December 2019

At the beginning of December Ian Taylor, one of the members of the Essex Egyptology Group, talked to us about the subject of his PhD: Seth. He began by talking about the modern image of Seth*, before turning to the evidence for how the Ancient Egyptians thought about this god. The common modern perception of Seth is as the dangerous enfant terrible of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon who brought death to the gods by murdering Osiris & came into conflict with Horus by usurping the throne. This comes to us by way of Plutarch, whose "Isis and Osiris" was the only version of the myth known before the translation of hieroglyphs.

*As an aside Taylor mentioned here that while the name of Seth is different in different places and at different times he was going to stick to using "Seth" throughout his presentation.

In Plutarch's text Seth along with his 72 minions murders Osiris by tricking him into a box. The box is then thrown into the river where it floats out into the sea and eventually comes to rest at Byblos. It gets caught in a piece of timber which is subsequently used as building material by the king of Byblos. Isis manages to track down the box & body of Osiris which she brings back to Egypt. She tries to hide it from Seth but isn't successful and he rips it into pieces which he scatters throughout Egypt. Isis gathers up all the parts save one and reconstructs Osiris - replacing the missing penis either with one she makes herself or with one that another god makes for her. She then conceives a son (Horus) by Osiris, posthumously, who grows up to take the throne and avenge his father's death.

Having told us the Plutarch version of this myth Taylor pointed out all the of the ways that it's an example of Greek thought rather than Ancient Egyptian thought - unsurprisingly as it was written in the 2nd Century CE long after Pharaonic Egypt had ended. Most notably in the text the names of the gods have been replaced with their Greek "equivalents". So Seth is called Typhon, who is a monstrous creature. Thoth is referred to as Hermes, and Amun as Zeus. Several Greek tropes are present in the text - for example the use of trickery in the murder, Isis cutting her hair in mourning and Thoth using Seth's sinews to make a lyre. There are also some wholly non-Egyptian parts - like the addition of satyrs, and the whole episode in Byblos which appears to be there to pad out the story. The text presents the gods as demi-gods, and at the end all of them except Seth become true gods. Seth remains a demi-god and a demon.

Plutarch's presentation of Seth has had a great influence on modern perceptions of Seth. Taylor talked us through a whole list of modern media representations of Seth, most of which are of questionable quality (although the cartoon strips and architecture examples were pretty good). Novels included some written by Dennis Wheatley, Robert E. Howard, Roger Zelazny and Andy McDermott. There are a couple of childrens cartoons featuring Seth - Mummies Alive and Tutenstein. The cartoon strips are online so I'll link to a Seth related strip from each - By the Gods and Stick Gods. In film & TV Seth has shown up in a Doctor Who episode (The Pyramids of Mars), The Curse of King Tut's Tomb, Sands of Oblivion, The Gods of Egypt and various versions of The Mummy films. Taylor's last example was a modern relief of Ancient Egyptian gods carved on a Homebase store on Warwick Road, London - now sadly demolished. Most of the gods in this relief were carrying ankhs as you might expect, but Seth had a powerdrill! While writing this article I found a blog post with pictures of it from just before it was demolished, which are worth a look.

So the modern idea of Seth owes almost everything to Plutarch, but fortunately the decipherment of hieroglyphs has lead to a broader and more complete picture of what the Ancient Egyptians thought about Seth. For the bulk of his talk Taylor talked us through the representation of Seth in Ancient Egypt in (mostly) chronological order looking first at the funerary context, at the geographical range, at temples and finally at more personal contexts. Seth is one of the most ancient of the Egyptian gods - the oldest two are Neith and Min, and then the next two are Horus and Seth. Taylor showed us a proto-Seth animal totem that dates to the Naqada II period (c. 3500-3200 BCE). This was found in Grave 721 at Naqada, and was originally identified as a hippo model but viewed from side on it's more clearly a Seth animal. There are also depictions of the Seth animal on the Scorpion Macehead (dating to just before the unification of Egypt). There are two Seth animals which look like they are totems - he speculates that they represent the eastern & western deserts.

Moving forward in time there is also evidence of Seth from the 2nd Dynasty period - during this time he associated with Nubt in Upper Egypt. One of the kings of this dynasty called Peribsen wrote his name in a serekh topped with the Seth animal (rather than the more usual Horus). And then one of his successors (Khasekhemwy) had both Horus and Seth on top of his serekh - and one of his names means "The Two Lords are at Peace". This might indicate some sort of conflict, and be the historical kernel round which the later myth is written.

The first written evidence of Seth comes in the Pyramid Texts. These are a collection of texts written inside the pyramids of several Pharaohs and Queens in the late Old Kingdom period. No two pyramids have the same set of texts, and they show evidence of evolution over the 200 years that they were used from the time of Unas (last king of the 5th Dynasty) onward. There are several categories of texts, and also 3 mythical strands: political union of Egypt, sun and star cults, and the myth of Osiris. Seth is involved in all three of these, and his representation in the texts is not internally consistent. Sometimes he is a positive force and sometimes a negative one (with variation in the balance between the two representations in different pyramids).

The Osiris myth is key part of the Pyramid Texts yet at that point Osiris is a recent god. The first written representation of Osiris is in the funeral text of Niuserre (the sixth king of the 5th Dynasty) and the first image is in the temple of Djedkare (8th king of the 5th Dynasty and the predecessor of Unas). In the Pyramid Texts Osiris is associated with the deceased king, and the texts dealing with him show a shift in the relationship between Horus and Seth. In Predynastic times Seth and Horus are equals who work together. In the Osirian Pyramid Texts Seth and Horus are in conflict. Seth is bad, but he is the necessary villain - he starts the cycle of uninterrupted hereditary kingship: the king is dead, long live the king! Horus, however, is good - he is the rightful heir, and the principle of hereditary kingship. The murder of Osiris is pivotal to the myth, but it's not directly stated in the Pyramid Texts, only inferred. How it is referred to evolves over time: in Unas's pyramid there is no direct reference, in Teti's pyramid Osiris drowns and in Pepi I's pyramid Seth attacks Osiris. The punishment of Seth also evolves over the same time period, with the number and severity of punishments growing as the cult of Osiris grows. The writing of Seth's name also evolves across the period. In the later two pyramids Seth's name is always written phonetically without a determinative, but in Unas's pyramid the Seth animal is sometimes seen in the texts. There are 35 Seth animals across the texts, and no two are the same - which is an oddity that Taylor was to come back to later in his talk. They are sometimes used as a determinative for the name of Seth and sometimes as a determinative for the word for storm.

The other, older relationship between Seth and Horus is also represented in other parts of the Pyramid Texts. In these utterances the two gods are shown as brothers and equals. Another (older) written representation of this sort is found in the tomb of Merysankh III (who lived in the 4th Dynasty) - one of her epithets is "she who perceives Horus and Seth". Essentially the two gods are the two faces of kingship, with Seth representing the warlike part.

Photo by John Patterson, of a (heavily restored) statue of Seth & Horus (not shown) crowning Ramesses III now in the Cairo Museum
Photo by John Patterson, of a (heavily restored) statue of Seth & Horus (not shown) crowning Ramesses III now in the Cairo Museum

The Coffin Texts evolved from the Pyramid Texts, and were written on Middle Kingdom coffins. As with the Pyramid Texts not all sets of Coffin Texts contain every text. About 179 mention Seth, but he doesn't show up in every set of Coffin Texts. There isn't any geographical component to this variation - Seth shows up throughout most of the Nile Valley. His name is written both phonetically and as the Seth animal. Taylor showed us two examples of a writing of Seth's name where the Seth animal had been "killed" with a knife or mutilated - he speculated that this might be the personal preference of the scribe. Perhaps the commissioner of the coffin wanted those texts but the scribe didn't like Seth.

The perception of Seth has changed between the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts and this is shown a change of epithets and of roles. Seth gains the epithets of "the Outcast" and "the Ombite". He has several new roles: defender of Ra, god of the desert, god of foreign lands and god of the northern sky.

Just before our break for coffee & cake Taylor turned his attention briefly to the sites associated with Seth over time. A lot of these are on the entry to the desert, as is appropriate for the god of the desert. In the Ptolemaic Period there are four major cult sites of Seth. These are listed in Edfu and Dendera temples, despite the otherwise growing antipathy to Seth at this time. Three of these sites are in the Nile Valley (N-shene-n-setekh, Unu and Spermeru) and the fourth is "the Oases" which may mean Dakhla Oasis.

After the break Taylor moved on to tell us about temple depictions of Seth. In Old Kingdom temples, unlike Old Kingdom tombs, Seth is readily depicted. He's usually shown as a man with the head of the Seth animal (which Taylor referred to as the bimorphic form of Seth), carrying a was sceptre. Taylor showed us several examples spanning the range from a 3rd Dynasty temple of Djoser to a temple of Pepi II at the end of the 6th Dynasty.

Taylor began his examples of Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period temple depictions of Seth by telling us that they were more interesting than the Old Kingdom ones. He showed us several examples, most of which were door lintels, and there were a couple of common motifs. The first of these was a paired scene with two images of the king back to back. In front of one king was Seth as an animal on a standard, and in front of the other king was Horus as a hawk. They offer the king life and dominion. The other motif (on a door lintel but also on several statues of Senwosret I at Lisht) was Seth and Horus performing the sema-tawy - this is a symbol of the unification of the two lands where two gods tie together the plants of Upper & Lower Egypt. The gods are in their bimorphic forms, and Seth is tying the sedge of Upper Egypt. In summary in this period temple depictions of Seth and Horus are not in conflict (a la Plutarch) but are working in concert as equals.

The first example from the New Kingdom is very like those of the Middle Kingdom - a lintel of Amenhotep I at Thebes with the same animal on a standard motif as those earlier door lintels - and this motif also returns on a door lintel of Merenptah (19th Dynasty successor to Ramesses II) at Memphis. Seth continues to act in concert with Horus in this motif, and in other reliefs showing the two gods purifying or crowning the Pharaoh. Another motif that is present in the New Kingdom iis Seth as one of the eight gods of the Ennead alongside Nephthys, either as humans or mummiform figures. And Taylor also showed us examples of a Pharaoh offering to Seth (or Seth & Nephthys). There is also a unique relief that shows Seth teaching Thutmose III archery, at Karnak temple.

In the 20th Dynasty these sorts of motifs continue to be found. At Medinet Habu there are scenes where Seth is purifying the Pharaoh with Horus and where he is being offered wine or incense. There is also a scene of Seth killing Apep - the earliest known representation of this motif. Moving into the Third Intermediate Period & Late Period there are still representations of Seth in these types of motifs - for instance at Karnak Seth and Horus are shown crowning Herihor. But at the Dahkla Oasis there appears to be a shift some time in the 25th Dynasty. There is a relief there that shows signs of having been re-carved during that period to remove the Seth animal. Taylor stressed that the proscription appears to be against the Seth animal, not Seth himself - the god is still in the relief, it's just the animal that is removed. It's not clear what the reason for this removal is.

In the Graeco-Roman period the representations of Seth change. At Dendera in a relief on the roof Seth is shown being killed. At Philae there is a depiction of a bound Seth held by Thoth and Horus, and being killed. But the attitude to Seth is not straightforwardly a wish to kill him - it's more ambiguous and he is still seen as necessary. For instance at Edfu there are depictions of Seth killing Apep, and at the Dahkla Oasis in the Roman Period there is an example of the motif of a mummiform Seth and Nephthys. The Oases in particular still revered Seth (not surprising as he was god of the desert in which these people lived), and there is a relief at Kharga Oasis which shows some interesting signs of re-carving. It is in a temple built during the reign of Darius, and the decoration is altered in the Ptolemaic Period. As it stands now it is a depiction of a large winged Seth killing Apep. Taylor ran through the evidence that shows this scene was extensively re-carved, and said that he thinks it originally depicted the god Amun-Nakht who was often used as a replacement for Seth in this type of scene. But as Seth was still revered in the Oases they did not approve of this replacement (mandated by the central authority) and so re-carved it to be a much bigger and more impressive Seth.

Taylor now turned to evidence of more personal forms of adoration of Seth. The first of these is personal names that reference Seth - like Seti which means "man of Seth". The numbers of these sorts of names varies over Egyptian history - in the Middle Kingdom there were only 8 recorded, in the New Kingdom we know of 65. This was the peak (although the Middle Kingdom number may be low because there are fewer names we know in total from the period). After this as Seth became less favoured the number of names drops with 4 known from the Third Intermediate Period and only 1 from the Late Period (a person who lived in one of the Oases).

Seth is also depicted on more small scale and domestic objects than those we'd seen so far in the talk. Taylor showed us examples of Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom jewellery (including a pectoral of Senwosret II or Senwosret III with a paired Seth & Horus on it). Amulets of Seth have been found dating to the New Kingdom and Late Period also domestic statuettes and stelae. The last example of this type of item was a bit less domestic but still personal - there is a piece of clothing called a king's jacket which looks like the torso of the king is wrapped in protective wings. Usually these are shown with hawk heads (for Horus) at the front near the armpits of the king. But Taylor showed us two examples of Thutmose III and Ramesses II wearing a king's jacket with Seth animal heads.

As well as personal adoration Taylor showed us examples of personal desecration - acts of disrespect towards Seth. For instance normally a scribe would recharge his pen before writing a god's name to avoid any possibility of the ink running out during the name. But Taylor showed us some examples of where a scribe hadn't bothered when writing Seth's name, and in fact deliberately lets the ink fade out to almost nothing during the name. Other such acts were to "kill" the Seth animal when writing it with a knife drawn cutting it or a mark across it, or "killing" the phonetic writing of Seth's name by adding a knife between the hieroglyphs.

The Seth animal itself is quite curious. Throughout the rest of the talk Taylor had been pointing out how even within a text or relief no two Seth animals were thee same. In general Egyptian art of the flora & fauna of their world is quite specific - it's not just "a hawk" it's a specific species, not just "a vulture" but a particular type, etc. But while there are some commonalities between different representations of the Seth animal there's a lot of variation, and none of them look like a real animal (or even a composite).

Taylor demonstrated these with a diagram of the animal before showing us some more examples from reliefs. The body is canine in form but may be lean, medium or stocky (or even fat!). The neck shows variations in angle and length, and he may or may not be wearing a collar. The muzzle shows a lot of variation in the angle, the brow ridge over the eyes and the nose. Taylor said he'd worked out that there are around 120 possible variations of the whole face. The ears are erect with square cut tops, but they vary widely in length, angle and width - and they may be plain or decorated. The tail is erect, but the angle & length vary, it may be curved or straight and there is a lot of variation in how it joins to the body. The tail end also shows a lot of variation, including a variant that makes it look like an arrow stuck into Seth's bottom! So there's a loose set of rules for what a Seth animal looks like, but these are open to interpretation. Taylor's conclusion is that it is a construct, not a real animal. In the Q&A session afterwards he speculated about the head looking like a bit like a cow skull (such as one might see bleached white in the desert) "reconstructed" with skin but not the musculature of the real animal, and Hannah Pethen pointed out the similarity with how we reconstruct dinosaurs in the modern day.

In the Ptolemaic Period the earlier Seth animal is gone, and instead the animal representation of Seth is a canine creature with an ass's head or just an ass. In either form it may be shown stabbed in order to "kill" it.

Taylor wrapped up his talk with some general conclusions about the position of Seth in Ancient Egyptian thought. Contrary to Plutarch's depiction for most of Pharaonic Egypt he is an accepted part of the pantheon, often acting in concert with Horus as an equal. He can't be "bad" because if so he wouldn't be depicted in motifs such as the sema-tawy. Even in Ptolemaic times he's necessary - to kill Apep but also to murder Osiris as without that murder the myth doesn't work.

And as a postscript Taylor pointed out one other legacy of Seth that came to modern culture without Plutarch's intervention. The imagery of Seth killing Apep morphs during Roman times into a winged (human) Seth killing a worm (Apep), and this is co-opted by the Christian church as imagery for St George (who is, after all, a Middle Eastern saint). So in a sense Seth is St. George: "Cry God for Harry, England and St. Seth!".

This talk was a really interesting look at the god behind the myth and at how some of the things we think we "know" about Ancient Egyptian theology are filtered through a later culture's ideas about how religion should work.

As well as writing up the talks given to the Essex Egyptology Group I also write my own original articles about Ancient Egyptian topics at Tales from the Two Lands.

At the beginning of November Stephanie Boonstra came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about her work on scarab amulets, which were the subject of both her MA and PhD research.

She began by giving us an overview of the importance of these amulets, and the way that they were made. Scarab amulets were the most popular Egyptian amulet from 2000 BCE all the way through to 500 BCE, and they were made of a variety of materials. A typical scarab amulet is clearly modelled on the anatomy of the beetle, although there are also more schematic ones that are more basic. They have a variety of uses: as a seal for administrative purposes, as a funerary item or as an object to commemorate an occasion. An example of this last type are Amenhotep III's lion hunt series of scarabs. The most obvious example of a funerary use is the heart scarabs which have a spell on the base to make the heart lighter than the feather of Ma'at for the Weighing of the Heart judgement after death. However smaller scarab amulets are actually more common in burials than the heart scarabs. Scarab amulets and seals are very portable and are found throughout the Aegean and the Near East as well as Egypt - some exported from Egypt and some made in other countries. Boonstra showed us some examples of scarabs that were made outside Egypt, and said that she would come back to this topic in her first example of a scarab workshop.

So why did the ancient Egyptians make amulets shaped like scarab beetles? This was part of their general tendency to associate deities with the environment (she gave us the example of Sobek & the crocodile). The god associated with the scarab is Khepri, god of the rising sun with aspects of creation and rebirth. It was observation of the scarab beetle life cycle that led the Egyptians to make this association. A male scarab beetle gathers up animal dung as food for its mate and rolls it into a round ball which it pushes around - which the Egyptians saw as being like the sun, so they conceptualised the rising sun as a ball pushed up by a scarab beetle. The female scarab beetle makes an oval ball where she lays her eggs, and then buries this. The Egyptians didn't observe this part of the behaviour, so when the newly adult scarabs emerged above ground they thought they were spontaneously generating from the ground itself. So an appropriate animal to associate with birth and creation - both of the sun and more generally.

These amulets and seals can be very detailed representations of the beetles, and one might think they are figurines except that they always have an inscription on the base. Boonstra showed us an example with the anatomy labelled with the real anatomical terms for each part of the beetle. She said that a given scarab amulet would've been anatomically correct for a particular species. During different periods of scarab production different features were depicted or emphasised. A particularly noteworthy example is a feature called the humeral callosity. This is a real beetle anatomical feature (effectively the scarab's shoulders), and they are represented on amulets as two little triangles on the thorax just adjacent to the line separating the head from the body. They are only shown on scarabs from the 18th Dynasty or later, so this can be used to help date amulets. More generally style can be used to date the many scarabs that are found outside securely dated contexts. One of Boonstra's slides had a table of various design features that have been used to create a typology, and from that a timeline using securely dated scarabs. Before this system royal names had been used to date them - with the assumption that if a king was named then it was the current king. Sadly this seemingly easy dating method isn't terribly accurate - some king's names appear on scarabs known to've been made significantly after the reign of the king. Senwosret I and Thutmose III are examples of kings whose names show up hundreds of years after their reigns.

Scarabs are made of a variety of materials, and in the next part of Boonstra's talk she went through the various materials and the various ways that scarabs were produced. Some scarabs were made of semiprecious stones, and Boonstra showed us examples of four of these. Carnelian is a common material in ancient Egypt found particularly in the Sinai, the Eastern Desert and Nubia. It's often scattered on the desert floor in small pieces. It is red, orange or brown in colour, and was a symbol of blood, power and energy. Another stone often used was the purple stone amethyst - it was particularly popular in the Middle Kingdom period. Scarabs made from this material were uncommon outside Egypt. Amethyst is found in the south-eastern desert at Wadi el Hudi. Her last two examples were both jasper, which is a form of quartz and both sorts are found in the Eastern Desert. Red jasper, called Khenmet in ancient Egyptian, was popular for beads, amulets and scarabs. It's sometimes confused with carnelian, and she later mentioned that some workshops used the two stones interchangeably. Green jasper was used in Egypt from predynastic times but was more popular outside Egypt. Most of the scarabs made with this material were heart scarabs.

All four of these stones were rated on the Mohs hardness scale as 7 (this runs from talc at 1 to diamond at 10, click here for the wikipedia article on the scale). As a result it is hard to make beads and scarabs from these materials. First the object was roughed out using flint tools, and then the fine details added using metal tools. The perforations were made with bow drills - we know how this was done for beads from a scene on the walls of the tomb of Rekhmire, and it must've been a similar process for scarabs. Because they were so hard to produce, scarabs made from these materials were an elite item.

Other more easily worked materials were also used to make scarabs. Boonstra showed us some examples of scarabs made of organic materials, this could include amber, gilded beeswax and more rarely animal bone and wood. Much more common was faience. This material was originally used to mimic turquoise, and the colour symbolises life and fertility. Usually it's used to produce small items less than 30cm long, but she mentioned the example of the was sceptre which is now in the V&A which is 7 foot tall! Faience is made from silica (crushed quartz or pure sand), an alkali (natron or plant ash), lime (burnt limestone) and a colourant (copper for turquoise and cobalt or iron for dark blue). The silica, alkali and lime were mixed together to the consistency of toothpaste and then moulded in clay moulds before being fired which can be done anywhere pottery can be fired. Colour could be added in a variety of ways - mostly commonly via efflorescence (where the colourant was inside the mixture), but also through direct application of a glaze to the surface (where you'd see pooling of the glaze in the final object) or by embedding the object in a powdery mixture of colourant during firing (called cementation). The best evidence for production of faience objects comes from finding workshops and Boonstra gave us some examples from across most of Egyptian history: Abydos for the Old & Middle Kingdom period, Lisht in the Middle Kingdom, Malqata and Amarna in the 18th Dynasty and Memphis for the Roman period.

The most common material to make scarabs out of was steatite, and scarab amulets were also the most common use for this stone. Steatite is also known as talc and as soapstone, and it is found near Gebel el Silsila. As it is when it is found it is very easy to carve as it has a Mohs hardness of 1. Once it's the right shape it is fired and that converts the stone into actual steatite which has a Mohs hardness of 7, just like the semi-precious stones that Boonstra discussed first. It can be glazed before firing with the same glaze that is used for faience objects, and fired in a kiln or even just a hearth. These scarabs are really easy to make, so the skills needed aren't for the process itself but are for creating the shape of the object.

It's relatively hard to find archaeological evidence for the production of semi-precious stone scarabs because it's hard to distinguish them from bead workshops in general. Faience and steatite scarab workshops are easier to distinguish. Evidence can come from moulds and from wasters, unfinished or broken scarabs that have been discarded. (Wasters refers to objects which went wrong during production.)

Having set the scene by telling us about what scarab amulets were and how they were made Boonstra next moved on to a case study of a workshop and the sorts of things it can tell us about broader issues than just scarab amulets themselves. This workshop is in a place called Tell el-'Ajjul which is near the modern city of Gaza. It has been identified with ancient Sharuhen, which was a Cananite stronghold in the Second Intermediate Period and was the last Hyksos stronghold to be destroyed at the beginning of the 18th Dynasty. It's at the north-eastern corner of the Delta, north-east of Avaris (the Hyksos capital) and on the trade routes from Egypt towards Syria and beyond. Because it was destroyed at the start of the New Kingdom it forms a sort of "time capsule" for the Second Intermediate Period. The site was initially excavated by Petrie in the 1930s, and Boonstra noted that his excavation techniques didn't transfer well from Egypt to Palestine. More recent excavations have been undertaken by a Swedish-Palestinian team, but this has had to stop because of the conflict in the region.

There is archaeological evidence of a scarab workshop at Tell el-'Ajjul - the raw material is present, and there are unfired scarabs that have been carved but not transformed into steatite - however the kilns have not been as easily found. More indirect evidence for scarab production at the site is the sheer number of scarabs found - over 1200 from a partially excavated site (200 would be a typical number for a site of this size). Boonstra told us that she has identified some distinctive types of scarabs specific to this site. One type has a distinctive head and a shesha back (which has no lines on the back dividing the wings etc but does have side notches). There are two sub-types of this type - one has a bird & cobra motif on the base, the other has a falcon headed figure facing an erect schematic crocodile. Both are specific to this site and to its trading partners (and generally not found in Egypt proper). Another type has a 'nr' motif on the base - this is a mis-written nonsensical inscription. One theory is that it's a mis-written offering formula but Boonstra said there seems to be too much variation for that to be the case. It seems to've originally been from a single carver who liked the design but didn't understand the hieroglyphs. These scarabs are also found in much larger numbers in Palestine and on the Tell el-'Ajjul traderoutes than they are in Egypt.

Boonstra proposes that scarab production in the 2nd Millennium BCE mimics the social dynamics of the time. The decline of centralised Egyptian government during the Second Intermediate Period correlates with the rise of Levantine city states. And during this period you find a lot of scarabs made in Levantine workshops. When Ahmose I re-unifies Egypt at the beginning of the New Kingdom the number of Levantine scarabs declines again. The trade dynamics change during the Second Intermediate Period as well. Trade between the Near East and Southern Levant increases, while trade with Byblos reduces. Trade between north & south Egypt declines, and there is more direct trade between the Hyksos in the Delta with the Nubians to the south of Egypt (skipping past the remnants of the Egyptian state by trading via the desert routes). And find spots of Cananite produced scarabs mirror this - they are found in the Delta and the Near East, and in Nubia but generally not in Upper Egypt.

The scarab workshop at Tell el-'Ajjul had been the subject of Boonstra's MA research, and for her PhD she took this forward in time by looking at 18th Dynasty scarabs. There wasn't much previous work on these scarabs, and she was particularly interested in the changes from the Second Intermediate Period scarabs. In this part of her talk she took us through a handful of "workshops" from the period, which I've put in quotes because often the actual workshop hasn't been found but it's clear that a particular group of scarabs were made in a particular place by a particular team.


Scarabs from Hatshepshut's workshops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The first of the workshops she told us about were Hatshepsut's workshops - most of these scarabs were found in foundation deposits for Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri. There are several deposits and the scarabs were found in deposits G, H and I. About 200 scarabs have been found, nearly all of which are glazed steatite with no examples of faience or semi-precious stones. They were not used in life and were intended for these deposits or for funerary use (and a few have been found in Theban tombs). Almost all the scarabs have been found in the Theban area, which indicates that the workshop is there but it hasn't yet been discovered by archaeologists. Over half the scarabs have Hatshepsut's name on them, others have the names of Thutmose III, Hatshepsut's daughter, and Amun-Ra. The backs of the scarabs have different details to the Second Intermediate Period ones - including the humeral callosities that Boonstra talked about in her introduction. The features are a combination of new innovations and archaising ones that look back to the Middle Kingdom - which mirrors her decision to put her temple where she did (next door to Montuhotep II's mortuary complex), and is part of legitimising herself by linking herself to the founder of the Middle Kingdom.

The next workshop that Boonstra discussed is a carnelian or red jasper workshop from the early 18th Dynasty. The craftsmen used one or the other of these stones but don't seem to've had a preference for either nor does the choice seem to matter. The base of these scarabs has a very simple geometric motif, and the backs are all the same as if carved by the same person. They are found throughout Egypt, the southern Levant, Crete & the rest of the Aegean but are more common in the Faiyum so that is probably where the workshop was.

The el Khokha faience workshop is the name for a group of scarabs almost all found in the tomb of the Chief of Craftsmen Neferkhawes on his wife's body. These have the lunate heads and shesha backs that were seen on the Levantine scarabs from the Second Intermediate Period. There are also Levantine influences on the base motifs including the man and crocodile motif seen on the Tell el 'Ajjul scarabs. however this motif was later found from another workshop in Egypt (Tell el Dubia), and the el Khokha scarabs are most similar to this form.

Beth Shan is a Levantine site which was conquered in the 18th Dynasty - the town was annexed and the Egyptians set up a garrison there. It had a prolific faience workshop which made a lot of the smaller finds at Beth Shan (the bigger and better pieces were imported from Egypt). The inscriptions on the bases of these scarabs are reversed - for instance Amenhotep III's name is written left to right rather than right to left as it would be on an Egyptian article. This suggests they're cheap knock-offs - the maker has created a mould by copying an original example and used this to produce almost look-a-likes of originals.

Boonstra now moved on to some examples of workshops later than the scope of her PhD (which was early 18th Dynasty), to give us a flavour of later developments. Her first example in this section was Amarna. There has been little work on scarab production at the site, but there are indications that scarabs were made there. One of these pieces of evidence is a limestone mould which might be for metal scarabs, and another is that Anna Hodgkinson (who works there) has found a mould for faience scarabs and later a scarab that fits in the mould!

Memphis has an example of a case where the actual site of the workshop has been found. Petrie excavated the shrine built by Merenptah in the temple of Ptah at Memphis in 1909. Under the outer court of this 19th Dynasty shrine is the remains of a scarab workshop with many broken and unfinished steatite scarabs. The date of this workshop isn't clear - although it definitely pre-dates the temple it is underneath.

The final example was a Late Period scarab factory at Naukratis, in the Delta - another example where the actual site of the workshop is known. The faience scarabs that were mass produced here came in several types and were widely exported, including throughout the Aegean. Tying back to some of her introductory remarks about the difficulties of dating scarabs by their inscriptions Boonstra told us that one of the types produced here in the Late Period has the name of Thutmose III on it, who lived around a millennium before these scarabs were produced!

Boonstra finished by summing up what the Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom scarabs can tell us about the politics of the eras. For instance in the Second Intermediate Period the distribution of scarabs shows the connection between the Levant and Nubia which didn't involve Egypt. And in the New Kingdom examples scarabs with Hatshepsut's name on disappear after her reign but the style she brought in (which ignored the Second Intermediate Period and looked back to the Middle Kingdom) is retained.

This was a fascinating talk - lots of information both on the practicalities of scarab production (I had no idea that steatite started soft and was then fired to produce the hard stone), and on what these little objects tell us about grand themes of history like politics or trade. I also liked the demonstration that people are the same regardless of time period - cheap knock-off versions of scarabs then, and handbags now!