At the beginning of June Sergio Alarcón Robledo came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work he's doing as part of the Polish-Egyptian Mission at Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri. His talk was in two parts - first the theoretical underpinnings, then the practical work he's been doing at the site. And after the formal talk was over he also showed us some unpublished imagery he's been making of various tombs.

Robledo started by zooming out to a very wide-angle view of the subject - he showed us a picture of a pre-dynastic burial, of a pyramid, of the temple of Montuhotep II (built at Deir el Bahri before Hatshepsut's one), of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The unifying theme is that they are all ways of connecting the deceased with the cosmos. At first they just put the body in the right position facing in the right direction, but over time the requirements to enter the afterlife became more elaborate. Mummification became necessary, coffins became necessary, tombs became necessary and so on & so forth. But there is always the same underlying function of connecting the deceased person with the cosmos. And it's important to keep this in mind when thinking about the form and function of Hatshepsut's temple - it is always intended to connect her with the cosmos.

Why is Hatshepsut's temple important to understand? It's partly that she was the first Pharaoh that we have evidence for the construction of this sort of temple (called a Temple of Millions of Years). So understanding her temple helps with understanding the later ones (which are presumably modifications & elaborations of this one).

Robledo next told us about who Hatshepsut was and her historical context. The temple was built shortly after the end of the Second Intermediate Period, in the early New Kingdom period. Kamose, the last Pharaoh of the 17th Dynasty, had begun the reunification of Egypt from his power base in Thebes. His successor Ahmose (now thought to be Kamose's nephew, rather than younger brother) completed the job and is considered to've founded the 18th Dynasty. He was succeeded by his son, Amenhotep I, who in turn was succeeded by an unrelated man called Tutmosis I who married Amenhotep I's sister in order to legitimise his rule. His son by that wife, Tutmosis II, succeeded him and was married to his half-sister Hatshepsut, a daughter of Tutmosis I by a different wife. Once Tutmosis II died he was succeeded by his son Tutmosis III, who was Hatshepsut's step-son. As Tutmosis III was an infant when his father died Hatshepsut became his regent, and later ruled in her own right as Pharaoh and Tutmosis III only truly inherited power after she died. The important point to take away from this brief genealogy is that Hatshepsut did not have royal blood - it's not just being a woman that puts her legitimacy on shaky ground.

So Hatshepsut needs to assert her power & her legitimacy, and her choice of site for her temple is strongly influenced by these needs. Robledo talked a bit about the surrounding area and what large scale buildings were there before Hatshepsut's temple was built - by & large what one thinks of as the features of the area were built later. When she started her building programme there was Montuhotep II's temple, built some 500 or so years earlier, and some buildings at the sites of Karnak and at Medinet Habu which were also from the Middle Kingdom. So Hatshepsut is starting the first monumental building programme in the area for some time - showing herself to be as true a Pharaoh as the great Pharaohs of old. And she is deliberately putting her temple next to that of Montuhotep II to associate herself with him - he was the reunifier of Egypt at the start of the Middle Kingdom.

Having talked about why Hatshepsut would want a temple, and why she put it where she did, Robledo next discussed the temple itself in a bit more detail. Foundation deposits are a rich source of evidence for archaeologists investigating Ancient Egyptian buildings. These were buried before a monumental building was constructed and contain lots of objects some of which have inscriptions giving the Pharaoh responsible for the building etc (see below for a photo I took in the Met Museum in 2015 of a reconstructed foundation deposit from Hatshepsut's temple). It's not actually known what the precise purpose of these deposits was from an Ancient Egyptian perspective - presumably they had some sort of ritual significance. Generally they're buried at particular places under a building plan - like entrances or corners. One thing that's interesting about Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri is that the foundation deposits don't seem to line up with the structures which were built on top of them. So Hatshepsut (or her architect) must've changed the design after the project was started.

Reconstruction of a Foundation Deposit

The temple layout is very complex in a religious sense - it's not just dedicated to the royal cult or to a single god. Instead there chapels within it dedicated to Hatshepsut and to several gods. One possible reason for this is to make it less likely to be destroyed after her death. A temple that was just for her funerary cult could easily be destroyed after her death if her successors decided she was not a legitimate Pharaoh (as indeed happened). But destroying a temple to several important gods would be more difficult to justify theologically. Which would mean that Hatshepsut's concern for her own legacy would set the template for future Temples of Millions of Years even though those Pharaohs wouldn't have the same concerns about their legacy.

The non-religious iconographic program of the temple is very much focused on Hatshepsut's power & legitimacy. Among others it includes scenes detailing her divine origin and birth, and showing the expedition to Punt that she ordered. This is the first temple we know of that included these sorts of scenes (rather than of Pharaoh worshipping deities and so on). One thing that Robledo pointed out specifically is that there's no actual evidence that this temple is a funerary temple - and in fact there is a theory proposed by Martina Ullman that it is not.

After a break for coffee & cake Robledo moved on to the practical side of his talk. He started by talking about how it feels different excavating at Deir el Bahri than it does excavating at other sites - because there have been 150 years of excavation at the site, and much restoration work as well. So the context of anything that's excavated is very dubious as it's very likely to've been dug up and moved around in the past. And some parts of the temple that you see are replicas, replacing the real objects that are in museums around the world.

The first phase of discovery of the site, in the 18th & early 19th Centuries CE, was exploration by Western travellers and Robledo showed us some drawings from c.1840 CE which include views of the Coptic monastery which had been built on top of the temple. These are now some of our only records of that structure as it was destroyed during the excavation of the temple. The first archaeological excavations were carried out in the 1850s & 1860s by August Mariette, and during the time much of the structure was uncovered. Édouard Naville carried out work in the 1890s and 1900s funded by the Egypt Exploration Fund (including destroying the Coptic monastery), and after him Herbert Winlock excavated in the 1910s & 1920s funded by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Robledo showed us photos from these latter two excavations - scenes of hundreds of workers working simultaneously, as many as 800 were employed on the digs. This vast army of workers would be difficult to control & direct carefully, and in any event the archaeologists leading the excavations cared less about the sorts of details that modern archaeology is built upon. This means that a lot of information about the temple, its use, construction and so on, was destroyed in these excavations.

The Polish-Egyptian Mission, of which Robledo is a part, is a very large mission by modern standards - there are over 60 different projects going on at the moment, ranging in size from someone's PhD thesis to much larger multi-person projects. Robledo is working on the Upper Courtyard at the temple, and he is interested in what the original layout was and how it's changed over time. There are various ideas about how many columns filled the courtyard - completely full, 2 or 3 rows around the edges, with varying ideas about spacing which may or may not've been symmetrical. In most other archaeological sites you would carefully excavate the floor of the courtyard looking for evidence of foundations. However at Deir el Bahri the site has been dug over & reconstructed so much that this isn't possible - foundations have been disturbed or columns/foundations have been added by archaeologists to recreate their own preferred theory.

So Robledo is having to approach the problem obliquely. One approach he's using is to investigate a later Ptolemaic era structure built using elements of Hatshepsut's original courtyard. This structure, a portico, crosses the original rows of columns in the courtyard and it had 3 columns on each side. One possibility is that there were three rows of columns originally and the the Ptolemaic era architects put a roof across 3 pairs of existing columns. Alternatively if there were 2 rows of columns in the original courtyard then the Ptolemaic era architects would've needed to add an outer pair when building their portico. So Robledo has been trying to find evidence for when the outer columns were built. So far everything is inconclusive - for instance he's found a piece of pottery at one of the foundations, but it is of a style that could be of any time from Hatshepsut's time onward so doesn't rule out either possibility.

Another approach he's employing is to use modern imaging technology to help virtually rebuild some of the architrave from the courtyard. This is in over 700 pieces, and he is creating a virtual 3D model of each piece. In future he'll be able to put it together like a jigsaw puzzle and look at where the architrave sockets were.

After the formal part of his talk (and a question & answer session) Robledo showed us some of the other things he's working on. One of his skills is the making of virtual 3D models and so he works with various other teams generating models for them. These are particularly useful in cases where it isn't possible to conserve the objects themselves - like termite eaten coffins which will disintegrate as soon as any attempt is made to move them. All the stuff he showed us at this point is unpublished which was exciting to see - for instance he showed us some images from new tombs that have recently been discovered in Aswan.

One of the things I found particularly interesting about this talk is that there's still new stuff to discover at a site like Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri which has been dug over by so many archaeologists over such a long period of time. And the insights into what the thinking was behind Hatshepsut's choice of site and design.

At the May meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Robert Loynes talked to us about his work on Ancient Egyptian mummies. He's a retired orthopaedic surgeon who has subsequently achieved a PhD in Egyptology (from Manchester) using modern medical technology to investigate ancient mummies.

Loynes began by telling us about what is known about Ancient Egyptian mummification techniques. Despite the Egyptians love of writing things down the contemporary sources actually don't tell us anything - what we know is pieced together from later writings and examination of the actual mummies. The first mention of mummification techniques comes from Herodotus around 450 BCE, and it is next discussed by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st Century BCE.

The Egyptians believed that for eternal life one needed the following: one's whole body, one's name, one's Ka and one's Ba. But the reality is that bodies decay and fall apart, so some sort of preservation is necessary followed by rituals that return it to life. In prehistoric times bodies were buried in pits in the sand, and the contact with the dry sand accidentally mummified them. But as society got more sophisticated then higher statues individuals got more elaborate burials in tombs - which isolated them from the sand, and prevented natural mummification. As Loynes pointed out, the layout of tombs with an offering chapel in relatively close proximity to the burial chamber would leave people in no doubt as to what was going on down there! And so they developed a process to artificially dry out & preserve the body.

To make a mummy the Egyptian way the first thing that needs to be done is to remove the soft & squishy bits that wouldn't dry easily - the organs from the torso and the brain. In actual fact the brain would've been fine if it was left in the body, but the Egyptians didn't know this so as it looked squishy they took it out. The rest of the internal organs were preserved in canopic jars and buried with the mummy. Next the body was cleansed with perfumed water & oils, before being dried in natron. Natron is a sort of naturally occurring salt with other sodium compounds as well as NaCl. The embalmers packed it inside the body as well as covering the body with natron. This increased the contact between body & salt thus drying it quicker, and also filled up the space left behind when the organs were removed. Drying the body took 30-40 days, and then almost as long was spent bandaging it and performing rituals. During the bandaging process amulets were placed in the wrappings to protect & aid the deceased in the afterlife. The rituals included the Opening of the Mouth ceremony which reactivated all the senses of the deceased. After this the mummy was covered in resins for protection - the Egyptians believed this worked via magic, but we now know that the resins they used have antibacterial properties.

Loynes next gave us a history of medical imaging in the context of what can be used to see inside mummies. The development of modern techniques has been very helpful for people working on mummies (whether Egyptian or not), as it means you don't have to destroy the subject (by unwrapping it and/or dissecting it) to find out what's inside. X-rays were discovered in 1895 and as we all know they shine through the soft tissue & reveal the solid bits (bones etc) on the inside. Modern X-ray images are much more detailed than the first images, but they still have the problem that you see all the internal structures on top of each other with no indication of relative depths in the body. The CAT scan process was invented in 1975, and it solves this problem. CAT scans use multiple X-ray images from different angles around the specimen, and these images are then merged on a computer to generate an image of a virtual slice through the specimen. The machine then moves along and captures data for another slice, and so on. Then the software stitches together all these slices into a 3-dimensional model of the whole thing. As computers have got faster, and the software has got more sophisticated, the virtual slices have got much thinner and so show much more detail in the final model. Modern software lets you manipulate the model, so now you can dissect a mummy in a non-destructive way.

Having introduced the subject to us Loynes moved on to telling us about things he has seen when examining CAT scans of Egyptian mummies. One thing he has investigated is the routes the embalmers used to remove the brain - it's not always removed the same way. Some mummies show evidence that the thin bit of bone at the top of the nose (the nose septum) has been broken and the brain extracted this way - this matches what Herodotus wrote. Another potential route is for the brain to come out via the base of the skull, to do this the neck must be disturbed which shows up clearly in the CAT scans. Some mummies, however, show evidence of neither of these routes - their nasal septum is intact, and the neck is undisturbed. In these cases Loynes has looked for other possible routes: sometimes in children the embalmers have taken the brain out through the base of the skull which is much thinner than in adults. Other mummies show signs that the brain was removed via the eyes.

The eyes themselves are treated differently in different time periods. Before Dynasty 22 half or more of mummies have nothing done to the eyes. After Dynasty 22 the mummies eyes are generally packed to mimic the shape of living eyes (dessicated eyes are too flat), and between Dynasty 22 & 28 eyes plates are also used which provide the right visual appearance.

After a break for tea & cake Loynes returned to the evidence he's seen in mummies of how they were mummified - now moving from the head to the torso. Herodotus described two routes to the removal of the internal organs - via an incision on the left flank or via the perineum. Loynes has seen evidence of both of these on CAT scans of mummies, and showed us examples. It's also clear that the Ancient Egyptians tended to repack the body cavity after removal of the organs. This is something that might be done for two different classes of reason: practical or ritual. Loynes has surveyed the types & quantities of materials used to see if there's evidence supporting either conclusion but the answer is not clear cut & obvious. On the one hand the materials used are cheap, which suggests that the packing filled a practical purpose. But on the other hand frequently only small quantities were used, certainly not enough to fill the cavity, which suggests that it served a ritual purpose.

CAT scans also let you see what's been added to a mummy while it was being prepared. The most well known of these types of objects are amulets, and Loynes showed us examples of these. Other things are more unusual - in one mummy Loynes discovered there was an ibis inside the wrappings as well as a person! He speculated that this might indicate the person was involved in the worship of Thoth or was a scribe. There are also sometimes more practical (as opposed to ritual) objects - for instance he has seen mummies that have been strengthened (or put back together) with planks and rods, some inside the body, some outside the body.

Loynes also talked a bit about the signs of disease, injury & causes of death that you can detect using CAT scans of mummies. There's actually not much evidence of disease, as the soft tissues of the body are either removed or dessicated during the mummification process - so you really only see evidence of things that affect the bones. One Roman period mummy that he's looked at appears to've been beaten to death. The body is that of an old man, and he's suffered several fractures in the face, the skull, the arms, the spine & the pelvis. Loynes also showed an example of one of the soft tissues diseases that he did detect - gall stones show up clearly on the scan. That mummy also had a spinal fracture and heel fractures which are consistent with landing from a great height on the feet.

Another thing that Loynes has investigated is how the mummies he's examined shed light on the development of mummification techniques from the 18th Dynasty onwards. The first example he showed us was of the mummy of Nebri "Head of Stables" - a title that makes him one of the high elite, as horses were new to Egyptian culture in the New Kingdom. Nebri lived during Tutmosis III's reign, and all that remains of him is his head and his four canopic jars all of which are now in the Turin Egyptian Museum. The CAT scan of his head that Loynes examined was also used to produce a virtual skull that was then used to create a facial reconstruction of Nebri. In terms of technique his mummification was very sophisticated, but there wasn't much of the brain removed. Packing (including the eyes) was a key feature.

The Third Intermediate Period (22nd to 25th Dynasty) example that Loynes showed us had more packing of the mummy and the body cavity was completely filled. The brain removal was also done in a subtly different way - the hole through the nasal septum was at a different angle (less vertical than in the 18th Dynasty). In the Ptolemaic period the hole in the nasal septum to remove the brain is once again at a more vertical angle. In the example he showed us there was resin inside the body cavity, and it had visibly soaked into the spine. The internal organs had been removed via the perineal route, and the higher organs (lungs, heart) were still present in the body.

The Roman period mummies that he's examined have something strange happening with the ribs - it's impossible to dislocate one's ribs in life, but that's what has happened in these mummies. He's looked at the wrapping styles of around 30 Roman era mummies, and one distinctive group is the "red shroud mummies". The red colour comes from red lead, from Spain. This group includes the older man who was beaten to death that he showed us earlier in the talk, and the man who had an ibis bird inside his mummy.

One trend is that from the Old Kingdom period to the Roman period there is less & less emphasis on the tomb. And so by the Roman era the mummification techniques have become more about the final external appearance of the body. I think this correlates with something Manon Y. Schutz said last month (my write up is here) when she talked about a 2nd Century CE coffin bed which appeared to function symbolically as a temple within the tomb (rather than the tomb itself playing that sort of role).

Loynes has examined 90 mummies so far, and is hoping to look at lots more so that he can draw more robust conclusions. Even tho 90 seems a reasonable sample size once they've been separated by time period, geographic location or other factors each group ends up quite small which makes teasing out what is a unique feature of a particular mummy or what is a common feature of the group more difficult.

During the questions at the end someone asked about the hearts of the mummies he's examined. For theological/ritual purposes the heart is supposed to be replaced in the body so that the weighing of the heart can take place in the afterlife. But Loynes says that in practice the heart is normally no longer there, and replaced with a heart scarab.

In the questions he also showed us one of the other ways modern technology can be used to investigate mummies. He had a 3D printed model of an incision plate from the inside of a mummy which had been made using the data from a CAT scan, which I think is a really cool way that modern technology is letting us "unwrap" mummies without destroying them.

At the beginning of April Manon Y. Schutz came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about beds in Ancient Egypt. She's a D.Phil student at Oxford University, and beds in an Ancient Egyptian funerary context are the subject of her thesis. She has chosen to look at the funerary context because most of the evidence of beds that survives is from tombs. Her talk was divided into two parts - first an introduction to the topic of beds in Ancient Egypt, and then an overview of beds throughout Ancient Egyptian history.

Schutz started by talking about the basics of the subject - what is a bed? It's important to start by thinking about our modern preconceptions of the subject so that one can hopefully avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions when thinking about Ancient Egyptian beds. She gave a detailed modern definition of a bed, and then looked at how this is not a universal definition. For instance in our culture we think of beds as ubiquitous but you don't have to go as far afield as Ancient Egypt to see that this isn't always the case. Even a few centuries ago in European culture beds were high status objects (I was reminded that Shakespeare specified what was to happen to his second-best bed in his will, it was an important object). We also think of beds as private places - for one person or a couple - but in many cultures co-sleeping is common, and even in our own culture small children may co-sleep with their parents.

All the archaeological evidence for beds in Ancient Egypt come from high status contexts - high status burials, or place like Deir el Medina (which was a village for elite craftsmen & their families). Beds were luxury goods, and most people probably slept on the floor or on raised daises built into the floor of the room. There are various different words for bed in Ancient Egyptian literature & Schutz discussed some of these. There were beds called ytjt.t which are only mentioned in funerary contexts. ꜣṯ.t beds were mentioned in everyday contexts during the Old & Middle Kingdom periods, but by the New Kingdom are only seen in the funerary context. In the New Kingdom the name of beds in the everyday context was ꜣṯi.t.

There was also the term krk(r), which originally referred to a specific bed of a foreign king acquired by Tutmosis III in one of his campaigns. This wasn't an unexpected sort of item to bring back from campaign as tribute or loot - beds were often exchanged as gifts between rulers, which is mentioned in the Amarna letters. Schutz also noted that in this sort of context a bed wasn't necessarily just a sleeping place, it might also be the equivalent of a throne (and in more recent times this was seen in Ethiopia where the kings sat in state on a bed instead of a chair). Interestingly this same term was later used to refer to cheap beds, which Schutz speculated was to debase the foreign bed - in effect the Egyptians were claiming that the most expensive bed of the foreigners was worth no more than a cheap Egyptian bed.

Another sort of bed common in Deir el Medina was a ḥ'tj, and an example of this is the bed belonging to Merit which is now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Turin (see photo below). Beds like this were mid-range beds, better quality than a krk(r) bed, but not the most expensive available. Schutz used these beds as examples to look at what similarities & differences there are between modern beds & Ancient Egyptian ones. As you can see from the photo the shape of the bed is much the same as a modern bed - a wooden frame with four legs - although the board is a footboard and very few Egyptian beds had headboards, which is the reverse to our own beds.

Bed of Merit

Merit's bed was found with no mattress, although it's not clear if that's the way it would've been used in life or just how it was buried. There were linen blankets found near it which may've played the role of mattress, and other thicker blankets to be used as coverings during a cold night. Pillows are very rare in Ancient Egypt, instead they appear to've used headrests (see the photo) which don't look terribly comfortable to me. I say "appear to've used" because this came up in the questions at the end of the talk and Schutz discussed how in modern African cultures that use headrests they often aren't used to sleep on at night, instead are to rest on whilst watching herds during the day or something like that. So it's not entirely clear if Ancient Egyptians actually slept on them.

The textual evidence for beds confirms that they were used for sleeping, but it's not clear if they were in a bedroom as we would understand it. And in the questions Schutz said that she doesn't like using the word "bedroom" for any areas of Ancient Egyptian houses because that term brings along all our modern connotations and we don't even know for sure that Egyptians slept in the rooms we're referring to as bedrooms. Beds in Ancient Egypt also had other functions, as they do today: sex, birth, illnesses and death. And in Ancient Egypt they were also for social occasions, and for sitting on rather than chairs. In artistic representations thrones & beds show similarities & the terms used to describe them overlap - so as mentioned above an elaborate state bed was not entirely a distinct category of object to an elaborate state throne.

After a break for coffee & cake Schutz talked us through beds from Pre-dynastic to Roman times. Beds first appear in the Pre-dynastic era, but are not found everywhere throughout Egypt until the end of the early Dynastic era. Sometimes people were buried on beds, or next to them - and Schutz said that she thinks the "fetal" burial position common during the period is better thought of as a "sleeping" position. Partly because the Ancient Egyptians would've seen sleeping people more often than they'd've seen fetuses, and partly because death is associated with sleep throughout Egyptian culture.

The earliest known bed dated from the Naqada II period, but it has since been lost so the oldest bed Schutz showed us a picture of dated from Dynasty 0 (Naqada III). This bed, like most early beds is short - this is because they were for sleeping curled up on rather than stretched out. The legs of the bed are in the form of bovine legs - I'd generally say "bulls' legs" but Schutz explained that the legs could be either bulls' or cows'. Bulls are symbolic of fertility and strength which fits with the functions of a bed both as a place for sex & birth, and also as a safe place to sleep. The bull is also important in a funerary context - it's connected to Seth carrying Osiris in some versions of the Osiris myth, and the Apis Bull who is sometimes shown carrying the deceased. Cows also have protective meanings, as well as meanings in a funerary context - for instance there is the tale of the Heavenly Cow that carries Re to the sky. However it's worth noting that all the textual evidence for the meanings of bovine legs on beds is much later than the first known bovine legs on beds. So it's not clear if the stories arise because beds have bovine legs, or if beds have bovine legs because of the stories.

Bed And Other Furniture Belonging to Queen Hetepheres

Fewer beds are from from the Old Kingdom. One example is the bed of Queen Hetepheres which was buried with linen, that may've been bedcovers. Beds in this period get longer, and bodies buried on them are not in a contracted position. Whilst there are still bovine legged beds there are now also leonine legs on beds. Again this could either be male or female lions there's often no clear evidence either way. When they are definitely lions they tend to appear in pairs, which is a symbol of the sunrise and therefore a link to rebirth.

In the Middle Kingdom there are several types of beds. One of these types (also found in the Old Kingdom) is a frame without legs, and it's generally found in a funerary context under either the mummy or the coffins of the deceased. An example belonging to Djehutihotep is covered in protective texts. This type of slatted bed might be quite common, but as they're not always published in the excavation reports it's hard to tell how common. There are also beds with legs - there is one example where the body was buried on a bed which is rare in the Middle Kingdom. And there were also beds with pairs of lions as legs (as discussed above) with the coffin placed on top.

In the New Kingdom the coffin was placed on top of a bed as transport to the afterlife. Bovine legged beds came back into fashion, but with a slight difference - in the earlier periods the four legs of the bed mimicked the real legs of a bull (or cow) and consisted of one pair of front legs and one pair of back legs. But in the New Kingdom the four legs were identical. During this period elaborate beds were presented as tribute to kings, and Schutz showed us some examples. Tutankhamun was buried with several beds, including one that was in the sarcophagus under the coffins with short leonine legs & heads.

There is little evidence for beds in the Late Period, other than in reliefs. In the Graeco-Roman Period one sort of bed is generally found under the mummy, and has leonine legs and a slatted top like Middle Kingdom examples. However a key difference is that the tails of the lions are elevated on the Graeco-Roman beds, as a protective symbol. Schutz finished up her history of beds in Ancient Egypt by talking us through an example of a bed from the 2nd Century CE. This was found in the tomb of a pair of siblings, two children of 3-4 years old who were buried in the same coffin. The bed was not "just" a bed - in decorative motifs and in shape it's very reminiscent of temple architecture & reliefs, and it seems to've functioned symbolically as a temple within the tomb.

In conclusion Schutz said that beds were essential to sleep, procreation and death in Ancient Egypt. The various animal motifs (including the legs) are both protective of the sleeper and ensure the rebirth of the deceased in the afterlife.

This was an interesting talk about a subject that one often fails to properly consider - a bed is a bed after all, but Schutz made it clear that there was much more to beds & their uses than is obvious on the surface.

At the beginning of March Roland Enmarch came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the ancient texts left on the walls of an Egyptian alabaster quarry in Middle Egypt.

He started his talk by giving us the geographical and geological context for the quarry. Hatnub is in the Eastern desert fairly close to Amarna. The name "Hatnub" (hat-noob) is how the original excavators of the site in the 1890s pronounced the ancient name that they read on the walls (which is transliterated ḥwt-nbw). Modern Egyptologists would pronounce it more like "Hut nebu" (hoot neb-oo) because the assumptions made about how the vowels sound have changed, but the name has stuck with the original pronunciation. It's quite likely that neither pronunciation bears much resemblance to what an actual Ancient Egyptian would've said. The name means "Mansion of Gold" which is reminiscent of the names of areas in temples - so was this perhaps a sacred place? Or does it refer to wet alabaster glistening after rare rainfall?

Hatnub is a place where Egyptian alabaster can be found. This name for the rock is technically incorrect - modern geologists use the term alabaster to refer to a specific sort of white rock which is not at all the same sort of rock as "Egyptian alabaster" (which is more accurately called calcite). It formed in the limestone in an earlier geological period when Egypt was wetter. The limestone got dissolved away by the water leaving cave systems. These were then filled by Egyptian alabaster, which was deposited from the water of hot springs into these caves. If the spring wasn't hot but instead was at ambient temperature then the rock that was deposited was Tufa limestone. Because of the way the Egyptian alabaster is formed in ancient cave voids it occurs in discrete pockets rather than long strata.

Egyptian alabaster was valued by the Ancient Egyptians for several reasons - of course one of these was the visual aesthetics of the stone. It's also relatively rare, as it needed a hot spring to've existed to deposit it which is a rarer occurrence than an ambient temperature spring. Enmarch said that the Egyptians also valued it for sacred properties, and it's often found in religious contexts. He also showed us a picture of the famous scene from the tomb of Djehutihotep in Deir el Bersha showing a large statue being moved by many many men - this statue was made of alabaster, and the text accompanying it includes "The road on which it came was very difficult indeed."

Hatnub was discovered in modern times by Percy Newberry & Howard Carter in 1891 while they were looking for the tomb of Akhenaten. The inscriptions weren't officially recorded at that time, but Enmarch said they were copied and circulated privately, so it was known that they were there. The texts were then properly recorded in 1907 by Georg Möller, and the work was published after his death by R. Anthes in 1928. Although other archaeological work has been carried out at the site (by Ian Shaw in the 1980s) this remained the most recent study of the texts until the study that Enmarch himself is undertaking. And this old study has limitations as the sole source of knowledge of the inscriptions - it has no photos, just drawings, and it was written up by someone who had never been to the site (and who could not always decipher what Möller had described). So Enmarch and his colleagues have embarked on a proper modern epigraphic study after an initial visit in 2012 showed that there was much that could still be learnt from these inscriptions. Their initial goal, which they have largely finished was to record all the inscriptions that have survived using modern methods (digital photography).

Enmarch next talked us through how you (or how an Ancient Egyptian would) approach the quarries at Hatnub. There are well preserved pre-classical roads in the desert which lead from the cultivated regions to the quarries. The road network includes causeways to build up the road so that the inclines are never too steep to pull large blocks of stone along. These might be built of blocks of stone, and still look pretty solid these days. Alongside the roads at intervals are small horseshoe-shaped man-made stone features which aren't yet understood - perhaps they are wind shelters? Part of the project is to investigate these & map them on the road network to see if anything can be learnt about them. As well as these structures there are also stone cairns near the road on a high part of the desert near Quarry P. These cairns could be for marking the route, but they may also have some sacred purpose. In front of the cairns themselves are rudimentary structures, and there are little cleared paths up to the cairns.

Quarry P is the part of Hatnub where most of the inscriptions have been found, and the rest of Enmarch's talk concentrated on this area. It is a large & deep oval pit, and nearly all the alabaster has been removed from it (there are fragments on the floor and some small parts left in the limestone walls of the pit). It is an open cast mine which definitely didn't have a full roof, although there may've been an overhang which has since collapsed, and there are giant (ancient) spoil heaps around it. Enmarch said that it feels like being in a volcanic crater (although obviously there is nothing volcanic about it).

The inscriptions are not evenly distributed around the walls of the quarry, instead they are concentrated in particular regions. Enmarch first talked us round these regions showing us the inscriptions that were previously known from the 1928 publication. The south wall of the entryway to the quarry has lots of features that were in this paper, some of which have been damaged since they were originally recorded in 1907. The oldest inscriptions here date to the reign of Khufu - they generally have both his cartouche and his Horus name, and may have his image and other protective symbols. They indicate the royal patronage of the quarrying expedition and the Pharaoh's domination of the area.

In the main oval area there is a boulder (a piece of rock which wasn't good enough quality to quarry) which is covered in carvings of little men - so it's called "little man boulder". Enmarch has identified 40 features mostly only noted briefly in the 1928 publication, which are mostly standing or sitting men with no texts. These are a lower class record of presence (rather than the royal inscriptions of the south entryway). They are mostly in relief or in red ink and many are now faded or eroded to near invisibility. Modern digital photography is a particularly useful tool in these circumstances & Enmarch showed us how he's been able to enhance the images to see these inscriptions clearly. For a lot of his images he'd first show us a picture of what looked like almost completely bare rock, and then the enhanced image with a fairly clear inscription or image - it was very impressive to see what could be revealed.

The north west wall of the oval catches the sun first thing in the morning, and there is a red ink inscription here dating to the time of Pepi II which shows the king seated alongside his royal names plus an account of the expedition. This says that the leader of the expedition extracted as much stone as was required and transported it to the king. The south wall of the oval is covered with texts and images, and is marked out with rocks and stelae (which were removed in 1907 and sadly were then in Berlin in WW2 and destroyed). Two large red ink inscriptions in hieratic date to the time of Teti I. Others of the inscriptions here are dated by which Nomarch had ordered the expedition - the dating on these is unclear, they might be during the First Intermediate Period or they might date to later. They are placed near the 6th Dynasty inscriptions, to gain prestige from associating themselves with them. There are also modern additions to some of these inscriptions - the figures outlined in white, which seems an odd thing to do. And sadly some have been deliberately defaced as well.

After a break for coffee & cake Enmarch took us round the site again, this time talking about the inscriptions that they have discovered which weren't published in 1928, and also to give us his thoughts on the motives behind some of the inscriptions. The older inscriptions are just royal names & images, but from the 6th Dynasty onwards there is also biographical details of the expedition leader like those you might find in their tomb. They are tweaked to be specific to the place rather than a tomb - for instance they include a formula about making offering to the inscription (and thus the person) but as this is a quarry the return you will get for doing so is that your own expedition will be successful. The later inscriptions that refer to Nomarchs rather than Pharaohs are all close in date (within a few decades) and explicitly address themselves to later expeditions that they expect will come after them. This is unusual for an Ancient Egyptian quarry and Enmarch suggested that perhaps it's because it's closer to home than many Egyptian quarries and so felt more like somewhere the living would be visiting after your death.

On the south wall of the entryway there are some panels that look almost bare to the naked eye (whilst still looking like panels) - Enmarch's enchanced digital images show up figures & texts in these, and he's doubled the number of texts dating to Pepi II's reign this way. These new texts include a red ink text written in hieroglyphs which is exciting as normally the red ink ones are hieratic and the hieroglyphic ones are carved. And as a counterpoint another new text is an incised hieratic text, again unusual. One of the inscriptions gives a name for the quarry which is "Northern Hatnub of the Hare Nome" (this dates to Pepi II's reign as well). The north wall of the entryway has no previously published inscriptions, but Enmarch's project has discovered some here as well. Some of them survive as no more than Pepi II's name, but one has a lengthy hieratic text listing the members of the expedition that left it behind. And on the Little Man Boulder there is also a newly discovered incised hieratic inscription that possibly lists the names of expedition members.

The south wall of the oval has several new texts. One of these is a big inscription found round a very faded figure which was only briefly noted in the 1928 publication. Image enhancement shows it up very well & it consists of multiple texts dating to the reign of a Nomarch called Djehutynakht (but which Djehutynahkt is unknown). It's mostly a moral biography like one would find in a tomb (where the tomb occupant lists the things they have done that they should've and the things they haven't done because they should not). Another interesting text in this area is written by the Scribe of the Portal Ahanakht, in which he presents himself as the best at everything he does. In the text he refers to himself several times as "a scribe", something he appears proud of, and there are many references to his knowledge & skill with words both as someone who can write words and someone who can construct a well turned phrase. Enmarch thinks that the handwriting of this inscription matches several others on this wall, and so Ahanakht may well have been the official scribe for several of these expeditions - and this inscription is him making sure that he is remembered as well as his masters.

One of the new inscriptions that they have discovered on the north west wall of the oval is high up on the quarry wall, and the style of the hieroglyphs is early dynastic. Taken together these imply that the early dynastic period is when this quarry was first worked. And it's corroborated by the fact that the inscriptions from the time of Khufu are lower down the walls, and so the quarry had been used for some time by the 4th Dynasty.

Looking at the dates of the inscriptions the quarry was worked out by early in the 12th Dynasty. However there's one inscription from a much later date - set within the 6th Dynasty inscriptions is a text that dates to the 18th Dynasty. This was a previously known inscription, but Enmarch has discovered a new line of text - which names a sculptor, possibly even the man who made the famous bust of Nefertiti, who possibly came from Amarna to assess if there was any stone left. Backing up the date of the inscription are pottery fragments found at the site of the distinctive blue painted ware of the era.

To sum up Enmarch told us that they haven't made many major changes to the known chronology of the site, but they have discovered new & interesting details. There is still more to learn - they are currently clearing the debris at the bottom of the quarry to expose more of the lower portions of the walls, which may have new inscriptions.

I really enjoyed this talk - one of my favourite places I've visited in Egypt is Vulture Rock which is covered with inscriptions from the prehistoric era through to Old Kingdom expeditionary inscriptions which are presumably much like the ones at Hatnub that Enmarch described in this talk. So this talk aligned well with my interests :) I also liked seeing what digital photo enhancement could do with these inscriptions, the amount of extra detail that could be pulled out was amazing.

In February Carol Andrews came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about Ancient Egyptian jewellery - in particular that worn by women. She structured her talk as an overview of the various types of jewellery and for each type she looked at both the archaeological evidence and at the artistic representations of the jewellery. Men wore as much jewellery as women, and in fact there are very few if any forms that were specific to women.

One of the common forms of jewellery worn by both sexes is the broad collar, constructed of several concentric strings of beads with pendants on the outermost string. At the ends of the strings there may be large ornate terminals, and the heavier collars needed a counterpoise at the back to keep it attractively balanced around the neck. The first surviving example dates to the Middle Kingdom, but they are depicted on statues at least as far back as the 4th Dynasty (including on the statue of Rahotep and his wife Nofret that is now in the Cairo Museum). Andrews talked about an example from c.1800 BCE discovered at Hawarra which had falcon heads at the ends of the collar and a counterpoise with a matching falcon design. This indicates that it was specifically for funerary contexts (with the falcon heads representing Horus). She also discussed an 18th Dynasty example where the beads are all floral motifs - lotuses, poppy seeds etc. To modern eyes these look feminine but they belonged to both men & women as a substitute for real flower collars (which are depicted in tomb reliefs showing scenes of parties).


It's just by chance that most of the surviving collars are for women - men definitely wore these collars as well. Broad collars are the most commonly depicted form of jewellery up until the Saite period, after which they are rare except in depictions of the Pharaoh or of deities. In fact, as Andrews pointed out, they're almost essential for depicting gods who have animal heads. Having a broad collar covering up the top of the shoulders & the base of the neck removes the need to represent the join between the animal head & the human body, many of which would be very awkward indeed. Like the goddesses with snake heads, often represented with a whole snake coiled up or the vulture headed gods whose scrawny necks would somehow need to join to their brawny human shoulders.

Some broad collars were made of precious metals, and the first example of these that she showed us was a fragmentary one found in the Valley of the Kings that she believes may possibly have belonged to Akhenaten. One might think that such heavy & expensive collars would all belong to men (either because it would take strength to wear them or because of the wealth it implied), but Andrews showed us that this was not the case by telling us about three surviving examples that belonged to women. The first was from the burial of three minor wives of Tutmosis III (the material from which is now in the Met in New York) which is a collar with metal beads with inlays, in the shapes of hieroglyphs. Another dating to 1550 BCE has falcon terminals and beads in the shapes of lions, gazelles & other motifs reminiscent of contemporary Aegean art, so perhaps a sign of "exotic" influences for this piece of jewellery. And finally a collar found in Giza dating to the 4th Dynasty has many beetle-shaped beads.

Another sort of necklace that the Ancient Egyptian women wore was a choker - 2 rings with vertical beads between them. None of these survive, we know of them only from depictions in reliefs where all classes of women are shown wearing them. Other necklaces had large pendants made using a technique called cloisonné. Andrews explained that this involved making little compartments with gold which are then filled in with inlaid stones. She showed us several examples of these - mostly from the Middle Kingdom period, when these pendants have only been found associated with women. However the designs on them might seem more appropriate for men - the cartouche of the king, or warlike and smiting scenes. Despite the earlier association with women, by the Late Period these pectorals are only seen worn by men (except in funerary contexts when women still have them).

The Ancient Egyptians didn't just wear necklaces. Another common form of jewellery is the diadem, which over time came to be solely for women. The earliest known example was from the Naqada II period, so this is a very early style. You can see in my photo above that the Old Kingdom statue of Nofret shows her wearing a diadem decorated with floral motifs, which a common theme that Andrews said was imitating wildflowers. There might also be other motifs on diadems such as protective vulture motifs for senior royal women, or gazelle heads which might be the badge for more junior royal women (minor wives or concubines).

Diadem with Gazelles, a Stag and Flowers

Another common item of jewellery was a fish shaped pendant - these were worn to ward off drowning. Andrews told us a story that the Ancient Egyptians told about the King travelling on the river in a boat rowed by women from his harem (as entertainment for the man who has everything) when one of the girls lost her pendant. The King offered to replace it for her, but she insisted she wanted her own one back - so the court magician parted the waters of the Nile and the pendant was retrieved from the riverbed and the journey could continue. Very reminiscent of the later Biblical story of Moses & the Red Sea, of course!

Both men & women wore girdles from at least 4500 BCE, these were strings of beads that were tied around the waist. One very common form during the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom for women consisted of beads shaped like cowrie shells (or later a more abstract representation of the shells). When these sorts of girdles were first discovered in the 19th Century they were referred to as "wallet" beads in a somewhat Victorian-gentlemanly fashion that ignored the more obvious symbolism. In Ancient Egypt the shape of the cowrie shell was symbolic of the female genitalia, and they were worn close to that region as a protective symbol. There were also sexual connotations - Andrews referenced the dancing girls painted on the walls of Nebamun's tomb who are young, nubile & wearing nothing but their cowrie shell girdles. But women from higher social classes were also buried with cowrie shell girdles - like the great queens of the 12th Dynasty. Andrews said that this was because the girdles were a symbol of the rejuvenation of their sexuality & fertility in the afterlife. Another sort of girdle worn by women in the Middle Kingdom consisted of beads shaped like acacia seeds. These seeds were used in Egyptian medicine to prevent haemorrhage after childbirth so it's thought that the girdles were again protective symbols worn round the appropriate area of the body.

There are many representations from the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom periods of women wearing anklets, formed (like chokers) of two rings with vertical beads between them. This form of jewellery dies out in the New Kingdom, Andrews speculated that the cause was an increase in sandal wearing which got in the way of the jewellery and also the the fashion for dresses had changed. Gods & goddesses continued to be represented with anklets tho - this was just a mortal change of fashion. Anklets often came in sets with matching bracelets & armlets, which means that it can be difficult to tell exactly which has been excavated unless the full set is discovered. One thing distinguishes some anklets - generally those worn by dancing girls - is that they have little claw amulets attached to them. These aren't royal lions claws, they are bird claws probably indicating the gracefulness of the dancer. But interestingly as with the cowrie girdles the great queens of the 12th Dynasty are buried with anklets with claws - again in the funerary context this is likely to represent fertility in the afterlife.

Bracelets are again found from early in Egyptian history - one example was found in the burial of Djer (a 1st Dynasty Pharaoh) which had been robbed a long time before archaeologists got there, what was found was a mummified arm stuck in a crack in the wall which had a bracelet on it. Andrews said this was probably Djer's own arm, not that of his wife (who may also have been buried there). This example isn't just early, it's also unusual in that the way it was discovered means that we have the order that the beads were strung in. Normally jewellery made of beads is discovered just as a collection of loose beads and so the order we see things strung together in a modern museum is pure conjecture (and sometimes museums restring the jewellery they have as they think of better ways to do so). During the Middle Kingdom bracelets often had spacers made of gold beads soldered to a baseplate (or just each other) which kept the rest of the beads in the right place. The great queens of the 12th Dynasty had spacers in their bracelets shaped like lions, over the centuries this motif changed from the regal & powerful lion to more feminine pussy cats via cats in lion poses (in the 17th Dynasty). Another form that bracelets could take was a rigid silver bangle, examples of these are found as far back as the pre-dynastic era. During the New Kingdom period this type was altered by making it hinged - examples of these were buried with three of Tutmosis III's minor wives.

Earrings were the latest form of jewellery to be adopted in Ancient Egypt, and are not seen before the Hyksos period (the Second Intermediate Period). But they weren't the result of Asian influences from the Hyksos rulers, instead they came from the fashions of the Nubian mercenaries that fought for the Theban kings of the 17th Dynasty. During the New Kingdom earrings were the fashion for everyone - male, female & children. Andrews showed us several examples of large & heavy gold earrings, all of which were worn in pierced ears (and looked rather uncomfortable to me!). Earrings also show up in depictions of people in reliefs - for instance in Nefertari's tomb she's depicted with several different styles of earrings in the different scenes. Even mummy cases are shown wearing earrings. Interestingly, though, the Pharaoh isn't ever shown wearing earrings - in the question section at the end of the talk Andrews was asked about this & she said that she thought it was a public/private distinction. When the Pharaoh had his crown on and was in formal or ceremonial settings then he didn't have earrings, but when he was in private he still wore them.

Finger rings were the last type of jewellery that Andrews showed us. A lot of finger rings have been found, some of them even on the fingers of mummies, but you never see anyone depicted in a relief wearing one which is a bit odd. Many rings were used as seals - either with a swivelling bezel (perhaps scarab shaped) or static stirrup shaped rings. Women's seal rings had their own names on them, which implies they were able to authorise their own documents etc. Other than rings found on the fingers of women it can be hard to tell which gender a ring was for just from the design. The shape of the ring might hold some clues - Neith or Mut are both goddess associated with women, for instance. Frog shaped rings might have associations with childbirth, or cat shaped rings with Bastet. But this isn't a certain diagnostic, and Andrews showed us a few examples of "feminine" themed rings where it's certain that they actually belonged to men.

Andrews finished up her survey of Ancient Egyptian jewellery worn by women with a short summary: whilst some forms of jewellery might've been more commonly worn by women at one time or another there were no forms of jewellery that were exclusively for Ancient Egyptian women.

This was an fascinating overview of a subject I'd not previously given much thought to. I found it particularly interesting that some jewellery types are only known from archaeological evidence and some only from the art that the Egyptians left us. Accidents of survival can make quite a difference to how we see the past.

In November last year the Essex Egyptology Group organised a trip to Manchester to visit the museum there and to get a behind the scenes tour of the Egyptian collections from Campbell Price, the curator of Egypt and Sudan at the museum.

I took quite a few photos on this trip, some are in this post and they are all up on flickr, click here to get to the album or on any photo in this post to go to flickr.

Campbell Price

We arrived at the museum about an hour before it opened to the public and were met by Campbell Price in the foyer. He took us up to the Egyptian gallery, but first we stopped in one of the other galleries where there was a bust of Jesse Haworth so that Price could tell us about the history of the collection. As with so many other museums the earliest acquisitions came from funding archaeologists digging in Egypt, in this case in a slightly roundabout way. Jesse Haworth was a wealthy industrialist in Manchester who funded some of Flinders Petrie's work, and so amassed a notable personal collection of Egyptian items. Later he donated these to Manchester University, founding the museum - although initially his donation was turned down but when he said he'd build a building to house them they changed their minds!

Next Price took us around the Egyptian gallery talking a bit about the highlights of the collection. Amongst other things he told us a bit about the Two Brothers, a pair of mummies plus their coffin assemblages that the museum has. Their coffins list their mother (same woman in each case), but neither mentions the name of a father - not entirely unexpected, Price explained that at this time period (Middle Kingdom) in the area these men lived it was more important to claim your maternal lineage than your paternal lineage. When the mummies were examined in the early 20th Century they were described as one being "black" and one "Egyptian" in the terminology of the time. More recently DNA analysis has been performed which shows that they really are linked via their mother, and that one has Nubian heritage & the other one does not. So the original analysis was in fact correct (which is not always the case!).


Price also talked a bit about the display of mummies in museums - Manchester Museum has one that is visibly displayed, that of Asru who was an elite lady from the 25th-26th Dynasties period. There's been a lot of concern and discussion on the topic in the last few years & Price was saying that he thinks it's important to remember that the Egyptians themselves saw the mummy of the deceased as "just" another of the objects in the tomb that the deceased would need in the afterlife. So whilst they probably wouldn't've appreciated being displayed in a museum it's not in the same way that a modern person might not want their granny dug up and displayed - it's about the objects (including body) having a purpose that they aren't fulfilling. (Hopefully I haven't mangled Price's views too much - I'm writing this from memory 2 months later!)

Small Vessels

After the gallery tour we then split into two groups for the behind the scenes part of the visit. I was in the second group, so we spent half an hour or so looking round the Egyptian gallery & taking photos before the rest of the public were allowed in. Then it was our turn to see the storerooms. I always find it surprising how many corridors and rooms are behind the walls in a museum (I've been to behind the scenes tours in the British Museum a couple of times too). Somehow when I'm in the large public rooms it feels like they must fill the whole space of the building, but then there's this rabbit warren of other bits tucked away. Price showed us the stone storerooms first, where there were bits of stelae as well as pots & other such things. After a bit of a look around there he produced a mystery object for us to try & identify - originally a genuine mystery to the museum, but relatively recently with some detective work they'd figured it out. And after some leading questions from Price so did we - a piece of a chariot fitting inscribed for Amenhotep II.

Alison contemplating the artifact we were puzzling over

Small Mystery Alabaster Object

We were also shown the organics storeroom - this included mummies and coffins (and a box labelled Crocodile, always a good one to know where it is ...!). One of the coffins had a space in the inscriptions where you'd expect the name of the deceased to be - this was probably so that it could be reused. Another later coffin was for a Roman Egyptian woman, and she was very much hedging her bets - some of the decoration (particularly in terms of style) was Roman and other parts were Egyptian. When we'd finished looking around these rooms Price led us back through the corridors to bring us back out at the shop - he'd very kindly organised for us to use his staff discount that morning, so as might be expected we came away with a couple of new books :)

That was the official portion of the visit over but we all had the rest of the day to spend there, so after a break for coffee we returned to the galleries. J headed back to the Egyptian stuff but I spent the rest of my visit walking round the rest of the museum photographing things that caught my eye. As well as the Egyptian stuff they have a very eclectic collection of objects, a lot of them biological in nature. There were dead animals (stuffed, in tableaux), very dead animals (fossilised and reconstructed), model animals (in tableaux) and live animals (mostly frogs & lizards, see below, but some snakes as well). There were also some pieces of art, linked often to the objects nearby in the collection. I came away with an impression that it was all a bit odd, but odd in a way that I appreciated :)

Lizard (alive)

It was a good trip! It's always interesting to be told about a museum by someone involved in putting the displays together, and to see some of the extra stuff that doesn't fit into their public displays.

At the November meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Vincent Oeters talked to us about the Step Pyramid of Djoser - in particular the inside of it. He doesn't himself work on the Step Pyramid, but while he was working (as an archaeologist) nearby he was able to go into it three times (with the permission of and accompanied by an Inspector from the Ministry of Antiquities, as it's not generally open to tourists). And one of those times he was also allowed to take photos! And it was those photos that formed the core of his talk.

He started his talk with a bit of geographical and historical scene setting. We don't actually know all that much about Djoser - he reigned c.2640 BCE, and the names of his wife and daughter are known and that's about it. There are two known statues of him - one is in the Cairo Museum, and one is a partial statue that has the name of Imhotep on it as well and is now in the Imhotep Museum at Saqqara. The first modern research on the pyramid was done by Lepsius in around 1843 CE. Old drawings and photos from that time show the pyramid still partially covered by sand. Around the pyramid itself is a large enclosure wall, and the pyramid is not exactly centred within the enclosure. And around that is a feature that isn't often mentioned, and certainly I'd not heard of before: a large dry moat, shaped a bit like the hieroglyph for "house". This moat isn't simply a big pit - there are subterranean rooms & corridors, and niches in the walls of the moat at some points too. Some of the corridors from this moat appear to run towards the pyramid. One of the corridors has been reused for later burials, another one was where the wooden harpoon (that I saw when I visited the Imhotep Museum this October) had been found by the Polish mission led by Karol Myśliwiec. This wooden harpoon has a snake motif on it that matches a snake motif on columns that are also carved with Djoser's name (also in the Imhotep Museum) - so it probably belonged to Djoser and was a symbolic burial. Only a very few parts of this moat have been excavated to date so there's still a lot more than these tantalising details to be discovered!

Inside, or rather, under the pyramid is a complex and confusing network of tunnels which extends beyond the edges of the pyramid's superstructure. Oeters had tried to find us a clear map of these corridors, but there doesn't appear to be one publicly available. This is in part because they haven't been fully explored let alone mapped, despite the site having been worked on for over a hundred & fifty years - there's just that much to investigate that there hasn't been time to look at everything. There are people working on this - in 2007 a Lativan mission made 3D models of parts of the inside of the pyramid. One of the things they found is that there appears to be a tunnel from the pyramid to the South Tomb (which is at the edge of the enclosure, so quite a distance). One thing that makes the tunnel network confusing is that as the construction of the pyramid above evolved the tunnels underneath needed to change as well. For instance when the original mastaba structure was expanded it covered up the original entrance to the tunnel network, which meant a new entrance (and new connecting tunnels) were needed.

The main portion of Oeters's talk was walking us through the inside of the pyramid via his photos. This is, obviously, rather difficult to write up in detail because it was all about the images. One of the themes that came up frequently through the photos was how unstable the structure is. Oeters's visit was before the pyramid began undergoing restoration - which is controversial, particularly in that it covers up the evidence on the outside of the pyramid for how it was constructed. But it's also a necessity, an earthquake in 2006 destabilised the structure even more than just the passage of time has done and a lot of blocks fell inside the pyramid. He showed us several photos of either unstable looking ceilings with blocks ready to fall, or large blocks on the floor which had fallen from the ceiling. During the restoration work by the Ministry of Antiquities it was also discovered that one of the wooden "beams" supporting the roof was actually a piece of a Late Period coffin - the modern restoration is not the first one! It is a bit more hi-tech, tho - first large "balloons" were put in and inflated to provide pneumatic support to the roof whilst the restoration team drilled holes in the ceiling and injected glue and inserted rods to stabilise the structure. The original plan was that the balloons and internal scaffolding would be removed when the work was finished, but the events of early 2011 in Egypt interrupted and it's all still in there.

Djoser's sarcophagus is still in the burial chamber. It's oddly made compared to later large sarcophagi. It's not made in two parts, base + lid, instead it's constructed out of black granite slabs with a block in the lid that looks like it plugs the gap where Djoser's coffin was put in. It has recently been cleaned up - that was done before in the 1930s, but so much debris had fallen since then that it needed doing again. Some of the stone removed during cleaning had star motifs on it, so this must've been part of a decorated ceiling. While it was being cleaned they discovered that there were inscriptions on the granite slabs! Not religious texts, but notations as to how to put the sarcophagus together - e.g. "4th from the south". Another oddity about the sarcophagus is that it doesn't rest flat on the floor, instead it stands on several small piles of stones. There was a robbers' tunnel underneath that entered the sarcophagus as well, which Oeters went through - he said it was a very tight fit.

Amongst the many tunnels under the Step Pyramid are 11 that were full of broken pottery vessels. These bits of pot are inscribed with the names of Pharaohs pre-dating Djoser, and it's believed that he deliberately brought them here from where they were originally placed in Abydos and reburied them in his tomb to emphasise his link with his predecessors and to show them respect. In these corridors there are also other artifacts, including two sarcophagi which were originally assumed to be from a later period but are now thought to belong to relatives of Djoser.

After our break for coffee & cake Oeters told us about the South Tomb, which is at the south end of the Step Pyramid complex. It has a proper tomb layout with a superstructure above ground, a burial shaft and chambers & corridors below ground - there was even an empty sarcophagus in it. Part of the superstructure is visible at the site today, a wall with protective snakes around the top. Djoser's immediate predecessors had tombs at both Saqqara and Abydos (which is to the south), with the Saqqara tomb being their actual burial place and the Abydos tomb being symbolic. Djoser doesn't have a tomb at Abydos, and it's thought that this South Tomb in the Step Pyramid complex is fulfilling the same symbolic role.

One of the unique features of the Step Pyramid complex is that some of the chambers under both the Step Pyramid itself and the South Tomb were decorated with blue faience tiles. These were, sadly, mostly removed by tourists both ancient & modern and these days are scattered throughout museum & private collections all across the world. There's a reconstruction in the Imhotep Museum that shows what the walls would've looked like - covered in tiles surrounding niches with inscriptions mentioning Djoser and showing his Hebsed festival. The tiles were each labelled with a mark on the back, either a hieroglyph or a number. The meaning of the marks isn't clear - the tiles are so dispersed now that no-one's been able to do a systematic survey (and the original positioning of the tiles is lost forever). They might be batch numbers, or positioning marks like those on the sarcophagus slabs. Or they may have had some religious significance. One thing that is known is that they weren't just stuck onto the wall like you'd tile a wall today - instead they were strung onto ropes (which have long since decayed) and then fixed to the wall. This is another way that the designers of the complex were mimicking the more temporary materials of daily life in permanent materials: these tiles represent the mats that were hung on the walls of the King's palace rooms.

Towards the end of his talk Oeters again emphasised how much there is yet to be discovered at the site, there is so much that hasn't been fully excavated. For instance the layout of the corridors that are so far known feels very random, yet it would be unlike the Ancient Egyptians not to've had some sort of system when digging them. It seems astonishing that a site that has been worked on for over 150 years has still so much left to tell us, and it was this (as well as Oeters's enthusiastic delivery) that made the talk so fascinating.

In early October members of the Petrie Museum Friends (and others) went on a trip to Egypt organised and led by Lucia Gahlin which visited several less visited sites as well as some very thorough looks at more well known places. There were thirteen of us on the tour, and we were accompanied by Lucia, Youssef Ramsis (our guide) and Galal Alsenusy (from Egypt Archaeological Tours which was the company the tour was organised through). The holiday was in two parts, firstly based around Cairo and then travelling south to Middle Egypt where we stayed at the New Hermopolis retreat. Each day Youssef would start his introductory remarks with "and today is the highlight of our tour!", which was both entertaining and true - it was very much a selection of cool and interesting places to see. Lucia had also arranged talks from several guest speakers - as well herself giving us introductions to the major sites we were going to see.

Day 1: Egyptian Museum in Cairo

We started with a full day in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - a highlight in two ways: not only did we get to go back after lunch to look at more things, but also they now sell photography permits so we could take photos! And a third highlight (Youssef was right) was that Lucia had invited Salima Ikram to talk to us about both animal mummies in general and the animal mummy room in the museum in particular as she had been the curator who set up the room in its current incarnation (some time ago when she was a PhD student).

After Salima's talk we had a choice of a tour given by Youssef or to go off on our own to photograph. The tour was focussing on objects from the sites we were going to visit later in the holiday, most people (perhaps sensibly!) picked that option - but I went off on my own to photograph things that caught my eye and things I remembered from previous visits but couldn't photograph before. Before lunch I concentrated on the ground floor of the museum, working my way round chronologically (including quite a bit of time looking at the pre-historic artifacts including some early examples of writing which I particularly like to see. The unexpected highlight of the morning was something Youssef showed us before we met Salima Ikram - a large piece of pavement from Amarna with scenes of nature, which was fantastic to see and I hadn't known was there.


Lunch was at a nearby restaurant called Felfela, which serves traditional Egyptian food - we had a selection of mezes followed by grilled meats. We then returned to the museum for another hour or so of looking around. No tour this time - free time for everyone to take photos and explore as they wished. I mostly looked upstairs, visiting amongst other things the Tutankhamun treasures (including the mask and coffins which are so awe-inspiring to see), and also looking at the ostraca and papyrii rooms which I hadn't looked in before. It's the sort of museum where you could keep going back for days on end and still find something you hadn't seen before.

That evening, before our welcome dinner in the hotel, Lucia gave a talk introducing the site of Saqqara where we were about to spend the next two days.

Days 2 & 3: Saqqara

The next two days were spent seeing everything we possibly could in (north) Saqqara. This included four pyramids (two of which we went inside), 12 Old Kingdom (non-pyramid) tombs, 6 New Kingdom tombs, a museum, a Valley Temple, a causeway, an ongoing excavation of Late Period tombs and the Serapeum!

We began with a brief look at the site of the Valley Temple of Unas - just looking from the outside while we waited for the tickets to be bought. Then our visit properly started with the Imhotep Museum, which has a lot of key items related to Saqqara - including part of a statue of Djoser with the name of Imhotep on it, a reconstruction of part of a wall of blue faience tiles such as was discovered in chambers in the Step Pyramid complex, and the famous famine stela. There were also other unusual objects, like a 3rd Dynasty wooden harpoon found buried in the Step Pyramid complex and presumably of ritual significance.

The pyramids we visited were split across the two days, and it was well organised in that we saw the less (but still) impressive ones on the first day and then the more exciting ones on the second day. First we had the chance to go inside Teti's Pyramid, from the Sixth Dynasty. I was quite surprised by this, as it looks like a heap of rubble from the outside, having slumped once the casing blocks were removed for reuse in antiquity. Inside it looks much more structurally intact! It's the second pyramid (chronologically) to have the Pyramid Texts carved on the internal walls. The other pyramid that we saw that day was Userkhaf's Pyramid, which we couldn't go into. It's a Fifth Dynasty pyramid, and the key feature here was the basalt floor of the associated temple which still partly exists. Our third pyramid was the big one: the Step Pyramid complex. And of course we didn't get to go in this one, it's not entirely structurally sound although they are currently doing restoration and stabilising work on it (and have been for a few years). There's still plenty to see in the complex, however, including some parts of buildings and walls that have been reconstructed. This is the first stone monument ever constructed, and you can see how the architect & builders were still figuring out how to work with this new material. I particularly like that they have carved the stonework to look like the organic material it was representing - wooden ceiling beams, columns made of papyrus bundles. My other favourite part was the hieratic graffiti from the New Kingdom - this site has been a tourist attraction for millennia. The last pyramid we saw was Unas's Pyramid, another Fifth Dynasty one, which was the other one that we got to go inside. It's the first pyramid to have the Pyramid Texts carved in the walls and it's much finer work than that in Teti's Pyramid. The walls are alabaster, and you can still see the blue colouring in some of the hieroglyphs and other colours in the decoration too.

The Step Pyramid

And as I said, we went into a lot of tombs. The Old Kingdom ones dated to both the Fifth & Sixth Dynasty periods, and included children of Unas as well as court officials and staff (like the Chief Manicurists). There were lots of similar scenes in these - primarily of nature and fertility motifs, including a repeated motif of a hippopotamus giving birth (often towards the waiting jaws of a crocodile). The New Kingdom tombs fell into two categories - the temple tombs (including that of Horemheb that he was building before he became Pharaoh), and two more recently discovered tombs. These last two had been full of animal mummies so the paintwork on the walls hadn't been exposed to the elements, and so it was in really good condition. One of them was the tomb of Tutankhamun's wetnurse Maia, and the decoration was quite "royal" in nature which fits with speculation that she was one of the royal family. The temple tombs are quite different from all the other tombs - instead of being built into a rockface or the ground they look like temple, and the burial chamber is underneath the rear area where temple sanctuaries are. The Horemheb tomb was full of replica reliefs, each neatly labelled with which European museum the original piece was in.

The Serapeum was really impressive to see - this is where the Apis bulls were buried, and the sheer scale of the sarcophagi and thus the corridors is incredible in itself. And then when you consider how many were buried there, and how much effort that meant they had to go to it gets even more impressive.

As well as visiting all these fascinating places we also managed to fit in four talks - one impromptu informal one, and three more formal ones. The first was that by chance as we walked between Khaemwaset's stela (commemorating his restoration work during his father Ramesses II's reign) and Unas's Causeway we walked past an ongoing excavation by a German-Egyptian team. The leader of the team, Ramadan Hussein, talked to us about the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty tombs they are excavating. The three formal talks in the evenings were all quite different. Firstly Ahmed M. Mekawey Ouda told us about the life and writings of Ahmed Lufti el-Sayed Pasha (1872-1963), who was an Egyptian activist against the colonial regime and the first director of Cairo University. He was followed by Anna Stevens, who told us about her work at Amarna on the two general cemeteries and what that tells us about the life of the common people of the city (hard work and low life expectancy!). And the following evening Dan Jones told us about his and his Egyptian colleagues work in setting up some new tourist sites at Memphis - his plan is that there will be eight sites that you can walk between to get much more of a flavour of the ancient site than the current arrangement.

Day 4: Travelling from Giza to New Hermopolis; Beni Hasan and Speos Artemidos

This is the day we bid farewell to the Le Méridien Pyramids hotel in Giza and travelled down to the New Hermopolis retreat which was to be our base while we were in Middle Egypt. As a result most of the morning was spent in the minibus watching the scenery go by (once we were out of the Cairo traffic anyway!). Along the way we picked up our police escort, a standard precaution for tourist groups visiting Middle Egypt - the Colonel in charge introduced himself, and turned out over the week to be almost as interested in the antiquities as we were :)

By lunchtime we had arrived at Beni Hasan, where we had our packed lunches in the rest house before heading up the hillside to look at the Middle Kingdom tombs here. These set the pattern for tombs in Middle Egypt - halfway up the desert cliffs, accessible via a steep path (or modern steps) with wonderful views from the top. The decoration in these Eleventh & Twelfth Dynasty tombs isn't carved into the walls, it's just painted on, which is different from most of the tombs we saw. Howard Carter worked at this site early in his career, so some parts of the decoration were recognisable from his well known watercolours. Key scenes in these tombs include scenes of wrestling where many of the moves are still known in the sport today.

Lucia Looking Out From Beni Hasan

We also visited a temple which is nowadays called the Speos Artemidos (Grotto of Artemis), but was originally a temple to the goddess Pakhet (a lioness deity) built by Hatshepsut and later usurped by Seti I. One of the inscriptions makes a big deal about how Hatshepsut was restoring the temples of Middle Egypt after their neglect by the Hyksos kings - who had actually not ruled for a century by this stage, so rather than being a true representation of her actions it was part of the standard Pharaonic propaganda about bringing order after a time of chaos.

We arrived at New Hermopolis in the early evening and were welcomed by the owner, Dr Mervat Nasser. She was a presence throughout our visit - in particular explaining the menu each evening (it was generally traditional food of the local region). She also gave us two talks during the evenings we spent there, one about the cultural and spiritual goals of the retreat and one about the production of a particular local foodstuff. The retreat itself was very peaceful as it was in the desert and away from the local villages or towns.

Before our dinner that evening Lucia gave us a "catchup" talk, where she showed us a selection of slides which answered questions that had come up over the last few days. Things like more information about a particular relief in Horemheb's temple tomb at Saqqara and whether or not the hairstyles meant that particular figures were girls (the answer was no, that was a masculine fashion at the time as can be seen in other statues & reliefs). After dinner we had a short musical performance from the other residents at the retreat - an group of actors there to work on a play who were also skilled musicians. They played a mix of Egyptian music (both Muslim & Christian traditions) and an Irish folk song, and were really very good :)

Day 5: Meir, el-Ashmunein and Tuna el-Gebel

On this day we visited sites covering a vast sweep of Egyptian history - Old & Middle Kingdom tombs at Meir, a boundary stela for Amarna, plus a Ramesside Temple to cover the New Kingdom, Ptolemaic and Roman tombs and animal catacombs, as well as a Christian basilica.

We started with Meir, our second collection of tombs set in the desert cliffs and unusually for a tomb site photography was permitted (after purchasing a ticket). The tombs are the burial places of the Nomarchs of the 14th Upper Egyptian Nome, and we visited four dating to the Twelfth Dynasty and two dating to the Sixth Dynasty. Lucia's notes for the site say that these are rarely visited, which seems a shame. The scenes in these tombs are again scenes of daily life, of hunting and farming, and of nature and fertility motifs. One of the key scenes in the Middle Kingdom tombs was that of some emaciated herdsmen which are interpreted not as famine stricken Egyptians, but as nomadic herdsmen bringing their cattle to the fertile Nile valley at the peak of their lean season.

Next we visited el-Ashmunein - ancient Khemnw or Hermopolis. We began here with the opposite end of ancient Egyptian history - looking at a Coptic basilica, which has been partly restored. Next to that was a Ptolemaic inscription from a temple, referencing Ptolemy II & Ptolemy III. There are also Pharaonic remains here, including a Ramesses II era temple with talatat blocks from Amarna used as filler material. This last was very close to the modern village, so all the local children came out to see what was going on!

Walking Towards Tuna el-Gebel

After returning to New Hermopolis for lunch (as we were close enough to not need packed lunches) we headed back out to Tuna el Gebel. This site was the burial ground for the city at Hermopolis during the Late Period and afterwards. We visited two tombs here, not on a cliff side this time, one of a Roman woman called Isadora who drowned and whose tomb became something of a cult centre. The other tomb was the family tomb of Petosiris, a priest of Thoth during Ptolemaic times. His tomb was particularly fascinating as it contained very similar scenes to those we'd been seeing in many other tombs, but all carved in a much more Greek style. There are not just tombs for people at Tuna el Gebel - ancient Hermopolis was the city of Thoth and so there are ibis and baboon catacombs which we got to go into and explore. As well as the many spaces for animal mummies there was also a priest's tomb, a chamber under the corridor only big enough for his sarcophagus.

The last stop of this day was Boundary Stela A of Amarna, marking the north-west corner of the city (which was across the Nile from Tuna el-Gebel). It's set halfway up the desert cliffs, which creates the feeling of it being the edge of a space. As well as the stela itself there are statues, now headless supporting offering tables. At some point (in modern times) it had been enclosed in a case with a glass front, but that had broken and so we could see it as it was in the past.

Day 6: Deir el-Bersha, Antinoopolis and the Mallawi Museum

The main theme of this day was special openings - neither Deir el-Bersha nor Antinoopolis is generally open to the public, so this was a real treat (or highlight, as Youssef said). We were accompanied at both of those sites by Hamada Kellawy, an Inspector for the Ministry of Antiquities and an archaeologist, and he also joined us again when we visited Amarna.

We started at Deir el Bersha, which was another site where the tombs are situated part way up the desert cliffs. This was the steepest of the slopes we had to climb, and there were no man made steps to help us. I'll be the first to admit I'm not good with heights, nor is my sense of balance great, and I found this scramble up the hillside rather daunting (and back down even more so!) but I did make it up and it was well worth it :) And not just for the views, which were spectacular (even the police were posing for photos against the backdrop of the cliffs & desert!). The main place we visited up there was the tomb of Djehutihotep, Governor of the 15th Nome of Upper Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty reigns of Amenemhat II and Senwosret II & III. The key scene inside this tomb is of a colossal statue being moved by a team of 172 men - it's thought that the statue was 6.5m tall and probably weighed 60 tonnes. It would seem impossible to move by muscle power alone but this relief shows us how they did it. We also visited the tomb of Djehutinakht, and two small single chamber tombs which were right near the cliff edge. Then we went a little further up the hillside to look at an ancient limestone quarry. When I think of quarries I tend to think of them as open at the top, but this was cut into the hillside to form a cave. At some point it had also been inhabited by Coptic Christians, who had painted crosses on the walls.

J, On Top of the World at Deir el-Bersha

After scrambling back down the hillside our next stop this day was Antinoopolis, which was a city that reached its peak in the Roman period. It was named after Hadrian's lover Antinous, and (re-)founded by Hadrian in his memory after he drowned (perhaps deliberately) in the Nile not far from the site. My first impression of the site was of the vast heaps of broken pottery - we climbed up one of them to get a feel for the layout of the site, but I must confess it was not at all clear to me. After looking at the Roman remains for a bit we moved on to a Ramesside temple that was part of the small town that had been here before Hadrian turned it into a city and then we were back on familiar (Pharaonic) ground.

We had our lunch in the nearby village - in the mayor's house, which had an area where the people of the village could come and sit and drink tea (and presumably served official functions as well as social). After that we headed off for a surprise extra visit - the Mallawi Museum, which had been looted and vandalised during unrest in the summer of 2013 and had reopened only a few weeks before our trip. This is a small museum, but it had several fine pieces and they had done a good job of redisplaying and repairing their collection - I was particularly fond of the collection of Thoth as an Ibis statues/mummy cases.

That evening Lucia gave us the first half of a talk about the site that was to occupy the next two days - Amarna. The second half of the talk was on the following evening, between the two visits.

Day 7 & 8: Amarna

This trip was actually the fourth time I've booked on a holiday to go to see Amarna - the previous three had either been cancelled or had the site removed from the itinerary due to restrictions on travel to Middle Egypt. It was great to finally see it although I didn't quite believe we would till we actually got there!

As with Saqqara we spent two full days visiting the site, and we saw everything that it was possible to see. It's an interesting counterpoint to Saqqara, actually. A first comparison is that Saqqara is primarily a city of the dead - pyramid complexes and tombs were the things to see there - whereas Amarna was a city of the living (albeit with tombs nearby). They also cover very different spans of time. In Saqqara we saw places covering a vast sweep of Egyptian history - from the entrances to Second Dynasty royal burials through to the Serapeum where the Apis Bulls were still being buried at the end of Ptolemaic times. But Amarna is a snapshot: Akhenaten founded the city for his god, the Aten, and after his death it was abandoned fairly quickly. Everything there can be dated to a known time - a span of around 20 years (give or take a little bit of ongoing occupation for a generation after his death). And that's part of what I find fascinating about the city, the rare opportunity it affords to really narrow in on a specific historical time point within the millennia of human civilisation.

We started with the Visitor Centre, which is relatively new. It had replicas and models of key parts of the site, the replicas often amplified from what is known from other examples or older records of the object - like a replica of the Hymn to the Aten from Ay's tomb which filled in pieces that are damaged now using 19th Century records. As well as miniature models (of the entire city, of temples, of tombs) there was also a full size replica of a house which really helped to visualise what the mudbrick ruins we saw later would've looked like.

The thing that struck me most about the city was the sheer scale of it. Mostly we were driven from place to place, but on the second day we were there we walked through a part of it from the Small Aten Temple to the house of Thutmose the sculptor (where the famous bust of Nefertiti was found) which helped to hammer home the size of the place. And the essentially inhospitable nature of the surroundings - not just desert, we also had a close encounter with a snake in the house of Thutmose! Thankfully it only caused us to beat a hasty & slightly panicky retreat and no-one got bitten. In the city we also saw where the Great Aten Temple had stood (which is enormous, only a small part of it was marked out on the ground but Hamada Kellawy pointed out to us how far it had originally extended off into the distance), the house of records where the Amarna letters had been found and two of the palaces.

Small Aten Temple

We also visited all the open tombs - the Royal tomb, and several nobles tombs in both the north and south parts of the site. These stood out from the many other tombs we saw during this trip (and on other trips) - normally a non-royal tomb has an emphasis on scenes of the noble in question receiving offerings of food and on scenes of everyday life. But the decoration scheme in these tombs was firmly focussed on the Royal family - the tomb owner generally only showed up in scenes of him receiving gifts & rewards from Akhenaten. The city also featured prominently in the decoration, which has been useful for archaeologists because the schematic idealised representations of palaces or temples actually help to make sense of the foundations that are all that remain.

We ate our packed lunch on both days at the Amarna Rest House, which was run by a friendly woman and her family - she kept the place impeccably clean and also had a selection of souvenirs to sell. I came away with two scarves and a handmade basket, and I wasn't the only person to pick something up there!

The second day we spent at Amarna was our last full day in Middle Egypt, so we had a farewell party at New Hermopolis. Dr Nasser had organised for a troupe of stick dancers from Mallawi to come and give a performance - this is a traditional artform, and this particular troupe have been given UNESCO intangible heritage status. As well as the choreographed dance by the performers there was also some audience participation, and some purely musical sections (including the actors who had given us a performance the day we arrived). It was a very enjoyable evening :)

Day 9: Frazer Tombs, Gebel el-Teir Monastery and the journey back to Cairo

This was the last full day of the holiday and our site visits covered both early and more modern Egyptian history. We started with the Frazer Tombs, which are a set of Old Kingdom tombs cut into the desert cliffs (less scrambling to get to these than most!). The tombs themselves might not've had as spectacular decoration as other we'd seen, but there was a sense of peace to the site and it made for a good capstone to the ancient Egyptian portion of our trip.

The final site before heading back to Cairo was a Coptic Monastery at Gebel el-Teir, founded in the 4th Century CE by the Empress Helena (Constantine the Great's mother) on a site which is said to be a place where the Holy Family rested while they fled from Herod. This was the most modern site we visited as the church is still in use, and it continued the feeling of peacefully winding down after a busy several days.

Entrance to One of the Frazer Tombs

After eating our packed lunches in a cafe near the Monastery we got back in the minibus for the long trip back to Cairo - inevitably getting stuck in the traffic once we finally arrived! That evening we stayed near the airport to be convenient for our flights the next day. We had another farewell evening - this time a feast of fish in the hotel restaurant and afterwards some of us went for a drink or two in the bar despite needing an excruciatingly early start the next morning.

It was a fantastic holiday. We saw so many interesting places, in the company of people who were all keenly interested and knowledgeable about what we were seeing. And easy to get along with, too! Thanks to Lucia and Galal for their work organising it, and to Youssef (and Lucia!) for guiding us round the sites.

This article was originally written for the Petrie Museum Friends newsletter. A note on photos: there will be more to come at some future date, this is just a tiny subset in this post.

The talk at the Essex Egyptology Group meeting this September was given by one of our members - Stuart Baldwin. He's interested in the development of the Egyptian pyramids over time, and in how the Egyptians managed to build such monumental structures with such early technology. His talk presented what he's learnt about the subject, as well as several entertaining asides (which I generally shan't try and reproduce in this writeup, translating someone else's jokes from speech to text is an exercise doomed to failure!).

Baldwin started by giving us a bit of an overview of Egypt from a geological perspective - the country sits on the north-eastern corner of the African plate, near the boundaries with the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian plate. The northern part of Egypt around Cairo is blessed with many of the rocks and other things that the Egyptians used. To the west of the Nile near Giza are deposits of limestone, natron and gypsum. Out to the east, near the Red Sea coast, are deposits of copper. Of course granite is not nearby, and needed to be quarried and transported from the south of the country near Aswan. As well as this the Nile river brings fertility to the region, before the Aswan dams were built each flood brought 400 million tons of water through Egypt which spread across the land depositing mud and creating fertile soil.

The Egyptians are famous for being dead, and for taking their stuff with them when they died. One of their key beliefs is that the Ka, the life force or personality of the person, needed the person's body to survive and needed to be fed with offerings of food and drink. In the pre-dynastic era people were at first buried in the sand where they were naturally mummified. But bodies buried like this were easily disturbed by animals and so tombs got deeper, and eventually were even built into the bedrock under the sand. Pharaohs and nobles had structures built above their tombs which we call mastabas as they look like a sort of bench called a mastaba. These were built in cemeteries at both Abydos and Saqqara, and often a Pharaoh had a tomb in each place (one of which was symbolic). Mastabas are generally built out of mudbricks - which are quite large, Baldwin showed us a mockup of a brick which was much larger than a modern house brick, perhaps about the size of a breeze block.

True pyramids evolved from mastaba tombs. Baldwin explained that the pyramid shape was symbolic to the ancient Egyptians. The primeval mound that rose from the waters in one of the Egyptians' creation myths was shaped like a pyramid, and was called the benben. This name was also later given to the pyramid shape at the top of obelisks, and to the capstone (pyramidion) of pyramids. The benben stones were also thought to be shaped like the rays of the sun. It's important to remember that the tombs of these Pharaohs weren't just places to put their bodies, they were also statements of power and full of symbolism.

The Pharaoh Djoser took the first step in the evolution of the pyramid around 2630 BCE. His tomb is the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, which is effectively 6 mastabas placed one on top of the other. This was the first massive stone monument in the world. As well as a burial chamber in the rock underneath there are also 3 miles of tunnels and 400 rooms. The stone blocks used were much bigger than mud bricks, Baldwin had brought in a mockup of one to show us the size and it looked to be about as big as a small person. The pyramid didn't stand alone in the desert, as with all later pyramids it was part of a large complex including several temples - the outer perimeter was 1 mile in length. Baldwin next took a slight detour to tell us about the architect of this pyramid complex: Imhotep. Later in Ancient Egyptian history Imhotep would be deified. His skills were many and varied, he wasn't just an architect he was also regarded as the founder of medicine, Baldwin referred to him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the Ancient Egyptian world. It wasn't just posthumously that he was respected - during his lifetime he held many titles, including the splendid sounding "Supervisor of Everything in the Entire Land".

Sneferu was the greatest pyramid builder - he built three different pyramids during his lifetime. The first of these was at Meidum, and it collapsed. The next one is the Bent Pyramid at Dashur, which changes angle part way up. The third and final one was the first true pyramid, the Red Pyramid (also at Dashur). The one at Meidum was actually started by Sneferu's father, and the original design was a step pyramid with an above ground burial chamber and a corbelled roof. The change of angle in the Bent Pyramid has attracted many theories over the years - had the pyramid at Meidum already collapsed so they were worried about the Bent Pyramid? was the king ill so they finished it off briskly (then he recovered)? or was it planned all along? Baldwin explained that there's evidence that the last of these is actually the case. Partly for architectural reasons (it redistributed the forces to make the pyramid more stable) and partly for symbolic reasons - the shape is that of a benben stone sitting on top of the primeval mound. The Red Pyramid was built at the same angle as the upper part of the Bent Pyramid and its burial chambers and antechambers are all above ground. If you compare the three pyramids the building techniques change over time. The blocks get larger and more regular. They are also placed in a different orientation, the later one is stronger. And the burial chambers rise within the pyramid as well.

After Sneferu came his son Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. This is the largest monument of its kind every built, it's also the most measured & surveyed building on the planet. The entrance we use today was made in the 9th Century CE. The inner core of the pyramid is made of rough cut blocks, and the outer core uses bigger more regular stones. And the outermost layer is a casing of Tura limestone which is very white, and Baldwin also pointed out that you find a lot of Foraminifera fossils in this limestone (and thus all over the Giza plateau). The Great Pyramid has several chambers - the first built was an underground chamber that was never used. Nothing was found in any of the chambers except the large granite sarcophagus. Baldwin estimate that with the tools & techniques available it would've taken 2 men 5 years to make it. There are no antechambers (where the burial goods were stored) that have been discovered - a French architect, Houdin, has proposed that they are joined to the main burial chamber with a connecting tunnel sealed with a block that doesn't fit quite as well as all the others in the chamber. However there's no concrete evidence for them.

After our break for coffee & cake Baldwin discussed what's known (or not known) about how the Great Pyramid was built. One important point is that the workers were not slaves, in fact they were the general population and probably the best workers from the villages. They were divided into teams, which were then grouped together into larger units & so on up the organisation chart. From our perspective they didn't really have much in the way of tools, which makes it all the more incredible that they managed to construct such a large & precisely built monument. They had set squares and a knowledge of geometry that let them measure out the angles & straight surfaces correctly. They also knew how to find true north using the rising & setting of stars, which let them orient the pyramid. Much of the stone was quarried near the pyramids - this was the limestone that was used. The granite came from further afield, from quarries at Aswan, and was cut into blocks using only copper tools and the extra friction that you can generate using sand in conjunction with these tools. This is particularly impressive as copper is not very hard - Baldwin explained it is a 3.75 on the hardness scale where talc is at 1 and diamond is at 10.

The big granite blocks from Aswan were moved by boat during the flood season only. These (and the other blocks) were also moved on wooden sledges for the land portion of the journey, using oil & water on the sand to make them move more easily. Getting them to the site was the easy bit, relatively speaking, getting them up to the right place on the pyramid was a lot more difficult. There are many theories as to how that was done, but none have incontrovertible evidence to support them. Ramps must've been an important part of the solution, however. Baldwin spent some time describing one theory in particular, that of Brier and Houdin (the same Houdin mentioned earlier). They have proposed that the limestone casing of the pyramid came first, and the blocks were raised using a spiral pattern of internal ramps. They have some data in the form of microgravity studies of the Great Pyramid that showed appropriate anomalies, but nothing completely definitive. Even with ramps actually moving the blocks would be difficult. Wooden "rockers" have been discovered, and Baldwin speculates that they were not just used to rock the blocks back & forth up the ramps but instead bound on all four sides of the block to form a sort of wheel which would be easier to manoeuvre.

This was a very entertaining overview of the pyramids of Ancient Egypt - my writeup doesn't do the talk justice, because I've skipped over the many humorous moments that Baldwin inserted into his presentation.

At the beginning of August Yaser Mahmoud Hussein visited the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his work on very early sites at Abydos. He is an Antiquities Inspector and archaeologist, and has been Field Director of the excavations at the Early Dynastic Cemetery at Abydos since 2008.

The site is to the south of the New Kingdom temples at Abydos - the ones of Seti I and Ramesses II that are what you go to see if you visit Abydos as a tourist. It's very close to the modern village, and so the first purpose of Hussein's team's excavations was to find out if there was anything interesting there before it was built over. Even now that it's known to be an archaeologically interesting site it's still not safe from destruction as when the archaeologists are not actually working there the villagers walk across it the way they always have done. There are two parts to the site - in 2008 they discovered the cemetery with tombs dating to the Naqada II - Naqada III periods (the end of Naqada III is when Narmer unifies Egypt, so this period is also often called Dynasty 0). They have been excavating there since, and more recently (in 2013, I think he said) they have discovered adjacent to the cemetery evidence of a settlement dating to the same era.

In the cemetery there are around 40 tombs dating to this early period of Egyptian civilisation. Hussein showed us pictures of several of them that they have excavated and talked us through some of the features. Most of the tombs have been disturbed over the millennia since they were originally used, and so there aren't many with grave goods or bodies. However one tomb still had the remains of a coffin containing the remains of a child of around 6-13 years of age, and there were also pots and pieces of jewellery in that tomb! Despite their age and the amount of disturbance a surprising amount of the structure of the tombs has survived. Some still have roofs, and he showed us a photo of one that still has the remains of wooden timbers that would've held up the mud & reed ceiling. Some of the tombs were quite large & complex - for instance one was 8m x 8m and had many side chambers inside, which is very unusual during this period. The mud superstructure remains on the outside of some of the tombs, and on one of those there are distinct finger marks in the corners. They look intentional, rather than being an artifact of the building process, and so Hussein thinks that they must mean something. However, he doesn't yet know what that might be. Also interesting is that there are very early mastaba tombs at the site, and he thinks that they are older than those found at Saqqara. Perhaps the concept of the mastaba tomb was invented here, and later spread to Saqqara.

They are only just starting to work on the neighbouring settlement. He said they started by doing a walking survey of the area, looking for pottery and other artifacts on the surface to see if there was anything of potential interest. And they found a lot of pottery dating to the same era as the cemetery, and so were pretty sure that this was where the settlement was. They've also found stone tools, and he's currently trying to find an expert to join the team to properly analyse these. This initial survey also told them about the topography of the site - one interesting feature is a big depression in the site which is clearly not natural, but they don't yet know what it is. More recently they have started to excavate some test squares, and Hussein showed us several photos of this process. They have have parts of the reed walls which were used as fences - not just mud with impressions of the reeds but also actual pieces of reed! The have also found post holes outside this reed wall, and a feature inside (but they don't know what that is yet). As well as structures they've found artifacts including pieces of pottery bowls, flint tools, and a weaving tool.

All the evidence that Hussein and his team have uncovered points to this being a settlement (with associated cemetery) for workers working on royal projects. Hussein believes the larger tombs in the cemetery are those of low level elite officials - not the sort of high officials buried at Saqqara. Although Hussein didn't explicitly make the comparison, I'm imagining it was something like the later town for the pyramid builders at Giza or the even later town at Deir el Medina.

Hussein finished his talk by showing us pictures of his team and telling us a bit about his goals for the team. In terms of archaeologists he's hoping to recruit a broader range of specialists, so that they can cover all of the necessary work. And he's also involving the local villagers in the project - providing immediate jobs for them, and also training them in archaeological skills which will let them get further work with other projects. As well as helping the local economy & improving people's lives it also helps them to respect the worth of the site more.

This talk was an interesting snapshot of the very early stages of investigation of a site which demonstrates how there always seems to be something new to learn about any place in Egypt - even one as well known as Abydos.


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