Ethiopia 2021

I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ll be visiting the ancient sites of Ethiopia with Ancient World Tours (AWT) in 2021. Further information including the itinerary are available here.

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I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt’s relationship to other cultures and it was my interest in Egypt’s 25th Dynasty – the period when Egypt was ruled by the kings of Kush and on which my PhD was based – that led me to their visit the remains of their great kingdom in Sudan with AWT in 2018 and again in 2019.

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The pyramids of the Northern Cemetery, Meroë, Sudan.

Discover Ethiopia‘ is intended as a continuation of AWT’s exploration of the lands to the south of Egypt. Ethiopia takes its name from the Greek ‘Aethiopia’ meaning ‘burnt face’ and was the name given in ancient times to various groups living in the territories to the south of Egypt, including the Kushites.

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Kushite kings. The cache of statues discovered at Kerma in 2003.

Over the course of more than a thousand years, while Egypt suffered repeated invasions and was taken over not only by the Kushites but groups of Libyans, Assyrians, Persians and ultimately Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and the Romans, Kush remained independent. It was eventually supplanted by another great African power, Axum, whose capital lies in modern Ethiopia.

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The throne hall of the Kings of Makuria at the site of their capital, Old Dongola, Sudan.

The Kushite kingdom came to be divided between three successor states, Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia, all of which eventually converted to Christianity, as did Axum. Having seen a little of the ancient Christian kingdoms of Sudan, I’m curious to know more about Axum and also how it and the land we now call Ethiopia, the mark Christianity left in the archaeological record at sites like Lalibela and in the place reputed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant…

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If you think you might be interested in coming along please read on here!

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Searching for Smenkhkare

My book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt came out in paperback yesterday, and I’m just beginning to think about going back to Egypt looking for ‘missing tombs’ with a fourth group this October. One of the individuals I talk about in Chapter 3 is a little-known pharaoh called Smenkhkare. He (or perhaps she…?) was a pharaoh of the Amarna Period and probably ruled either towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign as a co-regent, or after Akhenaten’s death as his successor (whether immediate or not).

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Looking out across the desert plain where once Akhenaten’s capital city stood, taken from the area of the North Tombs

This pharaoh’s name is absent from all the kinglists however, and only came to light for the first time in the early nineteenth century in tomb no. 2 at Amarna, which belonged to a high official, Meryre (ii), the ‘Overseer of the Royal Harem of the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti’.

The tomb is to be found among the northern group at the site (more info via The Amarna Project here), and preserves a number of important scenes showing Akhenaten ‘at home’, the tomb owner being rewarded by Akhenaten, Akhenaten receiving tribute from representatives of a number of foreign groups, and, most importantly for us here, the tomb owner being rewarded by Smenkhkare.

Egyptologists today still rely on the six volume series The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna by Norman de Garis Davies, the definitive publication of the decoration in the tombs. By the time de Garis Davies visited tomb no. 2 in the early twentieth century the scene had been badly damaged by robbers and the cartouches identifying the royal figures in the scene in question had been lost.

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de Garis Davies’ image the scene of Meryre being rewarded by Smenkhkare and Meritaten. The cartouches (oval shapes enclosing royal names) of the king were originally present at the top right of the scene where de Garis Davies shows a large damaged area. Davies, N de Garis, The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Part II. The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra ii (Archaeological Survey of Egypt 14; London, The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1905) 

Fortunately, however, the great expedition of Karl Richard Lepsius had visited the tomb in the summer of 1845 and copied the decoration before this vandalism had occurred.

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The cartouches as they appeared in Lepsius’ monumental publication: Lepsius, C R Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien III, pl. 99a (Berlin, 1849-59)

The two largest cartouches, at the left hand end, are those of Akhenaten’s god, the Aten. They are read from top to bottom, right to left as follows: ‘Re, ruler of the two horizons, who rejoices in the Horizon, in his name of light, which is the Aten’ which is the later of two versions of the Aten’s full name. Of the other three smaller cartouches, that at the left, and the one in the centre are the names of Smenkhkare, the larger of the two figures in the centre of the scene. They are read from top to bottom, left to right: ‘The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ankhkheperure, the son of Re, Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu’. The cartouche at the far right relates to the smaller of the two figures and reads ‘the Great Royal Wife, Meritaten.’

Although it’s possible that the figures had originally been carved as representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti the cartouches make it clear that they were eventually intended to represent two different individuals.

Smenkhkare: male or female?

Since the tomb was recorded a number of further inscriptions with Smenkhkare’s name have come to light but it all amounts to relatively little, which seems strange given the Meryra scene makes it clear that this individual was Pharaoh of Egypt. We don’t know whether he reigned alongside or after Akhenaten, and the picture has been confused by the presence of the throne-name ‘Ankhkheperure’ in a number of inscriptions but as part of a longer, different royal name from that in the tomb of Meryra, which seems to have belonged to a female pharaoh. This other name included the element ‘Neferneferuaten’ which is known to have been a name held by Akhenaten’s famous queen, Nefertiti. For many, this makes for a straightforward conclusion: Smenkhkare was simply another name used by Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten/Nefertiti, and Smenkhkare was therefore a woman.

More recently however, as the evidence has been further scrutinised, many have come to conclude that there were in fact two individuals who both used the throne name ‘Ankhkheperure’, one called Smenkhkare who was male, and another called Neferneferuaten who was female.

Of course in this case the scene in the tomb of Meryra ii makes much more sense: the image gives no indication that Smenkhkare was not male and the presence of pharaoh’s wife at his side otherwise takes a bit of explaining.

Visiting the tomb

I have been lucky enough to visit the North tombs at Amarna on several occasions in the last few years. The tombs are by no means all open to visitors; no. 2 is not among those that are regularly visited by tourists but on a recent trip I decided I had to do everything possible to see it and with the help of some friends and a very helpful guardian, I did. I thought we’d be able to walk there but that’s not how it’s done. Here’s what happened…

Once I realised what it was going to take to get there I understood why he was initially so reluctant. As you’ll see from the video the tomb lies a short motorbike ride away from the main group of tombs in the north, and at the top of a steep pathway which has been made a little easier in modern times by the installation of some steps, but is still a bit of an effort in the heat. The guardian started coughing at one point as we hiked upwards, getting slower with every step. “Enta kwayis?” (“Are you alright?”) I asked him. “Tammam” (“OK”) he said, and then “Cigaretta” – blaming his cough on the smoking not the climbing – which made me laugh.

I knew the scene had been badly damaged more than a century ago and didn’t expect to see very much but I hoped I might be able to make out the odd trace of what Lepsius, de Garis Davies and others had seen. There is almost nothing however. The rays of the Aten above the two figures were visible (see – if you squint perhaps – below), and perhaps with better lighting and more time it might have been possible to make more out, but in the circumstances it looked to me as though almost everything else had gone.

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The pillared hall in the tomb of Meryre ii. The wall which once bore images of Smenkhkare and Meritaten lies beyond and inbetween the two pillars in the image on the left; the wall itself is on the right. Can you see the Aten’s rays at the top?

What a shame. Without the scene having been seen and recorded in the mid-1800s our knowledge of Smenkhkare would be so much poorer. And had de Garis Davies been the first to see it, the cartouches having been removed, he would probably have concluded that the figures were those of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, no different from the vast majority of the others at Amarna. It has come to be one of the most iconic scenes for the study of the period, and now it’s gone. A useful reminder perhaps that our knowledge of the ancient past can be transformed by a single piece of evidence. We must be thankful for what we’ve got, but how much more might there once have been?

Another copyist, and a new book…

Incidentally, since I first drafted this piece a few months ago I’ve been working on a new book which tells the story of the history of archaeology and discovery in Egypt through a series of ‘Egyptologists’ Notebooks’. While looking at the glorious, unpublished drawings of the Scottish explorer Robert Hay I decided to see if he had copied the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten in tomb no. 2 when he visited in 1827, almost two decades before Lepsius. The tombs at Amarna had only recently come to the attention of western explorers in 1824 when they had been ‘discovered’ by the pioneering English Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson. In fact Hay, who had arrived in Egypt the same year and was a close friend of Gardner Wilkinson’s, was very annoyed that the existence of the tombs was only revealed to him three years later when their mutual friend, James Burton took him there: “this piece of knowledge has been kept a secret, and has been guarded with as much care as ever miser watched and fondled the largest treasure ever told!”

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A page of copies and notes made by Robert Hay during his visit to Amarna in 1827 and now in the British Library (Add MS 29847 f63). His copy of the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten from the tomb of Meryra ii are in the bottom right hand corner (see also below).

Although Hay and the artists he worked with were excellent copyists it seems they couldn’t see the signs as well as Lepsius’ team could – the coronation name Ankhkheperure is clear but the birth name, Smenkhkare and Meritaten’s name are not. Lepsius was one of the great pioneers of the study of the ancient Egyptian language and had the advantage of a much better understanding of Hieroglyphs than Hay could have had at a time when Champollion’s system of decipherment had only just been announced and was still only at a fairly rudimentary stage.

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Detail of the cartouches from the Hay manuscript. The cartouches of the Aten, and name Ankhkheperure are clear, but those of Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu and Meritaten were clearly already damaged by this time. There was obviously enough remaining for Lepsius’ team to have read the names in full however. Interestingly, this was one of few pages in the massive Hay archive that had already been photographed digitally when I looked at them in June 2019 so I obviously wasn’t the first to take in interest in Hay’s record of this inscription – no surprises there!

Read more

You can be read more about Smenkhkare, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten and Nefertiti and where they might have been buried in Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt – order your copy via Amazon or (in the UK) from your local bookshop via Hive.co.uk.

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Searching for the tomb of Imhotep

In April 2015, when I was in the early stages of writing Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, I took a little field trip to Saqqara to look for the tomb of a man who, legend has it, was the architect of the first pyramid, a man who became a god and gave his name to a Hollywood bad guy. I was going to look for the tomb of Imhotep.

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Imhotep in deified form, temple of Hathor, Deir el-Medina

I had no expectation of finding it of course – a lot of better qualified people have spent much longer than a day trip would allow trying and failing to do so, but I wanted at least to go and have a look at the northern part of the site where, for various reasons, his tomb is thought to have been. The trouble is much of the evidence is completely invisible on the surface, buried under the sand.

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Wandering across the North Saqqara plateau

I was looking for several very large Third Dynasty mastabas in and around the area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis (SAN) which was discovered by Bryan Emery on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the 1960s and, though little known despite its importance, is visible.

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Image of the EES excavations at North Saqqara in the 1960s, looking north west towards the pyramids of Abusir. Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society

‘Mastaba’ is the Arabic word for the kind of platform or bench commonly found to this day outside Egyptian houses, where members of the household sit to while away the day or to chat. It’s also the name given by Egyptologists to a particular kind of tomb with a superstructure of roughly the same cuboid shape but on a much larger scale. These evolved out of the simple mounds overlying shallow tombs that constituted the earliest monumental burials in Egypt. By the time of Imhotep and his king, Djoser, in the early Third Dynasty, the grandest were giant, rectangular mudbrick buildings rising to ten metres in height and over fifty metres in length, and incorporating numerous chambers and little niches where offerings could be placed and rituals performed. The bigger the mastaba, the wealthier or more important the individual buried there, we assume.

The largest of a group of five such monuments at Beit Khallaf in Middle Egypt gives you a good idea of the size and shape. There are dozens and dozens like this at Saqqara, some completely unexcavated. There’s an awful lot you can see when you go to the site, but there’s an awful lot more that you can’t.

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Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf

I wanted to go and get closer to some of the things you can’t see, which I also suspected wouldn’t be well-known even to the local inspectorate, so it was obvious that I was going to have to give some thought to how I was going to find what I was looking for. In the event the trip led my was very good fun even it led my two companions to think I was crazy; more importantly it enabled me to take several photos that eventually made their way into the book, and so I thought it might be worth explaining what I did.

Technical preparations (WARNING: the next part’s a bit geeky)

My idea was this: if I could take a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device I thought I ought be able to walk out into a featureless desert and still have some idea of where I was. Furthermore, if that device had a data connection and was able to display my location on a satellite image or map, and if that map could be annotated with the position of the monuments I was looking for, I would be able to say when I’m standing on the spot (as in ‘X marks…’) even if nothing was visible on the surface.

So, first of all, I spent a day or so in the library at the EES poring over the published archaeological maps, then staring with equal intensity at Google Earth to see which, if any, of the main archaeological features at Saqqara I could see on the satellite images. I also did the same thing in reverse, looking for archaeological features in the satellite images and trying to identify them on the maps. To my delight the main temple area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis showed up very well, which was exciting in itself: the SAN is one of the most important sites in the EES’ history – I was Director of the Society at the time – and yet it’s well away from the parts of the site that are frequented by visitors and I had never been. I knew that two of the most important mastabas for my search, numbers 3510 and 3518, lay in the same area. One, 3518, was very visible in the satellite images so I was able to drop a virtual pin onto that location; 3510 was totally invisible however.

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Satellite image annotated with the approximate locations of various archaeological features (as far as I could identify them…). Explore the map here

The structures that weren’t visible, at least not clearly, were more of a challenge. In those cases I had to improvise. It wasn’t the most scientific of methods but I came up with the idea of re-sizing the satellite image to the same scale as that of the published maps, and then, using the scale given on the latter, measuring the distance from something visible on both, e.g. SAN, to the mastaba I wanted to locate, and transposing the invisible line between the two from the printed map to the satellite image. I then dropped another virtual pin onto the satellite image at the appropriate spot, having again squinted even harder at it this time looking for suspiciously rectangular shadows. Not the most accurate way of doing things perhaps but I thought it would give me a decent chance of identifying any vaguely visible mudbrick on the ground that might have been part of what I was after. I also knew that in case where there really wasn’t anything visible at all, precise accuracy wouldn’t be that helpful anyway, as there still wouldn’t be anything to see, but knowing I was in the right area, close perhaps, would be enough.

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My somewhat unsophisticated(…) way of transposing now disappeared monuments marked on paper maps onto a satellite map on my laptop screen

The result of all of this was the map you’ll find here, and this is what I took with me to Saqqara. Once I arrived in Egypt, however, I realised there would be a few further technical obstacles to overcome. Firstly, for some reason, maps like this one, although created in Google Maps via a web browser, could not at the time be viewed in the Google Maps app for iOS, meaning I would not, as I had hoped, be able to open the map on my iPhone / iPad and simply watch myself as a blue dot wandering towards the virtual pins on the map. In order to track my movements I would instead need to open the map in a web browser, which would allow me to see where I was in relation to any landmarks visible in the standard version of Google Maps, but not my custom map with the important locations marked. I decided the best I could do would be to take screen grabs of the annotated map while online, and then flick between the two – Google Maps to see where I was, and the screen grabs for comparison with the location of the archaeological features once I knew I was in the right area. Then of course I could start to look for evidence of the features on the ground – any mud brick peeping through to the surface etc.

As a backup, I also bought a GPS unit for my camera which I had hoped would allow me to pinpoint my exact location of each photo I had taken once I was back at my desk. On-site I would use my iPad (bigger screen than an iPhone, easier to see though not that easy in very bright, direct sunlight…) to get me as close as possible, and the location of the photos to check once I was back at home and online.

To the site

And so, in April 2015 I set off for Saqqara with Essam Nagy of the EES’ Cairo Office. On arrival we were warmly welcomed by colleagues from the local Ministry of Antiquities inspectorate. Mohamed Youssef Morsy showed us an Archaic Period mastaba close to the southern end of the North Saqqara plateau which he had recently excavated. Following this another member of the inspectorate, Tamer Radwan, accompanied us on our mission to try to find the locations I was looking for.

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Mohamed Youssef Morsy who showed me the site of his recent excavations

A number of the archaic mastabas are still very visible along the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley, which was very encouraging.

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One of the Archaic mastabas still visible along the escarpment edge, overlooking the Nile Valley

Wandering northwards across the desert, the Main Temple Complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis was easy enough to find which was quite a thrill.

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The main temple complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis

This would have been a very sizeable and busy area devoted to the maintenance of the cults of various gods in the form of sacred animals – ibises, baboons, falcons, cows and others – mummified examples of which were buried in huge numbers by visitors hoping to gain the favour of these deities, in the vast network of catacombs the ancients cut out of the bedrock underneath the plateau. Emery’s excavations revealed not only the catacombs, mummies, and temple area but a vast quantity of material shedding light on all aspects of life from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods during which the site was in use. Despite the importance of the site it is little known and hardly receives any visitors now, which added to the thrill of course.

Mastaba 3518 is quite close to the Main Temple Complex and was also quite easy to see, a huge mass of mudbrick emerging from the sands.

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The remains of Emery’s mastaba 3518, emerging from the sands

I was much more reliant on the satellite maps to locate 3510 but I was satisfied that I had come close enough to this one and two further mastabas which it has been claimed may be potential candidates for Imhotep’s tomb but are totally invisible having only ever been spotted in an image of subsurface remains produced by a geophysical survey carried out in the early 2000s.

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Attempting to locate mastaba 3508 of which nothing appeared to be visible on the surface. Bright sunshine made viewing the satellite maps a little difficult…

The brief survey complete, Essam and I took the opportunity to visit ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great excavator and continued to be used by EES teams until it was passed over the Ministry of Antiquities for use as a storage facility a few years ago.

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Essam outside ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great archaeologist in which he lived during his ‘quest for Imhotep’

Along the way we found some of the light-gauge railway cars he and other archaeologists used to carry vast quantities of debris away from their excavations. They were just dumped near the house he and later EES teams lived in, and had started to disappear beneath the drift sand, rapidly becoming yet another layer of the history of the site.

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The full story of Emery’s ‘quest for Imhotep’ forms the first chapter of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt which will be published by Thames and Hudson on 11 October 2018 (pre-order here). The photos I took during the trip are here (Facebook), and displayed with their precise positions on the map, here (Google Maps).

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More on that black sarcophagus and the GOLD inside…

Just a quick update following my previous post on the black sarcophagus discovered in Alexandria in July (2018). The results of the first investigations into the three skeletons discovered when the sarcophagus was opened on 19 July* have now been made available. They represent the bodies of a young woman of perhaps 20 to 25 years, and two men, one who died in his 30s, and the other in his 40s (as reported e.g. in ahramonline and The Indepenedent). The elder man’s skull exhibits a round cavity which seemed to have healed over prior to death, and may be evidence of trepanation.

Perhaps more interestingly (I’m not a specialist in human remains) the sarcophagus did, it turns out, contain a little ‘treasure’ after all, in the form of a gold object of uncertain type, and three gold plaques, roughly square in shape measuring 3 to 5 cm across.

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The four gold objects discovered inside the sarcophagus. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from ahramonline.

Each of the plaques is decorated with a simple motif in low relief, apparently applied using the repoussé technique (hammering the design from the reverse side). One appears to show the pod of an opium poppy, the second something like a palm frond or perhaps an ear of corn (as suggested via LiveScience), while the third shows a coiled snake. It has been proposed (here) that the designs relate to military rank, but the snake immediately put me in mind of the agathodaimons – beneficent snake demons – flanking the entranceway to the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa. The iconography isn’t quite the same but it’s an interesting connection with perhaps the best known tomb in Alexandria.

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Entranceway to the burial chamber in the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa, flanked by coiled agathodaimons

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Detail of the agathodaimon to the right of the entrance to the burial chamber of the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa

*Mea culpa: I should have mentioned that that brilliant source of information on new discoveries made in Egypt, Luxor Times, posted a wonderful series of photographs showing all the stages in the opening of the sarcophagus here. The insertion of wooden wedges in between the sarcophagus basin and lid to prize it open put me in mind of a favourite object of mine: the mallet left behind by robbers in Mastaba 17 (Fourth Dynasty, reign of Sneferu) at Meydum. No improvement in technique required in over four thousand years…

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The black sarcophagus lid being wedged open. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from Luxor Times.

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Sarcophagus in mastaba 17 at Meydum with its lid partially displaced by robbers, one end raised on top of a mallet which was inserted to help roll the lid back

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The robber’s mallet still trapped in between the sarcophagus basin and lid. #redhanded

You’ll find more on the opening of tombs, robberies etc in my book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, which will be out in October. For more info or to pre-order please go here.

That black sarcophagus in Alexandria

On 1 July 2018 the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities announced that it had found “an ancient tomb dating back to the Ptolemaic period (containing) a black granite sarcophagus considered to be the largest to be discovered in Alexandria. … the tomb was found at a depth of 5 m beneath the surface … An alabaster head of a man was also found and most probably belongs to the owner of the tomb.” This is the full announcement:

The discovery of a previously unknown ancient tomb in Egypt is not that uncommon. Scroll back through the Ministry of Antiquities’ Facebook page (here) which it uses to circulate regular reports about its activities and you will see brief reports on numerous such discoveries made in recent weeks and months. Highlights include the revelation of the tomb of Ramesses II’s army general, another belonging to a Goldsmith, the pyramid of a Thirteenth Dynasty princess, and even a workshop where the bodies of the recently deceased were mummified. Just this week it was announced that the burial chambers of two high officials of the Middle Kingdom had been found at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. Egyptian archaeology can sometimes seem relentlessly thrilling.

The fact that the discovery of the black sarcophagus was made in Alexandria piqued my curiosity more than most such stories however, as I have recently been writing about the possibility that the tombs of two of the most famous figures in the ancient world might yet be awaiting us in this part of the world: Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

Alexandria

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The main harbour in Alexandria. The remains of some of the most important monuments of the era of the Ptolemies and Cleopatra have been found beneath the ocean here

When the archaeology of this great ancient city has been the focus of media interest in recent years it is usually because of discoveries made underwater. Many of the most important monuments of ancient times were built along the Mediterranean shoreline, and then destroyed when, in 365 CE, an Earthquake lowered the level of the sea floor by several metres, inviting the ocean to flood anything that had been built too close to the water’s edge. This new discovery was made on dry land however. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the find was described by the Ministry as follows:

“It is noted that there is a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus indicating that it had not been opened since it was closed in antiquity.”

Whoever had been buried in this sarcophagus was, it seemed, still in there, undisturbed.

Archetypal Archaeology

It seems to me that intact ancient Egyptian tombs are the archetypal archaeological discovery, at least as far as the popular imagination is concerned. Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun represents the ultimate, real life example (although pedants will note that in fact that tomb wasn’t quite intact, having been entered shortly after the burial and the contents slightly disturbed), and the inspiration for countless fictional discoveries since, from the setting for the start of various The Mummy movies, and (how could I fail to mention) the opening to the classic Dr Who story, The Pyramids of Mars, among many other films etc.

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Professor Marcus Scarman enters an ancient Egyptian tomb at the beginning of the Dr Who serial Pyramids of Mars © BBC 1975.

This new tomb in Alexandria was never going to be quite like that however. In this case, it was not the tomb – which seems to have been composed of a shaft of 5m depth, and not much more – but the sarcophagus, that was intact.

More clues?

I’m often asked to provide comment on news stories like this for television and radio. To be honest it can be quite difficult to add anything very insightful because we specialists usually have little more to go on than the very sketchy information provided in the press. We are accustomed in our own research to referring to far more detailed reports and it often feels a little unnerving being asked to comment publicly without knowing more. But that’s how it works, and we do our best.

Based on the information provided, directly or indirectly by the Ministry’s statement and the photos and press reports that followed, my assessment was as follows:

The tomb seemed to consist of a simple, if quite large shaft, rectangular in plan and of 5m in depth, but not much more. This was undecorated (as shafts usually are).

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Image of the shaft (at bottom right) taken from a video posted to The Guardian online via YouTube (here). This photo does a better job than most in circulation of showing why it is so difficult to recover much of the archaeological evidence of ancient Alexandria: the ancient city now lies underneath the very densely populated modern city. This shaft came to light when one of the local inhabitants was excavating the foundations of a modern building. It’s very likely that there is still much more underneath other buildings like the ones shown here.

The shaft was found in Al Karmeli Street in the Sidi Gaber district to the north east of the main harbour, a little way outside the area we believe the major royal buildings of the Ptolemaic Period to have been located.

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Satellite image of Alexandria showing the location of the black sarcophagus (the green pin). To explore this Google Map of the location of key ancient sites go here.

We were told that the burial was thought to date from the Ptolemaic Period (323 – 30 BCE). This seemed reasonable to me. The burial couldn’t have been made much earlier than this: Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE on an earlier, much smaller settlement called Rhakotis, but didn’t really take shape until building got underway during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 323–283 BCE) and his son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BCE). This shaft burial was very unlikely to have been older than the Ptolemaic therefore.

The sarcophagus itself may have been a little older however. It was made of a black granite, a hard and expensive stone, and was very large indeed (265 cm in length). Its lid is of a common Late Period (26th – 30th Dynasty) type. While the underside is flat so as to sit flush on top of the sarcophagus basin beneath, its upper surface reaches a greater height at the head end so that in profile it slopes upwards. Looking down onto the lid one sees a central column which from left to right is horizontal to the ground, but either side of this the surfaces slope downwards, so that on end the lid takes on a trapezoid shape, like a pitched roof with a flat central section. The head end of the lid is curved.

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Image of the sarcophagus lid still in place in the shaft. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from the announcement here.

These features correspond to other well-known sarcophagus lids. A quick (if unscientific) search of museum collections online and my own photo collection provided a few comparable examples, including these ones:

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Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wereshnefer, Dynasty 30–early Ptolemaic Period, from the tomb of Wereshnefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wennefer, Dynasty 30–2nd Persian Period, from the tomb of Wennefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.

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Sarcophagus of an Apis bull bearing an inscription of year 2 of pharaoh Khabash, a rebel who led a revolt against the second wave of Persian oppressors in approximately 338 to 335 BCE. In situ in the Serapeum at Saqqara.

All of these are dated approximately to the Late Period i.e. the period around or immediately before Alexandria was created.

So how could a Late Period sarcophagus end up being used for a Ptolemaic-era burial? There is a simple explanation: sarcophagi such as this would have been extremely expensive, and only the very wealthiest would have been able to afford to commission a new one of their own. There are, unsurprisingly therefore, lots of examples of sarcophagi such as this having been re-used. In this case it’s not difficult to imagine that the sarcophagus was made during the Late Period but was perhaps abandoned and then re-appropriated at a later date, perhaps bought for a knock-down price from the quarry or workshop where it was cut, and transferred to Alexandria after it had come into being as Egypt’s capital. The abandonment might also explain another of the features of this particular sarcophagus: it was undecorated. This is a great shame as any inscriptions would probably have provided the name of the owner and perhaps a little information about him or her. Even better, a name might have allowed us to connect the deceased with sources elsewhere, allowing us to flesh out their story.

So who was buried inside this sarcophagus?

It seemed that only by opening it would we be able to find out. What was revealed turned out not to be quite what everyone was hoping for. The Ministry of Antiquities’ announcement was as follows:

While the sarcophagus may have been intact insofar as it hadn’t been violated by robbers it seems the mortar seal had not been sufficient to prevent the ingress of dirty water from a nearby leaky sewage pipe. All that was left inside apart from a pool of stinking red-brown water, were the skeletal remains of three separate individuals who, it has been suggested may have been soldiers, owing to one of them exhibiting signs of having suffered an arrow wound to the head.

Whether there will be more to learn about who these people were, beyond their gender, age, cause of death and perhaps their relationship to one another, remains to be seen.

Not the tomb of Alexander the Great … So where was he buried?

One thing we can be fairly clear about now is that this was not, contrary to suggestions made by some observers, the tomb of Alexander the Great. It seems likely there was some great monument built to house the body of this great figure, it was probably in Alexandria, and it’s never been found so it’s perhaps not surprising that any discovery of a monumental tomb in the city would prompt such speculation.

Writing a book called Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt as I have been for the last couple of years has turned out not to be great for my nerves, given the frequency with which new tombs are found. Every time a new discovery is announced I get a sinking feeling: what if they find one of the tombs that my book says are currently missing but might soon be discovered?

In this case, fortunately, I knew I had no need to worry. A number of classical texts tell us that Alexander was, ultimately, laid to rest in a mausoleum in Alexandria known as the ‘Sema’ or ‘Soma’ a very grand monument built to house not only his burial but also those of his successors, the Ptolemies. This great edifice was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BCE) and was still standing at least a few centuries later when, we are told, it was visited by the Roman Emperor Caracalla (198-217 CE). The sources are frustratingly vague about its location however, and no trace of it has ever been found in the archaeological record, leading some to speculate that it may yet await discovery.

Alexander’s body must also have lain somewhere else in the decades prior to the construction of the Sema, presumably in an earlier tomb perhaps dedicated to him alone. Various anonymous tombs of approximately the right date, and of Macedonian, rather than Egyptian, style have been suggested to have been the first Alexandrian tomb – the grandest monuments at Shatby, and the ‘Alabaster tomb’ are of Macedonian style and the right approximate date – but again the clinching evidence has been lacking, and for most scholars there is no surviving trace of this earlier tomb either.

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Some of the grander tombs at Shatby, a district of Alexandria just north east of the palaces district, exhibit features which correspond to what we might expect of the first tomb of Alexander – they are very grand, and Macedonian in style but there is nothing explicitly to connect them with Alexander

The recently discovered shaft and sarcophagus certainly did not fit the descriptions we have of the Sema. Some might have thought it another candidate for the earlier tomb but if this one ever is found it will surely not be sealed as we know Alexander’s body was moved from it to the Sema.

Still, I wasn’t surprised that Alexander’s name was mentioned in all the speculation prior to the sarcophagus being opened, and I wasn’t unhappy about that either. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Egyptology thrives on sensational stories, particularly the possibility that something thrilling like an ancient celebrity’s tomb might be discovered, and I don’t see any great harm in this kind of speculation provided such claims can be effectively rebuffed by those with specialist knowledge (as was the case in the film here, a representative of the Ministry of Antiquities quickly quashing the idea).

The sarcophagus also reminded me of a favourite object of mine, which is perhaps the closest thing we have to the evidence of Alexander’s tomb.

The ‘tomb of Alexander’ in the British Museum*

In 1798 the British defeated Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nile’ in Aboukir Bay, around 30km north east of Alexandria. Having seen off the enemy the British set about taking charge in Egypt. One aspect of their business was the seizure of the choicest antiquities which the French had been collecting. The most famous of these was a lump of granodiorite, the remains of a stela of the reign of Ptolemy V bearing a text written in three scripts: the cursive, handwritten form we call Demotic, and the more formal hieroglyphic script (both used to write the ancient Egyptian language), and ancient Greek. It was found to have been re-used as part of masonry of a fort near the town of Rashid or ‘Rosetta’ and is now known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’. At the time, another potentially important object had come to the attention of the British authorities. They had heard that the French were in possession of ‘the tomb of Alexander the Great’.

This turned out to be the basin of a very large sarcophagus of the pharaonic period. It was found within the courtyard of a mosque, el-Attarin, in the centre of Alexandria, and had been known as Alexander’s tomb thanks to a local legend that was at least a few centuries old by that time. At this point, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the decipherment of the Egyptian language was still a couple of decades away. The Rosetta Stone is now world famous because its inscriptions allowed Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the ancient Egyptian language and, from then on, for the vast quantity of ancient texts that were already known by that point to be read for the first time in the modern era. When this knowledge was applied to the sarcophagus from el-Attarin mosque, which had by that time made its way to the British Museum, it became clear that it was in fact made for the last pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo II. So not Alexander’s sarcophagus after all. Or could it have been? As mentioned above, there is plenty of evidence for sarcophagi having been re-used….

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The sarcophagus of Nectanebo II now on display in the Egyptian sculpture gallery in the British Museum

Nectanebo II was the last ruler of pharaonic Egypt. His reign came to an end when he was ousted by Artaxerxes III, the first ruler of a second wave of Persians to take control of the country. He was said to have fled to Nubia and never returned to Egypt. The Persian Empire was Alexander’s great enemy, and it was Alexander who, in defeating them, liberated a very grateful Egypt from their rule. The three Persian emperors who ruled the country during that brief period, Artaxerxes III, Artaxerxes IV and Darius III, were hated in Egypt.

In the period immediately following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE in Babylon there was considerable uncertainty about how and where Alexander should be buried and who should succeed him as ruler of his vast empire. It seemed that responsibility for burying Alexander would rest with whoever was to be his successor. Ptolemy, an army general who had been one of Alexander’s closest confidants, wanted to take charge of Egypt, and made a decisive move in autumn 321 by stealing the body before any of his rivals could do anything about it.

Having brought the body to the Egyptian capital at Memphis Ptolemy sought to capitalize on Alexander’s popularity with the Egyptians by drawing a direct connection between the great man and Nectanebo. In one legend, perhaps created or at least encouraged by Ptolemy himself, Nectanebo visited Macedon after the Persian invasion in the guise of the Egyptian god Amun, and seduced the Macedonian king Philip’s wife who subsequently gave birth to a child: Alexander. How very convenient for Ptolemy in his attempts to become the legitimate ruler of Egypt, that Alexander’s father should have been at once both the last native pharaoh, and also Egypt’s premier god.

In order to seal the deal for himself Ptolemy needed to give Alexander a full and proper burial in Egypt, and having been pursued there by his rivals he must have known he had little time. But where to find what he needed to create a suitable monument to receive the body of his master? In the normal course of events when a new pharaoh came to the throne one of his first acts would have been to commission a grand tomb for himself, and everything to go in it, including a monumental sarcophagus. Nectanebo would have been no different – his sarcophagus was probably made relatively early on his reign. But of course it never served its intended purpose, because Nectanebo was chased out of the country never to return. Could it simply have been lying around unused? If so, what better receptacle could there have been for Alexander’s body than a sarcophagus created for his mythical father? And when the newly built city of Alexandria was finally ready to receive the body of its founder a few years later, could it have been transported in that very same sarcophagus? Is that how this object came to be in the courtyard of el-Attarin mosque. And could the legend that this was ‘Alexander’s tomb’ in fact have been based in truth?

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When you’re next in London I recommend you go and take a look…

Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt will be published in the UK on 11 October 2018 and in North America on 28 November. Pre-order from Amazon here.

*My writing on Alexander’s tomb, here and in the book, draws extensively on the work of Andrew Chugg (here) and Nicholas J Saunders’ Alexander’s Tomb in particular.

A new website for the Robert Anderson Trust

The Robert Anderson Trust has a new website, its very first: www.robertandersontrust.org

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The homepage of the Trust’s new website, http://www.robertandersontrust.org

The Trust has been around since 1988, quietly going about its wonderful work – providing students and scholars with accommodation in London. Until 2015 it had been run by its charismatic Founder, the musician and Egyptologist Dr Robert Anderson. But Robert died in November that year, prompting an outpouring of tributes from his many friends, colleagues and students around the world. Robert was a great man, admired by many, and he left many legacies – his writings, the students he taught, the friends to whom he passed on his enthusiasms, the organizations he founded, and the ones he led including the Egypt Exploration Society. But the Trust might just be the most enduring and important of all the gifts he left behind.

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Robert rehearsing Elgar’s The Kingdom in Westminster Cathedral, 1975

Since Robert’s death the Trust’s work has continued, largely thanks to the dedication and hard work of the Coordinator, Howard Davies. I was taken on as Director in November 2016 and at around the same time, Stephen Stuart-Smith was appointed Chair of Trustees. Having had to re-group following the loss of the Founder, and with a new team in place, we are now ready to embark on what feels like a new era in the life of the Trust.

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Recent Trust visitors include the Egyptologists Fatma Hassan (L) of Cairo University and Mohamed Galal of Misr University of Science and Technology, Cairo

Earlier this week we held a small celebration at the Kensington house to gather friends of Robert’s and of the Trust, old and new. One of Robert’s many talents was his ability to bring people together, and he did this to the benefit of his own work, and that of the organisations with which he was involved, and also as a means of helping others. We wanted those who knew Robert, and his house with all his books, musical instruments, and its atmosphere of great learning and culture, to remember him, and to share memories with one another, and particularly with those who did not know him so well or even at all. We wanted to refresh and extend Robert’s own network, and to inspire new friends to continue to remember his work, and to know, support and spread the word about his Trust.

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Dr Anderson’s music room in which the recent celebration was held

The evening also marked the launch of the new website, which represents our first step towards extending that network online. We are ready to tell the world what the organization is and what it does. We want you to know the Trust and its work, to know Robert and his story, and to ask yourselves if you know of any worthy students or scholars who might benefit from a visit to London with the Trust’s support. Perhaps you are just such a person yourself…

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Dr Anderson with new friends at the White Monastery, Sohag, Egypt

This autumn we will be inviting applications for visits to London in 2018. Please take a look at the website, get to know the Trust’s story and its current work, and to imagine how we might develop what we offer in future. Please follow us via the website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or by dropping us a line here to add your name to our electronic mailing list. Let us know what you think or if you have any questions. We’re looking forward to making your acquaintance.

How should we define ‘Egyptologist’?

My colleagues and I at the International Association of Egyptologists (IAE) have recently been looking at the eligibility criteria for membership of the Association, and a working party composed of members of the IAE Council has been established to discuss the issue. This is a question which has interested me for some years but my election as President of the IAE and the debate around membership have given this train of thought a practical application, and caused me to refine my ideas a little.

When I was studying Egyptology at university there came a point around the end of my second undergraduate year when I decided I wanted to have a go at making a career in the subject. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. What does this mean? At the time I must have had a pretty limited idea of what it meant. I knew some of the things my lecturers did like teaching and writing articles and books – that all seemed pretty good. There were other people who led excavations in Egypt, although I knew they were often also university lecturers, or museum curators, I knew you could earn a living doing that too. I hadn’t initially considered jobs like the one I took shortly afterwards at the EES, where I was mainly responsible for processing membership applications and looking after the library. Could I describe myself as ‘an Egyptologist’, I wondered at that point? I distinctly remember wondering about it – and hoping, I suppose! – but being too embarrassed to ask in case I was laughed at. At the time I had just completed a research degree (an MPhil) in Egyptology, I had written a ‘thesis’ – an original piece of research – I had been to Egypt, I could read hieroglyphs, I was about to join an archaeological project at Abydos… But did I qualify? As far as my non-Egyptologist friends were concerned I knew loads about ancient Egypt, I had two degrees in it and was now working for the Egypt Exploration Society – so they would probably have said yes! But as far as the Society’s CEO at the time or my old supervisor (both Drs with far more experience than me) were concerned, I had only been studying for a couple years and barely knew anything perhaps. What were the rules on becoming an Egyptologist and who made the judgment? There were – and are – no rules, and no-one in any position to make such judgments, of course.

After a few years, I relaxed a bit and became confident that I met most if not all the criteria I imagined might exist, and comfortable I couldn’t be told off for claiming ‘Egyptologist’ as my profession. At the same time, I stopped worrying about the criteria, and starting thinking that the very idea represented some kind of snobbery. It seemed to me that some believed the term brought with it a certain glamour, or glory(?), which they wanted to keep for themselves and deny to ‘outsiders’. I didn’t like this and started thinking that, in the absence of any recognised approval process or similar, anyone who wanted to call themselves an ‘Egyptologist’ was welcome to do so.

There are many ways in which one could make a contribution to Egyptology, and could therefore be regarded as a practicing Egyptologist. Many of the Association’s members will satisfy most if not all the criteria one might use to define what it means to be an Egyptologist, by having certain academic qualifications in Egyptology, usually including a PhD; by holding a ‘position’ within the field, that is to say they are employed by an academic institution, usually a university or museum; and they are actively engaged in fieldwork and/or research. But what of those to whom only one or two of these criteria apply? What of those who gained qualifications in other subjects but whose specialist expertise has nonetheless been applied to research on ancient Egypt? What of those in permanent positions whose work does not allow them any active involvement in research? What of those whose Egyptological work has continued even though they are employed in unrelated roles, as jobs in the field are so difficult to come by?

Egyptology ought, in my view, to be flexible enough to embrace anyone making a contribution to the field, regardless of their circumstances or background etc. I myself do not have a ‘position’ in the field as such at present, having left my post as Director of the Egypt Exploration Society to pursue a freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and public speaker (work which is all connected to Egyptology in some regard) and the same could be said for many of our colleagues – unsurprisingly, given that the number of jobs available is vastly outweighed by the number of qualified candidates. We should be careful to support all such people rather than to exclude them on the basis of the dogma that only those who are employed should count.

For a long time I couldn’t see any practical benefit in cultivating a kind of exclusivity for Egyptologists of a particular kind, and liked the idea of dismantling the snobbery. I still don’t like the snobbery, of course. However, since thinking about the Association, I’ve begun to refine my ideas a little.

We ‘Egyptologists’ are often called on to provide authoritative judgments or comments, for example, for television programmes, the news media etc. On a few occasions recently, these have involved some very important issues for our subject, such as the threat posed to ancient sites and monuments by looters, vandals or even terrorists, or the trafficking of antiquities. In such situations the representatives of our subject must, of course, be able to demonstrate academic authority – in other words they must show that they have the necessary expertise in Egyptology (being able to call oneself ‘Dr’ is the most convenient way as it indicates a certain level of study, but should not be taken as a universal standard, or even a guarantee of the right kind of authority). But we must also hope that they are able to articulate and promote certain professional and ethical standards. This is where my previous, inclusive stance might potentially let our subject down. Professional Egyptologists should be aware of, actively promote, and uphold in their own practice, these standards. Those without the relevant depth of experience and knowledge could not be relied upon to act accordingly.

I now believe, therefore, that there is good reason to try to define what it means to be a professional Egyptologist and to do so on the basis of an agreed set of guidelines defining professional and ethical standards, best practice etc. Professional Egyptologists should be required to sign up to these standards, and any breach should result in the withdrawal of ‘professional’ status within the Association.

The IAE has for many years provided a definition, albeit one that is broad and inclusive, and open to varying interpretations:

“Professional Membership, open to all scholars having an advanced degree in Egyptology, or in another scientific field but making significant contributions to Egyptology.”

Taken from the Statues of the IAE, 3.1.1. (see here).

It is this that we are now seeking to refine, and in relation to this two issues which must address:

  • There is not sufficient awareness of the IAE’s role in this and the importance of the definitions
  • Such definitions would be much more meaningful when combined with a code of professional and ethical standards.

Two issues which might form part of such a code have been raised more than once, specifically:

  • Respect for intellectual property and the right of individual scholars to publish primary material;
  • The antiquities trade and specifically the argument that the sale of ancient artefacts – legal or otherwise – creates a market which encourages the disappearance of ancient material into private collections, and, potentially, theft from archaeological sites and museums, illicit excavations etc.

My colleagues and I are now looking at these issues with a view to:

  • raising awareness of the International Association
  • encouraging a much larger proportion of professional Egyptologists to become members
  • Establishing code of professional and ethical standards
  • Making use of the Association’s membership to maintain, promote and most importantly uphold the code.

I’d be interested to hear what others think!

(Written on a train in Japan September 2015, at home in London January 2017, and on a plane to Luxor, March 2017).

Searching for missing tombs.. Come with me?

UPDATE 12 April 2017: The tour described below, departing 29 October 2017 has now sold out. However, a second tour is now planned for 6 – 19 March 2018 – for further details please see here (links below have also been changed).

I’ve been writing a book about so-called ‘missing tombs’ for a while now (and hoping to get it done in time for publication in Spring 2018 at the latest, by the way). So when my friends at Ancient World Tours (AWT) got in touch to ask if I’d like to take a group to Egypt and, if so, which sites I’d like to visit, going on the hunt for some of these tombs seemed like the obvious thing to do.

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Field walking around KV 54 in the Valley of Kings. What more might yet be found in this most famous of ancient Egyptian cemeteries..? (photo courtesy of Stephen Cross)

Now, before anyone gets over-excited, we’re not going to go blazing in waving trowels around or thrusting shovels into the sand – sorry! – this is more about visiting the sites and examining some of the objects that tell the story of where some of these tombs – of Imhotep, Nefertiti, Cleopatra and others – might be.

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Taposiris Magna, site of an ongoing project searching for the tomb of Cleopatra. Let me know if you spot anything…

We’ll be visiting pyramids, catacombs, the Egyptians’ most important place of pilgrimage (Abydos), the Valley of the Kings, and four different ancient Egyptian capital cities (Memphis [Giza and Saqqara], Amarna, Tanis and Alexandria). And in some cases we’ll be able to stand more or less on the spot where I think some of these tombs might be…

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The Step Pyramid isn’t difficult to find(!), but might the tomb of its creator, Imhotep, also lie nearby somewhere?

Janet Shepherd and co at AWT have been hard at work planning the trip and figuring out the logistics, and I’m delighted to say the tour has now been advertised (and the first few places already taken). All the info you need is here.

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The coffin discovered in KV 55 has raised more questions than it has answered. Who was it made for? For whom was it then repurposed? And which of the Amarna royals that didn’t end up it might yet be found elsewhere? 

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The finest of the tombs in the catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa, Alexandria, the city in which Alexander the Great and Cleopatra might both have been buried…

So, come along? It would be great to have you on board 🙂

More info here: http://www.ancient.co.uk/AWMT060318.aspx

Tell el-Amarna, place and people

Last week I spent two absolutely wonderful days at Tell el-Amarna. I was looking forward to visiting, but I’d been a couple of time before and didn’t think much of it. Been there done that, know it all already… But it made a much bigger impression on me this time round.

One place, so many stories

Amarna was and is the capital city founded by Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and the setting, therefore, for one of the great stories of the ancient past. That city, Akhetaten, as Akhenaten called it, was also a place where a lot of ordinary people lived – and worked, played, loved, met, talked, argued, got sick, got well again, died, were buried, and did all the other things people do – together, in this one place. It’s also set in an extraordinarily beautiful, archetypally Nile Valley landscape: the broad river with lush green fields punctuated by palm trees at its edge, then a crescent of desert plain bounded at its eastern extent by a glorious arc of cliffs that marks the edge of the valley and the beginning of the high desert nothingness beyond.

screenshot-2016-12-12-01-18-48Satellite image of the site showing the essences of the geography at Amarna: the river and, to the east, the cultivation,  low desert plain, great arc of cliffs, high desert beyond.

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Map of the ancient city taken from the Amarna Project website (here). The photograph below was taken in the area of the North Palace 

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The view from the ground: looking towards the camera, ready to do some walking shots through the cultivation with the cliffs in the background

The site is also home to the people of the modern village of Et-Till Beni Amra whose name was corrupted and became ‘Tell el-Amarna’ the name we know the site best by today. Further to the south of Et-Till are the villages of El-Hagg Qandil, El-Amariya and El-Hawata esh-Sharqiya (or El-Hawata).

People lived here in the time of Akhenaten, and people live here now.

I was there to help make a documentary with a crew, Nick and Lina, from Blink Films and with our expert contributor, Dr Anna Stevens. We filmed at the north cemetery, the Workmen’s Village, and two unfeasibly lovely riverside locations; we ate two delicious and very Egyptian lunches at the local resthouse; and we drove and hiked around the site inbetween times, all the while getting the benefit of Anna’s expert knowledge and guidance.

Travelling through the site

Entering the site from the main road leading into the nearby town of Mallawi you immediately know you have arrived somewhere. Heading south along a newly tarmacked road, the fields and, beyond, the river are on your right; the desert is to your left, the cliffs beyond getting further away as the great crescent-shaped desert plain opens out towards the east. The arrangement seems almost too good to be truly natural. You can see exactly why Akhenaten chose this new place to be his capital, you just wonder why no-one had had the idea before him…

One of the first buildings you see on the desert is the ancient house which was rebuilt by the Egypt Exploration Society’s team in the 1920s for use as a base during their excavations, most famously those led by John Pendlebury and co from the beginning of the 1930s.

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Lina and Nick in front of the EES house of the 1920s and 30s

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The EES house while it was still in use. Photograph taken during the 1933-4 season at the site, reproduced courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Very close by is the North Riverside Palace which may well have been the main residence of the royal family in Akhenaten’s time. From here, after a while, the new road comes to coincide with the ancient royal road. As we drove, Anna, let us know when we had reached the Central City, where Akhenaten built his Great Palace, the Great and Small Aten Temples and various administrative buildings, the ruins of which lie all around. Remembering undergraduate lectures I asked if we were about to see the bridge across the street which some have speculated may have included a ‘window of appearance’ for the royal couple to present themselves to their people – just at the moment when we passed that exact spot. Being somewhere familiar without ever having been there before, it’s like meeting someone famous…

The ruins sit in and around clusters of modern houses, cultivated land, a cemetery – all the elements you would expect of any settled area, and all of which are expanding rapidly in an easterly direction across the desert, eating into, and destroying, the remains of the ancient city. It’s sad from an archaeological perspective, but people need houses to live in, fields on which to grow their crops, and somewhere to bury their dead.

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It was such a privilege to be able to film in these beautiful fields with the generous permission of the locals who, unfussed, carried on with their work around us

People and their stories

Amarna is all about people – ancient and modern – and their stories. The site helps us to tell the tale of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, but the current Amarna Project has focused more on the unrivalled opportunity it presents to study a fully-fledged, purpose-built city at a very precise moment in time: Akhetaten came into being in just a few years, according to Akhenaten’s very deliberate plan; and it was abandoned again almost as quickly after the end of his reign, as part of the transition back to the old ways. Crucially, the desert plain on which the city was built was never reoccupied to anything like the same extent, and the remains of the city simply lay there largely undisturbed beneath a thin layer of drift sand for a few thousand years until explorers and scholars began to take an interest in the beginning of the 19th century. Along with literally thousands of buildings and material objects the city also provides the opportunity to study the people who built the whole thing, and made it work.

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Lina and Nick capture Anna’s arrival at the Workmen’s Village where the craftsmen who cut the elite tombs at Amarna lived

For many years, although the richly decorated rock-cut tombs of the Amarna elite were well known, the cemeteries of the ordinary people lay undiscovered. This changed in recent years with the discovery of what have become known as the south and north cemeteries.

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Anna explains a little of what we can learn of the ordinary people of Amarna at the North Cemetery

Anna was with the crew and me in part to tell the story of the excavation of these crucially important burial grounds which began in 2006. During a first visit to the north cemetery for a reccy, she told us how privileged she felt to have the opportunity to excavate the graves of the people of Akhetaten. The very human connection she feels with the ancients was clear, and it now seems obvious having spoken to Anna just how incredible it is to be able to get to know something of these people’s lives, and how each came to an end, often at very young ages, perhaps after some suffering from illness or over-work, from the careful recording and interpretation of their graves and remains.

Thinking about the people – who, though far removed from us in terms of time, geography, beliefs etc., were nonetheless people just as we are – set me thinking about the city in quite a different way, made it feel a little closer, a little more alive. It’s difficult not to see a connection between this and the friendly relations Anna has with so many of the people, villagers, dig-house staff, antiquities inspectors, police, and guardians who live and work at Amarna now.

Amarna under threat

Some many lives intertwined… People, ancient and modern, locals and foreigners… City, villages and landscape. It’s such a special place, one of Egypt’s great places, one of the world’s great places. And yet the archeological site is disappearing as the locals have no choice but to make use of it for their own needs. The local Ministry of Antiquities inspectorate and Amarna Project are desperately under-funded, despite the celebrity of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. A single fragment of a statue of the period was due to be sold at auction recently for $600,000; an entire season of excavation and conservation work costs a tiny fraction of that and yet the Project struggles to find the funds it needs, relying on small grants and crowd-funding. Listening to Anna, with all her knowledge expertise, energy and passion, and seeing the excellent relations she has with friends and colleagues all around her, one can be hopeful that in future the ancient city will be preserved in its (still, largely) unspoilt desert landscape, and that the modern inhabitants will be able to able to live good lives in and around it without threatening that. But it’s by no means assured.

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Satellite image of the Central City at Amarna (click here to view the area in Google Maps). The massive rectangular enclosure of the Great Aten temple has recently been built over by the buildings of a modern cemetery (small rectangular shapes towards the top of the image). The dark green cultivated areas at its north-eastern corner demonstrate the extent to which the desert can be reclaimed for agriculture, threatening to envelope the temple completely.

I wanted to write something to share my excitement at waking up to these stories – of the ancient people, their modern counterparts, and the incredible work (Project Director) Professor Barry Kemp, Anna and their colleagues are doing – but also to say something about the urgent need for us not to be complacent about this wonderful place. Please read more about the site and the Project (here), and please consider supporting it if you can (here).

A new role… with the Robert Anderson Research Charitable Trust

So, I have new role… I am delighted to announce that I have been appointed Director of the Robert Anderson Research Charitable Trust (RARCT) with effect from March 2017. Up to that time I will be learning the ropes as ‘Director designate’.

The Trustees’ announcement is here.

The Trust is a wonderful organisation whose work I have admired for some time. Its purpose is ‘to offer postgraduate students and visiting academic staff accommodation and financial support for short periods of intensive research in London’. Since its establishment in 1989 it has brought dozens of students and scholars, mostly from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, under its wing in London, providing them with the opportunity to make use of specialist libraries and the Trust’s network of academic contacts to further their studies. Many of its visitors have been archaeologists from Egypt, reflecting the founder’s interests, and indeed its work provided some of the inspiration for the Egypt Exploration Society’s programme of scholarships, which I helped to establish in recent years.

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Robert Anderson and me in his kitchen, March 2015

The Trust’s founder, Dr Robert Anderson, was an extraordinary man, of wide-ranging interests, and many and varied talents. He was an Egyptologist and also a musician, equally at ease whether reading a hieroglyphic inscription or conducting an orchestra. Robert was also a friend of mine and a great source of inspiration and encouragement to me in my work. When he died last year, aged 88, but still very actively involved in the work of his Trust, tributes poured in from his many friends, colleagues and students around the world. My own was published in Egyptian Archaeology earlier this year (and is reproduced here courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society). He left behind a rich legacy in the books, articles and other works he wrote, in the many students whose lives were enriched by his teaching, and of course in the Trust.

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My tribute to Robert in Egyptian Archaeology

I’m really excited to have been given this opportunity. The Trust’s work is rooted in values which one could be forgiven for thinking are becoming lost in today’s world: the exchange of ideas between people of different nationalities and cultures, particularly those coming from some of the most troubled parts of the world; an emphasis on knowledge, scholarship and expertise, particularly in the arts and humanities; and the provision of accommodation in parts of London that are increasingly reserved only for the very wealthiest in society.

In these difficult times, the value of this work seems likely only to increase. I can’t wait to get started and look forward to sharing more of the Trust and its work with you as we go along.