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.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.


Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom - exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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"Howard Carter: An Alternative View of the Man Through His Art" Lee Young - talk at the July EEG Meeting.

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At the beginning of this month Lee Young came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about Howard Carter as an artist (rather than as an archaeologist). She is an independent researcher associated with the Griffith Institute in Oxford where the bulk of Carter's notes and archives are kept. Although she was talking to us today about Carter she said that her real research interest is in the female artists whose works are represented in the Griffith Institute collections.

She began by sketching us a quick verbal picture of Howard Carter's character: he was contrary, stubborn, opinionated and sometimes rude. He was short-tempered and didn't suffer fools gladly. He also had a chip on his shoulder about his humble origins - going so far in later years as to re-write his background into something that he felt was more "suitable". But to offset this picture of a proud man Young pointed out that Carter's work recording the Egyptian reliefs required a great degree of artistic humility as he had to bury his own skill & artistic style in the service of accurately recording the ancient artists' skills.

Howard Carter was born on 9th May 1874 in London, as the youngest son of a large family. His parents, Samuel Carter and Martha Joyce Carter were both originally from Swaffham in Norfolk. His grandfather (Carter) was a gamekeeper there, and parts of the family still lived there. Samuel Carter had moved to London to work as an artist, and the whole family were very artistic. Samuel Carter painted in a high Victorian style and his work was well regarded at the time. He mostly painted animal portraits for the gentry but he also worked as the principal animal illustrator for the London Illustrated News for 20 years.

Howard was a sickly child, and as a result of this was poorly educated. What schooling he did get was in a day school rather than a public school, which caused friction in his dealings with the Victorian elite in later life (and contributed to his embarrassment at his origins). As an older child he was sent to live in Norfolk with some of his aunts and he learnt to love nature there, spending a lot of time painting the wildlife. He was particularly interested in birds (and I think Young also said insects). However he wasn't able to follow up on this interest, instead returning to London to work in the family business painting pets. Apparently despite generally liking animals he loathed lapdogs, which were often the subjects he was hired to paint.

In 1890 the Egypt Exploration Fund (precursor of the Egypt Exploration Society) were setting up a project to archaeologically survey the monuments in Egypt because there were fears that they would also soon be so damaged there'd be nothing left. The first season a team headed by Percy Newberry went to Beni Hassan to begin work there, and initially it was hoped they'd finish that site in a season and move on the following year. However the work took much longer that anticipated and it was decided to spend the following year there as well, and take along another artist. Howard Carter got the job - through the recommendation of Lord Amherst, who Carter had painted pictures for and who had encouraged Carter's interest in Amherst's Egyptian collection. Carter was considered particularly suitable for the job as he was not a gentleman - the job was unpaid but expenses were covered and the EEF thought a gentleman might run up larger bills than they wanted to pay!

Before Carter went to Egypt he was given time to study for his new role - he had a pass to permit him to draw in the British Museum and he also studied the work of Robert Hay. Hay had recorded several monuments & inscriptions in the early 19th Century, and after studying those records Carter regarded Hay as better than many of Carter's contemporaries. In 1891, at the age of only 17, Carter travelled to Egypt for the first time. He first stayed in Cairo for a while - visiting the Pyramids of course, and the Museum and also spent a lot of time drawing and painting animals in the zoo. He also met Petrie for the first time in Cairo, and liked him & his attitude.

Once in Beni Hassan Carter was put to work by Percy Newberry on recording the reliefs in the Oryx Nomarch tombs. Young told us that Carter liked the views at Beni Hassan, and the archaeological site, but the accommodation was just "good enough for those who aren't too fussy"! However Carter didn't approve of the methods used by Newberry to record the reliefs - the technique he was using involved tracing the reliefs then sending them back to England to be inked in in black by people who'd never seen the originals and weren't trained artists. The drawings were then reproduced at a much smaller scale for publication and so even those fine details that he had managed to record were lost. At first Carter did as he was told, and impressed Newberry with his diligence and the speed with which he worked. As the work was progressing quickly Carter was also instructed to paint watercolour facsimiles of parts of the scenes. Young showed us several examples of these, including many birds and other animals. The photo below is one I took when the EEG visited the Egypt Exploration Society a couple of years ago - during that visit we saw several of Carter's drawings that the EES have in their archives.

One of Howard Carter's Drawings

The next site Carter went to was Deir el Bersha, which is near Beni Hassan - one of the scenes at this site is the famous one that shows an extremely large (6.8m tall) statue being moved by a large team of Egyptian workers. While working on recording the reliefs here he was able to exercise more control over the finished product. The figures were no longer blacked in as they had previously been, and Carter managed to arrange for the published drawings to be a larger scale so the fine details were more visible. His paintings and drawings from this site are still very useful to archaeologists today as they show details that no longer exist - the site at Deir el Bersha has suffered a lot of damage over time from rock falls to vandalism.

In the late 19th Century the big goal of Egyptologists was to find Akhenaten's tomb. When it was found Petrie went to see it, and took Carter with him. Young said that one of the drawings that Carter made at the site was his first published archaeological drawing. After this trip Carter went to Amarna with Petrie to work as his apprentice. He got the job by accident - the original candidate, Marcus Blackden, had been sent home in disgrace and Carter was the available person. Petrie was, famously, initially unimpressed with Carter - too much an artist, too little an archaeologist. But Carter turned out to be more useful than that initial impression.

In 1893 Carter was assigned by the EEF to Deir el Bahri as the principle epigrapher. Young reminded us at this point of how little time had passed - Carter is still only 19 years old. But as principle epigrapher he had a lot more control over how the work was done. He used his artistic abilities to draw the scenes freehand, and was able over the 6 years he was at the site to employ assistants who were also artistic enough to work in the same fashion (including one of his brothers). The EEF eventually published 6 volumes of plates from Carter and his team's work at Deir el Bahri, to great acclaim, and the standard of work was much better than previous expeditions had produced.

After his time at Deir el Bahri Carter was appointed as the Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt - a prestigious appointment that served to reinforce his liking for archaeology. During these years he was still working as an artist - in particular he did the drawings for Theodore Davis's publication of Yuya & Tuya's tomb. Carter was regarded as very efficient and capable in his position as Inspector, but after he was transferred to Lower Egypt he famously fell out with the authorities. Young told us the story briefly, as it's so well known - some French tourists went on a rampage damaging both monuments and their Egyptian guardians. Carter took the side of the Egyptians, feeling that they were doing their jobs and the tourists were undeniably causing damage. However permitting the guardians to defend themselves was regarded as insulting to French dignity. When Carter refused to apologise he was transferred to a less prestigious post and then subsequently resigned feeling humiliated.

From his resignation in late 1905 to 1909 (when he started work for Lord Carnarvon) Carter lived off his wits and through selling paintings. Young showed us several examples of the sort of work he did. This ranged from landscapes and the major monuments for tourists, through to work destined for archaeological publications. She told us that a lot of the information about Carter during these years comes from his correspondence with Mrs Mars, a wealthy client of his for whom he painted several paintings.

Carter joined Lord Carnarvon's third season in Egypt, although for some of time initially he was actually working doing drawings for a project of Alan Gardiner's. This didn't suit Carter, as he was not fond of Gardiner - Young explained that Carter thought Gardiner had been making insinuations against Carter's friends. Gardiner's project was never finished, but he kept the drawings and they are now in the Griffith Institute. Young said that not only are they still a useful reference for modern archaeologists but they also showcase Carter's maturity and skill as an artist.

In 1922 Carter made the discovery that made him famous - that of Tutankhamun's tomb. Young said that Carter drew everything during the excavations. His record cards for every object have little sketches of said object, carefully annotated and also beautiful. As well as showing us several of these cards Young also showed us some of the newly colourised versions of Burton's photos of the excavation - a little tangential but interesting to see!

Young finished her talk by telling us Carter's own thoughts on the copying of reliefs. In later life he wrote several essays with a view to a possible autobiography. These included his firm opinion that the epigraphy work needed to be done by a proper artist - that this was the only way to not only capture all the detail but also give a proper appreciation of and respect for the skill of the ancient artists. As Young pointed out, it's not clear that he would approve of modern techniques - which are a return to the tracing of reliefs that he'd so disapproved of when he first went to Egypt.

This was an interesting talk - often one hears about Carter as archaeologist with a footnote that he was an accomplished artist, but here Young showed that you can tell the story of his life with the opposite emphasis with just as much justification.


When we visited New York last year we timed our visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting on: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Ancient Egyptians as their "classical" age - for instance one of the teaching texts from the New Kingdom is about this era. It was probably composed in the 18th Dynasty, but it tells of a vision that Senwosret I has of his father Amenemhat I after Amenemhat's death. In that vision Amenemhat I talks about the proper ways to be a king. We often almost overlook the Middle Kingdom nowdays, as being "just" that bit between the Giza Pyramids and the time of the Valley of the Kings. Certainly I don't think I've been to another large exhibition concentrating on this era.

They let us take photos inside the exhibition, so I have a small set up on flickr here, or click on any photo to go to it on flickr.

The exhibition opened with a room that looked at the history of the early Middle Kingdom, and at the broad sweep of the development of artistic styles over this period. After the end of the Old Kingdom centralised government had broken down in Egypt and although there were Pharaohs in name they didn't rule the whole country in practice. The reunification of Egypt took place during the 11th Dynasty, in the reign of Montuhotep II. Before reunification Montuhotep II's power base was in Thebes, and he ruled the southern part of the country. The art style associated with Montuhotep II is initially a local Theban style, but once he's conquered the northern part of the country there is a change to incorporate Old Kingdom styles and themes into the art. The key features of art from his reign are crisp outlines, thick lips and muscular limbs (I think the first trip I took to Egypt our tour guide referred to a statue of Montuhotep II as "Old Elephant Legs" - he wasn't a fan of this style!). In the 12th Dynasty Amenemhat I moved the capital north to modern day Lisht, which is about 20 miles south of Memphis. This is when the Pharaohs restarted building Pyramids for the tombs. The art from his reign was generally in low relief, and had much more delicate moulding.

Statue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

The next room of the exhibition covered the later Middle Kingdom, with a particular emphasis on statuary of the Pharaoh. The Ancient Egyptians were fond of seeing the world as made up of dualities, and their theories of kingship were no exception to this. The Pharaoh had a dual nature, and was both divine and human. During the Middle Kingdom the representation of the Pharaoh in this dual manner reached a peak. Many more statues of the Pharaoh were made as compared to earlier periods (which can be seen as a manifestation of the power of the Pharaoh). In these statues the Pharaoh was represented both as a divinity and as a worshipper. During the 12th Dynasty there was a change in representation of the Pharaoh from youthful features to more mature and careworn features (a visual reflection of a change in their ideas about kingship) - for instance statues of Senwosret III display this new style. The last great Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Senwosret III's son Amenemhat III (who ruled as a co-regent with his father for 20 years). After this the 13th Dynasty was composed of several Pharaohs with short reigns, and often not related to their predecessor. And the art changes again, gone are the individualised representations of mature Pharaohs and back are youthful features this time coupled with a more stylised image which doesn't seem to be of an individual.

Model of the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dashur

Having established the chronology, and the broad changes in the art, the next room of the exhibition looked at how we know about this period. Or rather, specifically how the Met Museum comes to have so many Middle Kingdom artifacts. The Museum has been involved in many excavations in Egypt, of note in this context are their work at Middle Kingdom pyramid complexes at both Lisht and Dashur. In this room there was a video showing some of the excavations, and a large (modern) model of the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dashur which I spent some time looking at. A couple of bits of information from the labelling struck me in particular - firstly that evidence from graffiti shows that the complex remained standing until the late New Kingdom. And secondly that despite having this pyramid complex built and a sarcophagus put in it Senwosret III wasn't buried here, he was buried in Abydos. Which seems like an awful lot of effort to go to "just" for the symbolism (I assume), but that does seem a constant of Egyptian culture.

The next couple of rooms looked at the representations and roles of the elite other than the Pharaoh - starting with the royal women. It's noticeable that these women are all defined by their relationship to the Pharaoh - they are all titled things like "King's Wife" or "King's Daughter". Egypt sometimes gets held up as being a "more egalitarian" society by ancient standards, and it was compared to the later Athenian Greeks for instance, but that's a pretty low bar by modern standards. The women acted as the glue that bound the elite to the king (particularly in the 13th Dynasty) as the Pharaoh's wives frequently came from the elite families. They also had a religious role - the mythology of kingship held that the king is the son of his actual mother and a god, so she was an important part of this narrative (if a rather passive one). Royal women were also linked with Hathor, who brings up Horus in various of the myths (and the Pharaoh is an embodiment of Horus). Of the jewellery in this section I was particularly struck by the similarity in styles/motifs between this stuff and some jewellery we'd seen earlier on our visits to the Met belonging to minor wives of Tutmosis III who lived some five centuries after these Middle Kingdom women.

Bracelet of Princess Sithathoryunet

The level of power & the roles of the Pharaoh's officials varied across the time period of the Middle Kingdom. At first the country was still fairly decentralised, much as it had been in the First Intermediate Period. Control was brought more & more into the hands of a centralised government over the 12th Dynasty. Then in the 13th Dynasty the Pharaohs were weak and the elite effectively ran the country. This section of the exhibition had quite a few statues & stelae from the Pharaoh's non-royal subjects - including relatively low ranking officials. The Middle Kingdom was a time when even lower ranking officials and the non-elite were more likely to be able to commission relatively good quality statues.

In the iconography of Egyptian art how the country interacts with foreigners is clear: they are defeated, and then the Pharaoh smites them. Of course the truth is more nuanced and complicated than that. Some conquest (and colonisation) does take place - Nubia is conquered in Senwosret I's time, for instance. But there's also a lot of evidence of co-existence with other peoples. The Egyptians traded with Greece & with the Levant, and foreigners lived within Egyptian borders. One of the pieces in this section was a stela with the Tale of Sinhue carved on it, which is one of the great pieces of Egyptian literature and is set at the time of Senwosret I's accession. The protagonist flees into self-imposed exile outside of Egypt for much of the story, making it particularly relevant for another look at how the ancient Egyptians regarded the outside world. (Of course, the thing I photographed was the battle axe, because battle axe!)

Battle-axe and Stela

The next section of the exhibition was about life in the Middle Kingdom - illustrated using objects from burials, including some tomb models. Of course the Egyptians put them in their tombs to provide themselves with food and other necessities for their eternal afterlife. But from a modern persons' perspective they're useful to tell us what the life of an Egyptian was really like, and how they organised the various production systems - like slaughterhouses, granaries and so on. Burials might also include animal figurines - some to provide food, some for symbolic reasons and some to provide pets in the afterlife. They noted in the labelling that cats weren't yet fully domesticated at this point, although were definitely on the road towards it. Family and community were clearly important to the Middle Kingdom Egyptians - given the way that figurines & stelae generally depict not just the primary tomb owner but also their spouse and children.

Having used tomb goods to look at what they tell us about life the next section was about death - and I was particularly struck by the coffin with a mummy in that they had. For all that I knew already that they laid the dead on their sides during the Middle Kingdom period it was still striking to see it. Death for the Egyptians was a journey between two worlds and although ideas changed during the Middle Kingdom they stayed within that framework of the deceased going to somewhere else. During the early Middle Kingdom the emphasis was on offerings and providing an eternal supply of food. Later on in the Middle Kingdom the emphasis shifts to the rebirth of the dead (and this is when the Coffin Texts start to appear). This period is also when the first shabtis are made, and when the heart scarabs become important. Royal symbols start to appear in the tombs of non-royal individuals, as part of linking the deceased with Osiris.

Model Sailboat

By the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians had come to believe that the god Osiris was buried in one of the tombs at Abydos - we now know that the tomb they picked was the tomb of Djer who was the 3rd Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty. Abydos therefore became an important cult site during this period, and many people made pilgrimages there. They often left stelae as offerings, or statues, so that they would be a permanent spectator or part of the processions there. This pilgrimage was also represented in the tomb with model boats so that they could continue to undertake it in the afterlife.

The next to last part of the exhibition was about temples. It's always important to remember that temples in the ancient Egyptian religion didn't have the same function as a Christian church - very much not a place where the public worshipped. Instead temples were secluded places where the god resided, and where the king could go and perform the appropriate & necessary rituals. The king was always the "true actor" in temple rituals, even though in practice the priests stand in for him. In some ways it was a mutual appreciation society: the king worshipped the god and in return the god blessed the king. In the Middle Kingdom temples were commissioned by the Pharaoh, for instance the White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak, in earlier periods it was less centralised and more down to the local communities. Right near the end of this section was one of my favourite bits of statuary from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on loan to the exhibition - a head of the god Sobek! Nice to see a "friendly" face from home amongst the treasures the Met Museum owns :)

Head of a Statue of the God Sobek Shedeti

The exhibition finished by considering what happened to the Middle Kingdom monuments and statuary in later years. The statues might be buried once they were superfluous - they were sacred objects so you couldn't destroy them. But there's only space for so many statues of Pharaohs in any given space so after a while you need to move the old ones out to make space for the new Pharaoh. And temples and statues alike might be usurped by a later Pharaoh (particularly Ramesses II) chiselling off the original name and writing his own name in its place. This wasn't just a case of thrift - it was also because the Egyptians looked back to the Middle Kingdom (and the 12th Dynasty in particular) with pride. Claiming its monuments as your own, would link you with this cultural high point.

I'm glad we got a chance to see this exhibition - as I said at the beginning of this post I don't think I've seen another exhibition that focusses on the Middle Kingdom. And of course many of these objects were from the Met Museum's own collections so we wouldn't've had the chance to see them elsewhere anyway.

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



"The Burning Stone" Kate Elliott. Epic fantasy set in an analogue of medieval Europe, part of the Crown of Stars series. New.

Total: 1


"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke. Part of the Thames & Hudson Ancient Civilisations series.

Total: 1


Celts: Art and Identity - an exhibition at the British Museum about historical Celts and modern Celtic identity.

Total: 1


P v NP - In Our Time episode about P v NP problems.

Total: 1


"Seeking Senenmut: Statues, Status and Scandal" Campbell Price - talk at the June meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group.

Total: 1


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