March 2015

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



"By the Mountain Bound" Elizabeth Bear - second book in the Edda of Burdens series. New.

Total: 1


"Plantagenet England 1225-1360" Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1


Magna Carta (In Our Time Special Series).

Thucydides - In Our Time episode about this Greek historian.

Total: 2


"Ten Years in the Harem: Excavating the Gurob Harem Palace 2005-2015" Hannah Pethen - March EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Dashur.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Lahun.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Hawara.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Dimai.

Total: 4

Tags: Admin

Thucydides was a Greek historian who lived in the 5th Century BC, and is regarded as a "Father of History" alongside Herodotus - although I confess that before I listened to the In Our Time programme about him I had never heard of him. I think he's been seen as more of a "historian's historian", whereas Herodotus is more of a "popular historian". The programme also told me that Thucydides's work is still important in the field of international relations. The experts who discussed him were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge University), Katherine Harloe (University of Reading) and Neville Morley (University of Bristol).

Thucydides was born around 460BC and a citizen of Athens, not much is known about his life. In fact the only details known about him at all are those found in his book on the Peleponnesian War - which includes that he was a general at a particular early point during the war, and he at least lived through the war. This gives a feel for his age as he must've been a mature adult at the beginning of the war yet still young enough to survive till the end. The Peleponnesian War was a conflict between Athens and Sparta, and their allies, which lasted for 27 years at the end of the 5th Century BC. Thucydides's book clearly contains passages written after the end of the war (as he mentions who won - Sparta), but it was never finished. It also doesn't really mention the role that the Persians played which was important later in the war, the experts speculated that if he'd finished the text he may've revised the existing parts to bring in that thread earlier.

Herodotus and Thucydides were writing very different sorts of history, with different purposes. I think they said that Thucydides was writing his history in reaction to the way that Herodotus wrote his - deliberating doing things the way he thought was "proper". For instance Herodotus is the historian as a story-teller. He doesn't necessarily believe all the stories he writes down, but he tells them because that's what the people he's writing about believe. Thucydides in his introductory section says that he is intending to set down the objective truth about what actually happened. This means that he also rejects supernatural explanations of events. Herodotus is also outward looking - partly by the circumstances of recent history but also because of his interests. The big war that Herodotus talks about is the Greek/Persian war of the early 5th Century BC, and his history is of the world outside Greece. By contrast Thucydides is interested in an intra-Greek conflict and in the history of the Greek world. Even, potentially, to the extent of ignoring the Persian role in the Peloponnesian War (although as I said above he may've revised that later if he'd finished the book).

Of course Thucydides isn't as objective as he would like to present himself, and doesn't stick strictly to the known facts either. In contrast to modern historians he doesn't present his evidence, merely says he examined it and has come to the conclusion that what he writes is what happened. So his biases aren't always clear, but in some cases they are obvious. In particular he generally approves of Pericles, and frequently editorialises about his greatness. He also editorialises about the poor decisions by "the mob" who vote for courses of action that Thucydides feels were wrong. There are also sections of the text that are clearly made up to show how something might have happened. The speeches are a good example of this - as well as Thucydides's chronological dicussions of events there are also sections purporting to be speeches given by various people. Pericles is given many of these. In style they sound like Thucydides rather than different individuals, so they definitely aren't accurate representations of actual speeches. Some might be paraphrases of things that Thucydides witnessed, but others are clearly invented out of whole cloth - accounts of secret meetings on the Spartan side for instance that Thucydides was obviously not present for.

In terms of his legacy and his status as a Father of History Thucydides has had a large impact in the past on how historians approach research and objectivity. But all three experts were in agreement that he wouldn't quite fit in in a modern historical department. Modern history also has commonalities with Herodotus's approach - looking at the history of a people as that people see it is an important aspect of approaching history. However in the field of internal relations and of war theory Thucydides is still hugely influential, and his work is still used in teaching at military academies like West Point. Which seems appropriate as that was his primary interest - how different states (cities, nations etc) interact, and what are the causes that lead to conflict between them. Not the causes they use to justify aggression but the underlying conflicts and tensions that get the relationship to the point where aggression is a next step.

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Elizabeth Bear's The Edda of Burdens series. It is set before the events of All the Windracked Stars (post) so you could read them in either order, but I think it works best as I've done it this time (tho obviously as this is my first read of this book I haven't tried out the other way round yet!).

The three protagonists of the story are the Wolf (Mingan), the Historian (Muire) and the Warrior (Strifbjorn) - the same three as in All the Windracked Stars, although Strifbjorn is reborn as the mortal Cathoair in that book. Muire was central in the first book, this book is the Wolf's. Strifbjorn and Muire are both immortal Children of the Light, waelcyrge. (Immortal in the un-ageing sense - they can still be killed, for instance in battle.) The Wolf is ... not quite the same as them, he is also a survivor from the world before there's, and was already there when the Children first came into being. When the story opens superficially all is well in the world - we see where the cracks are but there's nothing threatening about them. The opening chapters establish the world with a wedding between two waelcyrge, where we learn (amongst other things) that Strifbjorn is their war leader and they have no Cynge and no Lady despite setting chairs out for both. Into this good-enough world comes Heythe, who quickly establishes herself as the Lady returned. All is, of course, not quite what it seems and Heythe is soon manipulating the warlcyrge into their seemingly inevitable slide towards apocalypse.

The waelcyrge are not just warriors and avengers of mortals, they are also beings with loves of their own. And this story is also about loving unwisely or too well, and the consequences of that. When waelcyrge marry they share a part of their soul with their spouse via a kiss, but of course you don't have to be married to kiss the one you love. Yet social pressure keeps most from risking such a thing pre-marriage - after all, if something changes and then you marry someone else then that someone else will discover they are sharing their soul not just with their spouse but their spouse's previous lover. It's the idea of pre-marital sex "tainting" those who do it, but applied rather more even-handedly. It's clear that this attitude is to be seen as one of the flaws of waelcyrge society which Heythe exploits rather than a good thing. Waelcyrge are not terribly fertile, so marrying and having children to replace those who die are exalted to an almost sacred duty - Strifbjorn as war leader is under a lot of pressure to do so to set a good example. And there is no shortage of waelcyrge women who would marry him - some, like Muire, because they are in love with him, some because of the prestige being his wife would bring them. But unknown to the other waelcyrge Strifbjorn and Mingan are not just lovers, but have shared the kiss. And so the world of the waelcyrge is not as robust as it looks on the surface.

This book is a tragedy, not just in the modern sense of ending with dead people but in the original Greek sense too - it's the inevitable working out of the flaws of the characters & society. The reason I think the ordering of these books works best this way round is that right from the beginning of this book you know where it ends. It ends with the end of the world, in blood and in ice. With Muire, the Wolf and Kasimir the only survivors of an apocalyptic battle pitting waelcyrge against waelcyrge and killing nearly all of them. So even the moments of hope and partial triumph are against a backdrop of watching the world end. It's not depressing though - in part because for all the world ends in that battle, we also know from the first book that it's not totally over and that there is yet hope.

In a nice touch this book ends almost exactly where the first one begins. We see some of the same scenes (not word for word, I think, but close enough to resonate), interspersed (and followed) with new information. But the repeated scenes have completely different emotional weight this time. At the beginning of the first book it's just back story & characterisation - ticking little boxes for who these people are: "Muire, waelcyrge, survivor's guilt" etc. This time tho, these are people we know and have come to care about over the course of the book and watching them die is heartbreakingly poignant (yet tragically inevitable).

Thoroughly recommended, and at time of writing I'm halfway through the next one & trying to make it last so that my time in this world with these characters won't be over so soon.

Dimai Temple Walls
Dimai Temple Walls

Dimai (or Dime es-Sabh) is the site of a Ptolemaic & Roman era town, on the northern shores of Lake Qahrun. Because the lake has shrunk since that time and the northern shore is no longer inhabited or cultivated the site is in a remarkably good state of preservation. It was inhabited for around 600 years from the 3rd Century BC in the reign of Ptolemy II through to its abandonment in the 3rd Century AD. My photos from this site and a few of J's are up on flickr, click here to see the set.

Screenshots from Google Maps showing position & layout of Dimai
Screenshots from Google Maps showing position & layout of Dimai

The most striking thing about the site as you arrive are the remains of the temple enclosure walls around the northern temple. These mudbrick structures are still very tall, much taller than head height, and they stand up out of the desert a bit like broken teeth. You can see them on the satellite imagery - the rectangle at the north of the town. When you look at them up close you see that the mudbricks aren't in absolutely flat horizontal courses, instead there is a wave like effect. I assumed when I was there that they had just sagged over time, but I believe it was actually built like that - possibly for structural reasons, possibly for symbolic reasons (to do with the primeval waters and the temple as the primeval land). We couldn't go in to see the remains of the temple as the archaeological expedition working there do not appreciate tourists!

Dimai Temple WallsDimai Temple Walls
Dimai Temple Walls

As you move through the site of the town towards the south there are clearly visible foundations of buildings, and some partially intact buildings. There is also a broad avenue bisecting it, running south from the temple (again visible on the satellite imagery). This is was a processional avenue - think Avenue of the Sphinxes in Luxor. And it's from this that the modern name is taken - Dime es-Sabh means Dime of the Lions and it refers to the statues that once lined this avenue. The Greek name of the town had nothing to do with lions, it was Soknopaiou Nesos and means "the island of the god Sobek Lord of the Island". And the article I got the Greek name from mentions that the Demotic one meant much the same.

Processional Way at DimaiInside a Granary at Dimai
Processional Way (left), Granary Roof (right)

We were able to have a proper look at one of the more intact buildings - I think Medhat said that this had been a granary, and there was still a roof over what was left of this building. I didn't actually go in, this was when I was feeling unwell, but J did and took some photos of it. The roof seems to be mudbrick arranged in a circular pattern with a central hole.

It was a bit of an eerie place - what had once been a busy town full of people and life, now just ruins in the middle of the desert with nothing but sand and rocks as far as the eye could see.

View Across Foundations to the Desert Beyond
View to the Desert
Hawara Pyramid from the Southern Side
Hawara Pyramid, Looking Across the Labyrinth Site

The last of the pyramids that we visited on our holiday was the one at Hawara. It's not that far from Lahun, and was the last stop on that particular day - afterwards we just had lunch and then drove on to the hotel on the lake shore where we were staying at that night. My photos from the site are up on flickr, click here for the full set, or click on any photo to go to the photo page on flickr.

screenshots from Google Maps of Hawara Pyramid
Location of Hawara Pyramid

This was the most recent of the pyramids we saw - built by the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Amenemhat III. He was the grandson of Senwosret II who built the Lahun pyramid (post) and ruled for 46 years around 1850BC. This pyramid was his second pyramid, the first one we'd seen from a distance earlier in the day at Dashur (post). After that first one was abandoned due to structural concerns Amenemhat III clearly decided to do something completely different - the second one is at this different site, and also has a different layout of the complex plus different internal structure. Mark Lehner in "The Complete Pyramids" speculates that there may've been a theological reason for such sweeping changes, as well as the structural concerns (but he doesn't speculate about the nature of potential theologies).

Entrance to Hawara PyramidCemetery Area to North of Pyramid
Pyramid Entrance (left), Cemetery Site (right)

As is the case for other Middle Kingdom pyramids this one is built with a mudbrick core which was originally surrounded by an outer casing of limestone. The stone is long since gone - "mined" for use in other buildings in the area. The entrance to the pyramid is on the south face, and when we visited we could see into the downward sloping passage. The water table here is quite high, and the passage quickly descends into water & mud - I assume in antiquity it wasn't quite so high otherwise the pyramid wouldn't've been built here! It was definitely that high by the time Petrie excavated here as he had trouble exploring all the passages under the pyramid due to the conditions.

The pyramid is not the only interesting feature of this site, although it is the only one that has much visible above ground. To the north of the pyramid was an area that we didn't get to explore (due to safety concerns, illegal digging has destabilised the ground and presumably illegal diggers are sometimes present). This is a later Roman era cemetery, and is where Petrie discovered the mummy portraits known as the Faiyum portraits. Another case of it being cool to be able to say "I've been there" even if there's not much there to see.

Hawara PyramidPottery Fragments
Looking Across the Labyrinth Site (left), Pottery Fragments (right)

To the south of the pyramid was an area that we did get to explore - again no structural elements visible above ground, but this was the site of the Labyrinth. Dylan has made a study of this site so he gave us a talk about it later in the day after we'd visited. The Labyrinth was part of the ancient tourist trail, and written about by authors such as Herodotus and Strabo. The last attested visitor was the Emperor Septimus Severus in around 200AD. Despite probably inspiring the Cretan Labyrinth (associated with the myths of the Minotaur) the labyrinth at Hawara was not actually a labyrinth as such. Instead it was a large and complex building, of the sort you could get lost in if you weren't careful (when Dylan said that it made me think of where I used to work in UEA). It was built initially as the mortuary temple for Amenemhat III and over the millenia it was extended and remodelled by his successors. By the time Herodotus or Strabo were visiting it would've been ruins, and Dylan said it's possible they weren't even shown the right place on the site because the descriptions don't quite match up with the archaeology.

Although there are no visible traces of the Labyrinth that part of the site was still fascinating. It was completely covered with pottery fragments of all sorts of different types. So we spent a bit of time just wandering around on it pointing out interesting looking pieces before we had our lunch and left the site.

In Search of an Inscription
In Search of an Inscription
Lahun Pyramid
Lahun Pyramid

The Lahun pyramid, near the modern village of Illahun near Faiyum, was built for Senwosret II. He was a Middle Kingdom Pharaoh who reigned around 1880BC. He was the fourth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty coming between Amenemhat II and Senwosret III. The pyramid is clearly visible on the imagery on Google Maps as you can see in the screenshots below. My overall impression of the site from visiting is actually mostly about the colours - the cream of the desert and the limestone, the dark mudbrick pyramid, the red sandstone fragments and the green fertile land on the horizon beneath a blue sky with white clouds. Photos are on flickr, as always, click here for the album which has some more photos than just those in this post.

Screenshots from Google Maps showing Lahun Pyramid
Screenshots from Google Maps showing Lahun Pyramid

Like other Middle Kingdom pyramids it is constructed from a mudbrick core which was then clad in stone. And as with other pyramids the stone cladding was "mined" for re-use in later building projects. The mudbrick core was built on top of a platform of the limestone bedrock. First a cross was built with stone blocks, to make a frame work for the pyramid. The gaps in between were filled in with mudbrick, like slices of cake. Then then whole core was extended up to full height using mudbrick. The stripes of the cross walls are still obvious today.

Lahun PyramidLahun Pyramid
Lahun Pyramid, showing the limestone blocks and the vertical stripe in the mudbrick core

We approached the pyramid from the southeast and then walked round it. To the north of the pyramid are the remains of eight mastabas, and a second smaller pyramid. Like the main pyramid these were built on a base of the bedrock. The mastabas were probably each topped with a red sandstone block, which probably had solar significance to the Egyptians. There are still fragments of sandstone on top of or next to the mastabas. I thought the smaller pyramid looks much like a mound of rubble when you're actually there - it's clearer on the satellite imagery that it's a structure. Petrie found no sign of a burial chamber in this pyramid. It's generally labelled on plans of the site as "Queen's Pyramid" because of its location on the north side of the main pyramid, however the lack of burial chamber suggests it might be a symbolic satellite pyramid (like that at the Bent Pyramid) even though it's in the wrong place. It's worth noting here that the entrance to the main pyramid is also in the "wrong" place, as it is a shaft a distance from the pyramid to the south rather than next to the north face of the pyramid.

Mastabas at LahunMastaba with Sandstone Cap
Mastabas, with sandstone

Although we didn't see much (if any) of the remains of it this site includes a Middle Kingdom town. It was where the priests for the cult of Senwosret II lived. As it was excavated extensively by Petrie a lot of the items from it ended up in the Petrie Museum in London. When the Essex Egyptology Group had a trip there in 2013 we were given a talk by Wolfram Grajetzki about those items (post). That had been an interesting talk, so I was particularly pleased to've had the chance to see the place the items had come from.

Lahun Pyramid
Lahun Pyramid, with the modern world running past it

Trade and Merchants

Trade, both locally and internationally, was an important part of the 13th & 14th Century English economy. Prestwich starts this chapter by talking about the types and volumes of trade during the period. The wool trade was the most significant - at its peak in the early 14th Century around 40,000 sacks of wool were exported per year, the equivalent of around 10 million sheep. This brought in large sums of money to the economy, in 1297 Edward I's opponents were able to realistically claim that wool was half the country's wealth. Wool was not the only commodity traded, the wine trade (of Gascony wines) was also important and other goods were traded too. These included cloth (mostly imports), dyes, timber, tin, lead, grain and many other foodstuffs. International trade was obviously affected by wars - not just because of breakdown in relations but also because the Channel crossing became more risky. Trade was also involved in causing wars, disputes between merchants (particularly at sea) could draw in governments.

Trade and the government were linked together in more than one way. Merchants could become prominent at court, and could influence politics. In part because the trade was important to the economy, so keeping merchants sweet was important. And in part because they could provide funds to the Crown, which was a role Italian merchants often filled. Trade was also subject to government regulation and interference, particularly the wool trade. At times the government would propose to seize wool and sell it themselves, so that the profit came to the Crown rather than the merchants - unsurprisingly not a popular move, and frequently the number of sacks successfully seized was far less than hoped for. Over this period customs duties became a more successful way to raise funds for the Crown, and in 1275 a permanent customs system was established. Taxing trade in this way meant that merchants were at times invited to parliament along with the knights and barons. Prestwich says that during Edward III's reign there were attempts to negotiate customs with a separate assembly consisting just of the merchants - if these had proved successful then the shape of our government might look different today, with a third house to go along with the Lords & the Commons. However the merchant assemblies were an imposition from the King rather than a natural outgrowth of any sort of coherent merchant community. After a few experiments negotiation of customs duties was returned to Parliament.

The elite merchants of the era were Italians, they were in England primarily to trade in wool. As they could draw on the resources of their internationally trading companies they were able to take bigger risks than the English merchants. They were in a position to offer long term arrangements and even loans (often to monasteries) which would be paid back in wool over a long period of time - one such deal involved a monastery providing 140 sacks of wool over a 20 year period with the Italian company paying 20 marks per year (a good price from the Italian point of view). Although they couldn't charge interest on loans (Christians were forbidden to do so by the Pope) they could accept "payments to cover costs incurred by making the loan". They also profited from exchange rates - by making a loan in one currency and asking for repayments in another at a favourable rate to themselves. The larger Italian companies often got sucked into making huge loans to the Crown - these played an important role in financing the wars of the English throughout the period. And these loans played a big role in the bankruptcy of the companies who made the loans. Not always because the loans weren't repaid in full, sometimes the changing political situation meant a company went out of favour (and lost business) because of close ties to hated previous regime.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by considering the English merchants of the time. Towards the end of this period the involvement of the English in large scale trade increased, although it's not clear why this happened. Small scale trade is much harder to analyse historically - most of the records are about the wealthiest merchants, particularly those who lent money to the Crown. Tax returns can shed some light on smaller merchants in towns but even then it can be hard to tell the different between a manufacturer of goods and someone who is also selling the goods he makes. So overall not much is known about the English merchants of the time.

On Sunday Hannah Pethen came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the Harem Palace at Gurob. The first half of her talk gave us context for the site - where it is, what it is and who has excavated there before. And the second half moved on to the work that's been done there in the last decade.

Google Screenshots showing Gurob
Google Screenshots showing location of Gurob (red dot)

Gurob is in the Faiyum near the pyramids at Lahun and Hawara, in fact Lahun pyramid can be seen from the site across the river valley. On the screenshots above the position of Gurob is indicated by the red dot, and the blue dots show Lahun (to the north & east of Gurob) and Hawara (to the north-west). The three sites are on either side of a spur of river that diverges from the main Nile further to the south and feeds into Lake Qahrun. Pethen said it's possible that the course of this spur of the river was engineered by the Middle Kingdom Egyptians in order to irrigate the land on the way to the lake. Gurob includes a royal harem palace so it must've been in an area where the Pharaoh wanted a powerbase and Pethen suggested that this location would allow the state to control access to the fertile Faiyum area.

In Ancient Egypt the harem was not just the place where wives and children of the Pharaoh lived, it also had governmental and economic functions. Various senior state officials would describe themselves as being "of the Harem" and it was also the place where the finest quality linen in the country was made. There are several different words that mean the royal harem in Egyptian, all with different nuances or circumstances they're used in. ipt nswt means the royal private appartments. ḫnr means the harem and its inhabitants, but this is often used in the sense that I discussed above to mean the governmental function of the harem. pr ḫnty refers to the harem estates or institution. kꜣp is the school or nursery in the palace - tomb biographies might refer to someone as a "child of the kꜣp" meaning that they were educated with the princes and grew up in the harem.

As well as the words and a few surviving images that may be of the harem there is also textual evidence for the existence of harems in Ancient Egypt. This includes evidence of a series of harem conspiracies. Pethen talked about three examples, each from a different era of Egyptian history. There is an Old Kingdom inscription about an official looking into a harem consipiracy against Pepi I. In the Middle Kingdom there was a successful conspiracy against Amenemhat I who was attacked by the guards of the harem - this is documented in fiction written after the fact, but as Pethen pointed out historical fiction often takes its starting point from an event which actually happened. Her last example was the death of Ramesses III which was due to a partially successful coup - the perpetrators succeeded in killing Ramesses III but failed to gain the throne afterwards, and documents recording their trial and sentence survive.

Having set the scene in a general sense Pethen moved on to tell us a bit more about the site at Gurob. It was first excavated by Petrie in 1888 and then by his assistant Hughes-Hughes in 1889. This wasn't a particularly in depth investigation as it was done alongside Lahun and Hawara, About 10 years later Griffith published a series of New Kingdom papyri that were found at the site. Once the archaeologists started showing an interest in the site so did plunderers and looters, which did lead to the discovery of some tombs although obviously anything valuable had been removed. However several figurines of royal women were found by Émile Chassinat.

In 1904 Leonard Loat excavated at the site, and discovered the temple which is dedicated to Tutmosis III - he may've been worshipped here as the founder of the site in a similar fashion to the worship of Amenhotep I and Amose-Nefertari at Deir el Medina. This excavation uncovered several stela set up by men who described themselves as harem officials. The following year Ludwig Borchardt excavated at the site and identified the Harem Palace itself, and found a head of Queen Tiye which is now in the Neues Museum in Berlin. The last of the excavations before the modern one was by Engelbach and Brunton in 1920. They produced a map of the site which is still useful to archaeologists today - Pethen's slides often contained information from this map. As well as the various structures that had been discovered they also recorded the tombs in the area, and indications of where pottery shards were.

Grave Goods
A "Burnt Group" from Gurob now in Manchester Museum

Next Pethen discussed the evidence which indicates that Gurob was the site of a harem palace. As already mentioned above there are stela in the temple at Gurob which were put up by harem officials, which is suggestive that there was a harem there. There are also references in the Gurob papyri to royal women and their personal possessions (such as clothing), and evidence of royal women buried at the site (like the statuettes discovered by Chassinat). Tutmosis III probably founded the site - perhaps to house some of his several wives, but also to have a royal presence in the region which was economically important but with a reputation for unrest. Pethen also discussed the evidence for specific foreign wives of three Pharaohs (Tutmosis III, Amenhotep III and Ramesses II), as well as more general evidence for foreigners - which included the "burnt groups" of personal possessions (see photo above) found at Gurob by Petrie. These have recently been re-analysed and they are similar in nature to Hititte rituals.

The Gurob Harem Palace was in use for around 500 years, from Tutmosis III's time through the New Kingdom. After that the site was not completely abandoned. There is strong evidence for it being a port in Ptolemaic times (and quite probably was a port during New Kingdom times as well). And in modern times it was a military base up until about 20 years ago - which has left a lot of visible evidence on the site (which you can see on the most detailed Google maps satellite imagery as pockmarks where the bunkers were).

For the last part of her talk Pethen told us about the modern excavation at the site. It sounded like it is quite an odd site to work at - it's been so extensively excavated around the turn of the 20th Century that most of the big exciting things are already dug up. What the current team are doing is filling in the details and making it a more rounded and thorough picture. For the first few years of the project they weren't allowed to excavate, so instead they concentrated on systematic surveys of the areas of interest for pottery fragments and other interesting surface objects. This work has allowed them to start compiling a pottery typology for the site - which is actually a relatively recent development in Egyptian archaeology, I think because so much of their dating can be done from inscriptions rather than needing pottery.

When they returned to the site in late 2011 after the revolution in Egypt there had been a lot of looting, as with many other archaeological sites in the country, so they began that season by mapping the illegal digging. In the spirit of making the best of it they documented and photographed a lot of these digs as they exposed features that they otherwise wouldn't've seen. In the spoil heaps the looters left behind they also found some interesting objects - like a shabti figure in one. And in another a pottery coffin (which might've been intact when the looters found it, it's sad to think it was whole so recently but now smashed). There were also some smashed remains of a wooden coffin and a linen cartonage board.

One of the areas where they've excavated is the town area to the north of the Harem Palace itself. While some of the excavations haven't found anything much they've been more lucky with others and discovered two kilns. The area surrounding these shows signs of having been used for large scale pottery production - they've found a clay cleaning area, and pot holes for some sort of shelter near the kilns. The kilns themselves were full of pottery when they were excavated - mostly 18th Dynasty to Ramesside era pottery, which is the time when Gurob was most heavily occupied. This actually suggests that the kilns weren't in use during this period, instead they were being used as a rubbish dump. So the current theory is that they were in use during the building phase of the settlement in Tutmosis III's time.

Another facet of their work on the site has been to use auger boring to look at the geological context of the site and how it's changed over time. One major change between the time when the site was occupied and now is that the river used to run right alongside the site. These days it's quite a bit further east. Using this information they think they've identified the likely site of harbour that was in use during the 18th Dynasty (marked on Engelbach & Brunton's map as a fort). They've also found a mudbrick wall under the silt layer along the edge of where they think the river ran during the 18th Dynasty.

This was an interesting talk about a site I thought I hadn't heard of before (although clearly I had seen some items from there as I'd photographed them!). It's cool to see how modern archaeology is still capable of finding new information even on a site that's been as extensively excavated as Gurob.

The Bent Pyramid
The Bent Pyramid

Dashur is a little way south of Cairo, and just south of Saqqara. It's a site with a few pyramids and other burials, and is notable for having two of the earliest true pyramids - both of which we got to see. There are also other later pyramids in the area, but we didn't get to go close to them. My photos from this site are now up on flickr, click here for the whole album.

Google Maps view of Dashur
Where the pyramids are at Dashur

On the screenshots above from Google maps I've marked where Dashur is and the names of the three pyramids I have photos of. The plan below I got from wikipedia (drawn by user Janmad) and I've labelled the same three pyramids here.

Plan of Dashur drawn by Janmad and made available on wikimedia commons
Plan of Dashur drawn by Janmad

The Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid were both built for the same Pharaoh - Sneferu. He was the first of the 4th Dynasty Pharaohs, ruling some time around 2600BC. His son and successor, Khufu, was the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza (which we'd seen the day before - post). And we'd seen some of the burial goods of his wife, Hetepheres, in the Cairo Museum (post). Sneferu actually had three true pyramids built for himself - he started at Meidum, where he had a step pyramid built that he later turned into a true pyramid after completing his other pyramids. His next pyramid was the Bent Pyramid.

The Bent PyramidThe Bent Pyramid
The Bent Pyramid

This pyramid gets its name from the change in angle part way up the pyramid. It wasn't a planned feature, rather a response to an unexpected engineering problem. The original angle was quite steep which meant the pyramid would be quite tall relative to the dimensions of its base. As it was being built it started to show worrying signs that it would be unable to support its own weight, and so the pyramid was finished off with a much shallower angle meaning that less stone (and hence less weight) was resting on the base.

Satellite Pyramid at the Bent PyramidSatellite Pyramid at the Bent Pyramid
The Satellite Pyramid at the Bent Pyramid

We didn't get to go in this pyramid, just looked around the outside. One of the interesting features of the outside is that a lot of the outer casing is still attached. On most pyramids this has been removed for reuse at some point over the millenia. I'm not sure if there's a particular reason for the survival of the casing, or if it's just by chance. We walked all around the pyramid, which was particularly cool as last time J and I visited we weren't allowed to do that - the tourist policemen came and stopped us when we started to walk round to see the south side of it. So I was quite surprised to discover that there are a couple of other buildings, one to the south and one to the east of the Bent Pyramid. To the south is a small pyramid whose function isn't clear - the burial chamber inside it is too small for a person. Medhat told us about a couple of the theories. It's possible it was for the symbolic burial of the Pharaoh's Ka or Ba (parts of his soul in Egyptian mythology). It's also possible it was for offerings (perhaps in conjunction with being for part of his soul).

Small Shrine at the Bent PyramidSmall Shrine at the Bent PyramidSmall Shrine at the Bent Pyramid
The small shrine at the Bent Pyramid

To the east there is a small mortuary chapel - which now consists mostly of a door frame and an offering place. This offering place is a stone slab shaped like the hieroglpyh for "offering" - hetep, which is a stylised loaf of bread on a reed mat. There are also mudbrick walls round this shrine, some of which are the original mudbricks from the Old Kingdom construction - I found that fascinating, I'd never imagined mudbricks could survive for four and a half thousand years! The Old Kingdom bricks are larger than the modern ones that have been used to rebuild the wall (and the modern ones are also marked on one surface with a makers stamp, so that future archaeologists can tell which were from when).

View to the Red Pyramid from the Bent Pyramid
The Red Pyramid

So at this point Sneferu has two pyramids - a step pyramid in Meidum, and an almost true pyramid in Dashur. Despite having his workforce finish the Bent Pyramid he also orders work to start on another true pyramid, learning from the mistakes of his first attempt. This is the Red Pyramid (which we actually visited first at the site) - it is called that because the stone it is made out of is red granite. It's also known at the North Pyramid according to the book about pyramids that J owns ("The Complete Pyramids" by Mark Lehner) but I prefer the more evocative name :) The Red Pyramid is probably where Sneferu was actually buried, although I don't believe any sarcophagus or grave goods or body have been found.

Entrance to the Red PyramidCorbelled Ceiling
The Red Pyramid, Outside and In

We got to go inside the Red Pyramid while we were there. To get in you first climb a bit of the way up the outside of the pyramid, and then descend through a narrow low ceilinged corridor back to ground level. It's pretty steep, and the roof was low enough that I was bent over almost double - so much worse for the taller people of the group (like J)! There are three chambers inside all of which have corbelled ceilings. This is a construction method where each block as you go up vertically overhangs the one below it, leading to a pointy ceiling that looks like it's made from the underneaths of two large staircases. It's one of the impressive things about this particular pyramid - a demonstration of the Egyptians' skill at working with such large masses of stone. The first two chambers are on the same level as each other, connected by a short low passageway, and then the third chamber is a bit higher up and the passage way leading to it is way up near the ceiling of the second chamber. To get there these days there's a modern wooden staircase built alongside the wall of the chamber.

View to the Black Pyramid from the Bent Pyramid
The Black Pyramid in the Distance

As well as the two pyramids we got a proper look at we also saw a third pyramid in the distance, and from some angles the air was clear enough to get decent photographs (with plenty of zoom!). This pyramid is known as the the Black Pyramid, and it's much more recent than the two I've just been talking about. It's still nearly four thousand years old, however! It was the first pyramid constructed for Amenemhat III, a Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom who reigned around 1850BC. The construction methods for his pyramids and those of the other Middle Kingdom Pharaohs weren't the same as the Old Kingdom ones. Instead of using stone throughout the structure they had mudbrick cores, which were then clad in stone.

The Black PyramidThe Black Pyramid
The Black Pyramid

The Black Pyramid was another failed attempt at a pyramid, and Amenemhat III was eventually interred at his second pyramid built in Hawara (that we visited later that day). Like the earlier Bent Pyramid the project was not as well planned as the builders might've hoped - in this case the foundations weren't entirely stable as it was closer to the Nile Valley (and thus the water table was closer to the surface). It was also an overly complex structure inside, which meant it wasn't as capable of supporting the weight of the outer casing as it needed to be. These days the Black Pyramid doesn't look particular pyramidal - now the outer casing has been removed ("mined" for stone over the millenia) all that's left is part of the inner mudbrick core.

It's the 800th anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta this year, and so there are currently a flurry of programmes about the document on the BBC on both radio and TV. We been listening to the Melvyn Bragg presented radio series that was on at the beginning of the year as our Sunday breakfast listening. This was a four part series that covered the context for the document, the thing itself, and its legacy.

The first episode was looking at the context for the original "signing" of Magna Carta (it wasn't in fact signed, as was customary at the time it was validated using the signatories' seals). The king of England in 1215 was King John, who is a notoriously bad king - think Robin Hood, John is generally the king in those legends. It's not without its basis in fact - John was always looking out for his own interests rather than those of the realm. He wasn't even loyal to those who might've thought they were his friends - he'd turn against them if it was convenient or if that got him more money or land or power. Unsurprisingly the leading nobles of the day, the barons, weren't terribly fond of John. Their grievances were that he acted as if he was above the law, he started taking away lands without even a figleaf of legal right to them, and importantly he also lost wars. In particular John managed to lose the bulk of the Plantagenets' lands in modern France, which was humiliating for the crown.

An earlier crisis around 1205 that turns out to be relevant to the conflict was the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. This was contested - John had a preferred candidate and the canons of the cathedral had a preferred candidate, and the two sides couldn't come to agreement. Eventually the Pope intervened and appointed Stephen Langton (who was neither sides' preference) but John refused to accept this. The Pope then placed England under interdict (which meant that priests would not perform the sacraments), a state of affairs that lasted until 1213 when John capitulated. He also sweetened the deal declaring that the Pope was now the feudal overlord of England (thus had secular power in England as well as religious). Archbishop Langton was to be the mediator in the 1215 conflict between John and the barons.

In the second episode Bragg covered the 1215 conflict, and the events surrounding the initial issuing of Magna Carta. At this time King John was still failing to do anything useful in a military sense - this is important as military prowess was an important virtue for a king to demonstrate in order to show himself a true king. Wars are also expensive, so a campaign in France that is lost is a great waste of money which will've been primarily raised via taxing the barons. Civil war actually broke out in the summer of 1215, and crucially the city of London joined in the conflict on the side of the barons. John was in an unwinnable situation, and was forced to meet with the barons and come to terms with them. The meeting were held in June 1215 at a place on the Thames called Runnymede - this was neutral territory that was regarded as safe by both sides as it would be difficult to set up an ambush there. The barons showed up in force, and camped there with their army. This was somewhat of a surprise to John who had expected a delegation, so instead of camping on Runnymede himself he stayed nearby and visited during the day to negotiate.

The treaty that was eventually negotiated and sealed at Runnymede is the first iteration of the Magna Carta (although it wasn't called that at the time). It is both sweeping and curiously specific. So there are the well known clauses that place the king under the law and guarantee the right of no imprisonment save by trial by one's peers or due course of law. And there are also many clauses about particular grievances, for instance prohibiting fishweirs on the Thames which was of paramount interest to the merchants of the City of London (as the fishweirs impeded progress of shipping on the Thames). John wasn't actually happy with the treaty, in particular a crucial clause that appointed a council of 25 barons to oversee the King's actions. However he signed it because there wasn't much other option, and was even forced to start instituting it before the two sides left Runnymede.

The third episode of this series looked at the immediate aftermath of the issuing of Magna Carta. The first thing John did after the dust had settled was to try to overturn the treaty. As I said in the last paragraph he was particularly unhappy with the clauses granting a council of barons power to enforce the treaty, and the situation was not helped by them treating the King disrespectfully. There were clauses in Magna Carta that were intended to prevent John wriggling out of it, but he made use of his new good relations with the Pope. Having given the Pope feudal overlordship of England meant that the Pope had legal standing to declare the treaty invalid, which he did at John's request.

Unsurprisingly this did not go down well with the barons - the political situation returned to how it had been before Runnymede, and civil war broke out again. The Pope was now firmly on John's side and directed Langton to excommunicate the barons who are in rebellion. Langton, however, resisted this (and incurred the Pope's displeasure) because if he was to be an effective mediator then he couldn't been seen to be on one side or the other. The French got involved in the civil war, coming in on the side of the barons and by 1216 the south of England is mostly ruled by the son of the French King. If John had not died at this point then the history of England would've been quite different!

However John did die, and his 9 year old son Henry took the throne. One of the first things that Henry III's regents did was to reissue Magna Carta. This was intended to woo the disaffected barons back to the side of the English monarchy, and it was successful. With the barons back on their side Henry III's forces were able to retake the south of England and drive out the French prince.

This was only the first reissuing of the Magna Carta, the next time was when Henry came of age in 1225. This was in part a symbolic act intended to convey that he would (unlike his father) rule in accordance with the law. The version of Magna Carta issued at this point was partly rewritten (by Langton amongst others), taking out some of the unpalatable clauses (like the council of the barons). This version is the definitive one that is meant when we refer to Magna Carta, and it was reissued several times over the next 100 years.

In the fourth episode Bragg talked about how Magna Carta has become enshrined in global consciousness as a totemic symbol of democracy. Often by people who don't know exactly what is in it, just that it guarantees the rights of the people to just treatment under the law. I was aware before of the sort of place it occupies in British culture, but I hadn't realised just how important it is to US culture. Bragg talked to some US historians who explained that the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution is deliberately based on clauses from the Magna Carta. And it still has enormous importance as a precursor document for US democratic principles. The monument in Runnymede commemorating the signing of Magna Carta was erected by US lawyers.

The end of the programme was about whether or not Magna Carta still has relevance today - particularly as the actual clauses in the document are mostly no longer law (I believe there are only 2 left on the statute books out of the original 60-something). Bragg's conclusion was that it's not the details that are important, and it hasn't been for several hundred years. But that Magna Carta is the start of a paradigm shift that we pretty much take for granted today. That people have the right to be dealt with in accordance with the law rather than at the whim of the ruler.