January 2018

In December Meghan Strong, a PhD student (about to submit her thesis!) at Cambridge, came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the use of artificial light in Ancient Egyptian ritual. Light in ritual is something we're still familiar with in the modern world - think of Divali, Advent (or the Easter Vigil service), Hannukah and many other examples. Strong's argument is that the Ancient Egyptians were no different from modern people in this respect.

She began by giving us context for both artificial light in pre-history & in the ancient world, and for the study of light in an archaeological context. Fire is the basis of ancient artificial light. The first evidence of its use as a tool is around 1 million years ago, and Strong said that it can be argued that this is part of what makes us human (as distinct from animals). The first evidence of lamps dates to around 15,000 BCE and the earliest example has been found in the Lascaux Caves (which are famous for the pre-historic paintings on the walls). The lamp has been specifically carved to serve as a light source - most obviously to light the way into the cave, to let the artist see to paint. But it also creates the environment which you're supposed to see the paintings in - the dim flickering light source makes the paintings seem to move.

Strong told us that the study of light in an archaeological context is called Lyknology. It has generally focused on Greek & Roman lamps, with Ancient Egyptian lamps only featuring from the Roman period. While there are many studies of how the Ancient Egyptians used natural light (for instance in the design of the temple at Abu Simbel) there are only 10 papers on artificial light use & they are quite short. (In fact the whole subject seems somewhat obscure - Google & Wikipedia let me down when I was trying to check if I had the terminology correct, so apologies if I've got it wrong!) Even Petrie didn't publish on Pharaonic Egyptian lamps - he wrote about those in later Ancient Egyptian history, and about lamps from Palestine & the Levant.

One of the reasons that Ancient Egyptian lamps are overlooked is that they don't look like one expects an ancient lamp to look - they didn't use oil wick lamps that burnt olive oil as in Greece or Rome, as they didn't have a ready source of olives for fuel. The fuel sources they did have were vegetable oils (which produce a lot of smoke) and animal fats. The latter are smelly when being made but odourless and smokeless when burnt so were the preferred fuel type.

The less familiar shapes mean that not only is there little archaeological evidence of lamps but it can also be hard to interpret. So Strong has needed to combine the evidence from archaeology, texts, iconography plus some experimental archaeology. One of the things that she has been doing as part of her PhD is constructing a typology of lamp types used in Ancient Egypt from 3000 BCE to 400 BCE and she has identified four groups. The first of these are spouted vessel lamps, and she talked about a 4000 BCE example that has burnt fat residue still in it - however this vessel shape can also be used for other purposes (like libation offerings), so it's hard to tell the purpose of any given archaeological object. The second vessel type she discussed was open vessel lamps, one very ornate example of which comes from Tutankhamun's tomb but other more practical ones have also been found at Deir el Medina. The last groups were what she calls "Wick on Stick" devices and "Wick in Stick" devices. An example of the former is also found in Tutankhamun's tomb and would be fat soaked linen wrapped around a stick. The example she showed us of the latter was a magic brick (which would've placed in someone's tomb).

Having talked a bit about what sorts of lamps there were Strong moved on to talk about how they might've been used. A very important piece of evidence comes from a 12th Dynasty tomb of Hepdjefa, which is at Asyut. There is a text inside the tomb which details how two workers are supposed to glorify his tomb with gmḥt at New Year's Eve. From context these are lamps, this text is the only one that gives them a name although there are other texts that reference the same festival. They were to be obtained from the Keeper of the Wardrobe, which perhaps means that they were made of linen. They must be portable - the workers are instructed to carry them at night. And they are to be used to light a tkꜣ - from context this must be another type of light source.

Relief from Nefersekheru's Tomb (in a calendar from the Ashmolean Museum)

Strong believes she has identified these light sources in reliefs from a variety of sources (such as one from the tomb of Nefersekheru in the photo above - which J took of our calendar in December). The ones that look like tapers in the man's hands and on the structure are the gmḥt and the larger structure that he's lighting must be the tkꜣ. Strong argues that the depictions of the gmḥt often show them lit - her experiments have shown that the lamp bends as it burns, and then the red paint at the top represents the burning & light. The experimental archaeology has also shown that the lights handle well - they produce a lot of light, they don't drip as they burn (much better than a candle!) and a 19cm wick will last for about 45 minutes. All in all they seem to be nice to use in a procession.

Having covered the what and the how, Strong next discussed why the Egyptians were using light & what purpose it was playing in their rituals. Her evidence all comes from New Kingdom texts, but as the texts correlate with texts from the Middle Kingdom she thinks that her conclusions probably apply earlier as well as in the New Kingdom. The current state of the literature is that in Ancient Egyptian ritual light is used for protective purposes only, and there are texts that back this up as a use for light (for instance in a funerary context). However Strong's research shows that this is not the only reason.

In texts that talk about the New Year's Eve ritual (which is described in Hepdjefa's tomb) the phrase "light to illuminate the path" shows up frequently and Strong thinks this is key to understanding the role of light in this context - that it facilitates movement (in a ritual sense, not just a pragmatic sense of being able to see one's feet in procession). In New Kingdom tombs light offerings are represented in scenes in liminal spaces (such as doorways) - again facilitating movement. And they are also painted at places where the natural light will no longer penetrate the tomb space, "illuminating" the path in & out of the tomb. These motifs are particularly seen at Deir el Medina.

Light is also implied to be involved in the rebirth of the deceased in a funerary context. And this ties into the New Year's Eve ritual as well - as that is a ritual for the birth of a new year. Tying both these concepts together light is also seen as facilitating the movement of the soul between living & dead (in a very similar fashion to the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico).

There is a lot of evidence that artificial light was used in funerals in the New Kingdom, and for the last part of her talk Strong focused on a particular spell from the Book of the Dead (137a) which details a ritual called "Spell to transform into an Akh". In this ritual four priests are each to present a tkꜣ (made of red linen coated in high quality oil) to the deceased. The tkꜣ are then doused in milk and the ritual words are spoken. The text itself is very dense and jargon-y, so in order to figure out what's going on Strong has turned to other evidence including contextual clues within the text.

When was this ritual done? The texts for the Opening of the Mouth ceremony say that is done with the mummy set up in full sunlight, but the Akh ritual talks about the onset of night and the presence of Osiris the god (rather than the deceased as associated with Osiris). So this implies a ritual done at sunset as a point of transition - which fits with "illuminating the path". Also scenes in tombs where light offerings are presented to Osiris are all in the west of the tombs - which fits with sunset. Another important question is what is an Akh? It's a form of the deceased that is associated with light and illumination. Traditionally Egyptologists have assumed it was associated with the sun, but Strong disagrees. As well as the evidence of the text, any time the deceased is depicted becoming the Akh there is artificial light present in the scene.

Strong also did an experiment to see how the pigments used on coffins look when you have the light sources available to the Ancient Egyptians. She took four boards and painted them with the yellowy pigments that we know the Egyptians used - including orpiniol & yellow ochre, and with different varnishes. Then she put the boards up in the garden at the Fitzwilliam Museum with wick on a stick lamps in front of them, and both videoed them & asked people to record their changing perceptions of the boards as the sun set and the artificial light took over from natural light. Varnished yellow ochre in particular undergoes a transformation - it looks like gold under the artificial light, having looked like mud in sunlight. The flickering of the lights enhances the effect.

So taking all the evidence together Strong's suggestion is that the ritual for turning into an Akh provides the mourners with a representation of the event taking place. As the ritual takes place the sun sets & the coffin becomes illuminated only with the flickering light of the tkꜣ and so it comes to life, transforming from the mundane reality of a painted coffin to a golden being.

I found this a really interesting talk. It's easy to forget when you look at objects in museums that the fluorescent light we see them under is far from their original context. It was also another great example of how you can take several obscure & insufficient sources of evidence and build up from them a plausible picture of customs of Ancient Egypt - the other recent example I'm thinking of is the talk we had from Alexandre Loktionov, another Cambridge PhD student, about Ancient Egyptian Justice.

In November a group of us from the Essex Egyptology Group had the chance to visit parts of the British Museum that aren't generally open to the public - some of the storerooms where the 95% of the Egyptian artifacts that aren't on display are held. I'd been on one of these trips before several years ago, so was pleased at the chance to go again - partly because it's a chance to see items you don't normally see, and partly because it would be someone different showing us round so we would see different things. When we'd all arrived we were split into two groups, the one I was in was shown round by Adrienn Almásy.

Almásy took us to the Papyrus room first - this is her speciality, she works on Demotic and Coptic texts. There are around 3,300 papyri that belong the museum - some of which are fakes. She showed us a few of these, mostly pieces of linen wrapped round sticks to fool 19th Century tourists. The real papyri mostly arrive at the museum as a collection of fragments which are then carefully pieced back together and mounted in glass frames. The collection is currently being scanned so that the texts can go online and be available to more people. The texts that the British Museum has are in Hieratic (a script used in parallel with hieroglyphs), Demotic (a later script that took over from Hieratic as the script of bureaucracy) and Coptic (a Greek derived script which took over from Demotic). The museum holds no Greek texts - these went to the British Library when the two collections were split. Which tells you something about the way the Egyptian texts were regarded - Greek = literature, but an Egyptian script = archaeology regardless of age or literary merit!

We looked at a few examples of texts, with a bias towards the later period as that's Almásy's speciality. One was a text that's in Egyptian and written with Greek letters, that predates the development of the Coptic script, which was pretty cool. Another text was one that she's working on to publish - on one side it has a letter in Coptic, on the other side is a completely unrelated text in Arabic showing that the papyrus was reused long after the first letter was sent. She also talked a bit about the status of Greek & Egyptian as languages during the Ptolemaic era. The higher levels of bureaucrats spoke & wrote Greek, and the lower administration spoke Egyptian & wrote in Demotic script - and you can see on official documents that a Demotic document will be glossed in Greek to make sure the meaning is clear. Almásy said that in modern Egypt speaking French or English is a status symbol and so high society speaks in a mixture of English, French and Arabic when talking amongst themselves. She speculated that perhaps in the Ptolemaic period the elites amongst Egyptian society mixed Egyptian with Greek in a similar fashion.

The next room we went to see was the pottery room, and here one of Almásy's colleagues (Valentina Gasperini) spoke to us briefly - she is a specialist in ceramics, and is working on those from the New Kingdom period at Amara West. The pottery room is laid out in chronological order starting with pre-dynastic Naqada III era pots, some of which are decorated with boats and other motifs that will become typical of later Egyptian art. Apart from a couple of exceptions the pots in this room are those that don't have inscriptions, the ostraca etc are stored elsewhere (that we didn't see). Someone (I forget who) asked about pottery techniques during Ancient Egyptian history and Gasperini told us that the pottery wheel dates back to at least the Old Kingdom. There are depictions in 4th Dynasty mastaba tombs of a type of wheel that she referred to as a "slow" wheel. But the kick wheel (which is more what we'd think of as a pottery wheel, I think) isn't seen depicted until the Late Period during the time when the Persian Darius ruled Egypt.

We'd spent quite a lot of time in these first two rooms so we had to be rather more brisk through the next two. I also appear to've taken very few notes in the metal objects room, which was the next one we went to. A large amount of the stuff in there is jewellery and Almásy opened several drawers for us to have a look. There is little, if any, of the British Museum's Egyptian jewellery that's out on display as it doesn't fit with the current concept for the galleries, so it was a real treat to see what they have. There were a lot of exquisite necklaces and beads, and in one of the drawers there was also a smallish (20cm) silver statue of Amun. This is one of J's favourite artifacts so he was delighted to have the chance to see it in person!

The last of the rooms we visited was the organics storeroom. In here they keep a lot of smaller wooden pieces like scribal palettes and statuettes, but the most noticeable contents are the mummies and coffins. They store the mummies & coffins on racks organised in chronological order starting with some naturally mummified pre-dynastic bodies. Each mummy that has a coffin is kept near to it, so the entire assemblage is in one area. On the day we visited there was a coffin down on a table near the racks being studied.

And then all too soon we were finished with our tour - it had been an hour & a half, but I think you could spend days there and not see a significant fraction of the fascinating objects!

Before meeting up with the others at the British Museum J & I had visited the Sir John Soane Museum. This museum is an Enlightenment gentleman's cabinet (house) of curiousities as he left it when he died (as stipulated in his will). We'd visited it once before and done the whole museum properly, but on this occasion we were there for the Ancient Egypt related temporary exhibition - Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I (which is still running till 15 April 2018). One of the items in the museum's permanent collection is the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which was brought back to London by Belzoni 200 years ago. We began our visit with a look at that, down in the basement of the museum. The whole piece is covered in texts and imagery from the Book of Gates, which is an ancient Egyptian funerary text. The scene that particularly caught my eye was inside the coffin and from near the end of the text where the great snake Apophis is bound in fetters. There's also a bit of near modern graffiti - Belzoni carved his name in the sarcophagus at the foot end near the lip of it. Which was standard practice at the time (for instance many of the fine statues in the Turin Museum have Salt's name carved into them), but it still makes me wince.

Hathor Welcoming Seti I

The temporary exhibition was quite small, just a couple of rooms. The first of these had an explanation of who the Great Belzoni was - circus strongman, engineer, adventurer and early archaeologist. He discovered the tomb of Seti I in 1817 - although it had been robbed in antiquity it was still exquisitely decorated and contained some small objects and the great sarcophagus. This room of the exhibition also included water-colours of the decoration done by Belzoni & his assistant (which in some places let us see detail that's since been damaged in the original). It also included photos of pieces of the relief that were chiselled out and sent to European museums - one now in the Louvre (see my photo above which I took when I visited Paris in 2011), and a matching one now in Florence. Both show the goddess Hathor and Seti I. The second room of the exhibition had a few fragments of the lid of the sarcophagus (it was broken in antiquity, probably when the tomb was robbed) which are not usually on display so that was pretty cool to see. There was also a video of high-res imagery that's been made of the sarcophagus. There is a plan to make a replica of Seti I's tomb so that more people can see the beautiful reliefs without risking the original, and there will be a replica of the sarcophagus made to go with that.

It's a pretty small exhibition, but worth popping into if you're interested in Egypt - and the rest of the museum is also worth a look for the sheer over-the-topness of it all!