At the beginning of September Konstantin Ivanov visited us at the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about scenes showing purification of the Pharaoh in Graeco-Roman period temples. He began by talking about why he was studying these scenes. Firstly because they are telling us something about an important part of Egyptian culture - purity was a requirement before someone could enter the temple, so the Pharaoh must also be purified when he comes to the temple. And secondly he thought this was a good area to investigate because not a lot of work has been done on these scenes. Gardiner published on the subject in 1950 and that's still the most cited text. It's even cited by people discussing Ptolemaic Period temples, despite Gardiner explicitly staying he's not covering that period! As well as that gap there is also new evidence available, so Ivanov did a large scale comprehensive study of purification scenes for his masters thesis.

The decorative element he was discussing is a set of four scenes which are arranged in a sequence. First there is the Royal Exit - the Pharaoh leaving the palace to go to the temple. This is followed by the Purification scene where the gods pour water over the Pharaoh's head. Next comes a Coronation scene where the king is crowned or confirmed by two deities. And lastly the Pharaoh is presented to the patron deity of the temple by gods. Ivanov pointed out that the scenes aren't necessarily a straightforward representation of reality - they must also fit with temple "grammar". By this he means things like which crown a Pharaoh is shown as wearing will depend on which wall of the temple he is on - Red Crown on the north wall, White Crown on the south.

He then gave us a feel for the sheer quantity of evidence he has gathered on the subject - he wasn't going to show us every single example because it would be overwhelming, and he was going to concentrate on the areas of his research that are more complete. As part of this bit of the talk he listed his major sources, and showed us the geographical spread of the temples he's investigated.

Purification scenes first appear as part of temple decoration as early as the time of Hatshepshut (on the Red Shrine), and even this early elements of the later sequence are present. There are quite a lot of examples surviving from the Ramesside period so that is where Ivanov began his explanation of the historical context for the Graeco-Roman sequence. During the Ramesside period the scenes are mostly in the inner courts of temples - and pretty much every temple has these scenes. The Introduction scene tends to be further in or on door lintels. It doesn't seem to matter which register of the wall the scenes are placed on, and the sequence doesn't always have all the scenes nor are they necessarily in the same order each time. There are also variations in the composition. One trend that does carry across all the Ramesside scenes is that the Pharaoh has a wig on (except one example where he has the Blue Crown on). Later, during the 25th Dynasty there is a bit of a shift towards uniformity in composition.

In summary the pre-Ptolemaic Period purification scenes are a bit all over the place, both literally and figuratively. There is variation in placement, there is variation in composition and there is variation in sequence.


Coronation Scene at Philae Temple, Photo by John Patterson

Ivanov now moved on to an overview of Ptolemaic and Roman examples of purification scenes: which can be summed up as "everything is different to before". The scenes are placed in the outer areas of temples, and in corresponding places in different temples. They are often placed in a symmetrical fashion, and are often associated with doorways. Most of them are found on the screen wall of a temple's hypostyle hall, but he thinks this may be an artifact of survival and that if there were more intact pylons then we'd see more of these scenes on pylons. The sequence is confined to the first register on a wall, with a single example that's not. The scenes are always found in sequence with all present and no extra scenes. (Except that the Royal Exit scene also shows up in another context but it's clear that this is two distinct uses of a common motif.)

The composition is also restricted. The actors and props are always the same in each scene and even the position of the actors is the same. The Royal Exit scene shows the most variation, particularly in the number of standards, and it may contain more extra elements than other scenes. In the Purification scene the Pharaoh always wears a skull cap and has simple clothing (unlike in the preceding scene). The gods in this scene are always standing on podiums to pour the water over the Pharaoh. In the Coronation scene the Pharaoh wears the Double Crown. In the Introduction scene there may be some variation in the welcoming committee - for instance in Philae it's Isis not a god (as she's the patron deity of the temple). In other temples the patron deity is often accompanied by a consort deity.

All later Ptolemaic Period and Roman Period temples follow this format. Earlier Ptolemaic temples, such as parts of Philae don't entirely match the convention. Using this Ivanov has been able to narrow down the period when the format was defined to after the Hypostyle Hall at Philae was built and before the temple at Edfu was built. There were also other changes in temple decoration around this time, so possibly the standardisation of Purification sequences was part of a wider change. Decisions about this sort of thing would be taken at a Synod of priests, and Ivanov has narrowed it down to a specific one that took place in 238 BCE.

Despite this uniform format there are still some divergences in different temples. Ivanov divided these into two types, sanctioned variations and true deviations. The first of these are variations that he saw as "confirming the rule" - he gave an example of the number of standards present in the Royal Exit scene. This varies, but in a rule-bound fashion and dependent on where in the temple the scene is placed.

True deviations are forced by circumstance, and Ivanov gave us several examples of different types of these. For instance at Esna there are two sequences in the Hypostyle Hall which have missing scenes. The actors (gods) from the missing scene show up in another scene in each case, which means that the whole sequence is represented even if not present. The two sequences can also be joined up across the hall to form a single continuous sequence. Other examples include a missing scene in the sequence replaced with a doorway that offers a view of the sanctuary that fits the point of the scene. One sequence in Philae has Osiris as the deity the Pharaoh is introduced to (rather than the patron Isis) - but if you follow the line of the sequence it points towards a temple of Osiris and thus he is the appropriate deity to be honoured. In temples dedicated to Thoth the placement of Thoth in any scene always reflects his greater importance in this context rather than slavishly following the conventional arrangement.

After our break for coffee and cake (and a brief recap: Ramesside Period = chaos; Graeco-Roman Period = sudden decisive shift to uniformity) Ivanov moved on to another more subtle way that the sequence can vary between temples. In larger temples with more than one sequence it's possible to discern common subtle differences that are down to style. He went through three examples: Edfu, Kom Ombo and Dendera. In Edfu the stylistic differences accentuate Horus as the patron deity of the temple. For instance in the Introduction scene the gods leading the Pharaoh are normally Montu and Atum but in this case they are both Horus. This means that this final scene in the sequence has several instances of Horus - there is Horus on his throne welcoming the Pharaoh, there are two Horuses leading the Pharaoh in and the Pharaoh himself is an incarnation of Horus.


Coronation Scene at Kom Ombo Temple, Photo by John Patterson

In Kom Ombo there are unusual details in the scenes. For instance the clothing is more complicated - e.g. 5 uraeae on the skirt of the Pharaoh rather than plain as is standard in the Graeco-Roman Period. There are other things like vultures added to the Purification scene or four deities in the Coronation scene. These sorts of details are extremely unusual in the Graeco-Roman Period but show up in older examples, so it looks like the style at Kom Ombo was to incorporate archaic features into the format (or to "keep it Old School" as Ivanov put it!).

At Dendera the differences are also in the details but in a different style to those at Kom Ombo. Here the details are innovations rather than looking back to the past. For instance one of the standards in the Royal Exit scene is a specifically local symbol. In the Purification scene the gesture the pourers are making is different, plus there is an addition of a hand hieroglyph at the mouth of the jar (and he returned to this later in the talk).

Having established that there was a standard Graeco-Roman format and told us about the sorts of variation seen Ivanov now moved out to a more meta-level to talk about how to interpret the sequence as a whole. So far throughout the talk he'd used the standard interpretation - the sequence shows the Pharaoh coming from the palace into the temple and then into the inner sanctuary where the god is. But there is another way to look at it, and in order to explain this he had to go through the common features of the format in more detail. He first reminded us that even though the sequence isn't isolated from the rest of the decoration it does form its own unit. There is never any scene behind the Royal Exit scene, but the Introduction scene can be followed by a variety of different scenes with no common theme to them. The scenes always appear together and in the same order.

The Royal Exit scene always has the palace at the back of the Pharaoh and standards in front of him. At the front of the scene leading the Pharaoh is the priest Imutef, shown at a much smaller scale than the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh is largest in the scene and wears a large crown and fancy clothes, there may also be Osirian imagery. This scene shows the most variation between & within temples.

The Purification scene is next and is the most austere of the sequence. The Pharaoh wears simple clothes and a skull cap. He doesn't seem to be the tallest in the scene as not only is he not wearing a tall crown but also the two gods are standing on podiums. These gods are always Thoth and Horus, and the scene as a whole is reminiscent of the birth of the sun. Pharaoh seems to be partway between moving from Thoth (night associated) to Horus (day associated). So this scene is a birth.

Next is the Coronation scene which is a bit more complex than the Purification scene. Pharaoh is now standing on a level with the deities. The two goddesses are always the goddesses of the Two Lands (Nekhbet for Upper Egypt and Wadjet for Lower Egypt). They sometimes are shown with naked breasts, and the scene is intimate in a mother/son sort of way - the breasts are for breastfeeding rather than with sexual connotations.

The final scene, the Introduction, moves to a higher level of complexity again. The Pharaoh is now both on a level with the deities and is wearing a fancy crown that makes him appear taller still. He is holding the hands of two male deities rather than being within the embrace of two female deities. These old deities (Montu & Atum) are being presented as in a paternal relationship with the Pharaoh. And the Pharaoh is being led to the patron deity in the symbolic West of the scene.

So the alternative reading doesn't start with the Royal Exit scene, instead it begins at the simplest point. The Purification scene is the morning, and the birth of the Pharaoh. He moves from there to the Coronation which is more complicated, and he is a like a child with his wet-nurses. Next he is an adult and being guided by his fathers the gods in the Introduction scene. After he passes to the West he moves to the Royal Exit scene where he is in the afterlife and a deity himself with no need for guidance. Now instead of ending the sequence loops, and the Pharaoh is being led into the Purification scene to be reborn once more. This provides the temple an ever present Pharaoh being eternally reborn. The theme of rejuvenation is not new to the Graeco-Roman temples - for instance in Seti I's temple at Abydos there is a sequence of scenes that show the Pharaoh being progressively rejuvenated. But there is a difference in accent - in Graeco-Roman times the rejuvenation is cyclical, before that it is linear.

Ivanov finished up his talk by giving a couple of examples where knowing how this sequence functions in temple spaces can help give answers to other questions in Egyptology. His first example was about trying to reconstruct plan of the temple of Osiris at Bigeh. This is one of the temples that was not saved from flooding when the Aswan Dam was built so these days it's a bit submerged and also overgrown. The reliefs were published in 1915 so there is some record of what is now inaccessible. In 2015 someone identified part of the published decoration as a Coronation scene. The relief isn't complete, but he has been able to re-identify it as a Purification scene because the feet of the deities are on podiums. All that's left of the temple is two bits of wall with a Royal Exit scene and this Purification scene but by comparing the placement to what he knows about the conventions of the sequence he's been able to propose a plan for the temple walls.

His other example he referred to as "weighing in on linguistics". There is a phrase, per-duat, which is often translated as House of Adoration. It has however been recently proposed that it should instead be House of Morning. I'm not sure I entirely followed Ivanov's explanation but I think the key point was that the hand gestures of the deities pouring water in the Purification scene (which is morning associated) go together with the vase to indicate that the gods are worshipping or adoring the Pharaoh. In the Dendera scenes the hand gestures are different - they are offering instead of adoring - but the little extra hands at the mouths of the vase are doing the adoring gesture. So Ivanov thinks that the Egyptians saw the adoration aspect of this scene as crucial - it needed to be represented even when the hands of the deities were modified. And so he thinks that the phrase per-duat shouldn't been seen as having to be one or other of the two meanings, but instead it means both House of Morning and House of Adoration.

This was a really fascinating talk, and I have added purification sequences to my mental list of "things to look out for in Egyptian temples". I found it particularly interesting how the sequence can be read in two different ways - a linear description of a journey or an eternal cycle of birth and re-birth.

At the beginning of August Lorna Oakes came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the parallels between Ancient Egyptian literary sources and the Old Testament. In her lecture she covered several sorts of literature including myths, legends, hymns & prayers and prophecy.

Oakes started with myths, and began at the beginning with creation stories. She pointed out that these aren't "just stories", for the Ancient Egyptians (and the writers of the Old Testament) these were serious reflections on their origins. The Egyptians had several creation stories - even as early as the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom there were at least two variants with the god Atum bringing the gods Shu & Tefnut into being by sneezing or by using his semen. The closest variant to the Old Testament creation story is called the Memphite Theology and the text is known from a large granite slab dating to the 25th Dynasty which is now in the British Museum. In both the Old Testament and the Memphite Theology creation is accomplished by words - God in the Old Testament commands things to exist, and they do; Ptah in the Memphite Theology accomplishes all creation by his thoughts and words. Both myths end with the creator surveying their creation and seeing that it is good.

The next myth type Oakes talked about was the flood myth - many cultures have a myth of humankind being wiped out by a flood sent from the gods. But the Ancient Egyptians are different - they wouldn't use a flood metaphor for destruction because in their world view floods bring life and fertility to the land. Instead there is the story of the near destruction of the world by the goddess Sekhmet which fills the same niche. Oakes told us this story - it's set in a time when Re ruled mankind directly, but people start complaining that he's getting too old. So he decides to kill some of the people in order to stop the others complaining, and he orders Sekhmet to do it. But Sekhmet gets carried away and goes beyond what Re wanted her to do. And so he tricks her into drinking a great pool of blood coloured beer - when she wakes up from her drunken stupor she's forgotten what she was doing and forgotten her lust for blood so mankind is spared from total annihilation.

She now moved on to telling us about Old Testament legends that show similarities to Ancient Egyptian stories. There are several aspects of the Joseph cycle of stories in the Bible that have Ancient Egyptian counterparts. For instance the story of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife - in this part of Joseph's story he's a slave in the household of an important Egyptian called Potiphar. Potiphar's wife takes a fancy to him & tries to seduce him, but he resists. In revenge for this rejection she makes it look like he tried to seduce her and so he's flung into jail. This parallels part of an Egyptian story called The Tale of the Two Brothers. In this story two brothers live together, the younger one in the household as if his brother & brother's wife were his parents. The two brothers are out working in the fields one day and the younger brother is sent back to the house to get grain. When he gets there his brother's wife tries to seduce him, but he gets angry and rebukes her for such a disgraceful suggestion - after all, she is like a mother to him. And then he gets the grain and goes back to working in the fields, but says nothing to his brother about the incident. The wife is angry in turn at being spurned and decides to take revenge - she does this by making it look like she's been attacked. The older brother comes back to the house first at the end of the day and finds her lying on the floor in distress - she tells him a story about the younger brother trying to seduce her then beating her when she refused. So the older brother is angry in his turn, and goes out to lie in wait for his brother so that he can kill him for this outrage. But the younger brother is warned by the cows, and runs away rather than walk into the trap.

Oakes stressed that the similarities of these stories doesn't necessarily mean that they are copied directly from each other. She brought up the idea that there are only so many plot types in the world, and pointed out that this sort of attempted seduction/rejection/revenge trope is a common plot across many cultures and stories. But the closeness of these two in their details does suggest that the author(s) of the Old Testament Joseph stories had heard or read The Tale of the Two Brothers and then worked ideas into their own legend.

There are more similarities between Joseph's story and Ancient Egyptian thought. Dream interpretation is a common Ancient Egyptian motif which shows up in a key sequence in Joseph's story. While Joseph is in prison two other inmates have dreams and Joseph is able to interpret them. One, a butler, dreams of pressing grapes into a goblet which he takes to Pharaoh who drinks from it - Joseph says this means that he will be restored to favour and let out of jail, and this comes to pass. The other, a baker, dreams of carrying bread to give to Pharaoh but the birds keep eating it from the basket - Joseph says this means that he will be executed, and this too comes to pass. At first this demonstration of knowledge of dreams doesn't help Joseph, but when Pharaoh has disturbing dreams that no-one can interpret the butler remembers Joseph and he is summoned from the jail. Pharaoh has dreamt of 7 fat cows followed by 7 thin cows, and Joseph interprets this as 7 years of plenty and good harvests, followed by 7 years of famine and poor harvests. And so Joseph is released from prison and made Vizier, and his advice means that the country doesn't starve in the time of poor harvests. Oakes pointed out that the imagery in Pharaoh's dream tells us what's important to Pharaoh (and the culture of the time) - cattle, and good harvests.

Joseph's promotion to Vizier has some similarities to another Egyptian story - the Tale of Sinhue. At the end of Sinhue's story he returns to Egypt at Pharaoh's command and so that he can die on Egyptian soil. He's feted at the court, and given a house suitable for a Prince; the women of the court all give him the respect and courtesies due to a Prince. And he's subsequently buried in a fine tomb at the expense of the king. The imagery in this tale is like that of the raising of Joseph to be Vizier.

Returning to dream interpretation Oakes told us that it was a real part of Egyptian culture, not just a feature of their stories. A dream book was found at Deir el Medina which gives lists of things that might happen in a dream, and what interpretation should be placed on that event or object. She gave us several examples but the one that stuck in my head particularly was that dreaming of warm beer means that there will be suffering!

Oakes now moved from Joseph to Moses. His origin story - the finding of the babe in the bullrushes - has obvious resonances with stories from other cultures, but not Ancient Egyptian examples in this case. Instead parallels are found in the story of the birth of Sargon of Adad, and Romulus and Remus. But one part of his story that does show similarities to Ancient Egyptian thought is Moses' flight from Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. This is similar to the crucial moment of the Tale of Sinhue. Sinhue is on campaign with the future Senwosret I when news of the assassination of Amenemhat I is brought. Senwosret is told in secret and immediately returns to the capital. The news is then also passed on to the other princes, but Sinhue overhears one of these conversations and panics - he flees into exile where he spends many years in other countries. Oakes also compared the Burning Bush episode in Moses' story to Sinhue's decision to return home. In both cases the protagonist is summoned by his lord (either divine or semi-divine) to leave the life he's been living and return home to his people to take on a new role.

A third resonance is that the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea is reminiscent (in imagery rather than context!) of a story about Khufu being entertained. This tale is found on the Westcar Papyrus and tells of how Khufu was bored, and asked his court to suggest things he could do for entertainment. It's suggested that he would enjoy going out on a lake in a boat crewed by the most beautiful women of court, and they can go up and down while he watches these women rowing. He thinks this is a good idea, and so off they go for his afternoon's entertainment. While rowing the boat one of the girls loses a pendant and is distraught. Khufu offers to replace it for her, but she wants her own one back. So he calls the Lector Priest and tells him what happened - in a fairly repetitive fashion, Oakes read us some in translation which demonstrated how it used the same words & phrasing both times the loss of the pendant was described. The Lector Priest then used his magic to return the pendant - he folded back the water on one side of the lake to pile up on the other side, at which point the pendant could be seen on the lake bed and it was returned to the girl who'd lost it. The authors of the Moses story clearly liked the imagery as a way of demonstrating great power, because it's reused when God parts the Red Sea for the Isrealites to pass.

Oakes now moved on to the Psalms (credited to David in the Old Testament) which have similarities to hymns and prayers found in an Ancient Egyptian context. The closest parallels are with texts devoted to Aten worship and there are phrases in both hymns to the Aten and Old Testament Psalms that are identical. She talked us through Psalm 104 and its similarities to the Great Hymn to the Aten. There are also similarities between the Psalsm and non-Aten hymns. Insight into the Egyptian conceptions of god(s) come from texts found at Deir el Medina - such as a hymn praising Amun which asks for healing for a man who is ill because of the sins he has committed. Oakes was again keen to stress that these similarities don't come about because of direct copying of texts from one tradition to another, instead it shows how the poets and authors were part of the same common intellectual background.

Prophetic texts are also similar between Ancient Egyptian sources and the Old Testament. An Egyptian example is a text purporting to tell of prophecies made in the 6th Dynasty. These prophecies talk abut foreigners who will in future come into Egypt and cause problems during what is identifiable as the Middle Kingdom. It was actually written during the reign of Amenemhat I and is piece of psuedo-prophecy that's actually kingly propaganda. Oakes compared this with the story of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, which is also claiming to be a prophetic text which foretells future problems (for Nebuchadnezzar in this case) but is actually later propaganda.

The last genre of literature that Oakes discussed was Wisdom literature - these Ancient Egyptian texts are usually a father telling his son how to get on in the world. The biblical Book of Proverbs is of a similar genre. Solomon is said to be the author of these (although he probably wasn't) - stories about his wisdom include the famous one about dividing a baby. In this two women both claim the same baby as their child (the other child has died). So Solomon suggests chopping the baby in half and giving them half each as a fair solution - at this point he can identify the real mother because she is the most horrified and offers to give the baby away in order to save its life. Taken as a whole the Proverbs show the same shared intellectual heritage with Ancient Egyptian literature as is the case with the other texts Oakes discussed - there are many similarities in both content and form between the texts from the two cultures. Another indication of the shared heritage comes from a reference in the Book of Ecclesiastes to the Satire of the Trades - this is the piece of Egyptian literature which was often used in training scribes and Oakes positioned it as a sort of send-up of the Wisdom literature tradition. It's the one where several professions are listed with the downsides of each one given in exhaustive detail, except for being a scribe which is nothing but good and so therefore it's a good idea for boys to devote themselves to learning their letters well.

This was an entertaining and informative talk. I'm not sure I've done justice to this talk in my write-up. A lot of the content was Lorna Oakes telling us the stories that she was discussing - either in her own words or by reading us parts of translations from the original Egyptian. My attempts to summarise have probably made it sound much drier than it actually was!

At the beginning of July Antonio J. Morales visited the Essex Egyptology Group to tell us about the work of the Middle Kingdom Theban Project which he is the leader of. The project began in 2014 when he was working for Freie University in Berlin, and when he moved to the University of Alacá (outside Madrid) in 2017 the project continued under their sponsorship. Three-fifths of the €50,000/year needed to fund the project comes from the Spanish government, and the project must fundraise for the rest of it. To help with fundraising the project has several social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube) to keep the project visible. Morales told us that he began with this information because he believes it important to be transparent about how the project is funded. He also believes it is important to publish their discoveries as soon as possible. As a result they publish preliminary results in 2 journals each year - one in English and one Spanish. They also make sure any finds are made public so that experts from outside the team can see them and work on them. Morales' team is a multidisciplinary one that consists of around 40 experts across a variety of specialities - 50% are Spanish, the rest are from all over the world. There are also about 200 local Egyptian workers, so it's a huge number of people.

The project started in 2014 when he visited Luxor in August to check out 12 tombs to see what work would be possible. The tombs the project is interested in are the Middle Kingdom tombs at Deir el-Bahri which date to many centuries before Hatshepsut built her famous temple at the site. The early excavations were done by several people including Herbert Winlock and Howard Carter. Herbert Winlock began work on the site in the 1920s as the head of an expedition from the Met Museum in New York. He cleared the area to reveal the huge tomb complexes, but he was mainly interested in Hatshepsut's temple rather than the tombs in the northern hills. His teams worked at the site from the 1920s to the 1940s. Morales said that as part of planning his own team's work at the site he has read Winlock's excavation notes - which are something of an exercise in frustration as well as being useful. Winlock was a very good writer, but he was prone to writing detailed descriptions of the visitors to the site (and what they had for lunch) and then skimping on the actual excavation details. One of the tombs that Winlock discovered contained the bodies of 60 warriors (this is tomb MMA507), but Morales doesn't (yet) have permission to re-excavate it. Despite having been known (and discussed) for decades there's still a lot to learn about this tomb - when Winlock originally found it he thought it was a Coptic burial, but subsequently he changed his mind and decided it was from the time of Montuhotep II (and thus the re-unification of Egypt at the start of the Middle Kingdom). More recently most scholars agree that the bodies date to the early 12th Dynasty (a few decades later).

Deir el-Bahri
Deir el-Bahri, photo by John Patterson

Morales showed us a photo of the site and told us to mentally subtract Hatshepsut's temple. The focal point for Middle Kingdom Egyptians was the mortuary temple of Montuhotep II which is now completely in ruins. In the photo above (taken by John Patterson in 2014) Montuhotep II's temple is to the left of Hatshepsut's temple and isn't really visible. The northern cliffs are to the right of the picture, and the official's tombs that Morales is excavating are both in those cliffs and in cliffs to the south of the site. They've not been re-examined since Herbert Winlock left the site in the 1940s.

Having given us context for the project & the site Morales next moved on to giving us a high level overview of the tombs that his team are excavating and what sorts of questions the project is interested in asking. The Middle Kingdom is the "classical period" from the point of view of later Egyptians but we know surprisingly little about how this period began. The 50-60 years from the start of Montuhotep II's reign to the beginning of the 12th Dynasty is when it happened, but we don't know how. And it's this that drives Morales's interest in the tombs of Montuhotep II and his high officials. He wanted to explore the question from as many perspectives as possible, so he didn't want his team to concentrate on one tomb at a time - the information he'd be able to get with that approach wouldn't answer the broader questions he's interested in. So first he asked for a commission to excavate in the northern cliffs (which he refers to as Sector A) - this includes the tombs of Henenu and Ipi that he discussed in detail later in the talk. He then realised that other nearby areas to the south of Montuhotep II's temple had tombs from the same period as the northern ones but with a different architecture. This area (Sector C) includes the tombs of Dagi and Djari which are also discussed later in the talk. They also provide an illustration of the sorts of information that Morales's broad approach can provide that a focus on a single tomb would not. Dagi had a lot of titles including Vizier and his tomb is very close to Montuhotep II's tomb; Djari is of much lower rank and is buried further away. So the layout of tombs in the cemetery reflects the hierarchy of the society they lived in - a demonstration of how stratified the society was. The last section of Morales's area of excavations he calls Sector B and it lies on the same side as Sector A but closer to the river - and the tombs here are a bit later in time.

The cemetery at Deir el-Bahri was a new foundation by Montuhotep II. When he came to power his family only had control of the area around Thebes, and his predecessors had been buried somewhere else. When he reunified the country Montuhotep II decided to build his tomb & mortuary temple somewhere completely new to symbolise the new era. His successors are also built elsewhere. To the south of Montuhotep II's temple there's the remains of another temple that was never completed, and in fact was barely started. This was once thought to be for Montuhotep II's immediate successors at the end of the 11th Dynasty but Dorothea Arnold argues that it is instead for Amenemhat I who was the first king of the 12th Dynasty. The tomb of Meket-Re, a high official who outlived Montuhotep II and died early in Amenemhat I's reign, is located near this abortive tomb construction.

One of the questions Morales is asking about the site is to do with how chronology and social stratification affect the layout of the cemetery as mentioned in the last couple of paragraphs. This is completely new to his investigation of the site - Herbert Winlock wasn't much interested in that sort of question, he was more interested in pretty things for museums! One of the features that Morales has seen so far is that the tombs of the officials are all east of an imaginary line extending north/south from the enclosure wall round the mortuary complex of Montuhotep II. In effect they are all outside the wall separating king from subject, even where the wall has not actually been built.

In Sector A in the northern hills there are three tombs of interest to Morales's project. These are TT313 (where a man named Henenu is buried), TT314 (Harhotep) and TT315 (Ipi). He is only excavating TT313 and TT315, however. The Polish mission who are working at Hatshepsut's temple worked on TT314 in the 1970s and wanted to keep it for their team to excavate. Morales said they were happy to co-operate in sharing this with the Polish mission and divided up TT314 so that both sides had something to work on. It had been originally excavated by Maspero, and the tomb contents that he found are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. So the Polish mission are continuing the re-excavation of the tomb itself and Morales's team are re-studying and publishing the items in the museum.

Each of the tombs in Sector A has a similar architecture and they are all in a row at the same geological level. They are built in a region of good white limestone, and the higher quality ones had a limestone facade as well. The lower quality ones have painted mudbrick facades. The general effect of the gleaming white tombs must've looked very spectacular. Each tomb also has a huge courtyard cut into the cliff in front of it. The tomb entrances themselves are high up in the cliffs and it's quite a scramble to get to them. The chapels where offerings were made for the deceased are nearer the bottom of the courtyard, thus easier for the priests to get to to perform the appropriate rituals.

Sector B has several tombs - three of which have numbers: TT316, MMA518 and MM519. There are also several more unidentified tombs which were robbed in antiquity but not re-excavated by Winlock. This includes a tomb called E1 which they discovered filled to the roof with debris. The only tombs in Sector C that Morales discussed are the two mentioned above: TT366 (Djari) and TT103 (Dagi).

Before talking about his team's excavations of each tomb in more detail Morales talked again about the chronology of the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. The First Intermediate Period had been a period of chaos, conflict and crisis lasting around 150 years. Montuhotep II reunified the country, after his predecessors had tried and failed. From his base in Thebes he first went to the south and conquered the three regions there - which he then combined with his own region into a single unit. And then he went to the north and conquered it. It's often said that Montuhotep II's conquest of the region of Thinis to the immediate north of Thebes was just to secure his own control over Thebes but Morales says that it's clear that Montuhotep II already had the idea of reconstructing the previous Egyptian state in mind. As soon as he re-unified the country he began moving high officials from Hierakonpolis in the north to work on Theban monuments, including filling posts such as Head of Artisans. He also sent high officials from the south to the north - for instance a Theban man called Intef was sent to be Head of Priests in the north. So this is a sign that Montuhotep regards the country as a cohesive whole with a unified economy etc - not just some piecemeal collection of recently conquered regions. He's choosing the best man for any given job, not thinking of them as northerners vs. southerners or "his people" vs. the "conquered people".

The majority of Morales's talk after our break for coffee was a more detailed discussion of what he & his team have found in each tomb. He began with the tomb of Ipi (TT315) who was Vizier at the beginning of Dynasty 12 (during the reign of Amenemhat I) - amongst many other prestigious titles. This tomb has a very large courtyard with some tunnels and rooms to the side which include subsidiary tombs (click here for a plan of this tomb on the Middle Kingdom Theban Project website). The public areas of Ipi's tomb are the first you come to as you enter the tomb, and further in are the private areas. There is a long corridor that ends in the cultic chamber, then beneath this is a corridor down to the private burial chamber. The burial chamber itself has a false floor and the sarcophagus is under the floor - an attempt to make any robber think the tomb had already been cleared out before he got there.

While re-excavating the outer courtyard they found that the western wall had been built over the tomb next door - indicating that Ipi's tomb was newer than the other one. They also found a lot of small finds such as seal impressions and 500 shabtis. Sadly there's no archaeological context for any of that material as it was stuff that Herbert Winlock had previously found and discarded (as not being pretty or interesting enough for his museum).

One of the side chambers on the courtyard is an embalming cachette - it had been discovered by Winlock, and he had photographed it. But instead of clearing it he'd taken and opened a few jars and left everything else in place. Morales had believed that the chamber had been emptied, so it was a (very good) surprise to find most of the contents still in place - but this meant they'd had no plan in place for how they were going to clear the chamber themselves. They had to work fast before rumours started about exciting finds on the site as these would inevitably mutate into rumours about gold. So they had to improvise a chain of specialists (including Salima Ikram) to process the material. Morales told us a story of walking past Salim Ikram while she was working on the material and she was licking natron bags to get an idea for what specific purposes they had been used!!

The vessels are filled with materials used in the embalming of Ipi. This includes linen wrappings and natron filled bags - during the period mummifiers used bags of natron rather than loose natron on the body to dry it out. It's important to note that this was all material that had been used in Ipi's mummification, not fresh supplies. The jars were all labelled, but they're not sure what the labelling means. One very exciting find in the jars was what is probably the heart of the Vizier Ipi! It's definitely a mummified human heart, and given the context it's probably Ipi's. The organs of the deceased were normally removed during the mummification process to be separately preserved, but normally the heart was put back in as the deceased would need this in order to pass through the Weighing of the Heart judgement. So this heart must've somehow been misplaced and put in the waste jars instead of back into Ipi - it's about the same size and weight as a used natron bag. So poor Ipi went off to his afterlife lacking his heart, but it's good for Morales's team who are hoping to get the heart scanned to see what it can tell us about Ipi.

The Letters of Heqanakht

Another of the subsidiary chambers in front of Ipi's is the tomb of Meseh. This is where the letters of Heqanakht were found by Winlock in the 1920s. These letters were accidentally sealed into the tomb, and the Vizier Ipi is mentioned in these letters. This makes it plausible that the tomb was initially Heqanakht's tomb - he was a dependent of Ipi and that's exactly the sort of person who would be buried in a subsidiary tomb outside the great man's tomb. The tomb must've been later re-used for Meseh.

Although there isn't much left in the tomb (it looks like a lot of material was taken out for re-use in antiquity) the sarcophagus is still there. It doesn't look like Ipi's tomb was quite finished when Ipi was buried in it. The sarcophagus doesn't look like it's quite in the intended space - there's an outline on the floor that it doesn't sit within. But this could also have been due to the geology of the burial chamber. If the intended area turned out to be hard to carve through than they expected then they might've changed the plan for his sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is splitting, and Morales explained that they had to stabilise it before any work could be done around it on the outside. The "fragments" that are splitting off are around 400kg each and so it would be very dangerous to be nearby if one of them slipped.

Moving on from Ipi's tomb Morales next briefly talked about his work on the coffin texts of Harhotep - as he said at the beginning of the talk his team are not getting to re-excavate Harhotep's tomb (TT314) but he is examining and publishing the texts on Harhotep's mortuary temple and coffin. These texts hinge round magically turning the sarcophagus into a boat with the deceased as its captain.

TT313 is the tomb of Henenu, who was Chief Steward in the time of Montuhotep II. His tomb is one of the first to be built in the area, and is close to Montuhotep II's mortuary complex. Like Ipi he has many titles, which include some "exotic" ones such as the rather splendid "Overseer of What Is and Is Not" (which Morales joked reminded him of his mother - in charge of everything, no matter what it is). There is a map of TT313 on the Middle Kingdom Theban Project website - showing that this tomb has a complicated collection of side chambers off the main tomb corridor. There are signs of re-use and modification over the centuries, and these chambers are actually extra burial chambers for later occupants. Inside the main burial chamber they found fragments from two different sarcophagi - perhaps these were for Henenu and his wife? The courtyard outside the tomb is very wide, as with all these tombs, and uniquely it has steps cut as wide as the whole width of the courtyard leading up to the tomb. When freshly cut these would've been white and gleamed in the sun. At the foot of the courtyard where the rituals were held Winlock discovered a stela which is now in the Met Museum - Morales and his team have now found more fragments of this that Winlock overlooked. They also found a papyrus which almost sounded exciting but it turned out to be a fake, and not a particularly good one.

Morales now moved on to briefly discuss Sector B of the site. One of the tombs here is TT316, in which Neferhotep was buried and it dates to the end of Dynasty 12. The other tomb is called E1 and hadn't been excavated before. When they discovered it it was filled to the ceiling with debris which they have cleared. He didn't tell us much about this tomb - they have done plans by hand as well as by 3D scanner. There's a crevasse outside the entrance to the main tomb formed by water. There's also a subsidiary chamber in the courtyard.

In Sector C the two tombs represent quite different social strata. TT366 is the tomb of Djari, who was Supervisor of the Harem in the time of Montuhotep II. His tomb is not as monumental as the other ones that Morales has discussed and it is made of less good quality stone. Both the tombs in this sector have what is known as a "saf facade" which has several square pillars. They know there are paintings on the pillar walls of Djari's tomb because Winlock's team made drawings of them - but they are currently covered with wooden screens for protection. Morales and his team don't yet have permission to remove the covers and re-examine the paintings directly. Based on Winlock's drawings it looks like the art style has some interesting features - some degree of playing with the audience's expectations and some unusual motifs. In the courtyard outside the tomb is the foundations of a funerary garden. It has deteriorated since it was originally found but he has discovered there are two courses of bricks beneath the sand so Morales is hopeful he'll be able to excavate & find out more about it.

Morales finished by telling us about the other tomb they are excavating in Sector C: TT1103. This tomb belonged to a man named Dagi who lived at the end of the 11th Dynasty in the reigns of both Montuhotep II and Montuhotep III. He was much higher status than Djari, he had many titles including Vizier. Whilst the architecture of the tomb is similar to that of Djari's (it also has a saf facade) it is of better quality materials. Again there are still paintings on the saf facade, and fragments in the tomb as well. One of the common motifs is figs & fig trees for the cult of Hathor. Dagi's sarcophagus is now in the Cairo Museum - interestingly the only title on it was the first one that Dagi had, the lowest status one. So he presumably started to prepare for his death early in his career.

This was an absolutely fascinating talk where Morales really demonstrated how re-excavating sites that had previously been "cleared" by early 20th Century archaeologists can still yield more information. Looking at a site with modern questions and modern specialities can show us so much that's been over looked in the past.


At the beginning of June Marcel Marée came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about the criteria he uses to authenticate Ancient Egyptian artifacts and detect modern forgeries. A lot of people bring artifacts to the British Museum to be authenticated, including art dealers, and so he's interested in improving and systematising the authentication process. Often experts rely on intuition, but that relies on such a breadth of knowledge that not many people can be sure they are right. Artistic merit is also often used as an indicator of authenticity, but that's a dangerous criterion to rely on as pieces that look like they are good quality are not necessarily old (nor vice versa). In this talk he laid out the criteria he looks at when he's examining an artifact - he said that he looks at several criteria because one is rarely sufficient to determine whether or not the object is a fake. He's keen to operate in a methodological way so that he avoids subjectivity.

The bulk of his talk was going through the criteria he uses (NB: he said there were 7 of them during the talk, and I have only noted down 6 so unfortunately I must've missed one). For each one he showed us several examples to illustrate what he meant, some of which were fakes and some of which were not. The first criterion he discussed was whether or not the maker of the object had followed ancient conventions of representation including the Ancient Egyptian canon of proportions. The Ancient Egyptians used proportion grids when constructing all of their art - both 2D representations and 3D sculptures. A modern maker is unlikely to've gridded the statue out before carving each section, and the trained eye can tell the difference. The grid doesn't just apply to the whole statue, they also gridded out faces separately. Over the course of 3000 plus years of history the templates used varied, but each period would've stuck to a particular set of conventions. So the first question he asks is does the artwork fit any of the known limited range of templates. To illustrate what he meant he showed us two heads of the Pharaoh Amasis (from the 26th Dynasty). The two did not look identical but do share several diagnostic features: they have big chins, there is very little forehead, the eyes are set high on the face. So there's room for variation but each artist is interpreting the same template.

He also showed us a statue of Bes that clearly failed to meet this criterion. For starters the tail was all wrong, it was attached far too far down the back of the god, coming from the rectum rather than the tail bone! Much more importantly the feet were completely wrong. They were set sideways on the legs instead of facing forward as one would expect feet to be. It looks exactly like a 2D representation of Bes, so has clearly been made by somebody modern who didn't understand the differing artistic conventions of Ancient Egyptian art in 2D or in 3D. It's a mistake that would be inconceivable for an Ancient Egyptian. Marée also showed us another Bes artifact with the opposite mistake - a 2D presentation with the feet shown facing forwards: another clear fake.

Prince Khaemwaset

Genuine Ramesside Era Prince on Luxor Temple Walls

Other examples are rather more subtle, like a relief of a Ramesside era Prince. At first glance it looks plausible, but then Marée went through the way in which both face and hair are wrong in many details as compared with an authentic example (from the temple walls at Luxor as above). The eyes are the wrong shape, as are the nose and chin. The hair style is also different, and the skull too big and bulbous at the back of the head. This is not an ancient artist working within the rules of the Ramesside canon, it's a modern forgery by someone who doesn't know the subtleties of what he or she is copying.

Marée's second criterion was whether or not the damage to the piece looked accidental. And if it wasn't accidental does it look like deliberate damage done by Ancient Egyptians - like removal of the nose of a statue or erasure of a name. Several of his examples for this criterion were heads of "statues" that had "broken off" yet had miraculously undamaged faces - it seems implausible that severe enough damage to smash the head from the body would leave the features so intact. The lines of the break in each case were too aesthetically pleasing (and looked like they had been cut with multiple blows rather than one catastrophic event).

One of these examples had also been part of a collection which had contained various dubious artifacts. As well as this head without a statue Sydney Bernard Burney had also owned a torso of a tiny lapis lazuli statue. This object looked like it had been made by the same maker as the head, but they didn't reflect a single template so they must both be modern forgeries (as an ancient Egyptian would be constrained by the rules of his time). The torso also has nonsense hieroglyphs carved on it, and the quality of the piece is far too poor for such a precious & high status material. Along with these pieces Burney had also owned a couple of unusual lapis lazuli items (a bowl and a jackal head), some more heads from statues (now known to be fake, including a purported Middle Kingdom example that the British Museum now owns which Marée has taken off display). And a couple of the notorious crystal skulls that purport to be ancient South American artifacts but were actually made by machine tools in the 19th Century.

The next criterion is to consider if the item is a close copy of a known original - and does the copy reveal that the copyist has no idea what he is copying? Marée's first example was a copy of a seated scribe statue that is now in the Louvre - it is a pretty good copy but has no inscription on the scroll on the scribe's lap despite having the space for it. Another example was of an offering table, in this case the copyist had done a good job on the hieroglyphs including filling in a piece that was missing on the original. But the artifact as a whole is far too thin, offering tables are always big slabs not thin sheets of stone. Another example shows how fakes can sometimes be useful to Egyptologists. This was a stela in the collection of Lady Meux which was published by Wallis Budge - it matches an original in every detail. It was once assumed that there were two stelae but Marée assured us that when you look closely at Lady Meux's stela it's clearly a fake. The usefulness comes from the fact that the copy hasn't deteriorated like the original - so there are details on that copy which can no longer be seen on the original.

Another example was a statue of Tetisheri purporting to be from the 18th Dynasty - the base of it is an exact copy of an original, even down to some of the damage (which had removed part of an inscription). Of course on the copy you can see chisel marks rather than a fracture mark. Looking at the rest of the hieroglyphs you can see why the forger hasn't wanted to risk inventing the missing piece of inscription - there are mistakes that an Ancient Egyptian wouldn't've made, like writing a hetep sign without its loaf of bread. The original now has no torso or head, but the copy does so there is a debate about whether or not this upper part is an invention of the forger or a copy of a now lost piece of the statue. Part of the debate hinges around the hairstyle which is unusual, but Marée said it's not unique so can't be used to definitely say whether or not it's an invention.

Marée's next example was of an entire collection - the Mansoor collection. These pieces all purport to come from the Amarna era but are all copies. Generally not as good quality as the originals and often direct copies of known pieces. (When I was looking it up on wikipedia to check the spelling of Mansoor it was clear the article was written by someone who believes the pieces to be genuine.)

Marée finished the first half of his talk by telling us about a piece that came on the market in 2004 in Brussels at a problematic dealer. It is a small double statue that looks pretty ugly - the male figure of the two is leaning at an odd angle, the ears are big, and it just generally looks a bit rubbish. The inscriptions do make sense, but there are Old Kingdom names on these Middle Kingdom style figures. Perhaps they were named by parents inspired by the Old Kingdom? This would suggest a Memphite provenance, which fits with other details of the inscriptions - the man is named as a priest of Sokar, who is a deity known to be worshipped in the Memphite area. But there just aren't that many Middle Kingdom sculptures that have been found in the Memphite area, and this dealer had another one as well. By chance at a conference Marée saw a talk about the discovery of Middle Kingdom artifacts at Memphis. As part of the talk the speaker showed a photo of a statue in the process of excavation and it looked very like the statue up for sale in Brussels! So after the talk he asked the speaker where she'd last seen the statue she'd excavated. She explained that it had been found near the end of the dig season and had been packaged up in a crate and locked safely way in the Inspectorate. So they arranged for this to be checked and when this crate was opened 2 days later there was a fake in the place of the statue she had found! Marée showed us a picture of this fake, and it was really shockingly poor work - the original which we'd all thought looked a bit rubbish was much better quality than this replica. This demonstrated one of the points Marée had made at the beginning of his talk - just because it looks a bit rubbish, doesn't mean that a piece isn't genuine. In one sense the fake looked nothing like the original, but it did match the written description in the inventory at the Inspectorate - down to things like having black marks on the stone of the base because those were noted, but the black marks weren't in the same places nor the same shape.

Having discovered that this artifact for sale in Brussels was stolen Marée next went to the police to try and get it returned & the perpetrators apprehended. This was a long drawn out process - he had to contact his local police (the Met) and then in theory the report would move through the various levels of bureaucracy and international police forces and end up in the hands of the Brussels police force who could go and seize the statue. Sadly in practice the process was nothing like that simple, and Marée ended up having to ring the Brussels police himself several times and even then nothing happened for 7 weeks. By that stage the statue had "disappeared" from the Brussels dealership - although the second statue was still there to be confiscated and returned. It wasn't any surprise that the first statue had "disappeared", because it had been found dumped in a plastic bag outside a museum in Egypt having been smuggled back into the country. All this indicated that the criminal was someone who had inside knowledge (so knew the first statue had been identified) and that they hoped that if they returned it then the investigation would stop. Unfortunately for him it didn't - he was caught and is now in jail. Unsurprisingly he turned out to be an employee of the Inspectorate the statue had been "securely" stored in.

After our break for coffee and cake Marée returned to his criteria for judging authenticity of artifacts. The next is that fakes generally show a lack of originality, those that do attempt something other than a direct copy show a lack of understanding of the subject matter. His first example illustrating this was a stela with a figure holding a was sceptre - not an unusual motif in general, but entirely inappropriate on this type of stela. The inscriptions also show a lack of understanding - it's an offering formula and starts out looking alright (although there are several mistakes) but once it gets past the initial part that many of us can recognise it descends into gobbledegook. This item was sold in the 1960s, in a sale where everything turned out to be a fake!

Another example he showed us was a seated male figure, purporting to be a statue of a Vizier (a title roughly equivalent to Prime Minister). All other statues of Viziers show them wearing a wrap around cloak, but in this one there is no cloak which left the forger with a problem to solve. Peeking out at the top of the cloak on a Vizier can be seen some strings and Egyptologists assume that these lead to some sort of pectoral or badge of office. But the forger wasn't aware of this so he guessed that the strings would just extend down the body to the kilt - making it look like the Vizier was wearing braces! It had once been in a private Belgian collection that has turned out to almost entirely consists of fakes. The art dealer selling this refused to believe Marée when he said it was a fake, so the artifact is now in the St Louis Museum. And he was not the only one, another item from that Belgian collection was put up for auction by Sothebys who also refused to believe their artifact to be a fake (so someone bought that one for £1.5million).

Marée's next example was a head of Tutankhamun - stylistically and technically impressive, but nonetheless a fake. The crown shows clearly where there are problems, it's based on an image of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun on a throne found in Tutankhamun's tomb but the sculptor hasn't been able to properly parse the elements of the crown. It is quite a complex composite crown, with several elements to it, and about halfway up there are a pair of rams horns which are quite hard to pick out on the throne image unless you really know what you're looking at. The forger has clearly been unable to figure out what these were, so added a rectangular block border like you would find on a tomb wall! And further up the crown it continues to go off the rails - the sun disks look more like donuts and the "ostrich feathers" look nothing like anything to do with ostriches or indeed feathers. So up to the crown the forger knew what he was doing and then his lack of deep knowledge was exposed when he tried to improvise. This item was intended to go up for auction at Christies, but after asking Marée to authenticate it they didn't sell it.

Marée's next two examples both have evidence for deliberate alteration in modern times - so I think this may be the criterion that I failed to note down during the talk. The first of these is a head of a statue that has been acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts reasonably recently for a large sum of money. Marée believes this to be a fake for a variety of reasons (although the museum disagrees and has kept the piece on display). It purports to be a piece of private (i.e. non-royal) sculpture from the 12th Dynasty, and it has Senwosret III's features. But private sculpture of the period is normally smaller than this example, and generally isn't as good a copy of the King's features. Also the wig is all wrong - it has no undulations or striations like a 12th Dynasty example of this type of wig would. Instead it is completely smooth, and looks like a 13th Dynasty wig rather than a 12th Dynasty one. But the face is equally clearly of the 12th Dynasty style. The damage is as with other fakes - not really consistent with this head ever having had a body - but there is a twist here. There is a photo of the piece in an archive in the Brooklyn Museum which was taken 60 years ago, and at that time the piece had more wig and more of the shoulders! The wig looked even less plausible at that point, and Marée thinks it is clear that the piece was recarved to remove this problematic area. And it must've been done by the original forger or someone in the know, because you wouldn't just hack away at a legitimate piece like that.

The other example also purports to date to the reign of Senwosret III - it is a small seated statue of the king. It already raises doubts because it is too small for royal statuary of the period. Looking more closely it also has no inscriptions except for the cartouche on the belt which is unusual. But once there were inscriptions, and these were removed in modern times - so clearly they were problematic. And thus the piece must be a fake as otherwise it wouldn't be "edited" like this.

Marée's next criterion was to think about whether we can determine where a piece was made and what it was made for. His first example was a sculpture head purporting to date to the Old Kingdom. It's said to be "provincial work" - i.e. not made in the court workshops but out in the provinces, which would explain why it is of poorer quality. The problem is that the only known sculpture workshops in the Old Kingdom are in Memphis and are court based, there were no provincial workshops in this period. It also fails on other criteria - the head looks like it was cleanly chiselled off the "body" (which likely never existed) and the head is not the right shape. It is still on display, despite his passing on his opinion to the museum in question.

His next example was a small obsidian Anubis/jackal figure. The primary problem with this piece is that there is no obvious Egyptian context it could be made for. There are no known temples of Anubis where this could've been a cult statue, and anyway it's too small and the wrong material for a cult statue (which would be gold or silver). Jackal figures are often found in tombs on coffins, like the ones on Tutankhamun's coffin, but this figure is far too small for that context. And once again the wrong material - all known tomb sculptures are made of wood. So there's no obvious purpose for this unique item, which means it could well be a fake.

Marée's last criterion was whether there was any suspicious lack of inscriptions. His examples for this point were all stelae fragments. The common theme was that they were "broken" conveniently along lines which meant the inscriptions would've broken off (if they'd ever existed in the first place). One of these stela fragments is now in the British Museum (where it is no longer displayed), it looks like it is from the reign of Senwosret I in style but has no space at all left for the inscriptions one would expect. This along with other features has made him sure it's a fake.

To round out his talk Marée returned to a point he'd made at the beginning - just because something is unusual or of poor quality doesn't necessarily mean it's a fake. To illustrate this he showed us some less than fantastic quality items from well documented excavations. Some of these examples have been discovered at Edfu, dating to the 2nd Intermediate Period or early 18th Dynasty. The photos he showed us were of a stela, block statue & double statue which looked ugly and of poor quality. But nonetheless they had a secure provenance so are legitimate. There are also inscriptions on them which have hieroglyphs that fit the style of the period and the texts make sense. They are poor, but legitimate. Another example is also from Edfu, from the reign of Amenhotep I - a seated scribe statue, which is of poor quality but securely provenanced and matches the known Amenhotep I era canon of art.

He finished up with a handful of examples of items wrongly labelled fakes. One of these was 4 small pieces hacked from a statue base of a statue of Amenhotep III depicting Asiatic prisoners beneath the king's feet. He had identified them as real, and even identified the site they came from, and so they were repatriated to Egypt from the dealer who had intended to sell them. However on arrival in Egypt the authorities there judged them to be fakes and put them in storage. It took him a lot of work to persuade them that these pieces were real and should be returned to the place they had been stolen from rather than remain in Cairo in storage.

Another example was a stela from the reign of Amenemhat II. It had once been exhibited as a forgery, but when he had the chance to examine it he was able to identify it as work done by a particular ancient artist. And his last example was of a statue of Amenemhat III, which is real but has been re-worked at some point in modern times. It has been sanded down to make the nose & face less damaged, which obviously alters the features. Marée contrasted this with the sorts of modern alteration he'd talked about earlier - the first type is more a wholesale removal of parts of a piece, so the sort of thing you'd only do to a fake. But this second type is more subtle and more akin to restoration (tho rather more invasive than real restoration should be!).

In the question and answer session at the end Marée was asked if he destroys fake objects. He said he doesn't, but he's aware some Egyptian authorities do smash them. He thinks fakes should be kept for educational purposes. And also because experts can be wrong, as he had been pointing out in the last part of his talk - further examination might overturn a verdict of forgery. But he does strongly feel that they should be taken off display.

One of the things that kept coming up throughout the talk was that forged items often get sold on the art market. Marée told us that he's involved in setting up a body that will identify authentic & forged items and certify them so that buyers can be more sure that they aren't being ripped off. He was talking about working with the dealers as well as with potential buyers, holding out the carrot to dealers that if they get items certified they'll get more interest from buyers.

This was an absolutely fascinating talk and an insight into the way that an expert examines an artifact for signs of forgery. It's certainly made me look at things more closely as I see photos of objects. And I have great appreciation for the skill and breadth of knowledge necessary for Marcel Marée to authenticate the objects he examines!

At our May meeting Claudia Näser came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about her work excavating at the fortress Shalfak in Lake Nubia. Shalfak is an ancient Egyptian fortress, part of a chain built along the Nile during the Middle Kingdom in Nubia. These forts were once thought to have all been drowned in the lake that was formed when the High Dam was built in the 1960s. The name of this lake is Lake Nasser for the portion inside Egyptian borders, and Lake Nubia for the portion inside Sudanese borders - Shalfak is 50km south of the Egypt/Sudan border and thus is in Lake Nubia. In the early 21st Century Google maps images showed that two of the drowned forts were actually above the water level of the lake and projects were begun to re-excavate them with modern techniques. It did take a while to get everything organised to be able to do so, and so Näser's project only started in 2016.

Shalfak was originally excavated by George Reisner's team in 4 weeks in 1931. Reisner was interested in the chronology of Egypt's presence in Nubia, but by the time he got to Shalfak his interest was waning and he felt he'd done what needed done. So he delegated this excavation to Noel F. Wheeler. Wheeler and Reisner subsequently fell out and so the work wasn't published very quickly - it was eventually published in 1967 based only on the written notes that were available. As a result it's a rather slight publication, only 22 pages to cover the whole site. Wheeler also excavated at high speed covering 60m2 per day which means he covered a lot of ground in his four weeks, but must've missed an awful lot as well.

The fort is part of a chain of forts that stretches for 400km along the Nile down into Nubia. The part of the chain at the second cataract is particularly densely packed, and Shalfak is one of these forts. The forts are documented in Ancient Egyptian sources, and so we know the Egyptian names for each fortress. Shalfak was called wʿf-ḫꜢs.wt which means "Which forces down foreign lands". It was built on top of a rocky hill, which is why it is still visible above the lake today. There were other sites around - a couple of associated cemeteries and some other structures - but these have all been covered by water except a small cluster of huts. Näser showed us on a diagram how far the water level rose as a result of the dam, and even though I know the lake is enormous and drowned all these sites it was still quite startling to see.

Näser's project started work in 2016 and she told us a bit about the state of the site when they turned up and what it's like to work there. It's astonishingly well preserved - there aren't many visitors of any kind, certainly no tourists but not even very many locals. Just a few goat herders and their goats. The climate is hyper arid, it never rains, so there's very good preservation of organic remains like timbers in the mudbrick. As the site is in Sudan it's not subject to the Egyptian government's ban on removal of material from the country, and so they were able to export samples for lab analysis in London and Berlin (where there is better equipment and the turn around for analysis is much quicker). This means that they have C14 dates for some of their finds as well as other analysis. But in other ways the site is less than ideal - Wheeler's excavation speed and methods mean that everything is disturbed and nothing is in its original place. He cleared the whole site down to the original floor level so anything he missed ended up in spoil heaps that have subsequently dispersed across the site. As a result they have no secure contexts for any of their finds - for instance there are pottery shards are all over the site which tell them something about what eras the fort was occupied for but there's no way to tell which part of the site any given piece came from.

Shalfak is very remote, it was in ancient times and is now. There are no modern settlements nearby, the lake level varies quite a lot and so there's no secure and convenient place to put a village. As a result the only people around are temporary migrant farm workers, who are all male. She described it as being a bit "Wild West" in feeling. No settlements, few people and no shops means that they have to bring everything they might need with them as a trek back to anywhere civilised would take some time. It would be prohibitively expensive to keep a boat at the island full time during their dig season so the first stage of getting anywhere would be to summon their boat. Then after getting back to the mainland it's still a 2 hour drive to Khartoum.

Due to the fluctuation of the lake level sometimes the island is very small with just the rocky outcrop and the fortress, and sometimes there is a larger swampy area next to them. There's always wildlife around, and it didn't sound like somewhere I would like to spend any time! The wildlife includes crocodiles, hyenas, camel spiders and scorpions. She said the most scorpions they've found in a single night was 95! Their water supply is either the lake, or a pump and pipeline bringing water to nearby fields. When the pump is working they can fill up a trough that she referred to as their "swimming pool" and use that for washing. But otherwise they need to bathe in the lake, which as health & safety person she insists people do in pairs - one to watch for crocodiles while the other washes!

The climate can also be rather unwelcoming. She told us about a sandstorm in 2018 where they nearly lost her tent - containing everyone's passports, all the project money and other necessities - which would've been a disaster. She'd pitched her tent high up on island near the fortress and it sounds like she probably won't do that again - a good view, but when the sandstorm blew in she had a long way to run to try to get to the tent. It was nearly blowing away when one of her colleagues managed to catch it, and then she & this colleague spent a couple of hours in the sandstorm lying on top of it making sure it didn't blow away. After a while they and the rest of the team managed to retreat behind the walls of the fortress which gave them some protection but they still needed to pin down the tents with their own bodies to keep them safe. A lot of their stuff did get blown around the island but they were very lucky and managed to find and retrieve almost everything.

Näser said this experience brought home to her how difficult life must've been for the Ancient Egyptian soldiers stationed there. And this indicates how important these forts must've been to the Egyptian state - it was difficult to live there, difficult and expensive to supply and support, so it must've been seen as a necessity.

Having set the scene Näser now moved on to telling us about their work over the last few years. They began by mapping the site using modern technology, which is much more efficient and accurate than the methods Wheeler would've used over 80 years ago. The interior of the fort is 1800m2. The walls stand to over 1m tall even now, and are 8m thick in places. Compared to Wheeler's map the outer walls appear to have eroded significantly over the last 80 years. But this comparison needs to be approached with caution - as with many other archaeologist's maps of the era it isn't clear how much of his map is an accurate representation of what's on the ground and how much is drawing how it "should be".

Based on their own map and the publication of Wheeler's work they chose two areas to begin their excavations. The first of these (Area 1) might've been less excavated by Wheeler and is outside the North Gate of the fort. Wheeler's notes had indicated that there was an interesting basin. These basins are found in a lot of similar sites but their function isn't known so it was a promising place to reinvestigate. Area 2 was the granary which they wanted to re-excavate with modern technology. Granaries can tell you a lot of things about potential population size and the economic situation with respect to the other forts and the surrounding locals. There is also the chance to find out what foods were being stored if you're lucky enough to find remains, so it seemed place with a lot of potential to learn about the fort.

Näser told us that the stratigraphy for Area 1 was very shallow - this means that the bedrock was very close to the surface. So they had to be very careful not to brush too enthusiastically as they might remove the last traces of mudbrick remaining. They uncovered a 200m2 area of mudbrick floor surrounding the basin. This is something found in workshop areas where you need a clean and solid floor.

Next to the basin and floor were three rooms attached to the exterior wall of the fort and with access to the North Gate. These are drawn on Wheeler's map but Näser and her team have been able to discover more about the alterations these rooms went through over time. In the first phase they were as Wheeler's maps show - three storerooms just outside the fortress (an arrangement seen at other forts as well, Näser gave Askut as an example). There are remains of plaster on both walls and floor, some of which goes continuously round the corner onto the exterior wall of the fort showing it was constructed as a single phase. During the second phase there were internal walls added in the rooms, making them smaller with a corridor along the back. The entrance in the north wall was also blocked up. Like the first phase this was done during the Middle Kingdom occupation. There is also a much later phase with the addition of small fireplaces - this is probably Medieval Christian reoccupation of the site in the 10th Century CE.

Returning to the basin Näser discussed possible interpretations for these features. One possibility is that they are libation basins, but there is no sign in the architecture surrounding it of anything that looks like a temple. There wasn't anything left inside it which could be used to tell what its contents were, either. Näser thinks it's unlikely to be for washing or purification, because there's no easy way to drain the basin to replace it with clean water. She also thinks that makes it unlikely that it's storing a liquid that's intended as food or drink. Her idea is that it might've been a water tank to store fish which were to be eaten, so that they would be as fresh as possible.

Behind the three rooms in Area 1 was a large structure running the whole length of them. In Phase 1 there was no entrance to this room, although in a later phase it's given access to the outside. Inside the walls they found Middle Kingdom building rubble, and so she thinks this was a platform that a building was built on. It's possible that this is where the temple for the Middle Kingdom fortress stood although there is no evidence of it any more.

A photo of a tomb model of a granary from the Middle Kingdom tomb of Meketre in the Met Museum
Tomb Model of a Granary with Scribes from the Middle Kingdom Tomb of Meketre, now in the Met Museum. Photo by John Patterson.

After a break for coffee and cake Näser continued her talk by telling us about what they found in the second area they excavated - the granary. On Wheeler's map this is shown as several storage rooms in two rows, plus a large room running across one end of these rows - there was a possibility that this room was a chapel so that was another reason to re-excavate this area. Wheeler had cleared this area down to the floor level, but even so after 80 years there was sand in all of the rooms again drifting up to 1m deep in the corners. Näser compared the layout of this area with a tomb model of a granary found in the Middle Kingdom tomb of Meketre which is now in the Met Museum, see above for a photo John took when we visited New York a few years ago. By comparison with this model it seems that the putative chapel is much more likely to be the administrative office for the granary. The storage chambers have no entrances visible, so like the model were only accessible from the roof (which is long since gone).

Wheeler's rapid excavation means that a lot of potential data has been lost - particularly evidence that he wouldn't've realised existed. So it was very exciting to learn that Näser and her team had discovered there was still some organic material in the corners of the rooms - including bits of grains. They flooded all these out of the sand they were mixed with using a jury-rigged contraption made from waste bins (and did this down near the river so also had someone watching for crocodiles as part of the operation!). Once they had got rid of the sand they had 16 bags of grain bits, which she took to Khartoum and then flew over to Europe for analysis. They found that they contained barley, emmer wheat, Nabak berries (which were eaten during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom) and watermelon seeds. As well as being able to tell what the various foodstuffs were they could also use some of the samples to get C14 dates. The wheat, the barley and some samples of the timbers in the wall dated to the second half of the 12th Dynasty (i.e. the time of the Pharaoh Sesostris III* who is supposed to've built it). The watermelon seeds dated to the later 18th Dynasty re-occupation. Näser pointed out that although the image of the soldiers bringing along cartloads of juicy watermelons to this desert fortress is amusing it's also false. Watermelons of the time were bitter, and not juicy and sweet like they are now. People actually ate the seeds, and so the seed fragments found are probably all that was brought and stored in the granary.

*Näser used "Sesostris" throughout her talk so I have followed this in my write up, but the name is more often given as Senwosret or Senusret in modern books.

Näser summarised this part of her talk by telling us her proposed chronology for the site. It was initially built in the reign of Sesostris III and was used extensively during the Middle Kingdom. This included remodelling the fortress as the alterations to Area 1 were done in this period. There is no Second Intermediate Period pottery on the site so after the collapse of the Middle Kingdom the soldiers pulled out and went home. This is unlike the situation in the northern fortresses in the chain where the soldiers remained and went native in the Second Intermediate Period. Shalfak was then re-occupied in the early New Kingdom during the re-occupation of Nubia at this point. They reused the granary at this time.

There is no sign of a temple during the New Kingdom occupation, just like the Middle Kingdom occupation, however they have indirect evidence that some sort of ritual activity was taking place at the site. Part of this evidence is a document from the time of Thutmose III, and part of it is a basin discovered at Shalfak with a dedicatory inscription around the rim. The same (possibly fictitious) wife of Sesostris III is named in both cases.

Näser now moved on to tell us a bit about what they have found out about the materials and technology used by the builders when they built Shalfak in the Middle Kingdom. The outer walls of the fortress were painted - but not just white (as they expected). They also had colours (I think she said yellow & red). As well as evidence on the walls themselves they found an area just outside the walls where pigments had been prepared.

The mudbrick walls are reinforced with timber and with matting - in an analogous way to the way that reinforced concrete has iron in it. The wood remains are petrified due to the hyper-aridity which made it difficult to get samples, but they did succeed and were able to have those (and samples of the matting) analysed. Both the wood and the grasses used in the mats were local to Shalfak rather than having been transported from Egypt with the soldiers. The mudbricks come in two types - the regular ones are used in most of the fortress and higher quality "white" bricks are only used in the commander's office (and some other special places). Näser said they were analysing samples of these to see what the differences were.

Despite Wheeler's excavation having disturbed the whole site Näser's team have still been able to find a few items that he missed. One thing they found is a weight - they had someone in Khartoum weigh it accurately for them and found it was 11.8g. This is the weight of 1 unit of gold in Ancient Egypt, so that tells us that the people in the fortress were weighing and processing gold. It was also made locally with local stone rather than having been brought from Egypt.

They've only found 1 seal so far, in Area 1 - it has some of the titles of the vizier on it. Including Wheeler's finds only 30 seals have been found at Shalfak, which is a low number compared to hundreds at some other fortresses. This suggests that Shalfak was a pretty minor fortress at the time.

There is a lot of pottery still on the site, now scattered all over the place by Wheeler rather than where it was originally left. The types that they have found include 12 Dynasty Egyptian pottery that's specific to fortresses, and also some local Nubian pottery. The latter has been used to suggest that the soldiers married locals, but as Näser pointed out you don't to marry someone to have some of their pots!

Näser finished by summarising what they know about Shalfak and talked a little about what they want to do when they next excavate. Shalfak is a small fortress compared to others (particularly the more famous Buhen fort), and was probably built to make communication between the two larger forts on either side easier. The northern forts in the chain were constructed by Sesostris I, and the ones at the 2nd Cataract (including Shalfak) were built in the reign of Sesostris III. They are later reoccupied in the 18th Dynasty, but this occupation isn't documented in contemporary documents in the same way that the 12th Dynasty buildings were, so it was perhaps on a smaller scale. In the next dig season they've identified two areas they want to work on - one is the commander's building, and the other is an area that may've been less thoroughly excavated by Wheeler (so there may be more there to discover).

In the Q&A session after Näser finished the talk she also told us her population estimate for the fort is a few hundred soldiers - and just men, with no wives/families whether local or brought from Egypt. These men were stationed there, not living there. She also thinks that building these forts must've taken even more resources than the building of the pyramids in the Old Kingdom. Which tells us about their priorities - military and territory, not tombs for dead kings. She thinks it was rather a miscalculation on their part too, as she doesn't think the evidence suggests Kerma (the Nubian culture of the time) was worth as much as the resources the 12th Dynasty poured into those forts.

This was a fascinating talk - not only did we hear about the exciting information that modern excavation techniques can still get from a site that has been so thoroughly excavated in the past, but we also got to hear about the practical difficulties of working in such a remote place. I don't think I'd like to spend any time at Shalfak myself, I like my creature comforts too much, but I'm glad it miraculously survived the building of the High Dam and that people are able to find out more about these forts.

At the beginning of April Reg Clark came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work on tomb security from Prehistoric to Early Dynastic Egypt. While are lots of lurid stories about tomb robbers (and Clark showed us some clips from films) these date to later in Egyptian history, and the measures taken to prevent robbery in earlier periods are not much studied in their own right.

Clark began by talking about why tombs need to be protected. The first obvious answer is that the Egyptians were buried with grave goods, so an elite tomb had treasure in it and was worth breaking into. The second reason that they didn't want this to happen is that the tomb and the body are necessary for a good afterlife. After death a person's spirits/souls separate from their body, the ka will remain in the tomb and the ba can come and go. However both must reunite with the body to form an akh (the transfigured form of the deceased who has entered the afterlife). So if tomb robbers enter the tomb and destroy the body then the deceased will not enter the afterlife.

The structure of the main part of Clark's talk was a chronological discussion of the development of tomb architecture over time in royal and elite graves, looking particularly at what features were intended to frustrate robbers. He gave many examples during each period of history before summing up the developments of that period. I know I haven't noted down the details of every single one, and it's quite difficult to write up such a talk without it turning into a laundry list of names and places, so instead I shall try and give a flavour of the examples he talked about.

The earliest deliberate burials in the Nile valley date to 17000 BCE, but his first real examples were from Gebel Sahaba and dated to the Neolithic (12000-10000 BCE). These were shallow pits, covered by stones to protect them from animals and erosion. By the Badarian Period around 5000 BCE graves had become a bit more complex - the back filled pits were now covered by an overlying mound which offered some protection and a focus for offerings. And there is evidence of tomb robbery during this period too - perhaps the tombs were easier to find because the mounds made them visible, or perhaps the robbers were the people involved in the burial.

During the 4th Millennium BCE (the Predynastic Period) tombs developed wooden and then mudbrick superstructures culminating in the mastaba form we recognise from the Early Dynastic Period. Royal graves of the Naqada I Period (3900-3400 BCE) had wooden roofs. In the Naqada II Period (3650-3300 BCE) the tombs were also lined with mudbricks. This was partly to stabilise the pits, but these features also made it hard for robbers to tunnel into the tomb. At Hierakonpolis Tomb 23 had no evidence of a roof but there is evidence for a wooden funerary enclosure and a superstructure which at some point was burnt down. The design of the later Tomb 100 (also called the Painted Tomb) appears to be a response to this destruction - the decorated parts of the tomb are also underground where they are safer. By the Naqada III Period Tomb UJ at Abydos (the tomb thought to be that of King Scorpion) had taken this trend further with more of the tomb structures underground. This tomb was modelled on a small palace and mudbrick lined with a roof below the level of the ground. This strong construction may well've been for security reasons.

Elite tombs of the same period in el Kab, Lower Nubia and Hierakonpolis also show development of security features. Some use stone slabs as the roof pit - part of the developing technique of using stone - and some have side chambers that are close off with stone. Tomb 2 in the HK6 cemetery at Hierakonpolis represents the cutting edge of elite tomb security in the Naqada III era. It has a burial pit with a step around the rim to hold a stone lid which would be hard to lever out. The entrance to the side chamber was intended to be covered with a limestone portcullis, and it would've been plastered to further hide it.

Clark now moved on to the Early Dynastic Period, talking first about Dynasty 0 and early Dynasty 1 burials. The key points he wanted to draw out here were that the tomb lining was reinforced, as was the roof. And the superstructure of the tomb was useful to protect the tomb from tunnelling robbers both from above and from the side. For instance the tomb of Aha (an early king of Dynasty 1) had 2 metre thick walls, and the evidence is that the roof was much bigger than the structure underneath and it was then covered with a large sand mound. The tombs of his successors had two mounds - one on top of the roof but below the level of the desert floor and then a visible on over the top of this. Clark told us that Günter Dreyer gave symbolic explanations for this sort of structure, but that to him it was also clearly a security measure. In particular a large sand mound will collapse as it is tunnelled into so this forces any robbers to start digging fairly far away from the tomb which makes it more difficult to successfully tunnel into the chambers. The private tombs for this period were built at Saqqara (on limestone, for the high nobility) and at Helwan (on softer ground, for lesser persons). They also have buried roofs that are lower than the level of the ground with mounds on top, and reinforced walls. None of this stopped the tombs being robbed in antiquity.

The key development of the second half of Dynasty 1 was the use of staircases to access the tomb which meant that the tomb could be finished and roofed before the person was ready to occupy it. But this staircase was also easier for robbers to attack - for instance the tomb of Qa'a (the last king of Dynasty 1) had a staircase that was subsequently blocked with a portcullis but once the robbers had access to the stairs all they had to do was tunnel round the portcullis once they got there. Elite tombs of the period copied the royal ones, with staircases blocked with portcullises. Some were completely under ground with no superstructure giving away the entrance. In softer ground the pits were lined with stone to protect them from tunnelling. They also varied the substructure between tombs so that robbers couldn't tunnel to the same area each time and always reach the burial chamber.

After a break for coffee & cake Clark moved on to discuss the tombs of the 2nd Dynasty. The first king of the Dynasty moved the royal cemetery from Abydos to Saqqara and changed the design of his tomb. Instead of a pit with chambers much like a palace the substructure of his tomb consisted of a lot of tunnels blocked with limestone portcullises. It was built by tunnelling underground so the whole layout was not seen during construction. This new design and construction meant that the roof was of unlimited thickness (as it was solid rock above the tunnels not a man-made structure). Later kings moved back to Abydos and the old design, but the last king of the Dynasty (Khasekhemwy) used elements from both designs for his tomb at Abydos.

The elite tombs of this period had substructures of varying complexity and varying methods of closure. They made use of limestone strata to tunnel into in the same way that the new design of royal tombs did giving them the protection of stone above the substructure. As with the kings they also had mastabas as superstructures for protecting the staircase. Nonetheless robbers tunnels still always go to the right place in the tomb - Clark told us he's done a survey and 85% are robbed in this fashion. This implies that it is the relatives or the gravediggers as these are the people who know what the tomb layout is.

The Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid

The first king of the 3rd Dynasty was Djoser whose tomb started off covered with a stone mastaba. In order to provide more protection from tunnelling from above he added extra layers to it and built the Step Pyramid. This was then extended to cover the original staircase and a new access tunnel was built with its entrance hidden in a temple. Clark thinks that the shape is as close as they could get to a hemisphere, maximising the distance from any point on the structure to the weak spots underneath and a more efficient use of stone than a bigger mastaba. Djoser's successors also built step pyramids, not all of which were finished. The last of these was the Black Pyramid at Abu Roash, which was probably built by Huni. It was built on a rocky knoll to form the core of the pyramid which was then encased in mudbrick to give the right shape. The burial chamber was inside the knoll at thus at ground level, with an access tunnel leading up from there through the mudbrick pyramid. This made it less accessible to robbers than it would've been on the ground.

Elite tombs did not follow the royal tomb developments. Instead during this period they developed a novel feature of their own - a vertical burial shaft. This is much less susceptible to tunnelling than a staircase as it has a smaller cross-section and it was clearly seen to be successful in deterring robbers at least somewhat as it became a standard design feature after this. Shafts and staircases also began to be back filled with rubble, or gravel, or mud that would set like concrete.

Moving on to the 4th Dynasty Clark talked mainly about the three pyramids that Sneferu built at Meidum and Dahshur. These were true pyramids and he speculated that the smooth sides were possibly protective. They kept the feature of having the burial chamber above ground in the pyramid core access tunnel high up the side of the pyramid (and in the case of the Bent Pyramid this meant that when they changed the design part way through they had to build a new access tunnel). These tunnels were blocked with huge stones - kept in place at the top of the tunnel because the angle of the tunnel meant they wouldn't slide. This is his preferred explanation for why the tunnels pointed where they did - physical constraints rather than symbolically pointing at the stars. One of the satellite pyramids next to the Bent Pyramid has an access tunnel that was blocked by a different mechanism - plug stones that were designed to slide down the tunnel once the restraining block was removed. This is a feature that was also used by Khufu in the Great Pyramid.

Clark also talked about some examples of elite tombs from this period, including the tomb (of Atet at Meidum) where the Meidum geese were found. These tombs included security features such as portcullises and back filling the access tunnels with liquid mud that sets like concrete. Nonetheless all the examples he gave were robbed soon after completion - in one case actually before the tomb was even finished! Another robber left behind the stone carver's mallet that he had used to break into the tomb. So the robberies were done by the people involved in the construction of the tombs.

In conclusion Clark told us that he sees the developing tomb architecture over this period of Egyptian history as being an arms race between the robbers and the architects. The various architectural features are developed as an attempt to protect the tomb, and to make more vulnerable burial sites viable. But the original ideas behind the features were often forgotten over time and symbolic rationales were used to justify why tombs were to be built like this.

At the beginning of March Nigel Strudwick returned to the Essex Egyptology Group to tell us about his work on Old Kingdom texts. He did his PhD on administration in the Old Kingdom, so he told us that he has read every Old Kingdom text that has been discovered. Since his PhD he has spent a lot of time researching the New Kingdom in Luxor, and tomb robbery in New Kingdom Thebes was the subject of the talk he gave to the group in 2016. But more recently he has returned to the Old Kingdom texts with the desire to pass on his knowledge of them to a wider audience.

The standard compendium of texts was compiled by the German Egyptologist Kurt Sethe and published in the 1930s. It gives no indication of how the original text was written - it re-writes the hieroglyphs running in a left to right direction in horizontal rows. But the Egyptians normally wrote in a right to left direction and often in vertical columns as well so that gives a rather misleading view of what the original documents looked like. Despite this flaw the volume does give a lot of texts in one place so was a useful resource. However it's also pretty old and there have been significant discoveries of Old Kingdom texts since it was published. So Strudwick has published an updated compendium of Old Kingdom texts ("Texts from the Pyramid Age" as part of the Writings from the Ancient World series from SBL Press). The book contains about 300 texts, but it is not every known piece of written material from the Old Kingdom. He hasn't included the Pyramid Texts because they belong to a different category of texts - they are religious rather than administrative in nature. It also doesn't include 3 Wisdom texts which were ascribed to some Old Kingdom sages by the Egyptians themselves. They don't actually seem to be written in the Old Kingdom, they were just given ancient authors to increase their authority for their contemporary audience. A bit like the proliferation of quotes you see on facebook ascribed to some famous dead person when they're actually nothing to do with the named person.

Sandal Label of King Den

Sandal Label of King Den

The texts evolve from earlier beginnings. Strudwick showed us an example of an Early Dynastic piece of writing - a label of Den that is in the British Museum (I don't think it was the one that I have a photo of above but it was similar). It is mostly disconnected signs that don't make up a sentence. In the 3rd Dynasty the first continuous texts are written, and the texts get longer in length throughout the Old Kingdom. The language used in these texts is Old Egyptian, not the Middle Egyptian that most people learn if they learn to read hieroglyphs, and our knowledge of Old Egyptian is rather more vaguely defined. The language uses the same basic set of sounds as Middle Egyptian, although some are later to develop than others. For instance in Old Egyptian š is the same as ẖ which is not the case later. Other sounds merge later, for instance in Old Egyptian z and s are distinct letters but in Middle Egyptian they're interchangeable as are the pairs d and ḏ, t and ṯ. Old Egyptian tends to have more variable and fuller writings of words - for instance the word for scribe is always spelt with an initial zš in Old Egyptian but that is elided in Middle Egyptian. There are several writings of the verb sḏm but Middle Egyptian just has one standard version (this is the verb, meaning "to hear" that is used as the example for conjugation when you learn Middle Egyptian). Another difference is that Old Egyptian plurals are written by repeating the determinative 3 times, but in Middle Egyptian the determinative is written once with three strokes underneath it. (A determinative is a sign at the end of a word which isn't pronounced but indicates what sort of word it is, like a person or a city or a thing made of copper etc.)

The texts in Strudwick's book are divided into categories, and the bulk of his talk was spent going through some interesting examples from five of these. The categories are royal decrees, administrative documents, letters, private legal documents and biographies. He began with an example of a royal decree, which was a way that orders could be sent to officials. There are more examples of them from the Old Kingdom than there are from later in Egyptian history. Many temples had a royal decree carved in stone on their walls which set out what was permitted and what was forbidden in the temple. It would've been sent from the king on papyrus and then quite literally set in stone on the walls. Strudwick's example was a decree of the 6th Dynasty king Pepi I regarding the pyramid town for the pyramids of Sneferu found at Dahshur and now in the Neues Museum in Berlin (ÄMP17500). It was found buried in the cultivation zone, but despite having been buried in damp conditions for so long it is still in very good condition as it was made of high quality limestone. Strudwick had a four month sabbatical in Berlin where he studied this object, not just as an Egyptian text because he was also interested in the museumology of it. The Neues Museum had a rather bad 20th Century - it was badly damaged during the Second World War, and then after the war finished the Russians took many artifacts as part of the war reparations. These were eventually returned and the building rebuilt and refurbished, but it took decades to rebuild and re-display the collection.

The Dahshur Decree was found near the pyramids of two Middle Kingdom kings - Amenemhat II and Senwosret III - although the exact context isn't known. In the general area where it was found there is a lot of Old Kingdom pottery as well as Middle Kingdom pottery. Strudwick said that it was plausible that the pyramid town for the Old Kingdom pyramids of Sneferu was there and then it was subsequently a Middle Kingdom town for the two nearby pyramids.

One of the techniques he used to examine the stela was Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) - essentially one takes several photos of the object with different lighting and merge them into a single image. The software then lets one alter the light source and enhance the edge detection etc which often reveals details invisible to the naked eye. But in this case Strudwick said that the stela is actually in such good condition that there wasn't really much extra information to be found.

The text is a legal document, and as such is dense and confusing. There are five main sections: on the right hand side is a vertical column with the date, the top horizontal section gives the names of those the text is addressed to, the bulk of the text is in the middle section laid out both horizontally and vertically, and there are two more vertical sections to the left. The main part of the text is very efficiently laid out. The various statements start and end with identical phrases (e.g. several of them start "it is forbidden"). These headers and footers are written horizontally, and then the vertical columns that align with a particular header begin with that header. The headers are nested - so under one heading you have some columns that just start with those words, and another set of columns which have a secondary header. This meant the carvers didn't have to carve the same words over and over - a saving of both time and space on the stone.

The content of the text concerns things like exemptions from taxation and restrictions on what can be done at the temple or by the temple workers. So it lists specific taxes they don't have to pay, specific types of forced labour that the temple workers aren't eligible for, that the cattle belonging to the temple are exempt from levies etc. A lot of it is negative in tone - which gives some insight into what usually happened that the king is trying to prevent. There are also requirements to keep records up to date, and to keep the workforce at full complement (giving priority to the children of workers).

There are four references in the text to "pacified Nubians", which Strudwick said might be better phrased as "settled Nubians" or "Egyptianised Nubians". The Palermo Stone records campaigns by Sneferu into Lower Nubia from which he brought back a lot of captives. In fact he was said to've depopulated Lower Nubia between the numbers of captives brought back and the fleeing of the rest of the population. Strudwick suggests that these captives may've been settled near the site of Sneferu's pyramids and put to work to benefit the king's cult and it's the descendants of these people who are now being referred to.

Three sections of this decree have been deliberately erased and the people who chiselled out the sections of text were so thorough that there aren't even traces left to be picked up using RTI. Two of these erasures are in the list of addressees, what is left between them is the title "Vizier" without a name after it and with a big gap before it. One theory has been that it was more titles but Strudwick disagrees as that would not fit the usual format seen in other documents. Generally names are erased if the person concerned has fallen out of favour since the text was carved, and there is an inscription in the tomb of Weni that talks about Weni putting down a harem conspiracy at around this period. So Strudwick suggests that the large gap might've contained the name of a Queen who was later involved in this conspiracy, and the small gap after the title Vizier was the Vizier's name and he too was involved.

Strudwick now moved on to his second category of texts - administrative documents. His first example was the Wadi el-Jarf papyri which are perhaps the most famous of this type of document. Wadi el-Jarf was the site of an Old Kingdom harbour on the Gulf of Suez. It includes a series of galleries that the Egyptians used for storing boats. They weren't particularly adept sea sailors and so didn't sail during the winter when the weather was poor. If the boats were left in the harbour they might get damaged during storms so the Egyptians dismantled them and stored them in these galleries. A collection of papyri was found at this site which turns out to the be log book of a man named Merer which dates to the 13th cattle year of Khufu. It's the working diary of a crew who were involved in building the Great Pyramid, and is the oldest papyrus discovered in Egypt. It's laid out in columns for each day with the date written horizontally above the columns.

The primary subject of the diary is the work that Inspector Merer and his crew shipping stone from the quarries at Tura and what they did in the area of the Great Pyramid (which they called Akhet-Khufu). There are also entries detailing the departure & return of people sent to Heliopolis to bring back food for the work crew. In one sense the entries are quite banal - things like: "Cast off in the morning from Tura, sailed down river towards Akhet-Khufu, stayed overnight". But on the other hand this gives Egyptologists an insight into the organisation and lives of the Old Kingdom workers that they otherwise would not have.

After a break for coffee & cake Strudwick gave us a couple more examples of administrative papyri. The first of these were found at Abusir, between Giza & Saqqara. The first collection of papyri were found by illegal diggers in 1893, with more being discovered at the site in 1973. Abusir is a 5th Dynasty site with four pyramids. In the 5th Dynasty each pyramid has an associated Sun Temple - only two of these have been found but the texts say that every pyramid had one. The layout of these temples wasn't the same as the "standard" Egyptian temple - the altars for the sacrifices were in a courtyard open to the sun, in fact quite similar to the Aten temples at Amarna a millennium later. The Sun Temples also had an obelisk at the centre of the temple. The papyri collection record the administration and duty rosters for the temples but have no religious content except for incidental references. One example Strudwick showed us was a service list for the Festival of Sokar. It starts with the date and which group or crew of priests the document was drawn up for (using the same word for crew as in the Merer logbook). It says which priest should do which job - for instance "Those in charge of the Teba..." followed by two names. Another example was a delivery note, which gives the date and what was delivered to whom exactly as you'd expect from a parcel delivery service today! The third example was another short document - an entry pass with the names of two priests and the specific part of the temple they have permission to go into. Another example from these documents was another duty roster, this time for the daily rituals for a month. It looked exactly as you'd expect: it was divided into 30 rows, one for each day of the month, and there were different columns for the duties. A name was then written in each box, or someone was dittoed down the whole month for a particular job. The common theme of these documents is how very well organised the Egyptians were, and this is how they could manage such labour intensive & complicated jobs as building the pyramids.

Strudwick now turned to some examples of letters. The first of these was from an overseer writing to a Vizier (of a 6th Dynasty king) which was found near Saqqara. This is a reply to a previous letter of the Vizier's in which he'd order the overseer to send all the men on his work crew to come across the river to Saqqara to receive new clothes. But the overseer is writing back to complain that this is a ridiculous way to do things - why didn't the Vizier send the clothes with the letter carrier? If he'd done that they'd only lose one day of work, but everyone travelling to Saqqara would lose them 6 days of work!

Another letter was written on mud. It was found at the Dahkla Oasis, where they didn't have easy access to papyrus but did have a lot of mud. So they made mud tablets and then wrote on them with a stylus - much like the Mesopotamians did, but writing in hieratic not cuneiform of course. This letter complains that the builder hasn't yet turned up for a job, and can he be sent immediately. Strudwick emphasised that these letters show us how the Egyptians were people just like us, with the same sorts of concerns and personalities despite the cultural differences.

The next texts Strudwick showed us were legal documents. The first was a house purchase contract discovered at Gebelein which used to be the oldest discovered papyrus before the Wadi el-Jarf documents were found. It's in four parts. The first is the date of the contract. Next the first party (the seller) offers his house, and it gives the dimensions of the building. In the middle is the name of the witness and the oath he swears that this is what he witnessed. And lastly is the second party (the buyer) offering a large piece of linen. So this is another familiar type of document to modern eyes. It also tells us just how valuable linen was at the time.

Another legal document is found on the wall of the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the king's manicurists. This text sets out the funerary cult that they want established for themselves. Like the royal decree that Strudwick discussed earlier in the talk it is primarily negative - it says what the priests should not do and sets out penalties for reneging on their duties. So it's another example that gives information on what must've been common practice (otherwise they wouldn't be telling them not to do it).

Tomb Chapel of Methen

Tomb Chapel of Metjen

Most tombs of officials have some sort of biographical information - the theme is to project one's self into the afterlife, to memorialise oneself as Jan Assmann would say. In the Old Kingdom era the Egyptians thought the spirits of the deceased remained in the vicinity of the tomb so making sure that people who visited the area knew who was interred there was important. A very early example comes from the Old Kingdom tomb chapel of Metjen which is now in the Neues Museum (ÄMP 1105). It was discovered by Lepsius who published the reliefs. Strudwick has been working on this tomb chapel looking at both the object itself and Lepsius's original publication and squeezes. Squeezes are a technique used in the 19th Century to get accurate representations of a text on a wall - wet blotting paper was pressed on to the wall to take up the shape of the relief then peeled off once it was dry. Sadly this is a destructive technique and will pull any paint present off the wall, thankfully in this case there's no traces of paint on the squeezes from this chapel. The lithographs in the publication represent a great technological advance for the time - prior to this publication the illustrations would be engravings and generally made by an engraver who had no knowledge of the subject matter. But these lithographs were done under the supervision of someone who knew what they were looking at so are much better quality. The text in the chapel is a very early example of a biographical text, and in fact it can be argued that it might not really be biographical in nature. Instead it might be better thought of as a legal document detailing the setting up of funerary estates.

Strudwick's next example was from the tomb of a Brewer at Giza from around 2470 BCE, and is definitely biographical in nature. During this period the key things that people wanted to record were to do with how close they were to the king or events that they were part of that involved the king. And this biography details an accident that the brewer had in the presence of the king and not only that the king had addressed him! It seems he fell during some ceremony and the king accidentally hit him with his mace. The king then ritually said that he had not intended to hit him and that he should be well - otherwise the divine nature of the king and his mace would cause harm to the brewer. And the king also commanded that this should be recorded in the brewer's tomb.

Another example of this sort of recording of the proximity of the deceased to the king is found in the tomb of Nekhebu at Giza from around 2300 BCE. Nekhebu was an architect and his biography talks about the building works that the king put him in charge of all across the kingdom. He also makes sure to mention that the king rewarded him for doing his job well. So while there's more information about the man and his role in society the emphasis is still on the king and the king's opinion.

During the Old Kingdom the concept of an "ideal biography" arises. This lists everything that the deceased did right in his life, and includes phrases familiar to us about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. An early example of this is the biography of Harkhuf in his tomb at Aswan, dating to around 2700 BCE. He does include personalised sections as well as the general "I was a good person" text. So his biography also details his three journeys to Nubia, and the trade goods he brought back. And it also has an example of the importance of the king's opinion - one of the things he brought back from one of his trips was a dancing dwarf for the king (Pepi II, who was a child at the time). Pepi II wrote to him to make sure he was taking proper care of this dwarf on the journey, and Harkhuf has recorded that letter on the wall of his tomb.

The next example that Strudwick discussed was the tomb of Weni at Abydos. He'd actually mentioned the inscriptions in this tomb earlier in the talk when explaining the inscription on the Dahshur Decree of Pepi I. It is Weni's biography that gives us evidence for the harem conspiracy that might explain the erasures on the decree. Weni's biography also has poetic sections rather than just prose, so it lets us see the development of rhetorical styles during the Old Kingdom. This theme was reinforced by Strudwick's last example which was the tomb of Henqu II at Deir el Gebrawi dating to around 2150 BCE. Over the century or so since Harkhuf's biography was written new sections of the idealised biography have been developed.

Strudwick concluded by telling us he doesn't really have a clear conclusion for this work! It's not the sort of thing that lends itself to neat wrapping up statements, as it's a catalogue of all the texts we know of. There were some themes that he'd drawn out through the talk, however. One of these was that the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom were people, if not just like us then not very different. They had many of the same concerns even though their cultural context was different. Another point he made is that Old Kingdom texts don't include a couple of categories that we see from later Egyptian texts - literary texts and religious texts (other than the Pyramid Texts). There must surely have been oral traditions for both of these cases that weren't written down, although it's also possible that they simply haven't survived.

At the beginning of February Lucy Skinner came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about her work on leather technology in Ancient Egypt and Nubia. She's been a conservator working on leather for years, and is now doing her PhD at the University of Northampton and the British Museum. Earlier in her career she worked conserving leather items from Europe as well as from Egypt & Nubia. The European leather is generally waterlogged, so the dessicated leather from the Nile Valley is very different to work with as a conservator. There are other differences too, and she became interested in why it's so different and how it was made. Skinner told us that the main questions that her PhD research is focused on are: what animals were used to make Ancient Egyptian and Nubian leather? what processing techniques did they use? is Ancient Egyptian leather different from Nubian leather? does the material or methodology change over time?

In terms of time frame she is interested in leather objects from the Predynastic period through to the beginning of the Roman period. She set her cut-off point there because Romans bring European style leather technology with them, and that is well understood. Geographically she is interested in the whole sweep of the Nile Valley in Egypt and Nubia - from Alexandria in the north to Meroë in the south. Her primary approach is to investigate the objects themselves and try to reverse engineer the processes used to make them. There are quite a lot of Ancient Egyptian leather objects available for her to study in the UK and Europe, including at the British Museum, Manchester Museum, the Petrie Museum and Turin Museum. Nubian material is rarer in the UK so she is looking at items in the National Museum of Sudan that were excavated by Reisner, as well as items more recently excavated in Sudan.

Leather Sandals

Leather Sandals

(A note on the photos in this post: They're two examples of leather objects on display in the British Museum as of February 2019, but Skinner didn't mention either of them explicitly; they're just what I found to photograph.)

Skinner next gave us an overview of how leather is made in general and what evidence there is for specific processes in Ancient Egypt & Nubia. Leather can be made from the skin of any vertebrate, in each species the skin is a bit different so produces leather with different characteristics. For instance cow skin is very thick and so produces thick leather. The first step in the process is to kill and skin the animal. There are depictions of this in butchery scenes in Egyptian tombs, and Skinner also showed us a photo of a camel being skinned in the modern day so that we could see what it looked like. The skin next needs to be cured to stop it rotting before it is tanned. There are a couple of different methods to do this. One is to dry the skin, which is easy in Egypt and Sudan but less so in the UK! The method more commonly used in the UK is to salt the skin, and this is also sometimes done in Egypt.

When the time comes to use the skin it needs to be rehydrated, and any salt washed out. The next stage is to remove the hair & flesh, which is generally done by soaking it in a pit with lime to loosen the hair. This is then scraped off and she showed us a picture of the waste that this produces (from a modern tannery in the Nile Valley). Given how much waste is produced it's odd that there isn't much archaeological evidence of tanneries, but she said that no-one has really looked into it much. I think she also said that the waste might've been mistaken for butchering waste, and the two sorts of processing might happen at the same sites. Once the hair & flesh is removed the skin can also be shaved to make it thinner, and then stretched out flat to dry in the sun. Once dry any remaining hair & flesh can be scraped off.

At this stage in the processing the skin has become rawhide. This can be used as is - to make things like shoes. Sometimes they didn't even scrape the hair off. In Nubia, and in Predynastic Egypt, graves were lined with hairy rawhide. The hide can be softened before it's used by chewing it. Although there hasn't been much research done on this Skinner said that there are hints that the Ancient Egyptians did this.

Leather is made from the rawhide by tanning it, and this can be done in a variety of ways. The first method Skinner told us about was oil tanning. This is done using fish or vegetable oils that are worked hard into the skin. This processing method often removes the grain layer of the skin and so that can be evidence that an object was made using oil tanned leather. The surface of the leather produced this way is rough & fibrous rather than being smooth. The next method she talked about is called "Native" tanning because Europeans first encountered it in the context of Native American leather production. And Skinner told us that in a continuation of this Eurocentric attitude it's often overlooked as an option for Ancient Egyptian leather. This method involves using the brain of the animal, and working that into the hide to tan it - apparently each animal comes with enough brain to tan its own hide! She's trying to identify the fats present in the leather objects she is investigating in order to discover if oils or brains were used in their tanning. Often leather made using these methods was smoked afterwards which makes it more waterproof and a darker colour. She's not sure yet how to test for this part of the processing on her objects.

The last method Skinner told us about was vegetable tanning, using the tannin found in some plants - this is the European way of making leather. Leather produced in this fashion is quite resistant to water, unlike the other two methods. This might be why there is less leather in pre-Roman Egyptian and Nubian archaeology - after the Romans brought the new technology to Egypt leather objects are more likely to survive the years. And that also explains why what does survive is generally from elite tombs, which are drier. Vegetable tanning takes longer than the other two methods, and the processing takes place in distinctive pits. There are no signs of these pits in Ancient Egyptian and Nubian archaeological contexts, another piece of evidence that this wasn't how they tanned their leather.

Having talked to us about how leather is made Skinner next moved on to discuss other things one can discover by examining leather objects. The different parts of the hide of an animal are of different qualities and are good for different things - for instance belly skin generally produces low quality leather. Another factor that needs to be considered when cutting leather to make an object is the direction of the fibres in the skin. Leather made from different species is also suitable for different purposes. As mentioned earlier cattle skin is thick. Goat skin is very uniform and the leather made from it is of a high quality, unlike sheep skin which make poor quality leather which isn't very strong. One of the ways that Skinner is examining her objects is by looking at follicle patterns - these vary between species so you can use that to see what the leather was made from. She's also using more advanced analytical technology, including Reflectance Transformation Imaging and microscopy to examine the surface of the leather, but these methods are not always easy to use on ancient objects. One thing she pointed out was that looking at what species of animal leather was made from tells you more than just about the leather items themselves. It also gives you insights into other parts of the culture - like did they kill more goats than sheep? And that in turn tells you something about what each sort of animal was kept for.

Another analytical technique she's using on her leather objects is multi-spectral processing to look at the colours of the original items. Green and pink are the most frequent colours she has found. Probably these pigments soaked in better to the leather, unlike something like Egyptian Blue which would remain on the surface and then flake off. A bit later in the talk Skinner returned to the subject of colouring the leather, and told us that it's inaccurate to say that the leather was dyed - this implies that the material was dipped into the colour to apply it. Instead normally only one side of Egyptian leather was coloured. Flexible leather was generally stained, whereas parchment (another skin product) was painted.

As well as directly examining the items themselves she's looking at evidence from reliefs showing craftsmen to see how the Egyptians depicted the process themselves. The tomb of Rekhmire (TT100) includes more than one scene of craftsmen working with hides & leather. In one there is someone scraping a hide, cutting one into strips and working the hide. There is also a scene of a chariot being made - the wheels had rawhide "tyres" - and this scene also shows bow cases being made.

Leather Archery Wrist Guard

Leather Archery Wrist Guard

In the last part of her talk Skinner told us about a few of the items she's worked on in more detail, plus showed us some pictures of other examples. One of the items she's spent some time investigating is a chariot called the Tano Chariot, which is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where it was mostly forgotten about until 10 years ago. She worked for four months on the leather parts of it - starting with just a space on a gallery floor before they found a proper room for her to work in. The leather of this chariot includes the largest & oldest bits of leather still surviving in the world, probably dating to the 18th Dynasty so some 3000 or so years ago. These large pink & green pieces of leather were stretched across the wooden frame of the chariot. There are also surviving pieces of leather that come from the horse harnesses in yellow & green. Other pieces were to protect the wheels, and there were also pieces from the bow case. The leather was thick and made from cattle hide that was then decorated with an applique technique using pieces of goat hide. There are lot of layers to the leather and although it looks very decorative the decorative elements also make it stronger. Although nothing is known about the provenance there are signs of dirt on the leather so it was used rather than just having been made for the tomb. I don't think she mentioned it in her talk, but there's a book on the chariot to which she's contributed published last year by Sidestone Press.

Just before we stopped for coffee & cake Skinner showed some photos of other leather objects - including a sandal in the British Museum with a falcon decoration on it, some more shoes from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a funerary tent discovered in TT320 (also now in the Cairo Museum - there is a gallery of photos of this object on flickr taken by a Russian team working on it about a decade ago).

After our coffee break Lucy Skinner told us about some other work she's done on leather that is not included in her PhD (because it's on objects she can't remove from Egypt to subject to the various analytical methods her PhD research is based on). The first topic she discussed was her investigation of Nubian leather found in graves at Hierakonpolis. Clothing material was part of the cultural difference between Nubians and Egyptians - the Nubians wore leather and Egyptians wore linen. In the graves were lots of fine creased pieces of leather which must've been like suede when new. There were also tough and hardwearing loin cloths made of perforated leather found in female graves, and skull caps of perforated leather found in the graves of elderly women. Some of the material that has been found in these graves provides corroborating evidence for depictions of Nubians seen in Egyptian art. The reliefs in the tomb of Huy (TT40) show Nubians wearing leather belts and kilts made of perforated leather that looks like that found at Hierakonpolis. Also in the tomb of Huy is a depiction of a Nubian woman wearing a panelled leather skirt, and they have found fragments of leather that look like they come from that sort of garment. Another example is a tomb model from the tomb of Prince Mesehti at Asyut which shows Nubian archers who have embellished leather sashes, and some of the material from Hierakonpolis is decorated in beads in a similar fashion to the model.

Tutankhamun had a lot of leather in his tomb, but it was all in bad condition when it was excavated. This is because the tomb was quite moist, and a lot of the leather has basically turned into blackened glue. Skinner showed a photo of a sandal which had essentially melted into the bottom of the box it had been stored in. Some things were more intact and recognisable, however. Parts of his chariot were made of leather, which had been embellished with gold foil. In this case the decoration was made with raised parts on the leather and then the gold pressed over it, which is unusual. Also unusually some of the leather had traces of Egyptian blue on it.

Last year on Channel 5 (in the UK) there was a three part series about Tutankhamun, and Skinner was one of the experts filmed for that. The object she was talking about in the programme was Tutankhamun's cuirass (body armour), and so she finished up her talk to us by telling us a bit about what she'd found out about it during her research for the documentary. It was found in the Annexe, in a box under some furniture and was in reasonably good shape at the time of discovery (see this photo by Harry Burton from the original excavation). Sadly it has deteriorated since then - Skinner was keen to stress that this wasn't the fault of the Cairo Museum. Instead it seems that Howard Carter & team tried to unfold it using chemicals and instead damaged it. So in order to learn about it she studied both what remains of the object itself and also the original photographs. In addition she's been doing some experiments herself to see if she can make replica scales to see how it might've been made.

The armour was made of leaf shaped scales which were positioned in rows with each scale overlapping the next. There were ridges on each scale which helped to keep the pieces in place, and the scales were stitched together and then stitched onto linen. Carter said that there were six layers of linen, and that sort of leather coated multi-layered cloth is known from other contexts to be a rather effective armour construction. The lacing is different on different sections of the cuirass, and from examining the photos she things that there was diamond lacing on the outside of the scales on the skirt which would've made that a looser, flexible section. The chest section has horizontal lacing which makes it much stiffer. There are also traces of colour - reds and greens in alternating rows. She also examined the surfaces of the scales with Reflectance Transformation Imaging and this shows that surfaces of the scales are roughed up in some areas where they would be exposed. This suggests that the armour had been used - and the documentary used this as "proof" that Tutankhamun was a warrior king. She feels this is a step too far - there's no telling who the armour was made for, nor who wore it. She's hoping for the chance to do more work on this armour in the future - they have funding lined up and are just waiting on permissions.

This was a really interesting talk - I'd not realised in advance that there was so much difference between different sorts of leather, nor that there were different ways to make leather.

At the beginning of December Helen Strudwick came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about two sets of coffins that are part of the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where she is curator. She chose these coffins as the subject of her talk because she has recently been working on them a lot and they make for an interestingly contrasting pair. During her talk she showed us many pictures of the coffins she was discussing and pointed out interesting features of the decoration.

The first set of coffins she talked about belonged to a man called Nespawershefyt, who lived during the 21st Dynasty (c. 1000 BCE). The coffins are of a type called "yellow coffins" because they are predominantly yellow in colour. The set consists of five pieces: an outer box with a lid, an inner box with a lid and a mummy board.

Inner Coffin of Nespawershefyt
The Inner Coffin of Nespawershefyt, photo by John Patterson

The mummy board is highly decorated in a style that is well executed and detailed, and it is also highly varnished so the whole thing gleams. The complete coffin set is very impressively decorated, Strudwick said that John Taylor (the world expert on coffins) says that this is the best example of a 21st Dynasty coffin set in the world. One interesting feature on the mummy board is that one eye is shaped differently to the other - this is a common feature, but she has no idea why this was the case.

The inner coffin is where the mummy would've lain, with the mummy board directly on top of the mummy and then the lid on top of that. The underside of the mummy board is decorated with a representation of the night sky, so you can think of it as if the deceased is lying on his back looking up at the sky. The inside of the inner coffin is also highly decorated. The orientation of the decoration and text doesn't seem to make sense at first glance if you're thinking of the coffin as resting horizontally. But if the coffin is set vertically the text is then oriented so it can be read in vertical columns. Strudwick reminded us of Meghan Strong's work on artificial light and ritual around the coffin (Strong spoke to us last December, my write up of that talk is here). There were rituals during the funeral where the coffin was set up in front of the tomb entrance illuminated by torchlight. They think that the lids were taken off the coffins and the mummy board acts to cover the mummy (and present an idealised vision of the deceased) and to hold it in place.

The coffins were given to the Fitzwilliam Museum by two Cambridge students who were inspired by the rediscovery of Egyptian antiquities in the late 18th/early 19th Centuries including Napoleon's Description de L'Égypte. They took a trip through Egypt and back again, and picked up souvenirs of all sorts along the way. They gave the coffins to the Museum in 1822, although at that point the Museum didn't have a physical building so they had to be kept in storage until they were able to be displayed.

Despite being in the Museum for nearly 200 years the coffins haven't been thoroughly studied and the decoration is largely unpublished. There is an awful lot of decoration on the coffins! Strudwick rather amusingly said the craftsmen exhibited a "fear of open space" - every possible piece of every possible surface has something on it. She talked a little bit about two scenes on the inner coffin in particular. One of these is a rather fine Weighing of the Heart scene, which has, in fact, been published. The deceased is shown several times in the scene - being lead to the scales by Thoth, celebrating his success at passing the test, presenting his heart and eyes to be weighed against Ma'at. Strudwick talked a little about Ma'at, telling us that it's a concept that's difficult to define. She understands it as "everything being the way it should be" according to the cultural context of the time. One of the details in the scene that she pointed out was that the chain supporting the weighing pans is made up of djed and tyet signs - the symbols of Osiris and Isis respectively.

Another scene the she talked about is of Hathor as a cow coming out of the Western Mountain (see John's photo above). The Western Mountain is the Theban Hills at Deir el Bahri where Hatshepsut built her mortuary temple (and Montuhotep II did so too, centuries before her). The depiction of the mountain has a tomb door on it with a pyramid above it. Strudwick told us that Andrzej Newiński thinks that this is not just a visual metaphor but a real shrine that once existed in the hills above Deir el Bahri.

The outer coffin of Nespawershefyt is also covered with high quality decoration, including more scenes from the Book of the Dead. It's less shiny than the inner coffin and mummy board as it is only varnished on the yellow bits. The interior of this coffin is more simply decorated than the interior of the inner coffin - it has a large Osiris figure as a djed pillar on the bottom.

The lid of the outer coffin is pretty damaged, and so the decoration is hard to see. They have used a technique called Visible-Light Induced Luminescence to see it more clearly. This technique uses a quirk of one of the pigments used in Egyptian art. When Egyptian Blue is illuminated with light in the visible spectrum it emits luminescence in the infrared spectrum. So the technique involves taking two photos under visible light - one is what one sees with the naked eye, and the other is taken with a filter that only lets through the infrared spectrum. This latter photo gives a sharp image of where there are traces of blue in the decoration, and so you can see the motifs more clearly without the visual confusion caused by the damaged areas. The luminescence is a feature of only two pigments, Egyptian Blue and Han Blue - only the ancient Egyptians and ancient Chinese made a blue pigment in exactly this fashion. Strudwick told us that they have done experiments to try to make Egyptian Blue, with some success. The ingredients are similar to those of faience: silica, lime, natron and something copper based to make the blue colour. These are then heated to 900°C and kept at that temperature for 3 days for the pigment to form! This is an amazing technological achievement for the ancient Egyptians - within their known capabilities, but difficult for them to do. Of course, it's also possible that the experimental archaeologists have missed some "trick" that would make the process less extreme, but it doesn't seem so.

The damage to the lid is itself quite interesting in thinking about the "afterlife" of these coffins. There's a lot of scuffing near the feet, and the feet themselves are pretty greasy. Strudwick thinks the most plausible explanation is that before the students acquired them the coffins had spent some time in someone's house and been used as a bench! The scuffed area is where people had slid themselves back on the "seat" to sit down. And the grease on the feet is the sort of grease that you get off someone's hand. My mental image is of this beautiful and stunningly decorated coffin in the corner of a room with someone fidgeting about sitting on it, and leaning their grubby hands on the up-turned feet!

So who was Nespawershefyt? Strudwick explained that she likes to try as much as possible to get a feel for who the owner of a set of coffins was - after all they are not just artifacts, they are the final resting place of a person who was missed by his community. The name Nespawershefyt means "the one who is of the Great One of Shefyt". Shefyt is an epithet of the god Amun, and it means "ram's head" or "terror". In some places on the coffins Nespawershefyt is called NesAmun as a short version of his name. He's clearly an important person with several high status titles, which were God's Father of Amun(-Re King of the Gods), wab priest, supervisor of the workshops in Karnak and supervisor of the temple scribes in the House of Amun(-Re King of the Gods). The bits I've put in brackets occur in some places that the titles are listed on the coffins but not always.

While the coffins were being conserved relatively recently the conservator, Lucy Skinner, noticed something interesting about the titles. Each time that they occur the varnish is of a darker colour than the surrounding areas of text and decorations. Strudwick said that at first she thought maybe the coffins had been reused - that the names had all been repainted and revarnished. But on closer inspection it was clearly only the titles that were redone, so it seems that Nespawershefyt got a promotion after the initial decoration was finished. It was very important to the Egyptians to take their status with them into the afterlife, so that they would have access to all the resources and privileges that they had in life for eternity. And so once he was promoted the texts on the coffins were altered, and re-varnished.

Of course the next question is "what was underneath?"! In some places there are traces that are still visible - she showed us an example where there are clearly 5 horizontal lines beneath the hieroglyphs for the new titles. They've managed to piece together the phrase from the bits that are visible, and determined that his previous title was the Great One of the Water of the House of Amun. This is the only place that this title is known from so it's hard to be sure what it meant. But Strudwick speculates that plausible candidate for the "Water of the House of Amun" is the Sacred Lake at Karnak, which is near the craftsmen's workshops (so linking to one of his new title set). Strudwick also speculates that the craftsmen in the temple who he was supervisor of are the men who made his coffin.

Before our coffee break she talked briefly about their experiments in reproducing the coffins (only in brief as she was to return to the subject of the coffins' structure later in the talk). Geoffrey Killen is only of the people involved in this (he spoke to the group about Egyptian woodworking in October 2017, which is a talk I sadly missed - it's written up in the EEG December 2017 newsletter by Alison Woollard). One detail of the coffins that particularly struck me is the reason that some of the decoration is in relief - I'd always assumed it was carved into the wood, but instead it's because the pigment has been carefully applied layer upon layer until it forms a raised surface.

After the break for coffee & cake Strudwick moved on to talking about the coffins of an individual called Pakepu. This set is also a nested set with two boxes (plus lids), but there is no mummy board. Slightly confusingly the outer of the two coffins that they have is called the intermediate coffin as there once would've been a third, box shaped coffin which the intermediate one was inside. The coffins come from a later time period than Nespawershefyt's coffins - Pakepu died during the 25th Dynasty, c. 640 BCE. Pakepu's title was Water Pourer of the West of Thebes. This was an important role in the funerary industry of the time but not one of the top tier jobs. Essentially if you were wealthy enough you didn't make the trip to your relative's tomb every day (or however often was necessary) to make offerings (including the pouring of water libations) - instead you paid someone like Pakepu to do those rituals for you. So he wasn't poor, but he wasn't as wealthy as Nespawershefyt.

Inner Coffin of Pakepu
The Inner Coffin of Pakepu, photo by John Patterson

The coffins show that they're a bit cheaper - the decoration is not as high quality as that on Nespawershefyt's coffins. The vignettes and texts look more scribbled and the paint is more poorly applied, the overall effect is a bit sloppy. There are also signs that the draftsman didn't entirely understand the decorative scheme. For instances there are places where a figure is supposed to be labelled with a text, and despite not putting in any of the texts he's put the little bits of coloured background for the text extending down from the top line of the scene. Strudwick said that it's as if he knows those bits of colour are supposed to be there but doesn't know that their function is to be background for a text. If he did then he'd skip them if he wasn't planning to put a text there.

Pretty much all the differences are down to the skill of the artist as the pigments used for the two coffin sets are almost identical. The only difference in the pigments is in how much of the expensive yellow pigment called orpiment there is. All the visible yellow on Pakepu's coffins is yellow ochre, but most of the yellow on Naspawershefyt's coffins is orpiment. Where orpiment has been used on Pakepu's coffins it once again shows the lower skill of the artists - orpiment deteriorates rapidly (within hours, not days) if not varnished, so all the orpiment has changed to a sludgy brown colour and must've done so soon after the coffins were finished.

You can see some interesting things about how the coffin was painted from the sloppiness of Pakepu's decoration. For instance you can see how the artist stood on one side to paint each line across the lid in a single stroke as far as he could reach. Then after he'd done the whole of that side like that he went round the other side and started again on each line with no attempt to blend the new start into the existing paint. You can also see that he was running short of red pigment - the second side has clearly been done with more dilute paint as it runs and drips more and the coverage looks thinner. One example of this that she showed us a little later in the talk was of a goddess whose red paint had run so much it looked like she was having a nosebleed.

The decoration at the head of the inner coffin goes across the join between the lid and the box. The edges of the box and lid are also not smooth and look like they've been ripped open since the decoration was done. These two factors suggest that the mummy was sealed into the coffin at the point that the decoration was done. This wasn't the case for Nespawershefyt's coffin, which is corroborated by it being amended after he'd been promoted - the decoration must've been finished before his promotion thus before his death. So the craftsman painting Pakepu's coffins needed to work more quickly, to get the decoration done after Pakepu's mummification was finished and before his burial.

Strudwick also pointed out ways that the content of the decoration is sloppy in addition to the execution of the decoration. One thing she'd already mentioned is that the gods aren't labelled where you would expect them to be. There are also details like the way Anubis is drawn. You can see on the chest of the inner coffin in the photo above the common scene of Anubis standing beside the mummified deceased who is on a bed. And if you look carefully you see that Anubis has a somewhat ludicrously long skinny arm reaching out over the drawing of the mummy. She said it looks a bit like one of those party toys that you blow into and the streamer unrolls! That scene is on both of Pakepu's coffins, and in both cases Anubis has an arm like this, so it's pretty likely to've been the same artist who painted both coffins.

The hieroglyphs are all a bit of a mess and she showed us a few examples of badly written bits of text on the coffins. But she also showed us a cautionary example - not everything that isn't what one might expect is wrong. This example was of a standard offering formula text, where the signs were all written back to front. Normally when reading a piece of Egyptian text you read along in the direction that looks into the faces of the hieroglyphs, but in this text you had to read into the backs of their heads. Which at first glance seems to fit into the "sloppy artist doesn't know what he's doing" narrative that applies to so much of the decoration on this coffin. However this writing of an offering formula in a "retrograde" style is seen in other places not just on this coffin, and it appears to be something that was sometimes done.

So the picture seems pretty clear when looking at the two coffins: Nespawershefyt was of higher status than Pakepu and had a much better quality coffin. But Strudwick now went on to talk about the work they have been doing on the physical structure of these coffins, and the story is not quite as clear cut as it seems from the decoration. CT scans of Pakepu's inner coffin show that it is very well made. The wood is primarily new wood which hasn't been used before and displays beautiful carpentry. The lid is exquisitely carved and shaped from expensive wood, and all the joins are tight. The intermediate coffin is too large to CT scan so they have X-rayed it instead. The resulting images are harder to interpret than a CT scan but they have still managed to map the wood pieces and see how it was made. It'd very different to the inner one - it's made of many more pieces of wood, 97 in all, which are held together with lots of dowels and there are also a lot of paste patches. Given the difference in decoration quality between Nespawershefyt's coffins and Pakepu's coffins one might expect the construction quality of Nespawershefyt's to also be better. But that's not at all the case - the inner coffin of Nespawershefyt is more like the intermediate coffin of Pakepu, made up of lots of pieces of reused wood.

There is more to the structure of Pakepu's inner coffin than just the wood and carpentry, high quality as it is. There are many layers of textile and paste(s) on top of the wood. Strudwick had a slide that listed all the layers both inside & out of the coffin but I didn't quite manage to write them all down. The inside had essentially three layers - first paste*, then the whole thing was covered in linen and then more layers of paste put on top of that. The outer surface of the coffin is more complex and this is the bit I didn't get all the detail for. It has several layers, including linen, paste and some sort of fibrous glue that they call "wiggly worms glue" because that's what it looks like under magnification. The linen has been applied by wrapping it round & round, with a long strip up the back of the coffin. These layers seem to be almost a part of the mummification process - an extension of wrapping the body into wrapping the coffin the body is in (and the decorating after all of that).

*In the Q&A session at the end she was asked what the paste was - in essence it's something we might think of in layperson's terms as "plaster". It's a mix of calcite and gum arabic which is smeared onto the surface & then sets solid. It's not called plaster because for those who work on such substances plaster has a very specific meaning, which doesn't include this sort of mixture. So it's called paste instead.

The linen & paste layers are reminiscent of cartonage and Strudwick said that they have micro-CT scanned some other fragments of cartonage-like material and found the same layers as around Pakepu's coffin. She thinks that the wrapping of the inner coffin in this cartonage-like material is to create a link between the inner coffin and an egg. In fact the words for inner coffin and for egg are written the same in Egyptian, except for the determinative (an optional hieroglyph at the end of a word that does not represent any of the sounds of the word but is used to indicate the class of word this is - there are determinatives for things like names of gods, or for names of cities, or for names of objects made of wood). So the cartonage is equivalent to egg-shell, and the deceased is therefore like a chick in an egg waiting to be (re)born.

Strudwick finished up her talk by drawing out another interesting point about what the structure of Nespawershefyt's coffins implies. Many fewer New Kingdom coffins have been found than 21st Dynasty coffins, and most 21st Dynasty coffins are like Nespawersehfyt's in using recycled wood. So it seems clear that we "know" where all the New Kingdom coffins went! And tomb robbery, including state sanctioned tomb robbery by this period, is how the Egyptians got their coffin wood. (This actually ties into a talk her husband, Nigel Strudwick, gave us a couple of years ago on tomb robbery - my write up of that talk is here).

This was a fascinating talk, it's incredible how much there is to investigate and to think about from just two sets of coffins. And I'm sure Helen Strudwick only barely scratched the surface in this talk, there must be so much more that can be gleaned from the objects.

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.

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