularly excited about the latest one at the site of Deir el Bersha in Middle Egypt. The completely intact tomb of Henu, dating to the late First Intermediate Period, has been found by a team from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium under the direction of Professor Harco Willems and Marleen De Meyer. The tomb dates to over 4000 years ago from a turbulent period of Egyptian history, when the kingship failed and the state fragmented. The report posted online by the archaeological team includes some striking photos of the finds here.

It’s especially exciting since it is relevant to my current research; it shows us something about the Egyptians themselves, as real people, not just in death but how they lived and worked. Some of the objects I’m working with are the models of daily life that were part of burials during the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom. The models are wooden figurines and buildings carved and painted in wood to depict tableaux of workers, doing a variety of activities such as weaving, carpentry, sailing, food production, etc. They are so incredibly detailed that they actually can provide us with a great deal of informationTomb model about ancient technologies and living practices. For example, a great deal can be gleaned from models about boat design. Some of the best examples are in the Metropolitan Museum from the tomb of Meketre, for example this bakery and brewery, or this model of a cattle count. The cattle count presents a fascinating microcosm of Egyptian society and its hierarchical organization; you can see the officials seated under a great canopy with their scrolls, the only literate people, while one of the peasants who has defaulted on his taxes is beaten before them as punishment.

The examples from the tomb of Henu include a scene of three women grinding grain (wearing real miniature linen skirts!), a rare depiction of mud brick production, a baking and beer brewing model, a boat with rowers, and a large statue of Henu himself. As the project report states, the models ‘are characterized by realistic touches and unusual details such as the dirty hands and feet of the brick makers’. While grand temples and pyramids are always impressive, the little human touches in these simple wooden models bring us closer to the real Egyptian people themselves.

Too fragile to travel

A blockbuster exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun and other ancient Egyptian artefacts from the Cairo Museum has been travelling the world recently. However, the one thing that everyone wants to see, one of the most iconic artworks of all time, will not be on display.

The last time Tut’s treasures travelled, almost thirty years ago, the tour inspired the kind of Egyptomania that had not been seen since the discovery of the tomb itself in 1922. It had a huge impact on many people. Although it happened before I was even born, my mother still has the King Tut mugs that she had bought at the exhibition in Toronto and my godmother was able to give me the newspaper clippings about it that she had saved, perhaps because of some mysterious prescience of my future passion but more likely just because it was widely acknowledged as the most exciting exhibition of the era. The current tour is enjoying huge success, smashing attendance records, and raising a huge amount of badly needed money for the museums in Egypt.

It is due to visit the former Millennium Dome in London in November and is generating a lot of interest already. A couple of months ago, when I was in the British Museum with one of the curators, random staff members kept stopping us to ask about the exhibit! Unfortunately, everyone seems incredibly let down when they learn that the famous golden death mask will not be a part of the exhibition as it is too fragile to travel. I’ve even heard people wonder why anyone would bother to go! While it IS disappointing, I’d prefer NOT to see it rather than risking destroying one of the most precious artefacts in the entire world. It’s an extra incentive to travel to Egypt itself and there will be lots at the exhibition that will make up for it—the tomb was overflowing with beautiful objects, and the tour will bring attention to the many treasures that are often overlooked, as well as other non-Tut items too.

But while Egypt is not allowing the death mask to travel, in the meantime, it is demanding that other museums around the world send famous Egyptian objects back to their homeland. Zahi Hawass is asking to borrow the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, among other items. And while some museums are planning to acquiesce, the Berlin Museum is refusing, stirring up a furore in Egypt.

Although a number of Germans are actively supporting the loan, the Berlin Museum is using the same argument that the Egyptians used for keeping Tut’s death mask from travelling—it claims that the Nefertiti bust is too fragile to travel. This could quite possibly true. However, Zahi Hawass is not convinced and is threatening to declare the bust stolen property and start legal action to have it returned to Egypt permanently.

I think that the loan concept is an incredibly good one, allowing Egyptians the opportunity to see the objects without asking museums to give up their prize attractions, and I really hope that all the requests can be honoured. The politics of the whole situation are incredibly complex though, and what with the famous Elgin Marbles controversy, it is possible that Berlin fears that the Egyptians would attempt to keep the bust for good if they handed it over. Apparently, the British Museum isn’t afraid of this though and it taking the request for the Rosetta Stone under serious consideration.

Loaning artefacts is a good compromise between Egypt and the museums, but I hope that people respect that the safety of the treasures themselves should not be compromised for the sake of this project.

Bulldozers

I heard from someone in Egypt that many Gurna houses have been ruthlessly bulldozed and that their violent destruction has more than likely damaged beyond repair any unknown tombs that might still have survived beneath them. So much for relocation for the sake of archaeology!

The Griffith Institute Archives

A short while ago, I had the privilege of being given a tour of the Griffith Institute Archives here in Oxford by its director, Dr. Jaromir Malek. It is one of the most renowned Egyptological archives in the world and it houses among many other things, all the personal papers of Howard Carter, the excavator of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

It seemed almost as chilly as outside when we ventured into the archive room, which is constantly kept at 18 degrees to preserve the fragile documents it houses, but as I glanced up at the famous portrait of Carter, that I’d seen reproduced many times in books, hanging on the wall, I knew that there were many ‘wonderful things’ to come.

You can see them for yourself on the Griffith website here. Also, check out some of the other links I’ve included and take a look at the amazing resources the Griffith has made available online.

Excavation reports are a key feature of the Griffith’s collection. It is important that the archive stores every recorded detail of an excavation, since the importance placed on different archaeological evidence varies over time and it is always possible that new discoveries may be made from old records. The most famous excavation papers at the Excavation reports are a key feature of the Griffith’s collection. It is important that theThe entrance to Tut's tomb Griffith are those of Howard Carter and the legendary discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which have not been fully published yet. However, the Griffith’s remarkable website, entitled ‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation’, allows most of these records to be accessed on the internet and offers an in-depth behind the scenes look at the dig. It’s most fortunate that they’re being digitized—the Griffith calculated that if publication continued at the present rate, it would be another 200 years before the records were all made publicly available!

Here you can read the transcripts of Carter’s diaries and journals which document everything from the excavator’s thoughts at the initial find, to the tomb’s momentous unveiling, through the long, hard years of actually recording and cataloging all its contents.

The first hint of the discovery of the tomb appears as a simple jotting in Carter’s appointment diary. The small book has Lett’s No. 46 Indian and Colonial Rough Diaries 1922 written on the front and inside, the entry from Saturday, November 4 only has the scribble ‘First steps of tomb found’, indicating Carter’s unawareness of the momentousness of his find. The entry from Sunday, November 5 states, ‘Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramses VI. Investigated same & found seals intact’, by which time Carter would have realized that he was dealing with the thrilling prospect of an unknown but undisturbed tomb.

Most people who are familiar with Egyptology and archeology will be familiar with the legendary words that Carter is said to have uttered upon his first glimpse of the golden treasures of the tomb. Lord Carnarvon is said to have anxiously pressed Carter as to whether he could see anything, to which Carter is said to have replied, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ However, an entry from a more detailed journal by Carter dating to Sunday, November 26th suggests that those words *might* simply be pure legend, embellished for the purposes of Carter’s book. The entry is beautifully descriptive: ‘It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another. There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me `Can you see anything’. I replied to him Yes, it is wonderful.’

Whatever phrase was actually uttered by Carter, the wonderment he must have experience was fully justified. The treasures of have captivated generations, myself included, and they are one of the main reasons I decided to study Egyptology when I was just six years old. Their breathtaking workmanship was first documented by the professional excavation photographer Harry Burton, whom Carter borrowed from Met with the agreement that the museum could get doubles of the all the negatives. It’s remarkable that Burton achieved such stunning quality photographs simply taking them outside against the backdrop of a white sheet. They don’t take ‘em like they used to anymore. An enormous gallery on the site features all of Burton’s wonderful photographs:

The excavation was a Herculean task, the work of simply clearing the tiny tomb and cataloguing all the objects taking over 5 years, the records consisting of roughly 3000 cards and 2000 photographs. While the excavation is often portrayed as a one-man show starring Howard Carter, a number of the great Egyptologists of the age volunteered their services. Looking at the card records for object number 91, Tutankhamun’s famous throne, Alfred Lucas (best known for his milestone Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries) did restoration work for the object using celluloid cement, and the renowned Sir Alan Gardiner (of Gardiner’s Grammar fame) recorded the inscriptions. Much of the excavation work was aided by Percy Newberry and Arthur Mace.

One of the photos in the collection, taken perhaps by Lord Carnarvon, shows some of these Greats of Egyptology actually luncheoning inside the tomb of Ramesses XI! Seated from left to right in the photo are J. H. Breasted, Harry Burton, Alfred Lucas, Arthur Callender, Arthur Mace, Howard Carter and A. H. Gardiner. This remarkable array of individuals sounds rather more like the gathering that an Egyptologist today might dream up if asked which famous people, dead or alive, one would invite to a dinner party! I’m not sure the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt would allow anyone to have elaborate picnics in any of the tombs anymore though!

Continue reading “The Griffith Institute Archives”

Not just another pretty face…

Although Shakespeare wrote ‘age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety’, Cleopatra was definitely no Elizabeth Taylor. Most people familiar with ancient Egypt will already know this from the many coins that depict Cleopatra, but it’s popped up all over the news because of a specific coin in Newcastle being researched in preparation for the opening of a Great North Museum. On one side is the Mark Antony’s head, and the other the less than lovely visage of the sharp-faced Cleopatra VII.

In my opinion though, I’ve always thought her rather more impressive because she achieved her legendary status in spite of her looks rather than because of them. Ancient sources all agree in their estimation of her intelligence and political acumen. The sixteenth ruler in Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty, which originally came from Macedonia with Alexander the Great, Cleopatra was the first amongst them to actually bother seriously learning Egyptian! Now that I can respect.

Plutarch describes all of this in his ‘The Life of Antony’. Here’s a selection translated by John Dryden:
‘For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian. ‘

It’s all happening in Saqqara

There have been some nice recent discoveries at Saqqara, near the site of the Step Pyramid. A Japanese expedition from Waseda University have found some beautiful Middle Kingdom coffins (there’s a nice photo of one of them here). And Dutch Egyptologists from Leiden University found the tomb of an official from the reign of Akhenaten, one of the most fascinating Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. They have written a little about the discovery in their interesting dig diary and hopefully will update it with more soon.

Gurna update

If you found the post below on Gurna interesting, there are some notable new articles about the situation. ‘Egypt Today’ notes the benefits and problems of the relocation scheme, with the prospect of the re-discovery of ancient tombs, but also the inadequate housing situation for former residents, some of whom are temporarily homeless.

Also from ‘Egypt Today’, a beautifully poignant article about the culture and history that will be lost in Gurna and a rather more triumphant report by the Egyptian government about President Mubarak inaugurating the new town, supposedly being greeted by ‘by cheering crowds grateful for being offered the chance to lead a new life at a new place that addresses all their needs.’….

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Tourism Minister has stated that touts are a bigger threat than bombs to Egyptian tourism.

Protecting Egypt’s Heritage and the Dilemma of Relocation

A recent survey of UNESCO World Heritage Sites rated the Giza Pyramids as one of the 25 most poorly maintained. There are extensive plans to greatly improve the Giza Plateau, but they are unlikely to be popular with local inhabitants who make their living there, since a key part is removing them from the site. The issue of protecting and developing archaeological sites while balancing the needs of Egyptians, archaeologists, and tourists has been much in the news lately, so I thought I’d offer some of my thoughts about the negative impact of local activity at archaeological sites and the subsequent relocation of local populations, like at Gurna, Luxor, and Giza.

Gurna
The story about bulldozers being brought into the village of Gurna near the Valley of the Kings back at the beginning of December to forcibly remove roughly 3,200 households reluctant to leave was quite widely reported. These people were living directly amongst the Theban Tombs of the Nobles, mostly dating to the 18th Dynasty.

The tombs in question contain some of the most exquisite artwork in the world. While the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings may be grander, the decoration in the tombs of the nobles is still incredibly skilled with the added charm of the subject matter of everyday life. Rather than taking my word for it, take a look at these photos from the tombs of Sennefer, Ramose, and Menna.

However, the situation in the village of Gurna has made it extremely difficult to visit them. When I visited last year in December, it was practically deserted compared to the throngs of tourists overflowing the nearby Valley of the Kings. Likely this is partially because the site is far from accessible. Just trying to find particular tombs hidden amongst the minefield of houses, souvenir shops, goats, dogs, children, rubbish, and would-be tour guides, was challenging.

While removing the buildings and people from on top of these tombs is unquestionably the best measure to preserve and protect them, it raises many issues about the rights of the local people who have lived there all their lives. Many of them descendents of the 19th century tomb-robbers of Gurna, they owe their livelihoods and their own unique culture to their relationship with the tombs and tourists.

Their story was immortalised in Shadi Abdel-Salam’s epic film, Al-Mumia (Night of Counting the Years), in which a conflicted young villager struggles with the dilemma of whether to follow the tradition that feeds his family by selling the treasures of the hidden tombs or to preserve their ancient history by handing them over to the government. A captivating article by Fatemah Farag in the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram further describes the desire of both locals and outsiders to preserve the unique history and heritage of the people of the mountain.

In the end, the eviction of the Gurnawis boils down to yet another chapter in the age-old conflict between Western values and the interests of modern Egyptians. This particular struggle at Gurna has been ongoing since the government’s first unsuccessful attempt to remove the villagers in 1948. It’s a uncomfortable situation when the dead are given priority over the living, the needs of Egyptologists and foreign tourists over the lives of the local people.

I certainly have mixed feelings over the issue. But while it is easy to express pity and guilt over the sidelining of the villagers and their needs, as a tourist and an Egyptologist I can’t deny that I wouldn’t prefer to be able to visit the Tombs of the Nobles without being stalked by wizened old men unnecessarily trying to read names in hieroglyphs for me, while repeatedly making the same unamusing wisecrack about Canada and demanding baksheeh (tips).

For the sake of the tombs themselves and their beautiful decorations, this is what needed to be done, and should have been done properly back in 1948 or even before, but it is unfortunate that a better compromise wasn’t made with the people who had been living there for generations. Since the development of the site will most certainly increase tourist revenue considerably, the government really should have stepped up and provided more suitable accommodation for the people they were forcibly removing. It’s not only in Gurna that this sort of thing is happening though…

Luxor
There are plans to restore the ancient, sphinx-lined processional way linking the great temples of Karnak and Luxor, the beginning of which can be seen in this photo. Stretching over three kilometers, the planned road would cut a 60- to 70-meter-wide swath right through a largely residential area of modern Luxor. The ceremonial route was the focal point of the immense Opet festival, in which the king and the sacred statues of Amun and his divine family travelled from his temple at Karnak to the temple of Luxor.

The planned road will stretch over three kilometers and cut a 60- to 70-meter-wide swath right through a largely residential area of the modern city. The people who are unfortunate enough to be living in the wrong place will be moved to apartments in a proposed new city that is to be built on the edge of Luxor.

When I was in Luxor, I met a shopkeeper who was one of the people who was going to be moved. While he was glad that he wasn’t just being turned out and would at least receive a new home in compensation, he was still unhappy about the situation in general and regretted being forced to leave.

In this case though, the eviction is not for the sake of protection of monuments or the archaeology, but purely to increase tourist profits. It seems a bit strange that this is being done when there are so many other places where urban settlement makes excavation of important archaeological sites impossible. I hope at least the end results will be spectacular enough to somewhat justify the expense of the people who lived there.

The Giza Pyramids
An eviction of a different sort is planned for the site of the famous Pyramids at the Giza Plateau. The master plan for the development of the site will prevent access to the illegal vendors and touts that overrun the site, in addition to cutting off vehicular access and removing all the inappropriate modern developments to the plateau. And perhaps just in time too. In a recent review of 94 major UNESCO World Heritage sites by George Washington University in cooperation with National Geographic, Egyptian sites are all among the bottom-25 of the list, the Pyramids ranked as the lowest, receiving only 50 out of a possible 100 points.

Comments made by the panelists document the same dissatisfaction that most visitors to the Pyramids express:

‘Of all the major sites in the world, this is the one where the most people seem to come away disappointed. The slums march right up to the base of the pyramids, the smog gets worse every year, and the touts are relentless. Not a pleasant experience for visitors.’

‘Poor signage and interpretation. Lots of hassling of tourists—difficult to look at the structures for a minute without being offered something.’

My own impressions were the same when I visited the Pyramids. I was appalled by the way tourists were constantly hounded by trinket-sellers and camel ride operators, with not a moment’s peace to spend in quiet contemplation of the world’s most magnificent monumental structures. Everywhere we went we trailed an entourage of Egyptians pressing everything from bookmarks to postcards on us as we kept up a constant chorus of ‘La, la, la!’ (‘No, no, no!). I saw one girl who was being harassed actually break down in despairing, outraged tears and fling her water bottle at her unwanted pursuers. Men soliciting tips in exchange for unofficial tours outright lied to my friends and I about the opening times of the Great Pyramid in an attempt to lure us away from it. They told us all sorts of incorrect information about the queens’ pyramids and claimed that they would show us mummies in them. There most certainly aren’t any mummies in the pyramids anymore. It was incredibly disappointing that an experience that I had dreamed of all my life was so horribly marred by the situation there.

I think that change is desperately needed at the Pyramids and the master plan for the Giza Plateau is good overall, it is notable that it is the international community that benefits yet again rather than the local population. Hopefully though, while the plan will adversely affect some of the illegal workers on the site, overall the local community will community will benefit from increases in tourism. My friend Dr. Paul Gardener commented on the imbalance in the Giza plan in his thesis on heritage management strategies:

‘While the plan doesn’t seem to be very balanced,…given that this site is of such special archaeological and historic significance, we might decide that, in this case, the principle of sustainability is more important because of the very strong argument in favour of conserving this unique set of ancient monuments for as long as possible.’

But ‘the site’s high economic and social value for the local community will be severely crushed when their free access and use of the site is restricted… Instead, this master plan will promote the exclusive use of the plateau as a well ordered, Western space. This may sharpen the divide and prevent interaction between the visiting tourists and the host community…

The politicians, tour operators, international tourists and academics gain. They would inherit a site that is purposefully managed for their professional and leisure interests. The local entrepreneurs and unofficial tourist service providers and residents of Cairo would lose since their access to and use of the site would be restricted and controlled. This lack of equity of benefits for the stakeholders raises the question of to whom does the ancient site of Giza principally belong: the rich and well educated international community or the poor local community?’

Biased as I am, I certainly don’t have the answer, but I believe that Giza belongs to posterity and that while the Egyptians should certainly benefit from the Pyramids, it is the responsibility of us all to preserve their heritage.

Reference:
Gardener, P. (2006). Reusing Roman Monuments in Arles and Nimes: An Evaluation of Heritage Management Strategies in Local Government. Oxford, University of Oxford.