In April the Essex Egyptology Group held its annual study day. This year the subject was the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina with four talks given by Cédric Gobeil who was director of the French archaeological mission to the site for several years (before he became the Director of the Egypt Exploration Society in 2016). I've split my write-up into four parts, and this one covers the first talk.

"Archaeology in the Archive: A Short Historical Review of the French Excavations at Deir el-Medina"

This talk gave us historical context for the investigation of the site, as well as illustrating the information that can be gleaned by studying the archives of previous expeditions. Gobeil pointed out that archive archaeology is currently trendy - a combination of field archaeology being more difficult (more permissions, and the modern science takes much longer than the older treasure hunting style) and of how much unexpected & unpublished data lurks in the archives.

The village is positioned at the foothills of the Western mountains close to both the Valley of the Kings & the Valley of the Queens. The people who lived here were the workers (and their families) who built the tombs in these two valleys, and the village was occupied from the reign of Thutmose I to the end of the New Kingdom (roughly 1500 - 1000 BCE). The bulk of the excavation of the site was performed by a French team led by Bernard Bruyère who excavated there from 1922 to 1952. The work they did was so extensive that when Gobeil took up the job as director in 2011 he was told by friends & colleagues that he was making a mistake - it would be a dead end job with nothing left to find. Luckily for him this turned out not to be the case! The current work fills in the gaps that Bruyère left - some because he overlooked things and in other cases because he didn't have modern technology.

Gobeil showed us a map of the site drawn by Bruyère in 1956 which is still used as a reference to this day. The site can be split into 3 areas: the settlement, the necropolis to the west of the settlement and the cultic & religious area. He highlighted a few features of each of these to whet our appetites - for instance the walls around the settlement, which weren't to keep people in but were more likely to be for protection from the weather. The necropolis to the west is not the only necropolis at the site, but the eastern one doesn't seem to be the same population so isn't counted as part of Deir el-Medina nowadays. There are 491 tombs in the western necropolis of which 53 are decorated & have names. The cultic & religious area is dominated now by the Ptolemaic era temple which was built on top of the earlier structures that were contemporaneous with the workers in the village. These votive chapels were dedicated to the same gods as the later Ptolemaic structure, so there is some sort of continuity with the original inhabitants.

Bruyère hadn't been the first archaeologist to work at Deir el-Medina, although the first people to dig there in the first half of the 19th Century can't quite be called archaeologists being more focused on finding impressive objects for museums or private collectors rather than understanding the site. These people included Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti. From the later 19th Century the diggers were more archaeologically inclined - including names such as Auguste Mariette and Ernesto Schiaparelli. Gobeil showed us a photograph of Schiaparelli's excavation with a procession of workers bringing the tomb goods out of a tomb - a reversal of what the original preparation of the tomb must've looked like millennia ago.

The original French concession that Bruyère worked on in the 1920s was very large - it didn't just cover the known site but also into the mountains around it. In comparison the concession today covers just the site of Deir el-Medina. The larger size was partly because that was the way things were done at the time, and partly because the extent of the site wasn't known. In 1921 only a few bits of the village plus the temple and a couple of tombs were known. And originally the site was thought to be Ptolemaic because the temple was clearly of that era. Gobeil showed us archive photographs of how the site looked when Bruyère started work. It was full of rubbish and debris, and things left by the looters who had been there before him. So as with the modern expedition part of Bruyère's remit was to tidy up the site and make it visible & interesting to visitors.

Bruyère's dig house was in the hills above the site, and the kitchen of that structure is the same kitchen that Gobeil's team used whilst they were excavating there. But the rest of the building has been changed & extended since the 1920s! Not to the extent of providing running water, however - water is still brought up by donkey as it was in Bruyère's day. The dig house wasn't just living quarters for Bruyère's team, it was also the place they stored the artifacts they'd dug up.

Bruyère's team had about 75-100 workers per day, of whom around half were children. Children being cheaper to pay than donkeys were to hire! The excavation was done quickly even by the standards of the day. They started with the Eastern necropolis, as debris from this was likely to end up falling on the village. The original plan was to take 10 years to excavate the village itself, but because of World War II they ended up taking just one year to do the whole thing. Which is why there's been so much for Gobeil & his team to find, and there are probably lots more ostraca and overlooked objects in the massive debris mountain from Bruyère's excavation. After the war Bruyère returned and excavated the temple. The temple was apparently excavated down to the bedrock, although Gobeil has found things there that show that wasn't quite the case. But Bruyère did discover that there's a Ramesses II era temple underneath the Ptolemaic structure we see now - of course this can't be excavated as you'd need to dismantle the Ptolemaic one first. The last part of the site to be excavated by Bruyère was the Great Pit in the 1950s, and Gobeil showed us a photography of workers removing the debris from the pit by hand using the original staircase.

Bruyère was also keen to rebuild when he had excavated, as mentioned previously tourism was an important part of his plan for the site. And so even in the 1930s they were setting up tourist routes round the village as part of their rebuilding plan. The rush of the excavation did also mean that the rebuilding was rushed, so sadly Bruyère didn't always get it right. He also made the decision to leave the remains of the painted decoration in place for tourists to see - very interesting for those who visited then, but now it has eroded away and we know of it only from archive photographs. There's only one fragment that still remains on a house altar - a brightly coloured half image of a dancing girl with tattoos on her thighs.

The speed of Bruyère's excavation is both good and bad. The bad is that many smaller objects were missed, and there aren't secure contexts recorded for a lot of the finds from the village in particular. But it does mean we have knowledge of the whole site which we wouldn't otherwise have. An excavation of that scale would be far too expensive to be contemplated today - expensive in terms not only of money but also of manpower & time.

A lot of the information on the site & the finds comes from Bruyère's dig diary which he kept all the way through his time at Deir el-Medina. It is very thorough and Bruyère was a good draftsman who drew his finds at their contexts. It also includes newspaper clippings show what the general public of the time were learning about the site.

After Bruyère there were another couple of excavations over the next 20 years or so. But then there was no work at the site from 1975 until Gobeil took on directorship of the concession in 2011.

Gobeil finished up this talk by showing us photographs of some of the objects (now in the Louvre) found by Bruyère's team. These include a lot of everyday items, as well as ~15,000 ostraca (10,000 of these from the Great Pit). There were also more than a thousand papyrii, including lots of copies of the classic Middle Kingdom texts. He also showed us photographs of the people who visited the site while Bruyère was working there, including Petrie.

One of the things discussed in the question & answer session for this talk was the structures that are now thought to be house altars. These are raised platforms with a small staircase in the first room of 30 of the houses on the site. Originally they were thought to be beds, or perhaps places for women to give birth. But this seems implausible for many reasons - one of which is the position near the entrance to the houses in what was probably the public space of the house. The staircases which lead up to these platforms were decorated and show no signs of wear on the steps at all. This also counts against them being functional spaces for the human occupants of the house to walk up onto. Instead Gobeil told us that they were altars - the steps were not intended for people, they were intended for the gods to use to come & go from the altar. These altars were in a public space because when visitors were received in the household they'd bring a gift to place on the altar - and then after the guest was gone the householder would use the gift themselves in the same way that food offerings etc in a temple would be redistributed by the priests after it had been offered to the gods.

In April Susanne Bickel came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work she and her team have been doing in the Valley of the Kings for the last decade - mostly re-excavating previously known tombs with the benefit of modern archaeological methods, but they also discovered a new tomb in 2012.

She began her talk by showing us a few images of decoration from inside various Pharaoh's tombs in the Valley of the Kings - our usual "mental image" of the place. But actually only 22 of the known 64 tombs (plus 20 "pits" ) are for Pharaohs. So that means there are around 40 of what are often called non-royal tombs, Bickel prefers to say "other tombs" because the term non-royal is misleading in English. We would say that queens, princes & princesses are also royal, and those are generally the occupants of these non-Pharaoh tombs.

Next she talked about why she decided it was worth going back to re-excavate parts of the Valley of the Kings. Some of her colleagues from the University of Basel re-excavated KV47, the tomb of Siptah, which has one of those construction accidents that are sometimes found in the tombs. The original place they were going to build the sarcophagus chamber broke through into KV32, and so the builders extended it down a bit further and started the sarcophagus chamber again. The archaeologists continued to re-excavate into KV32, which contained a lot of debris in the tomb chambers. This included some pieces of artifacts that previous investigations had missed or discarded as not interesting. Some of these fragments have a name on them of Tiaa - the wife of Amenhotep II and mother of Thutmose IV. So there are still interesting things to be discovered even from ransacked, excavated or looted tombs and Bickel decided it was worth having a more modern look at a part of the Valley that had been previously investigated.

She and her team have spent about 10 seasons investigating the tombs in the area around KV34, the tomb of Thutmose III. On the map below you can see KV34 down at the bottom in the middle.

The questions they were asking through their re-excavation included: what was the chronology of the tombs? who were the tombs for? what was the social & physical identity of the people buried in them? are there patterns in the location & layouts of the tombs?

The overall chronology of the area became clear early in their excavations. Their area of the necropolis was originally dug & used in the middle of the 18th Dynasty. All the tombs were before the time of Akhenaten & his move of the capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, and date to the reigns of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III. As they're using pottery to date the tombs the dates are ranges rather than precise.

Although any overall pattern in the layout & location of the tombs is unclear, what is clear is that there are two general types of tombs. There are those with stairs & corridors, where you descend gradually in a series of stages. And there are those with vertical shafts where you go down immediately and the chambers are then in one layer at the bottom.

The bulk of Bickel's talk was to be about KV40 & KV64, but first she told us in brief about the other tombs they've re-excavated. KV33 is right next to KV34 and is a step and corridor type of tomb. When previously entered it was dismissed as uninteresting and no real information was recorded, and the entrance was blocked with boulders that may've come from KV34. When they cleared & analysed the contents of the tomb they didn't find anything that gave the name of the occupant. So all they can tell is that they were of high status (there were several fine alabaster jars still in the tomb) and the pottery was from Thutmose III's time.

KV37 is situated just below KV34 and is another step & corridor type. There wasn't much left in this tomb, previous archaeologists had removed all the "treasure" and left only pottery fragments mixed in with flood debris. The tomb of KV36 is a the burial of a young Nubian man called Maiherperi, "the Lion of the Battlefield", who was a child of the harem (so brought up with the Pharaoh's children - in Hannah Pethen's talk to the EEG about Gurob she talked more about what the harem was in the Ancient Egyptian context (post)). They are still in the process of excavating KV29 which was in an area covered by Ramesses II's workmen's huts. One interesting find from there is is one of the oldest known sundials marked onto an ostraca. Previously sundials were thought to be a Greek invention, but as this has been found in a secure context dating to the 18th Dynasty it definitely pre-dates the Greek ones. It's pretty accurate once correctly oriented, and was probably used to regulate shifts for the workers.

All these tombs (and KV30 too) are undecorated, and in fact this seems to be standard for non-Pharaoh's tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Which is a contrast to the tombs in the Valley of the Nobles which are contemporaneous and well decorated, but similar to the situation in the Middle Kingdom period where similar status people also had undecorated tombs. There's no good answer yet to the question of where the cult for making offerings for these people was. Perhaps in their associated King's temple? Or maybe these are people who didn't live in Thebes so their cult was where they & the people who would make offerings for them lived.

Looking at who they can see buried in these tombs there's a sense that the extended family of the king was buried in this necropolis - including wives, children & nurses. During the 18th Dynasty it seems the Valley of the Kings was a more open necropolis with several non-Pharaoh burials, in contrast to the Ramesside period where tombs were more restricted to Pharaohs.

In 2009 the area around the entrances to KV40 & KV64 was nearly covered over by sand and debris. It had be a long time since KV40 had been entered, and KV64 was unknown at the time. In 2011 as they were clearing the area near KV40 they discovered a "man made feature" on the very day the revolution started in 2011. As a result they couldn't start to investigate it for another year, which must've been very frustrating! Bickel said that at first they didn't think it would be a tomb because it was so close to the entrance to KV40, but then they found the big blocks covering the opening. Inside the tomb there was a coffin & a stela, dating to the 22nd Dynasty - i.e. ~600 years after the mid-18th Dynasty period that the other tombs she's talked about were used. There was a mummy inside the coffin, stuck in with resin, and the inscriptions said that she was the Chantress of Amun, Nehemesbastet daughter of Nakhet, Opener of the Doors of Heaven. These are (sadly) common names and titles, so it's not possible to place who she is in a historical context. She's definitely of a relatively high social status, although not the highest. Her coffin is of good quality, but nothing terribly exciting or unusual. Her health, according to X-rays, was good when she died so it's not clear what she actually died of. The stela that she was found with was of a common type, but it was the first to be found in situ (by modern archaeologists who recorded where it was placed vis-a-vis the coffin). In the decoration she's worshipping a composite deity - composited from several solar deities & funerary deities.

This coffin wasn't on the original floor of the tomb, it was on fill resting on the original 18th Dynasty era floor. The original burial had been looted and completely destroyed at some point before the 22nd Dynasty burial. The skeleton of the original mummy was still there in fragments. There were also some artifacts, including a piece of glass vessel and 2 canopic jar lids. There was also half a tag which named the King's Daughter Sat-Jah - but as the fill may not all be from the original burial it's not clear if that names the fragmented mummy or not.

This new tomb, as well as being exciting because it's the first new tomb to be discovered since Tutankhamun's tomb, helps to clarify the picture of how this area of the Valley of the Kings was used over time. In the mid-18th Dynasty the royal family and their entourage were buried in this part of the valley. Then 500 years later in the 21st Dynasty there was a period of authorised looting and "recycling" of materials. All the gold and wood was removed for re-use, and items such as amulets were stripped from the wrappings of the mummies including those of the Pharaohs. The people doing this "recycling" knew which mummy was which, and who these people were. They took care with the bodies of the Pharaohs, re-wrapping them respectfully and putting them into caches where they were discovered in modern times. But they took rather less care with the other bodies, as can be seen from the fragmented skeleton left in KV64. About 100 years after this, in the 22nd Dynasty, the tombs are reused by priestly families - there's clearly still an association of sanctity with the Valley of the Kings so it's an appropriate place to bury reasonably high status individuals.

After a break for coffee & cake Bickel told us about what they have found in KV40, which had been known to archaeologists for some time but had been dismissed as uninteresting. Bickel's opinion, however, was that although from the top it just looks like a hole in the ground it's a very interesting hole in the ground! The proximity to KV64 is also interesting - KV64 is a little older and a larger tomb, so perhaps KV40 was dug there so that the occupants were close to the lady buried in KV64?

All the rooms of KV40 were covered in debris with pottery, wood, faience, human remains, fabric and more all utterly mixed up. The walls and ceiling were damaged by fire, as were the contents of the rooms. They started by mapping and then sorting out and analysing the material. It's taken them 6 years to analyse, but they are now nearing publication. Bickel described the stages of the archaeological process for us. They started by excavating the objects, and then conserved them. This was followed by documentation (done both on site and after the objects had been removed) and classification of the objects. Everything has then been stored so that it's kept safe for later study.

As with KV64 there were at least two phases of use for KV40, at similar periods of time and in similar ways. Then modern looting took place, and at some point there was a fire in the tomb but it's not yet clear when that was. There were a lot of cartonage fragments, all of which needed to be cleaned of soot before they could be conserved. Once cleaned they could be separated into 18th Dynasty and 22nd Dynasty pieces, and some bits could even be fitted together. The fabric pieces were mainly fragments of everyday fabrics, and included a single sock made for a small adult foot (Euro size 35/UK size 3) which was designed to be worn with sandals. Each type of object is being studied by experts in those fields - for instance paleobotanists are analysing the few bits of plants that were present. For an exhibition in Basel one of the botanists planted the relevant plants and made a modern replica of the garlands that there were fragments of - which must've been cool to see!

The human remains have been analysed by a paleo-physical anthropologist, and there are parts of 83 individuals in this tomb. Most of them were women, but there were a few men. Unusually there were also some very small babies very carefully mummified - this is rare, generally babies were not buried in this way. Because the bodies are already in pieces they can be used to investigate the mummification techniques that were used. But sadly other interesting sorts of analysis can't be carried out for technical reasons. C14 dating should be possible to find out which bodies were from the original phase of use and which from the later, but the only lab in Egypt that can do this sort of analysis has old technology that needs too large a sample size (and of course artifacts & remains can't be removed from Egypt to a lab that can carry out the analysis). They have also taken samples to analyse the DNA of the remains, but again the only lab in Egypt that can do this work is currently non-functional - the samples are waiting in storage until the situation changes. When this sort of analysis can be done it should be very interesting, given that some of these individuals may be other members of Amenhotep III's family (as discussed below).

The type of artifact that Bickel wanted to tell us the most about were the pottery pieces. They laid all the pottery fragments out in the Valley of the Kings near the tomb, and then painstakingly pieced together this enormous jigsaw puzzle. They were able to reconstruct 120 large jars which had contained natron and ritual remains. Several of these jars had inscriptions, too. Often in such cases the inscriptions are a bit boring and just tell you the contents of the jar - but in this case they also included the names of people and their titles. As with the human remains there are more women than men named on the jars - there were 23 female names, and 4 male names. All of the males are King's Sons, and 12 of the females are King's Daughters. It's important to remember that King's Daughter doesn't imply a little girl - it was a title you kept for life - so even though we know that the first phase of use was during Amenhotep III's reign we still don't know whose daughters these women were. However, the names on the jars correlate well with the names labelling reliefs of Amenhotep III's daughters (such as that in TT192, a noble's tomb in el-Assasif). Some of the women were granddaughters of a Pharaoh - for instance "King's Daughter Taemwadjet from among those of the King's Son". Having reminded us that the Daughters & Sons weren't necessarily children Bickel returned to the carefully mummified infants and wondered if these might be the royal sons that are named - one might expect an adult son to be more likely to be high enough status to have his own tomb. This is another question that the DNA analysis will help to answer.

One woman is a King's Ornament (which is a title that we're not quite sure of the significance of). Three women were labelled as foreign, and 7 had no titles associated with them. As well as the indicated foreigners other women clearly had foreign names, of Semitic or Nubian origin. Whilst this doesn't mean they were themselves foreign, Bickel speculated that some might be women who came to Egypt with diplomatic wives of Amenhotep III or another Pharaoh. For instance, there's documentary evidence of a Mitanni wife who came with 317 of her women, so there must've been quite a lot of such women.

The jars appear to've been used for some ritual purpose. One of the mud seals has shards from a red plate in it that has been ritually smashed and incorporated into the seal. There's textual evidence of a "ritual of the breaking of the red pots", and this is physical evidence of it. Some of the jars have two stages of inscription on them - the first one is covered over by a white coating and then another inscription written on top in yellow (which is a rare colour for writing in Ancient Egypt). In some cases the inscription is the same in both stages, just the second one is in better handwriting than the first. But in other cases the first label says "Natron" plus the name, whereas the second label (in better handwriting again) just says the name. Bickel's proposed sequence of writing & use is that first the jars were quickly labelled with who (and sometimes what) they were for, then they were filled and sealed. Then overpainted and a more formal label written on top with just the name of the owner.

In the questions session after the talk Bickel clarified how she sees this first phase of use of KV40 - there's no evidence of it having been a cache of bodies gathered up from other original tombs. Nor is there any evidence for it having been a mass burial after an even such as a plague. But the burials were probably over a relatively short period in the 18th Dynasty before the Amarna period. There are other similar groupings of royal daughters from this period throughout Egypt and Bickel thinks they may be the resting places for women who died away from home while they were travelling with the peripatetic court of the time.

This was a fascinating talk, I hadn't really realised there was still so much to be found even in tombs that have been known about for decades, if not centuries. Exciting that they have discovered a new tomb - even if not a Pharaoh, it's another bit of the picture of the Valley. Also quite exciting that they've discovered these bodies that may be more members of Amenhotep III's family.

This year's Glanville Lecture in Cambridge was given by Jan Assmann who is an expert on the religion of Ancient Egypt, and to go along with the lecture there was a study day which had 6 speakers (including Assmann) who each told us about a different topic to do with religion in the ancient world. (Well, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern portion thereof.)

Glanville Study Day: "Religion in the Ancient World"

"Egyptian Concepts of Cosmogony and the Origins of Philosophy" Jan Assmann

The day started off with Jan Assmann's first talk, about the theology of Ancient Egyptian ideas about the creation of the world/universe. His key point was that the Ancient Egyptians believed the world evolves from a transformation of god rather than being created by god. It is not chaos then cosmos, instead there is pre-existence which has continuity with existence.

The canonical cosmogony (theory of the origin of the universe) in Ancient Egypt is called (by Egyptologists) the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. Atum is the pre-existing divine being, and he transforms and becomes Re (the sun god). Atum/Re then becomes three, and the other of this new triad are Shu (air or life) and Tefnut (fire or truth). From them are generated Nut & Geb (the sky & the earth), and they give birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth & Nephthys. The son of Osiris and Isis is Horus, and from there on we are into history - all Pharaohs are avatars of Horus. The first texts that describe this lineage of gods say that Shu and Tefnut were born of Atum, but by the time the Coffin Texts are written it's not birth but "the moment when Atum became three".

The underlying Egyptian idea is of endless repetitions rather than of a single moment. Every day the sun comes up from the underworld. Every year the land comes out of flood. Every Pharaoh is a new avatar of Horus. And there is no conflict or violence in the creation of the world - instead that belongs to the emergence of rulership and to history. Even the being in opposition to Re (the snake Apep or Apophis) is in opposition to the maintenance of the universe and not in opposition to the creation.

Assman also explained that this cosmogony sets up the hierarchy of the universe. If you originate from something you depend upon it. If you depend upon something then you are ruled by it. And thus given that Atum transforms into Re from whom everything originates then Re is the first ruler/king. He noted that this means the sun god is supreme as the source of everything throughout all periods of Egyptian history and not just in the Amarna period.

As well as the Heliopolitan Cosmogony we also know about the Memphite Cosmogony from Ancient Egyptian times - this is a text found on a stela that's now in the British Museum, it's easy to spot as it had a second life as a mill stone so it has large grooves on it. Assmann argues that we shouldn't see this as an alternative idea, instead he regards it as a commentary on the canonical cosmogony. In this text instead of Atum becoming Re/Tefnut/Shu (sun/fire/air) he becomes Ptah/Horus/Thoth (creator/heart/tongue). The text still stresses the continuity of pre-existence & existence, but this time the emphasis is on creation by language. The tongue (Thoth) reads the words that the heart (Horus) creates. This idea is reminiscent of the Biblical tradition of creation by the Word, but the critical difference is that in the Bible God remains distinct and outwith creation but in the Egyptian tradition Atum becomes and has continuity with creation.

Assmann finished his talk by arguing that the ideas of the Memphite Cosmogony feed into and are part of the origins of Western philosophy via the Greeks (in particular he mentioned Iamblichus's "De Mysteriis". But I'm afraid I got rather lost at that point and didn't even follow him well enough to take notes, let alone summarise it.

"Gaming with Death" John Tait

The second talk of the day was given by John Tait on the game Senet, during which he gave us an overview of what we know about the game and where we get our knowledge of it. The game of Senet was developed within Egypt and is attested over a long period of time. The board consists of three rows of 10 squares, some of which (generally the last five) have markings on them. It's a race game for two players with 5 or 7 pieces per player. The movements of the pieces are governed by throwing sticks or knuckle bones (i.e. dice), and they travel across the board in a Z shaped path ending "safe" at square 30.

The main sources of our knowledge are the boards that have survived and pictures in tomb reliefs, there's not much textual evidence. The physical boards have mostly been found in tombs, but there are also graffiti boards so the game was definitely played in life as well as in a ritual or funerary context.

Senet is not the oldest game known from Ancient Egyptian tombs - there's a game played on a spiral board that Tait called the serpent board/game. There's no definite evidence that this was played in life, and we know little about it. Senet shows up first in Old Kingdom tombs, and the reliefs it's seen in were originally interpreted as part of the daily life scenes but it now seems clear that the context is that of the mortuary celebration. In the Middle Kingdom depictions are rarer, but in the Coffin Texts the ability to play Senet is something that the deceased is said to gain. In the New Kingdom the board develops into a box, and the Book of the Dead lists playing Senet as one of the things they deceased can do whilst Going Forth By Day. Later the box form of the game disappears again.

There are also signs of cultural exchange with the surrounding area. The game of Senet spreads during the New Kingdom period to various places including Nubia, Iraq and Cyprus. There is also a 20 square version of the game board that is sometimes found on the back of the Senet board. This is a Mesopotamian import and is akin to the Royal Game of Ur.

Tait felt he was running short of time at this point, so skimmed over the last couple of sections where he would've told us about the throwing sticks and the symbolism of the marked squares on the boards which was a shame as the little bit we saw looked interesting. The talk also hadn't touched much on the "with Death" part of the title, and a couple of the questions afterwards tried to draw this out but he still didn't expand much on it.

"Antinous and Death in the Nile" Tim Whitmarsh

The last talk before lunch stayed with Egyptian culture for its subject but moved us significantly up in time to the 2nd Century CE - the period of the Emperor Hadrian & his lover Antinous. Tim Whitmarsh is a classicist who told us about a poem written shortly after Antinous death and subsequent deification.

He began by setting the scene with a little bit of discussion about the Greek fascination with the flooding of the Nile, and about how life in Egypt is defined by the tension between the desert and the river even up to relatively modern times. He then moved on to tell us about the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus papyrii in the late 19th Century CE. This large group of papyrii includes texts relating to daily life & politics in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and also a lot of Greek literature. Only about 10% have been published (and they are crowdsourcing the transcription process, although the site's currently being rebuilt and won't be back online till July 2018).

Whitmarsh was talking about two fragments from this collection which are of the same poem about Antinous. He read us a section of it (in translation) about a lion hunt that Hadrian and Antinous have gone on, and in this part Hadrian casts the first spear at the lion but deliberately misses so that his boyfriend can get the practice at spear casting and perhaps the kill. Whitmarsh speculates that the missing parts of the poem would go on to detail Antinous's death and link it with the lion hunt.

The poem is in the epic genre, and the lion hunt is a common Graeco/Roman trope. Whitmarsh said that the most important part to Hadrian would be the equation of Antinous with a red lotus - young dead men becoming flowers is another common Greek trope and is linked with the deification of these men. The poem itself must've been well regarded as it can't been written long before the Oxyrhynchus papyrii were assembled. So it must've been copied a lot in a short space of time to've ended up there - a measure of popularity.

The poet is known from a reference in another work - a 3rd Century CE piece by Athenaeus called Deiphnosophistae is about a dinner where the diners impress each other with their knowledge of poetry (amongst other subjects). From this we know that the poet was called Pankrates and that he told the poem to Hadrian. He was probably an Egyptian, which is important for understanding the poem - particularly in that it links Antinous to Osiris and to the Nile, and thus to the continuing cycles of death & rebirth that are part of the Egyptian imagination.

"Communicating with the Gods: Liver Divination in Ancient Mesopotamia" Selena Wisnom

After lunch we started up again by returning to the ancient world, but moving geographically to Mesopotamia with Selena Wisnom telling us about reading omens from sheep livers. This is the talk that particularly encouraged me to go to this study day as some of the exercises in the Akkadian course I'm doing involve translating omen texts - and as J said, it was surprising I didn't start growling at the mention of them as those are some of the toughest exercises. Not only do the scribes appear to have appalling handwriting, but the texts themselves are cryptic at best. But this talk was really useful in providing an overview of what we actually know about liver divination (which my textbook isn't interested in, being a language course).

Wisnom started by giving us some context. The study of omens in Ancient Mesopotamia goes back to at least 4.5 thousand years ago, although the texts are much later than that. Many texts survive - clay tablets are more durable than other writing materials. She also showed us a map of the region, stressing that Babylon was the cultural centre of the region even when not the political centre.

The premise of extipacy is that the gods are always sending messages, so we need to pay attention and interpret them. The signs or omens are not causative, they just announce the message. The colour of a fresh liver is reminiscent of a fresh clay tablet, and there can be creases on it that look a lot like cuneiform signs - thus livers were an important source of messages from the gods. She illustrated her talk throughout with photos of livers from Armenian sheep*, and showed us some examples of these creases. Wisnom thinks this coincidence of form between liver & their writing system is why liver omens were the most important ones.

*Sheep in Western countries are dosed with a lot of antibiotics & other medicines and so are healthier than ancient Mesopotamian sheep. So she used Armenian sheep (a colleague visited Armenia and took photos for her) to see a wider range of liver structures.

Omens are interpreted using wordplay & allusions, and each one has a meaning something like: If this feature looks like this sign then (something). And it helps that cuneiform signs may have multiple associated syllables or words, so there's plenty of scope to interpret the creases in a variety of ways. They are also not literal prophecies, as became clear when she walked us through the process. Liver divination allows one to ask a question of the gods, they will then write it on the liver of the (living) sheep you have provided and then you can interpret it once you sacrifice the sheep. So one begins by appealing to the gods Šamaš and Adad, and then one asks a yes/no question. There are then several formulae to recite to guard against accidental impurities - in the way the sheep has been handled, or things you might've touched yourself. After this the sheep is sacrificed and the omens are read from the liver. This was done by examining all the marks on the liver and counting favourable vs. unfavourable omens, more favourable omens means "yes", more unfavourable ones means "no".

The Mesopotamians asked many different types of questions of the liver omens. They could be to do with statecraft including things about illnesses of important people, appointments to offices, or foreign affairs. They could also be more personal questions, and could be asked by people of much lower status than the king - so long as you could afford the sheep & the priest (this was not a DIY process) then you could ask a question of the gods. Liver omens could also be used to cross check other omens, and she gave an example of a text where a priest had written to the king having done just that. The eclipse they had seen was deemed not to be unfavourable, as the liver omens were favourable.

Wisnom is interested in figuring out the logic underpinning the omen interpretations. It isn't a random or chaotic system, it seems clear to her that this is almost a science - they are attempting in the omen collections to categorise & classify the world in a systematic way. Even if it does seem absurd to us! The texts are grouped by category, and they extend past the things they have seen into theoretical possibilities - for instance there are omens that start "if there is no heart", which is clearly an impossibility if the sheep was alive until the moment of sacrifice!

She finished up by talking about what her future research questions are, ranging from the specific to the general: why are some things linked to specific meanings? Why is this general sort of divination still practised in some human cultures today? What does this tell us about how humans think?

"Egyptian Afterlife Texts and Ancient Christian Apocrypha" Simon Gathercole

The second talk of the afternoon, presented by theologian Simon Gathercole, took us from the Book of the Dead through to Christian apocrypha and traced the threads that link these two bodies of literature. I must confess I struggled to concentrate during this talk so my notes are less than complete. It was a combination of post-lunch slump and the presentation style - there were no slides, instead we were given a handout with excerpts of the texts he was discussing which he also read out for us.

He started by saying that the Egyptian point of view is that it's not faith that moves mountains, but the right spell. He is exploring this in the later variants of the Book of the Dead and in Christian apocrypha. In the Book of the Dead spells are often answers to questions that the deceased will be asked on the journey into the afterlife - e.g. "who are you?" or "where do you come from?". Another theme is the naming of guardians in order to pass them. Some successor documents to the Book of the Dead (such as the Document of Breathing) act as passports - possession of the document was as important as the spell on it. Later documents are also hidden knowledge - you must keep the knowledge secret and keep secret that you possess the knowledge.

He then discussed some of the early Christian apocrypha, including the Apocalypses of James and of Paul and the Gospels of Thomas and of Mary. These contain some of the same themes as the Book of the Dead texts - they are hidden knowledge, and permits to pass guardians. They also contain the names you need to know. So his conclusion is that the traditional Egyptian literature influenced the later Christian writings.

"Demons in Late Antiquity" Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe

Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe was another theologian, and her main work is on Satan but she was talking to us on this occasion about demons in Late Antiquity. She began by discussing the terms she was using - starting with "Late Antiquity" which is a very loose and vague period which might cover as much as the 1st Millennium CE. It's a post-classical world, and period of transition characterised by the ending of the Roman Empire. During it the Roman/post-Roman world transitions from pagan to Christian beliefs. The other important term is "demon" which she uses as an umbrella term to cover two different groups - daimōns (divine or ghost entities) and pneuma (wind/spirit).

The evidence for ideas about demons during this period comes from hagiographies & sermons, and from texts of ritual power (both theoretical & applied magic). Whilst the story we tell about Late Antiquity is of a clash between the Pagan and the Christian world views, she thinks the evidence shows more traffic between the cultures than that.

Exorcising demons is a cross-cultural activity, and Lunn-Rockliffe illustrated this by comparing stories of Anthony banishing demons with magical texts. In the Anthony stories he is shown having a superior (holy) ability to detect the presence of demons, and he casts them out by rebuking them in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the magical texts is very much consistent with the Anthony stories - it uses language & abbreviations used in Christian literature and details a spell to drive out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. The other magical text she talked about was more broad ranging in its influence - it is bilingual and mixes the name(s) of the Christian god with names from other traditions. Essentially it calls on as many powerful names as possible so that something will work.

Taming demons is not separate from exorcism, the two processes are regarded as two sides of the same coin. Her first example here was of a saint who cursed his son with a demon as that would stop the son sinning (the demon here being the lesser of two evils). It demonstrates that the knowledge that lets you drive out demons also lets you call them. The next Christian example Lunn-Rockliffe gave was of Anthony being able to tell that someone's visions were granted by demons because he could ask those demons to tell him something about them that he wouldn't've otherwise known. The magical examples that Lunn-Rockcliffe discussed were of types still familiar from modern mythology - a spell to summon a demon to answer one's questions, and a pair of melted wax dolls with a text intended to bind a woman to love the man who performed the spell.

Lunn-Rockliffe summed up by saying that the evidence suggests that rather than a great culture clash of Christian vs. Pagan such as was written about by the zealots, in practice people actually turned to whichever practitioners were convenient.

In the Q&A section Jan Assmann mentioned something interesting to me because I'm learning Akkadian - the il/ilu Semitic stem has a broad definition in the same way that Lunn-Rockliffe was defining & using the term demon to encompass divine beings, ghosts, and creatures of wind or spirit. So the Akkadian word "ilum" which my textbook translates as "god" is not as narrow as that might imply.

Glanville Lecture: "The Book of Exodus and the Invention of Religion" Jan Assmann

For the Glanville Lecture itself Jan Assmann chose to talk about his Biblical research & ideas (which are the subject of his new book) rather than Egyptological subjects. Personally I think this was a shame (although I can see why he did it, it's his current research area) - many people only came to the evening lecture which is billed as an Egyptology talk, and an extended version of the talk he gave at the start of the day would've fit the audience better in my opinion.

He introduced the subject by saying "Invention of religion - isn't that preposterous? isn't it as old as humanity?" and went on to explain that he sees a qualitative difference between religion as we think of it in a culture shaped by Christianity (or Judaism or Islam), and religion as other cultures (for instance the Ancient Egyptians) would think of it. And he posits that "our" concept was developed over a roughly 200 year period in Israel around the 6th Century BCE with the critical difference being that the older concept of religion is not separate from state or culture, whereas the new one is its own distinct thing. One is religion as a cult, which is and always was. The other is religion as a covenant, with a date when it starts and/or was revealed - e.g. for Judaism he said this was 1446 BCE (effectively backdated to the Exodus from Egypt).

He spoke about how culture as a whole can be separated out into autonomous cultural spheres - e.g. law would be one - and each of those spheres can be broken into a binary by a "leading distinction". In this case of law this would be justice vs. injustice. All archaic states are based on sacred knowledge, but this is not an autonomous cultural sphere. You can say that the leading distinction in Ancient Egyptian religion is Ma'at vs. Isfet (order vs. chaos) but this wasn't a distinction limited to religion, it was also applicable to law, or to kingship or to other cultural spheres. So religion permeates throughout the culture. The shift in Israel around the 6th Century BCE is for religion to become autonomous, and so the rest of culture is now not religious.

Revelation is key to the new religion. The old paradigm is that religion is a part of reality, it is something that is. The new paradigm is that it is a transformation of reality - there is a founding event after which the new religion is revealed, and this event is commemorated afterwards to keep the community together. The new paradigm shifts how people's attitudes towards religion are perceived. In the old paradigm one was either attentive or neglectful but still part of the community either way. In the new paradigm it's about belief vs. unbelief or loyalty vs. defection - are you one of us? Or are you one of them?

Assmann spent the next part of his talk going through the Book of Exodus in detail as an illustration of this new paradigm for religion. He started by pointing out that the Book of Exodus is distinct from the myth of the Exodus. The myth is split into three phases - the emigration from Egypt, legislation in the wilderness (I think that's what he said) and finally the conquest of the promised land. The Book of Exodus also has three phases but these are - emigration from Egypt as before, then the covenant and the law culminating in the construction of the tabernacle.

He then ran through the story of the Book of Exodus in more detail, before talking about the themes of revelation that run through it. There are 5 steps of revelation through the story - the central revelation is that of the law, and is at the heart of the new religion. Revelation is the key point of the story - and faith in these revelations is what sets the new religion apart from the old ones. In the older religions the way things are is a matter evidence, and your belief is not relevant or required. But the faith that the new religion requires, a concept that Assmann defined as a mixture of belief plus truth plus loyalty, implies the possibility of alternatives which are wrong/untrue. It's possible not to believe in it, and then you are wrong & other.

The next part of Assmann's talk was about how this paradigm of religion implies conflict and leads to violence - and because it dominates the modern world both in the West and in the Middle East it is the source of a lot of our modern problems. He used Carl Schmitt (a Nazi philosopher/politician) as an example of where the distinction between the faithful & unbelievers can lead. He also talked at length about how the murder of Moses begins an Old Testament theme of the murdering of prophets which then culminates in the Passion of Christ in the New Testament - but I got rather lost here so I'm not sure exactly how this fit in. Not least because I don't recall the story of Moses being murdered from the Bible - and looking it up this is a proposal of Sigmund Freud's that Assmann has written about before, so I perhaps got lost because he assumed the audience had rather more context for this than I had.

Assmann closed by summarising the key features of this new religion that has become our modern norm:

  1. autonomous cultural system against politics
  2. independent of the state
  3. controls all other cultural systems
  4. the new religion can be taught to others and they can convert
  5. may be practised everywhere so long as there are people to do it
  6. it's incompatible with other religions
    • you can't "believe" both
    • you can't translate between them
  7. based on revelation and demands faith
    • either true or false
    • no third way
    • leads to violence
  8. prophets of it are in opposition to the state and to the mainstream

His take home message was that the way out of the conflict & violence that this paradigm has brought to our world is for us to once again remember that no one faith has the truth, each is a way to seek the truth.

At the beginning of February Ramadan Hussein came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work he is doing at Saqqara. He works for Tübingen University, and is leading a joint German/Egyptian team who are investigating some of the Saite Period (26th Dynasty) tombs at Saqqara. Although best known for the Old Kingdom monuments, Saqqara also has the most Saite Period tombs known anywhere - there are several clustered around the 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, plus another 2 near the opposite corner of the Step Pyramid complex, two more near the 6th Dynasty Pyramid of Teti and yet another at the end of the causeway of Unas. There are also several un-mapped & undocumented tombs to the east of the Step Pyramid complex.

Hussein is working on three of the tombs that are near the Pyramid of Unas, which were initially discovered 117 years ago. These are the tombs of three officials by the names of Djenhebu, Psamtik and Pediese. The three tombs are linked together - the main way in for all of them is via a single large shaft that's 9m by 8m in cross-section and 30m deep. The shaft splits into three at the bottom & there are also other smaller vertical shafts. The burial chambers are large, and built out of limestone (rather than just cut into the rock. They have vaulted ceilings, and niches in the side walls. As they each look like a giant sarcophagus he prefers to refer to them as "sarcophagus tombs" rather than the older name of "shaft tombs". They date to the end of the 26th Dynasty, and all three tomb occupants had many titles - clearly important officials. Their burials were rich, and some of their grave goods were found in the original excavation & are now in the Cairo Museum (and will be moved to the Grand Egyptian Museum).

He initially planned to republish the texts based on the original excavation and drawing on current knowledge, but subsequently got permission to re-excavate them using modern techniques. His study has several goals: to do a proper survey of the area; to re-excavate the shaft to see if there are any signs of a superstructure; to conserve the burial chambers; and to document and study the texts on the walls of the burial chambers. The first of these goals - to do a modern survey - surprised me, but despite Saqqara being a significant site it hasn't ever been mapped or surveyed with modern techniques, and in particular the tombs he's working on haven't been surveyed in any detail.

The previous excavation of the tombs took 10 days to investigate the whole shaft & chambers, and then they backfilled it all. So the backfill has stuff from around the area that got swept up into the spoil heaps and into the shaft. This includes pieces of text that look like part of the inscription that Prince Khaemwaset (a son of Ramesses II) left on the side of the Pyramid of Unas when he restored it. But Hussein said that on closer examination the glyphs are not the right size to fit into any of the spaces, and so it's perhaps evidence of another previously unknown inscription. There were also shabtis, mummified scarabs, sandals and pots. And more concerningly there were a lot of large rocks that were putting pressure on the chapel roofs, which was another reason that the shaft needed re-excavated.

The first evidence that they found for a superstructure was a limestone platform built adjacent to the shaft on the south side. On top of the platform were deposits containing bits of animals & seashells and burnt material. These may've been offerings which would make this a place of ritual. Around this platform & the shaft were large walls, but there's no sign of a ceiling over the shaft. To the south of the platform there was evidence of a chapel. This included something that might've been an altar - blocks marked with a ḥtp symbol (which is part of the offering formula) with ashes on top. This rather basic superstructure to the tomb is similar to that found at Saite tombs at Abusir, and seems that tomb owners in this period concentrated their resources on tomb decoration rather than the external area of the tomb.

Hussein's team have thoroughly documented the tomb decoration. They are making use of both analogue & digital techniques to make sure all possible details are recorded. On the analogue side of it they are using record sheets to document the colours of the hieroglyphs - both before & after conservation. This can then be used to colour the digital model they're making. 3D modelling is a technique that they're using extensively to record pretty much everything, for instance later in the talk he showed us models of parts of the site during excavation. One of its uses is to make proper reproductions of the texts from the walls and he spent a bit of time explaining the stages of the process. The big problem that needs to be overcome is the distortion you get when taking photos of the walls, and so the first step is to put small markers spaced out on the wall. The distance between these is measured very accurately, either digitally or with an old-fashioned tape measure, to give known points in 3D space. Then they take lots of overlapping photographs and use some software to stitch these together into a first approximation of a digital model. Another software package is used to combine this model with the measurements of the known points which produces a very accurate & high resolution model.

The team are also working on conserving the tomb decoration. It's been deteriorating due to dust, humidity and the fluorescent lighting that was installed for visitors. It's not just visitors that have been the problem, there was also a poorly done and undocumented conservation job. The problem was previously "fixed" by closing the site to visitors, which slowed down but didn't halt the deterioration. Hussein was keen to tell us that the team members working on the conservation now are all young local Egyptians who are being trained by the Ministry. The team as a whole have discussed each step of the conservation before they do anything, working with a guiding principle of "the best conservation technique is the most minimal one". The first question they had to answer was how to deal with the humidity, and they decided that stabilisation and gradual reduction was the key. If they just installed air conditioning or pumped out the air then sudden change in humidity would draw the salt out of the limestone which would damage the inscriptions even more. So instead they are using one of the side shafts to provide a natural ventilation system - at the top they've built a structure over it with windows high up in the walls. These generate air flow which gradually replace the air in the tomb with drier air from outside.

They are also cleaning up the background to the hieroglyphs - again simplicity is the key, and so they are using water & alcohol in a 1:2 ratio. This is a non-invasive technique that makes a lot of difference, and he showed us some very striking before & after photos. They haven't touched the colours yet as that's a more complicated problem. Before any work is done on the colours they'll have a chemical analysis done so that they can make suitable decisions based on the materials they're conserving. And as one of the problems with the previous conservation job is that no-one know what was actually done they are also documenting the work very thoroughly - who did the work, what they did on which day and so on.

Hussein next moved on to discuss the texts that are found on the tomb walls. One of the things he's interested in is what tradition was followed to choose the texts. They're spells that are found in the Pyramid Texts, but did they follow on from the way that the Middle Kingdom used parts of the Pyramid Texts or did the Saite Period officials effectively copy their texts direct from the Old Kingdom example that they were buried next to? To explain what he concluded Hussein began by talking about how the texts were chosen & laid out in a tomb in the Old Kingdom. The spells map out a path for the deceased to follow to leave the tomb and journey to the afterlife. In the burial chamber there are spells of resurrection & to do with the netherworld. Then in through the passage into the antechamber are texts relating to the gates that the deceased must pass through, and in the antechamber itself are spells of transformation and for passing through the horizon. There is also an added layer of meaning in that taken as a whole the layout of the texts mimcs the cosmos. This theory of decoration was originally proposed for the Dynasty 6 pyramids, but it also holds up for the mastaba tombs of private individuals in the Old Kingdom.

That layout of texts does not apply in the Middle Kingdom. The texts are now on a coffin instead of on the tomb walls, and so there's only one box rather than several rooms. There is some commonality though - the coffin itself is identified with Nut, and so is the cosmos just like the whole tomb was in the Old Kingdom. The new reference point for laying out the texts is the body of the deceased (as opposed to the journey of the deceased) - on one side of the box are texts relating to offerings, on the other side are resurrection texts.

Having explained the two different models Hussein turned to the texts in these tombs that his team are excavating. The texts are on the walls, which is like the Old Kingdom pattern but they don't follow that layout scheme at all. Instead the whole burial chamber is laid out like a coffin, even down to having Nut or stars on the ceiling as would be on the lid of a coffin. Offering spells are the most common, then serpent spells and then resurrection spells. The east wall has a sequence of spells that are important for the process whereby the deceased turns into an Akh (a glorified version of the self). These include various spells, and also insignia and regalia. These last appear in part because these texts were originally for kings (back in the Old Kingdom), but by the time of these tombs the regalia is an important part of becoming an Akh for a private individual as well. The west wall is primarily resurrection texts - so the selections on these two walls are much like the texts on Middle Kingdom coffins in theme.

Most of the spells date back to the Old Kingdom originally, but not all of them. For instance on the foot wall there is a text at the top about Isis protecting the deceased from drowning (the wall has a water theme). This text is first known in the 25th Dynasty so a much more recent addition to the canon. Underneath this text are spells to do with serpents - the text dates to the Old Kingdom but it has been titled by Middle Kingdom editors. Hussein pointed out that titling something is editing even tho you haven't changed the text - as you are setting up the reader to interpret the text in a particular way, and this might not've been the intent of the original author.

Hussein has concluded that the texts on these 26th Dynasty tombs were transmitted via the Middle Kingdom, and not copied directly from the Old Kingdom. His reasons are two fold: firstly the texts used are (mostly) a subset of the texts that were used in the Middle Kingdom. And secondly the layout of the texts in the tombs is that of a Middle Kingdom coffin rather than an Old Kingdom tomb.

This was the end of the first half of Hussein's talk, and we had a break for coffee & cake before he continued on to tell us more about his excavations. I have written up the second half of the talk in a separate post, here, and it deals with exciting new discoveries that hadn't been announced at the time he was talking to us.

In December Meghan Strong, a PhD student (about to submit her thesis!) at Cambridge, came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the use of artificial light in Ancient Egyptian ritual. Light in ritual is something we're still familiar with in the modern world - think of Divali, Advent (or the Easter Vigil service), Hannukah and many other examples. Strong's argument is that the Ancient Egyptians were no different from modern people in this respect.

She began by giving us context for both artificial light in pre-history & in the ancient world, and for the study of light in an archaeological context. Fire is the basis of ancient artificial light. The first evidence of its use as a tool is around 1 million years ago, and Strong said that it can be argued that this is part of what makes us human (as distinct from animals). The first evidence of lamps dates to around 15,000 BCE and the earliest example has been found in the Lascaux Caves (which are famous for the pre-historic paintings on the walls). The lamp has been specifically carved to serve as a light source - most obviously to light the way into the cave, to let the artist see to paint. But it also creates the environment which you're supposed to see the paintings in - the dim flickering light source makes the paintings seem to move.

Strong told us that the study of light in an archaeological context is called Lyknology. It has generally focused on Greek & Roman lamps, with Ancient Egyptian lamps only featuring from the Roman period. While there are many studies of how the Ancient Egyptians used natural light (for instance in the design of the temple at Abu Simbel) there are only 10 papers on artificial light use & they are quite short. (In fact the whole subject seems somewhat obscure - Google & Wikipedia let me down when I was trying to check if I had the terminology correct, so apologies if I've got it wrong!) Even Petrie didn't publish on Pharaonic Egyptian lamps - he wrote about those in later Ancient Egyptian history, and about lamps from Palestine & the Levant.

One of the reasons that Ancient Egyptian lamps are overlooked is that they don't look like one expects an ancient lamp to look - they didn't use oil wick lamps that burnt olive oil as in Greece or Rome, as they didn't have a ready source of olives for fuel. The fuel sources they did have were vegetable oils (which produce a lot of smoke) and animal fats. The latter are smelly when being made but odourless and smokeless when burnt so were the preferred fuel type.

The less familiar shapes mean that not only is there little archaeological evidence of lamps but it can also be hard to interpret. So Strong has needed to combine the evidence from archaeology, texts, iconography plus some experimental archaeology. One of the things that she has been doing as part of her PhD is constructing a typology of lamp types used in Ancient Egypt from 3000 BCE to 400 BCE and she has identified four groups. The first of these are spouted vessel lamps, and she talked about a 4000 BCE example that has burnt fat residue still in it - however this vessel shape can also be used for other purposes (like libation offerings), so it's hard to tell the purpose of any given archaeological object. The second vessel type she discussed was open vessel lamps, one very ornate example of which comes from Tutankhamun's tomb but other more practical ones have also been found at Deir el Medina. The last groups were what she calls "Wick on Stick" devices and "Wick in Stick" devices. An example of the former is also found in Tutankhamun's tomb and would be fat soaked linen wrapped around a stick. The example she showed us of the latter was a magic brick (which would've placed in someone's tomb).

Having talked a bit about what sorts of lamps there were Strong moved on to talk about how they might've been used. A very important piece of evidence comes from a 12th Dynasty tomb of Hepdjefa, which is at Asyut. There is a text inside the tomb which details how two workers are supposed to glorify his tomb with gmḥt at New Year's Eve. From context these are lamps, this text is the only one that gives them a name although there are other texts that reference the same festival. They were to be obtained from the Keeper of the Wardrobe, which perhaps means that they were made of linen. They must be portable - the workers are instructed to carry them at night. And they are to be used to light a tkꜣ - from context this must be another type of light source.

Relief from Nefersekheru's Tomb (in a calendar from the Ashmolean Museum)

Strong believes she has identified these light sources in reliefs from a variety of sources (such as one from the tomb of Nefersekheru in the photo above - which J took of our calendar in December). The ones that look like tapers in the man's hands and on the structure are the gmḥt and the larger structure that he's lighting must be the tkꜣ. Strong argues that the depictions of the gmḥt often show them lit - her experiments have shown that the lamp bends as it burns, and then the red paint at the top represents the burning & light. The experimental archaeology has also shown that the lights handle well - they produce a lot of light, they don't drip as they burn (much better than a candle!) and a 19cm wick will last for about 45 minutes. All in all they seem to be nice to use in a procession.

Having covered the what and the how, Strong next discussed why the Egyptians were using light & what purpose it was playing in their rituals. Her evidence all comes from New Kingdom texts, but as the texts correlate with texts from the Middle Kingdom she thinks that her conclusions probably apply earlier as well as in the New Kingdom. The current state of the literature is that in Ancient Egyptian ritual light is used for protective purposes only, and there are texts that back this up as a use for light (for instance in a funerary context). However Strong's research shows that this is not the only reason.

In texts that talk about the New Year's Eve ritual (which is described in Hepdjefa's tomb) the phrase "light to illuminate the path" shows up frequently and Strong thinks this is key to understanding the role of light in this context - that it facilitates movement (in a ritual sense, not just a pragmatic sense of being able to see one's feet in procession). In New Kingdom tombs light offerings are represented in scenes in liminal spaces (such as doorways) - again facilitating movement. And they are also painted at places where the natural light will no longer penetrate the tomb space, "illuminating" the path in & out of the tomb. These motifs are particularly seen at Deir el Medina.

Light is also implied to be involved in the rebirth of the deceased in a funerary context. And this ties into the New Year's Eve ritual as well - as that is a ritual for the birth of a new year. Tying both these concepts together light is also seen as facilitating the movement of the soul between living & dead (in a very similar fashion to the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico).

There is a lot of evidence that artificial light was used in funerals in the New Kingdom, and for the last part of her talk Strong focused on a particular spell from the Book of the Dead (137a) which details a ritual called "Spell to transform into an Akh". In this ritual four priests are each to present a tkꜣ (made of red linen coated in high quality oil) to the deceased. The tkꜣ are then doused in milk and the ritual words are spoken. The text itself is very dense and jargon-y, so in order to figure out what's going on Strong has turned to other evidence including contextual clues within the text.

When was this ritual done? The texts for the Opening of the Mouth ceremony say that is done with the mummy set up in full sunlight, but the Akh ritual talks about the onset of night and the presence of Osiris the god (rather than the deceased as associated with Osiris). So this implies a ritual done at sunset as a point of transition - which fits with "illuminating the path". Also scenes in tombs where light offerings are presented to Osiris are all in the west of the tombs - which fits with sunset. Another important question is what is an Akh? It's a form of the deceased that is associated with light and illumination. Traditionally Egyptologists have assumed it was associated with the sun, but Strong disagrees. As well as the evidence of the text, any time the deceased is depicted becoming the Akh there is artificial light present in the scene.

Strong also did an experiment to see how the pigments used on coffins look when you have the light sources available to the Ancient Egyptians. She took four boards and painted them with the yellowy pigments that we know the Egyptians used - including orpiniol & yellow ochre, and with different varnishes. Then she put the boards up in the garden at the Fitzwilliam Museum with wick on a stick lamps in front of them, and both videoed them & asked people to record their changing perceptions of the boards as the sun set and the artificial light took over from natural light. Varnished yellow ochre in particular undergoes a transformation - it looks like gold under the artificial light, having looked like mud in sunlight. The flickering of the lights enhances the effect.

So taking all the evidence together Strong's suggestion is that the ritual for turning into an Akh provides the mourners with a representation of the event taking place. As the ritual takes place the sun sets & the coffin becomes illuminated only with the flickering light of the tkꜣ and so it comes to life, transforming from the mundane reality of a painted coffin to a golden being.

I found this a really interesting talk. It's easy to forget when you look at objects in museums that the fluorescent light we see them under is far from their original context. It was also another great example of how you can take several obscure & insufficient sources of evidence and build up from them a plausible picture of customs of Ancient Egypt - the other recent example I'm thinking of is the talk we had from Alexandre Loktionov, another Cambridge PhD student, about Ancient Egyptian Justice.

In November a group of us from the Essex Egyptology Group had the chance to visit parts of the British Museum that aren't generally open to the public - some of the storerooms where the 95% of the Egyptian artifacts that aren't on display are held. I'd been on one of these trips before several years ago, so was pleased at the chance to go again - partly because it's a chance to see items you don't normally see, and partly because it would be someone different showing us round so we would see different things. When we'd all arrived we were split into two groups, the one I was in was shown round by Adrienn Almásy.

Almásy took us to the Papyrus room first - this is her speciality, she works on Demotic and Coptic texts. There are around 3,300 papyri that belong the museum - some of which are fakes. She showed us a few of these, mostly pieces of linen wrapped round sticks to fool 19th Century tourists. The real papyri mostly arrive at the museum as a collection of fragments which are then carefully pieced back together and mounted in glass frames. The collection is currently being scanned so that the texts can go online and be available to more people. The texts that the British Museum has are in Hieratic (a script used in parallel with hieroglyphs), Demotic (a later script that took over from Hieratic as the script of bureaucracy) and Coptic (a Greek derived script which took over from Demotic). The museum holds no Greek texts - these went to the British Library when the two collections were split. Which tells you something about the way the Egyptian texts were regarded - Greek = literature, but an Egyptian script = archaeology regardless of age or literary merit!

We looked at a few examples of texts, with a bias towards the later period as that's Almásy's speciality. One was a text that's in Egyptian and written with Greek letters, that predates the development of the Coptic script, which was pretty cool. Another text was one that she's working on to publish - on one side it has a letter in Coptic, on the other side is a completely unrelated text in Arabic showing that the papyrus was reused long after the first letter was sent. She also talked a bit about the status of Greek & Egyptian as languages during the Ptolemaic era. The higher levels of bureaucrats spoke & wrote Greek, and the lower administration spoke Egyptian & wrote in Demotic script - and you can see on official documents that a Demotic document will be glossed in Greek to make sure the meaning is clear. Almásy said that in modern Egypt speaking French or English is a status symbol and so high society speaks in a mixture of English, French and Arabic when talking amongst themselves. She speculated that perhaps in the Ptolemaic period the elites amongst Egyptian society mixed Egyptian with Greek in a similar fashion.

The next room we went to see was the pottery room, and here one of Almásy's colleagues (Valentina Gasperini) spoke to us briefly - she is a specialist in ceramics, and is working on those from the New Kingdom period at Amara West. The pottery room is laid out in chronological order starting with pre-dynastic Naqada III era pots, some of which are decorated with boats and other motifs that will become typical of later Egyptian art. Apart from a couple of exceptions the pots in this room are those that don't have inscriptions, the ostraca etc are stored elsewhere (that we didn't see). Someone (I forget who) asked about pottery techniques during Ancient Egyptian history and Gasperini told us that the pottery wheel dates back to at least the Old Kingdom. There are depictions in 4th Dynasty mastaba tombs of a type of wheel that she referred to as a "slow" wheel. But the kick wheel (which is more what we'd think of as a pottery wheel, I think) isn't seen depicted until the Late Period during the time when the Persian Darius ruled Egypt.

We'd spent quite a lot of time in these first two rooms so we had to be rather more brisk through the next two. I also appear to've taken very few notes in the metal objects room, which was the next one we went to. A large amount of the stuff in there is jewellery and Almásy opened several drawers for us to have a look. There is little, if any, of the British Museum's Egyptian jewellery that's out on display as it doesn't fit with the current concept for the galleries, so it was a real treat to see what they have. There were a lot of exquisite necklaces and beads, and in one of the drawers there was also a smallish (20cm) silver statue of Amun. This is one of J's favourite artifacts so he was delighted to have the chance to see it in person!

The last of the rooms we visited was the organics storeroom. In here they keep a lot of smaller wooden pieces like scribal palettes and statuettes, but the most noticeable contents are the mummies and coffins. They store the mummies & coffins on racks organised in chronological order starting with some naturally mummified pre-dynastic bodies. Each mummy that has a coffin is kept near to it, so the entire assemblage is in one area. On the day we visited there was a coffin down on a table near the racks being studied.

And then all too soon we were finished with our tour - it had been an hour & a half, but I think you could spend days there and not see a significant fraction of the fascinating objects!

Before meeting up with the others at the British Museum J & I had visited the Sir John Soane Museum. This museum is an Enlightenment gentleman's cabinet (house) of curiousities as he left it when he died (as stipulated in his will). We'd visited it once before and done the whole museum properly, but on this occasion we were there for the Ancient Egypt related temporary exhibition - Egypt Uncovered: Belzoni and the Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I (which is still running till 15 April 2018). One of the items in the museum's permanent collection is the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which was brought back to London by Belzoni 200 years ago. We began our visit with a look at that, down in the basement of the museum. The whole piece is covered in texts and imagery from the Book of Gates, which is an ancient Egyptian funerary text. The scene that particularly caught my eye was inside the coffin and from near the end of the text where the great snake Apophis is bound in fetters. There's also a bit of near modern graffiti - Belzoni carved his name in the sarcophagus at the foot end near the lip of it. Which was standard practice at the time (for instance many of the fine statues in the Turin Museum have Salt's name carved into them), but it still makes me wince.

Hathor Welcoming Seti I

The temporary exhibition was quite small, just a couple of rooms. The first of these had an explanation of who the Great Belzoni was - circus strongman, engineer, adventurer and early archaeologist. He discovered the tomb of Seti I in 1817 - although it had been robbed in antiquity it was still exquisitely decorated and contained some small objects and the great sarcophagus. This room of the exhibition also included water-colours of the decoration done by Belzoni & his assistant (which in some places let us see detail that's since been damaged in the original). It also included photos of pieces of the relief that were chiselled out and sent to European museums - one now in the Louvre (see my photo above which I took when I visited Paris in 2011), and a matching one now in Florence. Both show the goddess Hathor and Seti I. The second room of the exhibition had a few fragments of the lid of the sarcophagus (it was broken in antiquity, probably when the tomb was robbed) which are not usually on display so that was pretty cool to see. There was also a video of high-res imagery that's been made of the sarcophagus. There is a plan to make a replica of Seti I's tomb so that more people can see the beautiful reliefs without risking the original, and there will be a replica of the sarcophagus made to go with that.

It's a pretty small exhibition, but worth popping into if you're interested in Egypt - and the rest of the museum is also worth a look for the sheer over-the-topness of it all!

At the beginning of November Penny Wilson visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about myths & legends of the Delta region of Egypt. Wilson is involved in archaeological work in the Delta, and is currently writing a book about the region as there isn't one already. One of her areas of interest is whether there is a distinct Delta culture during the Ancient Egyptian period.

She began her talk by giving us some geographical context for the region. The first & most obvious difference between the Delta and the Nile Valley is the scale - in most of Egypt there's only a narrow strip of land that it's possible to live on, but the Delta is very broad. There is also more variety of environments in the Delta - the marshy interior is different to the desert edges & both are different to the Mediterranean coastline. The Delta was also different in ancient times to the way it is now - the natural flooding of the Nile deposited a lot of sediment so the coastline was further out, and the soil was even more fertile.

The Delta marshes are very rich in natural resources - which makes agriculture less appealing here than in the Nile Valley and so the population remained hunter/gatherers for longer. The land is also better for farming - it is very fertile and there's more space. There are more trees, which provide building materials for things such as boats. And the less marshy areas along the desert edges are good for cattle rearing. But the Delta also spends a lot of time flooded and it's hard to find places to put permanent settlements. This is even more the case than in Nile Valley, as at least there you can retreat to the desert edge, but if you're in the middle of the Delta then there are river channels on all sides. There are some options though, including large sand banks that rise high above the flood plain. Over the millennia these have been mined for their sand, so only one still survives & Wilson showed us a photo of this pretty large body of sand standing 20 foot higher than the surrounding land.

So Wilson is interested in how this diverse & rich environment which is distinct from the Nile Valley environment has affected the belief systems of the people who lived there. But first she needs to figure out what the belief systems of the Delta region actually are, which is not as straightforward as one might expect. The bulk of Wilson's talk was a chronological look at what we know about Delta myths & legends, and how we know it (or how we don't!).

She started with a look at the Narmer Palette as one of the most well known pieces of iconography to do with the unification of Egypt. The traditional explanation for the scenes are that they show the defeat of Lower Egypt (the Delta) at the hands of the King (Narmer) of Upper Egypt (the Nile Valley). But more recently there have been suggestions that it may not be that straightforward. For instance, is the Red Crown really the crown of Lower Egypt? If you go with the traditional interpretation of the Narmer Palette then it must be, but the first archaeological evidence for that shape/symbol is found on pottery from Upper Egypt. And if we can't be sure which parts of the palette definitely refer to the Delta it's not a very good starting place for looking at their beliefs.

Another piece of iconography relating to the unification of Egypt is a scene that is carved on the side of many seated statues' thrones - Horus & Seth tying together two plants symbolising the joining of Lower & Upper Egypt respectively. Which only serves to confuse even further our knowledge of Delta iconography, as the two gods were assigned the other way round in earlier artifacts (like the Narmer Palette). And this illustrates one of the big problems with working out what's Delta specific & what's not - the beliefs and associations of myths change over time, as well as being explicitly re-written to suit the propaganda needs of the Pharaoh of whichever time period the evidence comes from.

Wilson next discussed the Osiris & Isis myth and what that tells us about Delta mythology. She first noted that the best account of the myth that still exists today is in the writings of Plutarch (a Roman historian from the 1st Century CE). So that's significantly after its initial appearance, and the myth as he records it is likely to be different from earlier incarnations of the tale. It's one of the Heliopolitan myths, that is it was associated with the city later known as Heliopolis on the eastern edge of the Delta (under a modern suburb of Cairo). This myth cycle is one of the creation stories of the Egyptians and includes gods such as Atum, Nun, Geb as well as the Osiris & Isis stories. The myth is another piece of kingly propaganda which legitimises the king's lineage by equating the ruler with Horus the son of Osiris.

Is Osiris originally a northern or southern god? Much of the evidence points towards a northern origin. His iconography is all about fertility which suggests the Delta. Also his main title is "Lord of Djedu" - which is a city in the north of Egypt later known as Busiris. However the remains of Djedu are under a modern town so there's been no archaeology done there, and it's hard to know what connection Osiris had to the town early in its existence. Complicating matters is that again his iconography changes from place to place & over time. Wilson said that he was probably thought of differently in different places (i.e. not just a change of representation but a change of concept). He also gets merged with other gods. For instance Abydos was originally not associated with Osiris, but by the 12th Dynasty he's replaced Khentiamentu as the primary deity there and uses Khentiamentu's name as a title. This fluid nature of the myths is part of what Wilson finds so interesting about Egyptian religion (as do I - it feels such an odd mindset to get one's modern post-Enlightenment brain around).

Like Osiris there are different ideas about Horus in different places & at different times. For instance there is Horus the Elder (who is one of the gods that the temple at Kom Ombo is dedicated to), and there is Horus the Child who is depicted on stelae called cippi (which were protective against snake bites & other such things). Horus is associated with falcon imagery which is important throughout time in the Delta, so one can place Horus in the Delta in later periods but the archaeological evidence is more complex.

There are few early sites in the north of Egypt, one of them is Tell el Farkha which shows evidence of habitation during the state formation period. Artifacts found here include curly pins that look a lot like the one shown as part of the Red Crown. Another find is a statue of a man, made of gold covered wood. He is depicted as naked except for a penis sheath and the art style is like that of the more southern Naqada culture - so Wilson suggested it may be evidence of an external elite installed in the Delta to run the trade routes (which again raises questions about where the Red Crown comes from originally). Other finds include vessels and ivory objects. These include iconography that isn't seen later in Egyptian history, but also child figurines that had similarities to later depictions of Horus the Child. But once again this is not a smoking gun - the figurines are also found in the south around this same period so it's not clear where they originated.

The origins of and the original Delta myths are thus difficult to pin down, and Wilson moved on to later evidence of specifically Delta myths. During the 1st & 2nd Dynasties there is evidence that there were definitely cult centres in the Delta region. Labels discovered in Abydos dating to the 1st Dynasty name both Sais and Buto. During the same period there are carvings that name a Cattle Nome in the Delta, which doesn't survive into later times. There is also a 1st Dynasty label that shows king Den fighting a hippo wearing a giraffe tail hair scarf that is associated with the Delta and this iconography survives into the Middle Kingdom.

An Old Kingdom shrine in Tell Ibrahim Awad includes iconography of hedgehogs that appears unique to the Delta and to this time period - boats in the shape of hedgehogs curled into a ball. Hedgehogs do actually float, and quite possibly enjoy it as this youtube video shows. Wilson speculated that the ancient Egyptians in the Delta would've seen hedgehogs floating down the river on their back curled up in a protective ball & seen this as a good protective symbol. After this time period hedgehogs are still depicted but not as boats any more.

Later in the Old Kingdom there is evidence for differently shaped shrines in Upper & Lower Egypt. The evidence comes from Djoser's Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara where there are dummy shrines made out of stone in the courtyard with two different shapes for Upper & Lower Egypt. This is not likely to be the first time these shrine shapes were used - just that Saqqara is the first time they were built in stone. The originals would've been made from reeds, which wouldn't survive well in the archaeological record. Wilson showed us some pictures of reed structures in the Euphrates region where the technology survived into the modern photographic era to show us how large & complex such structures can be.

White Chapel of Senusret I

The White Chapel of Senwosret is a Middle Kingdom structure that was discovered at Karnak and rebuilt (it's now in the Open Air Museum at Karnak Temple, above). Around the walls it lists all of the Nomes of Egypt (the administrative districts) with their associated gods. Wilson pointed out that the names of the gods are not what we expect - the "standard" associations of gods actually come from later texts. For instance on the White Chapel the cattle god Hapy is associated with a region in the Western Delta, but in later periods he's associated with Memphis. And given they change between the Middle Kingdom & later on they are also probably different in earlier periods - which leads to the sort of uncertainty that Wilson was explaining earlier in her talk when she discussed the associations of Horus & Osiris.

In the New Kingdom there is a Temple of Seth in Pi-Ramesses (Ramesses II's capital in the Delta) which dates to the time of Ramesses II - which is again not quite the geographical association we expect from later texts where Horus is the one of the pair who is associated with the Delta. Ramesses II also provides examples of the King's propaganda machine altering the stories to fit with local sensibilities. A stela from his reign in the Delta traces his lineage back to the Hyksos, and shows him offering to the Near Eastern god Baal - neither of those being things we would expect an Egyptian Pharaoh to do! In fact quite a lot of iconography from the Ramesside period doesn't match our expectations from later texts - and is sometimes altered by later Egyptians, for instance statues of the king protected by Seth tend to be altered to be a more "suitable" god for later tastes when Seth was demonised.

From the later periods there are cult centres in the Delta which have distinctive flavours that are not the same as the more southern cult centres. One example is Bubastis, where Bastet is the main god & there is a cemetery of cat offerings to her. Another example is Mendes, which has a sacred ram cemetery of offerings to Ba-nebdjed, and where the fish goddess Ha-Mehyt is also worshipped. The shrines to Ba-nebdjed that have been discovered are enormous and were built in the Late Period. There is a big emphasis on fertility and on the rising of the flood waters. Inside the temples were shrines to Ra (fire), Shu (air), Geb (earth), Osiris (flood) and Ba-nebdjed (the totality of all of these).

Another example of a distinctive Delta cult centre is Sais, where the goddess Neith is worshipped. She is a very old goddess referenced well back into Egyptian history. In her mythology she is the female creator at the centre of the universe. She is also the mother of Sobek, the crocodile god, and is often depicted suckling baby crocodiles. Sais is also mentioned in Herodotus who references the "Festival of Lamps" that occurred there but doesn't write down the story.

There are some texts from the 26th Dynasty which are about myths, and are largely the Delta Heliopolitan myths. They are difficult to fully understand - the myths are written in an often cryptic format more concerned with explaining why something must be done in a particular way during a ritual rather than providing a narrative. They are also more aide memoires for people who already should know what the meanings & stories are, rather than teaching tools for the uninformed. There's also the difficulty that we don't share a cultural context with the writers (unlike for the Greek myths) so some things are more cryptic than even the author of the text intended. Wilson read us a few examples to give a flavour for how hard they are to understand.

Wilson finished up her talk by saying that this is still very much research in progress - she has currently got a lot of questions, a lot of examples but only tentative conclusions. Ancient Egyptian mythology is complex and changes over time, so picking out the Delta specific threads is a complicated task. Egyptian mythology is also not particularly concerned with enforcing a global narrative structure on the myths - Wilson said they were in essence local solutions (myths/rituals) to local problems.

I found this talk fascinating, but difficult to write up as Wilson doesn't yet have a handle on any coherent structure. A useful reminder that as Egyptian civilisation covered a reasonable geographical area and a long time period then it's foolish to expect that there should be one "Egyptian mythology".

At the beginning of September Alexandre Loktionov visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work on the Ancient Egyptian justice system. In his introductory remarks he was keen to stress a couple of points - first that he is himself more interested in the Old Kingdom & Middle Kingdom eras, not just the New Kingdom (which receives rather more attention in general). And also that law in Ancient Egypt is not something isolated from the rest of the world, the legal systems of both the Middle East and of sub-Saharan Africa have influences on how the Egyptians practised law.

He started his talk by discussing the history of the study of Ancient Egyptian law. It was first studied by Spiegelberg in the 1890s - which is rather late in the history of Egyptology. It's not just that it took a while for people to consider Egyptian law as worthy of study, but the language needed to be well understood as law in Egypt is like law everywhere and everywhen else - full of jargon and dense technical language. The first phase of the study of Egyptian law was the translation of the documents. After this the legal institutions were investigated. The current state of the field is to analyse the socio-economic impact of the law, but Loktionov thinks it's time for the field to move on from this and start to investigate the way that the majority illiterate segment of society experienced law.

So what was justice in Ancient Egypt? Loktionov isn't sure that even the Ancient Egyptians had a proper answer to this. The concept of Ma'at was clearly important - but what precisely is Ma'at? One answer is that she's a goddess, but it's not as simple as that - Ma'at is also a complicated concept of order & truth. There is also the concept of Hp, which appears to be an Ancient Egyptian technical term but it's difficult to be sure what it means. It may be a code of law, but the Egyptians didn't appear to go in for codes of law in the same way that (for instance) the Middle Eastern peoples did. Alternatively it may be a custom. However one thing that is clear is that conflict resolution is key to their concept of justice. Loktionov read us an instructional text that talks about impartiality being important for legal officials - which we recognise from our modern perspective. But the text also goes on to talk about how the petitioner wants be heard even more than he or she wants to get what they're asking for, which doesn't feel so familiar. Both parties going away happy is the ideal situation, and key to their idea of justice.

One of the difficulties in studying Ancient Egyptian justice, particularly before the New Kingdom, is the paucity of texts that set out what the system is and what the laws are. As I mentioned above the Egyptians didn't produce codified lists of laws like the Code of Hammurabi etc. One source of information is the titles that people record in their tombs. In the Old Kingdom these title strings can be up to 40-50 titles, and these let you know not just what people were doing but also the ways the jobs link together. During this period tomb autobiographies can also be useful sources - although the evidence they provide is limited. While they may discuss specific trials that a noble wished to have remembered they generally don't go into much detail. There are also some decrees that have survived, such as the Abydos decree of Neferirkare. This states that if the priests are called for corvee duty then the responsible person will be punished, and tried in the ḥwt-wrt (which from context must be some sort of court).

Throughout the talk Loktionov was showing us translations of actual legal texts from the period he was talking about. His purpose in doing this was partly to demonstrate how dense & how full of jargon they are. There is a suggestion that the justice system was primarily an oral process, and so the texts might just be notes of the key points rather than fully fleshed out records. But it's still possible to glean information from these texts despite the impenetrability. For instance the phrase "divide the words" is a key phrase that shows up in both legal & religious texts about justice.

Loktionov summed up what we know about the Old Kingdom justice system as follows: There's little known overall, but it's clear that organised judging is happening. The institution where this happens is the ḥwt-wrt and priests of Ma'at may be involved in the process.

There are no sources for the First Intermediate Period, so the next period Loktionov considered was the Middle Kingdom. There are a variety of sources for this period - title strings for the nobles are again important, and are shorter than those of the Old Kingdom. Seals have been found with these titles on them, which shows that they are in use rather than just ceremonial. Papyri found at El-Lahun (including some of the oldest wills in the world) also provide evidence, as do stelae and literary texts like the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (which Linda Steynor gave a talk to the EEG about back in 2014 (post).

Loktionov showed us an example of an intact will. The first point to note was that it was dated, which was a new development during this period of Egyptian history. The writer of the will leaves his stuff to his wife, on the condition that she subsequently passes it on to her children by him. This reminded me of some of the translation exercises I've done recently on my Akkadian course - where a contract or will specifies that a woman may leave her share of a property to "the one among their sons whom she loves, and not to a stranger". The Egyptian will also gave instructions about the writer's tomb, in what Loktionov said was a formulaic fashion - akin to medieval English wills starting by leaving their soul to God. The Egyptian will writer followed his formula with an instruction about who is to be the guardian of his son, and then finishes with a long list of witnesses - 3-7 of them. (Which also reminds me of Akkadian documents.)

So that was an example of a Middle Kingdom legal document at one of the lower levels of society. Loktionov also discussed an example of documentation of Pharaonic interaction with the law - the Semna Stela from Year 8 of the reign of Senwosret III. The subject of the stela is the southern boundary of Egypt with Nubia and it stipulates that no Nubian should be permitted to cross the border unless they are coming to trade in Egypt. And even in those cases the Nubians are only permitted to travel a certain distance into Egypt. Basically it's Pharaoh micro-managing how the border garrisons are to treat those who wish to cross.

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is also a useful source. It is the story of a peasant who petitions the state for the return of stolen goods. The arguments the peasant makes give us insight into how the legal system was expected to operate - for instance precedent was clearly important. However the text hasn't yet been studied properly from this perspective, the emphasis is generally on the Tale as a work of literature (which was Steynor's perspective in her talk in 2014).

Loktionov summed up our knowledge of the Middle Kingdom period as: In general a time of greater specialisation of officials. There were local officials who gave judgement, and formal structures were less noticeable than in the Old Kingdom (no mention of ḥwt-wrt in Middle Kingdom texts, for instance). The Pharaoh can still intervene & issue decrees.

For the New Kingdom period there are many more sources. Title strings (& seals) still provide us with information, these are much shorter than in preceding periods. Excavations at Deir el Medina have provided Egyptologists with a wealth of letters & administrative documents. There are papyri detailing trials. Tomb reliefs also provide information, and of course there are also Pharaonic decrees. It's not surprising that most work on the legal system of Ancient Egypt focuses on the New Kingdom, given the relative quantity of information available.

The documents from Deir el Medina talk about the Ḳnbt. From context this is a court, and it is a new institution for the New Kingdom era. It seems more informal than the other structures we've seen documented, and much more dependent on conflict resolution rather than police action. Loktionov thinks that this is down to a lack of power to enforce their decisions. Trying to force an unwelcome resolution on one party to the dispute would demonstrate that the court had no power, which would then undermine the ability of the court to adjudicate anything. Far better to reach a solution that everyone was at least able to live with.

The Tomb Robbery Papyri illustrate a more formal justice system that ran alongside the informal one. These texts include details on how the confessions were obtained, generally brutally by our standards I think. And they say who the investigators were: people of high rank. So there were two justice systems that co-existed, an informal one & a formal one. They are not entirely separate - Loktionov gave us an example of a local official called Paneb at Deir el Medina who was reported to the Vizier for poor behaviour - thus moving the justice problem from the informal court to a more formal one.

At this point Loktionov had finished his overview of the justice system of Ancient Egypt and what sources our knowledge comes from. After a break for coffee & cake Loktionov resumed his talk by discussing the system that can be drawn out from across the chronological overview.

At the "top" of law in Ancient Egypt was Kingdom Law - this consisted of the Pharaoh's decrees, and Pharaoh as ultimate judge. Important to this aspect is the symbolic personification of justice: Ma'at. The reliefs that depict Pharaoh offering Ma'at symbolise him dispensing justice, and there is also the idea that Ma'at sustains the king (which was most famously said by Akhenaten). Also involving the Pharaoh are oaths - often sworn in the name of the king and in the names of gods. This meant that if you broke the oath (or the terms of justice or the contract) then you had also committed treason.

Just underneath the Pharaoh was the Vizier. The main source of information that we have about the role of the Vizier are the reliefs in the tomb of Rekhmire. These give the duties of the Vizier & list everything that he should be doing on behalf of his Pharaoh. Clearly it is not entirely literal. He wouldn't be actually carrying out every investigation himself, he'd delegate that further down the chain of officials but he would be where the reports came to.

There were two sorts of courts that were held in Ancient Egypt. One sort were Extraordinary Courts - these were convened as & when required and did not sit all of the time. They were composed of high officials, and were involved with matters such as tomb robberies & attempts on the life of the king. The other sort of court were Ordinary Courts. These sat on a daily basis & handled matters such as dead donkeys or un-returned jars - the everyday disputes of ordinary people. The Sr (magistrate) was not a profession, he would also have other roles in society. There was also some sort of oracular component to justice, which shows evidence of Mesopotamian legal ideas. It's not known precisely how it worked - the records are things such as "the god was asked if such&such had stolen a donkey and the god said yes". But there are no details, perhaps the god's statue was asked during a procession & the priests carrying it were inspired to answer?

There were a variety of punishments that could be meted out. At the most severe end was death, probably by impalement. There was also mutilation - noses or ears cut off, or severe whipping. On the more benign end of the spectrum was things such as forced labour, or restitution of goods. Loktionov also talked about something called supra-practical punishment, which sounds ridiculous in our modern cultural context but was presumably more efficacious in Ancient Egyptian times. The basic idea is that instead of a punishment literally being applied, it would be symbolically applied via a curse. So instead of someone's nose actually being cut off, perhaps they would be induced to believe it had been prevented from working by a curse. I wasn't sure I followed the evidence that Loktionov was talking about for this - it seemed to be heavily based on the idea that if someone continued to flout the law after mutilation then they can't've really been mutilated (as then they'd either be dead or traumatised).

The last two aspects of justice that Loktionov talked about were ones that are hard to study as they were kept secret at the time. The first of these is corruption, which is obviously hidden by the perpetrators. Some evidence comes from texts like that of a prayer for a poor man to be vindicated and not have to pay more bribes to the court. The other subject is torture - there is evidence that there was a role of "torturer" but what he did was not often explicitly referenced.

The very last part of Loktionov's talk was in essence a separate talk, about his recent research done at the Library of Congress. This is not an institution that springs to mind when thinking of Egyptological resources & Loktionov said he was the first egyptologist to actually work there - but it has a lot of relevant documents that should be studied. This part of the talk was in part a repeat in brief of the first talk as context, and in part ongoing unpublished research so I'm just going to summarise it briefly rather than go through it in detail. In essence he was looking at foreign influences on Ancient Egyptian justice in the 2nd Millennium BCE - a period when Egypt was a very large state (for the time). This meant that the justice system differed across the state with the southern areas showing influences from Nubia, and the northern areas showing influences from the Middle East. He's been approaching the subject from two perspectives, by looking at the people involved in the justice system (using statistical analysis of title strings) and by looking at the institutions & processes (in part by doing ethnographic studies of informal local courts in modern Egypt & sub-Saharan Africa).

I found this a really interesting talk, and it was fascinating to see how much information could be gleaned from references here & there in impenetrable texts!

This year's Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology was given by Jochem Kahl on the subject of the city of Asyut. He started by setting the scene with a thematically appropriate quote from Amelia Edwards, who visited the city in 1843. She described how as she approached it looked like a fairytale city on the Nile, but on arrival she was much less impressed with the prosaic reality of the modern city.

Asyut was the capital of the 13th Nome in Pharaonic Egypt - it's in the middle of the country, about 400km south of Cairo, 100km south of Amarna and 300km north of Luxor (these distances are all very approximate!). The modern city has around 400,000 inhabitants, and completely covers old Asyut. Due to the silt deposited by the Nile flooding the depth of any remains is significant - late antiquity is on the order of 5m below the modern surface & the New Kingdom is 8m deep. Even the ancient cemetery is beginning to be covered up by the modern one. So Kahl said that to investigate ancient Asyut one primarily needs to use what records there are of older excavations, and tangential evidence from texts. The older excavations, as is so often the case, were not well documented but did uncover many fine artifacts which are now housed in museums such as the Louvre, the Turin Museum & the Met.

However there is still some modern archaeology taking place. Since 2003 there has been an ongoing project to "retrace" the old city and as part of that a large workforce every year undertakes excavations and documents what can still be seen. Much of the modern archaeology focuses on Gebel Asyut el-Gharbi, a mountain on the western outskirts of the city. The first signs of human activity on this mountain are from around 4000 BCE, and it has been continuously used since at least 3000 BCE. Of course this archaeology is not all neatly preserved in situ, the site has been extensively quarried over the last couple of hundred years and previous archaeological expeditions have used explosives to "excavate" tombs. Kahl showed us the difference in one tomb between a drawing from 1799 and modern photos from 2005 - all the front of the tomb is now gone, leaving only an inner hall. But there are still objects that can tell us what was there, the things that older expeditions found less interesting.

Having set the scene, and discussed how we know what we know, Kahl then moved on to the meat of his talk. In his view Asyut has three different natures: it is a wounded city, it is a border city and it is a city of culture; and he considered each of these in turn.

Asyut is a wounded city, a city of war and terror. An example is the 21st Century BCE civil war between Heracleopolis and Thebes that ended the 1st Intermediate Period. The tombs of the nomarchs from this period (designated tomb III and tomb IV) have inscriptions full of words of violence and war. The imagery on the walls is also full of violence, images of killing and images of the tomb owner with his soldiers. The war for Asyut lasted for 20 years, and while the city recovered well in the long term there's evidence that warfare remained important in the region for several generations after the end of the 1st Intermediate Period. This wasn't a unique example either, the cycle of war and recovery happened multiple times in Asyut's long history.

Asyut is a border city, which at first sounds paradoxical as it's located in the middle of Egypt. But it's nonetheless at a natural border and was called Guardian City in Ancient Egyptian. It's not only near a difficult place to navigate on the Nile, but also on an important trade route dating back to the Old Kingdom leading to the south through the desert. The mostly likely entry to the ancient desert road was located near Asyut. This has its good sides, as Kahl explained later in the talk, but it also means that it is near an entry point for invaders from the desert, so it is a double edged sword. This means that since at least the New Kingdom period through to the modern day there has been a strong military presence in Asyut.

Asyut is a city of culture, where trade routes & people meet and exchange both goods & ideas. As well as the previously mentioned southern trade route (and of course the connection to the Nile & internal trade) there have been items from the Mediterranean found in Asyut so there were also connections to the north. The geopolitical situation didn't just bring suffering, it also lead to Asyut developing its own influential intellectual culture. To illustrate this Kahl discussed at length the tomb of a mayor of Asyut from the 20th Century BCE called Djefai-Hapi (the tomb is designated Tomb I). Djefai-Hapi was not only mayor but also the overseer of priests for two temples, and was presumably well educated in theology. As well as himself his tomb also mentions two wives, his mother and his sons. He was venerated as a local god in the late Middle Kingdom and into the early New Kingdom (and this reminded me of the Sackler Lecture that Janet Richards gave two years ago (post) where she discussed saint cults in Ancient Egypt).

It's the largest non-royal rock tomb of his time, and used natural cavities in the rock as part of its construction. It had a layout reminiscent of an Old Kingdom pyramid. For instance there was a pond at the edge of the cultivation, with a causeway that led from this pond to the tomb. Inside the mountain (much of which is now gone if you compare it to drawings from 1799) there were several halls plus an extensive substructure. And it was monumental in scale - the halls were 11m tall, even the corridors were 10m tall.

The Great Transverse Hall still has much of its decoration. This has now been cleaned up & restored in parts so the true colours can be seen. The ceilings are decorated with blue & yellow geometric patterns and the east wall includes an idealised biography of Djefai-Hapi. There is a shrine at the back of the tomb, with offering scenes on the walls and a statue of Djefai-Hapi (sadly now damaged). And underneath there is a substructure that extends down at least 22m below the tomb halls, which is as far as the base of the mountain! Kahl said their excavations haven't yet reached a burial chamber and there are still deeper passages to investigate. However they have found a rather more modern looking ladder at the 22m level, which means that the burial chamber has probably been robbed at some point between 1799 and now, which is a shame.

So this tomb demonstrates the sophistication of the culture of Asyut of the time, and Kahl went on to explain how it also demonstrates the influence that this culture had on Egyptian culture in general. The decoration from this tomb is copied and turns up in later funerary contexts. One example is that the ceiling patterns from the Great Transverse Hall are re-used in the later Theban tombs of New Kingdom nobles. And some of these patterns even make their way into the modern world via 19th Century CE books of ornament. Texts are also copied, in particular the contracts for the cult of the dead which are part of the east wall inscriptions in the Great Transverse Hall. One example is found in the tomb of Senenmut in the early New Kingdom, and other examples are found even as late as the Roman period.

Djefai-Hapi's tomb is one of the most concrete examples that survives to demonstrate the influence of Asyut culture on Egyptian as a whole. There is also more tangential evidence that the city was once a repository of knowledge for Ancient Egyptian culture, but the physical evidence for this would be in the temples which are now several metres below the modern buildings. For instance the main temple was dedicated to Wepwawet and there is some evidence in the form of chance finds. Parts of the walls were found in the 1930s by illicit digging in a local's cellar (looking for gold), and the blocks that were dug up were sent to Cairo where they vanished for decades. They've now been found again (in 2014) and so can now be investigated for anything they can tell us about the temple.

To conclude Kahl returned to the question implied in his title and the imagery of the Amelia Edwards quote he opened with. Why, given the military & cultural significance of Asyut, was it never the capital of Egypt? And his answer is that the very things that made it important - the proximity to the desert & to trade, the central location - are the same things that made it vulnerable and too far from international politics. The idea of Asyut as capital is a fantastic mirage, that vanishes into implausibility when you look at it closely.

In July Anna Garnett came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about pottery from Amarna. Garnett has recently become curator at the Petrie Museum and is also working on analysing the pottery that has been found at the Amarna Stone Village, which is the work she was telling us about during the first part of the meeting.

The Amarna Stone Village

The Stone Village is a village near the main city of Amarna that has been excavated in modern times between 2005 & 2010. The bulk of the site has been published in 2012 and Garnett is adding to this by analysing the ceramics that have been found (there was a ceramicist with the original excavation but he left before the work was completed and Garnett joined the team in 2015). On the surface the site is formed of stone boulders in marl clay, hence the name, and was identified as being of interest in the 1970s by Barry Kemp (and sadly looted between then and the time of excavation).

The site is an area of dense settlement, with evidence that people lived there (as opposed to just worked there). The buildings were made of stone, and probably roofed with some kind of natural material (but it's not known what). They seem to've been one storey buildings, with no evidence for staircases (unlike the village at Deir el Medina) and they were not laid out in a regular layout. In general the site appears to've been more ephemeral than the comparable village at Deir el Medina or in the other Worker's Village at Amarna itself - there are no centralised water storage areas, no gardens, no temple or chapels. This is perhaps an indication that they were lower class/status workers than the elite workers in the other two villages.

So who lived there? There's evidence that these were family dwellings rather than barracks style places. The were domestic items found, including Taweret amulets (which are associated with childbirth). Of the four tombs excavated in the area one contained a child, again indication of families living there. The population was probably between 100 & 150 people, assuming that there were around 5 people per building, this is about half the size of the Worker's Village. There was a perimeter wall, but not as sturdy as the one at the Worker's Village. Garnett told us that not all of the site has been excavated as yet because there wasn't enough time (or money for more time) and although the trenches were spread across the site to give an overview of the area it's possible that when more can be excavated the ideas about the site will change.

Around the main site of the village there are also peripheral structures, including a possible guard post. It is also surrounded by an ancient road. This is a significant feature in the landscape at about 4m wide although it's not clear if this was an integral part of the site or not as no archaeology has been done on the roads. It's possible that they separate parts of the site, or possibly they were used by guards to patrol the site - either to protect or police the people. One of the things that Garnett wants to do with her work is to map the current pottery finds, and then survey the roads herself to see what can be discovered about the function of these roads.

Garnett circled back to the question of who lived in the village. It was perhaps the labourers for more mundane jobs than those done by the ones in the worker's village. Possibly they were involved in quarrying out the tombs, and one piece of evidence supporting this is the presence of basalt chips in the village. The tombs were carved into fairly soft limestone cliffs, and this work would've been done with basalt tools - although needing to be shipped in from other places this was still cheaper than using copper tools. Another possibility is that the village was involved as a way station in supplying expeditions out to the desert. It is certainly true that the workers were engaged in manual labour - the bodies discovered in the burials at the site all show signs of this type of work.

Another possibility for the function of the village is by comparison with the site at Deir el Medina. At that site as well as the worker's village and the Valley of the Kings over the mountains there is also another set of structures about halfway between. These have been variously suggested as places the workers rested during the weeks rather than commuting home every day, as storage areas for the expensive materials & tools used in their work, and as check points to make sure they weren't taking the expensive items home for unauthorised use. The Stone Village may also have provided bread for the workers at the tombs of Amarna (or expeditions into the desert) as extensive bakeries were found which were excessive for the local population. However there is evidence against this sort of role for the Stone Village - including that there is no physical link, such as a road, between the Amarna Worker's Village & the Stone Village. There is also evidence that the Stone Village was occupied earlier than other parts of Amarna (including the Worker's Village), starting from Year 4 of Akhenaten's reign. And it may also have been abandoned earlier. So perhaps the two villages represent different phases of the construction of the tombs at Amarna.

Garnett now moved on to tell us about the ceramic study of the Stone Village site, which is what she is actually doing. For most excavations the primary question that the pottery remains answer is how old the site is and for how long the site was occupied but at Amarna the dates of the site are securely known - Akhenaten founded the city in Year 5 of his reign, and it was abandoned shortly after his death some 20 or so years later. This means that Garnett is free to concentrate on the other questions that the pottery can answer. Another thing that makes this study particularly interesting is that the site was inhabited entirely by a non-elite population.

The questions Garnett is interested in answering are about what the pottery can tell us about the use of the space at the Stone Village - what activities went on there, and can anything be discovered about what particular spaces were for. She is also trying to see if the sorts of people & activities at the site can be narrowed down any further from the current rather broad theories. The pottery can also be used to compare this site with other sites - how does it fit into the broader picture at Amarna as a whole? How does it compare to the Worker's Village? And how does it compare to other sites across Egypt at this sort of time period?

Garnett is currently working her way through the approximately 3000 pottery fragments that have been excavated at the site, and re-confirming or re-evaluating the original identification. Some of her work so far has to do with the storage of water at the site. She has found evidence of lots of large pointy amphorae, and also of large water storage vessels of a type still used to store & keep water cool today in Egypt. As with the Worker's Village there is no well or water source at the Stone Village, so water needed to be brought in the amphorae to the site. However at the Worker's Village there is an obvious place where the remains of water storage vessels are found - so there was a centralised water distribution system. In the Stone Village the storage vessels are smaller and more widely distributed across the site. Perhaps this means that every household had its own storage arrangements. It may also be further evidence that the site was primarily used to supply people travelling into the desert.

90% of the pottery found at the Stone Village is made of Nile clay - abundant, relatively local, and cheap. Garnett described much of it as being the ancient equivalent of paper plates, not intended to last long term. However this also means that 10% was of better quality clay which was sourced in the oases. These vessels may've contained wine - but it's not clear if the inhabitants of the Stone Village were drinking the wine or if they were given the vessels to use after other people were done with them. There are also some fragments of blue painted ware, which is a high status and good quality ceramic and very rare in the Stone Village.

To conclude this part of her talk Garnett reminded us that this is very much a work in progress. She's now almost completely catalogued and categorised the pottery, and will be spending the next 12-18 months analysing the data she has before writing it up for publication.

Amarna Blue

After a break for coffee and cake Garnett moved on to the second (related) talk of the afternoon. Instead of looking at her work on a particular site, this time she was giving us an overview of her favourite type of pottery: Amarna Blue. This is one of the rarer types of pottery found from Ancient Egypt - not cheap & disposable, instead a fine ware. There are various names for this pottery type - Amarna Blue, Blue Painted Pottery or Malkata Ware. It is characteristic of the New Kingdom period (1550-1069 BCE), primarily during the 18th Dynasty, and evidence for the emergence of highly decorated luxury goods during this affluent period (for the elites). The blue colour is achieved using the chemical CoAl2O4 which is generally painted on before firing. This material is not easy to get hold of - it's only found & mined in either the Dakhla Oasis or in the Sinai peninsula - making it a costly way to decorate your pots. The pots themselves were made in Amarna, Malkata (next to Deir el Medina) and Gurob (in the Faiyum) all of which are near palaces & places that the elites live.

Blue Painted Ware from Malkata

Garnett showed us several examples of this type of pottery. The decoration often features floral themes, and other themes from nature. The designs aren't just painted on, sometimes there are moulded elements like the gazelle head modelled on one of the jars in the photo above (taken by me in the NY Met a couple of years ago). Other common decoration elements can include moulded Hathor heads and lotus flowers. One interesting frequent motif is a flowered garland painted around the neck of the jar, and it seems that these were painted representations of something that was done in reality. Tomb reliefs that show jars (like those from Nebamun's tomb that are on display in the British Museum) show wine jars with real garlands of flowers round them.

Sometimes the jars are labelled with their contents, for instance there are examples in the British Museum of wine vessels which say not just that they contained wine but where the wine was made. This doesn't just tell us the surface information (the content of the jar) it also tells us something about the trade networks across the country at the time. These jars from a tomb in one area of Egypt contained wine from another area, in a pot made in yet another area decorated with expensive pigments from either Dakhla Oasis or the Sinai.

I don't think I've done this half of Garnett's talk justice - it was mostly filled with Garnett showing us pictures of pottery and enthusiastically explaining what was interesting about this particular one, which is awfully hard to summarise! I'm often not very inspired by pottery, but Garnett did a fantastic job of conveying her own interest & enthusiasm and bringing the subject to life.


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