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.

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

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

Margaret Mountford giving her talk (photo by John Patterson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the beginning of September Paul Collins came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the influences that Uruk culture (in Mesopotamia) and Proto-Elamite culture (in Iran) had on Predynastic & Early Dynastic Egypt. He's not an egyptologist - his research interests include the material culture of ancient Iraq & Iran in the late 4th Millennium BCE, and the transmission of artistic forms across the Near East and Egypt.

He began with a discussion of historical explanations and ideas about these influences. It begins, as so much of Egyptology does, with Petrie whose work on pottery from Naqada is still the foundation of our understanding of the chronology of Predynastic Egypt today. Petrie also worked at Koptos and Abydos - the royal tombs at Abydos date to the Early Dynastic period. They are an expression of the great power of the Egyptian state at this time and the resources it commanded - including associated burials of sacrificial victims. The site of Hierakonpolis is another key site in early Egypt, including both a settlement and burials which also demonstrate a centralisation of regional power at the site. This is ancient Nekhen, which Renee Friedman talked to the EEG about in November 2014 (my write up).

The Scorpion Macehead

Scorpion Macehead

Several objects that define kingship in Egypt for a modern audience date to this period, and Collins showed us photographs of some of them. One is, of course, the Narmer palette with an early depiction of the smiting scene that kings used throughout the history of Pharaonic Egypt to show their power. The Scorpion macehead now in the Ashmolean shows the king taking part in an irrigation ceremony, another part of the iconography of kingship. But along with this imagery that becomes part of the canon of Egyptian iconography there are other images from this time period that don't seem to "fit". For instance the decoration on the Painted Tomb (Tomb 100) at Hierakonpolis includes motifs that don't show up later in Egyptian imagery - for example in middle left of the picture below you can see a man holding two beasts. This motif is also on the handle of a knife referred to as the Gebel al Arak knife. Another motif that shows up on both the Narmer palette and the Two Dog palette (see picture further below) as well as other places is that of serpopards - composite creatures with the body of a feline and the neck & head of a snake, often shown with entwined necks.

Pre-Dynastic Egypt Exhibit

The background to this display in the Ashmolean Museum is a replica of the Painted Tomb at Hierakonpolis

These motifs all fit better with the contemporary iconography of Mesopotamia, rather than with that of Egypt. And it's not just the imagery - the distinctive architecture of Predynastic Egypt with niches & buttresses also has similarities to contemporary Mesopotamian architecture. In an Egyptian context it's referred to as the palace facade, and is found both in archaeological evidence and in imagery (like the Horus name of the king which is enclosed in a representation of a palace facade). In the Mesopotamian context it's referred to as the temple facade, and is again found in both architecture and imagery.

So there is a cultural connection here to be explained, and Petrie provided a theory - that Egyptian civilisation as we usually think of it is the result of the movement of a new race into Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period, specifically a northern (white) race. As Collins pointed out these days that's a racist idea, but in the late 19th & early 20th Centuries this was standard scientific thinking. Petrie & other archaeologists did a lot of measuring of skulls and assigning them to races to see what a population consisted of. Of course they assigned those with larger brain cases to white "civilised" people, and used this to back up the idea of a new race arriving from the north.

Petrie's explanation was accepted well into the 1960s, but in the 1970s & 80s this changed and scholarship shifted to looking at internal developments. And once scholars were looking for it there was plenty of evidence that the motifs and imagery of Egyptian civilisation had grown out of older Predynastic imagery that reflected local culture and the local environment. So it is now accepted that Egyptian civilisation emerges from a long local tradition and was not imported by a new ruling class. There is, however, still a cultural connection with Mesopotamia that needs to be explained.

Having set the scene from the Egyptian perspective Collins now moved on to tell us about Mesopotamia during this time period (late 4th Millennium BCE). Mesopotamia is a Greek term for "land between rivers", and in the context of the ancient Near East it is a region that covers modern Iraq & eastern Syria. The key site in this period is Uruk, which is a city in southern Mesopotamia on the Euphrates river. This area of Mesopotamia is a vast river delta that is largely waterlogged. Transport is easy along the many river channels, although these are also prone to flooding. This is an environment with parallels to the Egyptian Delta. The river channels are also prone to flooding and will change course relatively often, as a result there are not many sites suitable for permanent settlement. Uruk is built on one of the more stable spots - today it is dry and far from the ocean, but when it was in its heyday it was on the river & closer to the open ocean. During the 4th Millennium BCE it was the largest concentrated urban settlement in the world.

Uruk was excavated in the early 20th Century. The main area of excavation was the centre of Uruk around the ziggurat (which is a structure from a later period than the late 4th Millennium BCE). There was a religious precinct around the ziggurat which does date back to the right period, that was called Eanna in later records. In this area of the city were several monumental buildings made of mudbrick. Collins demonstrated what he meant by "monumental" by showing us a plan of these buildings and then added the Parthenon onto the plan at the same scale. Each of these buildings was of a similar size to the Parthenon - built some 3000 years or more before it. They were made of very regular mudbricks, each about the size of a modern London brick. The structure was decorated with cone mosaics. These were made from clay cones which were baked & coloured on the flat end. Each cone was then pushed into the plaster. This isn't purely decorative, it also served to protect the mudbricks from the elements. The sheer amount of work required to build and then decorate buildings on this scale demonstrate the power available to make it happen.

During this period the society of Uruk began to develop technology for the administration of people and resources, and Collins talked us through some examples. One is the development of record keeping. First by collecting together tokens to represent the number of objects (or people etc), and then the development of proto-writing using a number of impressions in a clay tablet to represent the number plus a symbol to represent what was counted. Collins pointed out that these clay tablets with their grids of numbers are in their own way just like spreadsheets! Another technology was the use of a standard measure. This grew out of the practicalities of how bread was made - in Uruk bread was baked in pottery bowls called beveled rim bowls. These bowls were mass-produced in their thousands and discarded after use. As they were all the same size they became a standard measure, not just to measure out one portion of bread but a portion of other things too. The Uruk culture also began to use stamp seals to demonstrate ownership of goods or to control access to rooms.

Collins told us that at this time the hierarchy begins to be expressed through imagery. Simple stamp seals developed into cylinder seals which let the seal owner show off their status via more elaborate imagery. This sort of imagery also begins to appear on vessels, which have long registers of imagery that look almost like seals rolled out.

In the 4th Millennium BCE Uruk type features start to be found in places that are quite distant from Uruk itself. These sites in places like eastern Syria were excavated in the later 20th Century. Collins took us through a few examples to show us the different sorts of contexts that Uruk artifacts & technology show up in. The first place he talked about was Habuba Kabira in modern Syria. It's a long way north of Uruk on the Euphrates River, perhaps a week's journey at the time. It's also a very different environment to that of Uruk - instead of aluvial plain it is situated in a steppeland. The settlement here is laid out from scratch, in a similar layout to Uruk using the same standard Uruk mudbricks. The are monumental buildings just like those at Uruk, cone mosaics and all. It's a very large scale settlement, completely unlike anything in the local area at that date and uninhabited before the Uruk-type settlement is built. As Collins pointed out, the fact that the people of Uruk were able to do this demonstrates the incredible amount of power & resources at the disposal of their elites.

Hacinebi Tepe is a different sort of site where Uruk culture begins to show up around 3400 BCE. It's in the foothills of the Taurus mountains and there is a local settlement there that pre-dates the arrival of Uruk features. It is sophisticated and administratively organised in its own right before beveled rim bowls start to show up in some areas of the settlement. After this there are some specific areas of the settlement where the Uruk artifacts are found, and the two cultures appear to have co-existed side by side with no mixing for a long time.

Tel Brak (in modern Syria) was excavated in the late 1990s through to the 21st Century. It was very ancient by the late 4th Millennium BCE dating back to at least the 5th Millennium BCE. Again in the time period Collins was discussing Uruk pottery began to show up in the archaeological record of the city, and after this one area of the settlement has the features of late Uruk culture, with an Uruk style monumental building in another area of the settlement.

The last of the sites that Collins told us about was Godin Tepe which is in modern Iran. It sits on the trade routes to the east which would later become known as the Silk Road. The site is a circular fort that overlooks the valley - controlling passage along that route. It's a local settlement, almost all locally made except a few Uruk style vessels and administrative tools.

Collins summarised this last part of the talk by discussing how this evidence is interpreted. The various sites are "colonised" over a 500 year period, and to varying degrees. So clearly this is not one single expansion and perhaps not one explanation. The traditional explanation is control of trade, in particular of stone, metal and wood. But there's no real evidence in Uruk of this trade, so there must be some other explanation. Other possibilities include the idea that these settlements are something to do with textile production & trade. Uruk cylinder seals generally have designs related to labour on them, and they are often related to textile production so this must've been important to the economy of Uruk. It is also possible that these settlements were to exploit the pasturelands of the north, or perhaps a straightforward migration of people to establish a new colony (like the Greeks & Phoenicians did much later).

The key point is that southern Mesopotamia was the core of the Uruk culture settlements, with some further afield peripheral sites. Some of these were closer to Egypt and so provide routes for contact between the two cultures.

After a break for coffee and cake Collins returned to the connections between Egyptian culture and Uruk culture, first posing the question: Why would Egypt want connections with Mesopotamia? At the time Egypt had all the resources it needed to function and for the elites to express their power. The earliest evidence of a connection between the two regions comes from cylinder seals. These are by design small & portable, so their arrival in Egypt is possibly accidental and doesn't necessarily require the direct intervention of people. A seal could've fallen into goods that were being traded. These start showing up in the Egyptian archaeological record around 3000 BCE, in graves. They are decorated in the same way as the Mesopotamian ones. But whereas in Uruk they are administrative tools, in Egypt they are treated as exotic & precious objects. They appear in Egyptian graves in association with lapis lazuli beads, and Collins explained that this is the key to the Egyptian connection with Mesopotamia. Lapis lazuli is only found in Afghanistan and in both Egypt and Uruk it was associated with the gods as well as being immensely valuable due to its scarcity. So this is something that is worth trading for across such vast distances.

The imagery on the cylinder seals from Uruk parallel the "odd" imagery in Predynastic Egypt that Collins opened the talk with. The boxes that contained the lapis lazuli were almost certainly sealed with impressions from cylinder seals, which provides another route for this imagery to come to Egypt (as well as on the seals themselves). So by the association with lapis lazuli the imagery would become high status in its own right - and would be added to local Egyptian elite objects to express their "otherworldly" status. For instance the Mesopotamian style of art in long registers which developed out of seal impressions begins to show up in Egyptian art. Collins showed us examples of combs with parallel lines of animals - local African animals, but this new Mesopotamian layout.

"Two Dog Palette"

"Two Dog Palette"

Two Dog Palette, front (above) and reverse (below)

Critically there is no indication that the imagery is accompanied by people, or by the culture of Uruk. Instead the imagery is used in different ways and with different associations in the two cultures. For instance the serpopards on the Two Dog Palette (see above) are under the control of dogs, and on the Narmer Palette they are controlled by people. This is Egyptian royal propaganda - showing that these otherworldly and exotic beasts are under the control of the king.

Before he wrapped up his talk Collins fulfilled the promise of the title and told us a bit about Iran. Between 3200 & 2900 BCE the culture in the Zagros Mountains was that which we now call the Proto-Elamite culture. This region is also on the lapis lazuli trade route, so Collins said it was another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of evidence for the "odd" imagery in Predynastic Egypt. They made use of some of the Uruk administrative technology - archaeologists have found clay tablets with Proto-Elamite writing on them, which is a unique script that has not yet been deciphered. They also used cylinder seals. Interestingly the imagery on these seals does not include any human figures. When they wanted to represent human activities they would use an animal in the place of the figure of a person. Collins showed us examples which included a standing figure of a bull in a boat, and of a standing bull holding two lions in a similar pose to the one on the wall of the Painted Tomb at Hierakonpolis (see photo earlier in this post). And if you look at the reverse of the Two Dog Palette, near the bottom left is an animal standing up & playing some sort of flute - a piece of Proto-Elamite imagery in a very Egyptian piece of art.

Collins concluded his talk by summing up all the threads of evidence. He said that in this period there is a sense of Mesopotamian and Proto-Elamite culture feeding into Egypt as part of the elite culture. When the Uruk culture ceases to be an international phenomenon at the end of the 4th Millennium BCE Egypt also abandons the Mesopotamian & Proto-Elamite flavoured imagery. In the Early Dynastic period there is a gap in imports of lapis lazuli to Egypt and Collins said that this lack of trade with the East meant that the imagery was also not reaching Egypt. So this period of the late 4th Millennium BCE was a unique moment where the expansion of southern Mesopotamian culture fed into the emerging Egyptian elite culture as exotic status symbols.

This was a really interesting talk - Collins gave us a view of the world outside Egypt's borders that early Egyptian culture was interacting with. And he also showed how the early Egyptian elites had something in common with more modern people - the impulse to use Mesopotamian imagery in their time sounds like it was born from much the same impulse as the Egyptianising architecture & design of the 19th & 20th Centuries in the West.

At the beginning of June Vincent Oeters returned to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about some of his own work at Saqqara on a Ramesside era tomb chapel. This work is part of a long term on-going project which has been excavating south of the Causeway of Unas since 1975. Initially the project was a collaboration between the Museum at Leiden and the Egypt Exploration Society, then after 1998 the EES were no longer involved and the University of Leiden replaced them. Since 2015 the Turin Museum have also been part of the project.

Before telling us about the tomb chapel of Tatia, Oeters told us about the overall project. The genesis of the project was in the 1950s when the Museum began to investigate three statues which had been in the collection since 1828. They arrived without provenance, but were believed to be from Saqqara. The statues depict two people - Maya, the Overseer of the Treasury and Overseer of Works during the reign of Tutankhamun, and Merit, his wife who was a Chantress of Amun. One statue is of both of them, one is of him alone and one of her alone. On the map of Saqqara drawn by Lepsius in 1843 there is a tomb of Maya marked, and so the Museum wanted to excavate in that area - it took several years to get funding and the necessary permissions but they finally started work in 1975. Tombs have been discovered in their concession since 1975, although the tomb of Maya wasn't discovered until 1986. The first to be found was actually even more well known as it was the tomb that Horemheb was building for himself before he became Pharaoh.

Annotated satellite image of the tombs of Horemheb, Meryneith, Maya, Pay, Khay II and Tatia
made by me using an image from Google maps and information from Oeters's slides.

The tomb chapel of Tatia was found in 2009, which is the year that Oeters started work with the project. The team were excavating between the tombs of Horemheb, Meryneith and Pay. They first found a tomb belonging to a man named Khay (the second of that name in the area, so referred to as Khay II). Then as they were looking for a shaft from the substructure of another tomb (to avoid having to constantly go in & out of the temple part of the superstructure) they came across a slab which had no apparent text. When they uncovered the bottom of it there was an inscription - and Oeters was given this to study for his Master's thesis. It is the stela of a man called Tatia. It wasn't intact when discovered, but when they looked in their stores there were some previously excavated fragments that filled some of the gaps.

There are several scenes on this stela - there is a scene of Tatia in front of Osiris, there is a scene of Tatia about to slaughter an oryx (a sort of antelope associated with Seth) as a sacrifice in front of Re-Horakhty and a scene of Tatia and his wife receiving offerings with family members sitting in front of them. The scene of Tatia slaughtering an oryx is particularly interesting as it is a unique representation of a private individual performing this ritual, as far as Oeters can tell - normally this sort of scene has the Pharaoh performing this ritual. This is also the only scene in all the depictions of Tatia where he is wearing a wig, rather than being shown with a clean shaven bald head. This must have some significance, but Oeters is still trying to find out what that might be.

Tatia's titles were Priest of the Front of Ptah, With Access to the Gold House, Chief of the Goldsmiths. The first of these titles means that he was a priest who walked at the front of a procession, in front of the barque bearing the (statue of) the god Ptah. Three of the family members depicted also have names & titles - two of his sons were stablemasters and another son was also a Priest of the Front of Ptah and Goldsmith.

As they continued to excavate the area where the stela was found they uncovered a door jamb and eventually found all of a very small tomb chapel. Oeters was able to persuade the field directors to let him include the whole chapel in his Master's research. The door jambs of the chapel show a bald individual in a praising gesture, doubtless the tomb owner. On the south wall there is a relief of a harpist, a flute player and 3 seated figures (who are singers). There is a part of text still visible above the reliefs which is the words of a song - including the phrase "may Tatia live 110 years". The west wall of the chapel has a large gap where the stela would fit. Adjacent to the stela a relief was depicted on both sides of Tatia as a sem-priest before an offering table. This wall also shows signs of reuse of the tomb-chapel after Tatia's time - remains of mudbrick were found on top of what remains of the original chapel wall. The north wall has a scene of a funeral - the top of it is missing and the part that remains is very damaged. It depicts the mummy in front of the tomb being held by a priest whilst a sem-priest performs the opening of the mouth ritual.

The burial shaft was found nearby, but had been robbed in antiquity. Oeters told us that the robbers had built a mudbrick wall in & around the top of the shaft to stop the sand falling in whilst they were robbing the tomb. Under this wall were some intact bowls and dishes which had been preserved by the wall. The shaft itself is at a different angle to the tomb chapel - so it would seem to be an older one that Tatia reused. The shaft is 5.25m deep, with two chambers at the bottom, one to the north with a mummy niche and one to the south of the shaft. There were several breakthroughs to other tombs. The tomb was probably not properly finished before Tatia was buried in it - the floor is not the same level throughout, which it would've been if the tomb builders had finished their work. There were two fragments of papyrus found while clearing the shaft belonging to a man namer Suner, thus it seems likely that they just blew in from the surrounding area rather than having been placed in there with Tatia.

Tatia's tomb chapel is not the only small chapel in the area. There seems to have been a second wave of use of the site with several small 19th Dynasty chapels amongst & to the south of the larger 18th Dynasty ones. There are no hieroglyphs on the other small chapels, so they remain anonymous.

As part of his investigation of Tatia's chapel & stela Oeters tried to find parallels with other stelae. This isn't as straightforward to do as one might think - there isn't a convenient list or database, so he had to spend quite a bit of time searching to make sure he didn't miss any out. Eventually he looked at more than 900 stelae of the New Kingdom to compare to Tatia's stela. All of those that have direct parallels to the scenes seem to come from Saqqara and date to the same period.

Oeters also tried to find other references to Tatia, which lead him to another New Kingdom tomb at the Teti cemetery at Saqqara. This tomb belongs to a man called Mose, Scribe of the Treasury of Ptah. His tomb is famous for a text in it that details a legal dispute over the land of Mose's mother, which dates him & his family to the second half of the reign of Ramesses II. In this tomb there is also a scene of three couples receiving offerings - Mose & his wife, Mose's parents and a man called Tatia & his wife. Not only is Tatia a rare name, but also this Tatia has the same titles as the Tatia whose chapel Oeters was investigating. So it's very likely to be the same man. At the point at which he wrote up his Master's thesis Oeters believed the most plausible explanation was that Mose & Tatia were brothers. Between the two tombs he was able to draw up a conjectured family tree of three generations.

The titles held by Tatia are also rare. Oeters has only found five instances of Priest of the Front of Ptah, and they are all from tombs in that part of Saqqara. This indicates that the burials are clustered by profession rather than by family - which fits with Mose's tomb being elsewhere in Saqqara. As well as Tatia & his son, Khay II (the owner of the nearby tomb discovered just before Tatia's tomb) was one of these priests. Another was a man called Ny and the last was named Khaempet (and his stela is in the Louvre).

Since the Revolution the team have been excavating to the west of Tatia's tomb - in a burial shaft belonging to another tomb nearby more pieces of the wall of Tatia's tomb chapel were discovered. Oeters discovered these were part of the south wall, containing the start of the text of the song. There is still a chance of more pieces being discovered as there is an area to the south of Tatia's tomb (and north of Meryneith's tomb) which hasn't yet been excavated.

The excavation to the west of Tatia's tomb has also discovered a falcon statue. This was pretty exciting as it is the first animal statue the team has discovered since work on the site started in 1975! It's made of pretty poor quality limestone, and is also quite damaged, but it's still possible to make out a figure kneeling in front of the falcon. Oeters believes this statue was originally placed in Tatia's chapel, he has no concrete proof but he argues that the indirect evidence is convincing. It was found just behind Tatia's tomb chapel, and dates to the same era. Furthermore, there is a side annex to the south of the chapel proper which might be where the statue sat. There is a lot of falcon imagery on Tatia's stela, which is unique among the comparable stelae he's examined. And the limestone the falcon is made out of is the same sort of poor quality stone that the whole of Tatia's chapel is made from. He talked a little more about the limestone in the Q&A session at the end of the talk - in the 18th Dynasty the large tombs were built of mudbrick faced with good quality limestone, and between them they used up all the locally available good stone. By the time the 19th Dynasty tombs were built they had to make do with lower quality stone sourced from a little further away.

The last part of Oeters talk was about his investigation into the name Tatia, as it's a very unusual name for an Egyptian. He also used this part of the talk to illustrate how an archaeologist's theories can change significantly as more evidence comes to light. There is only one other place where there are references to Egyptians named Tatia - tomb TT106 in Luxor. This is the tomb of the Vizier Paser, who was vizier to Seti I and Ramesses II. There are two individuals depicted in this tomb called Tatia - 5 references to a Stablemaster Tatia who was brother of Paser, and 1 reference to a Tatia with no titles who was the grandfather of Paser. The name is spelt differently even within this one tomb, which leads Oeters to speculate that it could be a foreign name which has no standard spelling. The younger Tatia, the stablemaster, was particularly interesting to Oeters and he looked into the possibility that this was "his" Tatia from Saqqara. The dates of the two tombs make it possible that both these references are to a single individual who changes job and moves from Luxor to Saqqara. It's also notable that two of the children of Tatia named in the Saqqara tomb are stablemasters, and they are younger than the child who is a Priest of the Front of Ptah and Goldsmith like his father. So there might be a career path in this particular family - that the next step after stablemaster was to become this particular sort of priest, and to become a goldsmith. The stablemaster Tatia was named after his grandfather Tatia. There are also other names that overlap between the family members named in TT106 and on the reliefs in Tatia's tomb chapel and that of Mose.

This evidence completely contradicts Oeters's previous theory about Tatia's family relationships. If Tatia is Paser's brother, as seems very plausible, then he cannot also be Mose's brother as Paser & Mose have different parents. But it is still true that Tatia is portrayed in Mose's tomb in a context where only a member of Mose's immediate family would be depicted. Oeters now thinks that it is most likely that Mose is Tatia's brother-in-law, and is married to Tatia's sister. So this demonstrates that no matter how plausible your theory is, it can still be overturned by a new piece of evidence!

This was a fascinating talk which demonstrated how archaeologists go about investigating the artifacts they find, and the sort of range of information they can glean including information about wider Egyptian culture and information about the family relationships & career path of a specific individual.

For more information see this paper that Vincent Oeters has published on the subject:

Vincent Oeters – “The Tomb of Tatia, Wab-Priest of the Front of Ptah and Chief
of the Goldsmiths” in Verschoor V., Stuart A.J., Demarée C. (Eds.) Imaging and Imagining the Memphite Necropolis: Liber amicorum René van Walsem. Egyptologische Uitgaven no. 30 Leuven and Leiden: Peeters and NINO, 57-80.

In August Taneash Sidpura came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the topic of his PhD research - golden flies, golden lions & oyster shells. These pendants are often stated to be military awards handed out by Pharaoh to people who distinguished themselves in battle, but having researched these items Sidpura disagrees with that assessment.

He began his talk by giving us some background to the items & their assumed meaning. It's typical of nobles to record self praise on stelae & in their tomb inscriptions. Generally this is related to the king, and how wonderfully the noble did the things the king wanted him to do. Sidpura showed us some examples of these sorts of texts including the 12th Dynasty stela of Sobek-khu. These texts also record the gifts and rewards that the king has given them for doing these things. Lots of these gifts are golden objects - including gold jewellery, golden flies and golden lions. The specific texts which record gifts of golden flies & lions are detailing the accomplishments of military men, and so these objects have been interpreted as being like modern medals. The conventional wisdom is that they were a bit like chivalric orders - Order of the Golden Fly or Order of the Golden Lion. The objects have also been assigned meanings by archaeologists - flies mean persistence, lions mean bravery and weapons indicate military prowess. Which makes a neat & tidy story, which is reflected in many museum labels etc, but Sidpura pointed out that when you start to examine it at all closely it begins to unravel. One key problem is that these same objects - golden flies, golden lions - are also found in the burials of women and children who would be unlikely to have medals for valour in battle. And it's clear if you look at a wider context that weapons as grave goods actually signify power & authority rather than strictly military prowess.

Sidpura next went through each of the three object types from his title in turn, before returning to consider what golden flies actually mean. Golden lions have been re-investigated more recently than the other two, so Sidpura has not himself looked at these objects in detail. He showed us some examples of the sort of things that he was talking about - small lions on rectangular bases about 2-3cm long. There are 50 known examples from the 12th & 13th Dynasty, none of which were found in the burials of men (of those where the context is known). In contrast 22 were found in the burials of women. The researchers who re-investigated the meanings of golden lions looked at references to lions in texts and images, and found that they consistently represented the king. It makes sense, therefore, that they are found in the burials of royal women as signifiers of their relationship to the king. The texts that mention them as gifts to nobles also make sense in this context - they indicate the close relationship between the king and the man who served him well.

String of 7 fly amulets
A string of 7 fly amulets from the 17th Dynasty, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo from the Met, via Wikimedia Commons

There are 500 examples of golden flies, most of which are cut out of a flat sheet of gold in a shape roughly resembling a capital A. Some are just the flat shape, and others have a golden body attached to the flat sheet. One of the examples he talked about was rather unusual - they were from the grave goods of Ahhotep (an 18th Dynasty queen) at Dra Abu el Naga. Normally golden flies are about 1cm in size, but these are 9cm long. She's described in a text almost like she was a king, so between this & the golden fly necklace she was once thought to be a warrior queen. However if you look more closely at the text it is talking about her ability to rule and not her military prowess, and it's also not clear that it's intended to be literal. Not all of Ahhotep's grave goods were found - her tomb wasn't actually found, but her coffin and some grave goods were found buried in a pit which was presumably a robbers' cache. Those grave goods which were found back up the idea that she was a powerful woman, not necessarily a fighting woman.

Fly ornaments are not always made of gold. There is a long history from the Naqada II period through to the Roman period of flies made out of materials such as faience or hard stones. Sidpura showed us several examples of these. Some of them were like scarab amulets in that they had texts inscribed on the bottom. They were often strung with other amulets - generally protective amulets such as Bes figures. Another example was of flies strung with ancestor bust beads.

The context they were found in is known for about 125 of the 500 golden flies. Of these 63% were found associated with women, 3% with men, 3% with children and 31% unknown. As Sidpura pointed out this doesn't fit with the military award hypothesis! There were also many designs of the flies, so they were not a distinctive award. And they were not unique in form, being based on non-golden flies. Whilst 2 of the 3 known examples of images of Egyptian men wearing flies are military men, there are also many images of Nubians wearing flies. These Nubians are often shown as captives, or being smited - and again this doesn't fit well with the military award hypothesis.

There are only 2 texts which refer to golden flies (both referencing them as gifts from Pharaoh), all the other texts refer to the real insects. The references to the real insects are interesting - fly dung or fly blood is an ingredient in medicine or magic. And when Sidpura said this my first thought was "fly dung? how'd you get that?" and that is what he went on to explain. The bee was a symbol of the king, and so beekeepers couldn't refer to themselves as beekeepers because it would be presumptuous. Instead they called themselves fly keepers. Thus fly dung is honey! And what is interesting about this in the context of golden flies as gifts is that it may put the golden flies into the same category as the golden lions - are they symbols of the king? Another association for flies (the real insects) is that in the Coffin Texts they are linked to regeneration and rebirth. So in texts flies are a metaphor for bees (and thus the king) and for regeneration.

Sidpura now moved on to discuss oyster shells. He started by showing us a picture of an example of the objects he was talking about - this was a 10cm shell, likely to be from a pearl bearing species. It was engraved with the cartouche of Senwosret. There are 60 known examples of these shells, and all are very alike, even down to the handwriting being similar. On the various shells there are two different cartouches, and so it's possible to work out that it's Senwosret I. So this particular variant is a short-lived practice, although that are other examples that don't match these ones. The shells were mostly purchased and so the contexts are not secure. One of these purchases was by the Egyptologist Herbert Winlock in about 1922 - he bought a mummified arm which came with one of these shells and a piece of leatherwork with military significance. Some more shells came from tomb MMA507 at Deir el Bahri. This was a mass grave of warriors from the Middle Kingdom, and so this is also a military context. Thus the shells were assumed to be military awards, but once again a closer examination throws this into doubt. Of those where there is a context of some sort 4 had no military connection, and 4 had some military connections but mostly of a tenuous nature. And again the inscribed oyster shells are not unique - they are a sub-type of a more general class of oyster shell ornaments. And these uninscribed oyster shells are often associated with women - either being found with them, or being drawn onto female figurines. The significance of the inscribed oyster shells is more likely to do with having the king's name on them - again as with the lions, and perhaps the flies, it is a symbol that links the recipient to the king.

Sidpura finished his talk by returning to the golden flies and summarising his conclusions about their significance. Firstly, there is no evidence that they symbolise persistence. It is also notable that they are not gifted alone, but are always gifted with other golden objects. Sidpura sees their significance to the recipient as being the gold that they were made from, not the form that the gold was in. In the opposite fashion to modern gifts & awards the content was less important than the material. The objects emphasise the relationship between the king and the recipient - that the king values the recipient enough to give precious gifts to them.

This talk was an interesting reminder that even things that "everyone knows" are worth properly re-examining every now & then. And that the assessments by previous archaeologists may tell us more about their own culture and assumptions than about Egyptian culture!


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