April 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.



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

Total: 1


From Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East. Exhibition at the Queen's Gallery of photos from the then Prince of Wales's trip to the Middle East in 1862.

Total: 1


Ashoka - In Our Time episode about Ashoka who ruled a vast empire including much of India in the 4th Century BC.

Total: 1


"Cuneiform: The World's Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System" Irving Finkel - the first part of the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

"The Cyrus Cylinder: Unexpected Discoveries and the Rediscovery of Meaning" Irving Finkel - the second part of the BSS Study Day on cuneiform.

"From King to Ancestor: Transition to Napatan Royal Afterlife (A Glimpse of a Funerary Ritual)" Birgitte Balanda - April EEG meeting talk.

Total: 3



Art of China - Andrew Graham Dixon talking about the history of art in China.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Petrified Forest and the Desert.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Qasr el Sagha.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Karanis.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Luxor Temple.

Total: 4

Tags: Admin

For the second part of his Bloomsbury Summer School study day on cuneiform Irving Finkel talked about the Cyrus cylinder which was found in Iraq during excavation at Babylon in 1872. It is a cylinder of baked clay which is covered in cuneiform writing, and you can see it at the British Museum. The largest part actually belongs to the BM, and there's another fragment that they have on permanent loan from Yale. (My photo below is actually of a replica, I think the real thing was on loan somewhere at the time I took the photo a couple of years ago.)

Cyrus Cylinder

It was written at the behest of King Cyrus in 539BC, shortly after he invaded Babylon. This was apparently a bloodless conquest and it was the end of native rule in Babylon: the previous king was the last Neo-Babylonian king. The text starts with a description of the chaos in Babylon before Cyrus came along (which made me think of the Egyptian 1st Intermediate Period texts where a nomarch's tomb will announce how he brought order out of the chaos that Egypt was in). It continues by saying that the chaos was so bad that the gods had left their temples, and the god Marduk went in search of a candidate to rule Babylon instead of the current king. He found his ideal man in Cyrus - not a Babylonian but from Iran (Persia).

The text implies that Cyrus was a Marduk worshipper, but this is probably propaganda - especially as the Babylonian King whom he overthrew (Nabonidus) particularly worshipped a different one of their pantheon (which didn't go down well with all of his people). Finkel pointed out that one would never read a modern text (newspaper article, press release, whatever) credulously so why do so for an ancient text? Propaganda and spin is nothing new. A more cynical reading of the text is that Cyrus took advantage of a schism in Babylonian society and picked a religious side that was opposite to the King whilst still popular with the public - and so rode that wave to a "welcomed" conquest.

In another act of propaganda Cyrus had Nabonidus's name removed from any places where it was. There are a couple of pieces of evidence for this - the first is a tablet that has written on it a satirical poem about Cyrus doing so. And it's backed up by a large stone stela which has on its front a relief of a king with a big blank space next to it where one would expect an inscription. If you look at the sides of this stela there are inscriptions naming Nabonidus. Finkel suggests that this stela perhaps once stood in an alcove & so when the men came to chisel off the inscriptions they only saw the front one and the sides got overlooked.

When it was discovered the Cyrus cylinder was a particularly big deal to Victorian London society because Cyrus is also mentioned in the Bible. He is the King who let the Jews return to Israel after the long exile in Babylon. However this interest resulted in the cylinder being built up into even more that it actually is. One myth is that it's the actual decree permitting the Jews to go home - which is rubbish, it never mentions the Jews. Another (slightly more recent) myth is that it was the first charter of human rights ... which is also rubbish. It does say that Cyrus will rule as a just king etc etc, but that's a pretty standard thing for rulers of that time and place to say particularly after they've conquered somewhere. "Your old king was crap in all those ways; I will be awesome in all these ways". But Finkel did say that even though the text itself has no relation to our concept of human rights the cylinder has taken on a sort of second life in modern Iran where it is a symbol of pride in their ancient civilisation and of human rights.

Another thing often said about the Cyrus cylinder is that it's unique - this is also rubbish. This seemed implausible to experts from the start (it's the sort of text you expect to be churned out by a conquering king) and there has been recent proof that it is indeed not one of a kind. Both Finkel and a colleague have discovered fragments of the Cyrus cylinder text in the British Museum's collection of tablet fragments. These two fragments overlap with the text, but also with the missing portions of the cylinder. And they are from flat tablets rather than cylinders. So they are definitely from one or more separate copies of this text. Interestingly the fragments are also better quality than the cylinder, which is both of poor clay and lower quality writing. Finkel said this was probably because the Cyrus cylinder was intended to be buried - so people wouldn't see it particularly often. He thinks there were probably thousands of copies of the text buried and distributed amongst the land that Cyrus ruled over (and beyond).

One of the (several) tangents that Finkel went on during this talk was about some fossilised horse shanks from China which were discovered with cuneiform on them that turned out to be the Cyrus cylinder text. The text had many omissions and was overall poorly copied, leading to thoughts that they were a fake. But equally the signs used for the text weren't the same as those the cylinder - they were a different style and from a different period. So legitimate signs, and clearly not (poorly) copied straight off the Cyrus cylinder, which might incline one to think they were real. Finkel said he nearly published something saying they were real for these reasons, but shortly before the book was sent to the publisher he discovered where they'd been copied from! Wallis Budge (he of several Egyptology books of slight dubiousness by modern scholarship standards) had published an article about the Cyrus cylinder text. In it he'd presented the cuneiform using these different forms of the signs, and had presented the exact bits of text the horse shanks had (pooly) copied. So that was the origin of these fakes!

The two take home messages from this particular talk were first that one shouldn't take anything at face value. And that there are no unique things in history, if we think there's only one that just means we haven't found another. And Finkel finished up with an anecdote of a surprising example of this - the Ishtar Gate from Babylon seems a prime candidate for uniqueness. However! A life size replica has been discovered in Persepolis built during Cyrus's reign, outside his palace. Clearly he was pretty impressed by it when he conquered Babylon.

First Pylon at Luxor Temple
Luxor Temple, First Pylon

Luxor Temple is one part of a wide ranging and cohesive set of sacred buildings around the ancient city of Thebes. The oldest buildings of the temple that still exist today date to the New Kingdom, but it was almost certainly built on the site of a Middle Kingdom temple (and quite possibly an Old Kingdom temple before that). Once it was joined to the Karnak Temple complex by an Avenue of Sphinxes stretching 2.5km to the north, along which the god Amun processed in his sacred barque on festival days. And in early New Kingdom times before the avenue was built this was a canal, and the god's barque floated between the temples.

I have many pictures from this temple, more than in this post - the rest are, as always, on flickr: click here for the full set. Also click on any photo to go to it on flickr to see it at a larger size :)

plan of Luxor Temple
Plan of Luxor Temple
Created by wikipedia user 14nu5

Key: The Temple of Amun in Luxor: a – Temple of Amun (Amenhotep III); b – Sun court (Amenhotep III); c – Barque stop (Thutmose III and Hatshepsut) and Shrine of the Theban triade (Ramesses II); d – Colonnade (Thutankhamun and Haremhab); e – Great Court (Ramesses II); f – Kiosk (Shabaka); A – Sanctuary of Amun (Amenhotep III); B – Barque shrine (Amenhotep III, Alexander the Great); C – “Birth room”; D – Roman sanctuary; E – Hypostyl hall; F – 3rd pylon; G – Processional colonnade (Amenhotep III); H – 2nd pylon; I – 1st pylon; K – Obelisks.

We started our visit at the north eastern end of the temple and stood immediately outside the First Pylon (built by Ramesses II) looking at the remaining obelisk and at the head of a large statue that sits just beside the entrance. The missing obelisk of the pair is the one that is in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, having been "gifted" to the French in the 1830s. Medhat spent a while talking to us about the art style of the sculpted head - this is from a monumental statue of Amenhotep III and when you compare it to the colossal statues of Ramesses II that still stand at the gateway of the First Pylon you can see how the Ramesside art style is much cruder than the earlier. This was clearly one of Medhat's particular themes as we returned to it several times over the rest of the trip! I'm not entirely sure I agree - I do think some of the much later art (Ptolemaic era) can look clumsy, but I'm of the opinion that the Ramesside stuff is not so much crude as projecting a sense of overwhelming power (rather than refined elegance like his father Seti I's art style or the early Amenhotep III era art).

First Pylon at Luxor TempleHead of Statue of Amenhotep III
Battle of Kadesh Relief (left), Head of Amenhotep III (right)

While standing at this point Medhat also discussed how calling the outermost pylon the "First Pylon" is a bit of a misnomer. One thing Pharaohs did to make their mark on the world was to extend existing temples (Ramesses II was particularly keen on doing this), and they did this by adding a courtyard and another pylon on the front of the existing structure. So we as modern people start at the entrance and count inwards, but the sequence of building would be the reverse. This pylon (last or first) is decorated with Ramesses II's favourite subject - the Battle of Kadesh. It's not a very good example of these scenes, as it's pretty eroded - we were to see much better ones later.

Walking Into Great Court at Luxor TempleAbu-el-Haggag Mosque
Mosque in the Temple

Moving inside the temple we first took a look at the Christian church and the Islamic mosque that have been built in and on the Temple. The church was built first, around 400AD inside the temple and I think its floor is on the same level as the temple floor. The mosque was built around a thousand years later on top of the church as the site was by then sufficiently covered in sand that this was ground level (and still is on the outside of the temple). The mosque was built there because the holy man (and later saint) Abu-el-Haggag lived in a house on that site and the mosque was built next door to him. His tomb is there and the site is an important monument in its own right (as well as a functioning mosque) and so this part of Luxor Temple is not excavated or restored. Medhat also told us that you can see the tops of the temple pillars inside the mosque - they weren't removed, they were built around.

18th Dynasty Barque StopGreat Court
Barque Stop (left), Great Court (right)

Moving on from mosque into the Great Court of Ramesses II we had a look at the barque stop dating from the reigns of Tutmosis III and Hatshepsut. In Kent Weeks's guidebook to Luxor and environs (which I'm using to double check my info) he says that this was possibly in a more central position next to the avenue between Luxor & Karnak temples before Ramesses II built his courtyard & pylon. It's the southernmost of the bark shrines on the avenue & played an important role in the ceremony & procession. Medhat once again used this as an opportunity to contrast the art style of Ramesses II's columns to that of the earlier ones, which are much more delicate & refined.

Prince KhaemwasetDiagram of the Front of Luxor Temple on a Wall of the Great Court
Khaemwaset (left), Diagram of Front of Temple (right)

At the back right hand corner of the Great Court (looking at it as you walk in past the mosque) is a relief showing seventeen sons of Ramesses II in procession to the "new" pylon at Luxor Temple. The sons are labelled with names and titles, and are in birth order - so this is particularly interesting as a who's who of Ramesses II's family. The other interesting part of this relief is the depiction of the front of Luxor Temple with the flags, obelisks and statues clearly & accurately shown. I like this in particular not just because it's kinda neat to see a drawing of the place you're in when you're in it, but also because of what it shows us about the art style of the Ancient Egyptians. The statues are shown side on, even tho we've just see that they face outward from the pylon - the drawing is stylised rather than realistic. Which obviously one knows, but you rarely get a chance to see the actual thing and then the drawing so it's a useful reminder :) Medhat talked to us for a while about Khaemwaset - the fourth son of Ramesses II - who he said you could think of as the "world's first archaeologist". I'd quibble about that - I think "antiquarian" would be a better description. But it's a reminder both that Egyptian civilisation lasted so long that in the New Kingdom period he could restore millennia-old structures from the past glories of his civilisation. And that they were people too, just like us - here's a guy who lived & died nearly 3,500 years ago and he's interested in history just like those of us looking at that relief are.

Horemheb's CartouchesAy and his Wife
Cartouches of Horemheb (left), Ay(?) and his Wife (right)

In the next two areas we were mainly shown the traces left by the Amarna period and its immediate aftermath. In the colonnade we looked at the back of the second pylon which has, near the top on the left hand side, a cartouche of Horemheb who was the last Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. It appears to have been carved over another cartouche, which was probably that of Tutankhamun (who despite restoring the old religion was still removed from history as part of the official "forgetting" of the Amarna period). Near here there are also two pairs of statues - Medhat said they were of Ay and his wife (Ay being Pharaoh after Tutankhamun and before Horemheb). But I'm sure last time we visited we were told this was Tutankhamun, and Kent Weeks's book labels it as Amenhotep III. So I'm not quite sure which is right (or even if it's known for sure). When we moved through into the Sun Court we looked at the cartouches carved above the columns - each of which has had the hieroglyphs that mean Amun chiselled off during the Amarna period. Well, almost all of them anyway - there's one or two that were missed.

Amun Erased from InscriptionsRoman Plaster Over Egyptian Reliefs
Amun Erased (left), Roman Plaster over Egyptian Reliefs (right)

After that we walked through the Hypostyle Hall to the room labelled on the plan as (D) "Roman Sanctuary". This was once a barque shrine, but in the Roman period it was converted for use in the Imperial cult. The Egyptian religious scenes were plastered over and the new wall surface was painted with Roman religious scenes (including a group of four figures in an alcove who are Diocletian, Maximillian and two junior Caesars who ruled during the Tetrarchy in the 3rd Century AD). So today there's a bit of a hybrid appearance - some of the plaster has fallen off revealing the Egyptian reliefs, and some of the plaster is still present.

A Very Polite Conception ScenePregnant Mother of Amenhotep III
A Very Polite Conception Scene (left), Subtly Pregnant Mother of Amenhotep III (right)

This was where Medhat's tour of the site ended, but Dylan took us on through to the Birth Room which has reliefs that depict the divine conception and birth of Amenhotep III. Particularly interesting in here (tho sadly my photos aren't great, it was difficult lighting to photograph in) were a scene of Amenhotep's pregnant mother (you can just see her bump), a very polite conception scene (the god Amun & the woman sitting together while he holds an ankh symbol to her lips) and the god Khnum making Amenhotep on his potters wheel.

Luxor Temple as the Sun SetsLuxor Temple as the Sun Sets
Luxor Temple as the Sun Sets

By this stage the sun was setting (and had been for a while) so we walked back through the temple taking photos because the temple looks particularly good at sunset.

Luxor Temple as the Sun Sets
Luxor Temple

Ashoka was the ruler of a vast empire in the 4th Century BC which included nearly all of India. He is known today from both archaeological evidence (a series of pillars & rocks inscribed with his edicts) and textual evidence (later Buddhist histories). The three experts who discussed him on In Our Time were Jessica Frazier (University of Kent and the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies), Naomi Appleton (University of Edinburgh) and Richard Gombrich (Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and University of Oxford).

Shortly before Ashoka's time northern India in the Ganges valley was populated by a set of smallish but relatively sophisticated states. The experts made a comparison with pre-Socratic Greece or with the state of affairs in China at the time. The dynasty of which Ashoka is the third ruler changed this - they started to conquer the other nearby states and Ashoka himself greatly expanded the empire.

Not much is known for sure about Ashoka's life. Both sorts of available evidence have obvious flaws & biases. The Buddhist histories are written significantly after Ashoka's death, and follow a clear conversion narrative - so the early years are portrayed as Very Bad so that he can then convert and live the rest of his life as a Very Good Buddhist. Both bits of that narrative are obviously suspect and were likely exaggerated for effect. Gombrich was particularly keen to dismiss any evidence arising from this (he came across as somewhat of an Ashoka fanboy to be honest). Frazier and Appleton were more open to using these texts whilst being aware of their pitfalls as sources. The other evidence is the pillars and rocks with his edicts carved on them, and Gombrich was very keen to hold these up as Ashoka's own words which were therefore innately trustworthy - I thought it more likely they were also biased as they were intended at the time as a propaganda tool.

His early life was probably quite violent - it seems that although he was of the ruling dynasty he wasn't the designated heir, and he may have committed murder in order to take the throne. He then embarks on a series of military campaigns to consolidate the empire he has "inherited" and to expand it. By the time this phase of his career finishes he rules from Afghanistan to nearly the southern tip of India, an incredibly vast empire. And then he has some sort of epiphany, a road to Damascus moment. The edicts say that this was a response to the slaughter at one of his last battles at Kalinga where many many civilians were killed. The Buddhist histories say that he met a Buddhist monk and this monk taught him a better way to live. Regardless of what it was (the cynic in me wonders if he'd just run out of expansion room), after this he stopped fighting wars and concentrated on ruling his empire both peacefully and justly.

Having become a Buddhist and renounced violence he ruled for another 40 years. The edicts set out a moral code and say how Ashoka is going to rule. The very fact of their existence is testimony to one of the things that Ashoka did for India - he introduced writing to the region. This means that although these were set up throughout his empire the ordinary people and even the higher status people wouldn't be able to read them. So there were also literate officials posted to the same place so that they could read them out and explain them to people. They set out the ways that people should behave, based in large part on Buddhist ethics & morality (although he didn't follow any of the contemporary Buddhist texts exactly). There was an emphasis on the welfare of the people, and they promoted the idea that everyone should do good deeds now in order to benefit themselves in both this world and the next. Interestingly although he preached respect for all religions the edicts were also fairly anti-Brahmin (the forerunners of Hinduism) and against the caste system.

In the wrapping up stage of the programme the three experts discussed whether the edicts were a sincere representation of Ashoka's plans, beliefs etc or whether they were a cynical piece of propaganda. All three thought it was sincere, but pointed out that this is a very modern Western way of framing the discussion. We tend to set those two things as a pair of opposed opposites, sincere vs. pragmatic, but at the time there would be no paradox in both sincerely believing in Buddhist ethics and also erecting the edicts as a pragmatic political act.

They finished by discussing Ashoka's legacy. He was instrumental in making Buddhism a worldwide religion, spreading it outside its Indian birthplace throughout his empire and beyond. And in places like Sri Lanka he is remembered for this, and for bringing writing to these areas. However in India his legacy is slight, and is primarily through being rediscovered in the modern era when the edicts were translated. Gombrich discussed how as Hinduism rose to prominence in India Ashoka's reign and empire were minimised & forgotten in histories of the country - due to his being Buddhist and to his anti-Brahmin, anti-caste stance. His legacy is most clearly seen as being the source of the ideas against which Hindu ideas about kingship and society were reacting.

On Sunday Birgitte Balanda came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the internal decoration of some Napatan royal tombs and explain what it tells us about the Napatan's funerary rituals & beliefs. Napata is the name given to the culture that existed in Upper Nubia between the third & fifth cataracts of the Nile from around 800BC to 300BC. The dynasty who ruled the Napatans were also the 25th Dynasty Pharaohs of Egypt - most well known of which is Taharqa. After the Nubian Pharaohs were driven out of Egypt by the 26th Dynasty they continued to rule in Nubia, and I think continued to consider themselves the rightful rulers of Egypt.

The Napatan civilisation was centred around Gebel Barkal, which is a prominent rock feature that has been important to several different Nubian cultures over the millennia. There were two royal cemeteries for Napatan rulers near Gebel Barkal - one called el Kurru and one called Nuri. Balanda talked about the two best preserved & documented tombs from each site - coincidentally in each case a mother & son pair. The cemeteries were originally excavated by Reisner, who worked in Nubia between 1916 and 1923. He was thorough, but very brisk by modern standards - completing his excavation of the whole of Nuri in his 1917 and 1918 seasons, and the whole of el Kurru in 1918-1919. Reisner never published this work, it was published in the 1950s by Dunham - who had worked with Reisner as a young man, so was relying both on his own memories and Reisner's notes. The tombs at el Kurru are accessible so Balanda had her own photographs to show us, but the tombs at Nuri can no longer be entered (sand has buried them once again) and so she was relying on the old photographs and line drawings of Dunham's publication.

Balanda started by talking about two tombs at el Kurru. These were Ku16 (tomb of Tunwetamani) and Ku5 (tomb of Qalhata). Tunwetamani was the nephew of Taharqa, and succeeded him as both ruler of the Napatans and Pharaoh of Egypt - he was the last Napatan to rule Egypt. His mother, Qalhata, was probably Taharqa's sister. Taharqa had actually founded the cemetery at Nuri, but Tunwetamani had decided to be buried in the old cemetary at el Kurru. Neither Ku16 nor Ku5 have been fully published, so as Balanda said this was quite exciting as she was showing us things not everyone has been able to see. The decoration in both tombs is reasonably well preserved - Ku5 has better preservations of the scenes and Ku16 has better preservation of the inscriptions. At first glance the decoration looks very Egyptian in style, and it is - but on closer inspection there are differences. Some of the differences are in the details, for instance the double uraeus as a symbol of royalty, ram headed jewellery, short hair on the queen and she also has darker skin than an Egyptian woman would be depicted with. Other differences are in the scenes and texts chosen - and in the past this has been put down to the Nubians "not knowing what they were doing" and copying things almost at random. However Balanda is clear that the tombs are decorated with deliberately chosen motifs & texts that fit with the Napatan beliefs about the afterlife.

The second pair of tombs were from the Nuri cemetery and were from towards the end of the Napatan era. The Nuri tombs are generally a bit bigger than the el Kurru tombs - with 3 chambers for a King's tomb (as opposed to two) but still one or two for a Queen's tomb. Nu8 was the tomb of Aspelta, and Nu24 was his mother Nasalsa's tomb. Compared to the el Kurru tombs there are more texts and fewer vignettes.

In each tomb Balanda talked us through the decoration following a circuit starting at the south wall of the outermost decorated chamber, moving into and round the inner chamber and then out via the north wall of the outer chamber. The bulk of her talk was discussing the scenes & texts in detail - which was very interesting. I started to write out descriptions of what scenes and texts are where, from my notes but sadly without her pictures to go with them it just turns into a bit of a boring list. Instead I'll move on to the summary & conclusions that she finished up with. In all of the tombs there is a clearly defined progression around the tomb in the order she talked abuot the scenes. The deceased is first lead into the tomb and afterlife with spells to do with things like preservation of the body, then at the back there is the Weighing of the Heart. On the way out via the north walls the deceased is first resurrected and then lead by deities to go out into the world again. There are differences between the el Kurru tombs and the Nuri tombs - for instance the texts are only from the Book of the Dead in the Nuri tombs but from several sources (including the Pyramid Texts) at el Kurru. However the scheme is the same in both groups. The walls of the tomb recapitulate the journey of the deceased and also the funerary ritual performed when the deceased was buried (the Stundenwachen-Ritual). Balanda believes that this wasn't just an Ideal Performance of the ritual inscribed in stone for eternity, but that it was also used for the actual ritual.

She finished her talk by considering what information can be gleaned about the similarities and differences between the Napatan beliefs and the contemporary Egyptian beliefs. She pointed out that even after political ties were broken between the two countries there must still've been religious ties as changes in texts used happen in both places. However the Napatan afterlife concept was much more exclusive than the Egyptian belief system at the time. In Egypt anyone who'd had the right rituals performed could become Osiris in the afterlife, but in Napata it was restricted to royalty. Interestingly this is also reflected in other ways in their society - the only statues found are of royalty or deities, no nobles or officials or priests or anyone like that which is in contrast to Egypt. Also only Kings and Queens have Isis & Osiris amulets. Balanda said it's about how the Napatan elite asserted their legitimacy (particularly with regards to their claim to rule over Egypt) - only they are descended from the mythical ancestor, only they will become him in death.

I found this a fascinating talk. It covered a time & place I've not heard much about before and it was also interesting to hear about tomb decoration as a cohesive whole rather than as pieces.

Karanis with the modern city in the background

Karanis is the site of a large Graeco-Roman town, to the east of Lake Qarun just outside the modern northern edge of cultivated land at Faiyum. It was a pretty large town, covering around 450 acres and there are still quite a lot of mudbrick structures on the site (although not as much as there were at the beginning of the 20th Century, which I'll come back to later in this post). My photos from our visit are up on flickr, click here for the full set.

Karanis Open Air MuseumKaranis Open Air Museum
Karanis Open Air Museum

We started our visit in the Open Air Museum which contains pieces of sculpture and stonework from a different nearby site - Crocodilopolis. As the modern city of Faiyum occupies the same site as Crocodilopolis the pieces that have been excavated are kept out at Karanis where they can be more securely looked after. When we visited there were fairly new signs up explaining something of the history of the site they came from. The Ancient Egyptian name for Crocodilopolis was Shadet, and it is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts, so clearly existed around 4,300 years ago in the Old Kingdom era. It prospered during the Middle Kingdom, and many of the pieces in this Open Air Museum are from that time period. During this time the swamps in the Faiyum Oasis area were drained and the region became an important agricultural area. From the first records of it Shadet was one of the main centres of worship of the crocodile god Sobek, and this continues into Graeco-Roman times which is why the Greeks called it Crocodilopolis. Some of the granite columns we saw were the remains of the Middle Kingdom temple to Sobek (built in Amenemhat I's reign, c. 1975 BC), which was demolished in Graeco-Roman times.

South TempleSouth Temple
Greek Inscription (left), Niche for Mummified Crocodile (right)

After spending some time looking at these monumental remains we walked through the ruins of Karanis to look at the two temples that still stand (to some extent). These date to the Graeco-Roman period and look very similar to each other in layout and construction. The South Temple (which we visited first) has a Greek inscription above the door. It is known to be dedicated to a crocodile god - my notes say "a form of Sobek" but wikipedia says "the local crocodile gods Pnepheros and Petesouchos". I'm not sure if these are contradictory or not, however Richard Wilkinson's book "The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt" doesn't mention either of those local gods by name (although there is a passing reference to minor crocodile deities assimilated into Sobek).

I mostly looked at the rooms inside the South Temple, and then climbed on the wall of the North Temple for the view (there was no roof left on either temple). The South Temple's inner sanctum (at the far end from the door) included 2 niches for storing mummified crocodiles (and I think the North Temple was the same). I couldn't help but think that these looked a bit like medieval bread ovens in size and shape - which is possibly not the right sort of thought to have about the space where a crocodile god resides! At the two long sides of the building were several smaller rooms which might possibly have been storerooms.

Roman Bath CeilingWell Preserved Mudbrick House
Roman Bath Ceiling (left), Well Preserved House (right)

The view from the top of the North Temple gave me an appreciation of the size of the city and of how much remains today. As we made our way back to the Dig House Museum at the entrance to the site we walked along what must've been city streets between the houses. Medhat pointed out a couple of particularly interesting structures. One of these was a Roman bath house which had a large room with the remains of a brick seat running around the wall, and a smaller alcove with an actual bath in it. This still had some roof left and also some of the painted decoration was still visible. Obviously this hadn't been made of mudbrick, as it wouldn't've worked very well at keeping the water in ;) The other structure was a particularly well preserved house - the modern path surface is higher than the ancient one and it didn't have a roof so you could see in from the outside. The walls were finished with a layer of mud used much like plaster, and you could see alcoves in the walls that could be used as cupboards and lamp shelves.

Karanis Dig House MuseumKaranis Dig House Museum
Karanis Dig House Museum

Near the entrance to the site is the Dig House Museum, this is the reconstructed building in which the University of Michigan team lived while they worked on excavating the site in the 1920s. The museum felt like it wasn't quite finished yet (not sure if it was or not) - it was pretty sparse, but there were several information panels about the excavation and the site. One of the big finds from the excavation were a lot of papyrii which were mostly tax records, and give an insight into the average Egyptian's life under Roman rule. The information which most struck me when reading these panels was that a lot of the site was destroyed even as the archaeologists were excavating. It was customary in the late 19th & early 20th Century for the locals to "mine" the area for mudbricks to use as fertiliser. Which means a lot more survived until almost the modern day before being destroyed :(


Crime and Punishment

The last couple of chapters of this book before the conclusion feel like they don't quite fit in the flow of the book, but Prestwich felt the subjects were important to cover. The first of these subjects is crime and punishment, and he begins by discussing how it's difficult to be sure what the crime rates actually were in the 13th & 14th Centuries. There are several factors that complicate the ability of the historian to draw out statistics from the records that survive. One major one is that the population numbers aren't known, for examples estimates of the population in "medieval London" vary from 37,500 through to 176,000 so expressing homicides as "% of population" is obviously problematic. Another issue is that we have no idea how much crime that was committed was actually reported to the authorities. And for those that are reported and go to court - do you count accusations of crime, or convictions? During this period there's an 80% acquittal rate so that makes quite a large difference.

But even if accurate numbers are difficult to come by you can look at trends over the period. Civil war led to increases in crime, in part due to people taking advantage of the partial breakdown of government. Political disagreements could turn into outright criminal behaviour - in the 1310s the Earl of Lancaster was involved in what were effectively a couple of private wars both against another Earl and due to rebellion by one of his tenants. This resulted in killings and destruction of property, and a general increase in lawlessness. War in general also increased lawlessness because the administration was focussed on running the war rather than running the country. And wars also lead to an increase in lawlessness in another fashion - the army was often bulked up by releasing men from the county gaols to serve as soldiers. If the war was a foreign one then initially they would be overseas, but on their return crime would increase. Another factor affecting crime rates was the harvest - poor harvests led to increased crime. Almost certainly this was largely due to poor people needing to steal to survive, but contemporary chroniclers also blamed it on men turned out of noble households when money was too tight to pay them who didn't know how to earn an honest living.

However, criminals during this era weren't just thugs and desperate poor men. There were several notable gangs lead by members of the gentry - although Prestwich doesn't mention it this section of the chapter brought the Robin Hood legend to mind. Members of the clergy were also involved in criminal activity. Although sometimes this isn't so much that somebody actually was a cleric, instead it's someone who has successfully claimed to be clergy so he's tried in the church courts rather than the lay ones (punishments were less severe, see below). The senior clergy were also involved in the same sorts of crimes as the nobility - both the gentry gangs and the sorts of fraud and violence indulged in by the aristocracy. Women also committed crimes, but statistically speaking they were different sorts of crime - less violence and more things like receiving stolen goods. They were less often accused of crime in the first place - only about 10% of accusations recorded were of women. Prestwich doesn't say, but I wonder if this is because women weren't (entirely?) legally separate from their husbands or fathers.

Maintenance of public order was an important function of medieval government, and there were a variety of mechanisms to achieve this. I got a bit bogged down in the details when this section of the chapter and I'm not quite sure I've got a grasp on the big picture. I think Prestwich discusses country wide courts first. At the start of the period are courts called "eyres" which aren't popular (I'm not sure why) and their use decreases over time - this was a regular visitation by royal justices to the whole country, which theoretically happened every 7 years. It appears you could pay a fine (collectively) to avoid having one sit in your town, and later kings were more interested in getting the fines than actually holding the courts. As they faded out of use other alternatives arose. One of these was that litigants could take civil cases to Westminster to the court of the Common Bench. The assizes circuits, which start from 1273, were another alternative for civil cases. Criminal case were passed to the justices of gaol delivery, or to specially commissioned oyer and terminer courts ("to hear and determine"). During this period there was also increasing use of Keepers of the Peace, a role that eventually developed into Justice of the Peace. These were local men, normally magnates or knights, who were employed to hold courts when the assizes justices weren't able to complete their circuits (during times of war for instance when money would be diverted from domestic matters).

The courts were more effective in theory than in practice. Convictions did not often happen, wrongdoers might misuse the legal system to accuse their victims (frequently successfully to at least some extent). Although there is no widespread evidence for bribing or intimidating juries they often failed to convict people even when there appears to be much evidence for their crimes. Prestwich speculates that maybe in some cases they were put off by the harsh penalties that would be applied to a convicted criminal. Men could also escape severe punishment if they successfully claimed to be clerics, sometimes they had to take a reading test but more often they just had to have the bishop's official agree with them. Which is obviously open to corruption! Clerics were tried in the episcopal courts which didn't hand out as severe penalties as the secular ones. Some of the accused never appear in court, having fled before the case was heard - there's generally a higher conviction rate in those cases.

Punishments varied. Hanging was the usual punishment for a felony. At the beginning of the period even minor thefts could end up with a hanging, but in 1279 a statute was passed setting a minimum value for imposing this felony. Pillorying was a common punishment for those sorts of minor crimes. If you refused to plead you could be punished by peine forte et dure, ie crushed by heavy rocks - which meant your family could inherit your property (unlike if you'd been convicted and hung). Imprisonment was also often used for minor crimes, or for when a fine could not be paid.

Prestwich finishes the chapter by noting that although the problem of crime & punishment during the period was great there was nonetheless no complete breakdown of law & order. He also relates an anecdote that hints at the romanticisation of crime that would lead to later legends like that of Robin Hood, or the concept of dashing highwaymen.

At the end of February the Bloomsbury Summer School had a study day on cuneiform, presented by Irving Finkel called "The Wonder of Cuneiform: A Passionate Exploration of Some of Mesopotamia's Most Important Ancient Records". Finkel is a curator at the British Museum and has recently written a book (and presented a TV programme (post)) on a tablet containing a previous unknown version of the Ark myth including details of how to build an ark. As I'm learning Akkadian it sounded like an interesting day to go to. He's a good speaker, managing to be entertaining as well as informative about a subject that could easily have been quite dry. There were four talks throughout the day, the first was an overview of the writing system and the other three each covered a text in cuneiform. I had intended to write a single post about all four talks, but after writing this first one I've decided to split it into four separate posts.

Cuneiform: The World's Oldest and Most Marvellous Writing System

The title of this talk was definitely chosen to tweak the noses of the Egyptologists in the room (of which there were many as most of the BSS's study days are Egypt related). It worked too - I was sat between J and Janet (who we know from the EEG) and they were both muttering about how hieroglphs are better than cuneiform ;)

Cuneiform writing originates sometime in the 4th Millennium BC in the geographical area that is now Iraq. Finkel told us about a couple of theories of its origin - the first one he talked about was the token theory, which he isn't terribly convinced by. In this theory first small objects (stones, clay shapes) of particular forms were used to keep records, and later these were drawn onto clay and became pictographs. He thinks this theory requires being selective about the evidence, so isn't very plausible. Instead he pointed out that cylinder seals exist at least as far back as evidence of writing so it's not a big jump to think they started by drawing pictographs on clay to keep records.

The earliest writing in Mesopotamia is bureaucratic in nature. People were beginning to live in cities, which have a much higher administrative overhead and so record keeping began to be essential for the rulers of the population. Finkel said that mathematics begins at the same time as writing, for the same sorts of reasons, and the first examples found written down are quite complex so they must've been doing it for a while (I think by mathematics he means arithmetic and accountancy not algebra etc).

The first known language written in cuneiform (c.3300BC) was Sumerian, which is a language that has no known relatives. Obviously there were likely to've been some at the time, all the rest have just died out without trace. Akkadian, which I'm learning, was written in cuneiform later on and is a Semitic language.

The Big Idea of writing was the move from pictographs representing concrete things (sheep, cow, house etc) to using them to represent sounds, and also abstract grammatical necessities. An example of the first is that the word for "beer" is "kash", so when you want to write down something about the Kashite King you use a beer pictograph for the first syllable of his country. And you know from context that this is kash-something not beer-something. An example of the second is that the beer pictograph is also used to represent the word for "its", for no other reason that that this was decided to be so. Dictionaries are found from very early in the history of cuneiform listing these arbitrary designations.

The system (which signs mean what things) was clearly developed once - the only change in cuneiform writing over the 3,000 years that it is used is that the shapes of the signs become more cursive. The repertoire remains the same, and they represent the same syllable sounds or concepts throughout (even when writing a different language). Finkel believes that this was may even have been the work of a single individual who was both charismatic enough and important enough to enforce his (or her) ideas on the rest of the scribes. And once you have a functional system in place then bureaucratic inertia keeps it in place. The system that was developed isn't necessarily the best or easiest system! Each sign has more than one value, so the system is inherently ambiguous. Also there are often multiple ways of writing the same sound, chosen mostly by whim of the scribe. Context is very important for working out what was being written about. And I'm discovering it gets worse when it starts being used to write Akkadian as not all features of the language are represented in the writing system - long and short vowels for instance. Context is all that tells you if you're reading nārum (river) or narûm (stela).

development of the sign for head in cuneiform
Development of the sign for head
Made by wikipedia user Dbachmann

Prior to the standardisation the writing system had developed from plain pictographs in two ways. First the basic signs were modified to represent more words. For instance the sign for "head" could be turned into one representing "mouth" by adding a line for a mouth. And then you could add to that sign the one for "bowl", and you represent "ration". The next step (which continued long after standardisation of the sign repertoire) was to move from pictographs to more stylised & abstract signs. This began with a change in how the signs were drawn - at first a point was used to actually draw in the clay, but then they began to use wedges of reed to make impressions in the surface of the tablet (the shape this produces is what "cuneiform" as a word refers to). If you look at the diagram above you'll also notice that they rotated the signs 90° at some point (I thought it was later in the process than that diagram suggests, however).

Finkel finished this introductory talk by giving us a brief overview of what the British Museum has in its collection of cuneiform tablets. There are around 130,000 of them in the museum, 25,000 of which came from a library in Nineveh. This is analogous to the much later Library of Alexandria in a couple of ways - first because it was supposed to be complete, and second because it got burnt to the ground. However unlike papyrus scrolls clay tablets are actually preserved by burning, and so it was dug up in modern times nearly intact. Apparently there's going to be a new display relating to this in the British Museum soon.

Qasr el Sagha Temple
Qasr el Sagha Temple

Qasr el Sagha is about 8km north of Dimai and is the site of a small Egyptian temple. We visited there after we'd been to Dimai (post) and to the petrified forest (post). My photos from this site are up on flickr, click here for the full set.

The only part of the temple still standing is the innermost part - with the shrines and and their antechamber. It's undecorated, and never did have any decoration, which makes it hard to identify when it was built. By style it is either Old Kingdom or Middle Kingdom, but there is disagreement as to which it is. The structure uses Old Kingdom building techniques with large limestone blocks cut to fit securely together without mortar. However the layout of the temple most closely matches one with inscriptions naming Amenemhat I, a Middle Kingdom Pharaoh.

Qasr el Sagha TempleQasr el Sagha Temple
Inside the Temple (left) and the Temple Entrance (right)

Inside the remaining building are 7 shrines that would once have held statues of gods but the lack of decoration means we don't know who they were dedicated to. There is a room in front of them, and two side rooms. In the entrance way you can see a little hole in the door frame part way up one side - there's actually a passageway running inside the wall at this point letting a priest or gatekeeper hide here to keep an eye on who is coming and going. The entrance to that is on the outside (nowadays) but when the temple was less ruined there would've been an outer courtyard enclosing the front of the building. There is currently nothing standing of this courtyard, just several pieces of masonry scattered across the ground.

Dimai in the DistanceDesert Scenery
Desert Scenery (with Dimai in the distance in the lefthand one)

Today it's in the middle of nowhere - spectacular views of the desert across to Dimai, but no signs of human habitation (there are several more pictures of the desert in my flickr album). In the Middle Kingdom era Lake Qarun was much larger and so the temple was closer to cultivated land. Medhat also told us it was on a trade route running across the desert to Egypt, the Mediterranean and beyond.

Desert Scenery
Desert Scenery
Book of the Amduat
One of the Prince's Souvenirs

In early February J and I visited the From Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East exhibition at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. My photographs are on flickr as always. This exhibition was a collection of photographs and objects related to Queen Victoria's eldest son's trip to the Middle East. The future King Edward VII was sent on this tour as a part of his education in 1862 when he was 20 years old - this was part of the "next step" in his education once his formal schoolroom education was finished. It was planned by Victoria and Albert in 1861, and despite Albert's death only a few months before the departure date it went ahead as planned. The education remit of the trip extended past sightseeing and into diplomatic meetings - the Prince of Wales met the various local kings, leaders etc as he visited their countries.

Giza PyramidsThe Photographer's Darkroom
Giza Pyramids (left) and Bedford's Darkroom Tent at Edfu

The first room of the exhibition started with a bit of scene setting (as in my first paragraph) and some information about the photographer, Francis Bedford. He'd made a name for himself as an architectural photographer before this trip and one of the little side rooms in the exhibition had memorabilia relating to his earlier career. This trip was the first time that an official photographer had accompanied a royal tour, and Francis Bedford's photographs were hugely popular with the public after the Prince's return. One of the striking things about these photos is how casual the building and landscape shots look, with the people in them appearing as if they were just there by chance. And yet given the camera technology of the day these must've been posed photographs otherwise the people would've moved during the several second exposure time. Bedford clearly had an eye for placement of people in the shot.

The rest of the first room was about the Prince's travels around Egypt. He spent nearly a month in the country, travelling first up the Nile and then back down again. Along the way he visited many of the same historical sites that one visits today on a trip to Egypt - so it was cool to see photos of places we'd been to only a couple of months ago as they were 150 years ago. It's easy to forget how much has been uncovered since then and how much reconstruction has gone on. The Prince also got to do things that are expressly forbidden these days - like climb to the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza to watch the sunrise!! Like all travellers he brought back souvenirs, and some of these were also on display. Of course if you're royalty (and from the Victorian era) you get a different class of "tourist tat" ... one of the Egyptian objects they had was a painted funerary stela which the Prince had had mounted in a gold Egyptian-esque frame. Quite tacky, as was the selection of jewellery he had made for his future wife from antiquities such as heart scarabs mounted in gold. He also brought back a section of a papyrus Book of the Amduat, which is rather more tastefully mounted and also quite a fine example (I have a fondness for the stickman style of Egyptian art on this sort of object so it's the single thing I took most photos of in the exhibition).

Egyptian Stela in Victorian MountBook of the Amduat

One of the side rooms also had a selection of items he'd "collected" (i.e. bought) in Rhodes. I liked they way they'd displayed Francis Bedford's photo of the items above the items themselves and they also included some neat things. Although I didn't get a good photograph of it that room also had an ancient and strangely beautiful grenade in it - a green glass globe, intended to be filled with napalm.

Ancient GrenadeThe Prince's Souvenirs from Rhodes
Grenade (left) and Souvenirs (right)

After he left Egypt the Prince travelled through the Holy Land and what was then part of the Ottoman Empire to Constantinople, and this was the subject of the photos displayed in the second main room of the exhibition. Given the era the Prince and his entourage were particularly interested in visiting places where biblical events had taken place, like the street in Damascus where Paul's conversion to Christanity occurred or (more than one) place where the head of John the Baptist had been. They were also allowed to visit the Dome of the Rock, although Bedford didn't get to photograph much of that. However, the photo that really stood out for me was of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the ladder that can't be moved due to bickering between the various Christian groups using the church already standing in the place it can't be moved from over 150 years ago.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre"Temple of Jupiter" at Baalbeck
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (left) and "Temple of Jupiter" (right)

For the photos of the Prince's travels through Syria and Lebanon the exhibition was keen to draw parallels with modern times. In Syria section in particular there were reminders of the current destruction of Damascus juxtaposed with the destruction that the Prince saw when he was there (due to fighting between Christians and Muslims in Syria in the 1850s). And the audio commentary for both the Syrian and Lebanese photos made good use of an interview with John McCarthy - mostly about the area in general in his role as journalist & expert, but also including references to his captivity in Lebanon.

The Prince finished his journey in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire - which was Westward looking at the time, and keen to display its modernity and luxury to the royal visitor from England. Bedford's photos of the city included several of the city skyline showing the age and size of the city. The Prince and his travelling companions went home from there via Rhodes (as I mentioned above) and various Greek islands including Kefalonia (which was ruled by Britain at the time, I'm not sure I knew that before).

It was an interesting exhibition, although more so in the Egyptian room for me because these were photos of places I'd also been so the comparison between then and now was more obvious.