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.

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.