19th July 2014 – Hunting for our Ancestors
As I spend what seems like a lot of time abroad we decided to go on a short break to Cornwall last week. To make it just that little bit different, we decided to stay in a treehouse. It was one of the most magical places I have ever stayed and I felt like a hobbit or an elf for the few nights we were there.
However, this blog is not to advertise the wonders of in-tree accommodation, or indeed Egyptology although I obviously visited the Egyptian Hall in Penzance. On our first day in Cornwall I bought what looked to be a great book; Ancient Cornwall; a guide to the BEST sites which boasted being ‘Sat Nav Friendly’. Whilst the book highlighted exactly how many stone circles, hill forts and standing stones there were with some rather random postcodes that sent you miles in the wrong direction, it proved a diverting challenge to see how many of these ancient monuments we could locate. Considering we were only there three days I was impressed we found seven from the book, and two that were not mentioned in the book. All of these sites were free to visit except Chysauster Iron Age Village, which had a small charge. We were unfortunately turned away as we arrived at 17:02 and the last entrance was at 17:00. British punctuality at its most fastidious.
To be honest I was not that disappointed to be sent away as we drove to what looked like a much better Iron Age Village at Carn Euny (Fig 1), which had an underground ‘fogou’ or random tunnel which opened into a round chamber which archaeologists have claimed is ‘ritual’ in nature. See a previous blog for comments on ‘ritual’. This village was really cool and comprised a series of semi-detached round houses. The fogou was also really atmospheric, and provided excellent shelter from the rain.
One of the weirdest standing stones was the Men an Tol (Fig 2) which is essentially a ring-donut set between two standing stones, and no one knows why. When we arrived there was a small group of wild horses grazing between the stones, and a rather worrying sign on the stile stating; “Stay away from the horses. They will kick you.”
My favourite site was the Tregeseal Stone Circle (Fig 3), a perfectly formed miniature stone circle on the edge of a moor. Due to the random Sat Nav directions we arrived outside a farm house and asked the ‘Local Farmer’ for directions. Little did we know he had an ‘awesome’ sense of humour! “Ooooh you’re going to have to walk through a lot of fields and there is nothing to see when you get there,” he intoned sagely. Then he pointed out some place in the far distance and told us it was “over there somewhere”. So off we trundled to the place in the far distance and couldn’t see anything looking like a stone circle. We climbed a small incline and looked around. The stone circle was next to the gate backing onto the farmer’s land! The gate we had just walked through. Once we walked back to the gate and the stone circle we soon forgot his hilarious joke and admired the view.
Whilst driving to look for the Lanyon Quoit (Fig 4) which was surrounded by cows when we finally found it, we accidently came across ‘The Bowl’ (Fig 5), an absolutely huge boulder which according to legend was used by giants when playing a game. Bowls I presume. Although not the most beautiful of rocks, and probably natural, I liked the story surrounding it.
If all of these standing stones and ancient monuments were not enough excitement, on the last night in Cornwall we were entertained by the scariest lightning storm I have ever seen. For a while we sat by the beach watching the lightning over St Michael’s Mount (Fig 6) until the rain got too heavy. Luckily it had finished by 11pm (more or less) rendering it safe for us to enter our treehouse secure(ish) in the knowledge we would not be struck by lightning before morning.
NB: Figs 1-4 taken by Charlotte Booth and Figs 5-6 taken by BKB Photography
10th June 2014 - Death and Burial is not a Morbid Subject
Unfortunately my trip to Egypt was brought to a halt as I had to return to the UK as my mother was ill. Sadly she died and I have spent the last few weeks with my sister organising the funeral and all other post-death activities. Although it is an extremely sad time, it is also an interesting time as it does bring you face-to-face with your own mortality. I am surprised how many conversations I have had with friends and family that start with “I don’t mean to be morbid, but….” followed by contemplations on death and burial. Luckily no one has asked about the afterlife or what happens after death! It’s all been more practical than spiritual conversations.
It is interesting how in British society we are reluctant to consider our own deaths which is viewed as morbid and something that should be avoided in polite conversation. However, some of the questions we have been asked about Mum’s wishes would have been easier to answer if we had at some point had the very un-British conversation, especially considering how many options there are today.
Many people assume that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death as they planned for their funeral and afterlife throughout their lives, ensuring everything was as they wanted it. I have always interpreted it as they were in fact, obsessed with life and wanted their lives to continue in the manner to which they were accustomed (or wanted to be accustomed) for eternity. I wonder now if perhaps there was a certain amount of practicality involved.
In preparing for burial and afterlife whilst alive the Egyptians were perhaps able to ensure they had better, more expensive things than they used on a daily basis as they could spread the cost over a longer period. They could have an elaborate tomb, decorated by craftsmen and funerary goods produced by masters but ordered one at a time, instead of the entire outlay being made at one time by the surviving family.
Considering the number of deaths the Egyptians dealt with, due to high mortality rates of children, large families and a lower average age at death, families could potentially be bankrupt within a year if they had the pay the embalmers, tomb builders and funerary goods suppliers for each family member. Providing for your own burial therefore seems a logical thing to do.
Luckily the Egyptian ideas of death, burial and the afterlife, whilst diverse in some ways were rather prescriptive. In order to have a perfect afterlife certain things had to be carried out in a certain way, which made it easier for family members to organise the final aspects of the funeral. As long as the deceased was mummified, buried in a tomb with all their bits and bobs around them (or models or drawings of their bits and bobs) and had someone say prayers and repeat their name, then they would be accepted into the afterlife. Although this is simplified, as some of the required rituals were rather more complex than I have insinuated, the idea is sound. Do these things and the deceased is guaranteed eternal life. To improve on this basic ‘formula’ the deceased planned all the finer details whilst alive, providing quality objects, an elaborate tomb, a beautiful coffin, numerous amulets and linen and perhaps employing a ka priest; all to their personal taste.
In modern Britain, with numerous religious or spiritual beliefs, squeamishness about viewing the body or burials, ideas of disrespect about the deceased in their own clothes verses a gown provided by the funeral directors, romantic ideas about where ashes could be scattered or strong ideas about how people should act at the wake, preparing a funeral is a minefield. So many things to guess at and potentially get wrong. We can therefore learn from the ancient Egyptians and whilst not going so far as to buy a coffin and keep it at home until the time comes, at least think about it and consider a will, giving your relatives a helping hand. I have given my instructions out, and have had raised eyebrows and comments like “Only an archaeologist would think of that!” but at least they are prepared, and as they say fore-warned is fore-armed.
1st May 2014 Tutankhamun’s tomb; or is it?
Occasionally I get to do VIP things, although on the whole I learn about many of the exciting things happening in Luxor the same way everyone else does. EEF, Twitter and Facebook. However on 30th April 2014 the facsimile tomb of Tutankhamun was opened in Luxor, just behind Carter’s House on the West Bank, and I got to go along. The event was attended by a couple of hundred people including a number of inspectors and ambassadors. We arrived promptly at 10am as instructed and at 11:50 to ministers arrived. Once they were there the event could start (although I think a number of people had got bored of waiting and had left). The event started with several short speeches about expectations for the tomb and how, not only will it help in the preservation of KV62 by diverting the tourists away from the original to the copy, but will also go some way to bring tourists to Luxor. It was difficult to hear what they were saying due to the noise in the tent but I picked up the gist.
After these speeches the tomb was opened and everyone flocked to be the first inside. There was a combination of diplomats, journalists, Egyptologists, archaeologists, students and ex-pats. The general feeling seemed to be upbeat and positive. The reconstruction of the tomb itself cannot be faulted, and the decoration in the burial chamber is almost unidentifiable from the real thing. The hot oppressive atmosphere, and the smell of BO, I have to say were spot on.
The highlight of the exhibition, for me anyway, was the annexe which had been reconstructed and opened up. In this room there was a reconstruction of the wall decoration that was destroyed in order for Carter to enter the burial chamber. The original section of wall is now missing and this has been reconstructed using Burton’s black and white photographs and the colour pigments from the rest of the decoration. It was wonderful to see this and made the whole thing worthwhile. A spokesperson from Factum Arte, the company responsible for the reproduction, hoped it may help to locate the original. However, the only downside was, as it was possible to get closer to this than the decoration in the burial chamber it was obvious it was fibre glass and not painted plaster. My lovely colleague Afaf liked this so much she made the Factum Arte guy take a photo of us in front of it. He seemed surprised.
I am really torn about this reconstruction. As an Egyptologist I understand the need to close KV62 due to the damage being caused to the tomb decoration and this facsimile will enable people to still see what the tomb is like. However, although the reproduction is far superior, personally it felt no less ‘real’ than the reproduction of the tomb at Highclere Castle or at the Tutankhamun Exhibition in Dorchester.
I was a little surprised that the same movement restrictions are in place in the replica tomb of Tutankhamen as in the original, in the sense that the burial chamber is still off limits, meaning the scene to the left is still only visible if you hang over the barrier. To make it an improvement on the original (which many news reports have claimed is their goal) and a draw for tourists, perhaps removing this barrier and allowing people to enter the burial chamber to examine the artwork carefully would have been a better plan. I would have enjoyed walking around the sarcophagus and getting a totally different perspective of the tomb. But sadly this was not to be.
I wholeheartedly feel that this replica is in the wrong place. It should be placed in Hurgada or Sharm el Sheikh allowing tourists to see the ‘tomb’ without the need to visit the Valley of the Kings. I am not sure I agree with the expectation that it will bring people to Luxor, especially at a time where original monuments are failing to draw the visitors. There are so many factors stopping people travelling to Egypt, security being the most important, that it seems strange to think it is because Egypt needs new attractions. 5000 year old monuments have always been the attraction for travel to Egypt. That has not changed, but the political situation has. The tourist in me would not travel to Egypt to see a replica, no matter how accurate it is, and once I had arrived in Luxor I would visit the ancient tombs first in their original settings rather than a replica.
Perhaps I will feel differently if Factum Arte complete their reproduction of the tomb of Sety I (KV17) as they plan to. This tomb has not been open for decades and is unlikely to be open again so it would be the only way to see it. I could perhaps even get excited if they did a reproduction of Horemheb’s tomb. Even then, though, would it be much different to looking at images in a book?
Visiting the monuments for me is not about the artwork, it is about standing where people have stood for 1000s of years admiring the same view, imagining the conversations tomb owners had with the artists in the tombs telling them to tweek this or change that or ‘make me thinner’ and ‘make my hair fuller, and darker’, imagining the feeling Carter had when he entered the burial chamber of Tutankhamun for the first time. None of this ‘history’ can be reproduced using laser scanners. So as accurate as it is, for me personally, I would rather visit the original and if the original is not available study top-quality photographs in the comfort of my home.
25th March 2014
- A quiet haven
Following on from the last rather saddening blog about life in Egypt, I felt I ought to raise the bar a little and try to be more positive. Of course, all of problems raised in the previous blog are still happening (except the problem at my home), but like everyone else I have to learn to ignore it. Not because it is unimportant but because if I didn’t ignore it I would become insane with rage every time I left the house. My answer? To wear headphones wherever I go, so whilst these idiots still make sexually explicit comments, or ask me every 2 steps if I want a taxi, calesh, boat, alabaster, papyrus, blah blah blah, I can no longer hear them. Makes for much more pleasant strolls around Luxor.
I have been quite busy since I last wrote, although I have to say I have not visited any of the ancient monuments. My partner arrives in a just over a week so I can go with him and reduce the hassle. Instead I have spent the last couple of Fridays in the sanctuary of the Chicago House Library to continue with my PhD research. I have met some lovely people here, and have shared lunch and cups of tea with them. All in all a rather civilized way of spending the weekend.
Luxor has in the last week been the home of the African Film Festival 2013, where a number of films from all over Africa and the Middle East have been showcased. As I am not always very organized and many of the films were on during the day when I was at work I only went to see one film, and Egyptian piece called the ‘Mice Room’. This looked at six individuals in Alexandria all having to deal with different things that scared them including a grieving widow, a young girl embarking on an overseas trip and a man facing cancer. Whilst interesting to see movies from a different perspective to that of the US and UK, this was not the greatest movie I have ever seen, with each story being told over a different time scale (the widow over 3-4 days, the young girl over 2 days, a bride in preparation at the salon, a little girl over a few days (not clear), and an elderly man a single day). It was a little confusing as they kept cutting to the different stories, and the connection with ‘fear’ only came out in the Q&A with the six directors afterwards.
After this movie I popped into the Eatabe (Etap) for a quick drink before hopping back on the ferry and was asked if I would mind being interviewed by a Nigerian student who was making a documentary on religion for a project. I agreed and had fun explaining my religious views. The chap who went before me was a very softly spoken Rwandan teenager who had some very interesting views.
The week wouldn’t really be complete without some retail therapy and I had been put in contact with a man, Francis, who has a weird shop, of sorts, with antique books, jewellery and general odds and sods. I went looking for a particular book which he believes he has, but can’t locate at the moment. Instead I came out with a US first edition of Cleopatra by Rider Haggard, a beautiful art deco silver ring, an early 1920s lipstick and mirror necklace and a 1940s poster advertising Egyptian tea (complete with brand new box of tea to go with it – minus the 70 year old tea). Oh, yes and no money. Hopefully next time I visit Francis he will have the book I want and I can leave with some money in my pocket. However I am intrigued by the three mint condition silver ‘chain’ handbags from the early 1920s. I’ve never seen them in such good if dusty condition. Does not bode well for my finances. If anyone would like to visit this less than orthodox “shop” (read, basement piled high with stuff you are free to rummage through) let me know.
I am sure the coming weeks will provide lots more adventures of this kind, as Egypt has a lot more to offer than monuments and in my time here I need to experience it all.
12th March 2014
- There is no excuse for some behavior
I will have to be honest and say that the last month in Luxor has not exactly been a pleasant one, and this blog post may be considered controversial. In this era of economic crisis in Egypt everyone is encouraged to say how wonderful and safe it is here in order to overcome the tourist crisis. In this vein we are expected to overlook some of the things that are very wrong in the behaviour of some people so as not to frighten off visitors.
On the whole Luxor is as “safe” as any other place to visit, and you have the added bonus of the wonderful monuments and glorious sunshine. However, in the last few weeks I have been subjected to the most tedious and potentially threatening sexual harassment, which is shrugged off by the majority of people. As a woman alone, I have the misfortune to visit monuments by myself and as a 21st century woman who is more than averagely independent I hate myself for wishing my partner were here so he could ‘protect’ me. Everywhere I go I am stared at, whistled at, lewd comments are made and various offers of sex, kissing, marriage as well as cameras being shoved in my face without even asking if it is OK. Even Egyptian male friends who have known me and my partner for years believe it is acceptable to talk to me about sex in more detail than would be acceptable with my closest friends. And, I should add, it is not a subject of conversation they instigate when my partner is with me.
I am sure some of you are thinking “it’s a joke” or “get over yourself” but when this happens every minute you are out the house, from children as young as 8 years old up to elderly men, you realize it is not a joke: it is an imbedded cultural problem. Even in my own home I am not ‘safe’ as the man who was fixing the fridge told me he “loved me” and tried to kiss me. Sitting on my balcony reading a book I have an audience of young men on the roofs of the surrounding houses. By Western standards this is tame but turn the tables; a male tourist acting the same way with an Egyptian man’s mother, sister or wife. I am sure it would not be considered acceptable then.
When I have mentioned how the constant harassment is wearing me down, to westerners and Egyptians (men and women) the comments are surprising.
“What were you wearing?” Not that it matters but t-shirt, jeans, trainers, long sleeved cardigan all in 35 degree heat.
“Well, you are blonde” What difference should it make? And in truth it makes no difference when you are western. As a fan of hair dye I have been here as a brunette, red-head and blonde. It is the same reaction all round.
“Just ignore it.” You can perhaps ignore one person but an entire male population!?
“you are a novelty”, really?! In Luxor? Where thousands of tourists a day visited the monuments until 2011 you seriously expect me to believe a western woman is a novelty?
And my favourite comment being “Well they are desperate. The economy is screwed. They just want your money”.
No matter how economically “screwed” a society is it is NEVER acceptable to sexually harass anyone, and it is certainly not acceptable to teach children that this behaviour is acceptable. The number of children jumping onto the sexual harassment band-wagon is disturbing as they have to learn it somewhere and I expect when they see their fathers, grandfathers and uncles doing it then they believe it is considered acceptable.
As someone who has travelled here many times over the years, and someone who has a genuine love of the country and the culture it is quite worrying that there are times when I just want to jump on a plane back to a place where I can walk unmolested down the street, and never return. Imagine what it does to people with less interest in the monuments, people whose careers are not tied up in Egypt. It is not only the aftermath of the political unrest that affects tourism here, but the behaviour of some of the local people. And until this changes there will always be a number of people who will only ever visit once and leave feeling uncomfortable, with a nasty taste in their mouths and a number of anecdotal tales of harassment to tell all their friends who have never visited here.
By all means, do not get me wrong, I am lucky to be here, and when I open my balcony doors to see the west banks cliffs I cannot help but see the beauty and as my last post mentioned listen to the sounds of the animals and the birds. But often this idyllic scene is spoilt by some young teenage boy, man, or octogenarian waving and leering at me until I feel obliged to go back inside and shut the door.
23rd Febuary 2014 - Travelling back in time
Since the last blog I have up-sticks and ‘moved’ to Luxor for the next six months to work for ARCE as their Data Systems Manager. Even though I spend most of the time in an over-air-conditioned office it is interesting work and a great place to be. As you can imagine there are many things I could write about but I have decided to write about the environment: partially because I am reviewing a new book on landscape archaeology (look out for it in the review section) but also because it is something that dominates here. In the UK I live in the country. A small village with only 500 people, one pub and a small village shop/post office. However that seems urban in comparison to the area I live in now, in Luxor. There is nothing like waking to the sounds of hundreds of birds twittering in the trees, accompanied by an over-enthusiastic cockerel, a distressed sounding goat, a morose donkey and a cow. This wonderful dawn chorus continues until sun-down. If it weren’t for the occasional car horn and the mosques calling people to prayer these would be the same sounds that greeted the people of ancient Egypt every day. People often emphasis that life hasn’t changed much here for thousands of years and in many ways that is true, although when you see the number of people glued to their phones, listening to loud music and ‘cruising’ by on motorbikes there is no doubt even in sleepy Luxor the 21st century is creeping in. However the sounds and views of Egypt are the main aspects of life that haven’t changed in five thousand years, and perhaps are only noticed by tourists. As I sit on my balcony, drinking my morning cup of tea looking at the west bank cliffs, listening to the animals and birds, smelling the rising heat, dust, dung and burning fields the romantic in me cannot help but imagine that Paneb from Deir el Medina heard the same thing (perhaps with a stonking hangover), Horemheb gazed at the cliffs and heard the same things the day before his coronation and Nefertiti lamented leaving these familiar sounds behind, on the morning she was due to abandon Thebes and move to Amarna with her husband.
17th January 2014 - The significance of every action
Although I don’t make New Year’s resolutions as such, this year I decided I would try to write at least one blog post entry a month. So here is January’s.
This month has been very busy so far with work on my PhD and research into my new book. It was whilst I was doing this research that I thought of the topic for this blog post. I am consistently surprised that in each publication, every act of the ancient Egyptians is labelled as significant. Not significant as in important to our pursuit of knowledge, as there is obviously no argument about this, but significant as in every action had a higher purpose.
For example, in one article about ‘rock art’ it was discussed that the images of cattle were of religious significance intended to appeal to the gods to help in the safe hunting of these beasts. Whilst I am by no means criticising the scholar and their conclusions, or ‘picking on’ rock art in particular, but rather just using it as an example, it does make me wonder “Maybe the guy just liked drawing cows. Why does it have to be religious?”
Sometimes I wonder if scholars forget that the ancient Egyptians were real people, like you and me. They lived in a different time but their drives, motivations and attention spans were the same as ours. Along these lines, I do wonder if, going back to our cattle artist, there is sometimes less significance attached to particular acts. Would it be so unusual for this man (or woman) to have carved an image of a cow on a rock because he was bored in some down-time whilst tracking cattle. As a hunter he saw a lot of cows, he hunted them daily, and then he ate a lot of beef, whilst wearing cow-hide clothes and carrying items of leather. Cattle would have featured highly in his life, so it is not surprising he drew an image of hunting cattle. Maybe there IS some higher meaning but why can’t such actions be random?
Think about your notepad which sits by the phone. Mine is covered in doodles of flowers, eyes with eyelashes and geometric shapes. I have no idea what a twenty-first century psychologist would make of this, but I would be interested to hear what an archaeologist in 5000 years would say. Perhaps something like this;
“The all seeing eye of the goddess [because of the eyelashes] had a very complex temple with intricate passages and odd shaped rooms [geometric shapes]. Worshippers to the temple would intertwine offerings of flowers into the temple structure itself as this was the only thing that would appease her.”
Intriguing stuff, but total nonsense. I doodle when I’m talking to keep my hands busy or to stop myself from being distracted, as well as to be prepared to write down anything important. Why can’t the ancient Egyptians have done the same?
It is essential that scholars and academics present theories in order to explain things such as rock art in the absence of texts to explain them for us. However, I do believe that there MUST be some things which were not significant, but were instead just random acts of humans winding down at the end of the day. Ancient Egyptians were only human and I love the fact that there will be things they did, drew, and wrote down just because they could. Unfortunately it’s as difficult to identify an random action as it is to identify the higher motivation behind it. Besides, it would make somewhat dull reading;
“we do not know what the significance was to this [insert action/artwork/text here], and we suspect it was just random”.
What an interesting dilemma. I shall ponder it some more as I create some weird works of art to freak out future archaeologists.
13th + 14th April 2013 - Freemasons Weekend
This weekend was a bit of a Freemason ‘fest’ as I visited the Freemason’s Lodge in Covent Garden on a special tour organised by my Freemason friend on Friday and then on Saturday a Freemason tour of Kensal Green Cemetery. Quite an interesting weekend all in all. To be honest I liked to think that the Freemasons were a mysterious, secret society and that perhaps there was ‘something’ to the Dan Brown books after all, but after visiting the main lodge I’m not so sure. The tour of the Lodge on Friday was interesting, starting in the museum where there are endless cases of aprons and regalia dating back to the eighteenth century. My friend explained the significance of each which helped to put it into perspective. Then we moved to the “preparation room” which had three huge thrones and a number of royal portraits of the Grand Masters, the current being the Duke of Kent. They are a little concerned about who would take over after him as the younger members of the royal family show little interest in the masons. I think Harry would inject a little youth and life into the organisation. Just putting the suggestion out there. Then we went into the main Lodge room which is generally closed to the general public. It was a large room filled with mosaics and pretty mouldings. Obviously I can’t tell you any more details. They are secret and I want to keep you on your toes. We all had a chance to sit on the Grand Master’s throne and have a wander around the room looking at everything in there. After, we retired to the Herculean Pillars, the Mason’s pub opposite, and played spot the freemason. For a secret society they are pretty easy to spot as they all dress the same and have the same accessories. They are quite free with the secretive Mason’s handshake too, so it wasn’t long before we worked it out. I was a little surprised that the Lodge had a gift shop selling aprons and regalia (including blindfolds and nooses), as well as an amazing array of books on conspiracy theories. I suspect they like the idea of being considered mysterious, but in reality I think it is really an old fashioned men’s club, like a drinking club where they dress up and raise money for charity. Pretty harmless but I doubt they hold any major secrets. The following day at Kensal Green cemetery was cold and damp. I was surprised at how run down the cemetery was, but was excited about being there. I am ashamed to say as an Egyptologist I had not ventured there before.
We were on the Freemason’s tour of the cemetery and I must admit after the third or fourth monument with the Mason symbol of a square and compass, or unremarkable graves with the guide stating “we think he may have been a Mason”, I realised I was not going to learn anything new, or secretive so I started wandering around and saw some of the loveliest Egyptianised monuments and statues.
I’m not very good with tours in general as I feel that as we all stand in one place for ten minutes listening to information that we will forget, or can look up afterwards, I am missing out on seeing loads of other things. And in this case I was right. The group never stopped at the large monument with the winged hourglass – almost Egyptian-esque except the wings were bat wings. Very macabre. There is a beautiful selection of angels and one relatively modern burial with a Lalique statue – just like the Rolls Royce mascot.
So beautiful. After a couple of hours of the tour, we were all ready to head back to the remembrance chapel where they had set out tea and biscuits. Any civilised English tour of a cemetery should finish this way. My friends and I then went to the pub opposite for lunch and a gossip. A fab weekend, although I feel quite disillusioned about the institution of the Freemasons. Maybe I should read another conspiracy novel to bring the mystery back. Now where is that copy of the Lost Symbol
27th January 2013 - I have had a really busy weekend
On Friday night I went to the Live Friday event at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. “An evening with the Gods” was an opportunity to become acquainted with Greek and Roman Gods through interactive workshops. There was lots of things to do although some of it was a bit “studenty”, and photocopy led, such as the treasure hunt and the story telling in the Egyptian room, but on the whole it was a fab evening out. Bumping into a couple of friends I had not seen for a while was an added bonus. One of the highlights was the alternative tour of the cast gallery, led by Dr Non, of the Classics Department of Feeble College, Oxford. An interesting comedy tour with a difference. I got a bit irritated by his statement that the Romans invented gloves when we all know Tutankhamun had gloves in his tomb and Ay was extremely proud of his red gloves. Although I think the inaccuracy was a set-up for his joke that the Romans invented gloves as they came to England and it was chilly. Hmmm. The highlight of the evening however was the Gladiator station, where I got to try on lots of gladiator helmets. I don’t think I will ever grow up!.
On Saturday I went to the “Murder in the Library: A-Z of Crime Fiction” exhibition at the British Library which was cool. Did you know Terry Venebles wrote a crime book? No me, neither. Did you know the word for detective only appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1845? I left the exhibition armed with two new books, the first 2 detective stories about women detectives. One even runs a women’s detective agency like the McCall Smith books! Then I went to the Wellcome Collection for their “Death: a self-portrait” exhibition, which I have visited before and liked it so much I went again. You can never get enough skulls and skellies. My favourite pieces were the superimposed skeletons over vintage photographs, done by Mexican artist, Marcos Raya. THEN, as if all this wasn’t enough, I headed to Aldgate East to meet with the London Cultureseekers Group, who were running a tour of the East End of London where were treated to 2.5 hours of extensive knowledge of Whitechapel. Stops on the tour included the site of the first Whitechapel murder of Martha Tadbrook on Gunthorpe Street, even though she is not normally considered one of the Ripper victims. We also saw the site of the Freak show where John Merrick, or the Elephant Man, first appeared before being moved to the Royal London Hospital opposite. I am also looking forward to, at some point in the future visiting the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest business in Britain. The tour finished at the Blind Beggar pub, the site of the murder of George Cornell by Ronnie Kray in 1966. After this tiring but interesting day, I did what all self- respecting English people would do. Go to the pub for some food and a pint before going home.
23rd January 2013 - Abu Simbel Survey
I am in the process of doing some research on tourism in Egypt to the site of Abu Simbel. If you have visited the site at any time in the past I would appreciate it if you could complete this short survey for me. I am interested in the experiences you have had.
Please click on this link and save the document to your desktop.
It will open in word.
Please complete it and send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Closing dates for survey is July 1st 2013.
Many thanks in advance.
9th January 2013 - Brief Egyptian Encounter
Having a couple of hours to spare whilst I was in London I decided to pop to the British Museum to see the Virtual Autopsy Exhibition which is running until 3rd March 2013. I wandered slowly through the Egyptian rooms to room 64 which houses “Ginger” or Gebelein Man as he is now being officially named.
I was disappointed that the exhibition wasn’t really an exhibition but rather one interactive screen and another on the wall showing the same thing, and one information board. The disappointment was really that there wasn’t more of the work on display but what was there was great. Once I waited for the small group of school children to go off somewhere else I had the interactive screen to myself.
Basically they have CT scanned “Ginger” and made the cross sections available to look at. By swiping your finger across the screen the body image moves allowing views from all sides. There were four layers available from the full body down to the bare bones. Randomly scattered over the images are little information points, which you can touch to get a snippet of information about the scan, with such details as the stab would which hasn’t healed was probably the cause of death. Whilst for “novices” and school kids the level of information was good enough, but as someone with a greater interest and dare I say knowledge a little more information about their findings would have been appreciated. But, perhaps they will release a book at a later date. I must do a quick search and see if something has already been published and check I am not missing a trick. For information on the exhibition see here.
So after my brief Egyptian visit I wandered to the book shop in its new home tucked away in the corner near the Egyptian sculpture gallery and was delighted to see my new format Horemheb book for sale: on the promotions table no less. The book shop seems to have shrunk since the last time I visited and the Egyptology section is getting smaller and smaller. I long for the days when the Museum Book Shop was on Great Russell Street – you old skool Egyptologists know the one I mean! The online shop just isn’t the same.
March 5th 2011 – 4000 years apart but still the same old rituals
It may surprise many of you to know that in my youth and early twenties I was a “metal chick”, for want of a better word, and spent my time listening to angry heavy metal music and wearing black as often as possible. I have always loved the music even though I now have added colours to my wardrobe, and was not surprised to find myself at a heavy metal gig in a small venue in Crotone in Italy. Whilst the band itself were good they are not the topic of this blog. I made a startling discovery whilst watching the crowd. I was surrounded by men and a few women with long flowing locks, performing a ritual dance, steeped in eroticism straight from an ancient Egyptian banquet. One of the key features of heavy metal music is that the musicians and fans all head-bang, a movement of nodding the head vigorously so that the hair moves about creating a dynamic mane around you bowed head. Now think of the dancers from ancient Egyptian banquets, with their long full wigs, sometimes weighted at the bottom so when they moved their heads, their hair moved in a captivating way. Hair in ancient Egypt was an erotic symbol and to catch someone in the process of doing their hair was the equivalent of catching someone naked today. So a semi-naked girl dancing at a banquet flicking her weighted hair around her head in a vigorous manner would have enthralled the audience. The more she could make her hair move or the longer or fuller her hair was, the sexier she was considered. This is also the case at a heavy metal gig. The men in particular seemed very concerned about their hair, and not only is head-banging seen as an appreciation of the music but also a way of showing off their hair; and it was surprising that after a bout of “banging” the men would lift their heads and rearrange their hair before starting again. It is quite clear that these men were flaunting their sexuality through their hair in the same way as an ancient Egyptian banquet dancer. As one would not see the dancer’s face but still find her attractive seems to be the par of the course for heavy metal head-bangers. Their faces are hidden but it is the hair that is important and women are attracted by the length and condition of the hair, as well as the way it moves when the man is head-banging. The better the hair the more “metal” he is. I had never really thought about this ritual before, as I was always part of it, and with hindsight I remember thinking at the time that as my hair is curly it didn’t move right, and always looked frizzy and huge by the end of a head-banging night out. Surely this pre-occupation with hair for both men and women in ancient Egypt and the modern (metal) world shows that as people we have similar motivations and thought processes, and whilst heavy metal and ancient Egypt have no known links the human element makes hair an important part of the mating ritual (at least for this small sub-group of society). I recommend that you go to a metal gig yourself and have a look. You will be surprised at the observation. I myself will have to do further research on this phenomenon, which means many more visits to gigs and clubs to observe the audience, which I guess it the price I have to pay for research.
15th October 2010 - The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy at the Ashmolean, Oxford
Although I am an Egyptologist, Egyptophile and Egyptomaniac I like to dip my toe occasionally into the wider historical pool. My love of Pre-Raphaelite paintings led me to this exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I was very excited, having loved the images of curly, auburn haired ladies and brooding, romantic looking chaps since my teens and was looking forward to an afternoon of being whisked away into a fantasy world of knights in shining armour. Although one could never fault the talent of any of the Pre-Raphaelite artists I was a little down-heartened with the exhibition. Picture after picture of landscapes. The publicity is covered with portraiture but this is limited within the actual exhibition. After a while I was a little bored of images of St Mark's in Venice, albeit by different artists, so was slightly lifted with the third room (there are only 3.5 rooms in the exhibition). Along the back wall are the Rossetti paintings of Jane Morris, archetypal of the period (at least for me). There were only six or seven of them, but they were enough to lift my spirits a little, and remind me that there is nothing wrong with auburn, curly haired women. Hurrah!! The exhibition was lovely, don't get me wrong, but it was not what I was expecting or hoping it would be. However I was introduced to the beautiful landscapes of John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones, and it encouraged me to get my pastels out and have a go (although the Newbury clocktower doesn't have the same appeal as St. Marks. Maybe that's why everyone drew it). I recommend going but be warned there are more spires than smiles.
20th February 2010 - How to become an Egyptologist
One thing I am frequently asked by budding Egyptologists is how to become a professional. I have to say it is one of the most difficult, frustrating and rewarding careers to enter, and one that is not for the faint-hearted. Before embarking on a career in Egyptology you need to be sure this is something you really want to do. It’s not an easy career and you will work harder than you ever would at a standard 9-5 job. I know, I have done both. Now you need to try to decide on what your ideal job would be, as this will guide what path you pursue.
When I started studying back in 1995, a masters degree was enough to guarantee an academic teaching job in a university; but sadly this is no longer the case. In order to be taken seriously in your chosen field you need a Masters Degree in Egyptology/Egyptian Archaeology, and to stand a chance of a job in a university you need a PhD. Even with a PhD in hand there is no guarantee of a teaching job and I have known PhD’s working in administrative jobs, albeit in Egyptology organisations. This is a big commitment, a minimum of 7 years study, and you may still be unemployed at the end of it. If you want to work in Museums, you need a Museum Studies degree as part of your qualifications and as much experience in a museum as possible, but bear in mind the majority of museum jobs are now voluntary; if you have the time and money to volunteer, do so. It may help. You also need to learn German preferably, or/and French and be proficient in hieroglyphics.
If you get the opportunity, excavate in Egypt, although this is becoming more and more difficult with more students wanting to do this, and often the only option is to pay to attend an excavation which can cost £1000’s. Some universities have concessions and it is a good idea to try and get a place, but this is not always possible, as the same people are employed year after year. With a PhD and excavation connections you stand more chance of being considered for paid work.
For the majority, Egyptology is freelance, starting with speaking at societies, teaching evening classes and getting published in reputable journals and magazines, whilst working full-time elsewhere. If you are able to find your “niche”, something that not many people do you stand more chance of success, and after numerous years of working hard, and getting known you may become ‘famous’ enough that people approach you for work, rather than the other way around.
So if I haven’t put you off, and you are prepared for the next 10 years hard work……..good luck! !
18th February 2010 -Tutmania hits the Media again
I should be pleased that finally ZH has allowed the mummy of Tutankhamun to be tested for DNA, after the numerous years of stating adamantly that the mummies in Egypt would not be tested until the methodology was better. I guess the Discovery channel were able to convince him otherwise. However, my initial reaction was “Bugger! Now my Tutankhamun biography needs a new edition”. Personal trauma aside it is certainly interesting reading and has already sparked great discussion amongst the Egyptologists around the world. The press release on ZH’s website stated this would be launched to the world on 17th February, although the results were leaked early. Big claims were made that the “family secrets” of Tutankhamun would be revealed. Indeed big claims when there is so much uncertainty about the identity of the mummies from this period, with Yuya, Tuya, Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun being the only mummies positively identified, and the Elder Lady being generally accepted as Tiye. So what was all the fuss about? What were the findings?
The results can be summarised thus;
• Genetic fingerprinting has identified KV55 mummy and KV35YL (younger lady) as his parents and siblings.
• The mummy from KV21A was possibly the mother of the foetuses in his tomb.
• Tutankhamun suffered from Köhler disease II resulting in foot deformities, and the existence of Plasmodium falciparum which causes malaria tropica.
All interesting stuff, but there are a number of leaps of faith in the scientific article; for example concluding that the KV55 mummy is Akhenaten even though that has been debated and dismissed for decades, and it was only a couple of years ago that DNA studies of the Younger Lady identified her to be a man! It seems ZH now claims "Now I'm sure that it cannot be Nefertiti, and therefore the mother of King Tut is one of the daughters of Amenhotep III and Tiye—and there are five,". One wonders what the theory will be next year.
Thankfully they have finally added that the artwork of the Amarna period does not lend itself to representations of reality; Tutankhamun does not have breasts, he has a normally developed penis and there are no signs of Marfan’s (again something most Egyptologists didn’t believe anyway). Are we any closer to discovering what killed Tutankhamun? Not really.
Although he carried the Malaria parasite, there is no evidence he contracted malaria and died from it. He could have done, but we don’t know if he did. As they state themselves “Since there is nothing in the historical or archaeological record that speaks against the widespread presence of this carrier (malaria) in Pharaonic times, there is no evidence that can be used to argue against the diagnosis of malaria” which is hardly a strong argument for something. They state themselves that Yuya and Thuya carried the parasite but may not have suffered a fatal form of the disease whereas because Tutankhamun had other disorders he was “frail” and would have a weakened immunity, so when he fell and hurt his leg he suffered an infection and died of malaria. Hmmmm. Supported by leaves, seeds and fruits in his tomb! It sounds a little like perhaps they had a theory and used the evidence to support it rather than using the evidence to create a theory. I’m not wholly convinced but will reserve judgment until more evidence comes to light.
9th August 2009 - Highclere Visit
I have just returned from taking a student group to see the Highclere Egyptian Exhibition, which was enjoyed by all. The exhibition is laid out in such a way that it is possible to get an essence of who Carnarvon was, other than simply the man who paid for the Tutankhamun excavations and the replica section enabled people to view some of the objects without having to endure the crowds of the O2 (when the real ones were there) or the expense of Egypt itself. I did overhear one couple (not one of my students I am glad to say) express their disappointment that the mummy was not the genuine one. One wonders why the mummy of Tutankhamun would be at Highclere; Carnarvon died before his face was revealed to the world. But I digress. After the tour, and a stop for donuts and tea in the coffee shop, some of the group decided to go around the house and others decided to come with me to Beacon Hill to see the grave of Carnarvon.
Luckily it was a lovely day for climbing what appears to be on the way up, the steepest hill in the world, and everyone managed it, even my retired in-laws (although we thought it was a bit touch and go and one point). The views from the top were amazing, and whilst waiting for the group to catch us up we were idly watching a kestrel hover before tormenting some small rodent. We all approached the grave together. What a disappointment!
I have been many times to this spot and even I was horrified at what awaited. The grave itself is subtle, a stone marker within a locked fence, with an unobtrusive small plaque explaining who is buried here. However it was almost impossible to see the grave marker at all, due to the two feet of weeds growing around it, the plaque is scratched and worn with age, and the gray railings give it the impression of high voltage gates, protecting the public from the Electricity Board’s mother board.
There was a general feeling of disappointment as well as pity for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. We had just driven round the beautiful manicured grounds at Highclere, and wondered why one of the gardeners was not sent up here with a strimmer to tidy up the grave. Without the 5th Earl and his Tutankhamun connections, the name of Carnarvon would not be well-known (even locally in the Newbury area), and Highclere would be simply another stately home opened to the public to raise funds for the upkeep. One would think an effort could be made to honour this man whose name is the ‘bread and butter’ of the current Carnarvons. We don’t expect the railings to be black and gold with a sphinx avenue (although that would be nice), but the grass to be cut, and the plaque commemorating the life and death of Lord Canarvon replaced with something a little more fitting and readable, wouldn’t be difficult and would do better justice to one of the men behind one of the greatest archaeological finds in the world.
29th June 2009 - Get your coat, Love! You’ve pulled”
We are often regaled with the phrase “nothing is new” in regard to many things, and I am beginning to believe this may be the case. It appears that even the favourite cheesy chat-up lines could have been lifted from Egyptian New Kingdom Egyptian Love Poetry and tweaked to fit into the modern setting. Is “Get your coat, Love! You’ve pulled” much different to “Don your wig! Let us spend a happy hour”, or the alluring come-on “let me slip into something more comfortable” a million miles away from “Let me braid my hair. I will be ready in a moment”? I think not.
Is the phrase “flattery will get you anywhere” a summary of the text from a Graeco- Roman Franklin Gothic found at Oxyrhyncus “saying that the plain woman is the equal of a goddess, the ugly woman is charming, the elderly one is like a young girl”? Possibly.
I think what these similarities tell us, is that the people of ancient Egypt were really no different from us; with the same emotions, needs and clearly insecurities. The setting may have changed, but e the sentiments have remained the same. The only question that really needs to be asked is, were these chat-up lines any more effective then than they are now?
June 2009- Sanitising the Past
No matter how much we learn about past civilisations we still hold this sanitized view of life ‘back then.’ We have this romanticised idea that ancient Egypt was a very clean, shiny place, where everyone wore spotless white clothes and were glowing in radiant health.
Even though we know they died at 30-35 years old, the majority of Egyptians suffered from dental problems that could fell an ox, and they shaved their heads as a barrier against head-lice, we seem unable to tear ourselves away from the views presented in films, and TV documentary reconstructions - that of white limestone-lined streets and glowing people.
What we certainly are unable to do is associate the white tiled streets of Amarna in the 18th dynasty with the filthy London streets of the seventeenth century. This however is exactly what we now have to do, as evidence from the city of Amarna has shown the workmen lived in such filth, with fleas (animal and human), bedbugs and head-lice common place within the living quarters.
Evidence also suggests the bubonic plague, which was rife in Europe in the fourteenth and the seventeenth century may have been present in this city in c. 1300 BCE. Even with this knowledge however, will we be able to override the mental images we have of Egypt’s sanitised past or simply file it away with the head-lice and abscesses as too gross to consider?