1st June 2016 – The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone ….
On Bank Holiday Monday we decided to visit the ossuary at St Leonard’s Church in Hythe, Kent. It’s one of the only two ossuaries in England and it has been on my ‘to visit’ list for a long time. I wish I had gone sooner!
This ossuary is thought to be medieval in date although the earliest written reference to it dates to the 1670s where it was described as an; ‘an orderly pile of dead men’s bones’. The exact date of the bones is in fact unknown but could be any time between the twelfth and the fifteenth century. Obviously such ‘mystery’ has sparked interesting and creative theories about their identity with stories claiming they are Anglo Saxon soldiers killed in battle, Danish pirates or even victims of the Black Death. Reality is likely to be more mundane. In the thirteenth century the church was expanded and these bodies occupied the graveyard. They were more than likely dug up in order to utilise the space. Apparently some of the skulls have soil still attached. However, a highlight for me was the bird’s nest which had been made in one of the broken skulls. The nesting material has been left in place.
So what is known about the bones here? Studies between 2009-2012 show there are approximately 1200 individuals identified from cranial remains and as many as 2000 individuals represented in total. The stack of long bones which fills the crypt clearly hasn’t been examined in any great detail and there are possibly as many as 4000 people here.
They are likely to be the residents of the local area although DNA tests carried out on some of the bones indicate there is Northern European, Italian and even African ancestry –reflecting the location as an important port area in the past.
Using evidence from the skulls there are marginally more female than male bodies here, as well 10% of the remains belonging to juveniles. There was a lot of pathology evident on the bones, from breaks, infection, DISH, teeth attrition and really scary looking fusing of the pelvis with the sacrum! Some of the most dramatic have been displayed in glass cases. Part of the fun of visiting the ossuary was to try to spot pathologies (although I have to say I am rusty) and just soak up the ambience of the crypt.
In the UK today there are very few places to visit where you don’t feel slightly ripped off at the entrance fee. I would happily have paid more, and endeavour to visit again. For £1 entry for adults it was well worth it.
There is a bit more information about the studies carried out on the remains here
Let’s hope they are able to get the funding to do further research although the dust and cobwebs over the stacks of long bones where they haven’t been moved for decades just adds to the charm.
25th April 2016 - Palmyra in Central London
On 19th April 2016 a 6ft replica of the Arch of Triumph from Palmyra was set up in Central London, in Trafalgar Square. This replica was said to be an “act of defiance” against terrorism as the original monument in Syria was destroyed by the Muslim fundamentalist group, known as Daesh/ Isis/Isil. As an act of defiance it was short lived as it sat in Trafalgar Square from Tuesday 19th to Thursday 21st April (3 days, mid-week) meaning anyone living outside London with a job, couldn’t actually get to London to see it (myself included).
The model was made in Italy using a block of marble donated by the Egyptian government and cost £100K to reproduce. It was recreated with the aid of photographs of the original monument and a 3D printer (albeit a very flash one).
According to the news reports the objective was “to show restoration of the ancient site is possible if the will is there”. But is this strictly true? This raises the question as to whether a replica can ever replace a 2000 year old monument? For me it is a resounding ‘No’ and this was something I discussed in 2014 with the Tutankhamun tomb facsimile!
Of course, in the modern age, it is possible to make a replica, accurately rendered using 3D printing based on hundreds of photographs BUT you cannot replicate the history and antiquity. The original Triumphal Arch has witnessed triumphs, processions, defeat, tourists and finally the acts of a few religious madmen as they blew it up. The arch which sat in Trafalgar Square may look like the original before it was destroyed, but all it has witnessed has been a Grand Opening by Boris Johnson and hundreds of press and tourists taking pictures. Now it is on its way to Dubai and New York for more of the same.
That’s not to say replicas have no place as they can help to fill in gaps where pieces of monuments are missing or destroyed and can be invaluable. However, recreating an entire monument can be, as archaeologist Michal Gawlikowski of the Polish Mission at Palmyra, stated in danger of the so-called Disney-effect; a recreated history with none of the crumbling blocks and ruined appearance. A sanitised version of the past.
However Gawalikowski adds “it draws attention to the problem that we have there, making the public aware of it, and, in this aspect it can be useful.” This is what in fact makes this reproduction more interesting and more politically poignant. This monument has not been simply ‘lost’ but has been wilfully destroyed.
Such mindless destruction, however, is happening all over the Middle East and has been as far back as 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddahs were blown up by the Taliban amidst outcry from the world. Since the Arab Spring in 2011 museums, archaeological sites and storehouses have been looted and in some cases destroyed and continues to this day. Why was the statue of Palmyra chosen as the representative of all this destruction? And who is made more aware of the situation by this brief installation?
Whilst I believe reconstruction is an important aspect of wartime destruction, this reconstruction is too early. The destruction is still happening, so surely that £100k could have been better spent trying to stop these barbarians from destroying any more of the world’s monuments. This potentially sends out the message that they can destroy and we will clean up after them and build replica models.
Replicas are nowhere near as important as the originals and protecting the originals has to be the priority.
Stop the destruction THEN focus on rebuilding.
Photograph by Bernard Gagnon Wikimedia Commons and shows the original arch before it was destroyed.
7th February 2016 – Beyond Beauty at Two Temple Place
I have been planning to visit Two Temple Place for some time as it is only open to the public when there is an exhibition on and I always seem to miss the window. Two Temple Place was completed in 1895 by an American, William Waldorf Astor. He was considered the richest man in the world at the time and the building had the largest strong room in the whole of Europe in addition to two huge fortified safes. Although the house was clearly very secure it is a remarkable building architecturally speaking. It boasts ornate dark wood panelling, fancy carved ceilings and light filtering through brightly coloured stained glass windows. The building is truly beautiful and worth the visit.
As luck wold have it the most recent exhibition is an Ancient Egyptian one called Beyond Beauty; Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt. The exhibition focusses on the collections from seven small UK collections drawing together items which demonstrate the transformation in life of the body through the wearing of cosmetics as well as the transformation into a god through death in the form of mummification. The artefacts are spread over three rooms with the first room on the ground floor displaying objects of everyday life dating from the pre-dynastic period in the form of cosmetic palettes, to Byzantine period fabrics.
In the two rooms upstairs can be found a collection of stela and the funerary items. I have to say the third room is what has stuck with me from the exhibition. More for the location and the setting than the objects themselves. The setting was a dark, wood panelled room with minimal lighting except for the cases themselves with the only window allowing light into the room through coloured stain class. It was interesting to note that many visitors were taking photographs of the window, the elaborate fireplace and the ceiling, more than the Egyptian artefacts. Although, having mummy cases and funerary masks in this room was a work of genius as it was so atmospheric.
My favourite piece in the exhibition was in this room (not surprisingly considering my love of funerary artefacts) and originally came from the Bagshaw Museum. It was set of cartonnage mummy coverings from the Ptolemaic Period. It looked like fine paper and was in remarkable condition. I was drawn to it as it was so eye-catching.
On the landing outside these two rooms are photographic boards explaining how they items were excavated with some lovely ‘action shots’ of the nineteenth century excavations.
A great thing about the exhibition is it is free, meaning I will go back at some point before it closes in April, when perhaps there are not quite so many people so I can get a little closer to the cases to examine the contents in more detail.
11th January 2016 - Technology and the Pyramids
As an Egyptologist I follow news of Egypt very closely and like many people was fascinated to read about the cutting-edge research being carried out on the Dahshur and Giza pyramids. In November 2015 the Scan Pyramids Project, took infrared thermography and radiography images of the Dahshur pyramids of Sneferu and of course the Giza pyramids of Khufu and Khafre. Although the researchers refused to commit themselves to an interpretation, heat anomalies were discovered in all the pyramids scanned. The news naturally reported on the Great Pyramid at Giza as being more in the ‘public interest’, which showed a six degree temperature difference between the top and the lower east side.
Whilst the researchers refuse to speculate, the press are obviously not as restrained. They greatly favour the theory that these heat anomalies represent secret chambers. Couple that with the potential ‘secret burial chamber’ in the tomb of Tutankhamun and the press are hoping these scans will eventually uncover the ‘true’ burial chamber of Khufu. No doubt complete with lots of Old Kingdom golden treasure. Further work will be carried out on the pyramids into 2016, and I for one will be watching with interest.
As many of you will be aware, the Giza pyramids have been the site of previous scientific study since the 1990s when the so-called air shafts in the Great Pyramid were studied using a robot, rather endearingly called Upuauet 2. Some 65 metres along the shaft
Upuauet was halted in its tracks by a stone block held in place by two copper pins. It was only in 2002 that this block was bypassed revealing another stone block twenty centimetres along the shaft. In 2010 another robot, called Djedi, was deployed. This one could change size and go around corners, and it revealed that beyond the stone blocks there was graffiti in red paint although they have not been able to decipher it. Even more intriguing is that the back of the stone door was polished and therefore was not masonry material but dressed stone. Decorative rather than functional, as were the copper pins. It is thought the second ‘door’ is probably the back of the chamber with nothing of interest behind it. This does not stop the conspiracy theorists going to town with ideas of what secrets have been hidden for thousands of years. No doubt before the final interpretations of the temperature anomalies are published the internet and fringe publications will be filled with colourful and imaginative ideas about what they are.
As an Egyptologist I am asked frequently about pyramids; how they were built, who built them, why were they built? It seems people prefer the 'sexy' conspiracy theories to the facts, evidence and archaeology. This month my new book Pyramids in a Nutshell was published, which answers all these questions. A new series of books which are rather like the Shire Egyptology series. A book to get the beginner started on Egyptology.
If you would like to win a copy of the Pyramids in a Nutshell please like my Facebook page, and follow me on Twitter and leave a comment about why pyramids are interesting. The winner will be randomly selected on 18th January 2016.
3rd September 2015 – A weekend in Liverpool
Recently I spent the weekend in Liverpool, a beautiful city which I have always liked. I could happily see myself living there one day. Whilst I was there for work I had a day to explore the city.
My first stop was the World Museum to visit the Egyptology collection. I have to say it has been a few years since I was last there and hadn’t seen the new displays. I was disappointed. My memory of the Egyptology collection was a nice group of objects which were well-displayed. A grown-up display on a par with the Ashmolean or the Fitzwilliam. What I was confronted with was a badly lit, weirdly displayed children’s school project peppered with irritating videos of ‘ancient Egyptians’ talking about their lives. On a loop. The cases were so dark I was unable to even see some of the objects and I needed the light from my smart phone to illuminate them enough to study. This wasn’t aided by the very low level of the cases meaning unless you are 4 feet tall you have to bend over and shuffle around. A thoroughly disappointing experience and a museum I shan’t bother to visit again. I know museums want to attract children but some, like the World Museum, have forgotten that adults want to visit too.
Then I decided to walk to the Catholic Cathedral which was a controversial building in Liverpool but once I got there, realised it was a beautiful structure which reminded me of the Lotus Temple in New Delhi. But on the way to the Cathedral I came across this pyramid. Totally unexpected in the cemetery of St Andrew’s Church on Rodney Street. Unfortunately the cemetery was closed to the public so I couldn’t get a closer look.
It formed the grave of William Mackenzie, who died in 1851, a wealthy civil engineer who worked for most of his life on the railways. This wonderful piece of Egyptomania is ‘surrounded by mystery’. William was an avid gambler and it was believed he had in fact sold his soul to the devil for a winning hand in cards. Some believe he was buried within the pyramid in a seated position holding winning cards to fool the devil when he comes to collect his soul. However the inscription on the monument proves he was buried beneath rather than within the pyramid;
“In the vault beneath lie the remains of William Mackenzie of Newbie, Dumfriesshire, Esquire who died 29th October 1851 aged 57 years. Also, Mary his wife, who died on 19th December 1838 aged 48 years and Sarah, his second wife who died 9th December 1867 aged 60 years. This monument was erected by his brother Edward as a token of love and affection A.D. 1868. The memory of the just is blessed.”
That’s not the only story surrounding the interment of William Mackenzie. Twenty years after his death Doctor Lionel Harland was walking down Maryland Street and saw a figure emerge from the gloom in a top hat and cape. His eyes were black and lifeless and his face glowed red. The Doctor recognised the figure as William Mackenzie. Later that evening the doctor suffered a heart attack which some have stated was due to fright!
Spooky stories aside, it was wonderful to come across this wonderful piece of Egyptomania, as it is a reminder that the most unlikely people were interested in Egypt and the its iconic images.
19th July 2015 – The alternative Egyptology tour
I had some time to spare before my hieroglyphs workshop at the Petrie Museum yesterday so I went to the British Museum with the idea of wandering through the Egyptian galleries and absorbing the calming ambience. That was until I saw the galleries; a sea of tourists, many of them in matching orange t-shirts or carrying matching blue backpacks. I decided to make a run for it, into the much quieter Minoan and Greek galleries.
Whilst idly browsing the cases I was happy to spot Egyptian items. The first was a small silver pendant discovered by Petrie in Egypt but of Minoan construction. It is at the museum as a loan from the Petrie Museum (UC34342). I have seen the drawing of this pendant in loads of publications but had never actually seen it in the flesh, so to speak. I managed to get a photograph after I cleaned the grimy fingerprints and general slime off the glass.
In the same gallery I came across an Egyptian gold collar which was discovered in a Minoan grave. Really beautiful, and clearly expensive so I wonder how it got there. An export? A gift? An exotic Egyptian woman travelling? My imagination runs away with me at times. Moving into the Cretan room I spotted a little Egyptian spoon of a swimming girl which seems to have been made in Crete but copying an Egyptian style. Really early Egyptomania at its best.
Another really interesting Egyptian themed temporary exhibition is in a tiny room just to the right of the main entrance. It is a Sudanese-Egyptian harp from the 1800s which was used in the zār ceremony. This ceremony is still carried out in modern Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt and there are information boards about a ceremony in 2003 in Port Said, Egypt.
The zār ceremony is carried out in order to exorcise spirits from women who are possessed. The male musicians play drums and tambourines and sing in order to placate the spirit. The female ‘host’ can often be seen to dance at the ceremony, and can be seen to do things that are unacceptable in daily life; like be aggressive towards men. Apparently issues such as jealousy and infidelity in marriage are brought to light at these ceremonies.
The practice is actually condemned in the Islamic faith as a pagan practice, but is still carried out as a last resort for women suffering from mental illness.
This exhibition is essentially a plain room with the 19th century harp in the centre strung with amulets and charms. In the background the music played during the zār ceremony is on a loop and it is strangely beautiful. This is on display until the middle of August, so if you are in the area it is worth popping your head around the door.
2nd July 2015 - Gods in Colour
Following in the wake of my previous blog post I have continued my ‘sightseeing’ adventures, although I am now going for exhibitions which are free, as sightseeing is ridiculously expensive. I don’t know how tourists can afford it.
In the last few weeks I have been to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford two or three times, as they have had a number of interesting exhibitions recently. The last one I visited was the Gods in Colour exhibition. This has just been extended to run until the 19th July so if you get a chance pop along. The idea behind the exhibition is our misconception of Greek and Roman sculpture which we are used to seeing as bright white. In reality they were brightly painted, and this is essentially the exhibition.
Casts of numerous statues have been painted using the same mediums as were originally used and displayed alongside shiny, polished, white statues. In some cases they were aware of the original colour from the remainder of paint traces, but in other instances they weren’t sure. To solve this problem, there are different colour combinations, allowing for a different impact. What transpires is a fascinating exhibition which is eye-catching and eye-opening.
This exhibition got me thinking about Egypt (let’s be fair, most things do) as the same premise is true – we are used to seeing temple inscriptions as a subtle sand colour whereas in reality the ancient Egyptians were far from subtle and elaborate colours were used. Everywhere. Such an exhibition would be useful, interesting and more importantly, possible in relation to ancient Egyptian sculpture.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many travellers to Egypt made casts or squeezes of the tomb walls and many of these are currently languishing in museum archives, old cast workshops and Thoth knows where else!! Why not take these casts or make new ones from the moulds and paint them up!! Although there are computer generated images of the coloured walls there is nothing like seeing a freshly painted cast using original materials to get an idea of how the temple walls really looked.
This needs to happen so if any museum curator would like to take me up on this idea I am ready for consultation or painting duty. *fingers crossed*
10th May 2015 - A Most Intriguing City
I have to admit that I have been very lax recently in my blog posts. I try to write one a month but I have been so busy that sadly this has fallen by the wayside. Whilst being primarily an Egyptologisty, I am in fact a trained archaeologist so have been working on the excavation at Liverpool Street on the Bedlam Cemetery.
For the first five weeks of the excavation we excavated 2500 skeletons from the 16th to the 18th century. On average we excavated two bodies a day. Each. It was quite intense but fascinating. For the final month we have been excavating the Roman layers, which have included a LOT of ditches but ditches with some truly incredible finds. Unfortunately until the report is written I am unable to give much more information.
Whilst excavating I moved back to London and vowed to make the most of my time and visit all the places I have never visited before. There were quite a few, despite living in London for the majority of my life. Over the last couple of weeks I have, almost entirely by accident, visited a number of places which all tie in together connecting some famous characters and bringing the history of this incredible city alive.
First I went the Foundling Museum, which tells the history of Thomas Coram who spent 17 years campaigning to open an institution to help foundling children. A sad but fascinating story. The most touching display are the tokens which were left with the children by their mothers as a means of identifying the child should they wish to claim them at a later date. Rather surprisingly this museum was linked to my excavation as there was a painting of the Bedlam Hospital in the eighteenth century on display.
It also connected to the Charles Dickens Museum, the next one I visited. Dickens himself came from a poor background and his father was in a debtors’ prison. This affected Dickens very much and he was an avid campaigner to help the poor. He was also a benefactor of the Foundling Museum and he appears in the background of one of the paintings on display there. The Dickens Museum was interesting as they had a number of items which actually belonged to him, and had reconstructed the house really well even down to a Victorian wine cellar. I think the wine bottles were empty though. Well worth a visit, even if you are not a fan of Charles Dickens as an author.
The next house I visited was the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. I can’t believe I lived in Walthamstow for years and never visited. You hear the name William Morris and you automatically think wallpaper and curtains, and whilst this is true there is much more to him. Like Dickens, Morris was also an avid campaigner being an active socialist working towards helping the poor. He was almost embarrassed at his own wealth. He also rather interestingly worked to set up an organisation to protect old buildings.
The final house I visited was the Leighton House Museum, the home of Frederic Lord Leighton. A beautiful, ostentatious house with elaborate arabesque tiles in the courtyard and silk room as well as the entire house being peppered with sketches and paintings by Leighton and others. He does not seem to have been embarrassed by his wealth. If anything he flaunted it. Unlike the other houses this one provided very little information so I don’t feel I learned anything about Lord Leighton other than he didn’t marry. Whether he was a political activist or not I do not know and would have to do some more research. The house, however gives the impression that he enjoyed his wealth and spent it on creating a beautiful home, particularly in the public areas. His personal bedroom, in stark contrast was rather spartan but he did have Morris & Co. wallpaper entitled ‘India’ on the walls as well as Morris & Co. cushions in his art studio. Although Morris wanted his designs to be available to the poorer classes he didn’t compromise on quality and wallpaper was hand printed and therefore limited to the wealthy.
It has been fascinating gaining such an insight into Victorian (and Georgian) London and I look forward to continuing to visit places I have never been before to learn more about my city and my country too. Although now it is time to get back to Egyptology!
29th November 2014 - Not all Pet Cemeteries are Creepy
Although I grew up in London and lived there for most of my life I still find places to visit that are new and exciting. Therefore a number of months ago when I learnt about the Pet Cemetery in Hyde Park I knew I had to visit. The Cemetery is located in the park in the garden of Victoria Gate Lodge on the Bayswater Road. It is essential to make an appointment as it is not open to the general public but it is worth the effort (and the not insignificant charge).
The first little puppy to be buried here was Cherry, a Maltese Terrier in 1881. Cherry’s owners were regular visitors to the Gate Lodge and the Gatekeeper, Mr Winbridge, from whom the children would buy lolly pops and ginger beer. Cherry was a little scamp, and was very popular in his family home as an entertainer and was sometimes dressed up as a soldier, in a uniform, helmet and musket although as “sick baby carefully tucked up in a perambulator" he always "brought down the house."
Cherry was also a useful addition to the household and carried his mistress’s letters every day to her room. When the door was locked he would push the letters under the door for her to read. Cherry died of old age and Mr Winbridge gave permission for him to be buried in the Victoria Gate Lodge garden. Cherry was replaced by another terrier called Zoe, who was also later buried at the cemetery. Unfortunately I was unable to locate the two headstones for these puppies.
Not all the dogs here met such peaceful ends, and ‘Poor Little Prince’ was run over by a carriage in the park near Bayswater Gate and died at the lodge. Although his marble headstone has no dates Prince’s death was recorded in the Duke of Clarence’s diary on 29th June 1882. This was a common death for dogs at the time as they would get in the way of the carriages.
'Topper', a fox terrier did not meet such a quick end. He belonged to the Hyde Park Police Station and worked the park. It was recorded that he was not very clean and “had Bohemian tastes, and delighted in roaming about at night when all well-conducted dogs are in bed and asleep”. If he was on night duty with policemen he did not like he would wander off and get lost. He also had a tendency to abandon his post and follow wealthy gentlemen pretending he belonged to them. Poor Topper became ill due to overeating and was then beaten to death with a truncheon.
Unfortunately we don’t have the stories of all 300+ of the pets that were buried in the cemetery but the mind boggles at the logic of calling your dog ‘Scum’ and I can almost hear the well-to-do owner calling the dog in the park. It is surprising how many dogs were called Prince, Rex, Smut and Spot and I have sworn that if I ever get a dog I will try to be more original with the name. I think I may go with Pomme de Terre to be a little more continental.
Most of the graves belong to dogs, although there are a number of cats including White Kitty and Ginger Blythe, and a small headstone for Budgie who I really hope was a Budgie but imagine it was just another odd name for a dog.
Officially the cemetery was closed in 1903 although there are a number of gravestones dedicated until as late as 1946.
I love this little haven of calm in the middle of Hyde Park, and would visit again if it wasn’t so expensive as it really is an ode to the eccentricity of wealthy Victorian families.
5th September 2014
You are truly spoilt this month as here is another blog post! Two in only a few days.
On the 3rd September I was asked to carry out a workshop at the Staffordshire Egyptology Group and I decided to do Ancient Egyptian Medicine. There were about thirty people there more or less which worked well for the practical element of the workshop.
I started with a short talk on medicine in general, looking at the doctors and the medical practice, the types of ingredients used in medication, sympathetic and magical medicine, alternative therapies such as reflexology and sleep therapy, surgery and general knife treatments.
Perhaps I have a dark sense of humour but there is something rather entertaining at watching the squirms and hearing the sharp intakes of breath when discussing using heated broken glass for eye treatments, pouring powdered granite in the eyes to give them strength or placing cattle excrement on burns and draining abscesses with a flint knife and a hollow reed.
After discussing all the possible ailments and practices in an abstract way I applied everything to a single mummy, Asru, who suffered with four parasites and the associated symptoms, Sand Pneumoconiosis, teeth abscesses, and osteoarthritis. Many of the people attending the talk said this was particularly eye-opening as it really hit home that the Egyptian pain threshold was higher than ours and perhaps made us appreciate our own health service more.
Then I gave everyone the opportunity to be an ancient Egyptian physician. There were a number of ingredients (all available in Tesco) and a number of remedy recipes. There were two groups making each recipe to show they were open to interpretation. Each of the two versions looked a little different to each other. We all compared the medicines at the end and discussed our thoughts and considerations.
Everyone seemed to have a good time, with one woman bandaging the burn treatment to her arm to show it in ‘action’, and another particulary brave chap even sampled the medicine after he made it. He reported back that the remedy for tooth ache actually helped his sore gums, and that whilst the remedy for snake bite comprising beer and onion was not his first alcoholic beverage of choice he still intended to finish it. Which he did. I wonder if he is OK.
2nd September 2014
I have been rather slack and not posted this in time to be the “August” blog but I hope I will be forgiven. I have been working diligently on a new book (out in 2015) and working on my PhD research which unfortunately means I spend a lot of time in my office, staring at my laptop. Luckily the new addition to the family, my mum’s cat Mesha has been ‘helping’ me whenever she thinks I need it. For helping read ‘walking all over the laptop’, ‘sitting on the books I am trying to read’ and ‘generally distracting me by knocking things over’ as she explores.
I managed to sneak out of the office for a couple of hours and go to the Discovering Tutankhamun Exhibition at the Ashmolean and the Ancient Lives Exhibition at the British Museum. It seems to be a bit of a habit of mine to go to Tutankhamun openings, as at the Ashmolean I had been invited by the Griffith Institute to go to the opening. It was a lovely evening where I got a chance to catch up with friends, drink champagne, watch flapper dancers dance to the King Tutankhamun Rag, and look at beautiful Egyptomania items that I wish I owned. I thought a wonderful touch was Cat from the GI wearing a 1930s evening gown, which sparkled and reminded us that in the past we knew how to make an impact. Apparently Elizabeth had dressed as a 1920s flapper but she had obviously been whisked away before I could say hello.
The Exhibition itself was very good, although as I have been to the Griffith Archive for numerous tours I had seen much of the displayed material before. However the highlight for me really was the Egyptomania items which included board games, and some rather stunning embroidered jackets from the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was rather inspired by the poster for the Magician ‘Carter the Great’ and couldn’t resist the tote bag bearing the image once I reached the shop. Sadly as it is bright white I don’t feel I can use it as it will get filthy really quickly.
My visit to the Ancient Lives Exhibition was a lot less low-key and I had to, ‘shock-horror’, buy a ticket. Any exhibition with mummies is bound to be interesting but there were some things in this exhibition I found truly fascinating. In particular one of the mummies Tamut was scanned and found to have a number of amulets in her wrappings. At last the point of 3D printing was demonstrated to me as each amulet had been scanned and printed allowing us to see what was there without the need to unwrap, in more detail than an x-ray or a scan.
The details that catch my eye in such an exhibitions may not necessarily be what catches other people’s eyes, and something I was fascinated by was the side-lock of youth which had been taken from the depths of the storerooms and displayed. This was displayed next to one of my favourite items from the museum which reminds me of my childhood. The New Kingdom wig. As a child this was always on display in the gallery and along with the mummies I would always drag my mum to look at the wig. I was happy to be able to see it again. Even with a statue showing a layered wig on an official I still find it hard to equate these beautiful carvings with the rather tatty, and dare I say it, ugly wig on display. Of course I use the term ‘ugly’ in an affectionate way. Some things are so ugly you have to love them.
There were lots of fascinating, little things about the exhibition that intrigued me and I bought a catalogue to be able to read about these in more depth. There were only eight mummies on display (which sounds a lot) and their associated scans projected onto large screens, and I felt the exhibition was a little small. Either the exhibition should have been bigger or the price smaller. However, considering my ever-expanding to-do list I should really thank the museum that I was in and out relatively quickly and could move onto the next task.
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 are 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 the 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 also 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 still 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, an 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 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 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 PhDs 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 £1000s. 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 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 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?