Temple at el Tod

The last site we visited in Egypt last November was a temple dedicated to Montu, which is in the modern village of el Tod. I don't think it gets many tourists - our bus had a bit of trouble getting through the winding streets of the village and we had to walk the last little bit. My main memory of the place is that it was very peaceful, despite being in the middle of the village. There were palm trees throughout the site and it was a little oasis of calm. Even the guardians here were pretty laid back!

My photos from this site are on flickr: click here for the full set, or on any photo in this post for the larger version on flickr.

Temple at el Tod

When you go into the site the first thing you come to is a block storage area with loose bits of the temple that have been tidied up (effectively). Medhat paused here to explain a bit about the history of this temple, using some of the blocks to illustrate his points. The temple was originally built in the Middle Kingdom and early New Kingdom - with later usurping of cartouches by Ramesses II. These parts of the temple are finely decorated and made of limestone. Later during the Ptolemaic era the temple was added to, and the additions are more crudely decorated on lower quality sandstone. Looking round the temple we also found a place where new decoration had been carved over the old. When painted it must've looked OK, but now that the paint has gone it looked a bit odd with columns of hieroglyphs running straight over a scene. As well as the temple proper the site also had the remains of a quay - the Nile or a canal must've once run past the end of this site but now it's landlocked. And a small barque shrine, with quite a lot of decoration. Of course I was also looking for graffiti, and as everywhere in Egypt there was some to be found.

Temple at el Tod

It was quite a small and ruined site, and so I don't have much to say about it. But it deserved its own post as the small peaceful finale to this series of posts as well as the holiday :) It had been a very good holiday.

Temple at el Tod

Prester John was the greatest Christian King who never lived. All through the Middle Ages there were persistent legends (sometimes backed up by apparent documentation) about this powerful priest-king in the East who was ready to bring his powerful armies to attack the Muslims in concert with the Western Crusaders. The experts who discussed these legends on In Our Time were Marianne O'Doherty (University of Southampton), Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture) and Amanda Power (University of Sheffield).

They opened the programme with a bit of a discussion about the historical truths in which these legends might've been rooted. During the early Middle Ages there was a large Christian population in the Middle East and in India. There's evidence that Western Christians were in contact with them - for instance King Alfred (of England) sent some people to India. It's written about as if the journey wasn't anything particularly special - a long way, and a relatively rare event but perfectly doable. These Christians weren't from the same branch of Christianity as the Western Church, and the two Churches would've regarded each other as heretics. They are sometimes referred to as Nestorian Christians, but that is a bit of a derogatory term and it's politer to refer to them as the Church of the East or the Syrian Church. The schism between this Church and Western Christianity hinges round a theological point about the nature(s) of Christ. Western Christianity (or monophysitism) holds that Jesus's human nature was absorbed into his divinity and he had only one nature. However those who followed Nestorious believed that Jesus had two natures that were only loosely connected (this is called dyophysitism) - he was both divine and human and those were separate from each other. So there was a substantial Christian population in the East (probably larger than in the West), which dwindled after the rise of Islam - after which the legends of Prester John began to develop.

The first forms of the legend are known from the 12th Century AD. One of these is an account of a visit to the Pope in 1122 by an emissary from Prester John. It's not clear to modern scholars what, if anything, this is actually based on - if there was any visit from anyone that got garbled in the reporting or if someone just made it all up. The emissary purportedly says that he has come form Prester John's kingdom to the east, and that Prester John had been leading a force to aid the Christians at Jerusalem. However the army had been unable to cross a river on the way, and had been forced to turn back. The account of this emissary's visit gives details of the fabulous force that Prester John had available, and gave hope they would make another attempt to join the Crusaders.

Another early piece of "evidence" for Prester John was a letter that was purportedly sent from Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor in 1165, and subsequently translated into German and forwarded on to the Holy Roman Emperor. This letter goes into detail about what life is supposedly like in the land that Prester John rules. It's an earthly paradise, full of wondrous beasts. Everyone lives long and virtuous lives, and after death they don't rot and will return to life at the Day of Judgement. The kings are always called Prester John and combine the roles of secular and religious leaders in one person. The experts on the programme said that it's extremely likely that this letter was originally written in German - it doesn't read like translated Greek. There's also no obvious reason why the Byzantine Emperor would be forwarding his post on to the Germans! The most plausible explanation for the letter is that it's a piece of propaganda produced by the Holy Roman Emperor's court. At the time he and the Pope were embroiled in a power struggle, and a document that explained how perfect everything would be if the secular leader of a country was also the spiritual leader was rather useful for the Holy Roman Emperor.

It seems odd to us as modern people to think that these tales of an earthly paradise (of an incredible nature) were so easily believable, but the programme pointed out that during this era there was a large body of literature of tales of wondrous lands beyond the known world. This is the period where maps have areas labelled as where the Doghead people live, and where the people live who have their faces in their torsos. Around the 12th Century and onwards this begins to change, as more people travel and write more accurate travelogues. It's a slow change though - not all the early travelogues are written by people who've actually been where they claimed to be. For instance the author John Mandeville apparently travelled to Prester John's land and met him - but a lot of other things in Mandeville's book are made up, and most of the rest appears to've been copied from other books. There's no indication Mandeville actually went anywhere! He's not the only example of this from the time, either.

The rise of the Mongols changes the legends of Prester John a bit. There are some stories about Prester John being conquered, but other stories suggest that maybe he was never in Central Asia and his land is actually in India. Another blow to the believability of the legends is that travellers visit the Mongols from Europe, and whilst they meet Christians they don't meet or find any evidence of Prester John. (Nor do they find any wondrous beasts, or Dogheads etc.) They do try and make an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims, but this doesn't interest the Mongols.

And later still as China becomes more well known to Europeans it becomes ever more implausible that Prester John and his kingdom could be anywhere in Asia. By the 14th Century AD the legend of Prester John has shifted to Africa, and Ethiopia is the new focal point. As an aside one of the experts (I forget which one) said that you could think of the 14th Century as "the century when Ethiopia discovered the West". Ethiopia had been Christian since the early AD period, and in the 14th Century they sent emissaries to the Pope and to some of the European kings. They seemed to fit in with some of the Prester John stories - in particular the "long lost Christian Kingdom" aspects of it. And they also seemed to fit other legends about the Queen of Sheba. But the legends still weren't true. Which apparently didn't stop European travellers from visiting Ethiopia and asking the rather bemused locals about Prester John.

They finished up the programme by talking about whether or not people actually believed the stories at the time. I think the overall conclusion was that mostly they probably didn't, it was just a good story or a useful one for propaganda purposes. However there were examples of people who did believe - for instance during the Crusades some commanders made strategic errors because they believed they were about to be joined by Prester John's army any time now.

On Sunday Kathryn Piquette came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the work she's been doing using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to examine the Narmer Palette (and some other ancient Egyptian objects). She started her talk by giving us context for the Narmer Palette, and then explained the imaging technique she is using. She then showed us several examples of objects she's studied before returning to the Narmer Palette to tell us about her findings so far.

The Narmer Palette was discovered in 1898 by Quibell & Green at Hierakonopolis, near the "Main Deposit". This was a cache of sacred objects that had been buried around the time of the 5th Dynasty when they were no longer being used. The palette dates to around 3100BC, and is a larger version of the type of palette that was used by the ancient Egyptians to grind eye makeup powders. The normal ones are quite small, and plain, but this ceremonial one is bigger (around 65cm by 40cm) and richly decorated. It's made from mudstone, and Piquette said it's surprisingly heavy so she thinks of it as a semi-portable object. The art on it depicts the first Pharaoh of a unified Egypt, Narmer, in a selection of scenes that depict his power & his kingship. This includes a smiting scene of the same type as those you see on temple pylons in Egypt right up to the end of the Ptolemaic era. Most previous research on the palette hasn't been interested in the object as an actual physical artifact. In part this is because it's hard (for bureaucratic reasons) to get access to it to actually study it in the flesh (so's to speak), even tho it's on display in the Cairo Museum it's behind somewhat grubby glass and it can be difficult to closely inspect it. And so people study old photographs of it or line drawings of the art that have been made. This only serves to enhance the general tendency in Egyptology to study the art and the texts in isolation from the physical objects they're on. So the previous studies have concentrated on things like what the art tells us about the history of the period, how the iconography has changed or not changed over the millennia after it was made, and so on. Piquette is more interested in how the physical object was made - what it tells us about craftsmanship at the time. As well as having a much closer look at the details of the artwork.

She is using a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging to do this examination. This involves building up a composite image from several different photographs, each taken with the light source in a different place. This lets you use imaging software on a computer to play around with different lighting angles, and to use a variety of enhancement algorithms in conjunction with this. Piquette said it's like if you're looking at an old coin and trying to see the writing/picture on it - you tip it back & forth trying to get it to the point where the shadows make the inscription clearer. I also thought it's like how guidebooks for Egyptian sites often say things like "visit in the early morning as the angle of the light makes the inscriptions clearer". Obviously the beauty of RTI is that once you've done the hard work of taking all the carefully lined up photos you can then revisit the image over & over looking at what you can see with different light angles and different enhancements.

Piquette next showed us several examples of objects she's used RTI to examine. This was really interesting to see, as she showed us the actual images and was moving the light source around to show what showed up under different conditions. It's a little harder to write about without the pictures tho - I'll just try & give a flavour of the sorts of things she pointed out to us. One of the objects was a 1st Dynasty stela where she showed us the tool marks that showed how it was made. On a Roman Mummy Portrait she showed how the technique could be used to distinguish the original pigment from some much later repair work - which is important information for the conservators working on the object. Another object was a Greek magical text written on a sheet of lead and placed in a water cistern around 400BC - as you can imagine it was pretty corroded. At first when she showed us the image of it, it looked like there was nothing readable at all. But by turning on one of the enchancement algorithms and altering the light angle suddenly the text popped out and was visible.

While we had our coffee & cake break I'd been wondering if the technique was capable of being used on large outdoor structures - I'd been thinking about Vulture Rock earlier in the week for the blog post I published on Wednesday and it'd be awesome to see these sorts of images for that. And the first object she showed us after the break wasn't from Vulture Rock but was a similar sort of thing - a large rock in a wadi near Aswan which has rock art on it. She talked a bit about the difficulties of using RTI outdoors at this point (and it came up again in the questions at the end). Stability is one of the key requirements for RTI as all the photos must be identical except for the light source - so if the only place to set up the tripod is on sand, or if the wind picks up and blows the sand around, then that can cause problems. Amount of ambient light can also be an issue, and the normal technique is to use a flash gun that's significantly brighter than the ambient light. Which isn't that easy to achieve if you're outside under the Egyptian sun.

The last example she showed us before returning to the Narmer Palette was an inscription on a gneiss bowl. She used this to illustrate again how the tendency to divorce the art/text from the physical object can remove information. The original publication of this inscription doesn't actually look much like what's on the bowl - the hieroglyphs are tidied up into standard forms, and the orientation of the text is reversed to better fit with Western conventions. So that tells you what it says but you've lost all the information about what the inscription is like. When she examined it using RTI she could see that in contrast to the beautifully made bowl the inscription is actually pretty crudely done. Each line of the hieroglyphs has taken several strokes of the carver's tools to make - and they all seem to've slipped across the surface past the line where they should've been. In one place the chisel looks like it skidded a long way round the rim. Piquette also said that she thinks it should be possible to figure out if the carver was right or left handed by the directions the tools seem to've slipped the most.

Piquette now returned to talking about the Narmer Palette. It had taken her several years to negotiate permission to photograph it, and then a couple of days before she was due to start work it suddenly seemed as if the permission had been granted without understanding what she needed to do! In the end she was able to persuade them that it would be safe and a good idea for her to take these photos with the palette out of the display case, and she was able to take some photographs. She only had 2 hours to work on it, in a slightly too cramped space, so she wasn't able to do as many detailed images as she'd hoped. What she succeeded in capturing were two overview images, one each of the front and back, and two detailed (i.e. zoomed in) images of the top left and top right quadrants of the Smiting Scene side of the palette. She hopes to have a chance to go back and take more detailed images of the rest of the palette and also examine the thick edges of it. But that requires renegotiating access with the new director at the museum.

One of the things she can see using RTI are the tool marks where chisels have slipped, or where the design was blocked out before the detailed carving started. There are places where the design seems to've been changed - so it wasn't entirely agreed upon before the carver(s) started work. Repeating elements within the design are also not standardised. For instance there are four large cow heads at the top of the palette (two on each side) and they aren't identical. One of them has a mouth that looks just like the eyes (so it looks like an open mouth). The other one on that side has a line across the mouth (like the lips are closed), but there are traces if you look closely that indicate the mouth may once've been open. The two on the other side both have closed mouths. Did the carver start with the open mouthed one and then decide it looked better the other way but never went back to alter the first one? Or did someone else do that one who had a different style?

RTI also lets Piquette see details in the carving that haven't been noticed before. For instance the figure of the Pharaoh wearing the Red Crown seems to have a chin strap holding the crown on. Which maybe shows something new about how the crown was actually worn (perhaps throughout history, perhaps only at this time). There is also potential information to be had about how the Egyptians displayed dead enemies at this time. On one side of the palette are nine corpses of slain enemies with their heads removed & placed between their legs. Closer inspection shows that all but one of them have also said their penises removed and placed on top of their heads. That had been speculated about before from inspection of a cast of the palette but Piquette has been able to show that it looks like that's the case on the real thing too. There are also indications that some of the enemies are laid out on their bellies and some on their backs. The one who has been less mutilated than the others is on his back and Piquette wonders if the different positions have to do with different statuses of the enemies. Was the man in charge laid out in a more respectful way than his troops?

This was a fascinating talk, much more so than I think my writeup makes it seem because we actually got to see the images. As Piquette's results are still preliminary data there were more questions than answers in what she was telling us about the Narmer Palette. And that's quite exciting for an object that's been known of for over a 100 years - the idea that there's still a lot more we could learn from it even after all that time.

Vulture Rock

El Kab is a couple of hours drive south of Luxor and was the furthest south we went on this trip. There are several different Ancient Egyptian sites at or near el Kab, and we visited four of them, covering a sweep of history from predynastic (and perhaps before) through to the Ptolemaic era. The site is pretty big - we were driven through it to visit the various bits and it didn't feel silly getting back on the coach rather than walking. This is also the area of Egypt where the predynastic sites of Nekheb and Nekhen are; Renee Friedman gave a talk to the EEG about Nekhen last November just before we went on holiday. I think we saw the enclosure wall for Nekheb, but nothing inside.

My photos for this site are, as usual, on flickr - click here for the full set or on any photo to go to its flickr page.

Amenhotep III era Temple

Amenhotep III Era Temple at el Kab

At the far end of the site was a small 18th Dynasty temple dedicated to the goddess Nekhbet. Nekhbet isn't just the local goddess of the area (which she was from predynastic times) but also evolved into the patron goddess of Upper Egypt. It was a rather unprepossessing temple from the outside, at first glance rather small and plain. Inside, however, seemed rather bigger and a lot of colour remained on the decoration. There was also a lot of graffiti on the walls (leaving one's mark was a bit of a theme for this day). The bulk of the graffiti was clumsily carved by Victorian era tourists, but there was also some older stuff in hieratic and hieroglyphs.

Amenhotep III Era Temple at el Kab

Once we'd spent some time looking at the inside we went back out and had a proper look at the outside. It wasn't as dull as first glance had suggested - whilst there wasn't much official decoration on the walls the priests etc had left their mark in other ways. On the floor around the temple were game boards carved into the flagstones. There were also carvings of outlines of feet, I think the purpose of these is so that the carver is eternally standing next to the temple.

Vulture Rock

Vulture Rock

Vulture Rock was my favourite part of this site. It's a rocky outcrop that looks a bit like a (headless) Egyptian vulture hieroglyph and it is covered in carvings. There's another large rocky outcrop nearby that is also covered on every reachable surface by carvings. These range from predynastic or prehistoric carvings through to the Old Kingdom era. The older stuff includes a large picture of a boat with enclosures & animals on it, as well as numerous animals and human figures (some of whom have their arms curled over their heads like you see on predynastic pottery).

Vulture Rock

The more recent (5th & 6th Dynasty) carvings were more elaborate and more wordy. There were even raised relief inscriptions, and offering stelae complete with the vignette of people making offerings to a god. This wasn't just graffiti, not the equivalent of "Kilroy was here" that we saw in many of the temples and tombs we'd visited on the trip. The later inscriptions here looked like they were done by someone who had a decent idea of what they were doing and some sort of official sanction.

Vulture Rock

For a site I found so fascinating I don't have much to say about it. I think what appealed the most was the sense of continuity. This had clearly been a significant site for centuries, if not millennia. And even though there was a clear difference between the animals etc carved by the earliest people and the detailed inscriptions of the later people they were still linked by a common desire to leave a permanent memorial of their visit to the site. And even tho it wasn't graffiti like the Victorian stuff in the temple we'd just visited, there is still that sense of continuity coming up so close to our own time (and if there weren't so many guardians etc around I'm sure we'd find more modern graffiti in these sites too). It seems to be a part of being human, the urge to make some mark that'll outlast you and show that you existed too.

Ptolemaic era Temple

Ptolemaic Temple at el Kab

The next part of the site we visited was a small temple dating to Ptolemaic times which was carved into the hillside. There was also a nearby shrine or chapel which was a bit older, from Ramesses II's time. Outside the temple there was a small enclosure wall, which had several examples of graffiti on it continuing my theme of the day. These were fairly crude, which stood out particularly after seeing the well done carvings on Vulture Rock which were so much older.

Ramesses II Era Shrine at el Kab

The nearby chapel had the remains of a triad statue in the centre of the room. Despite no heads on the figures, and only a very eroded inscription, we worked out that the central figure was likely to be the vulture goddess Nekhbet.

18th Dynasty Tombs of Nobles

Stairs up to 18th Dynasty Tombs at el Kab

We finished at el Kab by looking at four tombs of 18th Dynasty Nobles. The key one here is the tomb of Ahmose, son of Ibana. He had been involved in the wars to reunify Egypt at the end of the 17th Dynasty. Clearly he was proud of this, and on one of the walls of his tomb is a lengthy hieroglyphic biographical text which includes many details of the conflict. In fact this is where a lot of our knowledge of this conflict comes from. The other three tombs were those of Paheri, Setau and Renni. And I'm afraid they've all blurred together in my head somewhat. I remember that the decoration wasn't in terribly good nick, but you could see from what remained that it had once been fine work. And of course there was Victorian graffiti in the tombs. In fact in retrospect I'm mildly surprised that there wasn't any Victorian names at Vulture Rock - perhaps they just never visited the site.

Ankhtifi's Tomb at Mo'alla

Eileen Contemplating the Tomb of Ankhtifi

Mo'alla is not part of el Kab, in fact it's more than halfway back to Luxor - but I'm appending Ankhtifi's tomb onto this post as I have no photos from there (it being a tomb) and not that much to say. This is a tomb that stands out from most of the others we visited - it is from the First Intermediate Period, so older than most of the ones that we visited during the trip. Ankhtifi was Governor of the local area, and due to the breakdown of central government at the time he was pretty much a minor King. It felt like a different layout, a single larger room with many pillars in it. And the art style was noticeably different to the New Kingdom tombs we'd just looked at. I particularly liked the detail in the hunting & fishing scenes. It was also particularly interesting to me as we'd heard a talk by Glenn Godenhoe at the EEG a couple of years ago where he talked about his work on this tomb. There are inscriptions on the tomb walls which paint a picture of the lawless time that Egypt was going through - but as Godenhoe pointed out this was more about showing how awesome Ankhtifi was than about what Egypt was actually like at the time.

Glass is odd stuff. We've been making it so long that one tends to forget that it's both artificial and really quite odd. The In Our Time episode about glass talked both the science of glass and glass-making, and the history of it. The experts discussing it were Dame Athene Donald (University of Cambridge, current Master of Churchill College, my old college, but here in her context as a physicist), Jim Bennett (University of Oxford) and Paul McMillan (University College London).

On the programme they intertwined the historical and the scientific discussion, but I thought the joins showed rather more than they usually do and so I'm going to split the threads up in my writeup. We first know of glass manufacturing about 5,000 years ago, by the ancient Egyptians who made beads of it initially. Over time they learnt to make larger and more complex objects like bottles & ornaments. The Romans developed the technology further. They invented most of the techniques that were used before the Industrial Revolution, like glass blowing for example. In ancient Egypt glass was primarily used for decorative or luxury goods, but the Romans used glass for both everyday and finer objects - including wine bottles (which struck me as an awfully modern way to store wine!).

In the Renaissance era the Venetians were famed for making particularly fine quality glass. The city attempted to keep a monopoly on glass-making by keeping their methods secret & forbidding glass-makers to leave the city. Which didn't entirely work, unsurprisingly. One of their secrets was a way of making very transparent glass which was useful for lenses. Something I learnt from this programme was that spectacles first appear in the 13th Century AD which is much earlier than I'd assumed. Once lenses were being made to correct people's sight it was only a relatively short step to making lenses for scientific instruments. Glass is part of the Enlightenment's scientific revolution - not just lenses but also for making scientific instruments or vessels. There is a feedback loop between the demands of the scientific experiments driving new glass making technology and better glass instruments expanding the possible experiments that can be done. Industrial production of glass as we know it today begins in the Industrial Revolution.

The whole of the history discussion was very Eurocentric so I had a little look on wikipedia after we'd listened to the programme to see whether this was a fair reflection of the world history of glassmaking. The answer (based on a tiny amount of effort on my part) is ... maybe? Glass making in China appears to've arrived late - during the Han Dynasty and probably influenced by trade goods from the Roman Empire. I didn't find anything about the Americas, so I don't know if that means they didn't invent glass making or if no-one cared enough to add it to wikipedia. It's odd to think that something so ubiquitous today might've been discovered once & once only.

Making glass (not good glass, just glass) is deceptively simple. In essence the process is to heat up sand till it melts, and then cool it very quickly and you end up with the transparent solid that we call glass. One of the experts pointed out that the necessary temperatures are those that would be reached by a bonfire on a beach - so it was probably discovered in Egypt by people (briskly) putting out campfires in the desert. Although a large body of empirical knowledge of how to make glass was built up over the next 5,000 years it was only relatively recently that we gained any understanding of what is actually going on, and the science of glass & glass-making is still not entirely understood. It's actually more difficult to make glass out of pure sand than when there are impurities present, pure sand needs a quicker cooling step. So when making glass other things are often added - like potash or lime.

One of the complicated things about glass formation is that the phase transition from liquid sand to glass is not well defined - which is an oddity in physics. An example of a well defined phase transition is that from liquid water to ice: it happens at 0°C no matter how you cool the water. But the point at which liquid sand becomes glass depends on the precise starting conditions and the precise heating & cooling regimen - and it isn't predictable using the current state of knowledge. Glass isn't even a usual solid - it's not crystalline, and that's why the speed of cooling is important. If it cools too slowly it will crystalise and you don't get glass. So instead of the atoms lining up in neat little rows they appear to just stop where they are. This non-crystalline nature of glass is what gives it some of its characteristic properties. It is brittle because there are no planes of atoms able to spread over each other when pressure is applied. I think they also said that the transparency is down to there being more routes for light to take through the structure, but I'm not sure that makes sense to me so I may've mis-remembered.

Glass in the technical sense is a broader term than just silicon glass (the stuff we generally call glass). You can make a glass using sugar - that's what sweets like glacier mints are made of. And something I knew but had never really thought about is that spectacles & things like motorbike crash helmet visors aren't made from silicon glass. Instead they are made using large polycarbon molecules - these can never crystallise so are much easier to work with. And the glass produced is not prone to fracturing, which is obviously important in those usages. I assume there are other downsides which mean we don't use these glasses for all applications.

From the title I hadn't expected this to be as interesting as it was - I didn't realise how much wasn't known about glass (nor how unique a discovery it was).

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.


Josephus - In Our Time episode about the 1st Century AD Jewish Roman historian Josephus.

Total: 1


"Understanding Egypt: Language, Layers and Meaning in the Nile Valley" Carl Graves - October EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1



Doctor Who: Under the Lake.

Total: 1


Armada: 12 Days to Save England - series about the Spanish Armada presented by Dan Snow.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Deir el Bahri.

Total: 1

Tags: Admin

Back in June of this year the BBC did a three part series about the Spanish Armada and how (astonishingly) England wasn't conquered by Spain in 1588. It was billed as "part dramatisation, part documentary" so I was a bit concerned in advance that it wouldn't be my cup of tea. But it turned out to be on the right side of the line for my tastes - a selection of set pieces but mostly a straightforward documentary series. The main presenter was Dan Snow, who we've seen do a selection of history documentaries in the past, more than one with a naval theme. There were several talking heads throughout the series - the primary one was Geoffrey Parker, who is an expert on James II of Spain. He's discovered & researched a lot of documentation kept by James II on the Armada including a report from the second in command of the fleet which gave his opinions on why the invasion failed. Another strand of the documentary segments was two naval historians discussing the tactics the Spanish & English fleets used, and showed us them by pushing ships about on a battle map. Of the two, I recognised Sam Willis who we've seen present other documentaries and I forget who the other chap was. The conversations between the two of them were sadly a bit stilted and at times made it feel like Willis was explaining himself and his theories to his PhD supervisor in a meeting!

The two main threads running through the series were the naval tactics of the two sides and the more human side of the personalities & foibles of the key players in the war. I'm not really interested in military history per se so I hadn't looked into the details of the Armada before - just absorbed the narrative of "superpower of the day goes up against plucky minor country and somehow fails, mostly due to inclement weather". God Is On Our Side, and all that sort of thing. The reality is, of course, more nuanced than that. Whilst the storms around the north & west of the British Isles are what finally finished off a lot of the Spainish fleet, they'd actually already lost before they sailed through the storms. The English had got the upper hand through better tech and new tactics to go with it (including sailing in to their own gun range to fire on the Spanish, then sailing away before getting to a range where the Spanish could reply). However supply issues (Elizabeth I was both unwilling and unable to pay for sufficient ammo, or even food for the sailors) meant that this wasn't decisive. The Spanish also lost by their own actions, largely due to a strict adherence to the original plan by the commander despite that plan having fatal flaws from its conception let alone after they met the opposing fleet.

The two fleets had similar command structures - political appointment at the top, second in command an experienced seaman. The key difference was that Francis Drake (the English second in command) was actually listened to. The Duke of Medina Sidonia (commander of the Spanish fleet) had been Spain's second choice and wasn't keen on taking the job because he had no naval expertise - but sadly for the Spanish his reservations about his own abilities meant he insisted on following James II of Spain's original plan to the letter. This plan was that the fleet would sail round to the English Channel and pick up the Spanish army in Holland, together the combined forces would invade England (from Kent, iirc). But the plan didn't include any detail for how the navy & the army would combine and communication between the two was not established in time for the plan to be put into action. And eventually after several failures to co-ordinate with the army, and battles with the English where the Spanish were at a disadvantage to begin with and then loss, finally the Duke's nerve broke and he took the fleet round to the north & west to get away from the English fleet and back to Spain. His second in command repeatedly suggested alternate courses of action: a pre-emptive strike on Portsmouth to bottle up the English fleet; capture a deep harbour on the English coast and settle in to figure out how to meet up with the army in relative safety; etc. But the Duke wouldn't deviate from the plan, and so they lost.

Part of the Duke of Medina Sidonia's problem was that James II was something of a control freak. I knew pretty much nothing about James prior to this program other than: married Mary I of England, failed to have children; tried to marry Elizabeth, was refused; tried to conquer England, failed. So the characterisation of James in this documentary was particularly interesting to me (and I should really add a biography of him to my to-read mountain). He was a deeply pious man, and this fuelled much of his desire to get England under his control - rescuing it from the taint of Protestant heresy. He was also a micro-manager. In this case he'd laid down a Plan, and left the Duke of Medina Sidonia in no doubt that if he deviated from The Plan then there would be trouble. He was also a compulsive note-taker and prefered to communicate with his underlings by the written word. Which is why we know he was a micro-manager - there are archives full of his notes.

I liked the characterisation of Elizabeth I in this programme - the Gloriana myth she and her PR team promoted was talked about, but they portrayed the woman herself as the Tudor she was. Mean (in the financial sense), paranoid and a control freak. Made me think of the biography of Henry VII that I read several years ago (and am convinced I wrote up a review for a previous incarnation of this blog, but now cannot find): "Winter King" by Thomas Penn.

Overall I enjoyed this series - made me aware how little I actually knew about the Spanish Armada (and Spanish history) and then educated me about it :)

Hatshepshut's Memorial Temple at Deir el Bahri

Hatshepsut's Memorial Temple at Deir el Bahri is one of the sites everyone goes to on the West Bank at Luxor. Rightly so, as it's a very impressive temple (although I perhaps don't rate it as highly as Kent Weeks does in his Luxor guidebook which waxes lyrical about it being the most beautiful temple). It's also unusual in immediate appearance, as it's very cleverly designed to look from a distance as if it's organically formed within the cliff face. The thought that stops me categorising it as "most beautiful" is that from a distance it also is reminiscent of fascist architectural style. When initially discovered by Westerners it was in a very ruined state, with a Coptic monastery built in & on the top level of the temple from which the site takes its name. As part of the restoration and excavation of the temple this monastery was removed because only the antiquities were considered interesting.

My photos from this site are, as usual, on flickr - click here for the full set or on any individual photo to go to the larger version on flickr.

Tombs in the Rock Face

We started our visit by walking from the coach park to the temple - there's a little road train to take tourists to the temple which we'd used the last time we visited (in 2009) as the timing was quite tight that time. Walking is a much better option, however, as you get good views of the temple. And a chance to look up at the cliff to the north which has several tombs in it (tho I don't think those are open to the public). There were noticeably more tourists at this site than there had been anywhere else we'd visited, and also more signs of archaeological activity. There were several people working above the temple - I'm not sure if they were excavating or just clearing debris (or both, of course!). There was also someone doing some epigraphic work in one of the colonnades, tracing a relief onto a transparency.

Medhat wasn't giving us a tour here, instead we were sent off to explore by ourselves. The temple is on three levels, which look vertically aligned from a distance but up close it's clear that there are three courtyards arranged like giant steps in a staircase, each with a colonnade at the back in two parts flanking a ramp leading up to the next level. J and I mostly looked at the reliefs on the middle colonnade, plus the two chapels on that level. Then a little time on the top level before we had to head back to the coaches.

Reliefs of the Expedition to Punt

We started by looking at the famous reliefs of the expedition that Hatshepsut sent to Punt, which are in the southern part of the middle colonnade. Punt is somewhere to the south of Egypt, but exactly where is uncertain. Previously it was thought to be on the Arabian Peninsula, but modern scholars think it was on the east coast of Africa around about where modern Somalia or Eritrea are. This is due in part to the flora & fauna depicted in these reliefs. The reliefs depict both the land of Punt (and the people who live in it and rule over it) and the goods that the expedition brought back with them. The most famous part of the scene is probably the Queen of Punt - a very large woman - and the original piece of stone showing her is in the Cairo Museum with just a replica at Deir el Bahri. The cargo they brought back included vast quantities of frankincense and gold. One of the scenes shows a large set of scales with three oxen on one pan and a large quantity of gold rings on the other! The reliefs are pretty damaged now and it can be hard to pick out the details, so we spent quite a while looking at these to see what we could pick out. I've played around a lot with the contrast on my photos to try & bring out the details a bit more clearly.

Hathor Shrine

Next we moved on to the Hathor temple to the south of the colonnade which has Hathor-headed columns as well as several fine depictions of Hathor as a cow on the walls. From there we also had a good view of the remains of the older temple that Hatshepshut built hers next to. It dates from the Middle Kingdom, and is the Mortuary Temple of Montuhotep II. Linking herself in this way with this Pharaoh who was responsible for re-uniting Egypt at the start of the Middle Kingdom was a good PR move for Hatshepsut.

Anubis Shrine

We didn't really look very long at the northern part of the middle colonnade, instead we looked at the Anubis temple at the northern end of it. It's particularly interesting as it is unusual to find a temple to Anubis. The decoration is in good condition and there is a lot of colour remaining on it. The northern part of the colonnade has scenes of Hatshepsut's divine birth - the first known examples of this sort of scene. Later Pharaohs like Amenhotep III would also claim divine paternity, on reliefs in Luxor Temple for instance (post).

Hatshepshut's Memorial Temple at Deir el Bahri

We then made our way up to the top level of the temple. There are several fine statues of Hatshepsut as Osiris on the colonnade at this level, as well as a terrace behind them with some pillars still standing in a ruined state. There are side chapels off this terrace, and I think J got to have a look in one of them but I mostly looked at the views back towards the Nile which were spectacular. And by this point we were running out of time, so we slowly made our way back down to the coach - we didn't really have a chance to look at any of the bits we'd missed out on the way up tho.

Hatshepshut's Memorial Temple at Deir el Bahri

Josephus was a Jewish and Roman historian in the 1st Century AD who wrote (amongst other things) about the Roman-Jewish war that lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the 18th Century this book was widely read by Christians as it appears to provide historical evidence for Jesus; and Josephus was held up as one of the great historians. However to Jews he was a much more controversial figure and wasn't read or referred to until much later in the Enlightenment. Talking about Josephus's life, times and legacy on In Our Time were Tessa Rajak (University of Reading), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester) and Martin Goodman (University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies).

They started the programme with some context for the Jewish-Roman war. In the 2nd & 1st Century BC under the rulership of the Maccabees Judah had become independent. During this period it had formed a sense of itself as a Jewish nation, and so when it became a province in the Roman Empire Judah didn't assimilate into the Empire as well as the Romans would've liked. To some extent the province had a special status - they had a bit more independence than was generally the case. The Jews & their religion were well treated and the Herods ruled as client kings of the Romans. However there was a strand of thought within Judean society that they should be independent, and this was particularly pronounced in the priestly classes and the elite.

Josephus was born in 37AD to a family in Jerusalem who were members of the priestly elite. He was highly intelligent and well educated. Stories about his education have parallels to the stories told about Jesus's education - the bright boy who quickly surpasses his teachers in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. When the Jewish-Roman War broke out in 66AD he, along with many other intelligent educated sons of the priestly elite, became a general. He had no experience in leading troops, nor did his fellow generals. Unsurprisingly the war is a disaster for the Jews, and the Romans quickly put down what they see as a rebellion of one of their provinces. However, it's important to remember that most of what we know about this war comes from Josephus. And he wrote about it after the fact when he had become Romanised and for a Roman audience. So his bias is against the Jews.

Josephus doesn't entirely whitewash his own actions in the war when he's writing about it. One of the stories he tells reflects badly (by the standards of his community) on him - possibly he only tells it because it was widely known and so better to put his own spin on it rather than miss it out completely. During the war he was leading troops who were holding out against a siege, but they were losing. The acceptable thing to do in these circumstances was to commit suicide rather than surrender, and this is what the others want to do. Technically it's not suicide - each man is to kill another until there is only one left who will commit suicide. Josephus tries to talk his troops out of this, but fails. Eventually there are only two people left, Josephus and one other, and finally Josephus succeeds in talking this other man into surrendering rather than dying. This failure to pursue the honourable path is one of the things that shaped Josephus's later legacy amongst the Jews.

When he surrenders Josephus is captured by Vespasian and taken to Rome as a slave. He tells Vespasian that he has had a vision that Vespasian will become Emperor - which at the time seems extremely unlikely. However, two years later this comes to pass. This little story needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt as the only sources for the vision and timing of the revelation of said vision are Vespasian and Josephus who both have vested interests in it being true.

Josephus worked for Vespasian as a scholar and interpreter, first as a slave and later as a Roman citizen. He wrote a history of the Jewish-Roman War, which is one of the books that he is remembered for. This was written for a Roman audience, and so it was tailored to please his masters and his potential customers for the book. For instance Josephus justifies his defection to Rome by saying that he believes God has withdrawn his blessing from the Jews and it has passed to the Romans. He does also explain the Jewish side of the war and this theme is taken up again in a later book about Jewish history, laws and customs. This is again written with his Roman audience in mind, and is a thorough explanation of his home culture to the people of his new culture.

Josephus's legacy is two-fold. Amongst early & medieval Christians he was revered as a historian, in large part because there is a passage in the Jewish history book which refers to Jesus. This would be the earliest historical (i.e. non-Biblical) reference to Jesus and was tremendously important to Christian readers of his books. The experts all agreed that this reference was almost certainly inserted into the text in the 3rd Century AD by a Christian bishop. It's possible that there was some stub of a reference to Jesus but not the longer description and reference to his Christian followers that is in the version that we now know. The originals of his works did fall into obscurity but in the 18th Century were rediscovered and re-translated. And at that time his history books were widely read by ordinary Christians.

His legacy amongst the Jews was much less positive. He was remembered as a traitor - both for failing to commit suicide when he should've and for later becoming a Roman citizen (and for his belief that God had changed his mind about who His chosen people were). As a result his books were not much read by the Jews, and were not translated into Hebrew. However much later, in the Enlightenment, there was a shift in attitude to the story of Judaism in some parts of the Jewish community. Some wanted their history told in the new scientific style of the Enlightenment era, which was quite a change from the Rabbinical tradition (which is fairly ahistorical). Josephus's works are a good source for what Judaism was like before the Temple was destroyed. They also provide perspective on the immediate impact of the Temple's destruction - as at the time it was assumed it was a temporary setback, not the permanent disaster hindsight showed it to be.

On 4th October Carl Graves came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work he's doing for his PhD on the landscape of the Nile Valley as interacted with & perceived by the ancient Egyptians. The concept of "landscape" is a technical term in geography, and so Graves spent the first half of his talk explaining this concept and its theoretical underpinnings so that they made sense to us, before moving on to talk about ancient Egypt.

He began by getting us all to stand up and look around the room and to think about the space we were in: had we been there before (most of us had), who the people were that we knew in the room, had anyone been there for other non-EEG events and so on. These memories and meanings that we attach to somewhere are what turns it from a space to a place. Later on in the talk he came back to the same idea using the difference between the idea of a house (which is really just a building) and a home (which is where you live, where your life is). Graves then used his own hometown of Withernsea in East Yorkshire to illustrate how landscape and identity are always changing over time. It's easier to illustrate with a modern town as we have maps and satellite imagery to show what things used to be like as compared to now. So for instance 300 years ago Withernsea wasn't on the coast, yet by the early 20th Century and the tourism boom it was coastal, and had a pier and a railway station. Both of those are long gone now, but the street names keep their ghosts alive: Pier Road, Station Road and Railway Crescent. And these sorts of things happened in ancient Egypt too - it's just harder to discover because they didn't leave us maps.

Why study landscapes? Graves' answer to this is that it provides a big picture view of Egyptian society & life over time, rather than the details you get from texts & monuments & tombs. He talked about the generally accepted idea that 70% of all ancient Egyptian sites are undiscovered, largely because they are underneath the current urban landscape. One method of making further discoveries is one that the Egyptian government have tried in the past - displace the people and bulldoze their houses so that the antiquities underneath can be excavated and turned into tourist attractions. (This is the sort of thing Andrew Bednarski was talking to the EEG about last month). But this understandably antagonises people and makes them more likely to hide things or to dig up anything valuable looking themselves and sell it anonymously. One of the Egyptian scholars who studied at the EES in London this summer who works in the Suez Canal area has taken a different approach. In a similar way to how archaeology is handled in London he and his colleagues conduct mini-excavations whenever a piece of land is cleared for building work so that what's under there is properly recorded before it's covered up again. This leads to much better relations between the locals and the archaeologists, and there is also less illicit digging in the area. How does this tie into the study of landscape? Having an idea of the big picture lets you prioritise these mini-digs when resources are limited.

The next obvious question is what do we mean by "landscape" as a technical term. It's quite a difficult term to define and Graves said that (particularly in Egyptology) it's a relatively recent theoretical concept. The definition he gave us was from a US geographer who says that landscape is to do with a man-made or man-modified environment to create infrastructure or background for collective existence. One of the reasons that landscape is difficult to define is that the perception of landscape is personal - everyone's meanings are different. For instance an artist or photographer will see the landscape primarily in terms of aesthetics, a farmer in terms of wealth or fertility and so on.

The personal, cultural and changing nature of landscape and its meaning make it difficult to discover what the ancient Egyptian landscape was like. But there are clear indications in the texts & so on that we have that nature and culture were linked in ancient Egypt. For instance deities were considered to inhabit particular features of the natural landscape (like Meretseger in the mountain above the Valley of the Kings, or a mountain at Abydos which is referred in texts as Anubis's Mountain). And if you look at the decoration of tombs (such as that of Nebamun) you see nature and garden scenes appearing with symbolic meanings. Graves thinks it's important to understand the ancient Egyptian landscape as it will cast more light on the everyday lives of the Egyptians. It also links together the ancient and modern uses of the Nile Valley, rather than keeping the separation between old (and interesting) vs. new (and irrelevant).

After a break for coffee and cake Graves moved on from the theoretical underpinnings of his research to the area of Egypt he has studied. This is the 16th Nome of ancient Egypt, the Oryx Nome. The ancient Egyptian bureaucracy divided the country into Nomes, which is roughly analogous to how the UK is divided into counties. Beni Hassan is often regarded as the capital of that Nome (although as Graves pointed out there has been no urban settlement discovered at Beni Hassan only a cemetery so this can't be quite right).

Graves is particularly interested in the Middle Kingdom period in the 16th Nome, but in order to give us proper context for the physical side of the landscape of the area he started by looking at the geological history of the wider area. 7 million years ago the Nile Valley looked very like the Grand Canyon does today, only on a far larger scale. The Nile River was a local river running only through the area that would become Egypt, and had cut a channel through the rock down to a depth of 4km. At the time the Mediterranean basin was not a sea, when there was a tectonic shift that returned water to the basin it flooded into this canyon and filled it with sea water down as far as Aswan. Over time the canyon silted up, the cliffs on the banks of the Nile are the remains of the canyon walls with just a relatively little bit poking up above the surface.

The Nile as we know it, running from Ethiopia rather than just locally within Egypt, was formed during the Ice Age around 12,500 years ago. And then after the end of the Ice Age between around 10,000 years ago and 4,500 years ago was a period of wetter climate. The deserts that currently surround Egypt were fertile. The Old Kingdom period of Egyptian history is at the end of this wet period, and it's the gradual reduction of fertile land concentrating the people into the Nile area that is key in forming Egyptian culture in the pre-Dynastic era & Old Kingdom.

The Nile and the flooding of the Nile are key to the ancient Egyptian landscape. The Nile flood changes the landscape every year, and the level of flooding is different each year. So some years houses might wash away, other years not enough silt would be deposited to make all the fields fertile. The course of the Nile might also change quite quickly with the channel easily jumping from one side of an island to another when the waters go down after the flood. Longer term the course of the Nile changes by 2-9km/1000 years, which is significant in an area like the 16th Nome where the land between the two cliff faces is only 20km wide. As a result of their landscape the ancient Egyptians would have different associations with urban settlements than we do. We see the urban landscape as something permanent. But the Egyptians were more likely to see it as moveable and temporary - their mudbrick structures might be washed away with the next flood and need rebuilding. Or the course of the river altered sufficiently that they needed to build new fishing quays closer to the new route.

As Graves is interested in a particular Nome he needs to know where this is located in the physical landscape of Egypt. The Egyptians didn't leave us maps, so the evidence has to be gathered from the texts that do mention geography. One of these is a list of Nomes on the White Chapel of Senusret I (which is in Karnak Temple Open Air Museum) - these have the names of the Nomes and measurements, which are plausibly the distances along the Nile between the Nomes. Of course you can't just look at the present day Nile and measure it, because variations in the course of the Nile will alter the distance between two points - you'd need to know the course the river took in Senusret I's time to be accurate. However you can still get a reasonable idea of where the Nomes are from that.

There are 60 different tel sites across the area covered by the 16th Nome - a tel is a mound that has been created by human occupation of a site. (And Arabic placenames of the type Tel el-Amarna are referring to these mounds.) If you look at their layout in a satellite image then you can see they're aligned with previous (or the current) paths of the Nile. When the Nile changed course they may've been abandoned or the settlement might've migrated closer to the Nile by stabilising the new land of the river bank with pottery & rubbish and then building on top of it. Obviously to discover what is under each tel and when it dates to you'd need to visit and at the very least do a surface inspection if not a full excavation. However by looking at available texts, the evidence gathered by previous archaeological surveys and the evidence of the Egyptian landscape Graves has possibly identified the sites of 4 towns that were important to the inhabitants of the 16th Nome during the Middle Kingdom.

There are four towns mentioned in inscriptions in the tombs of Beni Hassan (which was where the elite of the 16th Nome were buried during the Middle Kingdom), three of which are also mentioned in a 21st Dynasty papyrus called the Onomasticon of Amenope. Why is one of them not mentioned in the Onomasticon? There are a few possible reasons - maybe it wasn't important to Amenope, maybe it vanished or changed name between the two sets of texts. And perhaps it also illustrates the way that the cultural differences between us & the Egyptians can trip us up when interpreting ancient texts. The Onomasticon of Amenope is a collection of lists of things, and one of the lists is at first glance a list of towns - that's where you find three of these towns listed. But closer inspection the category being listed isn't "town" as we think of it - there are sites we know had urban settlements during the 21st Dynasty that aren't mentioned, and sites listed that don't seem to have much, if any, urban settlement during this time period. Instead these are most likely to be quays. In our modern perception of landscape if we listed important places in the country we'd list the major urban settlements, in the Egyptian perception of landscape it was more interesting/useful to list places you would stop at along the Nile as you travelled.

The four towns he talked about were Hebenn, Her-wer, Neferusi and Menat-Khufu. I think he did show us where he thinks they were - but I didn't make a note of that (and reproducing it from a scribbled drawing would be difficult anyway!). Hebenn was a royal foundation, which had a temple for the cult of Horus (the royal cult). Her-wer had no administrative importance, just religious significance. Neferusi was the local cult centre of Hathor, and was somehow linked to both Her-wer and to the south of the region - which links make it plausible that it's in the southern part of the Nome. It was also an unlucky town - the site of a siege during Khamose's battles against the Hyksos when Egypt was being re-unified at the start of the Middle Kingdom. And later destroyed during Piankhi's time (the Kushite founder of the 25th Dynasty). Menat-Khufu is the town that wasn't mentioned in the Onomaticon. It was the site from which the Eastern Desert was controlled, where the overseers of the desert region were based, and thus was probably on the Eastern side of the Nome.

Graves had no firm conclusions for the end of his talk (which he apologised for but I don't think he needed to), but he had some concluding remarks. It's clear that the Ancient Egyptians had a different perception of landscape to our own and recognised natural and cultural features in the landscape around them. They divided the landscape into categories that made sense in their own cultural context, but perhaps not in ours. By trying to understand the Egyptian perception of landscape archaeologists and historians can not only understand Egyptian culture more completely, but can also target their investigations to areas that are mostly likely to yield interesting results.

I've ended up writing a lot about this talk - the theoretical side of it was quite new to me, I've not thought about geography as an academic discipline since my GCSEs. And so I wanted to make sure I understood it, and remembered it, by writing it out in more detail. It was an interesting talk, although it did end up feeling like it was two separate parts - theory before coffee and Egypt after coffee.


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