The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a "dark age". The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the "Age of Empires" as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians - although there is some limited evidence that there might've been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni - although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the "kings" may well've been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There's also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn't a cohesive whole during this time - it may've been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves "Mighty King, King of Assyria", reflecting Assyria's return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been - not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I's first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and "encouraged" to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon - using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as "brother". So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented - in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I's reign - the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom's heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It's very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with "Some have viewed" and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn't mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He's the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They're not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I'm not sure how they know it's chronological if there are no dates - perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done - against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He's also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to've been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name "the Sea Peoples" comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place - archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we're not entirely certain but there's a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There's also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It's not at all clear why these peoples were on the move - the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there's no consensus. There's also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People's migrations had on the region - although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to've started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear - conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II's reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not've been Sea Peoples who'd settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There's even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown - some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age - as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn't a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia - their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering "if it really happened" and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus - whilst saying that there's "no evidence but". They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I've presented here - but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I'm sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria - the Age of Empires is about to begin.

At the end of 2015 the British Museum put on an exhibition about the Celts, looking at both the original culture in its historical context and the way it was later re-imagined. The overall take home message from the exhibition was that the ancient people we now call Celts probably didn't think of themselves as such, and the modern peoples who we call Celts don't necessarily have that much to do with the ancient Celts. The Greeks were the first to refer to "the Celts", and the Romans later took up the term. They used it for the barbarians to the North and East of Greece & Rome - in modern day Spain, France, Eastern Europe and Turkey; not Britain (at least not intially). It's not known if the Celts saw themselves as single culture, nor if they used the term Celts to describe themselves, but it seems unlikely.

To set the tone the exhibition opened with three iconic (modern) Celtic symbols: an Irish harp, the Druid's flag and a Pictish stone. And then around the corner were some examples of ancient Celtic art, and video showing the changes in what Celt has meant through the ages - covering along the way the noble barbarians of Roman writings, the Christian monks of Ireland, the national folk heroes of the 19th Century. After this the exhibition fell into two parts: first the historical Celts and then the later re-imagining of Celtic identity.

The ancient Celtic artifacts were laid out in several cases in one long sweeping room, with curved trails on the ceiling which you could use as a guide for how to travel between the cases. I hope they did that on purpose (I'm sure they did), because it seemed awfully thematically appropriate. The central theme of this whole room was that the ancient Celts were many different peoples & tribes, but they were linked by shared culture, art style and languages. So it seemed appropriate to be moving between the disparate cases following a line drawn from their art style. An important difference between Celtic art and the contemporary Greek art was that the Celts weren't interested in naturalistic representations. Of course the abstract swirls and so on aren't naturalistic, but even their portrayals of animals (as in the jug I have a picture of below) are stylised rather than realistic. (That jug is one of the Basse-Yutz Flagons, found in France dating to 400-360BCE - I took this picture a couple of years ago, one of the pair is on display in the Iron Age Europe room in the British Museum, and it's one of my favourite items to go & see.)

Jug With Hunting Dogs and Duck Decoration

The items in this room were grouped thematically rather than by culture, to emphasise the commonalities. Near the beginning of the space was a reminder that they shared so much because the world was a connected world then as it is now - trade links people - and one of the cases that was particularly striking was a selection of torcs from right across the Celtic region. They were all recognisably the same thing, but different areas had different styles. Some were big and powerful looking, some were beautiful and delicately made. I particularly liked a big silver one from southwest Germany which had bulls heads as the terminals. And then as counterpoint to that case there was a hoard of torcs that was discovered in Scotland - there are several different styles of torc in this hoard, but all were made locally and inspired by exotic foreign designs.

As well as traders the Celts were also warriors. One of the items in the exhibition for this theme was a carynx - a boar headed warhorn. They had both an original and a replica, and a recording of a replica being played, which was rather cool. They also had a replica chariot, based on fittings found in a grave in Wetwang, Yorkshire dating to c.200 BCE, which I was a bit surprised to see had some basic sort of suspension rather than being completely solid.

The Celts also went in for feasting in a big way - the Greek writers thought the Celts were very fond of their wine. And to serve their feasts they had ornate vessels, some of which have also been discovered in graves for feasting in the afterlife. The pièce de résistance here was the Grundestrup Cauldron, which I would've loved to've taken photos of but had to settle for a postcard instead - which shows the same bit of decoration as the photo below (which I found on wikipedia with a licence that meant I could use it). It's not actually my favourite bit of the decoration - that was the bit with the warriors playing carynxs.

Picture of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup Cauldron Decoration, photo by Malene Thyssen.

The next section of the exhibition looked at the impact of Roman conquest on Celtic art, and identity. In continental Europe the Celtic style pretty much vanished in favour of Roman art. The situation in Britain was more complex - Britain was conquered relatively late, and never completely, so it was more of a frontier and never fully assimilated culturally into the Empire. There was definitely some Roman art in Britain of course - for instance they had on display a statue of Nero found in East Anglia around the time of Boudicea. And there was also some amalgamation of gods (and associated iconography). But Celtic art styles and culture also became a badge of "not Roman", particularly around the periphery of the Empire on both sides of the border. Torcs, for instance, became more elaborate and are used as a statement of cultural identity (as opposed to just of status within the culture).

The exhibition then moved on to a time after the Romans left and after the Anglo-Saxons arrived. In this period the Celts were once again the periphery of the main culture of the British Isles - the "not Anglo-Saxon" peoples living at the western & northern edges. These post-Roman Celts were Christians, and their Christianity had an art & devotional style that was distinctively Celtic. The items that caught my eye in this section were a large (replica) stone cross from Iona, and at the other end of the scale the St Chad Gospels. For all their Christianity they still kept telling some of their original mythological stories - we know this because they were written down later in the medieval period in manuscripts like the Book of the White Earl.

The last couple of sections of the exhibition left behind the historical Celts and moved on to the later rediscovery & re-imagining of Celtic identity. There's no evidence that the historical Celts ever thought of themselves as Celtic, and once the Romans had left Britain no-one else called them Celts either. This changed with the Renaissance, when scholars returned the old Greek/Roman term to use, but redefined it as specifically the people of the north-west of the British Isles rather than a Europe-wide culture. Books from the 17th Century tended to depict the ancient Celts in a very similar way to the way contemporary artists depicted Native Americans, and this theme continued through to some Victorian art as well. Even down to skin tone in some cases, as if the peoples met on the other side of the world had to be physically similar to ancient peoples because all were considered "noble savages"! The mind boggles.

From the 1750's onwards the Celts and their mythology & history were retold in romanticised tales. For instance in 1760 there was a book publised by James Macpherson which purported to be a translation of work by the Celtic bard Ossiam. It was enormously popular, inspiring paintings and sculpture, and admired across Europe by people such as Goethe & Napoleon. Even after it was revealed to be the fabrication of Macpherson and not remotely ancient nor Celtic it still retained a lot of influence. The later 19th Century Celtic Revival was based a little bit more in fact - archaeological discoveries like the Tara brooch inspired jewellery designs and pattern books. Rennie Mackintosh's work is a part of this movement and the part that I like. The part that I'm rather less fond of is what I'd characterise as Victorian twee-ness, and they had several examples of such things. There'd been a Victorian statue of Caractacus earlier in the exhibition that fell into this category, and also a few rather twee paintings of Celtic myths (like John Duncan's The Riders of the Sidhe). And they also had the regalia of the National Eistedfodd in the exhibition, all my notes say is "Victorian invention, twee beyond belief!".

The exhibition finished with a look at Celtic identity today. Again, it's political and political in a "we're not that lot" sense just as it was back in Anglo-Saxon times or Roman times. Nowadays of course it's English that a Celt is not. As the English born & brought up child of Scottish parents I personally don't see myself as either English or Scottish, preferring to call myself British. But the parts of the Celtic diaspora that headed to the US in particular have a different way to look at it. The exhibition noted that there are more people who identify as Irish in the US than there are in Ireland! And in Ireland itself Celtic identity is a powerful political statement - the mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn is now a big part of Irish Nationalist identity.

I really liked this exhibition (I even went to see it twice!), although I preferred the earlier sections about the historical Celts to the later parts about the re-imagined Celtic identity :)

At the beginning of June Campbell Price, the curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, came to talk to the Essex Egyptology Group about one of the senior officials in Pharaoh Hatshepsut's court: Senenmut. Hatshepsut ruled Egypt from 1473-1458 BCE, and she generally seemed to do things differently to her predecessors & successors. Technically she was ruling first as regent for then alongside Tutmosis III - but in reality she was the sole ruler of Egypt, surrounded by a small group of male advisors. Price made the comparison a couple of times in his talk to Elizabeth I (of England) - single woman as the ruler taking a traditionally male role, with a small collection of highly trusted male courtiers none of whom mention their wives terribly often when in the presence of their ruler.

In autobiographical texts Senenmut claims to be a rags-to-riches story, but Price pointed out that we need to take this with a pinch of salt. An Ancient Egyptian's autobiography is always written so as to make himself look particularly special and saying that you were promoted from obscurity to a high rank is a very good way to claim to be good at your job. But there is some corroborating evidence. He comes from Armant (that's the modern name) near Thebes, so near the religious centre of Egypt at the time. His parents' tomb was discovered almost intact (and the contents are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, so J and I saw then when we visited last October). His father Ramose probably wasn't part of the elite - he never seems to be referred to by high status titles. When Senenmut's mother Hatnofer died Ramose was reburied in her tomb - and she was buried with impressive grave goods. It seems likely that Hatnofer died after Senenmut had gained wealth & status and so he buried both his parents more lavishly than Ramose's original burial had been.

Senenmut may have had some sort of military background prior to his entering the historical record. But Price noted that this is based on a single scene in one of Senenmut's tombs which might be there for symbolic reasons rather than autobiographical ones, so we can't be sure. Senenmut's first known job is as a tutor to Neferure, the daughter of Hatshepsut and her husband Tutmosis II (perhaps their only child). Being a tutor to royalty indicated that you were highly trusted, and gave you power through the close relationship with your charge. Senenmut references this job frequently in both texts and statues. One particularly unusual statue, which is now in the British Museum, shows Senenmut hugging the Princess protectively. This is an extremely unusual pose - it's unusual to see a commoner touching royalty at all, in fact it was a privilege to be allowed to be depicted kissing the Pharaoh's feet rather than the ground in front of his feet. So this statue shows that Senenmut is now very trusted and close to the royal family. The statue dates to a period before Hatshepsut becomes Pharaoh - when she's still using the title God's Wife of Amun instead (which is a title held by a particularly high ranking woman, normally the King's wife, that has religious and economic power (as it comes with estates, the source of wealth in Ancient Egypt)). Senenmut is clearly trusted from early in Hatshepsut's reign.

Senenmut rises to high status at an interesting time. When Hatshepsut's husband Tutmosis II died his heir, Tutmosis III, was an infant and Hatshepsut (Tutmosis III's step mother) was in her late teens. There was nothing unusual in an older female relative becoming regent for an infant Pharaoh, but Hatshepsut took more power into her own hands than was usual. She also never remarried, so Price said there was a sort of male power vacuum at the top which Senenmut stepped in to fill. He was older than Hatshepsut, and clearly trusted, so it seems she felt she could rely on him. Although he started as tutor to Neferure he gained many more titles over his lifetime, including several which refer to him as a steward of one thing or another and several which refer to him as overseer of works for various things. These include titles that give him oversight of the wealth of the Pharaoh - he's connected with the treasury, with the gardens, with cattle, all of which are a part of wealth in this non-monetary society.

Senenmut may have been an architect as well, in particular he is credited as the creative mind behind Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. Although we don't know how much of the actual nitty-gritty of the designing he did. Part of the evidence for this is that foundation deposits from some buildings from Hatshepsut's time contain name beads which have the names of both Hatshepsut and of Senenmut. In texts about himself Senenmut boasts about being an innovator, and about doing things that are new. This is unusual for an Ancient Egyptian, as they are generally very keen to talk about how they are upholding the proper order by doing things exactly as their forefathers did (regardless of the truth of that statement!). An example that Price gave us of this was Senenmut combining hieroglyphs into new cryptographic symbols - for instance one of Hatshepsut's names was Ma'atkare and there's a frieze decoration (I think in Deir el Bahri) of repeated units of a snake (a form of Ma'at) sitting on a ka hieroglyph wearing a sun disk (Re). So Hatshepsut's name is therefore embedded into the decoration of her temple. There's also a statue of Senenmut protectively embracing this cryptographic form of Ma'atkare.

Senenmut had more than one tomb built for himself. As with other contemporary tombs of the elite the decoration boasts about his possession or access to fashionable exotic luxury goods and people. The decoration also boasts about his knowledge. In the interior of one of the tombs there is a star clock on the ceiling, which is intended to show that he's a man who has access to knowledge and to learning. Interestingly this is not a room that any living person would have access to - it's intended to demonstrate to the gods that Senenmut is a wise man. His sarcophagus is now in the Met Museum displayed near his parents' tomb contents. It has been badly damaged, but it's still easy to see that it's an oval shape. This is a case of him (a private individual) usurping a royal perogative - sarcophagi of this shape were supposed to be just for the Pharaohs. Another indication of the high status he had achieved.

There are a lot of surviving statues of Senenmut, which means there must've been even more made. He says in texts that he wants to commission a lot of statues so that he will be remembered after his death. He had no wife nor children, so if there weren't images of him in the temples then who would remember his name? But sadly for Senenmut his name and image were defaced after his death, along with those of Hatshepsut. There's only one surviving full writing of his name left in his tombs (next to a curse on anyone who damages his tomb!). It's clear from the sorts of damage (like a line through an image of him that separates his head from his body) that he was deliberately attacked posthumously but it's not entirely clear why. It may be because he was personally disliked, Or perhaps his closeness to royalty was thought inappropriate. Or maybe he was just caught up in the posthumous destruction of Hatshepsut's name - as her closest advisor he too was attacked.

His memory did survive for a few hundred years in some form or another. There's a statue fragment (in Geneva now) which Price believes to be a 22nd Dynasty piece which makes a reference to Senenmut. And in modern times there have been a variety of fictional treatments of Senenmut, and in particular his relationship with Hatshepsut with "torrid love affair" being a favourite way to portray this. Price pointed out that there's actually no real evidence for this - even the famous graffiti in a cave near the temple at Deir el Bahri that is often described as a satirical representation of Hatshepsut & Senenmut having sex isn't actually labelled with names. And in the larger context of the wall it's on there are other doodles and so on that would seem to have nothing to do with Senenmut & Hatshepsut so it seems pretty unlikely as "evidence". There are also even weirder modern associations - like a US college fraternity named after him!

After this overview of the life of Senenmut we had a break for coffee & cake, and then Price returned to the subject of Senenmut's statues. Senenmut has the highest number of surviving statues for a non-royal Egyptian, and he also appears to've invented or popularised some of the later standard poses. For instance he popularised the statues where a person kneels presenting a god. As Price mentioned nearer the start of the talk Senenmut also had some very unusual statues like the one of him protectively hugging Neferure. The point of a statue in Ancient Egyptian times was to stand in a temple and receive offerings & attention from the living to keep the deceased happy in the afterlife - and so having an unusual statue would draw attention to itself.

Price finished his talk by telling us about an exciting discovery that he'd made in the storerooms at Manchester Museum. They have a large collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, around 18,000, not all of which have been exhaustively studied. They are generally provenanced as they were acquired from the Museum's support of archaeological expeditions - so it's known where they came from. One of the archaeologists that was supported by the museum was Naville who excavated at Deir el Bahri. Price said that Naville wasn't a particularly good archaeologist by the standards of his own day let alone the modern day - he didn't keep good records of what he found. So there's a fragment of statuary in the Manchester Museum storerooms that was probably found in the temple of Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri, which was just recorded as "Middle Kingdom statue fragment" and put away & mostly forgotten about.

Price has been re-examining (or more accurately examining for the first time) this statue - particularly the texts. Most are the standard sorts of prayers and titles for the owner of the piece, but one is very unusual. There's a phrase that means "gift of the king" that appears only on 45 statues out of all the many many Ancient Egyptian statues that have been found. And 6 of those statues are Senenmut's statues. So that intrigued Price and he had a much closer look at the statue. Looking more closely at the "gift of the..." text, which is quite damaged towards the end, it became clear that it wasn't "gift of the King" but instead was "gift of the God's Wife of Amun". Which was Hatshepsut's title before she began to rule as King. And Senenmut has two statues with that text on it. There is also a title on the statue that only Senenmut is recorded as having held.

However there was one potential problem: one of the pieces of text appeared to name the owner as "the Priest of Amun, Userhat". Which is not Senenmut. But Price talked to someone who is particularly expert in reading hieroglyphs who pointed out that the barque (boat) in which the statue of Amun is carried on procession is called "Amun-Userhat" and that was a different potential reading of the hieroglyphs. So perhaps not a problem after all.

The fragmentary statue has many stylistic similarities with the one of Senenmut cuddling Neferure (which also has the text about "gift of the God's Wife of Amun" on it). So Price believes that the two were a pair - one set in Karnak and one set in Deir el Bahri, facing each other across the Nile. Of course that just opens up even more questions, like: what was it doing in the Middle Kingdom temple (if it indeed was found there)? the one in Karnak is known to've been made before Deir el Bahri was built, was the pair moved there later? or was Deir el Bahri started earlier in Hatshepsut's reign than previously thought?

This was a really interesting talk - Price is a good speaker, and he closed with a very intriguing piece of detective work. I always like the glimpses of how things are actually figured out!

P v. NP is one of the unsolved problems in computer science, essentially the question is: can all problems whose answer can be quickly checked for correctness by a computer also be quickly solved by a computer? At the moment the consensus is "no" but there is a $1million reward for anyone who finds an algorithm that works, and if someone does then current computer security measures are all compromised because encrypted passwords will become trivially crackable. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Colva Roney-Dougal (University of St Andrews), Timothy Gowers (University of Cambridge) and Leslie Ann Goldberg (University of Oxford).

This was a bit of an odd episode of In Our Time, as it felt like Melvyn Bragg was significantly more out of his depth than usual. Whilst his role is to ask the Everyman type questions, in this one he seemed to be asking for clarification on the wrong things - like wanting to know why algorithms are so-called rather than accepting it as technical jargon. Or repeatedly wanting clarification on why NP problems are hard because he clearly hadn't grasped the issue - although the experts are partly to blame here because I think they didn't put enough emphasis on wanting the optimal solution to their example problems rather than the sort of "good enough" answer that we actually use in everyday life. Because of this I didn't really feel like I learnt anything much from the programme & I don't consider myself particularly well educated on the subject (just see my clumsy summary at the beginning of this post for evidence of that!).

The programme started with a couple of bits of background information - first the invention of computers (as a theoretical idea) by Alan Turing. He imagined a machine that accepted inputs, generated outputs and at any given point would know what to do based solely on its current state and the symbol it was currently looking at. This is the theoretical underpinning for how all computers work. This segment felt a little detached from the later discussion, but I think the linking idea was that Turing also realised that even with this sort of computing machine (which would do calculations much more rapidly than a person could) there would still be algorithms that would fail to finish in a sensible time (like before the end of the universe).

The other piece of background information was a brief discussion of what algorithms are. In essence an algorithm is a series of instructions, Roney-Dougal used the example of a cooking recipe as an algorithm for making some specific food. It was stressed that algorithms generally aren't entirely linear - they'll loop back on themselves to run through several steps multiple times.

The difference between P and NP problems boils down to how the time taken to solve the problem scales when you increase the number of items in the problem (n). As I said above, what wasn't stressed on the programme was that by "solved" they meant "found the best possible answer". P problems scale in a polynomial fashion - hence the P nomenclature, although Gowers said you could also think of them as Practical. As n increases the time taken increases by some polynomial amount, for instance n2: i.e. if there's one item then the algorithm takes 1 unit of time (whatever that might be); if there are 2 items, then it takes 4 units; 3 items = 9 units and so on. So the amount of time taken increases faster than the number of items does, but relatively slowly and given sufficient computing power the algorithm will finish running in a useful timescale for practical applications. Goldberg gave an example of this sort of problem: say you have a group of people and you want them to work together in pairs, but not everyone likes everyone else. As the number of people in the group increases then the number of combinations you have to look through to check whether it's the optimal solution or not goes up. But it goes up in a polynomial fashion so an algorithm that does that checking of possible combinations will finish in a sensible time.

NP problems are those that are not P. The number of possible solutions increases exponentially rather than polynomially, and as n increases a "dumb" algorithm that just checks every one in turn will very quickly get to the point where it will take billions of years to complete. (And if computing power increases then all you do is push that point just a little further out, but not far enough to make a practical difference.) The P v NP question is concerned with a sub-group of the NP problems that are called "NP complete" - these are the ones where a potential answer can be easily checked for correctness by a computer, but the answer cannot be trivially found. And the question is: can we figure out a clever algorithmic "trick" to turn an NP complete problem into a P problem, hence making it solvable.

They discussed a few examples of NP complete problems - one of the better known variants is the Travelling Salesman problem. In this you have a number of cities (n) linked by roads, and the salesman wants to travel to each one once and only once, and use the shortest possible route to do so. With small n you can figure out the answer by inspecting all the possible solutions and discovering which one's best. But as n increases the number of routes goes up exponentially and this becomes a non-viable way of attacking the problem. Obviously for this specific scenario we find "good enough" answers for real world purposes (deliveries from central warehouses to local retail outlets, for instance). But if any of those answers is the optimal solution then that's by chance rather than because the distributor figured it out.

To give another example, Goldberg returned to her example of a P problem - dividing up a large group into pairs of people working together optimising it for most people ending up working with the best possible partner. When it's pairs, it's a P problem ... but if you're looking to divide them into groups of three then it's an NP problem. Another example is seating wedding guests when many of them hate many of the others, and optimising for fewest arguments. And all modern cryptography is based on an NP complete problem - passwords & so on are encrypted using a method involving multiplying together two very large prime numbers. To reverse engineer that (i.e. crack the encryption) you have to find the prime factors of a very very large number, which is an NP complete problem, so a brute force approach won't complete until long after the lifetime of the person who might find it useful. (Decoding it by the intended recipient is a case of checking an answer you've been provided, which is easily done for NP complete problems.)

Although these examples of NP complete problems all sound quite different mathematically speaking they collapse to the same underlying problem. You have a collection of nodes (cities, guests, whatever) which are joined by links of varying lengths (roads, levels of hatred, etc) and you're looking for the shortest route between them. So if someone figures out an algorithm that turns one NP complete problem into a P problem (i.e. finds that P = NP) then all NP complete problems are solved. Which has both good and bad implications for how our modern world works. On the bad side, all our encryption is broken so no more secure payment sites, no secure online banking (amongst many other effects). But on the other side many products may become cheaper - it's pretty likely that our "good enough" answers to the Travelling Salesman problem aren't the optimal one, and once you can move things around optimally then logistics gets a lot more efficient. Circuit design also gets a lot more efficient.

However, most mathematicians think that we won't find a solution to NP complete problems (i.e. that P != NP). As yet no clever ideas have played out, but there is that $1million reward if someone does find a solution. The experts briefly mentioned that quantum computing had once seemed a promising lead - using quantum entanglement to make the right answer somehow pop out without needing the time to do the calculations. But this was another lead that didn't go anywhere. (Although cynical me did think that if it had been made to work by some government agency or another, then we'd not know it had ...)

The Burning Stone is the third book in Kate Elliott's seven book series, The Crown of Stars. As I finished the last one in the series at the end of December last year I was starting to think I should write the rest of them up in one post. But when I looked at my notes, I think I've enough to say about each one that I don't want to miss out that it would end up a huge post and need splitting back into individual posts! So this post will remain a collection of thoughts about The Burning Stone. (Spoilery both forwards and backwards in the series, but it's not new so I shan't put spoiler tags.)

At the end of book 2 (The Prince of Dogs, post) the series could've stopped with a sense of a "happy ending" albeit not one with all loose ends tied up. Alain has been acknowledged his father's son, legitimised, become heir and married a princess he actually loves. Liath and Sanglant are reunited, he's free, she has a place amongst the Eagles, and they have declared their love to each other. And this book takes that potential happy ending and shows you what happens after the story "ends" - not the last time Elliott does that in this series.

Alain's plotline is the working out of unintended consequences of good (and otherwise) deeds. At the end of the previous book Alain and Levastine had lead the army that defeated Bloodhand, ending the threat to the kingdom (which is what got them their rewards), a good and useful thing to do. But when they killed Bloodhand his curse on his killer was unleashed, and one by one five of the dogs and the Levastine himself succumb. Alain is now Count, but almost immediately his cousin (who would've inherited if Alain was not legitimised) brings a case against Alain saying that he's not really Levastine's son. At the hearing, everything rests on whether or not his wife will stick up for him. She carries enough clout, and this is a society where having family and kin matter, that she would turn the tide of opinion. But she not only doesn't stand by him, she lets everyone know that their marriage isn't really a marriage at all: it's not consummated. And why isn't is consummated? Alain was unwilling to rape her, instead he was wooing her and hoping one day she'd love him enough to want to sleep with him. And this now backfires on him, and leads to him ending up stripped of his countship and with his marriage annulled he's sent to serve with the Lions (the king's army). Of course, his wife (Tallia) doesn't get what she wanted either ... she naively thought that once single again she'd be sent back to her life as a cleric, whereas she actually gets married off to someone else that her mother wants an alliance with and her plotline in this book ends with her new husband doing what Alain would not, and raping her.

(It's odd how my reaction to the Marion Zimmer Bradley books is omg-so-rapey, and my reaction to these isn't despite there still being quite a bit of rape. I'm not sure why, so I'll just note that and think about it a bit more.)

Tallia is one of the characters that Elliott uses to highlight Alain's saintliness. I like how she does this - we're not told that Alain is a saint, but we are shown how people who believe themselves to be saints behave and then that's juxtaposed with Alain and his unfailing kindness and humility. Tallia has had a revelation about the nature of God, she's got stigmata and is regarded (by herself and some others) as a pious saint. But Alain discovers the rusty nail she's using to create the stigmata, and even without that smoking gun her behaviour is clearly that of a zealot and not a holy woman. Which is another way in which the religion in these books is realistically and interestingly messy & complicated - by the end of the series the heresy that Tallia is fanning the flames of becomes orthodox, and there's an indication that it was the original orthodoxy that was lost over time (tho aren't they always the "one true way"?). So she might've been a fraud but her ideas still took root.

Liath's plotline in this book parallels Alain's in many ways, both by being the same and by showing a contrast. The two marriages are the most obvious contrast - there are some similarities, after all Sanglant and Liath didn't really know each other well before they married. But as compared to Alain and Tallia there is a mutual attraction and a mutual desire to make it work out despite the difficulties. Another of the themes that's shared between Alain & Liath's stories is about fathers - the blood relationship is what the world sees as most important but is that really what matters? Alain may've met Count Levastine in adolescence, but they form a bond nonetheless and Alain is sad to have that ripped away. Liath's memories of her childhood are all about being on the run with her father - but she meets a woman in this book who claims to be her mother, and that her father was no such thing. Yet he's still the man who brought her up and cared for her and loved her, all utterly alien concepts to this cold and severe mother she's met. And both Alain and Liath end up ... elsewhere. The next book shows that this is necessary for both of them in their different ways to learn the things they need to know, but at the end here it's very much an involuntary severing of bonds.

And I've wittered on now for about a thousand words and I've only really talked about some of the things from this book. They've got great re-read potential for me, on this read through I was most interested in Alain, in Liath and in the magical plotline that's just starting to take off in this book. But there's a lot of other stuff going on, for instance the whole religious schism that I've only mentioned in passing.

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 Empire of Mali - In Our Time episode about this African empire which flourish in the mid-2nd Millennium CE.

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"Historical Egypt in Photographs" Marcel Maessen - talk at the May EEG meeting.

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The Empire of Mali flourished between 1200 & 1600 CE, in sub-Saharan West Africa. At one point the Empire was so wealthy that when its ruler, Mansa Musa, travelled through Egypt on his Hajj he reduced the value of gold in Egypt with the amount he gave away. Discussing the empire on In Our Time were Amira Bennison (University of Cambridge), Marie Rodet (SOAS) and Kevin MacDonald (University College, London).

The beginnings of the Empire of Mali (c.1200 CE) are only known from an epic which survives in the oral tradition of the region. There was a prophecy that Sundiata Keita's mother would bear a son who would become a powerful king, and so the ruling king married her (I think despite her ugliness in some versions). Sundiata was crippled at birth, which cast the prophecy into doubt, but he later was miraculously cured. When his father died, his older half-brother took the throne and sent Sundiata and his mother into exile. Sundiata grew up in a neighbouring kingdom and became a renowned warrior. He eventually returned to Mali to liberate the people and take his rightful place as king - founding the empire that would last the next 400 or so years.

The experts discussed how this is more an origin myth than factual. It's part of the oral tradition, and is intended for performance and each performance is tailored to a greater or lesser extent to it's audience. For instance places that are referenced tend to be locally relevant. And there are things that can be picked out as definitely having changed since the original composition. In many versions Sundiata is Muslim, but we know that Islam didn't make significant inroads into Mali culture until later in its history. In some versions he's even supposed to be descended from a companion of the Prophet Mohammed's who was a freed black slave, and other versions don't give him that sort of genealogy at all.

Another part of the oral tradition surrounding the foundation of the Empire is that Sundiata Keita laid out a constitution for how the Empire should be run. Amongst other things it set down how the justice system should work, and the details of the caste system. In the late 20th Century CE this was written down, it is now categorised as a piece of World Heritage and sometimes referred to as Mali's Magna Carta. The experts were keen to point out that because it's an oral tradition you have to exercise care in how you interpret it. As an analogy (which I don't think they used on the programme) the English Magna Carta survives in a couple of original written documents, and when you compare that to what it's become in our national mythology you can see that the latter is based on the former but they are definitely not identical.

The Mali Empire covered a large east-west expanse of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast to Gao. Like most empires it consisted of a core territory that was ruled directly by the Emperor and this was surrounded by client states ruled by client kings. The primary source of Mali's wealth was gold - they had the largest gold mines in the world at this time. They also traded with the Islamic world across the Sahara Desert - the nomadic Berbers of North Africa traded with Mali for both gold and grain.

Over time the Mali Empire gradually became Islamic. This doesn't seem to've happened as the result of direct efforts to convert them, instead the religion arrived with Berber traders some of whom settled in Mali and practised their religion. Once the emperors became Muslim it spread more quickly through the Empire, mixing as it went with their traditional animist beliefs. As I said in the introduction to this post one of those Emperors, Mansa Musa, went on Hajj. He travelled in state over land via Egypt accompanied by a large number of his court, and took with him plenty of gold for gifts to the places he passed through. He wasn't just fulfilling his religious obligations, he was also searching for Muslim scholars who would be willing to take employment in his court and travel back to Mali with him. One of these scholars who came back is credited with having founded hundreds of mosques all across Mali - which seems unlikely to've actually happened. Some perhaps were state foundations, although they are still unlikely to've been founded by this one outsider. And they generally have local architectural styles, rather than Arabic or Spanish designs. It seems much more likely that these are instances of towns trying to gain prestige by claiming a famous origin story for their mosque.

The majority of evidence for the Mali Empire, and its inner workings, is second hand. Much of the written evidence for the empire comes from these Muslim scholars discussed above and others who travelled to Mali. Other evidence comes from the Songhai Empire which replaced the Mali. The Muslim scholars seemed to've regarded Mali as somewhere different, but nonetheless civilised. For instance when writing about their justice system it is described as effective, even if it wasn't what the observer was expecting.

The Mali Empire began to disintegrate in the 17th Century CE. The experts said that this was down to it becoming overstretched "like all empires". Control of the periphery began to decline, and territories started to break off and become independent. One of these was Songhai, and this ex-vassal would go on to conquer the territory of the Mali piece by piece from the West. Another factor in the decline of the Mali Empire were the destabilising interactions with Europeans on the Atlantic coast of the empire. They noted on the programme that one of the commodities that the Mali traded in was slaves, and the selling of slaves to Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

Until relatively recently historians were dismissive of the Mali Empire - for instance it was assumed it was ruled by Muslim Berbers, rather than the people who actually lived in the country. This unthinking rejection of sub-Saharan African civilisation was bolstered by a lack of archaeological evidence to contradict it. However more recently there has been a resurgence of interest in African history in general and the Mali Empire has become something worth researching. This has lead to new information, including archaeological discoveries, particularly in the region where the capital city of the Empire was.

For the May meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group Marcel Maessen, one of the founders of the t3.wy Foundation, came to talk to us about the history of photography as it relates to Egypt & Egyptology. The t3.wy Foundation is an organisation that is researching the history of Egyptology. They are particularly keen to open up the various Egyptological archives and make the contents available to a wider audience of both academic researchers and other interested people. These archives include things like original documents from excavations, correspondence between Egyptologists, and photographs. Maessen said they meet with quite a lot of resistance to this idea from both Egypt and from academia in general - in part because the members of the t3.wy Foundation are mostly not professional Egyptologists so are seen as "outsiders". Maessen's talk fell into two parts (with a convenient break for coffee and cake!). Firstly he talked to us about the history of photography in general (briefly) and in Egypt in particular, and why old photographs are more than mere curiosities. Then after the break he showed us a lot of examples of old photos of Egypt.

Photography was developed during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries CE. By the late 1700s the idea existed, and in 1802 the word "photography" was first used in relation to this idea. In the 1830s Daguerre invented a method of exposing a treated glass plate to light in order to record an image - the daguerreotype was the first type of photographic process. It was publicly announced in 1839, and almost immediately photographers began to record the ancient Egyptian monuments. As photographic techniques evolved over time, they have always been used in Egypt right down to the modern day where both tourists & researchers photograph whatever ancient Egyptian sites they visit.

So why are old photographs so important? Obviously if they're your own personal photos, or your family's photos, then they are important for the memories they carry. But old photographs are also important for the Egyptological researcher, and for the researcher of Egyptological history. If you compare present day photographs with older ones you can see what's changed: what has been restored? what has been demolished? when did damage occur? and so on. One example he talked about was using photographs to investigate when damage to a temple relief occured - a line drawing from the mid-19th Century of a particular relief showing Ramesses II's sons depicts them all with intact faces. But if you look at the relief today all the faces have been chiselled off. So were they damaged after the original drawing was made? Maessen has found a photograph from as close to contemporary with the line drawing as possible which shows the same damaged faces that we see on the relief today: clearly the artist used his imagination to fill in the missing details.

Another example was of a photo of a dig house, taken in 1914. The t3.wy Foundation started off researching dig houses, and this is why Maessen originally wanted this particular image in a high resolution. The photo was taken from a distance, so Maessen looked to see what else he could find in the landscape around the dig house. He showed us that the photo also shows another half a dozen or so interesting buildings (including one place that Howard Carter lived). As well as this there was an interesting wall - built to stop tombs from flooding if there were flash floods - and the information in this photo showing exactly where this wall was & what state it was in in 1914 helps to interpret the conditions the tombs were in when excavated.

Between 1839 and around 1910 there were about 150 photographers who worked in Egypt. Most of their photos still exist, but they are often in inaccessible archives. Maessen listed several names, the vast majority of which I didn't recognise - the list did include Francis Frith, and Harry Burton (of course). Burton's work is one of the collections that hasn't survived in bulk, due to a house fire that destroyed most of it. The early photographers in Egypt weren't interested in ancient Egypt per se, they were interested in selling photographs to people (mostly tourists, or would-be tourists). This is why so many photographs survive from this time, although often the glass negatives were destroyed when the photo was no longer commercially relevant. The biggest archives of old photos of Egypt are still in Egypt, but they're neither catalogued nor accessible to anybody and Maessen was pretty scathing about the conditions that the negatives & prints are stored in. For instance in the archive in the Cairo Museum no-one opens any of the boxes, because if anything is found to be missing or broken then the opener of the box will be held responsible and no-one wants to be that person.

What did the early photographers in Egypt photograph? There are several broad categories of photographic subjects. Some photos were to document the monuments and the landscape of the country, and some photographed similar subjects but with a more romantic intent to capture picturesque scenes. Photographers also illustrated the "bizarre" "oriental" people, via staged photographs of daily life in Egypt. There was also photography of excavations. Nowadays each excavation has its own photographer, and is thoroughly documented, but in the past this was not the case. The Egypt Exploration Society was the first to take along their own photographers to digs, so they have a large archive of this sort of photograph. Before that excavation photography was a matter of chance, almost - was there a photographer available in the area who could be hired for the purpose? In a similar vein is photography of the results of excavations - the Cairo Museum has photographs in its archives of every object that has come into the museum.

Then as now photography was also an essential part of tourism. Of course in the early days of photography tourists didn't have their own cameras, so they bought photographs from the tour photographer or from other photographers based in Egypt. To continue his theme from earlier of things you can discover from old photographs that the photographer didn't realise they were telling you Maessen pointed out that most of the early tourist photos are of the Sphinx & the Pyramids. So the early tourists seem to've stayed near Cairo and not many ventured further south into Middle Egypt or Upper Egypt. As well as photographs of people at tourist sites all the early photographers in Egypt also took studio photos of the tourists. And this was so popular that studio photographers from other parts of the world opened branches in Cairo to get a share of the market. He showed us several examples of these, most of which were the sort of formal photo that one expects from the era. But there were also some more fun & quirky ones - for instance with the subject's head superimposed on the top of a coffin!

Maessen finished up the first half of his talk by discussing saving these (and subsequent) photographs for the future. This is one of the goals of the t3.wy Foundation, but Maessen admits that the first question is are we going to be able to save them? He'd like to think so - but it's such a large project that it's difficult to know where to begin. One angle of attack that he's pursuing is to bring together a company who still have the skills to develop the old glass negatives in the traditional way with the Egyptian government to begin working on the archives in Egypt. But this hasn't been proceeding particularly smoothly, sadly. However there are places where the archive owners are starting to do a good job with cataloguing, preserving and even sharing their archives on the internet - he name checked the EES here, amongst several other institutions. He also talked about the photos that modern visitors to Egypt take - one day those will be the "old photos", and might be just as interesting and important to future researchers as the 19th Century ones are to us. And he discussed how we all delete so much, or trust in a single copy uploaded to "the cloud" somewhere, and so all this potentially valuable information is just as fragile as the old glass negatives & paper prints.

After our coffee break the second half of Maessen's talk was devoted to showing us lots of these old photographs. I'm not going to write this half up in depth because it's pretty impossible without the visual aids! He has somewhere around 7000 unique photos and so he had to pick a selection of them to show us. Many scenes were photographed by every photographer who worked in Egypt, in the same way that every modern tourist who visits the Giza Pyramids goes to the panorama viewpoint and takes a photo of the three pyramids. So Maessen said he tried to pick either rarely seen photos from well known photographers, or photos from less well known photographers. The photos were fascinating, he pointed out things like being able to track the clearing & refilling of the area of sand around the Sphinx. Or how many people's houses have been removed from inside monuments. And of course the amount of sand that had to be cleared in excavating many of the monuments. He grouped the photos by photographer, and I think also chronological order. The set that most caught my eye were those of the Von Hallwyl family, who were rich tourists who visited Egypt in 1901. The photos felt very much like one's own holiday snaps ... only in 1901 styles, and that somehow made them a great showcase for what's changed over the years.

This was a really interesting talk - I'm not sure how well that comes across in this writeup, because given the subject matter so much of it was visual which is hard to convey in text. Maessen is clearly very passionate about his dream of preserving and sharing the thousands of photographs of Egypt that are archived around the world.

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

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Holbein at the Tudor Court - In Our Time episode about the court painter of Henry VIII's court.

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"The Mechanisms and Practice of Egyptian Tomb Robbery: A View from Ancient Thebes" Nigel Strudwick - talk at the April meeting of the EEG.

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A Week in New York, October 2015.

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At the beginning of April Nigel Strudwick came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about tomb robbers. He said that the origins of this particular talk were in trying to understand why most of the Egyptian tombs are in such a chaotic mess when they're first excavated. He started by showing us pictures of tombs that were discovered intact and tombs that had been robbed before they were discovered. There are actually very few tombs that made it to modern times without having been robbed - the two examples he showed us were the tomb of Kha and Merit in Deir el Medina, and the tomb of Sennenmut's parents (Ramose and Hatnefer). Kha & Merit's tomb was fairly neatly organised, with the funerary goods and meal laid out in front of the two large shroud-covered coffins. Ramose & Hatnefer's tomb was more untidy, and had some extra anonymous burials haphazardly stacked up in a second chamber of the tomb. However both were significantly more well organised than the two examples he showed us of tombs that had been robbed - TT253 and TT99. Both of those were in utter chaos. A single broken pot might be scattered across every chamber in the tomb. In TT99 there were pieces of mummy tossed aside in corners, and ripped up pieces of cartonnage were found scattered through the whole of the tomb (which included 8 burial shafts).

Tomb robbery seems to have always been with us. There are burials at Naga ed-Der dating to around 3,500 BCE which have evidence that they were robbed soon after burial. These burials date from the time when the Egyptians placed their dead directly in the sand, and they became naturally dessicated. There are marks on the bodies that are the result of damage to the body after the person was dead, but whilst the tissue was still soft (so after rigor mortis wore off, but before the body dried out). So that indicates they were manhandled not all that long after they were buried, and this is likely to be the result of robbers removing their more valuable grave goods.

The New Kingdom era tombs of Thebes are the ones that Strudwick is most interested in, and he's identified six phases of robbery that took place in this area. These are: opportunistic tomb robbery in the 18th Dynasty; systematic tomb robbery of minor tombs in the 20th Dynasty; systematic robbery of royal tombs in the late New Kingdom; later opportunistic tomb robbery during Pharaonic times; tomb robbery during the 1st Millennium CE; tomb robbery during the more modern period (from the Arab conquest through to modern times). Tutankhamun's tomb is a pretty good example of the first phase - his tomb was very slightly robbed shortly after his burial. The robbers broke in through the door, which was subsequently resealed. They didn't take much, the evidence inside is of a few things being disorganised and boxes with their lids off. It looks like they took small valuable objects like bottles of oils, which they could easily carry off and sell on.

The major phases of tomb robbery are during the late New Kingdom period when tombs of all sorts were robbed in a systematic fashion. There is documentary evidence for this phase of robbery in a collection of papyri known as the Tomb Robbery Papyri. These date to the 20th Dynasty, and were probably dug up (illicitly) in Medinet Habu - they are now in several different museums worldwide, and a lot of them are in the British Museum. One of the most important of these is called the Abbott Papyrus and it talks about an inspection of the tombs on the West Bank at Thebes. It's clear from the document that there are political reasons why this inspection has happened (he didn't go into the details of this as it wasn't relevant to this talk). The inspectors visit several Royal Tombs, but only the 17th Dynasty (and 11th Dynasty) ones that are between Deir el Bahri and the Valley of the Kings not the 18th Dynasty and later tombs inside the Valley of the Kings. The 17th Dynasty tombs were excavated relatively early in the modern period of archaeology so sadly aren't properly recorded - but some of the objects mentioned in the Abbott Papyrus are in museums, so clearly the inspectors did actually visit the tombs they said they did.

At this point in the talk Strudwick showed us a youtube clip (which I failed to find when I searched, unfortunately) from a drama called "Ancient Egypt: The Tomb Robber's Tale". This showed some robbers breaking into a tomb, taking some stuff out and then setting it on fire! As he pointed out, this feels sensationalised and "hollywoodised" - but then he read us excerpts from several of the Tomb Robbery Papyri that describe similar scenes. One of the excerpts, from the Leopold Amherst Papyrus was the words of a(n extorted) confession from one of the robbers, and was the account that the dramatisation was based on. So why burn the coffins? Most coffins weren't solid gold, instead they were gilded wood.and there are a couple of different ways to get the gold off the wood - you could chisel it off (which is sometimes described as taking place) but that's pretty time consuming, or you could burn the coffin and collect the gold out of the ashes.

The robbery of royal burials was a separate sub-phase of late New Kingdom tomb robbery. Of all the royal burials in the Valley of the Kings only Tutankhamun and Amenhotep II were found in their own tombs. The robberies appear to've been systematic, possibly using Ramesses IX's tomb as a stripping place, and then reburying (the relabelled) mummies in caches. Strudwick explained that Nicholas Reeves's theory is that this was state sanctioned robbery to fund the military campaigns of this era. But there was also reuse of funerary equipment, like the sarcophagus of Merenptah is found in a different Dynasty 21 burial (which helps to date the robberies).

Strudwick finished up this section of his talk by giving some examples of the remaining phases of robbery. For instance the coffins in TT358 (a Dynasty 21 burial) the coffins have no faces - this would've been the gilded bit of the coffin. This would've been an opportunistic robbery, that probably happened while the burial was actually taking place! Towards the end of the 1st Millennium CE there must've been lots of robbery: "mummia" was a medieval medicine or aphrodisiac made from mummies, and there's evidence in Arab texts that a lot of this came from Luxor. Later still, after Napoleon invaded and into the modern era, the robbery of tombs is driven by selling antiquities to foreigners. Strudwick also pointed out that none of these phases are mutually exclusive - a tomb might be robbed multiple times - which makes the job of archaeologists even harder.

Having considered when and why the tombs were robbed Strudwick moved on to what was taken and who was doing the robbing. The Tomb Robbery Papyri collectively give quite a bit of evidence for who was doing the robbing. Strudwick told us about three different gangs, each of which was a different type. The first was the gang of Amenpanefer, who are mentioned in two places in the Tomb Robbery Papyri (including the robbery that the youtube video was based on) and they seem to've robbed mostly private tombs. This gang were mostly stonemasons, craftsmen and labourers - the urban working class, in other words. The second gang he referred to as the Deir el Medina gang, and it consisted of members of two families - the Amenwa and the Pentawaret. They are mentioned in three places in the documents, and probably robbed in the Valley of the Queens. All of them worked in the Valley of the Kings tombs - they are of higher social status than Amenpanefer's gang. The last gang were Penwenheb's gang, who are only mentioned once in the papyri. They were mostly low ranking priests (probably working in the Ramasseum) plus a couple of coppersmiths. They didn't rob tombs, instead they robbed the temples - the reliefs, doors and statues in an Egyptian temple would be covered with precious metals, and this is what they were stripping off to sell.

So what were these people stealing? Some evidence comes from comparing lightly robbed tombs to intact burials (such as comparing Tutankhamun's tomb to Kha's tomb). The lightly robbed tombs have fewer precious metal vessels - the sort of thing you can grab quickly and hide. They also have significantly less linen - I noticed when we visited the Met Museum in NY that they have a lot of linen displayed from Senenmut's parents' tomb, and Strudwick was saying that this is much more than survives in robbed tombs. Again this is a relatively reusable resource. Another part of the funerary assemblage that gets frequently reused is the coffin - current analysis of 21st Dynasty coffins in museums suggests that 2/3 of them are reused from earlier burials. Some intact, and some are bits from different sources patched together into new coffins. The Abbot Papyrus mentions that "all the tombs on the West Bank had been robbed and the owners left on the desert" which might be textual evidence for this widespread coffin reuse.

There were also a lot of precious metals stolen from tombs. The various Tomb Papyri list different amounts for different robberies, some quite large but a private burial might yield 20g or so of gold and a larger amount of copper. Three of the papyri discuss what happened to these precious metals, and the authorities seem quite keen to retrieve it where possible. Some was found on the robbers, and some on persons in the community who'd been given it. One of the papyri gives details about the disposal of goods from a robbery carried out by the Deir el Medina gang. Most of the gold and silver was found in the possession of the robbers themselves, and was fairly evenly divided between them. So they were passing on the lower value goods first. The gold that was handed over seems to've gone to people who are officials - bribery, in other words. The copper mostly ended up with people who sell things - probably straightforward payment. Altogether the goods end up with a wide variety of the normal people of Thebes, and Strudwick said that the evidence is that tomb robbery was a "normal" part of the local economy of this period.

Strudwick concluded by talking a bit about what this all shows about Ancient Egyptian attitudes to the dead and to death. It's an example of their society maintaining two incompatible beliefs at once. On the one hand, they strongly believed that all these grave goods were essential for the deceased to have a good afterlife. Yet on the other hand they knew that tomb robbery always happened, so the deceased wouldn't get to keep his or her essentials for very long.


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