Monday, 30 March 2015

Stone-age Italians Defleshed their Dead

Not Egyptology-related, but I've recently published an article for Science Magazine's online news about the first clear evidence for the defleshing of the dead in a European context... You can read all about it here: Neolithic Italians Defleshed their Dead

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Better Digs for Liverpool's Mummies

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper.

Liverpool’s mummies are about to get a space to call their own. Thanks to a £300,000 government grant, the city’s World Museum is set to expand its galleries dedicated to ancient Egypt to include a “mummy room”, as well as an animated Book of the Dead.

To read more, click here... 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Sinai antiquities museum damaged in terrorist attack

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper:

The Al-Arish Museum in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was severely damaged last week during simultaneous terrorist attacks across the region that left 30 people dead and at least 60 others injured.

To read more, click here...

Friday, 9 January 2015

Exploring the Dakhla Oasis

The Temple of Deir el-Haggar
Timeless Travels Magazine has posted on their website a large portion of my recent article about my travels around Dakhla Oasis ( I've reposted the excerpt below, and if you want to read the remaining sections, download issue 2 of the magazine for free from:

It was dawn when I left the White Desert for Farafra. The rising sun had already revealed the petrified zoo of chickens, horses, and sphinxes that had commanded my attention the previous evening. Eroding limestone giants, stretched and unfolded themselves for the new day. The desert foxes, gaunt-faced and curious, had long since scurried away, fed, if not full, from scraps of bread offered by Saleh, my driver. White, jagged splats of limestone appeared like frozen waves upon a yellow ocean. The air was crisp.

A short drive later and I was in Farafra, a half-finished vision of a Wild West outpost, where Saleh, paid and pleased, dropped me off and departed back for Bahariya Oasis, performing an illegal-in-forty-countries U-turn in the process. There, following true Western movie convention, as a stranger in an unfamiliar town, I was immediately picked up by the local police and questioned on my reasons for being in the oasis; more importantly, they wanted to know when I'd be leaving and suggested that I take the 2pm bus.

I had no real problem with this, as I'd planned on taking public transport for the next leg of my journey anyway, but soon after, over Turkish coffee in a local cafe, I was invited by two sporty Spanish honeymooners and their rotund guide, Mohammed, to join them on their whirlwind tour of the oases. After all, we were heading in the same direction: Dakhla Oasis, the third oasis on my trip through the Western Desert, where a variety of ancient sites neatly illustrate Egypt's long history with these isolated Saharan islands.

Accompanying my travels in digital form was the 1822 travel narrative of Archibald Edmonstone, the first European to visit Dakhla in modern times, who coincidentally was born on the same London street that the British Museum still stands. Edmonstone, a wealthy baronet, arrived in Egypt in late 1818, aged 23, with the intention of exploring the oases as “objects of curiosity” and to look for “old buildings.” A true Brit, he also wanted to get there before the French consul and Dick Dastardly-alike Bernardino Drovetti, who was busy hoovering up as many artefacts and accolades as he could for himself (and France, of course). Informed that Drovetti had set out for the oases a few days before him, Edmonstone decided to cross the desert directly to Dakhla, rather than take the safe route to Kharga first, as Drovetti had done. This was risky for two reasons: 1) it would mean a longer trek through the desert, and 2) no European was certain that Dakhla Oasis existed. If Edmonstone’s gamble paid off, and he didn’t end up a scorched pile of carrion picked desert bones, Britain, and adamantly not France, would be the first to celebrate the addition of a new patch of green to its maps of the Sahara Desert.

Travelling to the Oasis

As I lay in the comfort of my spacious, air-conditioned van, whizzing along a modern tarmac road, I imagined Edmonstone, with his two European companions, two Egyptian servants, interpreter, and twelve camels setting out into the relative unknown (presumably his Bedouin guides were less nervous), marching through the sands for thirteen hours a day.

Unlike the minor inconveniences I'd experienced in the oases, Edmonstone was truly travelling through a dangerous and wild frontier. Three years before his visit, four hundred raiders from Libya had plundered Dakhla, killing people and “carrying off much booty”. Two years afterwards, in 1821, the Pasha, Mohammed Ali, had sent troops to subdue the entire area. To reduce the risk of trouble, it was “strongly recommended” to Edmonstone that he wear Mamluk clothing; his “look” included “a coarse silk waistcoat with long open sleeves... an immense pair of cloth trousers, red slippers, and a turban of white muslin.” He also slung a Turkish sabre across his shoulder, hid a dagger beneath a shawl tied around his waist, and hung a brace of pistols under his left arm. Unlike Edmonstone, I was dressed in a faded blue t-shirt and a tatty pair of jeans. Desert travel has certainly changed.

Driving to Mut, Dakhla's capital, we passed farmers wearing wide straw hats, a local fashion noted by Egyptologist Herbert Winlock in 1908. The soil was pink, almost purple, and the gamoosa (water buffalo), so prevalent elsewhere in Egypt, had been replaced by cows. Squat pink-mud huts with palm roofs stood in the fields between villages of colourfully painted domed-houses. Along the way, we briefly stopped at the el-Muzzawwaqa tombs, a small splat of a hill, as if sculpted from mashed potato, pierced by Roman era tombs.

Edmonstone, the first to comment on this “insulated rock perforated with caverns”, observed scattered fragments of human remains littering the earth, remarking, “The inhabitants of the adjacent hamlet had stripped them in hopes of finding something valuable; and the jackals, which abound here, had completed the work of devastation.” He attempted to take some bones, but his guides threatened to abandon him if he did so. I too was shown a pit of assorted remains. They stared up at me as if saying, “wonderful, another gawker.”

The Medieval town of el-Qasr

At the north edge of Dakhla Oasis, our next stop, the medieval town of el-Qasr (“The Fortified Town”) came into view. After turning off the main tarmac road, and driving through a palm grove, the honeymooners, Mohammed and I left the van and rounded a modern white mosque. Splendidly wonky and sepia toned, the town, founded in the 12th century above a Roman fort, is an unusual sight: part-reconstructed, mostly abandoned, yet still occupied by a few hundred people.

It is a living village, protected by antiquities guards working for the Ministry of Antiquities. Every house exuded age from its cracked mud-brick pores, revealed by their shedding plaster. Many doorways were low to the ground, barely a couple of feet high; men in galabeyyas squatted beside them in the shade. Heavy doors sealed the town's various quarters, keeping its population – 4,000 strong in the 19th century – safe from bandits. It was like being led through a half-remembered dream of an Ottoman fantasy. Two hundred years earlier, upon “discovering” el-Qasr, Edmonstone had been less enchanted: “The only thing worthy of observation in the town is a strong sulphuric and chalybeate spring, which the people consider extremely sanative, and drink when left to settle for 24 hours in an earthen jar.”

As I followed the cuddling Spanish and the sweating, narrating Mohammed around the narrow streets, the imposing walls of multi-storey houses loomed, draping us in continuous and cooling shadow; the German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs, along with his entire team of 100, had briefly stayed in one of these houses during his desert explorations in 1874. Some houses displayed acacia lintels over their doorways with inscriptions informing passersby of the occupant, as well as the name of the artist who carved the inscription; the oldest dated to 1518. Presumably Rohlfs wasn't present long enough to commission his own lintel.

Our first stop was the mosque and mausoleum of Sheikh Nasr ed-Din, who was himself present yet absent, buried in a shrine, enveloped by a green sheet. It was surrounded on the walls by Quranic verses, which dipped in and out of niches with artistic abandon. Although the mosque had been rebuilt in the 19th century, its minaret maintains its 11th-12th century structure, though it too has undergone reconstruction; two layers of wooden beams jutting out from its body.

A madrassa (school) was next door. This had been renovated, and is still in use today. Conveniently for the medieval population, it also functioned as a meeting place, a courtroom, and as a place of punishment, all no doubt classified under “entertainment” by the townsfolk. To add to the ambiance, prisoners were once tied to a stake still standing beside the entrance, a definite warning to any would-be unruly school children.

In the maze of streets, Mohammed, clearly as geographically gifted as a globe, next led us to a house that incorporated ancient Egyptian temple blocks in its facade, some exhibiting figures and hieroglyphs; one block displayed the torso of a squatting baboon-shaped Thoth, his hands casually resting on his knees as if patiently waiting for his head and legs to return. Others were penetrated by long vertical scratches, made by people in antiquity collecting magical temple-powder. The now crumbling town also once had a mill (with an ox or donkey-powered mechanism), and an oil press.

The Roman temple at Deir el-Haggar

Our next stop was Deir el-Haggar – “The Monastery of Stone”. Edmonstone found this temple, “in tolerable preservation, though half filled with sand”, which he tried to clear, but quickly gave up. I found it with a motorbike parked inside the visitor centre; a dusty blue basket rested on its back, making its presence at least excusable as an ad-hoc storage space.
The walls within were salmon-pink and hung with information panels, which explained the temple's history and recent restoration work.

Despite taking the form of a typical ancient Egyptian temple (court, hypostyle hall, sanctuary), Deir el-Haggar was erected under Roman Emperor Nero (54-67), and decorated under his successors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian in honour of the gods Amun, Mut and Khonsu. Stepping outside the visitor centre, I spied distant Roman tombs dug into the sandy hills; in the early first Millennium, farms and priests' houses stood on these now barren plains between the temple and the tombs. After “inheriting” Egypt, the Romans had actively encouraged Nile Valley Egyptians to relocate to Dakhla to produce cereals, oil and wine, meant to feed the imperial machine. Massive aqueducts were built near the temple, connecting springs and fields.

This prosperity wasn't to last, however. Early in the 5th century CE, massive sandstorms engulfed Dakhla's farms and temples, apparently while they still functioned. Deir el-Haggar was among those enveloped, causing its north wall to collapse and its ceilings to fall.

Abandoned to the elements, it became a ruin, ignored until Edmonstone's visit and only properly documented in 1908. And this wasn't the end of its woes; between 1965 and 1968, antiquities looters attacked the temple on nine occasions, cutting away 32 fragments of the best preserved parts of the walls. Only recently had Deir el-Haggar been reconstructed and its fabric properly protected. To combat the shifting sands, archaeologists had erected a palm-branch fence around its perimeter. Spare temple blocks, unplaced during the reconstruction, lay at its edge, awaiting some Lego savant. A guard's hut, a TV antenna optimistically protruding from its roof, symbolised newfound protection.

Over the next hour, I wandered through the temple, its columns rising to a vacant ceiling, some still bearing the remains of ancient plaster and paint. Broken pottery littered the floor. I spotted the word “Caesar” written in hieroglyphs within the royal cartouches. Small orange-beaked birds chirped in dusty holes. Bats hid in subtle cracks. They were rare signs of life in a now desolate place.

Outside, I found the names of Rohlfs' expedition members carved high on a column, dramatically illustrating the height of the sand in his day. The names of other early explorers can also be found at the temple, simultaneously presenting a compendium of desert exploration and incriminating the high class vandals. Among them were the names of both Edmonstone and Drovetti.

Following his return from the oases, Drovetti had written that his visit to Dakhla had occurred “toward the end of 1818”, contradicting Edmonstone's claim to have beaten him there, as he had only arrived on 16th February 1819. This created a controversy that was only settled one hundred years later, when a graffito at Deir el-Haggar, dated 26th February 1819, was found to bear the name Rosingana; as Rosingana had accompanied Drovetti to Dakhla, this provided the proof that the French Consul had indeed exaggerated the date of his arrival to bolster his claim of being the first European to visit the oasis. Dick Dastardly-like indeed!

Before leaving, in an overlooked gateway penetrating the temple's mud-brick temenos wall, I found images of gods, sacred animals and Greek inscriptions painted by the Roman-era devout. One of the earliest was a bearded image of the god Sarapammon-Hermes, upon which later worshippers had added pictures of a ram – symbol of Amun-Re – and a Thoth baboon, along with four floral wreaths with looped ends. At first, I was moved by the presence of these crudely painted images of devotion and the darkened patches of plaster left by the touch of pious, ancient worshippers. Then I realised that Sarapammon-Hermes, now overlaid with floral wreaths protruding from either side of his torso, appeared like the robot from Lost in Space.

It was time to move on.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Egyptian Museum goes back in time

From my latest article for The Art Newspaper.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is turning back the clock. On 15 December, it is due to launch an “initiation zone” in the east wing of its Tutankhamun Gallery, where four halls have been returned to the condition in which they appeared when the museum opened in 1902.

To read more, click here...

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Just a quick post to say happy thanksgiving to my American friends. This pharaoh in Brussels says, "insert food here..."


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

16 Reasons Why Egypt's Pyramids were Tombs

I often get asked, "how can you be sure that the pyramids were built as royal tombs?" Here are the reasons I can give (I'll add more as I remember them...)

Khafre's Pyramid at night, Giza. Photo: Garry Shaw
1) The ancient Egyptians say that the pyramids were tombs: The Harper's Song of Antef (date uncertain, though perhaps composed during the 1st Intermediate Period) refers to "the gods who existed before, who rest in their pyramids (mrw), and the blessed nobles, likewise buried in their pyramids (mrw)." Thus, pyramids were places of burial.

2) Royal pyramids are usually surrounded by a cemetery. Sarcophagi are found within pyramids. Rich Egyptians were buried in sarcophagi, as evidenced within many tombs. The presence of sarcophagi within pyramids thus suggests a mortuary purpose.

3) In the New Kingdom, private burials at Thebes often came in three parts: 1) the burial proper, beneath the ground; 2) a chapel where visitors could leave offerings; and 3) above the chapel, a pyramid, associated with the solar cult. Burials are thus associated with pyramids.

4) The Abu Sir papyri mention priests serving in a mortuary cult conducted in the temples beside the Abu Sir pyramids.
As priests offered to dead kings in the large temples immediately beside pyramids, it would seem likely (given the above points), that the king was buried inside. Royal mortuary temples beside pyramids are thus the royal equivalent of offering chapels in private tombs. It must always be remembered that the pyramids cannot be studied in isolation: each was part of a larger complex of buildings dedicated to the cult of the dead king.
5) Beyond the Abu Sir Papyri, the names and titles of many individuals working in the mortuary cults of various Old Kingdom pyramid temples are known. For example:

6) King Menkaure of the 4th Dynasty ordered a tomb be built for the courtier Debehen during a visit to see the construction of his pyramid. This courtier's tomb is in Giza. 

The Pyramid Texts of King Pepi I, Saqqara.
Photo: Garry Shaw
7) The pyramid texts are there to help the king reach his afterlife. They are written on the inside of the chambers beneath the late 5th and 6th Dynasty pyramids, even on the walls of the burial chamber around the sarcophagus. These texts bear the name of the king who is being helped into the afterlife. 

8) Pyramids' names are associated with kings. This is not an absolute proof of them being tombs, but at least it re-enforces their royal connection. Khufu's pyramid was "Akhet Khufu" - "Khufu's Horizon". The horizon was a place of transition. Papyri fragments from Wadi el-Jarf mention fine limestone blocks being sent from the Tura quarries to "Akhet Khufu". 

9) Although the only inscriptions known in the 4th Dynasty Giza pyramids are in places that weren't meant to be seen, the associated temples outside were inscribed and decorated. It was not a common practice in the 4th Dynasty for burial chambers/shafts of the elite to be decorated either, only the chapels used by the priests. Thus, it seems that royal burial practice was no different, unless wooden frames with hangings (both perishable) were originally placed around the chambers (something I mention in my book The Pharaoh). Incidentally, king's names, including Khufu's, have been found written in red ink on blocks, as part of inscriptions designating which work crews dragged which blocks, e.g. "The Crew 'The pure ones of Khufu'". 

The Step Pyramid of King Djoser, Saqqara.
Photo: Garry Shaw
10) Djoser's Pyramid at Saqqara, which predates those at Giza, contains scenes that show the king performing ritual acts in the tunnels beneath the pyramid; these scenes also mention the king's name. There is also a massive burial vault beneath the pyramid itself. Djoser's pyramid - the first in history - began life as a large mastaba-tomb, which was added to over the course of the king's reign; whatever reason motivated these changes, the evolution from mastaba to pyramid occurred under Djoser. 

11) The Great Pyramid was the result of a approx. 100 years of architectural evolution and experimentation. Khufu's father, Sneferu, built three large pyramids, each different, whilst attempting to make a true, flat-sided pyramid.

12) Because the pyramids had been robbed by the time of the 26th Dynasty, the kings of this period renewed these burials by interring new coffins inscribed for the dead kings e.g. this one for Menkaure: 
Sometimes new bodies were placed inside pyramids too - lots of bone fragments were found beneath the Step Pyramid of Djoser, for example. These later restorations explain why some Old Kingdom pyramids had sealed sarcophagi when discovered, yet were empty - they had been resealed. Being covered in gold and jewellery, any royal body would have been an obvious target for ancient looters, similarly explaining why the bodies themselves haven't survived.

13) In the Old Kingdom, kings did not supply resources to the temples of the gods across Egypt, instead they channelled their resources into the royal tomb building project. During the 4th Dynasty - when the Giza Pyramids were built - this went towards the pyramid itself; under the 5th and 6th dynasties, resources were focused on the associated pyramid temples and their decoration, rather than the pyramids themselves. This is why they are smaller.
The Great Sphinx, with the pyramid of Khufu in the
background. Giza. Photo: Garry Shaw. 
14) Some people argue that the ink inscriptions of Khufu's name in the relieving chambers above the King's Chamber in the Great Pyramid are forgeries, put there after the pyramid was completed or by the chamber's discoverer; this, however, is physically impossible due to the location of many of these inscriptions, particularly those between blocks. This, when combined with other evidence presented here, shows that the Great Pyramid was built under Khufu and most probably had the same function as all other known pyramids.

15) It is sometimes argued that no corpse has ever been found buried within a pyramid. This is, however, not the case. For the recently discovered remains of a queen, see:
Also, quoting from my book, The Pharaoh, Life at Court and on Campaign, regarding early examples of royal mummies:
"Fragments of bodies were found in Old Kingdom pyramids, but it is unclear whether these are the remains of kings or later intrusive internments; a well preserved mummy, sometimes cited as being that of King Merenre, was found near the royal sarcophagus in the Pyramid of Merenre at South Saqqara, while a single canopic jar in the burial chamber of Pepi I was found to still contain the king’s tightly wrapped internal organs."
Although I hedge my bets here regarding Merenre (he might be 18th Dynasty), many Egyptologists do often cite the mummy as being that of the king. Take a look at the mummy for yourself at the Imhotep Museum in Saqqara. It is also quite possible that pieces of the original royal bodies are among the assorted remains from different periods found in the various Old Kingdom pyramids. Finally, given that the oldest pyramids are roughly 4,500 years old and have been robbed repeatedly, should we really expect them to still contain their original occupants? 

16) Some argue that the pyramids are nothing but cenotaphs, but given the above points and the absence of any other likely royal tombs from these periods, it would seem unlikely.