In August Taneash Sidpura came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the topic of his PhD research - golden flies, golden lions & oyster shells. These pendants are often stated to be military awards handed out by Pharaoh to people who distinguished themselves in battle, but having researched these items Sidpura disagrees with that assessment.

He began his talk by giving us some background to the items & their assumed meaning. It's typical of nobles to record self praise on stelae & in their tomb inscriptions. Generally this is related to the king, and how wonderfully the noble did the things the king wanted him to do. Sidpura showed us some examples of these sorts of texts including the 12th Dynasty stela of Sobek-khu. These texts also record the gifts and rewards that the king has given them for doing these things. Lots of these gifts are golden objects - including gold jewellery, golden flies and golden lions. The specific texts which record gifts of golden flies & lions are detailing the accomplishments of military men, and so these objects have been interpreted as being like modern medals. The conventional wisdom is that they were a bit like chivalric orders - Order of the Golden Fly or Order of the Golden Lion. The objects have also been assigned meanings by archaeologists - flies mean persistence, lions mean bravery and weapons indicate military prowess. Which makes a neat & tidy story, which is reflected in many museum labels etc, but Sidpura pointed out that when you start to examine it at all closely it begins to unravel. One key problem is that these same objects - golden flies, golden lions - are also found in the burials of women and children who would be unlikely to have medals for valour in battle. And it's clear if you look at a wider context that weapons as grave goods actually signify power & authority rather than strictly military prowess.

Sidpura next went through each of the three object types from his title in turn, before returning to consider what golden flies actually mean. Golden lions have been re-investigated more recently than the other two, so Sidpura has not himself looked at these objects in detail. He showed us some examples of the sort of things that he was talking about - small lions on rectangular bases about 2-3cm long. There are 50 known examples from the 12th & 13th Dynasty, none of which were found in the burials of men (of those where the context is known). In contrast 22 were found in the burials of women. The researchers who re-investigated the meanings of golden lions looked at references to lions in texts and images, and found that they consistently represented the king. It makes sense, therefore, that they are found in the burials of royal women as signifiers of their relationship to the king. The texts that mention them as gifts to nobles also make sense in this context - they indicate the close relationship between the king and the man who served him well.

String of 7 fly amulets
A string of 7 fly amulets from the 17th Dynasty, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Photo from the Met, via Wikimedia Commons

There are 500 examples of golden flies, most of which are cut out of a flat sheet of gold in a shape roughly resembling a capital A. Some are just the flat shape, and others have a golden body attached to the flat sheet. One of the examples he talked about was rather unusual - they were from the grave goods of Ahhotep (an 18th Dynasty queen) at Dra Abu el Naga. Normally golden flies are about 1cm in size, but these are 9cm long. She's described in a text almost like she was a king, so between this & the golden fly necklace she was once thought to be a warrior queen. However if you look more closely at the text it is talking about her ability to rule and not her military prowess, and it's also not clear that it's intended to be literal. Not all of Ahhotep's grave goods were found - her tomb wasn't actually found, but her coffin and some grave goods were found buried in a pit which was presumably a robbers' cache. Those grave goods which were found back up the idea that she was a powerful woman, not necessarily a fighting woman.

Fly ornaments are not always made of gold. There is a long history from the Naqada II period through to the Roman period of flies made out of materials such as faience or hard stones. Sidpura showed us several examples of these. Some of them were like scarab amulets in that they had texts inscribed on the bottom. They were often strung with other amulets - generally protective amulets such as Bes figures. Another example was of flies strung with ancestor bust beads.

The context they were found in is known for about 125 of the 500 golden flies. Of these 63% were found associated with women, 3% with men, 3% with children and 31% unknown. As Sidpura pointed out this doesn't fit with the military award hypothesis! There were also many designs of the flies, so they were not a distinctive award. And they were not unique in form, being based on non-golden flies. Whilst 2 of the 3 known examples of images of Egyptian men wearing flies are military men, there are also many images of Nubians wearing flies. These Nubians are often shown as captives, or being smited - and again this doesn't fit well with the military award hypothesis.

There are only 2 texts which refer to golden flies (both referencing them as gifts from Pharaoh), all the other texts refer to the real insects. The references to the real insects are interesting - fly dung or fly blood is an ingredient in medicine or magic. And when Sidpura said this my first thought was "fly dung? how'd you get that?" and that is what he went on to explain. The bee was a symbol of the king, and so beekeepers couldn't refer to themselves as beekeepers because it would be presumptuous. Instead they called themselves fly keepers. Thus fly dung is honey! And what is interesting about this in the context of golden flies as gifts is that it may put the golden flies into the same category as the golden lions - are they symbols of the king? Another association for flies (the real insects) is that in the Coffin Texts they are linked to regeneration and rebirth. So in texts flies are a metaphor for bees (and thus the king) and for regeneration.

Sidpura now moved on to discuss oyster shells. He started by showing us a picture of an example of the objects he was talking about - this was a 10cm shell, likely to be from a pearl bearing species. It was engraved with the cartouche of Senwosret. There are 60 known examples of these shells, and all are very alike, even down to the handwriting being similar. On the various shells there are two different cartouches, and so it's possible to work out that it's Senwosret I. So this particular variant is a short-lived practice, although that are other examples that don't match these ones. The shells were mostly purchased and so the contexts are not secure. One of these purchases was by the Egyptologist Herbert Winlock in about 1922 - he bought a mummified arm which came with one of these shells and a piece of leatherwork with military significance. Some more shells came from tomb MMA507 at Deir el Bahri. This was a mass grave of warriors from the Middle Kingdom, and so this is also a military context. Thus the shells were assumed to be military awards, but once again a closer examination throws this into doubt. Of those where there is a context of some sort 4 had no military connection, and 4 had some military connections but mostly of a tenuous nature. And again the inscribed oyster shells are not unique - they are a sub-type of a more general class of oyster shell ornaments. And these uninscribed oyster shells are often associated with women - either being found with them, or being drawn onto female figurines. The significance of the inscribed oyster shells is more likely to do with having the king's name on them - again as with the lions, and perhaps the flies, it is a symbol that links the recipient to the king.

Sidpura finished his talk by returning to the golden flies and summarising his conclusions about their significance. Firstly, there is no evidence that they symbolise persistence. It is also notable that they are not gifted alone, but are always gifted with other golden objects. Sidpura sees their significance to the recipient as being the gold that they were made from, not the form that the gold was in. In the opposite fashion to modern gifts & awards the content was less important than the material. The objects emphasise the relationship between the king and the recipient - that the king values the recipient enough to give precious gifts to them.

This talk was an interesting reminder that even things that "everyone knows" are worth properly re-examining every now & then. And that the assessments by previous archaeologists may tell us more about their own culture and assumptions than about Egyptian culture!

In July Ilona Regulski visited us at the Essex Egyptology Group to talk about her work on some Middle Kingdom texts written on papyrus fragments from Asyut. She is now working at the British Museum as a curator, but this talk was about the work she did before starting that job so the papyrii in question are not at the British Museum but instead are in the collection at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Their accession numbers are P10480-10482, and she used those as names for the pieces when talking about them.

Regulski began her talk by giving us context for the papyrii. They were acquired by Ludwig Borchardt (who also acquired the Nefertiti bust for the Neues Museum), who bought them in Luxor. The seller said they'd been found in Asyut and this provenance is confirmed by textual details which she explained later in the talk. Asyut is the most central point in Egypt, at the natural border between Upper & Lower Egypt. It was never the capital of Egypt, but was a trade nexus and a melting pot. These circumstances encouraged creativity & cultural development and it has had a big influence on the rest of Egypt. (For more about Asyut see my write up of 2017's Sackler Lecture at the British Museum, given by Jochem Kahl.)

The texts on these papyrii include some of the Coffin Texts, which are a corpus of mortuary texts normally found written on coffins. This is the reason for the name, but she pointed out that it's a bit of a weird name because that's not the most important thing about them and they also aren't exclusively on coffins (as witness these papyrii). The texts develop in the Middle Kingdom from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom, and later develop into New Kingdom texts such as the Book of the Dead. They were ritual texts intended to be used in rituals, so writing them down (whether on coffins or not) is a secondary context. They contain a lot of information about how living people interacted with dead people, and what rituals were used. They were probably written on papyrus for actual use and only transferred onto coffins as a later development. She gave us an example of a spell at this point - one of the first things the deceased must do is cross the Nile, and so there is a spell that lists the pieces of a boat & how to construct it so that the deceased can demonstrate their knowledge of this in the afterlife. Which also gives Egyptologists information about boats & boat construction.

Regulski gave us the broad outlines of the conclusions she reached before telling us how she reached them, so that we would understand more clearly what the point of the various bits of evidence was. The papyrii that she worked on come under three accession numbers. 10482 is a single complete sheet of papyrus. 10481 consists of 6 fragments, and 10480 of 36 fragments. There are two distinct groups - one is a collection of anonymous fragments and the other, consisting of 10482 & 10481a-b, is connected by their naming a man called Sedekh. The anonymous fragments might be templates for writing onto a coffin or copying for personalised rituals, and may relate to Sedekh's profession as a scribe. The texts that are addressed to Sedekh are a personalised mortuary ritual which is then re-activated to ask Sedekh for help, and a letter to Sedekh explaining what help is required.

There were three strands of evidence that Regulski had used to come to these conclusions: the content of the texts; the textual traditions; palaeographical evidence. For the rest of her talk she went through these in turn.

On the front side of the single sheet, 10482, is a personalised liturgy for Sedekh. Regulski stressed that we should remember that this was a ritual which was used and not just buried with him. The piece of papyrus it was written on was not fresh, it had been previously used. This is very unusual for a religious text, it was almost embarrassing not to have new papyrus to use. The previous text had only been at one end of the papyrus and was an administrative document - a list of names. After it had been mostly removed the new liturgical text started with a very wide margin so that it was only written on the virgin papyrus. The scribe then left an equally large margin at the other side of the document so that it was symmetrical. In the spells Sedekh is named. Sometimes on these sorts of documents there is a gap left for the name of the deceased to be filled in later, but not in this case - his name was written with the rest of the text. The name Sedekh is found in other contexts linked to Asyut - in tomb N13.1 in the necropolis at Asyut there is mention of a Sedekh, Chief of Cattle, and on a wooden statue base from Asyut now in the British Museum (EA45070) the inscription names a Sedekh. It isn't clear if either of these is the same man as the one named on Regulski's papyrus, but it does link the name to Asyut which backs up the assumed provenance for these papyrii.

On the reverse side of 10482 there is an offering list at the top of the sheet, which is unusual. Below this was a dedication text which was added later as a postscript to the ritual and consists of transfiguration spells including those for turning into an Akh. If something went wrong in life which couldn't be explained it was assumed that it was the influence of someone who had died. And it must be that you had in some way failed to carry out the rituals properly, because if you had then the deceased would've transformed into an Akh and would not be haunting you. So this dedication is a re-activation and repeat of the rituals to essentially do a better job of burying the deceased. Added to this liturgical text is a request for help in getting children. This was a common theme for texts requesting help from the deceased - if there is no obvious (to the Ancient Egyptians) medical reason for a failure to conceive then someone in the afterlife is involved. It might be the deceased you have improperly buried, or might be someone that your properly buried deceased can intercede with on your behalf. The text implies that Sedekh has helped in similar cases in the past.

10481a-b are two fragments that contain a letter to the dead. This text is very difficult to read, because pretty much every sentence in the text is missing its verb! As a result Regulski isn't entirely sure what the subject of the letter is - it could be about stillborn children or it could be a problem with inheritance. Inheritance is also the business of the deceased as it will affect his or her cult. The letter lists Sedekh's epithets as "effective one", "Akh in Necropolis" and "true of voice", which is more than in the other documents. This implies that the letter is the last text to be written - in earlier texts he's not yet an Akh, for instance.

The liturgical text on 10482 is a purification ritual which mimics the mummification process, and Regulski went through various levels of meaning in part of the text. Coffin Text Spell 169 titles itself a spell for (re)assembling the two river banks. It then talks abstractly about drying out river banks, followed by putrefaction which his father should not see and finally about re-unification of river banks. The word used for river banks has two determinatives (which are hieroglyphs added to the end of a word to show what class of word it is). It has the determinative for words to do with land and the one for words to do with gods. So the banks are not just banks, they can also stand for the goddesses Isis & Nepthys. The part of the text that refers to putrefaction names a god "he who has putrefaction in his face" - this god is said to swallow the putrefaction of Osiris and spit it out as the flood, a metaphor for the removal of liquids from the body in the mummification process. Overall there are three levels of meaning in this sequence - firstly the reassembling of the river banks is a metaphor for the passage of the deceased to the afterlife. It is also a metaphor for unification of the father and the son. And finally it is a metaphor for the mummification process. So this text does several jobs for the deceased and his living family members. The text is written in a style that has the deceased taking an active role, so he is both beneficiary and performer. This lets the family member performing the ritual identify with the deceased, and so it re-integrates the deceased into the family at which point he can be asked for help. The text is also left in the tomb, so that the deceased has access to it whenever it may be needed.

Regulski's second strand of evidence was her investigation of the textual traditions of the different texts on these pieces of papyrus. Different areas had different textual traditions, and this was an evolving process not a static one. The first thing she noted was that the texts are in the 1st person, which is a style only found in texts from Asyut - backing up, again, the provenance of the texts. A collection of texts, like these papyrii, may not all come from the same tradition. She talked about the Mesehti coffins, now in Cairo Museum, which have the largest number of coffin texts on any coffin. Each coffin has different texts, some of which are nominally the same (i.e. we'd give them the same Spell number) but they are from different traditions on the two coffins. So having both traditions must've been important. This is also the case in Regulski's papyrii - the texts on 10482 come from a different tradition to the ones on the other fragments.

Internal clues from the texts can be used to construct "family trees" for the different versions. Regulski explained that she can use things like the grammar used in a particular version to see how far away from the original Classical Middle Egyptian text it is. Also when scribes are copying the texts they may make mistakes, which then propagate through the "generations" of copied texts. From this sort of evidence she is able to say that the texts on 10482 are later adaptations, whereas the fragments are closer to the original texts. It's important to remember that being further from the template doesn't necessarily mean a text has been written more recently than a text that's closer to the template. There are examples of texts known to date to the New Kingdom that are closer to the originals than other examples of the same texts that date to the Middle Kingdom. What's more important than when in history it was written was what texts the scribe had access to to copy.

The last strand of evidence that Regulski told us about was palaeography. This is the study of ancient handwriting and she was using it to answer questions about how many scribes were involved in writing the texts, and so what parts of them were written at the same time & what were subsequently added. It's generally a very subjective way to look at the text, so Regulski was trying to be more objective & mathematical in how she used it.

First she told us about her investigation of the liturgy text. One measurement she looked at was the spacing of the columns, and at a particular point in the text the gaps between the columns get narrower. Another measurement was the number of ligatures the scribe used. Ligatures are when a scribe joins two or three signs together when writing quickly, as the hieratic script develops these become standardised. This text is still early hieratic and not particularly cursive, but there are still some ligatures & Regulski counted their frequency in the text. At the same point at which the column spacing narrows, the frequency of ligatures increases. She also looked at the pattern of when the scribe dipped his pen to replenish the ink - the frequency of ink dips also increases at the same point that the other changes happen. So this text seems to've been written in two sessions - perhaps indicating two different scribes, but it's also possible that it was one scribe in two different sessions with the second one being more rushed.

There are corrections or additions in the first part of the text. All but one of these are additions that change the meaning of the text. They each change the tense of a verb from present tense to an enduring tense - changing it from saying something is happening right now, to saying something is repeatedly happening. Regulski speculated that this might be part of reactivating the ritual, and it shows that people re-interpreted these texts as necessary for the situation. There are no additions to the letter to the dead, so she thinks this is contemporary with the corrections to the liturgical text.

Using these three strands of evidence Regulski has identified 5 or 6 phases of use of these personalised texts for Sedekh. First an already used piece of papyrus was cleaned for re-use and the first half of the liturgy was written on it. Then the second half was written. The offering list & dedication on the back were added next, and then corrections made to the liturgy. The letter was then deposited in the tomb as well. She believes there were 5 different scribes involved in the process. She particularly drew our attention to how although the Coffin Texts were in some sense standard & produced en masse each copy was unique and personalised to fit the deceased & their situation.

This was a fascinating talk, demonstrating just how much information you can glean from a small collection of papyrii if you carefully examine them.

This is the second half of Ramadan Hussein's talk that he gave to us at the Essex Egyptology Group in February - the first part is here. During this part of the talk Hussein told us about the exciting new discoveries that he & his team have made at Saqqara which have now been announced by the Ministry of Antiquities (see also the Tübingen University announcement).

Ramadan Hussein on site at Saqqara in 2016

Ramadan Hussein on site at Saqqara in October 2016

Hussein said that they have continued to excavate the area to the south of the three tombs he discussed in the first half of his talk. As a reminder, on top of the main shaft they discovered the remnants of a basic superstructure and then to the south of this was a chapel for offerings. The initial discovery for this further excavation was a small shaft the size of the side shafts of the tombs to the south of the chapel. This had holes around it that were to hold vessels, plus a ramp built up to the shaft. There are similar structures at Old Kingdom mastaba tombs which are for an offering ritual, and so this was what he assumed this structure was - but it turned out to be something much more interesting.

When they excavated the shaft it was full of distinct layers of pottery vessels, that looked like cooking vessels and were stuffed with botanical materials. These botanical materials are mostly cereals and other seeds - but not the useful stuff that you might eat. Instead it's mostly waste and is similar to the packing material found in KV63 (an embalmers cache found in the Valley of the Kings in 2005 near Tutankhamun's tomb). Partway down the shaft they discovered a dog burial, which Salima Ikram came to help excavate. This 4-7 year old dog had clearly been left outside before burial as there was not much flesh left, but it was buried with care - a burial rather than a disposal. Further down there was some red & white linen and some large insects (I didn't quite catch the name, I think he called them cockroaches at one point and Palmetto bugs at another point), which are symbols of the goddess Neith. Hussein said they're going to investigate the linen further - one piece has a stain of something like resin on it that they plan to analyse, and they can also look at how the cloth was made.

At 10m deep the shaft cuts through the 2nd Dynasty tunnels that extend under Unas's 5th Dynasty pyramid (this is part of why Khaemwaset had to restore Unas's pyramid in the New Kingdom period, as it wasn't structurally sound). Below this level the shaft is full of broken pottery & stones. The stones appear to've been part of a building which was then dismantled and used to fill the shaft. And finally at the bottom of the shaft there is a 9m x 5m room. At the east side of the room there is a ledge or raised platform, and in the south east corner there is a storage vessel buried in the floor with walls built around it. There are signs that this was a room that was used - human activity took place here, it wasn't just for disposal or storage.

Hussein told us that some of the pottery they've discovered during this excavation are measuring cups labelled in hieratic and demotic. This is really exciting as the labels are instructions and ingredients for the embalming process - they say things like the name of an oil plus a number. Perhaps saying "use this measure of oil for the Nth time you use it". There are also residues inside the measurement cups - which means that they will be able to find out what the different named oils actually were. Hussein is currently putting together a team to study these further.

So this shaft appears to be both some sort of work area and where an embalmer disposed of his now sacred tools that he'd finished with. Hussein & his team continued to investigate the area near this shaft, as it seemed plausible that there would be a workshop nearby - perhaps the building that had been dismantled & put down the shaft had once been part of such a thing. Immediately to the south of the shaft they could already see signs of the corner of a wall. When excavated they found a rectangular enclosure divided into two by a ramp running from south to north. In one half they found a mudbrick basin with vessel holes around it, and in the other half there were traces of a matching basin which was much more destroyed. The shape of this workshop looks like Old Kingdom representations of a temporary purification tent. These Old Kingdom structures had to be dismantled & disposed of after use, just like this 26th Dynasty structure seems to've been - although it was a longer lasting structure than the very temporary tents.

They also found vessels in situ like those disposed of the shaft, and some of them had a tar residue inside. Tar was the main component of the mummification process during the 26th Dynasty, so this provides further evidence for the idea that this was an embalmer's workshop. They have also discovered braziers which would've been used to heat the tar. And four torches - which is a number mentioned in texts describing various rituals that should take place during mummification.

Continuing further to the south of the workshop Hussein & his team discovered a new large shaft. This is not another tomb like those of the three 26th Dynasty officials that he started his excavations with - instead it is if anything more exciting to an archaeologist. It is absolutely full of burials!

The first burials they discovered were intrusive burials in the walls around the top of the shaft. As Hussein pointed out this implies that this was a place of some significance to the local community - people wanted to be buried near it. At about 9m deep in the shaft it once again breaks through to link to the 2nd Dynasty galleries - it seems they did this on purpose & knew roughly where and how to deep to drop their shaft in order to do this. In fact you can see a first attempt to break through at 8m deep before they realise they're too high and dig down another meter. Below the level of the 2nd Dynasty galleries are the burial chambers, which he said had been disturbed in antiquity. The chambers are full of debris, which is partly from decaying mummies, and under this there are row upon row of mummies. The mummies are separated from each other by white sand, which is both pragmatic and ritual. The shaft is clearly a communal burial place that has been used over a long period of time.

The people who have been buried here come from various different levels of society. Many are in the large groups in the big burial chambers. Some are in separate chambers on their own or in a small group. Others are in a hallway rather than in a burial chamber proper. And they have varying amounts & types of burial goods including some in coffins. One burial had a set of 365 shabti figures which had clearly been in a now decayed box. One of the burials was clearly of a very high status woman (for this group) as she was in a bead net dress decorated with Nut and the Sons of Horus. Another high status burial had a wooden coffin and an obsidian head plate, but this individual clearly didn't have the best quality mummification as the body has decayed and all that is left is a shell of tar covered linen.

Hussein and his team have excavated further down the shaft as well - below this first level of burial chambers in the shaft is a layer of silt. The shaft must've been open to the air and rain must've gotten into the shaft, which will be why so much of the wooden material in the burials above this layer has decayed. At this level there is also the body of a child - but this is not a burial, instead it looks like this was someone who fell in.

Deeper yet there is another chamber with even more mummies in it. As with the burial chambers further up these are also water damaged. They also come from a range of levels of society, and include some individuals with painted masks. Some of the mummies look like they were wedged into the last available space once the chamber was filling up.

Continuing deeper into the shaft at the 21 meter depth there is another burial chamber - this time with 2 mummies in it. These both have an associated inscription, with a lineage for each of them. Hussein explained that they seem to've been an uncle/nephew pair. They've continued to excavate further into the shaft, and have got as far as 30 meters deep where there are yet more chambers. There's a large entrance marked with a drawing of a mummy, and this is where they'll be investigating next season - so far they've seen that there are more mummies and shabtis, plus at least one anthropoid coffin with an inscription.

This was a very interesting second half to Hussein's talk. Clearly what he has unearthed next to the three sarcophagus tombs of officials of the 26th Dynasty is an embalming workshop and burial place for a local community which was used across a significant period of time. Very exciting! There's so much that can be learnt from the mummies and their burial goods and it's one of those discoveries that you're pleased happened now when we're interested in it rather than back in the days when archaeology was more like treasure hunting.

In May Robert Morkot came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the 25th Dynasty - kings from Kush. Chronologically the 25th Dynasty is in the Late Period at the end of the Third Intermediate Period. Kush is also referred to as Nubia, and is in the north of modern day Sudan stretching from Aswan to Khartoum. Nowadays this area is mostly desert but the rain line has changed and it was a much more fertile region during the time of Kush. Morkot prefers to use the term Kush instead of Nubia because it has fewer connotations. There are modern Nubians and it's not clear whether or not they have continuity with the 25th Dynasty era people. (Although old habits clearly die hard as he used Nubia & Kush pretty much interchangeably through the talk.) Morkot told us his interest in the region & period started when the temples were being moved when the High Dam was built at Aswan.

Morkot's talk was split into two parts - first he told us about what evidence we have for the Kushites and their time ruling Egypt, and then he put it all together to tell us what the modern reconstruction of the period is. In the first part he also told us about who found the evidence and what their worldview was - as he pointed out near the start of his talk how people used to think shapes what we think of the subject now. So it's important to know where our "facts" come from and to re-evaluate them in the light of those biases.

One of these critical biases for early investigators of the 25th Dynasty is that one of the Pharaohs of that dynasty, Taharqa, is mentioned in the Bible. 2 Kings 19:8-13 and Isaiah 37 (which are identical) mention him:

8 So Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria warring against Libnah: for he had heard that he was departed from Lachish.
9 And when he heard say of Tirhakah king of Ethiopia, Behold, he is come out to fight against thee: he sent messengers again unto Hezekiah, saying,
10 Thus shall ye speak to Hezekiah king of Judah, saying, Let not thy God in whom thou trustest deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria.
11 Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, by destroying them utterly: and shalt thou be delivered?
12 Have the gods of the nations delivered them which my fathers have destroyed; as Gozan, and Haran, and Rezeph, and the children of Eden which were in Thelasar?
13 Where is the king of Hamath, and the king of Arpad, and the king of the city of Sepharvaim, of Hena, and Ivah?

And even more importantly to the Victorians Taharqa is one of the "good guys" in the story - he's on the side of Judah and against the Assyrians. Nowadays Taharqa is more important to Egyptology because he has the first fixed date in Egyptian history. The year of his accession, 690 BCE, can be worked out by working backwards from known Roman & Greek dates cross-referencing with other cultures. It's apparently rather complicated, so Morkot didn't go into any more detail.

Manetho is the first source Egyptologists had for who ruled Egypt when - he lived during Ptolemaic times and his list of kings divides them up into the Dynasties we still use today. The decipherment of hieroglyphs then allowed the names in Manetho to be linked to names on monuments and stelae. There are also Assyrian records that tell us about the Kushites from the other side of the conflict between them. This textual evidence was then supplemented by evidence from excavations in Nubia through the 1920s and beyond, and the whole era was "sorted out" by the 1960s. Although of course the progression of knowledge has been a lot more messy than that short summary implies!

Having given us the overview Morkot went into more detail about the evidence that we have. One of the first modern(-ish) histories of Egypt was published by Ippolito Rosellini who travelled in Egypt with Jean François Champollion. One thing he was trying to do with his survey was to link the names in cartouches (that could now be read for the first time in millennia) to the names in Manetho. He was also interested in finding new names that Manetho hadn't mentioned, of which there are several in the 25th Dynasty. Manetho only names 3 kings but there are others both before & after those ones, who are rather more difficult to put in sequence & pin down to dates. There are many mentions of 25th Dynasty kings on the structures they built at both Karnak & Luxor - for instance Taharqa built a colonnade at Karnak & Shabaka built one at Luxor. In Medinet Habu there is a relief depicting Taharqa - much to the delight of 19th Century tourists who could now see this biblical ally of Judah.

Medinet Habu also has chapels each dedicated to a God's Wife of Amun. This was an important religious role (not just in the 25th Dynasty) and formed the backbone of the 25th Dynasty. References to their birth mother and father link them to the Pharaohs - they are daughters of kings. It is believed each woman adopted her successor. The imagery in the sculpture of these women is archaised - that is it looks like older Egyptian iconography rather than the contemporary Nubian imagery which has more ample bodies. The statues do have Nubian style faces so they mix both styles.

From textual evidence we know that Napata was a key city for the Kushite, but it has not actually been found & excavated - it is probably beneath the modern city in that area. Gebel Berkel is another key site and is on the other side of the river from Napata. The most striking feature of Gebel Berkel is the mountain, which stands out in isolation against the landscape. There are a lot of temples and palace complexes here, and it was excavated from 1914 by George Reisner. There are reliefs in the main temple which relate the conquest of Egypt by Piankhi at the start of the 25th Dynasty. Reisner also found a cache of broken colossal statues of the 25th Dynasty kings in black granite - they must've been quite spectacular when first made as they originally had gilded decoration.

Reisner also excavated the nearby Pyramids of Nuri, which include Taharqa's tomb which was found intact. Its contents included many shabti, and vessels which had Egyptian forms but Nubian decoration. Morkot explained that like the God's Wife of Amun statues in Karnak these show how the Nubian & Egyptian cultures were mingled in the elite of the 25th Dynasty.

Reisner next excavated at el Kurru, which is a royal necropolis. We had a talk about two of the tombs here 3 years ago given by Birgitte Balanda (post). The tombs here are two pyramids from later than Morkot's topic of the 25th Dynasty, a group of 25th Dynasty Queens and a group of 25th Dynasty Kings. There were a lot of beautiful objects found here - again some with Egyptian ideas and Nubian implementation. There were also some very Nubian things which don't show up at all in Egyptian iconography or artifacts.

At this point Morkot had finished covering the material & evidence, so we took a break for coffee & cake before he moved on to the way the period has been reconstructed from this evidence.

When Reisner excavated he developed a theory of how the tombs developed over time and reconstructed what he thought the was chronology at el Kurru, which he published but didn't explain his reasons in his publication. The earliest burials have a lot of artifacts that look like New Kingdom period. Including evidence for the red pot smashing ritual which Susanne Bickel also talked about in her talk in April (post) about re-excavating KV40. But Reisner says that they're not New Kingdom but instead are later. Which Morkot pointed out is difficult to square with the physical evidence, and with the fact that New Kingdom Egypt is known from other sources to have a presence in Nubia and to rule it. So it's not at all clear why Reisner drew this conclusion.

The paradigm is that nothing happens in Nubia between the time of Ramesses XI (end of the New Kingdom) and the 25th Dynasty, based in large part on Reisner's chronology. Morkot went off on a bit of a digression here about how ridiculous this idea is, as this is a time close to his heart. His PhD thesis was on precisely this "in between" period, to the perplexity of his senior colleagues who felt it couldn't be interesting or worth studying because "everyone knew" nothing happened. However if you look at the archaeological evidence without Reisner's blinkers on then there's a lot that was previously overlooked filling the period. Morkot didn't go into any detail about what he thought was actually happening in this period, but in essence his argument was that the people who were living there through the New Kingdom and then in the 25th Dynasty period would've had no reason to stop living there in the time in between. And Egypt carries on through the Third Intermediate Period, so why wouldn't Nubia? After all, the Nubian conquest of Egypt didn't come out of nowhere!

The rise of Assyria is an important part of the context for the Kushite conquest of Egypt that establishes the 25th Dynasty, and conflict with the Assyrians is a key part of the politics of the dynasty. The Assyrian empire is growing during this period, and imposing its authority on a large swathe of territory - this includes the destruction of Israel & Judah (hence Taharqa showing up in the Bible). So this is a powerful state threatening and even sometimes invading Egypt from the north. But conflict is not the only way the two interact, trade is also important. For instance there's evidence that the Assyrians import horses from Kush - Napata is a horse rearing area.

The founding king of the 25th Dynasty is Piankhi (or Piye, Morkot used the two names interchangeably). A stela of his records that he went to Thebes and had been in the presence of Amun, i.e. had visited Karnak. This had significance for the Nubians - Amun is the god that the main temple at Gebel Berkal was dedicated to and he was an important god for the Nubians. This stela of Piye's also says that he has priests appoint Chiefs & Kings amongst the contemporary Libyan rulers of the Delta - i.e. he is claiming the power to decide who rules. The most famous stela from Piankhi's time is called (by us) the Victory Stela, and it shows the Delta kings kneeling to him.

At this point the Delta is ruled by Libyans who have divided the region between lots of chiefs, plus some kings who govern those chiefs. In response to Piye extending his influence they got together and marched south to besiege Piye's vassals. So Piye sends his generals north to deal with this, but they fail and Piye needs to go in person. He is successful - he doesn't just drive the Libyans back, he also captures Memphis and conquers the Delta and then returns to Napata. The chronology of this isn't clear, but it is somewhere in the second half of the 8th Century BCE probably between 750 & 720 BCE.

After this the Kushites install themselves in Memphis & in Egypt. It's well documented that Piye's successor Shabaka builds at Karnak and Luxor, and it is generally assumed that he's reigning c.700 BCE. He's also known to have diplomatic contact with the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib. Shabaka's successor is Shebitiqo (or Shabataka) and he is also shown in reliefs at Karnak.

The next Pharaoh in the dynasty is Taharqa, who comes to the throne in 690 BCE (our first fixed date). The majority of his reign is the high point of the dynasty. However, later in his reign he has significant conflict with the Assyrians. The Assyrian King Esarhaddon succeeds in conquering Egypt to some extent - he definitely sacks Memphis and Thebes, and Taharqa's family may've been deported. But Taharqa managed to fight back and re-conquer Egypt. Esarhaddon gathered his army and returned intending his own re-conquest but died before he could achieve this. Taharqa also dies around this time and was succeeded by his nephew Tantamani. The conflict between Esarhaddon's son Ashurbanipal and Tantamani went even less well for the Kushites than did the conflict between their predecessors. Ashurbanipal finished the conquest and ended the 25th Dynasty. He installed a puppet ruler - this ruler's son would go on to found the 26th Dynasty as Psamtik I after he wrested independence from Assyria.

This wrapped up Morkot's narrative of the 25th Dynasty, but he ended his talk with an example of how no matter how settled & coherent a theory might seem to be it can always be thrown into doubt by new evidence. Relatively recently an inscription dating to c.706 BCE was found high up on a cliff at Tang-I Var. As part of the preamble of the inscription it says that Shabataka had diplomatic contact with Sargon II before this date - which doesn't fit with the standard chronology of the 25th Dynasty which has Shabaka as king at this point. So a lot of ink has been split trying to fit this new evidence into a consistent story with all the previous evidence. However Morkot thinks that this is all a waste of time in this case - this is just one inscription, other contemporaneous inscriptions name Shabaka. It's also very high up a cliff on the outskirts of Sargon II's territory so it's unlikely to have a "truth" that other more central & accessible inscriptions don't have. And finally Shabaka and Shabataka are only one sign different when written in cuneiform, so it's much more likely that the carvers of this difficult to reach inscription made a simple mistake. Which makes sense - after all, I'm sure there's at least one typo in this post of mine and our alphabet is so much easier to work with than cuneiform!

This was in general an interesting talk about a dynasty of Ancient Egypt that we don't often get to hear about in such detail. I did find it a little hard to follow at times tho, so I hope I've succeeded in writing it up accurately!

In the last talk of the Essex Egyptology Group study day Cédric Gobeil told us about an exciting discovery in the 2014/15 season of a female mummy with several tattoos. He began by giving us some context for the discovery, and showed us some photos of Bernard Bruyère's excavations of the eastern & western necropolises. Bruyère wasn't interested in the human remains, he was only interested in the amulets etc that he could find on these mummies. So he unwrapped all the mummies that he found, which sadly has the knock on effect of damaging the mummy. The remnants were put back into some of the tombs and just left there.

The female tattooed mummy was found in TT291 in the western necropolis, which wasn't the tomb where it was initially buried. Nobody knew there was anything in TT291 so when Gobeil first entered the tomb and discovered it was full of pieces of mummies & pieces of debris he got rather a shock! The tomb contents included skeletons, mummies, wrappings, coffin bits and whole coffins. The skeletons were generally mummies which had been unwrapped & deteriorated. The original context of the tomb contents was completely destroyed - some of the bits of coffin didn't even come from the western necropolis - but there are some hints in Bruyère's notebooks. Gobeil called in specialists like physical anthropologists, and the contents were conserved and investigated.

The first stage was to conserve all the mummies & other objects. Lots of the mummies were in plastic bags from the 1920s and they are now stored in acid free paper. They've also been numbered & tagged, and catalogued in a database. Whilst doing this work they discovered that one of the torsos had several tattoos on it.

At this point Gobeil took a step back and gave us some context for what was previously known about tattoos in Ancient Egyptian culture. At first the only evidence we had for tattoos came from figurines, particularly from the Pre-Dynastic and Middle Kingdom periods. It wasn't clear from those whether they were designs on figurines, designs that would've been painted on the skin or tattoos. The first tattooed bodies found were female, and the placement of the tattoos was always the breast or pubic areas. So the theory was that they were to do with sexuality and eroticism. All these were geometrical figures or dots. There is later evidence from vignettes of figurative art tattoos, but no physical evidence of these. Once again the tattooed individuals were always female, like the fragment of decoration on a house altar of a tattooed dancing girl that Gobeil talked about in the first talk of the day.

The torso that they found had several tattoos. When they photographed it and used software to enhance the photos they discovered 20 or more tattoos. Using photographs to identify them also allowed them to correct for the skin shrinkage that occurred during mummification. The most obvious one is on the neck, there are several more on the back and also on the upper arms. There were no tattoos on the breast or pubic region, in distinct contrast to previously known tattooed individuals. In another contrast, all the tattoos are symbolic and figurative art.

Gobeil now talked us through the various tattoos. I'm afraid that the following is a bit of a long list, but I thought a summary wouldn't get across the sheer extent & variety of symbols on this woman's body. On her neck she had 3 wadjet eyes, 2 baboons and 1 nefer symbol arranged symmetrically. In fact the tattoos on her back were the only ones that weren't a symmetrical set - only one scapula had been tattooed. On it was a symbol found on ivory wands, of a seated baboon with a wadjet eye. Her shoulder and upper arm tattoos were laid out as they were on a stela - if you look at someone side on the shape of the body here is reminiscent of a stela. On her upper arms were several different symbols. She had snakes facing forwards. There were also cross signs (a bit like four petalled flowers) of unknown meaning (but they also show up on reliefs in TT218 to do with a female offering ritual). She had handles of sistrums tattooed in a place that suggests they symbolically turned each of her arms into a sistrum. There were also 2 Hathor cows facing each other. On her front above the armpits were snakes over sun discs (like a uraeus on a sun disc), the goddess Wadjet wearing the red crown plus other unidentified symbols. And on her lower back there were lotus flowers blooming from her buttocks.

Who or what was she? It's not clear. All of her symbols are also found in votive graffiti on the Hathor temple. This suggests that she might in some fashion be linked to Hathor. But probably not a priestess, as texts say that they don't exist in the New Kingdom or later because women were considered too impure. There were also other roles for women in temples so this shouldn't be ruled out. Texts also talk about rḫt, wise women, who can cure snake bites. So are her tattoos part of a ritual piece of a magic?

She was not the only tattooed individual they have found in TT291. Gobeil told us about three more examples of body parts with tattoos. One of these was a left arm which had a walking lion smelling a lotus flower motif - which also shows up in the Book of the Dead. This was not tattooed on the arm as part of the funerary process - all the tattoos they've discovered were made during the life of the individual. They have also found a hip with more tattoos that look like a belt and which raises the possibility that representations of "naked women wearing belts" might actually be naked women who have tattoos. Another pair of legs attached at the hip (from a woman) had a tattoo on the thigh of a band holding 5 lotus flowers (like a garter). These examples are unlikely to be all of them - they haven't yet had time to examine all of the human remains from the tomb in this sort of detail.

In the third talk at the Essex Egyptology Group study day Cédric Gobeil broadened his focus to tell us about the work carried out by the whole team over the last 7 years - his time as director. His aims when he took on the job were threefold: to restore & preserve the archaeological structures, to enhance the site with the development of a site management programme and to continue the study of the monuments & objects (both in situ and in the storerooms). The talk covered each of the areas of the site in turn, giving an idea of the sort of things that were done in each place and some of the more interesting discoveries.

In the settlement area he started his term by seeing what repairs were needed, and it turned out that about 15% of the site needed emergency repair which took 2 years to accomplish. Their remit doesn't stretch to rebuilding the site to look as it would when it was occupied, instead they return it to what it looked like in Bernard Bruyère's time (but correcting mistakes). They try if at all possible to reuse the antique material, but sometimes that's not possible and they have to use modern mudbricks. These are always noticeably different from the original bricks so that it's clear which bits are rebuilt. They also cleared out 30-40cm of sand from each house.

Despite the assumption that Bruyère had done all the excavation possible at the site because of his haste there was a lot there for Gobeil's team to discover. They even found structural elements like walls that he hadn't recorded. There were around 1000 objects in the village that had been left behind by the previous excavation. These included ostraca, beads, stamped mudbricks and even bits of doorjambs. He showed us an example of an ostraca which had a god on it. It was found in situ in a wall, and was actually a votive stela. To the naked eye the design was only partially visible, but they've used software to enhance the photograph to show the whole thing.

They've also remade the map to correct Bruyère's mistakes, using modern technology including GPS to make it much more precise than he could ever have achieved. They've used this map to render 3D models, and will eventually reconstruct the houses virtually to the state they would've been in whilst occupied.

Gobeil next told us about the work they've done on 2 of the votive chapels. CV1 is to the south of the Ptolemaic temple and was in need of conservation work when he started as director - the roof was collapsing. So in 2012 they started work on this chapel - they cleared out the debris from the floor and rebuilt the roof more sturdily. They also restored the inside and it's now open to the public.

As they cleaned up CV1 they also excavated it. Again despite the idea that Bruyère had found everything there were still tens of objects from this small chapel alone - these included ostraca & a statue head. The contexts that these were found in also seemed plausible, meaning that they hadn't been moved by Bruyère's excavation. Gobeil told us about the texts on some of the ostraca. One talks about cyclic feasts, and another has the rather cryptic phrase "the wrath of Amenhotep I". There are other examples of this phrase on ostraca & they are probably the answers to questions that have been put to oracles. So this suggests that the chapel may've been an oracular chapel.

The interior of the chapel is also interesting in its own right. It was decorated with paintings and some of these still remain. There were seats round the edge of the chapel which were inscribed with the names of the people who sat on them (these are now in Turin). Chapels of this type are very rare and are only found in Deir el Medina and Amarna so studying them is important for understanding these sites.

The other chapel Gobeil told us about was CV4 where they have restored the building to the state that Bruyère left it in. Sadly the traces of decoration that Bruyère found on the shrine walls are no longer visible to the naked eye, but once again modern technology can be used to enhance photos of the chapel and reveal this decoration. One of the images is of a royal child, which Gobeil compared to a well known depiction of Ramesses II as a child which is now in the Louvre. Due to the similarity in style they think the chapel is from the Ramesside era and built to celebrate a king's jubilee festival.

In the Western Necropolis Gobeil's team have re-surveyed the area using the same technology as in the village. Again their goal is to generate 3D models of the area, and to use the photo enhancement software to reveal the decoration that has faded. So far they've done tombs TT2, TT6 and TT8. The Ministry of Antiquities is also very keen for them to prepare the tombs to be re-opened to the public. So they've been putting in wooden floors and lighting. They've also been restoring and conserving the tombs as they go.

Gobeil finished off this talk by telling us about another feature of the site that he thought they'd discovered but in 2017 it became clear they hadn't. The building they were hoping to excavate is called the khetem, which was the administrative office for Deir el-Medina. It was the place where the bureaucracy, the sheriff and the site security were based when the village was occupied. There are 60 ostraca which name this office, but it hasn't yet been found. So when initial investigation of a Ramesses II era structure near the entrance to the Ptolemaic temple showed it wasn't the simple house Bruyère had identified it as Gobeil was hopeful they'd discovered the khetem. It seems to be near a gate, a wall and a delivery area. It has a structure that looks like it would contain food & water for donkeys, plus a structure (also found in Amarna) linked to water delivery. However in 2017 they finally got a chance to excavate and it turned out to be the front section of a Ramesside era temple. The bits he'd thought were storage areas turned out to be part of a staircase and some side chambers. So not as exciting as they'd hoped, but they did discover some objects there including 150 ostraca and a stela. In the question & answer session after this talk Gobeil still seemed fairly optimistic they might find the khetem in the same sort of area. But it's possible the Ptolemaic temple is built on top of it (and in that case the ostraca in the Great Pit might've been dumped there by the Ptolemaic builders from the khetem's archives).

In his second talk of the Essex Egyptology Group study day Cédric Gobeil told us about his own personal work (as opposed to the work he oversaw as director). The original publications of the tombs at Deir el-Medina were some time ago, and the photographs were all in black & white and were supplemented by drawings that aren't to modern standards. And so the tombs need to be re-examined and republished - Gobeil has been working on tomb TT250. This tomb was originally identified as belonging to someone called Ramose from the reign of Ramesses II, but Gobeil's work now shows that it was the tomb of 9 women.

TT250 is in the mid-level of the western necropolis and is of small to average size. It has four chambers in the tomb chapel - one large one with 3 chapels off the back wall. Only the middle chapel at the back is decorated. The tomb itself is down a shaft in the courtyard in front of the chapel, there is a corridor leading from the shaft to a chamber with another chamber on the left of the corridor. Bernard Bruyère found little in the tomb, and Gobeil hasn't re-examined it.

The decoration of the chapel is in a style called "monochrome decoration" which is typical of Deir el-Medina tombs but unknown elsewhere in Egypt. Of the 22 tombs that use this decoration style TT250 is unique - all the rest are decorated in the burial chamber but here the decoration is in the chapel. The decoration uses four colours only - white, red, yellow and black. The name monochrome is thus a misnomer, but the overall impression is of yellow figures on a white background in contrast to the more colourful polychrome decoration used elsewhere.

Gobeil spent the majority of this talk walking us round the decoration in order & discussing it - which is always difficult to write up in any detail when I have none of the pictures so I shall instead try to summarise. Outside the chapel Bruyère had said there was no decoration, but Gobeil found that in certain lights there were traces of very faint decoration near the bottom. Once he'd seen that he found in their store room a door jamb that looks like a match both in terms of the decorative style & scene details and in terms of the names mentioned in the texts.

One of the surprising things about the internal decoration of the tomb chapel is that some of the offering bearers look like they are leaving the tomb. This is absolutely counter to usual practice, and seems to make no sense. Gobeil's theory is that the central axis of the decorative scheme doesn't match the central axis of the physical room. So instead of running through the centre of the door the axis runs through the middle of the "south" wall. I think the idea was that this axis lines up with north and the room itself doesn't quite do so. And once he'd identified that as the "real" axis all of the offering bearers & mourners were moving into the tomb.

There are 20 different women named in the tomb. 9 of these are represented as mummies, in two different groups, and these are the 9 women that Gobeil thinks are the actual tomb occupants. There are another 6 women who are receiving offerings, as well as women who are represented as part of couples receiving offerings. The offering bearers and mourners are all labelled as "son of" or "daughter of" one of the women. The 9 women buried here are titled as "servant", which is a unique case - no other tombs are for servants. And this provides us with some evidence for the social structure of the village - the households had servants, and these servants could (& did) have children.

The back (west-ish) wall is laid out like a giant stela. In the top register are Ramose and his wife, in the position of honour despite not being the tomb occupants. Other notable members of the community that we know from other tombs or documents are also depicted on the walls, some as adults and some as children. Gobeil thinks that this tomb was a shrine or memorial for the community as a whole, and the people depicted in it are a snapshot of who was in the community at the time the decoration was painted. He believes that this use was in addition to its use as a burial place for the 9 women, rather than that they were buried there because it was a shrine (or vice versa).

In April the Essex Egyptology Group held its annual study day. This year the subject was the workmen's village at Deir el-Medina with four talks given by Cédric Gobeil who was director of the French archaeological mission to the site for several years (before he became the Director of the Egypt Exploration Society in 2016). I've split my write-up into four parts, and this one covers the first talk.

"Archaeology in the Archive: A Short Historical Review of the French Excavations at Deir el-Medina"

This talk gave us historical context for the investigation of the site, as well as illustrating the information that can be gleaned by studying the archives of previous expeditions. Gobeil pointed out that archive archaeology is currently trendy - a combination of field archaeology being more difficult (more permissions, and the modern science takes much longer than the older treasure hunting style) and of how much unexpected & unpublished data lurks in the archives.

The village is positioned at the foothills of the Western mountains close to both the Valley of the Kings & the Valley of the Queens. The people who lived here were the workers (and their families) who built the tombs in these two valleys, and the village was occupied from the reign of Thutmose I to the end of the New Kingdom (roughly 1500 - 1000 BCE). The bulk of the excavation of the site was performed by a French team led by Bernard Bruyère who excavated there from 1922 to 1952. The work they did was so extensive that when Gobeil took up the job as director in 2011 he was told by friends & colleagues that he was making a mistake - it would be a dead end job with nothing left to find. Luckily for him this turned out not to be the case! The current work fills in the gaps that Bruyère left - some because he overlooked things and in other cases because he didn't have modern technology.

Gobeil showed us a map of the site drawn by Bruyère in 1956 which is still used as a reference to this day. The site can be split into 3 areas: the settlement, the necropolis to the west of the settlement and the cultic & religious area. He highlighted a few features of each of these to whet our appetites - for instance the walls around the settlement, which weren't to keep people in but were more likely to be for protection from the weather. The necropolis to the west is not the only necropolis at the site, but the eastern one doesn't seem to be the same population so isn't counted as part of Deir el-Medina nowadays. There are 491 tombs in the western necropolis of which 53 are decorated & have names. The cultic & religious area is dominated now by the Ptolemaic era temple which was built on top of the earlier structures that were contemporaneous with the workers in the village. These votive chapels were dedicated to the same gods as the later Ptolemaic structure, so there is some sort of continuity with the original inhabitants.

Bruyère hadn't been the first archaeologist to work at Deir el-Medina, although the first people to dig there in the first half of the 19th Century can't quite be called archaeologists being more focused on finding impressive objects for museums or private collectors rather than understanding the site. These people included Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti. From the later 19th Century the diggers were more archaeologically inclined - including names such as Auguste Mariette and Ernesto Schiaparelli. Gobeil showed us a photograph of Schiaparelli's excavation with a procession of workers bringing the tomb goods out of a tomb - a reversal of what the original preparation of the tomb must've looked like millennia ago.

The original French concession that Bruyère worked on in the 1920s was very large - it didn't just cover the known site but also into the mountains around it. In comparison the concession today covers just the site of Deir el-Medina. The larger size was partly because that was the way things were done at the time, and partly because the extent of the site wasn't known. In 1921 only a few bits of the village plus the temple and a couple of tombs were known. And originally the site was thought to be Ptolemaic because the temple was clearly of that era. Gobeil showed us archive photographs of how the site looked when Bruyère started work. It was full of rubbish and debris, and things left by the looters who had been there before him. So as with the modern expedition part of Bruyère's remit was to tidy up the site and make it visible & interesting to visitors.

Bruyère's dig house was in the hills above the site, and the kitchen of that structure is the same kitchen that Gobeil's team used whilst they were excavating there. But the rest of the building has been changed & extended since the 1920s! Not to the extent of providing running water, however - water is still brought up by donkey as it was in Bruyère's day. The dig house wasn't just living quarters for Bruyère's team, it was also the place they stored the artifacts they'd dug up.

Bruyère's team had about 75-100 workers per day, of whom around half were children. Children being cheaper to pay than donkeys were to hire! The excavation was done quickly even by the standards of the day. They started with the Eastern necropolis, as debris from this was likely to end up falling on the village. The original plan was to take 10 years to excavate the village itself, but because of World War II they ended up taking just one year to do the whole thing. Which is why there's been so much for Gobeil & his team to find, and there are probably lots more ostraca and overlooked objects in the massive debris mountain from Bruyère's excavation. After the war Bruyère returned and excavated the temple. The temple was apparently excavated down to the bedrock, although Gobeil has found things there that show that wasn't quite the case. But Bruyère did discover that there's a Ramesses II era temple underneath the Ptolemaic structure we see now - of course this can't be excavated as you'd need to dismantle the Ptolemaic one first. The last part of the site to be excavated by Bruyère was the Great Pit in the 1950s, and Gobeil showed us a photography of workers removing the debris from the pit by hand using the original staircase.

Bruyère was also keen to rebuild when he had excavated, as mentioned previously tourism was an important part of his plan for the site. And so even in the 1930s they were setting up tourist routes round the village as part of their rebuilding plan. The rush of the excavation did also mean that the rebuilding was rushed, so sadly Bruyère didn't always get it right. He also made the decision to leave the remains of the painted decoration in place for tourists to see - very interesting for those who visited then, but now it has eroded away and we know of it only from archive photographs. There's only one fragment that still remains on a house altar - a brightly coloured half image of a dancing girl with tattoos on her thighs.

The speed of Bruyère's excavation is both good and bad. The bad is that many smaller objects were missed, and there aren't secure contexts recorded for a lot of the finds from the village in particular. But it does mean we have knowledge of the whole site which we wouldn't otherwise have. An excavation of that scale would be far too expensive to be contemplated today - expensive in terms not only of money but also of manpower & time.

A lot of the information on the site & the finds comes from Bruyère's dig diary which he kept all the way through his time at Deir el-Medina. It is very thorough and Bruyère was a good draftsman who drew his finds at their contexts. It also includes newspaper clippings show what the general public of the time were learning about the site.

After Bruyère there were another couple of excavations over the next 20 years or so. But then there was no work at the site from 1975 until Gobeil took on directorship of the concession in 2011.

Gobeil finished up this talk by showing us photographs of some of the objects (now in the Louvre) found by Bruyère's team. These include a lot of everyday items, as well as ~15,000 ostraca (10,000 of these from the Great Pit). There were also more than a thousand papyrii, including lots of copies of the classic Middle Kingdom texts. He also showed us photographs of the people who visited the site while Bruyère was working there, including Petrie.

One of the things discussed in the question & answer session for this talk was the structures that are now thought to be house altars. These are raised platforms with a small staircase in the first room of 30 of the houses on the site. Originally they were thought to be beds, or perhaps places for women to give birth. But this seems implausible for many reasons - one of which is the position near the entrance to the houses in what was probably the public space of the house. The staircases which lead up to these platforms were decorated and show no signs of wear on the steps at all. This also counts against them being functional spaces for the human occupants of the house to walk up onto. Instead Gobeil told us that they were altars - the steps were not intended for people, they were intended for the gods to use to come & go from the altar. These altars were in a public space because when visitors were received in the household they'd bring a gift to place on the altar - and then after the guest was gone the householder would use the gift themselves in the same way that food offerings etc in a temple would be redistributed by the priests after it had been offered to the gods.

In April Susanne Bickel came to talk to us at the Essex Egyptology Group about the work she and her team have been doing in the Valley of the Kings for the last decade - mostly re-excavating previously known tombs with the benefit of modern archaeological methods, but they also discovered a new tomb in 2012.

She began her talk by showing us a few images of decoration from inside various Pharaoh's tombs in the Valley of the Kings - our usual "mental image" of the place. But actually only 22 of the known 64 tombs (plus 20 "pits" ) are for Pharaohs. So that means there are around 40 of what are often called non-royal tombs, Bickel prefers to say "other tombs" because the term non-royal is misleading in English. We would say that queens, princes & princesses are also royal, and those are generally the occupants of these non-Pharaoh tombs.

Next she talked about why she decided it was worth going back to re-excavate parts of the Valley of the Kings. Some of her colleagues from the University of Basel re-excavated KV47, the tomb of Siptah, which has one of those construction accidents that are sometimes found in the tombs. The original place they were going to build the sarcophagus chamber broke through into KV32, and so the builders extended it down a bit further and started the sarcophagus chamber again. The archaeologists continued to re-excavate into KV32, which contained a lot of debris in the tomb chambers. This included some pieces of artifacts that previous investigations had missed or discarded as not interesting. Some of these fragments have a name on them of Tiaa - the wife of Amenhotep II and mother of Thutmose IV. So there are still interesting things to be discovered even from ransacked, excavated or looted tombs and Bickel decided it was worth having a more modern look at a part of the Valley that had been previously investigated.

She and her team have spent about 10 seasons investigating the tombs in the area around KV34, the tomb of Thutmose III. On the map below you can see KV34 down at the bottom in the middle.

The questions they were asking through their re-excavation included: what was the chronology of the tombs? who were the tombs for? what was the social & physical identity of the people buried in them? are there patterns in the location & layouts of the tombs?

The overall chronology of the area became clear early in their excavations. Their area of the necropolis was originally dug & used in the middle of the 18th Dynasty. All the tombs were before the time of Akhenaten & his move of the capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, and date to the reigns of Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III. As they're using pottery to date the tombs the dates are ranges rather than precise.

Although any overall pattern in the layout & location of the tombs is unclear, what is clear is that there are two general types of tombs. There are those with stairs & corridors, where you descend gradually in a series of stages. And there are those with vertical shafts where you go down immediately and the chambers are then in one layer at the bottom.

The bulk of Bickel's talk was to be about KV40 & KV64, but first she told us in brief about the other tombs they've re-excavated. KV33 is right next to KV34 and is a step and corridor type of tomb. When previously entered it was dismissed as uninteresting and no real information was recorded, and the entrance was blocked with boulders that may've come from KV34. When they cleared & analysed the contents of the tomb they didn't find anything that gave the name of the occupant. So all they can tell is that they were of high status (there were several fine alabaster jars still in the tomb) and the pottery was from Thutmose III's time.

KV37 is situated just below KV34 and is another step & corridor type. There wasn't much left in this tomb, previous archaeologists had removed all the "treasure" and left only pottery fragments mixed in with flood debris. The tomb of KV36 is a the burial of a young Nubian man called Maiherperi, "the Lion of the Battlefield", who was a child of the harem (so brought up with the Pharaoh's children - in Hannah Pethen's talk to the EEG about Gurob she talked more about what the harem was in the Ancient Egyptian context (post)). They are still in the process of excavating KV29 which was in an area covered by Ramesses II's workmen's huts. One interesting find from there is is one of the oldest known sundials marked onto an ostraca. Previously sundials were thought to be a Greek invention, but as this has been found in a secure context dating to the 18th Dynasty it definitely pre-dates the Greek ones. It's pretty accurate once correctly oriented, and was probably used to regulate shifts for the workers.

All these tombs (and KV30 too) are undecorated, and in fact this seems to be standard for non-Pharaoh's tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Which is a contrast to the tombs in the Valley of the Nobles which are contemporaneous and well decorated, but similar to the situation in the Middle Kingdom period where similar status people also had undecorated tombs. There's no good answer yet to the question of where the cult for making offerings for these people was. Perhaps in their associated King's temple? Or maybe these are people who didn't live in Thebes so their cult was where they & the people who would make offerings for them lived.

Looking at who they can see buried in these tombs there's a sense that the extended family of the king was buried in this necropolis - including wives, children & nurses. During the 18th Dynasty it seems the Valley of the Kings was a more open necropolis with several non-Pharaoh burials, in contrast to the Ramesside period where tombs were more restricted to Pharaohs.

In 2009 the area around the entrances to KV40 & KV64 was nearly covered over by sand and debris. It had be a long time since KV40 had been entered, and KV64 was unknown at the time. In 2011 as they were clearing the area near KV40 they discovered a "man made feature" on the very day the revolution started in 2011. As a result they couldn't start to investigate it for another year, which must've been very frustrating! Bickel said that at first they didn't think it would be a tomb because it was so close to the entrance to KV40, but then they found the big blocks covering the opening. Inside the tomb there was a coffin & a stela, dating to the 22nd Dynasty - i.e. ~600 years after the mid-18th Dynasty period that the other tombs she's talked about were used. There was a mummy inside the coffin, stuck in with resin, and the inscriptions said that she was the Chantress of Amun, Nehemesbastet daughter of Nakhet, Opener of the Doors of Heaven. These are (sadly) common names and titles, so it's not possible to place who she is in a historical context. She's definitely of a relatively high social status, although not the highest. Her coffin is of good quality, but nothing terribly exciting or unusual. Her health, according to X-rays, was good when she died so it's not clear what she actually died of. The stela that she was found with was of a common type, but it was the first to be found in situ (by modern archaeologists who recorded where it was placed vis-a-vis the coffin). In the decoration she's worshipping a composite deity - composited from several solar deities & funerary deities.

This coffin wasn't on the original floor of the tomb, it was on fill resting on the original 18th Dynasty era floor. The original burial had been looted and completely destroyed at some point before the 22nd Dynasty burial. The skeleton of the original mummy was still there in fragments. There were also some artifacts, including a piece of glass vessel and 2 canopic jar lids. There was also half a tag which named the King's Daughter Sat-Jah - but as the fill may not all be from the original burial it's not clear if that names the fragmented mummy or not.

This new tomb, as well as being exciting because it's the first new tomb to be discovered since Tutankhamun's tomb, helps to clarify the picture of how this area of the Valley of the Kings was used over time. In the mid-18th Dynasty the royal family and their entourage were buried in this part of the valley. Then 500 years later in the 21st Dynasty there was a period of authorised looting and "recycling" of materials. All the gold and wood was removed for re-use, and items such as amulets were stripped from the wrappings of the mummies including those of the Pharaohs. The people doing this "recycling" knew which mummy was which, and who these people were. They took care with the bodies of the Pharaohs, re-wrapping them respectfully and putting them into caches where they were discovered in modern times. But they took rather less care with the other bodies, as can be seen from the fragmented skeleton left in KV64. About 100 years after this, in the 22nd Dynasty, the tombs are reused by priestly families - there's clearly still an association of sanctity with the Valley of the Kings so it's an appropriate place to bury reasonably high status individuals.

After a break for coffee & cake Bickel told us about what they have found in KV40, which had been known to archaeologists for some time but had been dismissed as uninteresting. Bickel's opinion, however, was that although from the top it just looks like a hole in the ground it's a very interesting hole in the ground! The proximity to KV64 is also interesting - KV64 is a little older and a larger tomb, so perhaps KV40 was dug there so that the occupants were close to the lady buried in KV64?

All the rooms of KV40 were covered in debris with pottery, wood, faience, human remains, fabric and more all utterly mixed up. The walls and ceiling were damaged by fire, as were the contents of the rooms. They started by mapping and then sorting out and analysing the material. It's taken them 6 years to analyse, but they are now nearing publication. Bickel described the stages of the archaeological process for us. They started by excavating the objects, and then conserved them. This was followed by documentation (done both on site and after the objects had been removed) and classification of the objects. Everything has then been stored so that it's kept safe for later study.

As with KV64 there were at least two phases of use for KV40, at similar periods of time and in similar ways. Then modern looting took place, and at some point there was a fire in the tomb but it's not yet clear when that was. There were a lot of cartonage fragments, all of which needed to be cleaned of soot before they could be conserved. Once cleaned they could be separated into 18th Dynasty and 22nd Dynasty pieces, and some bits could even be fitted together. The fabric pieces were mainly fragments of everyday fabrics, and included a single sock made for a small adult foot (Euro size 35/UK size 3) which was designed to be worn with sandals. Each type of object is being studied by experts in those fields - for instance paleobotanists are analysing the few bits of plants that were present. For an exhibition in Basel one of the botanists planted the relevant plants and made a modern replica of the garlands that there were fragments of - which must've been cool to see!

The human remains have been analysed by a paleo-physical anthropologist, and there are parts of 83 individuals in this tomb. Most of them were women, but there were a few men. Unusually there were also some very small babies very carefully mummified - this is rare, generally babies were not buried in this way. Because the bodies are already in pieces they can be used to investigate the mummification techniques that were used. But sadly other interesting sorts of analysis can't be carried out for technical reasons. C14 dating should be possible to find out which bodies were from the original phase of use and which from the later, but the only lab in Egypt that can do this sort of analysis has old technology that needs too large a sample size (and of course artifacts & remains can't be removed from Egypt to a lab that can carry out the analysis). They have also taken samples to analyse the DNA of the remains, but again the only lab in Egypt that can do this work is currently non-functional - the samples are waiting in storage until the situation changes. When this sort of analysis can be done it should be very interesting, given that some of these individuals may be other members of Amenhotep III's family (as discussed below).

The type of artifact that Bickel wanted to tell us the most about were the pottery pieces. They laid all the pottery fragments out in the Valley of the Kings near the tomb, and then painstakingly pieced together this enormous jigsaw puzzle. They were able to reconstruct 120 large jars which had contained natron and ritual remains. Several of these jars had inscriptions, too. Often in such cases the inscriptions are a bit boring and just tell you the contents of the jar - but in this case they also included the names of people and their titles. As with the human remains there are more women than men named on the jars - there were 23 female names, and 4 male names. All of the males are King's Sons, and 12 of the females are King's Daughters. It's important to remember that King's Daughter doesn't imply a little girl - it was a title you kept for life - so even though we know that the first phase of use was during Amenhotep III's reign we still don't know whose daughters these women were. However, the names on the jars correlate well with the names labelling reliefs of Amenhotep III's daughters (such as that in TT192, a noble's tomb in el-Assasif). Some of the women were granddaughters of a Pharaoh - for instance "King's Daughter Taemwadjet from among those of the King's Son". Having reminded us that the Daughters & Sons weren't necessarily children Bickel returned to the carefully mummified infants and wondered if these might be the royal sons that are named - one might expect an adult son to be more likely to be high enough status to have his own tomb. This is another question that the DNA analysis will help to answer.

One woman is a King's Ornament (which is a title that we're not quite sure of the significance of). Three women were labelled as foreign, and 7 had no titles associated with them. As well as the indicated foreigners other women clearly had foreign names, of Semitic or Nubian origin. Whilst this doesn't mean they were themselves foreign, Bickel speculated that some might be women who came to Egypt with diplomatic wives of Amenhotep III or another Pharaoh. For instance, there's documentary evidence of a Mitanni wife who came with 317 of her women, so there must've been quite a lot of such women.

The jars appear to've been used for some ritual purpose. One of the mud seals has shards from a red plate in it that has been ritually smashed and incorporated into the seal. There's textual evidence of a "ritual of the breaking of the red pots", and this is physical evidence of it. Some of the jars have two stages of inscription on them - the first one is covered over by a white coating and then another inscription written on top in yellow (which is a rare colour for writing in Ancient Egypt). In some cases the inscription is the same in both stages, just the second one is in better handwriting than the first. But in other cases the first label says "Natron" plus the name, whereas the second label (in better handwriting again) just says the name. Bickel's proposed sequence of writing & use is that first the jars were quickly labelled with who (and sometimes what) they were for, then they were filled and sealed. Then overpainted and a more formal label written on top with just the name of the owner.

In the questions session after the talk Bickel clarified how she sees this first phase of use of KV40 - there's no evidence of it having been a cache of bodies gathered up from other original tombs. Nor is there any evidence for it having been a mass burial after an even such as a plague. But the burials were probably over a relatively short period in the 18th Dynasty before the Amarna period. There are other similar groupings of royal daughters from this period throughout Egypt and Bickel thinks they may be the resting places for women who died away from home while they were travelling with the peripatetic court of the time.

This was a fascinating talk, I hadn't really realised there was still so much to be found even in tombs that have been known about for decades, if not centuries. Exciting that they have discovered a new tomb - even if not a Pharaoh, it's another bit of the picture of the Valley. Also quite exciting that they've discovered these bodies that may be more members of Amenhotep III's family.

This year's Glanville Lecture in Cambridge was given by Jan Assmann who is an expert on the religion of Ancient Egypt, and to go along with the lecture there was a study day which had 6 speakers (including Assmann) who each told us about a different topic to do with religion in the ancient world. (Well, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern portion thereof.)

Glanville Study Day: "Religion in the Ancient World"

"Egyptian Concepts of Cosmogony and the Origins of Philosophy" Jan Assmann

The day started off with Jan Assmann's first talk, about the theology of Ancient Egyptian ideas about the creation of the world/universe. His key point was that the Ancient Egyptians believed the world evolves from a transformation of god rather than being created by god. It is not chaos then cosmos, instead there is pre-existence which has continuity with existence.

The canonical cosmogony (theory of the origin of the universe) in Ancient Egypt is called (by Egyptologists) the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. Atum is the pre-existing divine being, and he transforms and becomes Re (the sun god). Atum/Re then becomes three, and the other of this new triad are Shu (air or life) and Tefnut (fire or truth). From them are generated Nut & Geb (the sky & the earth), and they give birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth & Nephthys. The son of Osiris and Isis is Horus, and from there on we are into history - all Pharaohs are avatars of Horus. The first texts that describe this lineage of gods say that Shu and Tefnut were born of Atum, but by the time the Coffin Texts are written it's not birth but "the moment when Atum became three".

The underlying Egyptian idea is of endless repetitions rather than of a single moment. Every day the sun comes up from the underworld. Every year the land comes out of flood. Every Pharaoh is a new avatar of Horus. And there is no conflict or violence in the creation of the world - instead that belongs to the emergence of rulership and to history. Even the being in opposition to Re (the snake Apep or Apophis) is in opposition to the maintenance of the universe and not in opposition to the creation.

Assman also explained that this cosmogony sets up the hierarchy of the universe. If you originate from something you depend upon it. If you depend upon something then you are ruled by it. And thus given that Atum transforms into Re from whom everything originates then Re is the first ruler/king. He noted that this means the sun god is supreme as the source of everything throughout all periods of Egyptian history and not just in the Amarna period.

As well as the Heliopolitan Cosmogony we also know about the Memphite Cosmogony from Ancient Egyptian times - this is a text found on a stela that's now in the British Museum, it's easy to spot as it had a second life as a mill stone so it has large grooves on it. Assmann argues that we shouldn't see this as an alternative idea, instead he regards it as a commentary on the canonical cosmogony. In this text instead of Atum becoming Re/Tefnut/Shu (sun/fire/air) he becomes Ptah/Horus/Thoth (creator/heart/tongue). The text still stresses the continuity of pre-existence & existence, but this time the emphasis is on creation by language. The tongue (Thoth) reads the words that the heart (Horus) creates. This idea is reminiscent of the Biblical tradition of creation by the Word, but the critical difference is that in the Bible God remains distinct and outwith creation but in the Egyptian tradition Atum becomes and has continuity with creation.

Assmann finished his talk by arguing that the ideas of the Memphite Cosmogony feed into and are part of the origins of Western philosophy via the Greeks (in particular he mentioned Iamblichus's "De Mysteriis". But I'm afraid I got rather lost at that point and didn't even follow him well enough to take notes, let alone summarise it.

"Gaming with Death" John Tait

The second talk of the day was given by John Tait on the game Senet, during which he gave us an overview of what we know about the game and where we get our knowledge of it. The game of Senet was developed within Egypt and is attested over a long period of time. The board consists of three rows of 10 squares, some of which (generally the last five) have markings on them. It's a race game for two players with 5 or 7 pieces per player. The movements of the pieces are governed by throwing sticks or knuckle bones (i.e. dice), and they travel across the board in a Z shaped path ending "safe" at square 30.

The main sources of our knowledge are the boards that have survived and pictures in tomb reliefs, there's not much textual evidence. The physical boards have mostly been found in tombs, but there are also graffiti boards so the game was definitely played in life as well as in a ritual or funerary context.

Senet is not the oldest game known from Ancient Egyptian tombs - there's a game played on a spiral board that Tait called the serpent board/game. There's no definite evidence that this was played in life, and we know little about it. Senet shows up first in Old Kingdom tombs, and the reliefs it's seen in were originally interpreted as part of the daily life scenes but it now seems clear that the context is that of the mortuary celebration. In the Middle Kingdom depictions are rarer, but in the Coffin Texts the ability to play Senet is something that the deceased is said to gain. In the New Kingdom the board develops into a box, and the Book of the Dead lists playing Senet as one of the things they deceased can do whilst Going Forth By Day. Later the box form of the game disappears again.

There are also signs of cultural exchange with the surrounding area. The game of Senet spreads during the New Kingdom period to various places including Nubia, Iraq and Cyprus. There is also a 20 square version of the game board that is sometimes found on the back of the Senet board. This is a Mesopotamian import and is akin to the Royal Game of Ur.

Tait felt he was running short of time at this point, so skimmed over the last couple of sections where he would've told us about the throwing sticks and the symbolism of the marked squares on the boards which was a shame as the little bit we saw looked interesting. The talk also hadn't touched much on the "with Death" part of the title, and a couple of the questions afterwards tried to draw this out but he still didn't expand much on it.

"Antinous and Death in the Nile" Tim Whitmarsh

The last talk before lunch stayed with Egyptian culture for its subject but moved us significantly up in time to the 2nd Century CE - the period of the Emperor Hadrian & his lover Antinous. Tim Whitmarsh is a classicist who told us about a poem written shortly after Antinous death and subsequent deification.

He began by setting the scene with a little bit of discussion about the Greek fascination with the flooding of the Nile, and about how life in Egypt is defined by the tension between the desert and the river even up to relatively modern times. He then moved on to tell us about the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus papyrii in the late 19th Century CE. This large group of papyrii includes texts relating to daily life & politics in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and also a lot of Greek literature. Only about 10% have been published (and they are crowdsourcing the transcription process, although the site's currently being rebuilt and won't be back online till July 2018).

Whitmarsh was talking about two fragments from this collection which are of the same poem about Antinous. He read us a section of it (in translation) about a lion hunt that Hadrian and Antinous have gone on, and in this part Hadrian casts the first spear at the lion but deliberately misses so that his boyfriend can get the practice at spear casting and perhaps the kill. Whitmarsh speculates that the missing parts of the poem would go on to detail Antinous's death and link it with the lion hunt.

The poem is in the epic genre, and the lion hunt is a common Graeco/Roman trope. Whitmarsh said that the most important part to Hadrian would be the equation of Antinous with a red lotus - young dead men becoming flowers is another common Greek trope and is linked with the deification of these men. The poem itself must've been well regarded as it can't been written long before the Oxyrhynchus papyrii were assembled. So it must've been copied a lot in a short space of time to've ended up there - a measure of popularity.

The poet is known from a reference in another work - a 3rd Century CE piece by Athenaeus called Deiphnosophistae is about a dinner where the diners impress each other with their knowledge of poetry (amongst other subjects). From this we know that the poet was called Pankrates and that he told the poem to Hadrian. He was probably an Egyptian, which is important for understanding the poem - particularly in that it links Antinous to Osiris and to the Nile, and thus to the continuing cycles of death & rebirth that are part of the Egyptian imagination.

"Communicating with the Gods: Liver Divination in Ancient Mesopotamia" Selena Wisnom

After lunch we started up again by returning to the ancient world, but moving geographically to Mesopotamia with Selena Wisnom telling us about reading omens from sheep livers. This is the talk that particularly encouraged me to go to this study day as some of the exercises in the Akkadian course I'm doing involve translating omen texts - and as J said, it was surprising I didn't start growling at the mention of them as those are some of the toughest exercises. Not only do the scribes appear to have appalling handwriting, but the texts themselves are cryptic at best. But this talk was really useful in providing an overview of what we actually know about liver divination (which my textbook isn't interested in, being a language course).

Wisnom started by giving us some context. The study of omens in Ancient Mesopotamia goes back to at least 4.5 thousand years ago, although the texts are much later than that. Many texts survive - clay tablets are more durable than other writing materials. She also showed us a map of the region, stressing that Babylon was the cultural centre of the region even when not the political centre.

The premise of extipacy is that the gods are always sending messages, so we need to pay attention and interpret them. The signs or omens are not causative, they just announce the message. The colour of a fresh liver is reminiscent of a fresh clay tablet, and there can be creases on it that look a lot like cuneiform signs - thus livers were an important source of messages from the gods. She illustrated her talk throughout with photos of livers from Armenian sheep*, and showed us some examples of these creases. Wisnom thinks this coincidence of form between liver & their writing system is why liver omens were the most important ones.

*Sheep in Western countries are dosed with a lot of antibiotics & other medicines and so are healthier than ancient Mesopotamian sheep. So she used Armenian sheep (a colleague visited Armenia and took photos for her) to see a wider range of liver structures.

Omens are interpreted using wordplay & allusions, and each one has a meaning something like: If this feature looks like this sign then (something). And it helps that cuneiform signs may have multiple associated syllables or words, so there's plenty of scope to interpret the creases in a variety of ways. They are also not literal prophecies, as became clear when she walked us through the process. Liver divination allows one to ask a question of the gods, they will then write it on the liver of the (living) sheep you have provided and then you can interpret it once you sacrifice the sheep. So one begins by appealing to the gods Šamaš and Adad, and then one asks a yes/no question. There are then several formulae to recite to guard against accidental impurities - in the way the sheep has been handled, or things you might've touched yourself. After this the sheep is sacrificed and the omens are read from the liver. This was done by examining all the marks on the liver and counting favourable vs. unfavourable omens, more favourable omens means "yes", more unfavourable ones means "no".

The Mesopotamians asked many different types of questions of the liver omens. They could be to do with statecraft including things about illnesses of important people, appointments to offices, or foreign affairs. They could also be more personal questions, and could be asked by people of much lower status than the king - so long as you could afford the sheep & the priest (this was not a DIY process) then you could ask a question of the gods. Liver omens could also be used to cross check other omens, and she gave an example of a text where a priest had written to the king having done just that. The eclipse they had seen was deemed not to be unfavourable, as the liver omens were favourable.

Wisnom is interested in figuring out the logic underpinning the omen interpretations. It isn't a random or chaotic system, it seems clear to her that this is almost a science - they are attempting in the omen collections to categorise & classify the world in a systematic way. Even if it does seem absurd to us! The texts are grouped by category, and they extend past the things they have seen into theoretical possibilities - for instance there are omens that start "if there is no heart", which is clearly an impossibility if the sheep was alive until the moment of sacrifice!

She finished up by talking about what her future research questions are, ranging from the specific to the general: why are some things linked to specific meanings? Why is this general sort of divination still practised in some human cultures today? What does this tell us about how humans think?

"Egyptian Afterlife Texts and Ancient Christian Apocrypha" Simon Gathercole

The second talk of the afternoon, presented by theologian Simon Gathercole, took us from the Book of the Dead through to Christian apocrypha and traced the threads that link these two bodies of literature. I must confess I struggled to concentrate during this talk so my notes are less than complete. It was a combination of post-lunch slump and the presentation style - there were no slides, instead we were given a handout with excerpts of the texts he was discussing which he also read out for us.

He started by saying that the Egyptian point of view is that it's not faith that moves mountains, but the right spell. He is exploring this in the later variants of the Book of the Dead and in Christian apocrypha. In the Book of the Dead spells are often answers to questions that the deceased will be asked on the journey into the afterlife - e.g. "who are you?" or "where do you come from?". Another theme is the naming of guardians in order to pass them. Some successor documents to the Book of the Dead (such as the Document of Breathing) act as passports - possession of the document was as important as the spell on it. Later documents are also hidden knowledge - you must keep the knowledge secret and keep secret that you possess the knowledge.

He then discussed some of the early Christian apocrypha, including the Apocalypses of James and of Paul and the Gospels of Thomas and of Mary. These contain some of the same themes as the Book of the Dead texts - they are hidden knowledge, and permits to pass guardians. They also contain the names you need to know. So his conclusion is that the traditional Egyptian literature influenced the later Christian writings.

"Demons in Late Antiquity" Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe

Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe was another theologian, and her main work is on Satan but she was talking to us on this occasion about demons in Late Antiquity. She began by discussing the terms she was using - starting with "Late Antiquity" which is a very loose and vague period which might cover as much as the 1st Millennium CE. It's a post-classical world, and period of transition characterised by the ending of the Roman Empire. During it the Roman/post-Roman world transitions from pagan to Christian beliefs. The other important term is "demon" which she uses as an umbrella term to cover two different groups - daimōns (divine or ghost entities) and pneuma (wind/spirit).

The evidence for ideas about demons during this period comes from hagiographies & sermons, and from texts of ritual power (both theoretical & applied magic). Whilst the story we tell about Late Antiquity is of a clash between the Pagan and the Christian world views, she thinks the evidence shows more traffic between the cultures than that.

Exorcising demons is a cross-cultural activity, and Lunn-Rockliffe illustrated this by comparing stories of Anthony banishing demons with magical texts. In the Anthony stories he is shown having a superior (holy) ability to detect the presence of demons, and he casts them out by rebuking them in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the magical texts is very much consistent with the Anthony stories - it uses language & abbreviations used in Christian literature and details a spell to drive out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. The other magical text she talked about was more broad ranging in its influence - it is bilingual and mixes the name(s) of the Christian god with names from other traditions. Essentially it calls on as many powerful names as possible so that something will work.

Taming demons is not separate from exorcism, the two processes are regarded as two sides of the same coin. Her first example here was of a saint who cursed his son with a demon as that would stop the son sinning (the demon here being the lesser of two evils). It demonstrates that the knowledge that lets you drive out demons also lets you call them. The next Christian example Lunn-Rockliffe gave was of Anthony being able to tell that someone's visions were granted by demons because he could ask those demons to tell him something about them that he wouldn't've otherwise known. The magical examples that Lunn-Rockcliffe discussed were of types still familiar from modern mythology - a spell to summon a demon to answer one's questions, and a pair of melted wax dolls with a text intended to bind a woman to love the man who performed the spell.

Lunn-Rockliffe summed up by saying that the evidence suggests that rather than a great culture clash of Christian vs. Pagan such as was written about by the zealots, in practice people actually turned to whichever practitioners were convenient.

In the Q&A section Jan Assmann mentioned something interesting to me because I'm learning Akkadian - the il/ilu Semitic stem has a broad definition in the same way that Lunn-Rockliffe was defining & using the term demon to encompass divine beings, ghosts, and creatures of wind or spirit. So the Akkadian word "ilum" which my textbook translates as "god" is not as narrow as that might imply.

Glanville Lecture: "The Book of Exodus and the Invention of Religion" Jan Assmann

For the Glanville Lecture itself Jan Assmann chose to talk about his Biblical research & ideas (which are the subject of his new book) rather than Egyptological subjects. Personally I think this was a shame (although I can see why he did it, it's his current research area) - many people only came to the evening lecture which is billed as an Egyptology talk, and an extended version of the talk he gave at the start of the day would've fit the audience better in my opinion.

He introduced the subject by saying "Invention of religion - isn't that preposterous? isn't it as old as humanity?" and went on to explain that he sees a qualitative difference between religion as we think of it in a culture shaped by Christianity (or Judaism or Islam), and religion as other cultures (for instance the Ancient Egyptians) would think of it. And he posits that "our" concept was developed over a roughly 200 year period in Israel around the 6th Century BCE with the critical difference being that the older concept of religion is not separate from state or culture, whereas the new one is its own distinct thing. One is religion as a cult, which is and always was. The other is religion as a covenant, with a date when it starts and/or was revealed - e.g. for Judaism he said this was 1446 BCE (effectively backdated to the Exodus from Egypt).

He spoke about how culture as a whole can be separated out into autonomous cultural spheres - e.g. law would be one - and each of those spheres can be broken into a binary by a "leading distinction". In this case of law this would be justice vs. injustice. All archaic states are based on sacred knowledge, but this is not an autonomous cultural sphere. You can say that the leading distinction in Ancient Egyptian religion is Ma'at vs. Isfet (order vs. chaos) but this wasn't a distinction limited to religion, it was also applicable to law, or to kingship or to other cultural spheres. So religion permeates throughout the culture. The shift in Israel around the 6th Century BCE is for religion to become autonomous, and so the rest of culture is now not religious.

Revelation is key to the new religion. The old paradigm is that religion is a part of reality, it is something that is. The new paradigm is that it is a transformation of reality - there is a founding event after which the new religion is revealed, and this event is commemorated afterwards to keep the community together. The new paradigm shifts how people's attitudes towards religion are perceived. In the old paradigm one was either attentive or neglectful but still part of the community either way. In the new paradigm it's about belief vs. unbelief or loyalty vs. defection - are you one of us? Or are you one of them?

Assmann spent the next part of his talk going through the Book of Exodus in detail as an illustration of this new paradigm for religion. He started by pointing out that the Book of Exodus is distinct from the myth of the Exodus. The myth is split into three phases - the emigration from Egypt, legislation in the wilderness (I think that's what he said) and finally the conquest of the promised land. The Book of Exodus also has three phases but these are - emigration from Egypt as before, then the covenant and the law culminating in the construction of the tabernacle.

He then ran through the story of the Book of Exodus in more detail, before talking about the themes of revelation that run through it. There are 5 steps of revelation through the story - the central revelation is that of the law, and is at the heart of the new religion. Revelation is the key point of the story - and faith in these revelations is what sets the new religion apart from the old ones. In the older religions the way things are is a matter evidence, and your belief is not relevant or required. But the faith that the new religion requires, a concept that Assmann defined as a mixture of belief plus truth plus loyalty, implies the possibility of alternatives which are wrong/untrue. It's possible not to believe in it, and then you are wrong & other.

The next part of Assmann's talk was about how this paradigm of religion implies conflict and leads to violence - and because it dominates the modern world both in the West and in the Middle East it is the source of a lot of our modern problems. He used Carl Schmitt (a Nazi philosopher/politician) as an example of where the distinction between the faithful & unbelievers can lead. He also talked at length about how the murder of Moses begins an Old Testament theme of the murdering of prophets which then culminates in the Passion of Christ in the New Testament - but I got rather lost here so I'm not sure exactly how this fit in. Not least because I don't recall the story of Moses being murdered from the Bible - and looking it up this is a proposal of Sigmund Freud's that Assmann has written about before, so I perhaps got lost because he assumed the audience had rather more context for this than I had.

Assmann closed by summarising the key features of this new religion that has become our modern norm:

  1. autonomous cultural system against politics
  2. independent of the state
  3. controls all other cultural systems
  4. the new religion can be taught to others and they can convert
  5. may be practised everywhere so long as there are people to do it
  6. it's incompatible with other religions
    • you can't "believe" both
    • you can't translate between them
  7. based on revelation and demands faith
    • either true or false
    • no third way
    • leads to violence
  8. prophets of it are in opposition to the state and to the mainstream

His take home message was that the way out of the conflict & violence that this paradigm has brought to our world is for us to once again remember that no one faith has the truth, each is a way to seek the truth.


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