November 2018

In November a small group of us from the Essex Egyptology Group visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to be given a tour of the Early Egypt Gallery focusing on the Hierakonpolis Ivories by the curator Liam McNamara. When we got there we were a bit disconcerted to see that that gallery was actually closed for essential maintenance! The Ashmolean is installing a temporary entrance into the gallery so that the revolving door at the main entrance to the museum can be replaced. This actually worked out pretty well for us, as we had that gallery all to ourselves for our tour apart from a few workmen.

EEG Group with Liam McNamara explaining the Hierakonpolis Main Deposit

A small gallery of my photos from our tour is on flickr, click here to see them.

McNamara began by introducing the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. This was discovered in the late 19th Century by the archaeologists James Quibell and Frederick Green at the site of ancient Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis). The deposit consisted of a large number of objects from a range of dates which had been deliberately buried. At the time of the excavation the procedure was that any items found would be split between the funders of the excavation (the Ashmolean in this case) and the Egyptians. So the Ashmolean has a large number of the items that were found. The central case in the gallery, that we are standing round in the above photo, has been laid out by McNamara to give a flavour of the the variety of things that were found. They range from knives & maces of various sizes (including "huge") to small figurines or people and animals. The objects were found organised by type - for instance all the maceheads together, looking something like a heap of potatoes to the original excavators!

The Two-Dog Palette

Having set the scene McNamara moved on to tell us a bit about each of the key items in the Ashmolean's collection. The first of these was the Two Dog Palette (above) which is a similar item to the more famous Narmer Palette which was also discovered near the Main Deposit at Hierkonpolis. It's a large and elaborately decorated version of a more prosaic item used to grind pigment to be used as eye makeup. This palette, however, was purely ceremonial as there's no signs of any use of the pigment grinding area (the circle about 2/3 of the way up the palette in the photograph). McNamara thinks it functioned on two levels - it's large enough to see from a distance, and to see that it's a well-made piece. But if you're privileged to be up close you can see the detail and the real splendour of the item. He then talked a bit about the decoration which is a mix of normal and mythical animals (including the serpopards that are prominent on this side of the piece) and has a theme of bringing order to chaos. We were all reminded of the talk that Paul Collins gave in September where this item also featured (my write up of that talk).

Scorpion Macehead

The next pair of items were the Scorpion and Narmer maceheads. The big one (above) is referred to as the Scorpion macehead because it depicts a king identified with that symbol on it. It's easy to forget how little of the actual item we have, and McNamara is convinced that small pieces of it remain on site at Hierakonpolis in the spoil heaps of the original excavators. The imagery carved on to it is that of kingship. Scorpion is wearing the white crown, and performing an irrigation ritual. The top register consists of rekhyt birds hanging from standards. In some contexts the rekhyt bird is clearly referring to the enemies of the King, in some contexts the subjects of the King - whichever is the case here they are clearly subjugated by the King. I was curious how many of them McNamara thought there were on the original item, and did they match the number of later Nomes (administrative districts) of Egypt but that's not something that's been investigated to his knowledge.

Narmer Macehead

The smaller macehead is the Narmer macehead, who is the king credited with unifying all of Egypt into one country. It's more complete, but the decoration is much harder to see (above). McNamara said that this (and the Scorpion macehead) also work on the same two levels as the Two Dog Palette. From a distance they are visible & recognisable, and the decoration is seen by the privileged few who can come close to it. He thinks these were unusable - they are many times larger (and heavier) than the small practical maceheads that were also found in the Main Deposit (which showed signs of use). They were perhaps mounted on a pole covered with some of the hollow cylinders found in the Hierakonpolis Ivories. He thinks they would be a symbol of state authority in much the same way as the mace that's used to open Parliament in our own country.

Liam McNamara telling us about the statue of Khasekhemwy

The last of the large pieces that McNamara showed us was a statue of Khasekhemwy (above) the last king of the 2nd Dynasty, which is a very fine piece of work showing him seated & wearing the white crown. The hieroglyphic inscription on the front of the pedestal lists a precise number of thousands of captured and/or slain "rebels of the north". There's another near identical statue of Khasekhemwy which is now in the Cairo Museum, and the only difference between the two is in this precise number of rebels. So clearly it's a fictitious number and really signifies "lots". Around the edges of the base are enemies carved into it, the carving on this is oddly crude compared to the sculpture. They are shown contorted and in pain, and the point is clearly that the king is sitting on the bodies of his enemies (much as in later art the king is often shown with his feet on the bows representing his enemies).

Hierakonpolis Ivories

And now we moved on to the Hierakonpolis Ivories (a selection of which are on display, in the case photographed above). This large collection of ivory objects were found in a wet trench, so damp that the original excavators' notes said it was flaking "like tinned fish"! Under such conditions much was clearly lost before excavation, and during the first attempts to get the objects out of this trench. In the end the excavators solved the problem by pouring molten wax into the trench and when it set they could lift the whole contents of the trench out in several large blocks. These were shipped to the museums (which were getting the results of the excavations) and then the ivory objects could be removed from the wax without the time pressures of an on site excavation. McNamara told us that it's only in the last 20 or 30 years that they've finished unpicking and conserving the pieces - having received them from the excavation over 100 years ago.

The pieces are made of both elephant and hippopotamus ivory, although it's difficult to tell which object is of which material. The size can help with this - some items are clearly too big to be from a hippo tusk and thus must be made of elephant ivory. There are a variety of types of object. Many are figurines of people in a wide range of sorts and sizes. There are children of various sizes, shown with their fingers in their mouths. There are women with bouffant braided hair, including one particularly fine specimen wrapped in cloak. There are men, mostly naked wearing penis sheaths but some have robes (including one with a fine spotted one). There are also some dwarves. McNamara said he's picked out the best preserved pieces for the display case but there are many more fragments. Some of those are also in the case including several heads, arms and legs. There are also many non-human pieces. These include staffs, items that look like wands from later Egyptian culture, animal figurines, model boats and hollow cylinders. These last are possibly the remains of the casing for the handle of a large macehead as mentioned above.

Hierakonpolis Ivories: Male Figurines

When Quibell and Green finished their excavation they actually wrote it up and published it very quickly, and one of the themes of McNamara's talk was that this had happened too quickly. Their conclusions had been drawn without enough time for consideration of all the possibilities and nuances, but once something is in the literature it tends to get repeated in future publications until it becomes a "fact" rather than a hypothesis. So McNamara returned a few times to the idea that aspects of the Main Deposit needed re-examination.

One of these aspects is the dating of the Hierakonpolis Ivories - the original publication and subsequent discussion assumes that they are all Early Dynastic but McNamara is not so sure. Given they are ivory, which is organic, one might assume (certainly I did) that they would be datable using techniques like carbon dating but sadly not. The poor condition that the ivories were found in appears to rule that out. Dating was initially tried in the 1980s with no success, and McNamara tried again more recently (as technology has moved on) but still without success. So what you are left with is dating by artistic style, and McNamara said that some of the pieces look much more like Middle Kingdom work than Early Dynastic work. Hannah Pethen was in agreement - she's recently been looking at wooden Middle Kingdom pieces and she and McNamara discussed one of the arm fragments in the case in particular which is extremely similar to Middle Kingdom examples in how the hand is positioned and how the musculature is depicted.

This doesn't mean that the whole collection of ivory artifacts dates from the Middle Kingdom, it could be that it's a wide range of ages of object that were all buried together. The Main Deposit as a whole already covers a wide range of dates - from the Two Dog Palette to the statue of Khasekhemwy is a few hundred years after all, so it's possible that there are also some Middle Kingdom objects in this mixture. It's also possible that Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom period dug up some of this earlier stuff and copied it in their own artwork. There is other evidence of the material culture of the Middle Kingdom deliberately harking back to earlier times.

What would help is to know when and how the ivories were buried. McNamara has gone through the excavation notebooks and records (with intent to publish it soon) and gleaned as much as he can from them but it's still not clear. The ivories were deliberately buried in an organised fashion, they were found lined up as if they had been buried standing up in rows and then subsequently fallen over. Suggestively they were buried near Middle Kingdom contexts in the site. Of course this can be interpreted multiple ways - they could've been initially buried late enough to include some Middle Kingdom pieces, or they could've been discovered and then re-interred in the Middle Kingdom.

This was a really interesting tour of the gallery and a great chance to get a good look at these objects. The combination of us being such a small group and having the gallery to ourselves meant that it was more of a conversation with Liam McNamara than a pre-canned talk. It was good of him to take the time out of his day to show us round.

At the beginning of November Margaret Mountford came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) (of which she is Chair of the Board of Trustees) and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (on which she did her PhD).

She began by talking about the history of the EES, which she framed as a very early exercise in crowd-funding! In 1873 Amelia Edwards visited Egypt for a cruise down the Nile, and when she came back wrote a best selling book about her trip. She was appalled at the state of the Egyptian antiquities at the time, and at how they were deteriorating rapidly due to both neglect and vandalism. Mountford told us that Amelia Edwards was one of those rather formidable Victorian spinsters who when they saw something that needed done went out and did it. And so rather than just write letters about how terrible it was, she founded the Egypt Exploration Fund (which later became the EES) in 1882. She badgered a lot of prominent people into subscribing to the Fund, including several bishops (who were interested in investigating the truth of the Biblical accounts of Egypt). This meant that they were quickly able to send archaeologists into Egypt to work on the antiquities.

Margaret Mountford giving her talk (photo by John Patterson)

Mountford talked us through a list of the prominent sites that the EES has excavated, showing us where they were on the map. The first excavations were in the Delta, but were soon extended to cover the whole of Egypt and across the modern border into Sudan. I didn't attempt to make an exhaustive list of the sites she named - there are a lot of them - of course one place she pointed out was Oxyrhynchus where the papyri she worked on were discovered. The first excavator that the EES sent out was Édouard Naville - the original suggestion was Schliemann (who dug up Troy) but thankfully his methods weren't considered suitable. Naville thought he'd found the ancient site of Pithom in his excavations at Tell El Maskhuta - Pithom was interesting to the EES's early subscribers as it is said in the Bible to've been built by Israelite slaves. Mountford said that even though Naville wasn't right the pamphlet he wrote about this identification is still the best selling publication from the EES!

The next archaeologist that the EES sent to Egypt was Flinders Petrie who is one of the best known 19th Century Egyptologists & is now regarded as the father of Egyptian archaeology. Mountford gave us an overview of his achievements, including mention of his development of a chronological pottery series to help to date archaeological sites. One detail she mentioned was that he paid his workers the market rate for finds they brought to him, to stop them from being sold off on the black market. And of course mentioned that early in his career Howard Carter worked for Petrie.

The next section of Mountford's talk focused on giving us context for why the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri was so exciting. Papyrus documents are not often preserved, the material doesn't last long under most conditions. One place they survive quite well is the Middle East and particularly Egypt where the very dry climate of the desert regions helps to preserve them. Herculaneum is one of the other places, which was a bit of a surprise to me as I'd've expected the heat of the volcanic eruption that destroyed the town to also destroy any papyri there. Mountford said that the pieces in the library that's been found looked a lot like lumps of charcoal - so quite a bit ended up on workmen's fires before anyone realised what these lumps were! In the part of the library that's been excavated are works of just one philosopher, but archaeologists think that other unexcavated parts of the library probably contain works by other authors. Sadly there is damp spreading into the site which is damaging it, and no decision has been made as to whether to excavate more or preserve the already excavated portions.

Written texts survive from the ancient world in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons, and Mountford gave us some examples of the materials and types of texts that are found. Some texts are written on stone, and intended to survive into the future - the example she showed us was of a Roman tomb marker. These are generally top quality work as the original intent is for permanence. Texts of this sort include memorials, laws and edicts. Other texts were never intended to be more than ephemeral. Some were written on ostraca, which are pieces of broken pottery (often cooking pots) used a bit like we'd use post-it notes. The space on each piece is limited and the material is fragile so they're mostly used for short notes. An example she showed us was of a receipt for work done on a dyke.

Mountford also talked about some groups of surviving texts from the Roman period in Britain. The best known of these are the Vindolanda tablets, preserved this time by the damp ground in northern England. The texts were written on wood, and included things like letters. One of the more famous examples is an invitation to a party. For some time the Vindolanda tablets were the oldest known texts found in the British Isles, until excavations at the site of the Bloomberg Building in London turned up some earlier wooden tablets. These were originally wax covered, so the text that is preserved are the bits where the person writing had pressed too hard and scratched the underlying wood. Another Roman example from Britain are the Bath curse tablets. These were etched onto lead, which was used for curses as it was a useless & horrible material. The curses are for small scale personal things - like against someone who'd stolen their clothes in the baths - and would've been paid for by ordinary people to be etched by someone literate and then buried. An example that Mountford gave us was of a curse on a chariot racer which was buried at the race track where it would've been run over by the chariot at the start of the race.

As well as ostraca another material used in Egypt to write everything from notes to bureaucratic documents to literary texts was papyrus. The Nile is now too dirty for papyrus to thrive but in ancient times it was a common plant along the banks of the river particularly in the Delta. The triangular stem is sliced into thin strips which are then laid out first horizontally next to each other, and then vertically across the first layer. The sheet is hit with a hammer to flatten the strips and bond them together and this is then left to dry. The resulting piece of papyrus has two distinct sides, and it's easier to write on the side with the horizontal strips. When the sheets are joined together to make a roll the seam will have a bump, so this was oriented so that one wrote "downhill" over it.

Mountford now returned to the Oxyrhynchus papyri that are in the EES collection and that she worked on for her PhD. These were discovered in the Graeco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus by Grenfell and Hunt who were a pair of archaeologists working for the EES. In 1895 the EES expanded the types of sites they were excavating to include non-biblical sites such as Oxyrhynchus. The mudbricks at Graeco-Roman sites like this were disappearing to be used as fertiliser and so it was recognised that even if they weren't of as much interest to the Fund's subscribers as the biblical sites were they were still in dire need of attention.

In the Roman period Oxyrhynchus was a thriving town with around 30,000 residents including a broad mix of people. The city was inhabited through to Byzantine times, but isn't any longer and there were no physical remains on the site except for the rubbish dump. They used papyrus as scrap paper and a most of it ended up in the town dump when it was finished with. Grenfell and Hunt found so many of these pieces of papyrus that in 1897 an offshoot of the EES was set up to excavate and publish the papyri. The first publication was within 11 months of the first excavation and the society is now up to 83 volumes which still only represents a small fraction of the papyri. The bulk of the papyri were found about 3m down where conditions are best for preservation (both above & below are too damp). They mostly date to after the Ptolemaic Period and most of them are written in Greek. The quality of the writing varies greatly.

Before we broke for coffee & cake Mountford did a practical exercise to demonstrate the difficulties of papyrology with us! She handed out pieces of paper to everyone, then half the room wrote a thank you letter and the other half of the room wrote an invitation. We then all swapped papers with someone, and wrote a shopping list on the back of our piece of paper. And then we ripped up the paper, kept one piece for ourselves and piled the rest in a messy heap on the slide projector table. During our coffee break we could then try & piece the fragments back together. Once we reconvened Mountford talked about how piecing together this sort of jigsaw puzzle is the essence of papyrology. She then led us through a discussion of what we'd used to piece together the pieces - the handwriting, the paper type, the way the tear marks looked. She also talked about other information you could glean if this was a real part of the rubbish dump. For instance all the pieces were together so they must've been thrown out at the same time. And that means that any dated pieces give a guide to the dates of nearby pieces. You can also make educated guesses as to which side was written first - people don't generally write invitations on the backs of old shopping lists, so the date on the invite is probably before the shopping list was written.

Mountford spent most of the rest of the talk showing us interesting examples of documents from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The first one she showed us was a literary piece - it had nice, clear writing and was well laid out with generous margins and straight lines. This was obviously (even to non-Greek speakers like me) a piece that had been written for others to read. It can only really be dated by the handwriting style, which isn't particularly accurate as it just narrows it to the lifetime of a scribe who may've worked for decades. Context is very important with these sorts of pieces.

The next few pieces were legal documents. One was a deed of guarantee for tenant farmers - the brother of the tenants is guaranteeing they'll stay on the land. It rather usefully for the papyrologist begins with a precise date in terms of the Emperor's year, the Consul's year, the month and the day - this can then be calibrated to a date in our own calendrical system. Interestingly the very last bit is in a different hand to the rest of the document - perhaps written by the guarantor himself while the bulk was written by a scribe.

She also showed us a model form for a deposit agreement - the clerk or lawyer would just have to copy it out with the right names in it, and presumably then charge a fortune for it! Another interesting legal document was a 2nd Century CE lease of a mill. It's quite short by modern standards, but even though there are clearly large parts missing there's enough that it's clear that they have both the beginning and end of the document. There are conditions applied to the lease - the tenant can't keep hens or run a bakery. Normally that's would be something a tenant would expect to be able to do, so perhaps the landlord had a nearby bakery and didn't want competition? We also get an insight into social customs of the time that feel very odd to our modern eyes - the landlord is a woman so the lease is signed by her legal guardian: her brother-husband. Clearly marrying your own brother wasn't as eyebrow-raising then as it would be today!

Another piece has the same line from the Aeneid written out three times - looking a bit like a schoolboy who's been given lines, but Mountford said was more plausibly a scribe practising his writing before he had to write the "real" document. As with the Vindolanda tablets there were letters & invitations to parties - the letter she showed us used a whole set of abbreviations for standard greetings etc. which she compared to modern textspeak!

The next several pieces were examples of orders of proceedings for chariot races. In the earlier examples (c. 5th/6th Century CE) they were mostly chariot races with intermission entertainments. As time went on the chariot races declined and by the end the bill was for the entertainments with no races - the origins of circuses as we know them.

After a few more examples (including an illustrated one) the last piece she showed us was a contract to fix a boys wrestling contest - contracted between the parents or trainers as the boys wouldn't be old enough. The deal was for one boy to fall three times so that the other boy would win the contest. There was even an agreement in place for what would happen if the boy did his part but the judge didn't rule the other boy the winner. Interestingly the agreed price was 3000 drachma to the boy who would lose, which was much much much lower than the money the winner would get. And the penalty for reneging on the deal was much higher than a contract of that value would normally attract - a hint that there was cheating going on between the cheaters & the loser wasn't getting paid fairly for his cheating?

Mountford finished up her talk by returning to the EES, this time bringing us up to the modern day. She talked about where the current excavations are taking place, and about the EES's role in training a new generation of Egyptian archaeologists. And the problems of Amelia Edwards's day are still problems - sites are disappearing through damage from the elements and from the demands an expanding population puts on the land. The EES is still working to combat this, and she encouraged all of us who aren't members to join up.