Previous sessions


Friday 25th November

Topic: Ancient Egyptian Cryptography

Chair: Nicki Adderley

Following a brief introduction to the history and context of cryptographic texts, the group looked at some of the common cryptographic devices used in hieroglyphic texts, including: re-ordering of signs; substitution of signs from the same category of images (e.g. using the sA-duck in place of other bird signs); showing signs from a different angle (e.g. from the side rather than facing forward); creation of new signs, or assignment of new values to existing signs; acrophony (in which the phonetic value of the sign is given by the first strong consonant of a bi- or triliteral sign); and rebus (a pictogram representing syllabic sound).

Several examples were examined, including use of sign substitution and acrophony in the Coffin Texts and cryptographic spellings of royal names, particularly through the use of a rebus; for instance, Hatshepsut’s prenomen, Maatkare, in a group of signs associated with the goddess Renenutet on statues of Senenmut; a rebus of the prenomen of Ramesses IV, Heqamaatre, in a scene in which the king presents maat to Amun; the representation of the prenomen of Tutankhamun, Nebkheperure, on a box through a series of cartouches depicting different manifestations/life-stages of the king; and the spelling of the nomen of Seti I with the Osiris figure and Isis symbol in place of the Seth figure. Additionally, a series of examples of scarabs bearing cryptograms of Amun or Amun-Re were reviewed, many of which feature uraei and other deities as signs comprising the name of Amun. Amun is the only deity for whom cryptograms are attested on scarabs, perhaps relating to his being the ‘hidden one’.

A number of possible motivations for the use of cryptography were explored, with reference to these examples. Possibilities discussed included obscuring meaning; imbuing texts with power or increasing magical potency; conveying multiple or complex meanings; and engaging the reader or involving them in the ritual/spell. It was generally agreed that there are likely to have been several reasons for employing cryptographic techniques, with different motives/intent in different contexts. The group discussed the suggestion that in many instances, the word ‘cryptography’ may not be the best way of describing such texts. Often the primary intention may have been to convey multiple meanings, rather than to encipher the text or obfuscate meaning.

Further reading:

Adderley, N. J. 2012. ‘Scarabs: Appeals for Protection and Resurrection’, Connections exhibition essay, available at:

Adderley, N. J. 2015. ‘Scarabs and Scaraboids’, in Personal Religion in the Libyan Period, 183-189. Saarbrücken.

Assmann, J. 1997. ‘Zur Ästhetik des Geheimnisses. Kryptographie als Kalligraphie im alten Ägypten’, Schleier und Schwelle I, 313-327.

Brunner, H. 1973. Änigmatische Schrift (Kryptographie), in B. Spuler (ed.), Ägyptische Schrift und Sprache, 52-58. Brill: Leiden.

Drioton, É. 1953. ‘Les principes de la cryptographie égyptienne’, CRAI 97, 355-364.

Drioton, É. 1957. ‘Trigrammes d’Amon’, WZKM 54, 11-33.

Faulkner, R. O. 1981. ‘Abnormal or Cryptic Writings in the Coffin Texts’, JEA 67, 173-174.

Hornung, E. and Staehelin, E.  1976. ‘Kryptographie’, in Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen.  Mainz.

Noegel, S. and Szpakowska, K. 2006. ‘Word Play in the Ramesside Dream Manual’, SAK 35, 193-212.

Robins, G. 1999. ‘The names of Hatshepsut as king’, JEA 85, 103-112.

Teeter, E. and Wilfong, T. G. Scarabs, Scaraboids, Seals, and Seal Impressions from Medinet Habu. 2003. OIP 118.

Te Velde, H. 1985-6. ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphs as signs, symbols and gods’, Visible Religion 4-5, 63-72.



Games and board games

Eleanor Simmance

11th November

This session focused on games, particularly board games, for which we have evidence from the Pre-Dynastic period onwards, including Senet, Mehen, Hounds and Jackals, and the 20-field game, as well as other activities such as acrobatics, ball-games and gambling (the latter of which may have accompanied other games), with reference to similar games in the Near East and others still played today, such as tâb. Evidence drawn upon included actual boards and pieces discovered; scenes on tomb walls or papyri showing games being stored or played, especially good examples being the Third Dynasty tomb of Hesy-Re at Saqqara, which shows three separate game boards and their accessories, the Ramesside tomb of Queen Nefertari showing her playing senet, and the Satirical Papyrus in the British Museum showing a lion and an antelope playing together; and texts which refer to games, the most well-known being the ‘gaming texts’ evidenced by the New Kingdom pCairo 58037, pTurin 1775 and Theban Tomb 359, which describe the journey through the afterlife as a game of Senet.

We did not spend much time attempting to reconstruct rules, since such work has already been undertaken at great length by Pusch, Piccione and Kendall, amongst others, and is, moreover, mostly speculative – even with the gaming texts mentioned above, it is not clear if these ‘rules’ were those used in real-life play. Instead, the discussion was more focused on the meaning and purpose of games, as well as the possible ‘ritual’ nature of Egyptian board games.

We agreed that the purpose of games, particularly board games, is manifold. They can, of course, be entertainment, but can also teach patience, strategy and social etiquette. It was suggested, that it can facilitate social interaction and possibly reassert social roles within a group (in a similar vein, the similarity between the word for the game, ‘snt’ (meaning ‘to pass’ or ‘passing’), and the words for brother/sister, ‘sn/snt’ was pointed out as a potentially deliberate homophone). It was recognised that the purpose of a game would have been dependent on context, with the true meaning being in the minds of the players in their specific social environment. Forum members were hesitant, however, to acknowledge a ritual purpose of games, which is often proposed in the scholarship (Piccione has suggested that there would be two versions of senet, one secular and the other a religious offshoot). We discussed the funerary connotations of the gaming texts which link Senet to the afterlife, and the links made between the game Mehen and the snake god Mehen who performs a protective function in the journey of the sun-god. Other games, including acrobatic and ball-games, have been suggested to have a ritual performance element (e.g. Janssen and Janssen), perhaps with children practising for a ritual role to be held in the future. Forum members were cautious about accepting these suggestions, and it was noted that historians and archaeologists have a tendency to think of everything as possibly ‘ritual’ or ‘religious’ if they are uncertain about full meaning. A compromise was suggested in that if games did have a ritual element, it was probably not the most common function.

Looking at the section of the BM Satirical Papyrus, we considered its social implication, as well as trying to identify the pieces being used by the animals. The fact that they play a proper board game on a table, with properly carved pieces, probably indicates that this represents wealthy society. It was suggested that this could have been in some way mocking the elite and their activities, although of course the papyrus itself was probably drawn up by someone of fairly high status. With regard to the quality of sets represented or discovered, it was noted that better quality sets discovered in tombs do not necessarily indicate a special social or political message when compared to the less formal, more public boards incised into large stones around Egypt and the Near East.

With regard to the scene of Nefertari playing Senet, participants discussed why she is shown alone. One suggestion, tied to the funerary interpretation of Senet, is that she is playing to ensure her safe passage through the afterlife, or is playing against ‘fate’. Similarly, it is possible her opponent is a god. On the other hand, it was suggested that she was simply playing on her own, or that she was purposely shown alone so that the focus would be on her. Moreover, one forum member proposed that no-one is worthy of playing her, given her status (and it would not do to allow for the possibility of her being beaten!). One final suggestion was that the space designated for the design was simply not big enough for an opponent to be included, and they are just implied.

We also compared various types of game board; it was questioned whether a game can truly be called ‘Senet’ without the hieroglyphic signs on the board which become more common from the New Kingdom, since it is impossible to known how many games were played on similar boards, or indeed if ‘Senet’ refers to any game in which counters were used to ‘pass’ one’s opponent. The signs themselves are not consistent across the known boards, so it appears Senet was a game which did not necessarily have fixed rules; we might recall how today families will often adapt rules of Monopoly and card games to suit their particular social group.

In keeping with the often informal nature of games, we spent the last part of the session playing Senet, with the rules being a combination of tâb and an adaptation of the interpretations of various scholars.



Further reading (general – see works by Pusch, Winkler Piccione and Kendall on senet specifically):

  • Crist, W, Dunn-Vaturi, A.-E., and de Voogt, A. 2016 Ancient Egyptians at play: board games across borders. Bloomsbury Academic: London and Oxford.
  • Decker, W. 1992. Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
  • Finkel, I. L. (ed.) 2007. Ancient board games in perspective: papers from the 1990 British Museum colloquium, with additional contributions. The British Museum Press: London. [various articles on Egyptian games and others from countries across the globe]
  • Janssen, R. M and Janssen, J. J. 1990. Growing up in ancient Egypt. Rubicon Press: London.
  • Sebbane, M. 2001. ‘Board games from Canaan in the Early and Intermediate Bronze Ages and the origin of the Egyptian senet game’. Tel Aviv 28 213-230.
  • Tait, J. 1982. Game Boxes and Accessories from the Tomb of Tut‘ankhamun. Griffith Institute: Oxford.


For a related article completed as part of the Birmingham Egyptology TuT Project, see Grimshaw, L., Heffernan, G., and Simmance, E. 2013.  Carter Object No. 345: ‘A Game-Box’. In C. Graves, N. Adderley and L. Doughty (eds), Tutankhamun’s Texts. Birmingham Egyptology: University of Birmingham.


The Time of the King: on the Horus throne in Dt and nHH

Steven Gregory

Friday 14th October

The opening presentation focused on nHH and Dt: terms which, as frequently used individually or in combination in royal inscriptions and, on occasion, in wider literary contexts, are terms generally translated as virtual synonyms meaning eternity – or are given some related temporal connotation. Nonetheless, it has long being recognized that these terms, from the ancient Egyptian perspective, represented two distinct temporal concepts, although there has been little agreement, or even clarity, within scholarly discourse as to precisely what those respective concepts may have been.

The speaker went on to examine the possibility that while nHH and Dt did have temporal implications they may also have had wider ontological associations: connotations which may in fact have related to time, or ancient notions relating to the nature of time, but time as may rather be perceived within two discrete realities – one physical, one metaphysical. In respect of the physical, it was proposed that nHH related to time as the object of human experience whereas Dt related to a metaphysical position beyond the time of human experience: a static, enduring condition which may be thought of as ever-present, or perhaps a state of continuing perfection existing before, during, and beyond the time of human awareness.

The hypothesis was then discussed in relation to similar concepts expressed by scholars ranging from pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, in particular Parmenides; by Plato in his theories of forms, as expressed most prominently in his Timaeus; and by more recent scholars, in particular – from the medieval period – St Thomas Aquinas. Finally, concepts of time, or perhaps more correctly, space-time, as presently understood from the works of Stephen Hawking and other contemporary theorists, were given some consideration. Alas, before any firm conclusions could be reached regarding the nature of the topic in question, we ran out of time!


Further reading

Assmann, J. 2006. Zeit und Geschichte in frühen Kulturen, in F. Stadler and M. Stöltzner (eds), Time and History: Proceedings of the 28. International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium, Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria 2005, Frankfurt. 489–508.

Bakir, A-el-M. 1953. NHH and Dt Reconsidered, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 39: 110–111.

Bakir, A-el-M. 1974 A Further Re-Appraisal of the Terms: NHH and t, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60: 252–254.

Bardon, A. 2013. A Brief History of the Philosophy of Time, Oxford.

Bochi, P. A. 1994. Images of Time in Ancient Egyptian Art, in Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 31: 55–62.

Bochi, P. A. 2003. Time in the Art of Ancient Egypt: From Ideological Concept to Visual Construct, in Kronoscope 3: 51–82.

Brown, T. S. 1962. The Greek Sense of Time in History as Suggested by Their Accounts of Egypt, in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 11: 257–270.

Gregory, S. R. W. In press. On the Horus throne in Dt and nHH: changeless time and changing times.

Loprieno, A. 2003. Temps des dieux et temps des homes en ancienne Égypte, in V. Pirenne-Delforge and Ö. Tunca (eds), Représentations du temps dans les religions: Actes du Colloque organize par le Centre d’Histoire des Religions de l’Université de Liège (Biliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège – Fascicule 286), Genève. 123–142.

Westendorf, W. 1983. Raum und Zeit als Entsprechungen der beiden Ewigkeiten, in M. Görg (ed.), Fontes atques Pontes: eine Festgabe für Hellmut Brunner (Ägypten und Altes Testament 5), Wiesbaden. 422–435.

Whitrow, G. J. 1988. Time in History: Views of time from prehistory to the present day, Oxford.

Winand, J. 2005. Temps physique et temps culturels: le cas de l’Égypte ancienne, in Bulletin de la Société Royale des Sciences de Liège 74. 311–325.


Gender and sexuality

Eleanor Simmance

The discussion on the 30th September 2016 concerned the topic of gender and sexuality. We began by noting briefly the recent Grade II listing of the grave of Amelia B. Edwards (co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Society) by Historic England as a site of interest for LGBTQ history; whilst Amelia was certainly a strong female figure in late Victorian society, we perhaps know too little about her personal relationships, particularly with her friend Ellen Braysher, to be certain whether the listing is justified on these grounds. Nonetheless, it hopefully will encourage the public to learn more about her, and this news certainly gave the chosen topic extra relevance!

Taking basic definitions distinguishing between sex (biological characteristics), gender (social attribution) and sexuality (direction of a person’s desire), we began the discussion proper considering aspects of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as they are expressed in the art, such as clothing (or lack of). The use of clothing as a demonstration of status was noted, such as a kilted man overseeing (near-)naked farm-workers, or biographies in which the individual demonstrates generosity to those of lower status in ‘clothing the naked’. This can extend to gender in some ways e.g. differences in practicality between men’s and women’s clothing. Differences were recognised between Egyptian and Greek art, the latter showing more male nakedness (possibly as a result of an interest in realism and the importance of athletic prowess), unlike Egypt where fertility figures and close-fitting female clothing tends towards an emphasis on female nakedness and sensuality.

Attendees also suggested that the generally lighter skin of Egypt women was indicative of status, by implying wealth and by showing that the individual does not need to work outdoors. It was pointed out, however, that Egyptian men tend to have darker skin regardless of status. It was suggested that this demonstrates the different goals and expectations for men and women, and it also makes men more dominant in the artwork. Although it could be debated to what extent more muted, pastel colours are considered more ‘feminine’ (the differences in skin colour for foreigners in Egypt, including the pale skin of Near Eastern peoples, were noted here), it was generally agreed that skin colour is more an indicator of gender than status.

The depiction of advancing age was another feature of art considered – ‘realistic’ portraits with wrinkles, sunken eyes or rolls of fat are possibly references to wealth and wisdom; it was pointed out that in Britain plumpness was generally seen as a desirable quality representing status until the reign of George IV, whose corpulence was mocked. With the exception of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, the Forum could not think of examples where women are shown aged or noticeably plump (since the reign of Akhenaten, which emphasises much rounder figures for both men and women, is such an extraordinary period in many ways, detailed consideration was deliberately disregarded here). This could possibly be attributed to the fact that they were more likely to die younger, in childbirth, or to the greater importance attached to female beauty and fertility. The Forum also wondered how much choice women would have had over their portrayals, particularly because it is assumed that the majority of artists were male and the owners of tombs and sculpture were also primarily male. This has implications for what the artwork says about (male) perspectives of the ideal female appearance, as well as of the ideal male appearance.

The group also discussed rulers which do not fit easily into the gender stereotypes we see in the artwork, although again avoiding Akhenaten. A torso of Sobekneferu (Louvre E 27135) provided a starting point: it shows a female body wearing a typically male kilt, but the straps and waistband of a long, woman’s dress are also visible, suggesting that she is shown wearing both items of clothing. Hatshepsut, of course, was also recognised as being shown wearing male clothing, but only where her body is also shown as male. It was put forward that the kilt is not inherently a male item of clothing, but rather an indication of power, which acquired masculine overtones given that the majority of rulers were male. The ceremonial beards worn by kings and gods were postulated to be potentially phallic given their unusual, stylised shapes. Alternatively, it was suggested, the beards were made as a distinctive sign of royalty and of divinity, rather than as an especially gendered symbol (although female figures and goddesses are never seen wearing them).

Next we turned to the existence and perception of homosexuality. The limited evidence (of which all known by the Forum members was male-male) indicates that it was not the norm, but not necessarily frowned upon unless you were the ‘passive’ partner in the sexual relations – comparisons were drawn with Greek attitudes. It was suggested therefore that homosexuality was related to power and references to homosexuality were intended to represent not so much the physical, but rather the social relationships between the individuals involved. In the Pyramid Text version of the Seth and Horus myth, both take a turn as ‘active’ partner in a violent, but essentially consensual, relationship. However, in later versions Seth attempts to dominate the younger Horus, and when the former informs other gods of what he has done (or what he believed to have done), they treated Horus with contempt. There was some evidence put forward, however, that any involvement in male-male relations was deemed unacceptable, such as the Middle Kingdom story of a king and his general, who attempt to engage in their relationship in secret. The political dimension of gender and sexuality was mentioned – in this case the piece might have had a propagandistic element against the king. In a similar political vein, it has also been suggested that Hatshepsut and Tawosret were proscribed after their death because of objections against women ruling as kings. On the other hand, Roth has posited (2005: 215) that this may be more to do with their being members of certain families, and their successors or rivals were trying to prove their own legitimacy by damaging the women’s images.

Returning to homosexuality, the case of the mastaba of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep is often mentioned, and proved of much interest to many members of the Forum, particularly one scene where the wife of Niankhkhnum was chipped out and Khnumhotep’s was never carved. We were unable to think of meaningful explanations for this, although it was agreed (following Baines and Vasiljevic etc.) that this mastaba is of brothers (probably twins), not lovers, and that the embraces they share are a show of fraternal affection; in this case it seems that brotherly bonds were stronger than familial bonds. It was recognised, however, how unusual this was – even the New Kingdom twins Suty and Hor (see British Museum EA 826) do not share a tomb or show themselves in such poses. It was posited that the translation of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s position as ‘hairdressers’ or ‘manicurists’ has affected modern interpretation of their tomb, given the stereotype in the modern day that men in the beauty industry tend to be homosexual.

The Forum also considered mythology. For instance, we know that brother-sister marriages were common in the divine world, and at times this was reflected in the king’s marriages. Furthermore, one participant recalled evidence that the Victorians considered Isis and Osiris to be twins and this was perhaps perceived as even more erotic than their simply being siblings – perhaps, it was suggested, twins have been seen through time as quite erotic and exotic entities because of their rarity, and this may have informed the representation of Niankhkhmun and Khnumhotep. With regard to mythology and gender/sexuality, we also referred to the androgynous character of the act of creation in cosmological myths, and the series of dualities which followed (Shu/Tefnut; Nut/Geb etc.).

The final part of the Forum was dedicated to thinking about children and whether they are gendered in the ancient world. In the case of very young children, it was suggested not. Debate focused around the example of child burials in houses – for instance under thresholds at El-Lahun, and similar practices in Britain in the late first millennium AD. This was perhaps because they had not become full people, and therefore it was not anathema to bury them within a settlement. Since gender is one of the ways in which society defines people it could be that children, as half-people, were ungendered. On the other hand, other Forum members felt that threshold burials were more to do with wanting to keep young children close to their parents because they were believed not to have the capacity to protect themselves in the afterlife, and it may also have functioned to assuage the grief of the family.

This Forum session offers potential for future discussions – the theme encompasses too broad a range of subjects to cover in detail in one session, and even this lengthy summary report cannot include everything that was considered. It was clear that studies into gender and sexuality in ancient times are greatly informed by modern societal perceptions, but gender theory can nevertheless provide a useful lens through which to look at ancient evidence.

Further reading:

Gender and archaeology (general):

– Gilchrist, R. 1999. Gender and archaeology: contesting the past. Routledge: London.

– Sørensen, M. L. S. 2000. Gender archaeology. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Gender and sexuality in Egypt:

– Manniche, L. 2002. Sexual life in ancient Egypt. Kegan Paul: London.

– Roth, A. M. 2005. ‘Gender roles in ancient Egypt’, in D. C. Snell (ed.), A companion to the ancient Near East, 211-218. Blackwell Publishing Ltd: Oxford.

– Robins, G. 2015. ‘Gender and sexuality’, in M. Hartwig (ed.), A companion to ancient Egyptian art, 120-140. Wiley Blackwell: Malden, MA. and Oxford.

Homosexuality in Egypt:

– Parkinson, R.B. 1995. ‘“Homosexual” desire and Middle Kingdom Literature’, JEA 81: 57-76.

– Reeder, G. 2000. ‘Same-sex desire, conjugal constructs, and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’, World Archaeology 32: 193-208.

– Vasiljević, V. 2008. ‘Embracing his double: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’, SAK 37: 363-372.

Childhood in Egypt:

– Janssen, R. M. and Janssen, J. J. 1990. Growing up in ancient Egypt. The Rubicon Press: London.


Crowns and royal ideology in ancient Egypt

Report by Eleanor Simmance

On Friday 19th June, Birmingham Egyptology welcomed Prof. Katja Goebs of the University of Toronto, during her visit to the University of Birmingham to work with the Birmingham Memory Group as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow. For the Forum she presented her recent findings and ideas with regard to Egyptian royal iconography, specifically in ‘reading’ composite crowns. As Tefnin (1984) proposed, crowns can be read as hieroglyphs and form part of ‘iconographical sentences’. Katja began by introducing her past research, such as a focus on textual references to crowns and a study of the nemes-headdress, and also presented a few basic theoretical perspectives related to crowns. For instance, a basic meaning of a crown may be ‘king’, but further attributes may augment this to denote a specific type of king or individual, and observers can read these symbols differently depending on their own cultural background and knowledge. Katja then presented some of the key elements of her research as it pertains to a specific crown – the henu-crown, which is particularly elaborate, with a so-called ‘Amun crown’ base, ram-horns (sometimes with uraei with solar discs), double ostrich or falcon feathers, two uraei at the bottom, two larger uraei above these and a sun disc in the middle (sometimes flanked by cow-horns).


Aiming to explain the features of the crown, Forum attendees were taken through a fascinating array of linguistics and semantics, animal behaviour and early Egyptian belief systems. Ostrich feathers were considered in light of their colours (black body feathers, white wing feathers) and related to the ‘dancing’ and displaying seen by ostriches at dawn and when fighting, and parallels were drawn with a C-Group deposit at Hierakonpolis which included the feathers, to feather fans and sun-shades and to hieroglyphs (the kha-hieroglyph showing the sun rising, in particular). In all of these respects, it becomes clear that the ostrich is designated as a solar animal in certain contexts, and the link between ostriches, feathers and the sky and light were shown to be corroborated in funerary texts.


Horns were shown to have very clear associations to solar and lunar phenomenon and the concept of light more generally – for instance the sickle shape can be seen in the crescent moon, and the sun during eclipses, and when both rise from the horizon. Again, textual evidence supports such a connection. Katja demonstrated an admirable breadth of semantic knowledge: first of all it was explained that the word weben (rise, shine forth) in Egyptian and others with the same root such as benben all have connotations of ‘coming forth’, especially in a cosmic sense. Secondly, it was shown that the word ‘horn’ has roots with parallels in Hebrew, Latin, Ugaritic, Amoritic, Arabic and others, and that these roots are inextricably linked with crescents and light, once again recalling the emergence of the sun and moon from the horizon. Katja’s work was especially exciting as it may have implications for beliefs and iconography from other ancient cultures such as Mesopotamia.


The importance of horns in early Egyptian art was discussed, with particular reference to bird and cow symbolism, such as the so-called ‘bird women’, whose arms are raised up as if dancing, but perhaps emulating wings or horns. These figures can be seen on several types of artwork, including ‘decorated’ ware pottery, where they are shown alongside ostriches. Katja suggested that such interpretations may have an effect on our understanding of early solar cults, though she acknowledged that much more research is to be done.


To conclude, Katja returned to the henu-crown, using all of the symbolism discussed during the presentation to ‘read’ it to us, with an original and exciting interpretation of it as a representation of the sunrise in its various stages. Each element provided a crucial aspect of the solar journey in the morning, and Forum attendees all agreed that this was an extremely thought-provoking analysis.


The presentation was followed with an extended Q&A, with some discussion, which covered the potential reading for other features and crowns, including those of the atef-crown and of the increasingly complex headdresses of the Ptolemaic period. Other animals, including apes, baboons and flamingos were also considered, and it was agreed that much is still to be researched on animal behaviour and how this was perceived by the ancient Egyptians. The talk had proved that there is great potential for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary work in this field, and the questions and discussion also considered, for example, Greek sources (with references made to lunar horns and cornucopia) and Native American rituals (linking to the ‘bird women’). The horns seen in the volutes of sistra (derived from Bat and Hathor iconography) and potentially in the legs of scarab beetles, which incidentally were seen cosmologically to support the sun just as the horizon does, were also discussed. Katja put forward that the horns may be indicative more of a round or curved shape than solely the sickle shape; hence crowns, halos, solar and lunar discs and horns all have this curve in some form. However, she stressed the important point that each symbol may have had various meanings, with all interpretations being valid at the same time – varying level of meaning is of course important as it results in a symbol being relevant to a large number of people from various backgrounds. The session came to a close with the consideration that Egyptian crowns as we see them were likely iconographic, as opposed to real, wearable headdresses, symbolism being more important here than realism.


Birmingham Egyptology would like to thank Prof. Goebs for her presentation, and all of those who attended the session were united in their interest in and enthusiasm for her research.


Dynastic succession and changeovers in ancient Egypt

Edwards Mushett Cole

This session (Friday 8th May), the BE forum discussed the concept of succession within and between dynasties, focusing on whether these events were really the smooth transitions recorded by the Egyptians themselves or if, in fact, they were moments of crisis and tension for the Egyptian political system.

The discussion began by looking at succession within Egyptian dynasties, but this rapidly moved to include the question ‘what do we mean by a dynasty?’. Gradually, whilst it was acknowledged that our current dynasties are somewhat artificial in origin as a result of being based on Manetho’s descriptions, there was clearly some understanding of a ‘dynasty’ as we would understand them to be, based around the inheritance of kingship within a single family. This took us back to the original topic, since under this definition dynasties such as the Eighteenth do not conform to that concept and therefore it was debated how succession was managed when the successor was not from the same family. The clear designation of a ‘crown prince’ during the New Kingdom seems to have been a way of ensuring a clear line of succession, although it was noted that the fact that this was necessary suggests that these moments of succession were more risky than comes through in much of the Egyptian record. Indeed, a number of occasions where unusual successions are apparent in the Egyptian evidence, such as Amenemhat I, Sety II to Siptah and Ramesses III to IV. It was suggested that the reality of succession within dynasties probably involved a mixture of smooth successions, contested successions and moments where powerful factions and individuals promoted their own aim to succeed to the throne.

A similar conclusion was reached when the discussion moved to looking at succession between different dynasties of Egypt, and whether there were mechanisms put in place to make such transitions less problematic. The discussions tried to narrow down how and why changes in dynasty occurred: whether it was simply because one family had run out of possible male heirs, or perhaps acceptable male heirs, or if it was a product of other factors such as internal power struggles, as revealed by Amenemhat I’s letter to his son admitting to his assassination of the last king of the Eleventh Dynasty. In a similar problem to one discussed regarding succession within dynasties, the scarcity of evidence relating to actual methods or succession limits our ability to understand the processes involved, particularly as the surviving evidence emphasised the unbroken line of royal succession from the first king. There was some discussion as to whether marriage to a royal daughter was one way of marking out a candidate for succession when a particular line was short of suitable successors, as was done during the Eighteenth Dynasty for Thutmosis I (perhaps suggesting that the Thutmosides should be treated as a separate dynasty from the earlier Eighteenth Dynasty), and may well have been done at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty to allow Smendes to inherit. Also, it was noted that where the first king of a new dynasty appears to have been selected by the previous king as his successor, for example Ramesses I by Horemheb, there appears to have been a preference for individuals who had several generations of possible heirs, possibly as a way of securing the future succession and minimising potential tension. The importance of military control was also mentioned as a factor in succession, particularly between dynasties.

That moments of succession both within a dynasty and between them were probably considered to be moments of possible tension was generally accepted as being evident from the preparations carried out by kings to mark out their chosen successor during at least the New Kingdom, but also by the methods of selection of the first kings of new dynasties where it appears that the preference was for individuals with at least one generation of potential heirs. That such moments were periods of tension within the Egyptian political system is also suggested by the fact that ambitious individuals from Amenemhat I to Chancellor Bay were able to take advantage of them by either raising themselves to the position of king, or by placing someone they could control on the throne.


Medical imaging in Egyptology

Report by Eleanor Simmance

Birmingham Egyptology was delighted to welcome Dr Robert Loynes (Bob) to speak to us on Friday 27th March on his work with mummies, coming from a previous career as an orthopaedic surgeon. The talk covered the history of the X-ray, including its accidental discovery in the 1800s, and of CT (computerised (axial) tomography) scans and other devices used for scanning within the medical profession. In considering the various devices’ advantages and disadvantages with regard to the scanning of mummies, it was pointed out that these technologies and their development (continuing today e.g. digital signals, hybrid machines) are for live humans – the lack of soft tissue in mummies is somewhat problematic!

Bob then presented some of the findings of his research with mummy scans, the so-called ‘virtopsy’, explaining how each individual may have met their end and the processes of embalming which can be seen – wrapping techniques, amulets, resins, incision plates and supporting rods, for example – as well as how the tissues have acted after mummification. Previous attempts at identifying the materials used for inclusions in the mummy were explained, such as the analysis of varying radiation levels, and their shortcomings presented, including the issues of the purity of the material and practical variables such as the calibration of CT machines.

What was apparent from the examples given during the talk is that these scans show up great variety in embalming techniques. It was demonstrated, for instance, that not only were there several methods by which ex-cerebration could be undertaken, but that these methods were not all equally successful.

To draw his talk to a close, Bob mentioned some other procedures which can be utilised to complement CT-scans in determining the fate of the mummified individuals and processes of mummification, such as aDNA (ancient DNA) analysis and chemical analysis of resins.


Bob graciously submitted to lengthy Q+A after his presentation, including a query as to whether embalmers were illiterate. He suggested not, since they would have needed to understand the techniques they were using, as well as be able to recite the necessary prayers during the process. Another attendee asked if there were examples of bad practice in embalming, but it was agreed that this is down to individual interpretation. Not only is it likely that mummification would have been available in different price ranges (mentioned, incidentally, by Herodotus), but different workshops will have had different approaches. However, Bob acknowledged that it seems that less care was taken over the mummies of children. Questions were also asked about the practical aspects of the research. It was clear that although scanned mummies are a source of great fascination for researchers and the public alike, it was not an easy process, and the logistics of accessing the mummies held in museums, and accessing the machines in hospitals to scan them, have proved frustrating at times. Nonetheless, much has been learned thus far from the mummies which have been successfully scanned.

Many thanks go to Bob for agreeing to present some of his research to us, especially since some of the mummies he has worked with are housed within Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery which gives it added relevance. Though some Forum attendees may have been a little squeamish, all agreed that it was an extremely intriguing session!


Further reading:

Gostner, P., Bonelli, M., Pernter, P., Graefen, A. and Zink, A. ‘New radiological approach for analysis and identification of foreign bodies in ancient and historic mummies’, Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 1003-1011.


The destruction of world heritage: combating the devastation of archaeological sites

Report by Eleanor Simmance

This session, chaired by Stephanie Boonstra, took place on Friday 13th March 2015 and looked at some of the issues facing archaeologists today, with more specific reference to Delta sites. The discussion took into account in particular recent events across the Near East, and the two main facets of the debate were concerned with large scale destruction (such as that of the Islamic State) and smaller, more localised looting involving individuals or small communities. The Forum considered the reasons behind both kinds of destruction, and asked what we as historians and archaeologists can do.

It was agreed that economic motives can be behind both – the IS partially fund their activities through the selling of antiquities, and individuals can provide for their families by selling what they have found. However, one of the differences which was highlighted is that the destruction of sites by the IS has another purpose, that of destroying the culture heritage of the local populations in order to imbue fear into the people and assert control over them and their history. Small-scale looting or building over a site by individuals does not necessarily mean that they do not care for their own heritage or that they are trying to dissociate themselves or others from it, rather that the here and now, and the very issue of survival, takes precedence in their thinking.

The Forum considered potential solutions. For instance, increased legislation to curb black-marked antiquities dealing may help, but it was also suggested that we try to engage with the populations who live around archaeological sites. Dig teams should aim to build good relationships with locals, and work together to educate about the importance of preserving heritage whilst understanding the needs and wishes of the people.


19th century hieroglyphs

Report by Eleanor Simmance

For the session on 27th February, Birmingham Egyptology welcomed Dr David Gange of the Department of History and his student Eleanor Dobson (PhD candidate, History and English), who presented ideas related to their research, followed by questions and discussion. Dr Gange has recently published a book entitled ‘Dialogues with the Dead: Egyptology in British Culture and Religion 1822-1922’ (Oxford University Press 2013), and Eleanor is researching Egyptology in the popular culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, including fiction.

Dr Gange began, providing the background of the time period and some of his observations with regard to Egyptology at this time. People during the 19th century were becoming aware of the scale of time and history, but their ideas in this vein were never separate from their own life experiences, religion and politics (of course, as was recognised by Forum participants, neither are ours today) – the ancient world was, as Dr Gange put it, a ‘menu of social structures’, which could inform, or warn against, decisions. Egyptology was an important item on this menu, but its treatment varied throughout Britain. In this session, the case study given was a comparison of London and Newcastle after 1822 (the year of the first major breakthroughs in the decipherment of hieroglyphs by Champollion). London was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Egypt following the Napoleonic Wars, partly because of nationalistic feeling (favouring Champollion’s British, but ultimately less successful counterpart Thomas Young), and partly because such little progress had been made and the numerous but seemingly unoriginal travelogues were becoming tedious. It is apparent, however, that Egypt was considered in the light of Biblical studies. For instance, the tomb of Seti I was believed without doubt to represent Hebrews amongst its decoration. It is well known, also, that much funding for archaeological digs came from religious organisations hoping to prove scripture.

Newcastle, on the other hand, had a dissenting religious community, and consequently thinkers and academics were trying to defy the London schools. Instead of viewing Egyptians as spiritual, they saw them as superstitious; one assessment was that they worshipped ‘beans, vetches, leeks, onions and even cheese’. That their ideas opposed those of London tallied with the north of England experiencing developments in industry, technology and social systems which differed from their southern counterparts.

Next Eleanor Dobson presented an overview of the evidence for Egyptology in British culture, beginning with the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of 1851. She explained how from that point there was an increase in popular fiction dealing with Egypt (and particularly in the 80s and 90s). Hieroglyphs were printed for the first time from 1853 (at first in silhouette, then in outline with more detailing), and thus became accessible for people to use them for their own messages – some not completely accurate. They appeared in books, love letters, upholstery, clothing and tombstones, for example. It seems, then as now, that people enjoy writing their own names in hieroglyphs! The signs were seen variously as romantic and comic, and symbols of eternity and curses, facilitating their widespread use. It was pointed out that the Egyptians themselves saw hieroglyphic writing as magical, divine and powerful, and so perhaps the ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries were, in some areas, more similar to the ancient culture than first thought!

The presentations of Dr Gange and Eleanor were followed by questions and discussion. The significance of understanding the agenda behind scholarship, from that time and today, was acknowledged. Petrie was given as an example where agenda can change, for later in his career he used his work as a basis for his somewhat racist beliefs in the sphere of eugenics. It was asked whether discrepancies in ideas within the same country, as we saw for London and Newcastle, are attested elsewhere. This was answered in the affirmative to some extent, though it was pointed out that for all cases what people published was not necessarily what they believed – Champollion was unable to publish his true opinions about chronology for fear of angering religious communities. It was also asked how far different parts of Britain were aware of the variance in their ideas. Whilst tracing the circulation of certain publications suggests that, for example, Newcastle publications had a very small, or perhaps non-existent, readership in London (and there is no evidence that London knew of, and countered, rival ideas), there is evidence to suggest that Edinburgh was aware of London ideas and they perceived themselves to be more forward thinking, and talks in North Wales, in Welsh, very emphatically set their ideas against those of London. Another example of the north/south divide in ideas comes from Leeds, whose Temple Works bears a façade partly modelled on the temple of Horus at Edfu. Whilst it was also inspired by Bible verses, it was also set up as an anti-establishment (anti-London) construction.

There was some discussion of the treatment of Mesopotamia in comparison to Egypt. Near Eastern studies have, of course, similar Biblical backgrounds, and Mesopotamia experienced greater popularity in the 1940s and 50s than Egypt. As such, it was agreed that we can often ask the same questions of this area of academic research, particularly when looking at early scholarship.

Towards the end of the session, the questions and discussion turned to the importance of artistic media and development of new technology which facilitated the spread of ideas. Paintings with Egyptological themes, for instance, were likely inspired by Egyptological research, but would work their way into scholarly publications, perhaps as a result becoming acceptable as accurate portrayals of the culture. Interest in the subject was also piqued through a variety of emerging media – panoramas, theatrical and magic shows and early films; even American cinemas were built with Egyptian styles, which played on the notions of Egypt being a mysterious land of adventure and fantasy.

Overall the presentations of the two guests were informative and thought-provoking, providing attendees with a good overview of the evidence and ideas (and a good dose of humour), whilst reminding us that we must always consider the background to scholarly traditions when conducting our own research.


Egyptian cosmology and cosmogony: how far were they distinct, local belief systems?

Report by Eleanor Simmance

The session on Friday 13th February, chaired by Zara Shoosmith, discussed the varying mythological entities and stories present within Egyptian thought with regard to the creation of the universe and the environment around them.

The session began with an answer to the question, agreed by attendees: these beliefs were local, but were not distinct, given their common themes and backgrounds. Discussion covered various aspects of these ideas, including from where in Egypt they derived and when. For instance, did the idea of the primordial mound come from the Delta region, the Fayum marshes or from an island that became Thebes? The concept of triads and the familial aspect inherent in them was seen as national, but it was recognised that the specific gods involved changed depending on the region. As for when these myths originated, although much of our evidence comes from 5th Dynasty sources, it was suggested that ideas of this nature may have be contemporary with the emergence of kingship during Dynasty 0, in order to legitimise leadership).

The topic at hand lent itself to comparative analysis – Greek, Mesopotamian, Norse and other cultures’ creation stories were mentioned during the discussion, highlighting differences and similarities, an example being water and flooding, which in Egypt was seen as both a creative and destructive force in Egypt, presumably linked to their reliance on the Nile, whereas for other cultures it was solely destructive. On the other hand, similarities were drawn between Egyptian and Near Eastern cosmogony in that there are aspects in both relating to the creation of the world and mankind from speech.


The bulk of the discussion was concerned with problems with the evidence. Not only are there limited numbers of sources (which may not be applicable to the whole of Egyptian history), but it was agreed that some localised traditions may be unknown to us because of purely oral traditions. The subject of cosmology and cosmogony also suffers from a relative lack of scholarly discourse, making it more difficult to discuss. It was also acknowledged that the majority of the available evidence is from an elite context. As such, the general consensus at the Forum was that the cosmological ideas, at least in the forms of which we know, were to some extent restricted knowledge, although ordinary people must have been aware to some extent in order to understand the significance of events such as religious festivals.

Such considerations led to debate as to who would have known what. The presence of disparities within the myths could indicate that not all versions were known to all people, or alternatively that they were able to tolerate disparities in their myths because their localised beliefs took precedence for them regardless. If we assume that the elites were more aware of the varied and often contradictory approaches to creation and the natural world, perhaps they tolerated them because all myths ultimately glorified the Pharaoh so it mattered little which people believed.

It was suggested that not everyone would have believed everything, in part because some of these ideas were completely inconceivable, although it was countered that this may be a modern, distorted view: we live in more development and scientific world so we are unable to lend credence to these stories, but it does not necessarily follow that the ancients could not. Similarly, our idea of time (linear) is very different to that of the ancients (more cyclical).

As the discussion came to an end, it was asked if cosmogony and cosmology was even important for daily life. Individual Egyptians probably had their own ideas based on observations of the world around them, but creation stories were perhaps not key to their lives. In this respect, cosmology was probably more significant, since it attempts to explain the natural world. The importance of particular ideas would differ depending on where an individual lived in Egypt because of the varying climate and environment, so this would likely have been reflected in distinct, local traditions.


Further reading:

Iversen, E. 1990. ‘The cosmogony of the Shabaka text’ , in S. Israelit-Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology presented to Miriam Lichtheim 1, Jerusalem, 485-493.

Lesko, L.H. 1991. ‘Ancient Egyptian cosmogonies and cosmology’, in J. Baines, L.H. Lesko and D.P. Silverman (eds.) Religion in ancient Egypt: gods, myths, and personal practice, Ithaca NY, 88-122.

Bickel, S. 1994. La cosmogonie égyptienne avant le Nouvel Empire, Göttingen.

Conman, J. 2003. ‘It’s about time: ancient Egyptian cosmology’, Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 31, 33-71.



Pharaohs: great rulers or tyrannical despots?

Eleanor Simmance

The session on Friday 30th January 2015 began with ancient Egyptian sources, questioning the extent to which they can tell us the truth about the king and highlighting the distinction between official, royal sources and others such as graffiti. Ration lists and log-books were suggested as perhaps amongst the most reliable, as they are not directly related to the pharaoh, but indicate the quality of life available for his workers (varied diet, holidays). Even official records are open to varying interpretations – an Old Kingdom autobiography in which the individual is pardoned when he casts a shadow on the king could indicate that the king exercised tyrannical law and punishment, or it could reflect the level of deference felt for the ruler. As with any ancient individual, we are unlikely to know anything about their personality and how they interacted with their peers, but we have a greater chance with the pharaoh due to the proportionally larger number of relevant sources.

Here the discussion turned specifically to Khufu, the builder of the Great pyramid. Herodotus (2.124-2.126) describes him as a ruthless and evil king, and only fairly recently has the idea that slaves built the pyramids been widely debunked. Forum participants agreed that opinion had been guided by the early Christian and Jewish writers, and also by old-fashioned perceptions of Arabic society and entrenched views derived from colonialism and orientalism.

Talk of large workforces led naturally to the archaeological evidence for them – their houses and cemeteries. Giza, Lahun and Tell el-Amarna were mentioned as examples. Tombs found in the latter location have suggested that the workforce suffered malnutrition, stunted growth, bone fractures, spinal injuries, arthritis and a high mortality rate before the age of 20. The Forum considered if this reflects Akhenaten’s lack of care, or whether this was commonplace throughout Egypt’s history; remains from Saqqara suggest high physical activity, though perhaps not on the same scale. Parallels were drawn with mining communities all over the world today, it being suggested that these people were willing to work under such strain, because of potential rewards. As such, perhaps the Amarna evidence in fact points to Akhenaten being perceived as a beneficent, respected ruler. Akhenaten himself is a good example of how scholarly opinion of his rule (and his physical and mental capabilities) has been affected by changes in the modern world, particularly in 20th century Europe as a result of the World Wars. It was suggested that as a general rule mankind is conservative, and hence change is seen as something of which to be wary. Scholars are also quick to assume that pharaohs who suffered damnatio memoriae, like Akhenaten, must have been oppressive.

It was put forward that looking at gender roles may help us determine how free Egyptian society was, and thus how much of a tyrant the pharaoh was. Women are known to have owned property and occupied high positions in society, but most participants agreed that we cannot use this alone to deduce the state of the leadership, in part because there is no legal code. Some sources (ancient Greek writers, in particular) over- or under-emphasise some areas of Egyptian society in order to show the differences with their own or because their own background influences what they feel is worthy of recognition.

The impact of environmental changes was also discussed as an important feature in Egyptian leadership; not only would a population lose faith in their king if the Nile flood was not adequate or was destructive, but it was also recognised that if a population is experiencing difficulties, their dissatisfaction would likely enhance any negative perception of the leadership, making the actions of the latter seem more ruthless or totalitarian. Conversely a happy population will think more highly of their ruler. Further questions were put forward: can an individual be a great ruler without being a tyrant, or can he be a tyrant without being a great ruler? Is there such as thing as a good tyrant or a bad tyrant? No definite conclusions were reached, but these queries allow one to consider what someone must do to gain power and to maintain their position – the population must be kept happy by their ruler or the latter’s power is at risk.

The Forum participants had, until this point, been using terms such as ‘dictator’ and ‘totalitarian’ and ‘tyrant’ without providing definitions. It was understood that their original use in Greece (tyrant) and Rome (dictator), which have since gained pejorative meanings, was for powerful men who gained power sometimes in times of emergency, not necessarily through adverse means. Embedded ideas about the systems of Greece (diplomatic) and Rome (strong legal system) may affect how we see different cultures, especially in the Ancient Near East. Egypt’s system of leadership was considered by the Forum to be closer to an absolute monarchy. An alternative was a theocratic totalitarian state: the preservation of constancy at all costs, it was argued (i.e. portraying the ideal and following, nominally, what had gone before), was to some extent totalitarian.

Long reign length may suggest stability and satisfaction with the leadership, but raises the question as to how consistent their hold on power was throughout. Assassination and conspiracies are rarely attested in ancient Egypt (Amenemhat II and Ramesses III were given as likely victims of such plots), presumably because it contradicted ideological norms. Military activity was also discussed, since often a successful ruler commands the largest army. It was noted that evidence for the Egyptian army being defeated was fairly rare – in the case of Ramesses II at Kadesh, the written record was intentionally dramatic, showing how the pharaoh rescued Egypt from disaster. This was not seen as necessarily a sign of despotism (although the war concluded with a stalemate rather than an Egyptian victory), but rather literary licence. A text from the reign of Taharqa in which he apologises to Amun for his defeat provides a very rare glimpse into the potential fallibility of the pharaoh, significantly in a non-literary context.

The session also covered the nature of leadership and the success of different systems. It was understood that it is difficult to distance oneself completely from one’s own system and imagine another, both in ancient times and in more recent history or today (other cultures and time periods mentioned included 1930s Germany and North Korea). It was suggested that, to the normal Egyptian, as long as their daily lives went smoothly it mattered little who was in power, or what type of leader they were – the abstract idea of kingship was more important than the individual. If fact, despotism could benefit them since things were more likely to be achieved.

Since the Forum had reflected on our own ability to judge other cultures and their systems of leadership, attendees finally wondered how ancient Near Easterners perceived their neighbours. Egypt seems to have been widely viewed as a wealthy, wise, ancient state regardless of its ruler, even if other contemporary states in the Levantine area had better technology at some points. Egypt itself was certainly not insular, but we can probably assume that the majority of its inhabitants knew little of the wider world and were content with their country and king.


Visit to the Eton Myers Collection of Egyptian Antiquities

Friday 16th January

Eton College has loaned to Birmingham and John Hopkins university parts of its Egyptian collection which Major William Joseph Myers bequeathed to his old school upon his death. Birmingham Egyptology has worked with the collection in the past ( and is keen to do more. So, this session allowed members who had not seen the collection before to familiarise themselves with it, and the following discussion put forward ways in which the objects can be researched, displayed and presented, including articles for Birmingham Egyptology Journal and schools workshops, with the potential to work with the University School which will open in 2015.


Questions in Egyptology

Steven Gregory


Friday 12th December 2014

The session began with a question regarding the sale of ancient Egyptian artefacts at auction houses, in particular the sale of an ancient Egyptian object by a museum. This gave rise to many concerns, both legal and ethical in nature, relating to the ownership of culturally significant objects.
It seemed to be accepted, in general, that regardless of the desirability of the phenomenon, it is perhaps a condition of human nature that such objects are coveted, and will likely remain so. As such, the objects in question will inevitably acquire value, both in aesthetic and monetary terms. It follows that trade in such objects, legally conducted or otherwise, would be similarly inevitable. Any attempt to restrict trade in archaeological artefacts was thought likely to counterproductive in that it may serve only to drive that trade under cover, with the result that objects would be difficult to access by scholarship and the public in general. Whether museums should engage in trading artefacts, however, is another matter – one not entirely resolved by the Forum other than to note some degree of satisfaction that a museum recently selling an artefact lost public funding as a result: a nett monetary loss, in the short term at least.
A point mentioned frequently in the discussion, and one pertinent to the legalities of trade in objects of archaeological interest, was the somewhat controversial example of the bust of Nefertiti. Regardless of the final outcome here, the question as to whether an object created by an ancient and long-dead culture can be the property of a current society which happens to occupy the same geographical space is one likely to exercise the minds of both politicians and field archaeologists for years to come. Perhaps the significant point to come from the discussions was the need for all involved in the acquisition and curatorship of culturally significant objects to be aware of the difficulties likely to be encountered, and at all times to remain within procedural boundaries as set by relevant authorities.
The final part of the session was devoted to the question ‘How does Egyptology justify itself as a discipline – particularly regarding funding?’. The initial response was somewhat muted! However, after some discussion it was thought that a degree of appreciation of the past was perhaps an essential precondition to a more fulfilling experience of the present; a recognition of qualities inherent in the ‘other’, at any point in history, allowing a more nuanced perception of the self. If nothing else, a question for further deliberation during the forthcoming festivities!


Royal family, priests and robbers. New research in the Valley of the Kings

Eleanor Simmance

On Friday 28th November, Birmingham Egyptology were delighted to welcome Prof. Susanne Bickel of the University of Basel to the Forum to speak to us about her work in the Valley of the Kings. The King’s Valley Project at the University of Basel has been working in some of the minor tombs in the royal necropolis, and Prof. Bickel presented some of the recent findings.

To begin, she gave an overview of the Valley of the Kings, its geography and the location of the tombs there (24 being those of pharaohs, 38+ being those designated ‘other’). Attendees were also taken through the main aims of the excavations in the area: to discover the social and biological identities of buried individuals, to map the chronology and use periods of the site, and to identify the principles of architecture and tomb location, such as whether the distance to the royal tomb or tomb typology can tell us anything about social status. These final aspects of the overall aims have proven difficult to determine and many questions remain.

Prof. Bickel then explained tomb typology, with particular emphasis on comparisons between the necropoleis in Western Thebes and changes over time. For instance, in the mid-18th Dynasty, temp. Thutmose III-Amenhotep III two basic types are known in the concession area, being corridor tombs accessed by steps, and shaft tombs. One feature which intrigued the team was that there was a complete absence of decoration or inscription. It was concluded this was a typological feature, as opposed to the tombs being left unfinished, but it raises the question of where the funerary cult was carried out. Parallels were also drawn with undecorated shaft tombs found in the Valley of the Queens dated between Thutmose I and Amenhotep III (though it was pointed out that generally the typologies of the KV and QV tombs are very different). During the Ramesside Period, however, the tombs are decorated, though it was pointed out that the function of the Valley of the Kings changed at this time in that it became a solely royal necropolis.

Prof. Bickel then turned to specific work done during the excavations, especially those in the side valley leading to the tomb of Thutmose III. The concession covered areas which had previously been excavated, but still held surprises. One of the main characteristics of this area was that it had clearly used and reused over a very long period, with initial burials in the 18th Dynasty, through use by the Ramesside workmen (a type of sundial discovered indicates how they might have regulated their shifts), to looting and reuse of the tombs in the 21st and 22nd Dynasties. The problems of looters are still present today, and in protecting KV 40 from potential robbers (and the weather), the Project discovered an unknown ‘man-made feature less than 2m away. After the revolution enforced their break, the team discovered this feature was in fact a sealed tomb, labelled KV 64.

KV 64 was found to have several periods of use and reuse. The original non-royal 18th Dynasty (Amenhotep II-Thutmose IV) burial had been looted in antiquity almost entirely, possibly in the 21st Dynasty when ‘official’ looting and recycling was fairly commonplace. Curiously, a 22nd Dynasty family chose to refill this chamber with rubble rather than clear it out completely. Prof. Bickel suggested that this might indicate respect for the past. The only remains of the secondary, Third Intermediate Period burial were a coffin and a wooden stela on the rubble fill, both belonging to a woman in a priestly family, according to her title and filiation. It was pointed out, however, that identification is currently impossible because the personal names were very common.

Turning to KV 40, the excavation team were set for more surprises. It too had several periods of use, from 18th and 22nd Dynasties, and probably 21st Dynasty robbing, but more recently – perhaps in the 1890s or 1900s when the tomb was opened again by Loret – looters entered, and when finished set alight to the remains. Happily, the refill smothered the flames before all could be destroyed, the flames damaging the ceiling most, and evidence was recovered by the King’s Valley Project of sealings with the cartouches of Amenhotep III, an inscription of the deceased Thutmose III and many textiles, including a sock. The pottery remains bear inscriptions relating to several princesses, a few princes and other individuals, mostly women. One bears a rare theophoric name where the deity is a funerary god (Neferusokar); others bear foreign names. In total, the record suggests that around 50 people are represented by the human remains and inscriptions, and it was agreed by all in attendance at the talk that the results of anthropological work confirming gender and age are highly anticipated. It appears that this burial was some sort of royal tomb for the family of Amenhotep III, albeit probably minor wives and children.

Articles with images on both KV 40 and 64 can be found in the Egypt Exploration Society’s bulletin Egyptian Archaeology, respectively Issues 45 and 41.


Prof. Bickel’s talk was a fantastic addition to Birmingham Egyptology’s event programme, as it gave attendees the chance to hear about recent (and ongoing) excavations and research in the field. The announcement of the discoveries in KV 40 was a highlight of the year’s news and it was a pleasure to hear about it directly from one of the archaeologists themselves.


How to create and run children's educational activities for museum use

Marsia Bealby


Session date: Friday 31st October


The objective of this workshop was to:

– introduce the topic of museum education and the notion of the ‘participatory museum’
– discuss how one can volunteer in museums and become an education volunteer
– provide a list of resources about the topic
– with the help of examples, demonstrate how educational activities for museum use are designed and run
– and finally, discuss how the attendees could create an educational activity on Ancient Egypt.

The initial presentation introduced participants to the role of volunteering in museums. Two case-studies were presented in which activities had been created and run successfully, the first being an activity around fossils for children aged 7-11, and the second being an activity about ancient Egypt for children with special needs. The entire planning process was presented, thus highlighting some of the key issues which need to be addressed when arranging such an activity.



During the discussion, the attendees exchanged ideas about how we could create an educational activity on Ancient Egypt. The objective of this project will be to run the activity with students who visit the exhibition of artefacts from the Eton Myers collection in Birmingham.

The purpose of this project will be twofold:

– via a tailored educational programme, encourage school visits and younger visitors to the exhibition of artefacts from the Eton Myers collection in Birmingham
– provide training to University of Birmingham post-graduate students and implement group work for the creation and running of this educational programme.



With regards to the workshop discussion, the attendees reached the following conclusions

– Firstly, all the necessary paperwork and applications must be filed
– A risk assessment will be need to be performed for the determination of risk to the collection
– An ideal space should be chosen for the running of these educational activities. This space will not be the room in which the artefacts are exhibited
– Because of the nature of the collection, it is better to design and run an educational activity aiming at small groups of students who are over 12 years old. Priority may be given to gifted and talented students
– Students will only handle some of the actual exhibits if risk is deemed low by workshop leaders, in carefully controlled conditions and only with certain objects. Replicas of archaeological finds may be provided in addition
– The plan is for the group of students to visit the collection first, and then take the activity in another room, away from the collection
– Any designed activity should be relevant to the topic of the exhibition
– The educational activity should be tailored to the profile of the students visiting (age, interests, etc.)
– A ‘light’ activity is preferred over an activity that would make the students very energetic
– So far, suggestions about the activity include pottery making, archaeological photography and/or drawing of the finds, even though the exact details of the activity are undecided
– A second meeting will take place during Spring Term, to discuss things further.


Egyptological societies and the future of the discipline

Carl Graves

Session date: Friday 17th October.
Being founded in 1882, The Egypt Exploration Society is one of the oldest Egyptological institutions in the UK. Its aims have always been clear, ‘to explore ancient Egyptian sites and monuments, to create a lasting record of the remains, to generate enthusiasm for, and increase knowledge and understanding of, Egypt’s past and to raise awareness of the importance of protecting its heritage’ (taken from To promote these aims the Society has made many efforts to support Egyptologists, particularly students and early career researchers through grants, volunteering, and scholarships. In the last year alone the EES has supported conference travel bursaries to the Current Research in Egyptology conference in London (continuing a long tradition of supporting this project having, in previous years sponsored receptions and networking events), provided opportunities for excavation and survey through Centenary Awards projects, offered volunteering placements in our archive and library as well as promoting their professional development and engagement with our members, and finally, assisted the research of six Egyptian scholars by inviting them to London on a month long scholarship to make use of resources, facilities and experts in the UK.

However, despite these efforts the Society recognizes that students still form the lowest demographic of membership – despite being a more demanding group on our resources. The aim of presenting the topic outlined in the title of this forum was to provide a platform for discussing the problems that many Egyptological societies face – falling membership numbers, but more importantly, the impact this could have on increasing engagement. The EES is very lucky to have resources such as excavations, library and archive at our disposal to provide more for students and researchers – but is there something that students should be doing to remain more involved in societies. These groups, around the UK, can sometimes be the only way that academic disciplines like Egyptology become accessible to those outside of the academic community (very often the people that pay the wages of those academics), people who never had access to studying Egyptology before or just decided on a different course of career (usually a better paid and more stable one!).

While, understandably, much of the forum discussion focused on what the EES could do to boost student membership numbers – the main aim of the session was to consider how better to engage student and early career Egyptologists with Egyptological societies. Many are more than happy to be a part of the ‘lecture circuit’, but likewise, see the groups with some disdain during their studies.

There is certainly much that can easily be done to increase awareness, one suggestion was to conduct small tours around universities telling students about our work and the opportunities available. Many students will be aware of the EES from its long publication history of the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Egyptian Archaeology magazine, and Archaeological Survey series – however, smaller local societies may struggle with awareness a little more. Many suggested that lecturers in higher education institutions could be more supportive by encouraging students to go along to societies and join where beneficial.

With the changes taking place in higher education at present it was presented that Egyptological societies should quite easily be able to fill the growing void that is filled with people interested in Egyptology but not able to study at University due to costs, or choosing a more vocational pathway. These people will retain interests in Ancient Egypt and could be encouraged to participate more in local societies. However, this does not address why students of Egyptology chose not to get involved in local enterprises.

One theme throughout the discussion was that of ‘palpable excitement’ – what people get for their money that makes them feel it is worthwhile joining. A rebuke to this was made that many of these societies are not-for-profit groups or charities that cannot exist to benefit only their members, but also for the reasons outlined in the mission statement of the EES. Without the selfless support of the Egyptological discipline, there will not be much to teach, research or indeed people to tell it to!

Many other points for engaging a new generation of scholars were raised, most emphatically was the use of social media. Many societies do not use Facebook or Twitter very effectively, and this could be a way of maintaining closer connections with students in particular. While this is certainly true, the EES (and other societies) do have active social media pages (Facebook and Twitter) – which many in the forum did not follow. This point does however make clear the importance of understanding our target audience.

Of particular interest was the suggestion of a ‘recruitment drive’ – a means of establishing contact with new audiences (not just scholars) and to assess their requirements/desires for membership. In many ways this forum session became an impromptu version of this and resulted in a great number of ideas for furthering interaction between societies and the next generation of Egyptology.

Another issue raised was the growing complexity of Egyptological societies in the UK. As is evinced by the establishment of a new society in Birmingham earlier this week (WMES), their numbers continue to grow – despite continual worries over membership numbers and engagement. Perhaps the answer to these concerns is to maintain a network between each one – a communicative environment where members do not feel that they cannot belong to more than one group. The EES does not usually fall within this problem due to its long history and international membership base – but none-the-less, communication is essential within the discipline. Some in the forum saw these groups more like ‘clubs’ and this is understandable as many are established by groups of friends whose primary aim is to socialise around a topic they feel passionate about. This passion is something to be encouraged and hopefully benefit the wider network of societies rather than being locked down into one group. The collaboration coming up between the EES and BE is just a snippet of what can be achieved by communicating and working together. I hope that this forum session, and the upcoming study day will encourage further interaction and engagement between Egyptological societies, students and early career researchers.


Medicine in ancient Egypt: a practical approach

Charlotte Booth

Friday 3rd October. This presentation was divided into two sections; a talk about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian medicine followed by a short experimental archaeology session where the group were encouraged to try their hand at being ancient Egyptian physicians using contemporary recipes and household ingredients readily available in Tesco.

As with many aspects of ancient Egyptian history the evidence of medicine, disease and physicians is in great abundance enabling an almost complete picture to be represented. The evidence available is in the form of numerous medical papyri some focussing on a particular branch of medication like the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus which is primarily concerned with surgery or the Chester Beatty VI Papyrus which deals solely with diseases of the anus, rectum and bladder. Other papyri are more general such as the Ebers, which discusses diseases of the eye, skin, extremities, gynaecology and surgical diseases and the Hearst Medical Papyrus which covers everything from a ‘tooth fallen out’ to bites from humans, pigs and hippopotami. Combining this written evidence with that from the mummies, provides an excellent image of the health of the ancient Egyptian people.

The papyri give descriptions of the diseases and the treatments as well as providing an insight into the bedside manner of Egyptian physicians themselves, giving advice on what to say when confronted with particular ailments; such as ‘it requires a knife treatment’, ‘It is something with which I will contend’ or ‘death threatens’.

Over one hundred Egyptian doctors are known by name in addition to a handful of dentists. Egyptian doctors were well-known throughout the ancient world for their skill and it was not uncommon for doctors to be sent abroad by the king in order to treat foreign allies. Although some of the treatments seem disturbing to a modern audience, especially those involving excrement or placing ground minerals in the eye, some of their remedies obviously worked and the foundations of modern medicine can be seen in the medical papyri. For example honey was widely used and is known to contain anti-bacterial properties, meat was placed on open wounds and contains healing enzymes, and willow was used as pain relief, and forms the basis of modern aspirin.

It is easy to discuss illnesses and treatments in an abstract way, separating the reality of life from the emotionless descriptions. Therefore after discussing the fundamental ingredients of medicinal remedies and the magico-religious practices of the physicians a case study was introduced to bring the humanity back into the subject. This was the mummy of Asru, a Chantress of Amun at Karnak (900 BCE) who is currently in the Manchester Museum.

Asru was in her sixties when she died which was considered elderly by ancient Egyptian standards and suffered with numerous ailments. These included four parasitic worms; ecchinoccus (dog tapeworm) which had caused a 20cm cyst on her lung, strongyloides, schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and chrysomyia in the brain. She also suffered from sand pneumoconiosis, numerous teeth abscesses, and osteoarthritis. A few years before her death Asru fractured her lumbar vertebrae and the bone had re-grown over this area. Increased calcification of the spine connected with this injury and sent sciatica-like pain down her left leg due to pressure on the nerve endings of the spine.

Presenting such a number of ailments and the associated symptoms suffered by one individual, discussed alongside the inadequate medication can be rather eye-opening, and can make us appreciate modern healthcare services a lot more, as well as question our own pain thresholds and how they differ from this elderly ancient Egyptian Chantress.

The Practical Workshop

A number of everyday ingredients were labelled and set up in the centre of the table, including onion, cumin, beer, bread and figs. The attendees were divided into eight groups, and each group provided with a recipe taken from one of the medical papyri. There were two groups making each recipe in order to compare different interpretations of them.

Once everyone had made their remedy as a group this was discussed, and the different versions were compared to highlight the difficulty in making such remedies. Group members had to make decisions on which part of the onion or fig to use, or how finely to chop the bread and such choices were discussed.

As an extra activity two groups of ingredients were presented which included small porridge balls infused with cinnamon and cloves and an onion, and the attendees discussed what these items could be used for based on the information in the presentation. Despite the clue with the onion “this is a fertility test” only one participant was close with her guess. The Egyptians believed a fertile woman had clear and open ‘tubes’ so should the onion be inserted into the vagina, by morning her breath would smell of onion if she was fertile. The porridge balls eluded the group, as they were a kind of deodorant, to be placed in the joints, and as they heated up released the scent of cinnamon and cloves.Considering all the other odors emanating from the average Egyptian with tooth problems and obnoxious substances in medicinal poultices applied to the body, these may have been a breath of fresh air.


Further Reading

David R. & Tapp E. (1984) Evidence Embalmed: Modern Medicine and the Mummies of Ancient Egypt. Manchester. Manchester University Press.

Nunn, J. (1996) Ancient Egyptian Medicine. London. British Museum Press.

Reeves, C. (1992) Egyptian Medicine. Buckinghamshire. Shire Egyptology.

Stetter C. (1993) The Secret Medicine of the Pharaohs; Ancient Egyptian Healing. Chicago. Edition Q.


Meteors, jewels, life and death: fairy tales of ancient Egypt

Kelee Siat (Friday 13th June)


The use of the term ‘fairy tale’ can be generally dated to the mid eighteenth century. The definition of ‘fairy tale’ is based loosely around a simple or complex narrative with imaginative elements, written or of oral tradition. Such stories act as moralistic tales used to pass on beliefs of right and wrong, reparation and punishment. They can also act as tales of warning, a story of advice of how to avoid hazardous traps, events and people. ‘Fairy tale’ is a term which permits the inclusion of modern and ancient tales. Such tales are not limited to time and space, however: they surpass this as demonstrated by our access to ancient Egyptian tales.

The Eloquent Peasant (P. Berlin 3023, 3025, 10499; P. Butler 527 EA 10274) is a tale where a country man (peasant) journeys for trade and on his way envy motivates another to trap the peasant and take his donkeys. After a number of appeals in the text’s nine speeches, justice is finally ordered. This text is serious in nature with themes of social justice, and considers questions of social status and the dynamics of speech.

The Shipwrecked Sailor (P. Leningrad 1115) is a tale that tells of a high official who has returned safely home with his crew despondent by his mission from which nothing was gained or lost. The Sailor tries to recount to the official his shipwreck and loss and thereby recounts the story of a bejewelled snake that he encountered and his tale of loss. The sailor’s stories appear not to inspire the official who remains at odds with himself. The tale questions the true nature of what is ‘precious’ with its mention of meteors, jewels, life and death.

The Birmingham Egyptology Forum was guided into a discussion analysing these two Middle Kingdom texts, with some reference to stories from Mesopotamia, Aesop’s fables and more modern tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The forum questioned their moral essence, relevance to a modern audience and ‘fit’ within the categorised term ‘fairy tale’. Each tale was assessed considering the following questions: What is the true precious nature of such preserved texts? Is it possible to dissect the meaning of these tales, and do they have a place in modern moral lessons and law?

The Forum suggested that the Eloquent Peasant was more inclined to be a ‘tale’ rather than a ‘fairy tale’ based on its realistic events. However, the metaphysical concepts of the cosmic order and prevalence of ma‘at as suggested in the rhetoric of the peasant does emit an imagined – from a modern audience’s perspective – nature of order, that is to a supernatural degree, for the obtaining of justice. The question of audience and interpretation rang out for both texts, Forum participants arguing that perhaps the ‘moral’ or intention(s) of the authored work is not always its outcome: what the perspective of the reader receives as understood from their reading of the text may not always be the intended reception of the text. The Eloquent Peasant was declared to have modern value and most certainly holds a modern moral of right and wrong. The ‘peasant’ was unreasonably left to suffer and became increasingly frustrated before eventual reparation was granted: a build-up of pain before justice was given. The Forum also considered the intended audience with regard to the written versions known today – were these the ‘final version’? Were they personal copies, or for an archive? Were they meant to be performed publicly to impart elite ideology and morals to the lower classes, and if so, would the intended moral of the performer be received by the listener, or would another message be understood? The Eloquent Peasant reinforces elite authority to some extent, but also implies social mobility through education and perseverance, or even through defying/insulting that authority.

Questions arose in the Forum concerning how far our moral reception is different to the cultural and moral reception of ancient Egyptians. Differing reception due to cultural variations over time and space is inevitable; however, there are still universal elements of moral that could surpass these differences through the presence of the natural and supernatural order, law, and the question of right and wrong.

The Shipwrecked Sailor was agreed to be a much more vivid account, a more classic definition of a ‘fairy tale’. The imagination springs instantly into action with a giant bejewelled snake, a mythical island and a lone shipwrecked survivor. This was a tale that had it all, meteors, jewels, life and death, enhancing the likelihood that it was a favoured oral tale (though the Forum did consider the possibility that it derived from and was an embellishment of an actual experience). The Forum questioned the intent to have a story within a story within a story, a triple effect that relates the snake’s tragedy and loss, the sailor’s tragedy and gain, and the high official who was without loss and without gain. The high official is a man in a stalemate situation without hope in his heart and despondent to any help offered by the sailor’s story.

In conclusion, modern tales and morals were examined with regards to happy endings and negative endings, the Forum understanding that tales do not always have positive outcomes. In both the Eloquent Peasant and the Shipwrecked Sailor there is an emphasis on the rhetoric of a man and how it can fight for justice regardless of your situation or status and the existence of a cosmic balance (ma‘at) which includes all and excludes nothing. For the Eloquent Peasant his nine appeals led to his exhaustion and his eventual salvation, whilst the shipwrecked sailor explicitly stated to the high official the very words ‘a man’s mouth, it saves him’. These tales are vivid ways to understand right and wrong or even to question its boundaries. True with both modern and ancient tales, they contain a great number of moral messages which can vary culturally, socially, and even amongst different age groups.


Further reading:

Halsall, P. 1999. ‘Ancient History Sourcebook: The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant, c. 1800 BCE’, Fordham University, (Accessed 05 June 2014)

Jeffers, C. ‘Embodying Justice in Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant as a Classic of Political Philosophy’, in British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21:3, 421-442.

Lichtheim, M. Lichtheim, M. 1975. ‘The Eloquent Peasant’ in Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, 169-184; Los Angeles, CA, London.

Maspero, G. Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt, Oxford.


The re-emergence of Kush: from Piankh to Piye

Steven Gregory


The session on Friday 30th May discussed the period of history between the end of the New Kingdom and the invasion of Piye, the first ruler of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, primarily from the perspective of Kushite archaeological and historical information presently available for the intervening years.

It can be established with some certainty that as the New Kingdom Period was drawing to a close there is clear indication that Kush was under the control of the last Ramesside pharaoh, Ramesses XI. Papyrus Turin (Pleyte and Rossi, pls.66-67) contains a letter from the king to the Viceroy of Kush, king’s scribe of the army, overseer of the granary, Panehsy, leader of the archers of pharaoh, commanding that he goes after the Butler of Pharaoh to ensure that he conducts the king’s business in the Southern Lands.

It seems that this same Panehsy was soon to be embroiled in the political problems in Thebes, particularly in the series of events now referred to as the War, or Suppression of the High Priest – Amenhotep. British Museum Papyrus 10052 contains reference to this event in the remark: ‘now when the war of the high-priest of Amun took place….’. Other snippets of information include references to interrogations which mention thieves being slain by Panehsy. A man named as Hartai, is also said to have been destroyed by Panehsy. A further reference to the ‘war’ appears in Papyrus Mayer A in which a workman, Hutnefer, who was being questioned in relation to damage caused to a chest, claimed that ‘foreigners came and seized upon the temple [Medinet Habu]… . It so chanced that I returned after nine whole months of the suppression of Amenhotep, who was high priest of Amun [Hm-nTr tpy n Imn]’.

That the Panehsy mentioned was in command of a military force makes it likely that this was the same Viceroy of Kush of the Year 17 text, although it cannot be certain that he still acted on behalf of the king.Nonetheless, Amenhotep regained control in Thebes, and a biographical account accompanying the scenes of Amenhotep on the east wall of the north-south axis of Karnak Temple proclaimed that Amun had suppressed Amenhotep’s adversary – presumably Panehsy, although he is not named in the text. However, it seems that Amenhotep’s period in office, like that of Panehsy, was to end before many years had passed.

By Year 26 of Ramesses XI, Year 7 of the wHm mswt, it is certain from the Oracle of Nesamun that Piankh had taken Amenhotep’s office of Hm-nTr tpy n Imn, and also the offices of general of the pharaoh, and Panehsy’s role as Viceroy of Kush. Not only had Piankh replaced Panehsy, but he pursued the Kushites out of Egypt in prolonged campaigns – as attested in a number of the Late Ramesside Letters. LRL no.4, is particularly informative in that Piankh declares that: ‘I shall go up (to Kush) to attack Panehsy at the place where he is’. This around 1068 BC. Not much else is known of the Kushite culture until the Napatan king, Piye, sends his armies north into Egypt to drive out the forces of the northern ruler, Tefnakht, a Great Chief of the Ma – thus of Libyan ancestry – who was based in the Western Delta.

A significant point here is that in his Victory Stela, erected in the Amun Temple at Gebel Barkal, Piye presented himself as both Kushite – his residence city being at Napata – and, most emphatically, as a king in the pharaonic tradition. He wore the correct regalia of an ancient Egyptian king, and presented himself with the correct range of titles and epithets in the text of the stela; this written in perfectly good Egyptian style. Moreover, the content of the stela demonstrates a clear understanding of royal ideology, particularly that based upon the Amun cosmology favoured in late New Kingdom Thebes some 300 years earlier. And that Piye was victorious suggests that he was in command of a well trained and effective military force.

Thus, some 300 years after Panehsy and the Kushite army are chased out of Upper Egypt, a powerful ruler steeped in pharaonic tradition moves his armies northwards and gains control of the whole of Egypt. His successors, the kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, ruled Egypt for some 90 years. Yet little is known of the origin of this line of kings, or of the events of the preceding 300 years in Kush.

The Forum considered the relatively recent discussions of the period in question in which a number of suggestions have been made by scholars as to the nature of events giving rise to the formation of the Napatan State as represented by Piye. These range from the notions of James and Morkot, as outlined in Centuries of Darkness (1991), that much of the intervening period may be removed by reducing the chronology by some 200 years, bringing the date of the early Napatan royal burials at Kurru closer to the end of the New Kingdom. Török suggested that the el-Kurru burials were misinterpreted by Reisner, and represent fourteen generations preceding Piye, rather than the five generations suggested by the earlier writer – this again making the earliest Napatan king contemporary with the Twenty-first Dynasty.

The theories of Adams (1977) were also considered. He suggested that following the end of Egyptian control over Nubia at the end of the New Kingdom, much of Lower Nubia became depopulated while the ‘Egyptian or Egyptianized priesthood’ of Amun at Gebel Barkal retained a degree of administrative control over Kush. This resulted in a symbiotic relationship in which the indigenous Kushite elite groups provided military support for a priesthood which, in turn, provided the religious sanction to sustain their rule, an alliance which saw itself as the legitimate continuation of the ‘…pharaonic state of Egypt, founded on the worship of the Theban state deity’. Adam’s argument had been supported, to some degree, by Shinnie (1996) who remarked that Napatan retention of ‘Egyptian language and writing suggests that groups of Egyptians, perhaps priests of the temple at Gebel Barkal’, may have continued to exert influence following the end of New Kingdom military rule.

During the session, the various points outlined were discussed in relation to the few snippets of historical and archaeological data presently known for the period: principally the aforementioned Victory Stela of Piye; his earlier sandstone stela proclaiming him to be the kingmaker in Egypt; the Kushite-Theban relationships that may be inferred from the inscriptions in the small monument at Karnak dedicate to Osiris Heqa-djet; the stela of Kashta, predecessor to Piye; and the Year 6 Stela of the later Kushite king, Taharqo, which presents Alara as a likely founder of the Napatan Dynasty, then probably based at Kawa.

Of further interest was the evidence indicating an even earlier royal house in Kush, again based on pharaonic ideology. This material relates to inscriptions for a king Menmaatre on a broken slab from the temple of Amun at Gebel Barkal and, perhaps stronger evidentially, the stela of King Ary from Temple B at Kawa. These appear to indicate the existence of Kushite kings likely contemporary with the Egyptian Twenty-first Dynasty, as do the inscriptions of Katimala at Semna. It was also noted that the construction of forts on the desert routes leading south, by the Twenty-first Dynasty ruler, Menkheperre, was indicative of continuing contact between Egypt and Kush around the time of Katimala’s rule.

In view of the evidence discussed, the Forum seemed fairly unanimous in their disavowal of the idea of a ‘Nubian Dark Age’, a period which could simply be removed from chronology at the whim of modern scholarship. Similarities were noted with periods of English history, particularly the Saxon era for which relatively little historical material survives. However, this should not lead to conclusions that the period did not in fact exist, nor that large sections of the country became depopulated. Rather it seems likely that it was a period as vibrant as any other, though perhaps with cultural values somewhat different from earlier or later periods, and which left little which has survived in the archaeological and historical records.

Due to this lack of material evidence it was thought difficult to present any firm conclusions as to the history of Kush during the period in question. However, it was generally agreed that the end of New Kingdom rule in Kush was unlikely to have heralded the end of pharaonic influence in the region. It rather seems that, as with Egypt itself, the end of centralised rule at the close of the Twenty-first Dynasty saw political fragmentation along the Nile Valley, including the southern regions between the first and fifth cataracts. Even in Egypt, evidence of historical value for this period is sparse in relation to that available, for example, for the New Kingdom itself. Therefore it should be no great surprise that little survives from Kush, particularly so when considering that much of historical value was generated by the overarching administrative system of the centralized state which suffered varying degrees of collapse along the Nile Valley at the fall of the New Kingdom Empire. The effects of this collapse would likely be felt most strongly in regions which had probably never been fully Egyptianized, and where the indigenous population may swiftly revert to cultural practices less readily detectable in the archaeological record. Nonetheless, from the few evidential points outlined above, it seems that some settlements remained in Kush which, to various degrees across time, maintained pharaonic styles of government – and likely also maintained some contact with their ideological base of Thebes.


Suggested reading


Adams, W. Y. 1977.  Nubia: corridor to Africa, Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

Darnell, J.C. 2006. The Inscription of Queen Katimala at Semna: Textual Evidence for the Origins of the Napatan State. Yale Egyptological Studies 7. Yale Egyptological Seminar: New Haven.

Edwards, D. N. 2004. The Nubian Past: an archaeology of the Sudan,  London: Routledge.

Morkot, R. G. 1995. ‘The foundations of the Kushite state.  A response to the paper of Lásló Török.’ Actes DE La VIIIe Conférence Internationale Des Études Nubiennes, Lille 11-17 Septembre 1994. Université Charles-De-Gaulle – Lille III.

Morkot, R. G.  2000. The Black Pharaohs, London:   The Rubicon Press


Wenamun: how to provoke an Egyptologist

Luke McGarrity

The Report of Wenamun formed the basis of the discussion on Friday 16th May. The problem with studying Wenamun is not the lack of articles & arguments but rather the over-abundance. Its unusual provenance, its depiction of Egypt’s neighbours, its fleeting glimpses into the historical quagmire of the 21st Dynasty, the entertaining story of Amun-on-the-road and the incredibly frustrating cut off before the end. The text is a goldmine for discussions and has kept Egyptologists occupied since 1899.

The first, and only essential step in preparing for this forum is to read (or reread) your own preferred translation of Wenamun (Ritner’s is probably the most up to date). There is not much between them, just stay away from Goedicke’s ‘The Report of Wenamun’ at this stage. Take Scheeper’s advice and create your own idea of what the text means, how real it seems and what about it strikes you as odd, fun, boring, silly, sensible etc. After that I recommend reading the introduction to Goedicke’s ‘The Report of Wenamun‘ and follow it up with Weinstein’s review of Goedicke’s book. This is the problem of Wenamun in a nutshell. The rest of the reading expands on this issue: I recommend scanning through Baines’ 1999 paper on its ‘literariness’, Egbert’s 1991 assessment and 1998 revision of the chronology of Wenamun, and Eyre’s 1999 study, and of course anything else from your own research and interests where Wenamun has had an impact.


Baines, J. 1999. ‘On Wenamun as a Literary Text’, in J. Assmann and E. Blumenthal (eds.), Literatur und Politik im pharaonischen und ptolemäischen Ägypten, Cairo, 209-233.

Egberts, A. 1991. ‘The Chronology of the Report of Wenamun’, JEA 77, 57-67.

Egberts, Arno. 1998. ‘Hard Times: The Chronology of “The Report of Wenamun” Revised’, ZäS 125, 93-108.

Eyre, C. J. 1999. ‘Irony in the Story of Wenamun: the Politics of Religion in the 21st Dynasty’, in J. Assmann and E. Blumenthal (eds.),Literatur und Politik im pharaonischen und ptolemäischen Ägypten, Cairo, 235-252.

Goedicke, H. 1975. The Report of Wenamun. Baltimore.

Ritner, R.K. 2009. The Libyan Anarchy. Chicago.

Scheepers, A. 1992. ‘Le voyage d’Ounamon: un texte “littéraire” ou “non-littéraire”?’, in C. Obsomer & A. Oostoek (eds.), Amosiades: Mélanges offerts au professeur Claude Vandersleyen par ses anciens étudiants, Louvin-la-Neuve, 355-365.

Weinstein, J. M. 1977. ‘Review: Report of Wenamun’, BASOR, 225, 78-80.

Influences on Egyptology, from antiquity until the present day

Eleanor Simmance

The Forum on Friday 2nd May was a chance to consider how the study (both ancient and modern) of Egypt is influenced by external factors. This therefore links to previous sessions, such as ‘Did Herodotus ever visit Egypt?’ [22nd Feb 2013], ‘Should marginalized groups write their own history?’ [31st May 2013] and ‘The reception of Ancient Egypt through modern architecture’ [12th July 2013]. A brief introduction brought up a few examples, such as the author whose Biblical background led to his being convinced that a staff in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was the ‘Staff of Moses’ (actually, Thutmose). It was also suggested that although it is important to critique a scholar’s background so as to understand how and why they work in a particular way, doing this too much might mean we overthink and see fewer of the merits or shortcomings in the actual research: one ‘cannot see the wood for the trees’; later in the session, however, one participant disagreed, saying that you cannot critique background enough – this is left open for debate!

The session proper began with reflections on ‘fashions’ in Egyptology, that is the integration of new ideas and theories from outside Egyptology, such as sociology, anthropology and memory. It was suggested that the emergence of such methodologies was most prominent in the mid-20th century, in particular alongside the broader freedoms of the 1960s. However, we cannot discount the fact that there are also internal tendencies, such as movements towards philology and museum studies from archaeology, perhaps because of the funding required for the latter. Trends can often help us map the nationality of scholars, in that different countries have different perspectives. In Egyptology this was held to be particularly true of Asian scholars when compared to the European majority.

Here discussion turned to the Euro-centricity of Egyptology, and how several influences remain from earliest times, such as the importance of Biblical Studies, especially with regard to archaeological expeditions, and British colonialism/imperialism. Whilst a solely European-based scholarly community is of course undesirable, the other extreme has the potential to be equally as dangerous – African or Black Studies can in some cases lead to the vilification of European Egyptology. It was agreed that different backgrounds can promulgate different ideas, but this does not necessarily mean any is wholly right or, more importantly, wholly wrong. A typical 19th century English historian might write with a background of imperialism, but his ideas should not automatically be discounted as biased or wrong – we all have ingrained cultural bias from which it is impossible to distance ourselves, and the varying methodologies and perspectives which this encourages should be embraced.

Biases are of course present in ancient sources too: Herodotus’ Histories would have been biased by his Greek heritage. Another simple influence is the need for his work to impress and entertain, because he needed to sell copies! Another issue is that the translations we read of ancient sources (translations of translations) are often subject to external influences themselves. The choice of words can have a significant effect. Thus the Forum moved onto the use of language as an influence in scholarship. Gardiner was first put forward, specifically his use of archaic pronouns and suffixes (thee, thou, -est) in certain texts, despite the Egyptian not making this distinction, in an attempt to demonstrate the gravitas of the text which is otherwise lost when the text is removed from its full context. From here, Forum participants discussed modern languages – it was, for instance, suggested that we are all guilty of using words that sound more academic, or even making them up. In the case of books aimed at non-specialists, this might encourage sales (cf. Herodotus!), at the expense of coherence. In addition, different languages today may offer different ways to express ideas, or may have limitations making this harder; there was, however, disagreement as to which languages these would be.

Expression of ideas is likely to be influenced by scholarly background, in particular by one’s alma mater and tutors at those institutions. Such stylistic schools can be seen, similarly, in art and music. This encourages the transmission of trends by passing them down through generations of successive students, but therefore has the potential to perpetuate misconceptions. This further necessitates exposure to as many ideas and methodologies as possible, including much older sources (19th century/early 20th century), the use of which can be criticised. It was suggested that these are in some ways more unadulterated, as they are less likely to attempt to fit (consciously) the evidence to a pre-conceived theory. However, it was agreed that whilst an all-inclusive approach is suitable for research students, undergraduates need more focus and direction (including what literature is best to avoid at their stage)

The discussion turned back to the influence wishing to sell books has on writing: it can be well-presented but superficial, or possess a convincing narrative but be factually inaccurate. Scholars can also sometimes maintain their stance in an argument, perhaps in accordance with popular (non-specialist) belief, even when research moves on past those ideas with more modern perceptions and newly-discovered evidence. This might be frustrating to some, but again the difference between undergraduates and more advanced researchers was highlighted, in that it can be rather reassuring for the former to find the same information repeated.
Wikipedia was mentioned as an example of information which is subject to global, and likely popular, influences. It was suggested that it can be a good starting point for research, and also perhaps a learning tool, in that with experience one can start to identify its flaws. Similarly, television and film, very clearly influenced by economic concerns, is often the first source of information on the topic for those less experienced. It was thought that knowledge gained from television and film is often hard to eradicate. The growth of Reception Studies, it was argued, is to some extent worrying in that people are moving away from the primary sources (and in some instances, the same could be said of other theory-based studies). A concern was then raised that students no longer attend university in pursuit of being intellectual, but to gain the all-important graduate job or academic position, and thus learn less about critical analysis; their work is essentially influenced, again, by a monetary concern, rather than the wish to provide a balanced piece of research.

The Forum discussion was clearly showing that money is one of the biggest influences on any discipline (and can have a negative effect), for example in the need to get a job, sell books, or obtain funding for an excavation. An individual is more likely to forego quality for the sake of that financial gain, or to follow a particular trend or theory, with less concern for its suitability for the subject, in order to appear more appropriate for a position or monetary award, especially if the awarding body itself has a particular agenda. Of course, the session highlighted many other influences, such as cultural background or educational institution. Some are unavoidable or are not our fault (the lack of language skills of UK students is a systemic problem), but of course the only way we can hope to mitigate the potential problems is by engaging with as broad a range of sources, scholars, institutions and nationalities as possible.



Dr Richard Clay (History of Art) and Eleanor Simmance (report by Eleanor Simmance)


For the discussion on Friday 28th March, Birmingham Egyptology welcomed Dr Richard Clay from the History of Art department, whose specialism is the iconoclasm of revolutionary France. Thus the topic chosen for the Forum was simply ‘Iconoclasm’, with a focus on the Egyptian practices which can be argued to come under that heading. The Forum opened with an introduction by Eleanor to these practices and the motives behind them for those unfamiliar with the subject:

– the programme of erasure undertaken by Akhenaten;

– the posthumous removal of individuals, royal (for example, Hatshepsut and Akhenaten) and non-royal (such as Senenmut and some tomb-owners);

– execration rituals (breaking of the red pots and sweeping footprints);

– mutilation of hieroglyphs;

– the belief in the potential threat posed by the deceased, gods and others, and especially the attitude towards ‘image’ in Egypt.


Dr Clay then explained his ideas surrounding iconoclasm, beginning with the issue that the term itself can be used in numerous different ways, but a writer often assumes that the reader understands it in the same way as himself. In addition, for many ‘iconoclasm’ has purely religious connotations, however it was agreed that it will always have both religious and political motives. The term of course derives from the mediæval/Byzantine Greek eikon, ‘image’, and klastēs, ‘breaker’, but even the meaning of these derivative parts can be queried. For instance, is it possible to define ‘image’? It was suggested that this would require us to define ‘art’, a particularly difficult task. ‘Breaking’ is also a contentious description for the processes undertaken, since this would depend on what is done, who does it and why; those involved may not consider it to be an act of breaking. In fact, many might consider the act of creation to be initially an act of destruction – we must destroy the blank canvas to create a painting and we must remove the stone from its original bed in order to carve a sculpture. As such, Dr Clay put forward that an effective substitute for ‘iconoclasm’, based upon his own research, would be ‘sign transformation’. Concepts relating to semiotics therefore percolated through the following discussion, in particular the notions of the ‘signifier’ (the form a sign takes) and the ‘signified’ (the concept represented).

It was acknowledged that the ancient Egyptian evidence presents a problem in this regard because it is not always clear what signs mean, and thus it is difficult to understand how perception of signs was altered by changes to those signs. Transformation can happen in several different ways – discourse alters perception and understanding of a sign, but can also alter it physically, in that a sign can be changed to reflect current thinking. The connection between the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’ is, therefore, multi-faceted. The idea that every time we speak of a sign it is transformed is reminiscent of previous Forum discussions [e.g. ‘Who owns history?’] in which we discussed the history of artefacts as being dictated not only by its original context, but also by its journey and treatment post-discovery. Dr Clay also pointed out that signs are ‘polysemic’ and ‘polyvalent’ (‘synchronically polysemic’), since they have the potential to mean a variety of different things at the same time depending on who sees them and with whom they share their understanding. This polysemy can also be a result of the passage of time and development of multiple meanings (‘diachronically polysemic’). One who studies signs of the past benefits from a retrospective standpoint, identifying contradictions in the various meanings which are likely to have been entirely normal at the time. This is certainly the case with the often confusing variety of meanings encompassed within Egyptian imagery and mythology.

Obviously, with more modern, better documented cultures, the meanings of signs can be much easier to understand. For instance, it was pointed out that the distinction between statues and actual bodies in Egypt was not particularly clear, a concept which is harder to grasp nowadays. A statue of a god in Egypt was at once a representation and a physical form which could become the deity if he or she decided to inhabit it. As such, the ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ are much harder to extrapolate, demonstrating that the separation of these concepts is a more modern invention. Other comparisons were made, such as the fact that Egyptian iconoclasm was often state-endorsed, whereas in the French revolution it was often people-fronted, sometimes inducing the state to accept and endorse at a later date.

The motives behind iconoclasm were also discussed. It was suggested that where an obvious reminder of the erasure was left, it was in order to control the space for and to enact that erasure for eternity. For example, Hatshepsut’s chiselled name is nonetheless often very clear, and it was argued that this was to show that she had been removed, but more importantly was to emphasise the removal of the unconventional kingship she represented. The somewhat ad hoc erasure visible in many cases poses some questions, though in part may simply be a result of a strain on resources. Other motives were pointed out, such as Egyptian beliefs regarding the potential danger of the deceased and other beings in the spiritual world. The example of the removal of the Seth-figure in the names of the Nineteenth Dynasty pharaohs called Seti was highlighted. Here it was also suggested that there was a political motive: the Ramesside kings bore a lot of Seth-ideology, and being northern kings, the erasure may have been an attack against the northern line. Rivalry in kingship was therefore established as another possible motive behind iconoclasm. Following this, there was a brief discussion of Egyptian kingship and its relation to religion. This recalled one of the earlier statements that iconoclasm will always have both political and religious motivation. This is especially true in Egypt as a result of its royal/religious structure, whereby signs were, for the most part, controlled by the state and there was no separate institution like the modern Church. The maintenance of signs was one of the many elements of the maintenance of cosmic order (ma‘at).

The Opet festival was mentioned as an event of transformation and in this context the duality of Egyptian imagery (both an image of something and the thing itself) was discussed once more. Representations of the event on temple walls shows the king in different guises, before and after transformation. With this and other events on temple and tomb walls, some might claim that the important individuals are priests acting out the relevant role, but one member of the Forum argued that the one represented in the image is this individual. Furthermore, it was suggested that the image does not represent an event which has happened, but one which should and will happen for eternity. This does not, of course, preclude the actual occurrence of an event which is very similar to (but is not) the one depicted.

One major problem when studying Egyptian iconoclasm and the motives behind it is the lack of explicit Egyptian sources acknowledging this practice. There must have been documents and correspondence that ordered and explained the process in order to co-ordinate any erasure of significant scope. These documents, most likely on papyrus, are lost to us, and therefore we know nothing of the relevant Egyptian terminology. In addition, it is possible that they would not have wanted to admit this undertaking, for much of the ideology of kingship emphasises that they maintained ma‘at and that all has been done like it was done before. To acknowledge iconoclasm would be to acknowledge that there had been a disruption to order, or that they themselves are disrupting this order.

As the Forum session drew to a close, there were final thoughts regarding the definition of ‘iconoclasm’. Some participants believed that there was a huge difference between scratching and complete removal, though others disagreed, asking whether they can be separated because of a different mode of ‘breaking’ even if the motive is the same. Once again it was stressed that the term ‘iconoclasm’ carries weight (especially religious) and is not commonly understood, therefore definitions are important. It was queried how much the common people in Egypt understood of the signs, let alone the iconoclasm or transformation, and accessibility to the signs (sometimes restricted) was agreed to be a factor in this limited understanding. An alternative term for the word ‘priest’ was suggested, that of ‘sign specialist’, though the Forum did not come to a firm conclusion on this term’s suitability. The temples in which these people worked were seen as signs themselves, and as such can also transform in terms of their appearance and size as well as the function or symbolism of the spaces within. The syncretism of the Romans as their empire expanded was mentioned – they did not remove images they encountered, but changed the meanings behind them. Thus the transformative nature of signs was again emphasised.


Further reading:

Bryan, B.M. 2012. ‘Episodes of Iconoclasm in the Egyptian New Kingdom’, N.M. May (ed.), Iconoclasm and Text Destruction in the Ancient Near East and Beyond, Chicago, Il., 363-394. (available online from the Oriental Institute)

Ritner, R.K. 2012. ‘Killing the Image, Killing the Essence: the Destruction of Text and Figures in Ancient Egyptian Thought, Ritual and ‘Ritualised History’, N.M. May (ed.), Iconoclasm and Text Destruction in the Ancient Near East and Beyond, Chicago, Il., 395-406. (available online from the Oriental Institute)

Clay, R. 2007. ‘ Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV; iconoclasm and the transformation of signs’, in S. Boldrick and R. Clay (eds.), Iconoclasm: contested objects, contested terms, Ashgate,  92-122.


How urban was Egypt?

Francis Lankester

At the 1958 Chicago  ‘City Invincible’ conference John Wilson made his famous (& often misquoted) statement that for half its lifetime, Egypt was a major civilisation without major cities. The spirit of the times was that the city was the driver of civilisation. Indeed the analogy to a cell as a container of civilising protoplasm was popular. This Forum revisited the issues raised by the likes of Wilson, Kantor, Jacobssen, and other leading Egyptian and Near Eastern scholars, in addition to those outside the normal ring of specialists such as Eliade and Polanyi.

The underlying question throughout the discussion was what ‘urban’ actually is. Does it relate to a concentration of dwellings, or a particular layout of those dwellings? Must there be an economic base involving varied activities? Are enclosure walls a good indicator of urbanism? Three early elite centres of Hierakonpolis, Naqada and This (the alleged settlement for Abydos which has never been located) are referred to as being urban and indeed are often called cities. There is considerable evidence for brewing, elite tombs, feasting and so on. However, dwellings and street alignments have never been located beyond a very small number of hut circles. The ‘Towns’ Palette purports to show walled settlements being attacked, yet no walled settlements have been located in Egypt from the early period. Only Tel es Sakhan, functioning as a trading way-station in Canaan, does have an enclosure wall. It was agreed that walls are not necessarily indicative of an urban environment. Kahun and Deir el-Medina were also mentioned as walled settlements. Neither is usually referred to as a city but to some extent they were urban environments (again depending on how your define ‘urban’).

The Forum also considered whether the idea of a ‘capital city’ is really valid for ancient Egypt. Thebes is often cited as the religious capital of Egypt and Memphis as the administrative capital, the traditional seat of the king. Memphis was a major administrative centre, but there is evidence that the Egyptian monarchy could be peripatetic and that individual ruling houses promoted their home area as a suitable location of the royal residence. Because of the movement of the Nile channel and modern development it is difficult to place exactly where Memphis was and it seems to have been a number of areas which shifted in the locality over time. Perhaps this suggests that it was never a fully-developed city, but that would not automatically discount the possibility of there being an urban environment in the area.

The economic activities of a settlement were discussed with regard to the definition of urban. For instance, might an area be considered urban if many people are dependent upon it as an economic base? For instance, temples are often the central feature of areas we might consider to be ‘urban’, and the temple establishment employed various craftsmen and workers, including those involved in the preparation of food and drink, as well as the priestly class. The temple administration also managed vast swathes of land in the surrounding areas. This part of the discussion focused again on enclosure walls, as it is usually temples which provide the best examples. There was a lively discussion which brought out the different functions of a non-state shrine such as that of Satet at Elephantine, which was in its early days basically a hole in the ground, and larger edifices such as Medinet Habu with its temple and surrounding walls. These walls fulfil a religious function, but also serve to delineate the function of temples as economic units acting on behalf of the state, essentially self-contained urban areas. Our definition of what ‘urban’ means is perhaps insufficient to cover fully the essential role this type of administrative and production centre had in the way kings ran Egypt. Temples were much more than ‘religious’ buildings and above all existed to proclaim and legitimise the power and enduring role of the ruler, allegedly acting on behalf of the gods. There was disagreement as to how much people actually believed in this elite ‘religion’, but a general agreement that so-called ‘pious donations’ were unlikely to have weakened the power of a strong monarch who could then call on the temple authorities, for example, for construction and  army provisions.

Once again, the Forum contemplated the idea of ‘urban’. It was suggested that urban is not necessarily something that can be seen. Indeed, the word ‘city’ derives from the Latin ‘civitas’, which was less the physical space the people inhabited than a feeling of community. Whilst we can never hope to understand how the ancient Egyptians felt about their communities and whether they felt ‘urban’, the Forum decided that it was likely that by considering ‘urbanism’, we can indeed say that Egypt was, to some extent, urban.


 Further Reading:

Kemp, B.J 1977. ‘The early development of towns in Egypt’, Antiquity 51, 185-200. Available online (via subscription only) at

Kemp, B.J. 2004. ‘Egypt’s Invisible Walls’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 14, 259ff (see other relevant articles after Kemp’s introduction). Available online (via subscription/institutional log-in) at


Queen Tiye: questioning biographical research

Kelee Siat

In this forum presentation (Friday 28th February 2014) and discussion Kelee Siat, a postgraduate studying at the University of Birmingham, introduced Queen Tiye in connection to her currently proposed PhD research.  Tiye was examined in relation to the individual, social and political history surrounding her and the biographical concerns in conducting research on an ancient individual.  The forum presentation highlighted a number of areas to consider when examining the biographical details of Tiye.  An open discussion was held afterwards with the forum attendees debating and querying issues and topics that arose through the presentation and further remarks.

Tracing Tiye: the presentation address

A late Eighteenth Dynasty Chief Wife of Amenhotep III, Tiye married into royalty by the second year of his reign.  As a non-royal, she came from a parentage of Yuya and Thuya, members of the elite within the vicinity and social sphere of Upper Egypt.  Tiye was not just a wife, but a political figure – her image in iconography and statuary demonstrated a unique essence of ‘equality’ in form and stature as depicted by the colossal statue of Tiye and Amenhotep III in the Cairo Museum.  Art and iconographical representations of Tiye permit an analysis of Tiye in relation to aspects of her as an individual, and her position in the social and political spheres of ancient Egypt.  Her bust in the Berlin Museum is an exemplary piece of art, and demonstrates perhaps not an identical representation of Tiye herself, however relays to its audience a certain character and image of her, with a headdress associated with goddesses and divinity.  Her introduction into the greater social and political spheres was widely dispersed across the landscape of Egypt and internationally from Nubia to Syria via the mass distribution of the ‘marriage’ scarabs and lion-hunt commemorative scarabs, which permit her to be recognised in both spheres of influence.  The connection of Tiye’s image on the reverse of an early-Dynastic ostraca scene depicting a Sed Festival suggests her association with the finding of ancient artefacts and the possible organisational involvement in Amenhotep III’s Sed Festival, herself being connected to the school of ancient Egyptian research; an Egyptologist of her time.

Tiye’s varied roles politically had overlapping features as a mother and wife, she being acknowledged for the tutelage of her son, Amenhotep IV who also became the ‘heretical king’ Akhenaten.  After the death of Amenhotep III, Tiye’s role as a powerful woman of influence is attested by the political correspondence of Tushratta, King of Mitanni (Amarna Letter EA26) who begged for her assistance where Akhenaten would not listen. Therefore, influential power is associated by the Mitanni king in juxtaposition to her son.  However, Tiye’s ending is uncertain and she departs from traceability by the time of Akhenaten’s 12th year of reign.  Her poorly preserved mummy was identified as the Elder Lady in the tomb of Amenhotep II.  A braided lock of hair held within a nested set of coffins labelled with her cartouche was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb (320d) which safeguarded her identity where in modern times scientific DNA analysis identifies her as the Elder Lady, Queen Tiye.

Tracing further afield: developing a discussion surrounding Tiye, the 18th Dynasty, the ancient role of royal women and biographical research

The forum was then turned over to discussion with considerations and thoughts about Queenship and divinity, women and power in the 18th Dynasty and ‘who’ Tiye wasa shrew (as some profess)or a woman of divinity and power?  The role of a Chief Wife and considerations of divinity were discussed by attendees at the forum for which suggestions were made on variable aspects of women in the Eighteenth Dynasty and the possible selection process of a Chief Wife, which is unknown.  This led on to a brief consideration of unique aspects of Akhenaten’s reign, a proud son of his mother who venerated the female image.   This opened up further discussion on the progress of female power and growth through the Eighteenth Dynasty, from the masculine representation of Hatshepsut with a false beard and male depiction to the latter reign of Akhenaten and the transcendence of the male king into a feminine form.

The next forum question explored: ‘What problems are posed when attempting to conduct biographical research on an ancient individual?  Should such research be attempted?’  The method in the madness [see Forum Jan 17th 2014] was open for debate, and the forum was encouraged to consider the pros and cons of biographical research.  Discussion included Gozzoli and Hume’s approaches to research:

One reads the culture of the past with attention to its original integrity for much the reason that one troubles to understand fellow human beings in the present: not to do so leaves you trapped in your own mindset.  -Hume (1999:26)

It was cautioned that biographical research, as we might understand it today, implies the need for qualitative information about personality and personal experiences that cannot be achieved through the research of an ancient figure. Perhaps considering it a ‘historical case study’ – thus researching evidence and its broader context as opposed to the character of the individual – lessens the difficulty.  In either case, we can attempt to uncover the perspectives of an individual and how they viewed their world, while also acknowledging that we must understand our own and the influences upon us as researchers. Public awareness of who Tiye herself was discussed in the forum as being limited, especially when compared to the figure of Cleopatra who has a high public awareness with mass depiction through film and fiction.  However, it was discussed that this high level of awareness distorts history due to the hard press of the entertainment industry to sell drama.  Research surrounding Tiye was considered to be unspoilt in this respect and therefore is a new platform for recognising a figure from history, especially one well connected to Tutankhamun. It is a welcome development for Tiye to be examined in terms of her individual, social and political history.


Further reading:

Hume, R. 1999. Reconstructing Context. The Aims and Principles of Archeo-Historicism, Oxford.

Gozzoli, R. 2009. ‘History and Stories in Ancient Egypt: Theoretical Issues and the Myth of the Eternal Return’, in IBAES X, 103-116, London.

Kozloff, A.  2012.  Amenhotep III: Egypt’s Radiant Pharaoh; New York.

O’Connor, D.  and Cline, E. 1998.  Amenhotep III: Perspectives on his Reign, Ann Arbor, MI .

Revez, J. 2010. ‘Looking at History through the Prism of Mythology: can the Osirian Myth Shed any Light on Ancient Egyptian Royal Succession Patterns?’, Journal of Egyptian History, 3:1, 47-71.

Robins, G. 1993.  Women in Ancient Egypt, London.

Robins, G. 2002. ‘Problems Concerning Queens and Queenship in Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt’, in NIN 3:1, 25-31.

Troy, L. 2002. ‘The Ancient Egyptian Queenship as an Icon of the State’, in NIN 3:1, 1-14.

Wilkinson, T. 2007.  Lives of the Ancient Egyptians, London.


Cleopatra Thea Philopator: 'Monstrum Fatale' or 'Eastern Messiah'

 Lisa Doughty

The topic of discussion for the Forum of Friday 14th February 2014 was focused on both the
ancient and modern (mis)conceptions of Cleopatra Thea Philopator, the last queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was to be discussed whether the three cultural images of Cleopatra that have survived via the archaeological and textual record (that of the Roman, Hellenistic and Egyptian images) were in any way representative of the reality of the queen herself and, in turn, whether historical biographies may be written about her based on these conceptions.

The discussion began by considering these contemporary ‘public’ images of Cleopatra. Upon examination of the accounts of Plutarch, Dio Cassius and Cicero, it was understood that to the Romans Cleopatra was a sly, exotic seductress who bewitched and ensnared the two most powerful Roman men of her time. Potential biases may have affected these works however, and so it is important for one to have an awareness of the political climate and culture of the authors in question in order to highlight these. The Forum went on to discuss the lyric poet Horace (c.65-8 BC) who, in writing during the time of Augustus, was probably aiming in his works to portray Cleopatra as both a wayward queen as well as a foe worthy enough for Augustus to make his victory appear more legitimate. It is notable that during the early years of the Roman empire in particular, ambitious women were often given a bad press, and the publicity of Cleopatra was no exception. Misogynistic and xenophobic ideas were especially prevalent during this time, and so perhaps Cleopatra might never have been accepted by the Roman peoples no matter whose side she was on.

The question of whether Cleopatra was actually seen to be the last queen of Egypt by the Egyptians themselves was also discussed upon questioning the queen’s public image according to her people. Early Arabian sources indicate that to some, Cleopatra was an ‘Eastern Messiah’, however it is unclear as to what the contemporary thought was amongst her people. Indeed, despite Cleopatra’s extensive building programme and her involvement within Egyptian cult, after her death later emperors were also portrayed as pharaohs and perhaps their building works were intended to help pacify and subjugate the native Egyptians; it could have been that no change was really felt at all. Potentially, Cleopatra may also have been heralded as a foreigner within the country, and as such there was no real bond between the queen and the Egyptians. It is from this that parallels between the concepts of Egyptian and Roman kingship was also highlighted as being of particular interest during the reign of Cleopatra, as the later emperors may have to come to embody these ideals of Egyptian kingship and ideology. As representative of the gods, the Horus/Apollo king figure made way for an ideological change which was first adopted by Augustus and later exemplified in his pronouncement as emperor of Rome; it was questioned whether this would have had any effect on the native Egyptians, aside from a simple change of who was in power.

As to whether these images do in fact represent the ‘real’ Cleopatra, the group concluded that these are simply reflections of the reality of the queen; we will never know the actual Cleopatra, much like the fact that will we will never have a complete record of her reign. Although inferences of the evidence can be made, it is important to remember that we are examining a fragmentary record of her reign from material which has survived only in pieces.

It was from this that next to be discussed by the Forum was whether ‘definitive’ biographies of historical figures such as Cleopatra can be written in light of the material that remains. Modern biographies of ancient individuals are in many respects subordinate to the sources upon which they are reliant, and so the group concluded with a unanimous no; interpretation and analysis of the evidence does not give us the entire picture, no matter how much we think we know about what happened in the past. For a further insight into this debate, the question will also feature in the Forum’s next discussion.

Last to be considered by the Forum was why the legend of Cleopatra has survived, and how the perpetuation of modern misconceptions of the queen has affected the public concept of Ancient Egypt as a whole. It was thought by the group that it is undoubtedly due to portrayals of Cleopatra in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and various 20th century film works that has ultimately led to the ongoing Cleopatra legend; the romance and exoticism of Cleopatra and her suicide, as well as the image of the ideal of Ancient Egypt amounts to an oriental, exotic portrayal of the ‘other’, highlighted as being ‘pagan’ in accordance with (and being exciting to) western society. Cleopatra as a figurehead of Ancient Egypt works very much like a franchise in selling the mysticism and splendour of the ancient world; it is simply a case of taking a name that is common knowledge and further perpetuating these (mis)conceptions to form an idealistic personification of the glory of Ancient Egypt. Whether this end result is potentially harming the study of Egyptology in allowing such misplaced concepts to exist is for the moment neither here nor there; it seems there will always be students willing to research the past for themselves.

Further reading
Hamer, M. 1993. Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics and Representation. London.

Higgs, P. and Walker S. (eds.). 2001. Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth. London.

Hughes-Hallet, L. 2006. Cleopatra: Queen, Lover, Legend. London.

Roller, D. W. 2010. Cleopatra: A Biography. Oxford.


Regional variations in the decorative programmes on coffins of the Late and Ptolemaic Periods

Katharina Stövesand (Cologne/UCL)

On Friday 31st January 2014, Birmingham Egyptology welcomed to the Forum Katharina Stövesand, PhD candidate at the University of Cologne who is spending a year at UCL. Her research is focused on coffins in the Late Period, and she presented to the Forum her findings thus far, related to regional variation in coffin decoration. She explained that her work is connected closely to the research and methodology of Dr John Taylor, whose article on regional variation as evidence for a ‘North-South divide’ in the Twenty-second to Twenty-fifth Dynasties is the authority on the subject. Katharina then took us through various aspects of her research, from her extensive database to the cultural theories which she has consulted. She also explained some of the main features which she looks for in the coffin decoration, such as the size and shape, the choice of texts and images and their arrangement, and the colours used (for example, green faces or white base-colours). Through this she was able to draw initial conclusions regarding potential regional differences, some of which tallied with the earlier variations as detailed by Taylor. After her talk of around 40 minutes, Katharina answered several questions posed to her by attendees, including on the symbolism of specific aspects of coffin decoration, and on the practical difficulties of gathering and recording material, much of which, of course, is spread around the museums of the world, in private collections, or sadly in fragments in strife-ridden Egypt after looters targeted precious materials but discarded the ‘worthless’, fragile, wooden coffins.

Katharina has, of course, had to search widely for the material which then is entered into her database. Unexpectedly, her visit to Birmingham allowed her to add one more coffin to her source material, for our own CAHA Museum holds a Late Period (c.550BC) coffin lid from Beni Hassan, a site from which she had no examples until then. We were able to see that the decoration of this coffin, inscribed for a man named Ahmose but affectionately known as ‘George’ by many in the department, tallied with some of the features she had introduced to us as seen on other coffins of a similar period and region. We are glad we are able to thank Katharina even in a little way for coming to share her fascinating work with us, and wish her well with her research in the future.


Further reading

J.H. Taylor, Coffins as Evidence for a ‘North-South Divide’ in the 22nd-25th Dynasties, in: G.P.F. Broekman / R.J. Demarée / O.E. Kaper (eds.), The Libyan Period in Egypt. Historical and Cultural Studies into the 21st – 24th Dyna­sties: Proceedings of a Conference at Leiden University, 25-27 October 2007, Egyptologische Uitgaven 23, Leiden 2009, 375-415.

S. Ikram – A. Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. Equipping the Dead for Eternity, London 1998, Chapter 7, 193-243.

G. Lapp – A. Niwinski, in: D.B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford En­cyclopedia of Ancient Egypt I (2001), s. v. Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnages, 279-287.

J.H. Taylor, Egyptian Coffins, Shire Egyptology 11, Aylesbury 1989.


Research Strategies: method or madness?

Steven Gregory

The session on Friday 17th January 2014 followed on from an earlier discussion in which the notions were expressed that in the conduct of academic research rules apply and that the existing definitions, as published by world leading authorities, must be points of departure. Such remarks raise a question of some significance to those engaged in research at postgraduate level: namely, what emphasis should be afforded to ‘definitions’ – which may be understood to be  ‘an exact description of the nature, scope, or meaning of something’ [OED] – as presented in books and journal articles authored by those recognised as being ‘leading authorities’ in their particular field of interest.

In an opening presentation the view was expressed that while definitions and ‘established authorities’ are surely of some importance, the idea that they should be taken as the a starting point may be unsafe in that to commence research by reference to definitions, rules, and ‘established authorities’ would indicate an element of pre-determination with respect to research outcomes.

In addition, one may easily be deceived by the definitions of established authorities, the recognised experts in the particular area of interest. They are themselves the product of research conducted by people like ourselves, and therefore not infallible. Thus to begin with a definition that might itself be flawed seems a dangerous route to follow, albeit one which – as demonstrated from a range of examples given – has been followed far too frequently.

Some discussion followed in relation to the cited examples in which the use of predetermined ideas without proper consideration of pertinent, and readily available, primary source material had clearly lead to distorted and misleading interpretation of historical events by so-called ‘leading authorities’. From this it appeared that the Forum were in general agreement that research should concentrate on the source material itself, the event or phenomena in question, albeit with some caveats in relation to the difficulties which may be encountered in accessing the required material – a difficulty faced by researchers in many fields of inquiry. However, it was pointed out that, while often flawed in some respects, the narrative accounts of ancient history presented by some established academics do provide inspiration for the novice to the discipline. They give a broad and, for the most part, reasonably sound introduction to the topic in question from which learning can take place – learning which may lead to the more critical approach required for postgraduate research.

It was also recognized that previous studies, their definitions, and interpretations do provide a framework and a discrete terminology which one may need to adhere to ensure that the authors of research and their audience have some common points of reference. That said, the principal point of interest should remain the object or phenomenon of interest which should be examined, scrutinized in depth, and subjected to rigorous questioning within pertinent contexts. This process hopefully produces a set of data which may be used to formulate hypotheses which may be further developed by constant reference to the primary sources of evidence and with correct use of reasoning and logical progression of argument. Of course, there should also be reference to relevant published opinion as appropriate, yet these opinions themselves should be questioned as rigorously as the primary sources and examined for bias in interpretation or otherwise selective use of available and pertinent material.

To summarize, the role of research is not to accept established opinion or definition, but to challenge it: a role perhaps difficult to fulfil if such opinion is the starting point of one’s work – unless the intention from the outset is to question one or more elements of the definition itself. There may of course be other views, and many other ways of conducting effective research, but in all cases it does seem appropriate to consider the cautionary words of Trigger (1989:16): some modern historical narratives rely  ‘more on what their predecessors concluded about the past than on the evidence on which these conclusions were based’.

Further reading

Black, J. &  D. M. MacRaild. 1997. Studying History. Palsgrave: Basingstoke & New York.

Blackburn, S. 1999. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford. [particularly Chapter 6: Reasoning].

Fagan, G. G. (2006) Archaeological Fantasies: How pseudoarchaeology misrepresents the past and misleads the public.  Routledge: London and New York.

Trigger, B. G. 1989.  A History of Archaeological Thought.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.


Was Hatshepsut an evil stepmother?

Eleanor Simmance

The discussion on Friday 13th December started with the acknowledgement that the over-arching question could probably be quite easily answered in the negative, the idea of Hatshepsut as an ‘evil stepmother’ being out-dated and influenced by fairy-tales. It was initially suggested that such views of her have partially arisen from comparisons to Cleopatra, who has been considered by ancient and modern authors alike as conniving, sly and ambitious beyond her status. Alternatively, the ‘evil stepmother’ idea perhaps has its roots in ancient Egypt itself, as they might have felt women were inferior, meant to look after the home and children.

The discussion then turned towards female rulers in general in ancient Egypt and it was agreed that female pharaohs were infrequent in the male-dominated elite, but that women were considered important to the continuation of kingship. It is likely that many royal women advised their pharaoh husband or father. Similarly, the belief that kingship may have passed down the female line, at least in some periods, further supports the importance of royal women. As a result, it was suggested that the Egyptians may not have expected a women to assume the throne, but may not have seen it as objectionable. Furthermore, it was argued that the institution of kingship cannot be defined as either a male or a female construct, and that the most important criterion for a ruler was suitable family and heritage. This idea was countered with the fact that there were indeed fewer female pharaohs than male, and participants put forward potential reasons why. These all boiled down to differences in education for girls and boys; girls were probably not brought up to lead, and in fact many of them would not have wanted to as a result. There is evidence, however, that Hatshepsut had a fairly close relationship with her father (like Cleopatra), so it is possible that she was better educated in the ways of kingship than most other royal women. An alternative view was suggested – that Hatshepsut had no say at all and that her personal wishes or ambitions were not the cause for her rise to power.

Talk turned to Hatshepsut’s reign, and the seeming ‘intellectual revolution’ that came about (e.g. new architectural features and literary expression). This was considered to be more a result of favourable circumstances, such as the wealth of the country at the time, than an effort by Hatshepsut to legitimise her reign through a great proliferation of art and literature. The relatively few military exploits may have been a factor in her later proscription, since she did not follow the expansionist agenda of the earlier Tuthmoside kings, meaning she could not conquer new lands and appropriate their resources for Egypt and for Amun; she did not keep the priesthood of Amun happy or support the military fully, and as a result was poorly regarded. One participant disagreed, arguing that the expedition to Punt was a politically astute campaign and provided Egypt with many resources. It shows, too, that Hatshepsut had some control over the military. However, the significance of the event was questioned, for whilst it must have been spectacular, it seems to have been a one-off. Even though, as a rare voyage, it may have been an even greater achievement than the more familiar campaigns to the north, Hatshepsut seems to have overstretched Egypt’s resources and such activities were not sustainable.

Other reasons for her proscription were suggested, including the topographical differences between the northern kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty and the southern Thebaid (of course this begs the question of why others in the Eighteenth Dynasty were unaffected). The idea that later rulers sought an unbroken line was put forward, but this then requires one to ask what it was about Hatshepsut that meant the line was broken – her gender, her official status as regent, her familial position, or something else? The Forum determined that various motives, different individuals and workmen, as well as different time periods, are responsible for inconsistencies in the style of the erasure.

The resentment of Tuthmosis III towards an ‘evil stepmother’ was discounted as an out-dated view. There is of course no way of knowing how he felt about his aunt, but the time delay before the proscription started suggests it was not triggered by personal feelings. It was also agreed that the proscription was not simply damnatio memoriae, as in some cases the fine chiselling leaves her name and figure quite clear. The attempt to wall up her obelisks at Karnak proved more of a mystery in the eyes of the Forum, for surely they would have provided a good opportunity for re-cutting the cartouches in another’s name. It was suggested that there may have been some symbolic significance, or a more practical problem of lack of skilled workmen to reuse the stone. Conversely, it was suggested that this was actually a protective measure.

When drawing to a close, the Forum returned briefly to the possible connection of Hatshepsut to Cleopatra, and to the problems we have in understanding the attitudes of Hatshepsut’s contemporaries towards their female ruler. This is compounded by the fact that we do not know their attitude towards the power of regents, let alone female pharaohs. It was agreed that many modern views towards the relationship between Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III are influenced by historians’ own prejudices and agendas, and that different terminology in the scholarship has potential bias (“stepmother” = bad; “aunt” = good). Members agreed that the idea of an ambitious, power-hungry woman is probably unfounded or exaggerated, and many expressed their admiration for this female regent-cum-pharaoh who managed to rule over Egypt successfully and peaceably.


Bes: Demon or Deity?

Laura Grimshaw

This forum session began with a discussion of the iconography of Bes. It was felt that it was important to consider why Bes was depicted in certain ways. It is evident from depictions of Bes that care was taken by the ancient Egyptians to show him in a particular form and this can help scholars to understand how the Egyptians viewed him.

Bes’ appearance and actions are different to those of other gods; there is a more human element to him. For example, playing music and dancing is not something that the other gods do. This makes Bes difficult to define. It was pointed out that dwarfs were fascinating to the ancient Egyptians and that their decision to show Bes as a dwarf must be able to tell Egyptologists something about how he was perceived by the ancient Egyptians. One theory discussed in the forum session was that dwarfs were perhaps seen as representatives of a deity or deities on earth. If so, this would suggest that Bes should be seen as more of a deity than a demon.

The forum attendees also considered why Bes was seen by the ancient Egyptians as apotropaic. This too could be linked to the concept of dwarfs being representatives of deities or somehow touched or marked by a deity. The idea that Bes was able to avert evil helped those present at the forum to identify Bes as a being that was associated with transitional periods such as birth and sleep. This association could imply that he was considered to hover somewhere between a deity and a demon.

At this point, the forum began to consider the terms ‘deity’ and ‘demon’. As a group, the attendees were unable to think of an Egyptian word for ‘demon’. The only term that arose was ntr, which is commonly translated as ‘god’. However, this could also mean a divine or supernatural being. This raised the question of whether the Egyptians actually differentiated between demons and deities or if they were all simply considered to be ntr.w. If so, then the question at the heart of this forum session was not actually relevant. It was also asked whether Bes is ever described as a ntr but the answer was not known.

Having discussed terminology in detail, the forum attendees then moved on to consider the role of Bes in the state ideology, while taking care to avoid terms with modern associations such as ‘god’ and ‘demon’. It was suggested that Bes was bound not to have had a state temple as he had nothing to do with the maintenance of the king in ancient Egypt and therefore he is not part of the state ideology. However, it was then pointed out that objects depicting Bes’ image have been found in royal tombs, such as that of Tutankhamun. The attendees questioned why this was the case. One theory was that perhaps in this instance Bes was representing the human form of the king. Another theory was that, due to various changes in decorum etc., by the New Kingdom Bes was able to be slightly more integrated into state ideology.

It is certainly true that in later periods Bes seems to have become more a part of state ideology; he is associated with Re and the sun disk in the New Kingdom. It was noted that this could be more reflective of society in general, rather than the state. By this point, Bes had become a normal feature in the lives of the ancient Egyptians and so it is natural that he would start to appear more frequently in the state ideology. In relation to this, it was also mentioned that his late incorporation into the state ideology could suggest that Bes was taken from another culture and was therefore not present during the early formation of the state ideology. The opposing point made was that Bes may have been present at this time but perhaps not yet depicted in a physical form.

Overall the forum session concluded that Bes was somewhat separate from the Egyptian pantheon; he was part of a domestic belief system rather than the state ideology. It seems likely that he was always part of the metaphysical realm and as he became more beneficial, his presence within the state ideology increased in prevalence.


Egypt and Rome in Hollywood

Thomas Peaple

The discussion was in many ways a preliminary of what is soon to come. This is because some upcoming productions such as The Last Pharaoh may change the viewpoint of Egypt’s place in popular culture. This had significant impact on the discussion for two reasons. Firstly, it meant any observation made on films about ancient Egypt may prove outdated by new productions. The second reason is that this could also affect the amount of scholarly interest in discussing Egypt in popular culture. Therefore all observations must be treated as pending. A key part of the discussion was whether Egypt’s use in popular culture should be of interest to Egyptologists and scholarship. It was noted interest in the genre briefly gained momentum (in the mid-20th century) before fading away. It was also noted this may be at least in part the result of Hollywood’s lack of interest in talking to Egyptologists. Historical advisors on films and even documentaries are often consulted as little as possible as media workers focus primarily on providing a visually stunning portrait rather than on accurately representing Egypt. Another point of discussion was whether Egypt was appreciated for its visual images rather than for the lives of the actual ancient Egyptians. This was largely agreed by those present, however some different points were made regarding why this was the case. One argument is that Egyptian life is not particularly different to our own, therefore it is not of interest to us in the way their monuments are. A counter argument was that Egyptian culture has an image of being mysterious and therefore it association the unknown made it difficult to imagine. The contrasting possibilities – too different and too similar – can both find support in existing film depictions. The Land of The Pharaohs shows a demonised image of Egyptian religion with priests committing suicide by being trapped in their Pharaoh’s tomb. In contrast The Egyptian uses Egyptian monuments as a backdrop to a depiction of unrequited love and efforts of advancement, leaving Egypt to appear similar to our culture. While these views contrast with each other both reach the same result: that an inevitable gulf exists between people who take an academic interest in the actual events of ancient Egypt and those who are interested in giving the mass public a dazzling array of pyramids. A point of evidence for this view is that The Mummy franchise was successfully moved to China yet the formula remained intact, suggesting there is nothing fundamentally Egyptian about the story, with only mysticism and monuments being needed. The conclusion is that Hollywood has so far failed to bridge the gap between reality and illusion leaving it quite difficult for Egyptologists to appreciate Egypt’s place in film.


Who owns history?

Carl Graves

Following the event on Thursday 18th October to repatriate some Maori remains found at the University of Birmingham, the Birmingham Egyptology Forum decided to discuss the matter of ownership over historical material remains. We specifically chose to omit debate over human remains as the issues were covered by the Maori delegates the evening before. The forum therefore elected to discuss the controversial issues surrounding the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (Elgin Marbles), both currently on display, conserved and accessioned into the British Museum collections.

At the outset the forum attendees were asked to vote (by show of hands) on whether they felt the objects should be returned to their cultural homes. An overwhelming majority preferred that the artefacts remain in the British Museum, but there was much less consensus on whether these items should/could be loaned to their respective ‘homes’ as a valid compromise.

Many of the initial arguments regarding repatriation focussed on the current unstable political situation in Egypt and the perceived threat to the Rosetta Stone should it be returned to Egypt. In one instance, it was also felt that the in-situ remains in Egypt should be taken into account as retentions of cultural history and property that far exceed the potential of mobile material culture. In this sense the transportable items of cultural significance can be used to contribute to world history within museums around the world.

With regard to the Rosetta Stone the group questioned the cultural ownership of the monument; who owns the Rosetta Stone’s cultural significance? Most argued that this element of the Stone’s history actually belongs to France, via both its initial discovery but also through the role it played in the translation of hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion. However, as spoils of war the Stone is held in the collection of the British Museum where it is visited by millions of international people year round free of charge. Many museums in other countries charge for their entrance or do no attract the same numbers of visitors which can also be an argument for its retention by the British Museum. It was brought to the table however, that although the BM does not charge entrance, it certainly does capitalise on the Stone’s image to make money – one example being the new iPhone5 case for sale at £24.99 decorated with the Rosetta Stone’s inscription. Therefore, the argument of making money should be understood in a commercial context; should we really criticise other museums for attempting to make money from their collections? – this money is usually spent on the care, conservation, research and display of the objects and contributes to the economic stability of museums around the world. It was also made clear that entrance to the New Acropolis Museum in Athens (the would-be-home of the Elgin Marbles, should they be returned) costs five euros, but is free to students and researchers.

While the primary argument of repatriation is to return cultural objects to their original historical contexts it should also be remembered that the history of objects does not stop once they enter a museum collection. In fact, to return the objects would underwrite this significant portion of the item’s history. The controversial history of the Elgin Marbles clearly denotes this issue – whereby the fame of the sculptures is increased due to the political debates surrounding them. It could also be said that the Greek government has no claim over the Marbles as Greece did not exist as a political entity when they were carved. In this way, only Athenians have any claim regarding their cultural heritage. Athens still retains roughly half of the Parthenon sculptures and displays them alongside their original historical setting; however, the BM choses to display them as an important part of world heritage and specifically within world art – something that the New Acropolis Museum could not hope to achieve.

The group also looked into the issue of ‘importance’, and who defines the importance (culturally, historically, artistically, etc.) of an artefact. It was felt that, while the views of the general visiting public should be taken into account it is ultimately scholars and researchers who are most qualified to decide these factors. The Rosetta Stone lacks importance without its role in the translation of hieroglyphs by scholars and arguably would not have been preserved had it remained in Egypt – the example of the Shabako Stone or Memphite Theology in the British Museum was brought forward in this instance. No care was given over this historically significant source which was rediscovered and translated by scholars who recognized its historical importance and thus gave it value.

While most of the arguments put forward were decidedly for retention, it should be noted that the feelings of the original cultural groups should never be underestimated. They have every right to want their objects returned; however, in the absence of those cultural groups today (such as ancient Egyptians or Greeks) it is difficult to decide who has claim to these object’s cultural past, and indeed who are the heirs to this world heritage – arguably, the world population.

Overall the forum felt that material objects at the centre of repatriation debates are often the ‘celebrities’ of the ancient world and in this sense are objectified outside of their cultural significance. They instead become political pawns to engender national identity for a nation that, in some instances, never existed at the time of their creation. While the forum group maintained the majority opinion that these objects should be retained by the British Museum, it was felt that a more lenient approach to international loans for a definite time would be more appropriate – on the understanding that the loan museums would also open up their collections to international lending.


Is graffiti a valuable historical resource or just trivial marks?

Eleanor Simmance

The forum of the 4th October 2013 tackled a subject of which we could only hope to scratch the surface (pun intended). To begin, the opposing views regarding the conservation of graffiti, ancient and modern were presented, based upon the chair’s own experience of a similarly-focused debate (concerning the news story of a Chinese boy who scratched his name into Luxor Temple). Some feel that graffiti, often being trivial and disrespectful, should be removed, but a quotation by Henry Spencer Ashbee suggests the opposite view – “no production of the human brain should be ignored, entirely disregarded or lost, for every writing, however trifling it may seem, has a value in estimating the individual who wrote it or the period in which it was produced.” The following discussion was dominated by considerations of modern versus ancient opinion and of the motives that lie behind the act of graffiti-making.

In defining ‘ancient’, an obstacle immediately presented itself. The pejorative connotations of modern graffiti have affected the interpretation of sources considered ‘ancient’ or ‘historical’, but drawing an ancient/modern chronological boundary is almost impossible. This was left unresolved, the debate instead focusing on three groups: the ancient Egyptian graffiti, modern graffiti in our own and Egyptian culture, and the grey-area of eighteenth and nineteenth century tourist and Egyptologist graffiti.  It was suggested that since much historical graffiti lacks its cultural context, we should preserve it as evidence of a barely-understood tradition that may be illuminated in the future. In contrast, we understand more clearly the cultural context of modern graffiti and have photographic evidence of this phenomenon therefore it can be removed. However, the potential similarities between ancient and modern graffiti were highlighted, both perhaps being a mark of arrogance and superiority over the monument or landscape, and it was pointed out that this shows the same kind of thought process undertaken by the pyramid-building pharaohs, amongst others.

Another question that pervaded the discussion was whether graffiti was ever actually considered wrong in ancient times. To ancient Egyptians graffiti may not have involved ethical considerations but was more acceptable, being representative of ideas and events such as the completion of pilgrimages or difficult journeys which would deserve recognition. Nonetheless, it was argued that all graffiti is intended to deface or at least imprint one’s will over something, which was surely never seen as wholly correct. The marks on the roof of Temple of Khonsu at Karnak may not have been allowed initially, but then a tradition formed in which it became acceptable. Alternatively, the roof-top may have been the only place it was seen as appropriate, being out of the way and somewhat disconnected to the main temple activities. On the other hand, the Third Intermediate Period Nile flood graffiti at Luxor was given as an example of graffiti in a very public context; either it was acceptable or the author/commissioner was too high in rank to be contested. The discussion linked this to graffiti, an act of writing, being a product of the educated (in the case of longer inscriptions).

Of course, graffiti is diverse in form and purpose. A variety of motives can be supposed even within the Khonsu Temple group, from leisure to ritual connection and personal commemoration. It was suggested therefore that we judge and define graffiti by the use we can make of it. For example, Belzoni’s inscribed name is perhaps less useful than the marks of the ‘gangs of Khufu’, which provide clues about ancient organisation and construction of monuments, even if we are unsure whether they are ‘I was here’ graffiti or masonry marks.

Once again, the discussion turned towards motive and the potential variety therein. Graffiti in the western Theban valleys was given as an example, as there are both short rock inscriptions of name and titles and longer records within tombs documenting rituals and inspections. It was suggested that marks hidden from public view may imply fear of punishment or conversely respect for the monument. Implication of a private and personal connection between sacred and earthly worlds was also proposed, to which was given the response that graffiti may actually show a lack of faith – the maker of the inscription may not have understood or believed in the spiritual purpose of the monument or landscape and therefore have had no qualms about marking their presence. The audience is key here, in that marks visible to others and those hidden will probably have had different motives. Like some of the politically-minded graffiti at Pompeii, the images of Hatshepsut and Senenmut engaged in sexual acts were an act of social commentary (probably not condoned by Hatshepsut herself!), meant to be seen and to prompt ridicule and laughter.

Purpose was once again considered, and it was put forward that graffiti shows how people interact with a space, the example given being that what is considered by some to be vandalism is to others a means of engaging with and paying homage to that space. Parallels were drawn with the issues of modern development in Egypt, whereby slums are being removed from areas deemed to be of spiritual, historical or economical interest to the Egyptian government and (Western) archaeologists.

The use of graffiti as a way of belonging was introduced, with the restrictions and expectations therein. Many examples were put forward, including Pompeii, the Viking graffiti at Hagia Sofia and young choristers. It was even suggested that carving one’s name indicated an element of failure, in that the individual only had recourse to graffiti to be remembered and to belong. Even with anonymity the creator can still feel this sense of belonging because seeing the marks remain or be added to by others (interaction with complete strangers) is gratifying and to some extent pleasing.

The group experience of graffiti was discussed and it was agreed that opinion cannot be generalised – not everyone will appreciate graffiti and some may be indifferent. It was pointed out that text and pictures, though both expressions of ideas, are often viewed differently and may have different meaning. This led to the consensus that the form of the graffiti and its execution affects our opinion of it – poorly-carved examples are bad and less valuable than those with more polish.

Following a different strand of the debate, the modern visitor’s book is one alternative to graffiti, perhaps anticipating the potential damage of increased tourism. The closure of some Egyptian tombs to tourists suggests that eventually even entering sites may be considered disrespectful or damaging. This is linked to our perceptions of the fragility of monuments and why we want to preserve them. It was argued that past cultures added to monuments in order to establish links to the past but that our more secular society aims to preserve these sites, as they are, for future research and understanding. Similarly, drastic changes in museum and collections care means that we now interact differently with objects and view graffiti as destructive. Graffiti was discussed as a product of changing fashions – indeed in the 1800s it was so fashionable to write one’s name on a monument that people paid others to visit sites on their behalf. Today the fashion for graffiti is part of the urban youth culture, rather than spiritually or otherwise motivated.

The session ended without a definitive answer to the original question, for the context and motive of graffiti cannot be generalised. It was agreed, however, that whilst in some cases the ancient Egyptian graffiti may not have been encouraged, it was probably nowhere near as abhorrent as most graffiti today (of course some may have been just idle doodling and scribbles). In any case, it is clear that ‘historical resource’ and ‘trivial mark’ are not mutually exclusive terms, for everything will inevitably become ‘historical’, but it does not necessarily follow that modern graffiti should be permitted or encouraged for the benefit of future scholars! The availability of alternative media for expression, interaction and memorialisation, such as social-networking, probably determines our view of graffiti and its relevance to us. Photography, it was pointed out, is a non-invasive way of stating ‘I was here’; graffiti was the ancient equivalent.


1 Year Anniversary Discussion

Birmingham Egyptology Forum celebrated its one year anniversary by holding an informal gathering to hear suggestions of what to plan in the year ahead. After opening with a nostalgic look back at the previous year’s developments and successful sessions we turned to the future and welcomed some interdepartmental discussions with GEM<> (Gate to the Eastern Mediterranean). Everyone around the table agreed that the BE Forum had gone from strength to strength in the last year, and was stronger with the multidisciplinary angle of approach we have adopted. Further interdisciplinary events with GEM<> and Rosetta<> (among others) are hoped for in the future to increase the scope of discussions and the productive debates held fortnightly. A list of possible forum topics is available and can be obtained from Ellie for those wishing to chair.


'To translate or not to translate – It’s all Greek to me’


Sarah Wilkowski

The evening was a free-flowing and dynamic session looking at how translation, both of ancient texts, but also of secondary scholarship was an important topic of consideration for all disciplines in the ancient world.

The session began by discussing a series of emails on the Classicists List (with personal information redacted) earlier in the year debating the issue of Anglophone Classicists following a request on the list for help finding translations of scholarship. This request resulted in quite a heated and sometimes morally debilitating attack on Anglophone scholars, but also saw a forceful rebuff to these ad hominem attacks by other leading scholars.

There was a general agreement by the group that criticism of a lack of language proficiency, with no constructive help was not only spiteful, but dismissive of the issue. The group discussed the problems arising out of opinions that to study Classics and the Ancient world knowledge of not only the source languages but also of French, German, and Italian was a prerequisite. An acknowledgment that most children at school only study one Modern Foreign Language raised the problem that to be proficient in all these languages was either an unrealistic and unattainable end, or the product of a focused elite education. The group agreed that in reality a demand of at least five languages was unrealistic, and an unhelpful way to approach a genuine request for help. It was noted, though, that a reliance on only English scholarship is not the solution, and that proficiency in languages is something to be developed over time, and translating scholarly opinion written in various modern languages is part of the process of postgraduate research.

The issue of prioritising these languages was discussed, and that insistence on a predominance of German in Egyptology potentially risked neglecting scholarship in other languages, such as Russian. Likewise, the point was reiterated that a lack of preparation or guidance in formative school years as to the requirements of postgraduate research (such as the usefulness of knowing German for Egyptology) is an issue. The point was raised that as languages are not compulsory for undergraduate study, the sudden expectations at Postgraduate level for language proficiency is a problem; the questions were raised: where is the support to bridge this gap? Are these unrealistic expectations? The point was made that expectations should be made explicit early enough for students to make informed choices in their modules to prepare themselves for further research. It was stated that it is generally easier to learn languages on a taught course, and that there should be more availability of free language courses and modules-outside-the-main-discipline (momds) on offer. There was unanimous agreement that students should be made aware of skills and languages they would need for such study early enough to be able to acquire them. It was also raised that language courses specifically for postgraduates such as the ‘reading academic French for beginners’ was very useful and should be run regularly, not as a one off, and offered by the department (it had been initiated by Postgraduates for Postgraduates). It was noted that this would be a greater problem in America, where examinations in German/French are required to enter upon MA research. It was said that for a PhD proficiency was required one language, and two by the end of the year. It was also noted that there was more than one year of Middle Egyptian required for one PhD course, and the question was raised again: are these unrealistic expectations? There was a consensus that communication between departments, institutions, and schools about what you will need for a certain research pathway is needed.

English as a lingua franca was discussed and, while it was acknowledged that this is frustrating for non-English native speakers and not a good thing, it was argued that this cannot be discussed as a good or bad thing but rather taken as what we have to work with. The point was raised that the Sciences publish in English due to the high volume of scholarship and the pace of developments: that there was an acknowledgment to pick an accessible language and this appears to be more accepted in this discipline than in our own. It was, however, also noted that field reports to the Egyptian Supreme Council must be submitted in English. It was also noted that on an Italian led dig, the field paperwork had to be submitted officially in English There was also the point raised that different languages are required for different audiences.

The question was raised, where do we draw the line? It was argued that to some extent Anglophone researchers are at a disadvantage, having to ‘catch up’ whilst also undertaking their research. There was the point that the necessity for some proficiency in languages is inescapable in a professional career and that the ability to read hieroglyphs is essential to most, if not all Egyptological research.

The use of linear translations, and cribs, and commentaries for Classics was raised as a medium to address researchers in the process of learning languages to gather awareness of nuances of ancient languages ‘lost in translation’, but also where translation of the text itself was not essential to research. The point was raised that defining oneself as a Classicist was not synonymous with translator, and that the skills and dedicated study put into translations are to be utilised and used to strengthen research, rather than a personal translation that lacks the nuances of decades of focused purposeful translation/study. It was noted, however, that in contrast to Classics, the resources for aiding translation in Egyptology are not so widely available. It was noted that the process of translation is not often visible, which was argued as essential. The topic of the ‘invisible translator’ in the reading was considered unhelpful, as an acknowledgment of the translator and their work is essential to understand the translation and the process it has undergone from the original. The point was raised that two different translators translating the same text can produce two very different translations, and so awareness of the source language, but also of the approach and methodology of the translator is essential to research. An acknowledgment of your own limitations and the limitations of the translation was raised as important to research, and that questioning, instead of relying on a translation is critical. The difference between the Classical text corpus, and the symbols and associated texts in Egyptology (which is text and art based) creates a different response to the need for independent translation. For example, the necessity to translate captions, especially for mourning where the specific terminology is crucial, is unavoidable. It was also noted that the formulaic hymns and tales would also have a music and rhythm, much like Greek, where inflection is potentially lost in translation. A sense for sense, rather than a word for word translation was generally favoured in discussion, as it was agreed that word for word can lose the ‘feel’ of the original. Translations were considered important, however, as indicative of the ideology of the political situations at the time of translation.

It was also noted though, that a vast proportion of the populations we study were illiterate, and as such one cannot make the assumption that we cannot understand the culture without the language.

The group agreed that it was more beneficial to research (and the harmony of the community) not to criticise Anglophone researchers, but to help and encourage the development of languages. It was agreed that a lack of languages was not something researchers should have to be apologetic for, and it was essential not to ‘scare off’ researchers by mocking any apparent lack in language skills, but to use group motivation to improve proficiency in the required languages, and that this should be initiated and facilitated by the various schools and departments.

Further reading

Goldhill, S. 2002. Who Needs Greek? Contests in the cultural history of Hellenism. Cambridge.  

Lianeri, A. & V. Vajko (eds.) 2008. Translation and the Classic: Identity as change in the history of culture. Oxford.    

Prologue, S. Bassnett in: Matthews, T. & Parker, J. (eds.) 2011. Tradition, Translation, Trauma: the classic and the modern. Oxford.  


Political 'decline' in the Third Intermediate Period

Edward Mushett Cole

On the 26th of July the Forum discussed whether it is possible to describe the Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt as a period of political decline. After a brief discussion of the events of the period the group was posed with two questions: ‘What is a ‘political’ decline? and ‘Can the Third Intermediate Period be labelled as one, or is something else occurring?’. These provided the focus for the majority of the discussion, in particular the second of the two questions.

There was general agreement on the popular definition of political decline, being a loss of power, wealth or control by the central government or the collapse of political/ government of a state. It was also accepted, however, that the interpretation of the Third Intermediate Period as being a period of political decline is based on historians’ comparisons with preceding periods of Egyptian history, notably the New Kingdom. In reality, it is probable that something else was occurring during the period. The question was also asked whether it is really possible to separate out a purely ‘political’ decline from economic, cultural, etc. factors.

At this point a third question was added to the discussion, ‘even if there was a political decline in the Third Intermediate Period, what effect would this have had on Egyptian society?’. With the clear geographical and political fragmentations that occur during the period, it is typically assumed that this decline and fragmentation would have altered Egyptian society. Instead the group argued that the changes would have fundamentally affected only the top of society, perhaps reflecting a cultural decline of high level culture. It was noted that the division of the country under the early 21st dynasty is ignored in the iconography, perhaps through the necessity for Egyptian society to have a king at its top. The limited impact of the political fragmentation later in the Libyan period also seems to be reflected in the ability of lower level officials to choose which king they dated by, for example by Prince Osorkon in the Chronicles of Prince Osorkon. This lead to a discussion of whether, following recent academic suggestions that the fragmentation is due to the Libyans tribal origins, there could have been recognition of senior and junior lineages and thus a ranking to the multiple kings known in the period. In some ways, therefore, they were maintaining the hierarchy but through Libyan tribal forms. In this sense Sheshonq I’s attempt to secure the country by placing his son in charge of all the key institutions was merely an outsider attempting to secure the greatest possible part of the wealth.

Examining the idea of political decline in the context of the Third Intermediate Period raised another series of issues, that these divisions are artificial, having been created by historians, and it is unclear whether they would have been recognisable at the time. This is best reflected in the group’s acceptance that many of the causes for, what is described as, a decline in the Third Intermediate Period start under the earlier dynasties of the New Kingdom, the 18th, 19th and 20th. Even within these periods artificial declines may be created by historians through the lack of writing about the successors of iconic rulers, for example Ramesses II or III. The large quantity of academic work on these reigns emphasises the bias of historians, not necessarily historical reality. This is particularly true for the Third Intermediate Period, where Egyptologists attitudes towards their subject and its people, may have adversely affected attitudes towards the Libyan and Kushite rulers and led to the association of foreign rule and decline in Egyptian history. This has only been reinforced by the loss of material in the north, creating a strong bias towards the south in terms of writings and understanding.

There was a suggestion that the period could be better understood as a period of political difference or change, rather than decline. The politics of the period remain attached to Pharaonic ideals, their use is simply multiplied through use by several rulers at the same point. It is thus, not a decline of a government system, but rather of its organisation with the change to multiple kings and rulers. There was also discussion that the use of the term ‘political’ is confusing, as politics is something which occurs in the here and now, with the individual machinations and opinions becoming much less clear over time and impossible to see at the distance of the Third Intermediate Period from the modern era.  A good example of this was the question of ‘how do you define historical identity?,’ raised by a member of the group. This was raised in relation to the Libyan dynasts, because there is a subtle, but important distinction between foreign and foreign-born and it unclear which one historians mean when they describe the Libyans as foreign. The group also queried to what extent the ruler of a country can remain foreign, once they take control does their identity change or not? Also would the perception of an entire dynasty alter over time, with the longer such rulers reign for the more their ‘foreign’ style would become perceived as the norm? This is seen from the end of the Third Intermediate Period where the Kushite 25th Dynasty and the surviving Libyan dynasts used Egyptian iconography to compete over the representation of themselves as ‘true rulers’ in the tradition of Egypt’s earlier kings.

The final area covered in the discussion by the group examined the period in the terms of Egyptian kingship. During a period where a number of rulers, often foreign in origin, claimed the royal style, many at the same time, the concept of Egyptian kingship appears to have suffered little or no impact on its legitimacy. Indeed this period demonstrates the flexibility of the Egyptian kingship, with its associated titulary being adopted by individuals to reflect their attitudes to their own power and security. This is further reflected by the unusual sequence of dating at the end of the Chronicle of Prince Osorkon where, despite the events being confined entirely to Middle and Upper Egypt, Osorkon suddenly dates to the ruler of the Delta Sheshonq III. This is probably due to his failure to succeed his father Takeloth II, possibly as he was not present at the burial. This possibility demonstrates that a direct succession was not necessary for legitimate rule in Egypt, again a reflection of the flexibility of the Egyptian form of kingship.

In summary the group felt that labelling the Third Intermediate Period as a ‘political decline’ only served to obscure the complexity of the period, along with attaching a label that is unclear as to its exact meaning. Also that comparisons with periods studied in more details, such as the New Kingdom, have reinforced historians perceptions of the Third Intermediate Period increasing the emphasis on the divisions in the political sphere.


Suggested reading:

A general history of the period for background, the most recent being Aston’s Afterglow of Empire (available in the library, certainly in the short loan section), but Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt or Van Der Mieroop’s History of Egypt are also perfectly good. The history added by Kitchen to the Third Intermediate Period is also good, but a little out of date and very strongly attached to his views of the evidence (not that Aston’s isn’t!).

The Chronicle of Prince Osorkon (Ritner’s Libyan Anarchy has the most recent translation and is in the library, but older ones are fine for these purposes).

A. Leahy: The Libyan Period in Egypt: An Essay in Interpretation (Libyan Studies 16, available in the Library).

D. Aston: Takeloth II: A King of the ‘Theban 23rd Dynasty’? (JEA 75 so available on JSTOR). Also his more recent article on the idea Aston 2009, Takeloth II revisited in Broekman, Kaper & Demaree’s The Libyan Period in Egypt (available in the Library), but this focuses more on the chronological debate involved.

R. Ritner: Fragmentation and Re-integration in the Third Intermediate Period, in  Broekman, Kaper & Demaree’s The Libyan Period in Egypt (available in the library).


The Reception of Ancient Egypt through modern architecture

Carl Graves

On the 12th July the Birmingham Egyptology Forum Group discussed the topic of Egyptianizing architecture, especially those examples that can be found in and around the city of Birmingham. The forum session was preceded by a tour of the Egyptianizing monuments around St. Phillip’s cathedral on Saturday 6th July to familiarize the group with these examples. While these forms (such as obelisks, pyramids and pylons) are encountered everyday by many people it could be questioned to what degree they still promote the reception of the ancient culture that monopolises their shape – namely, Ancient Egypt.

The forum title indicates that the discussion focused on ‘modern’ Egyptianizing architecture. For the purpose of the session the group took this to refer to nineteenth or twentieth-century architecture built using ancient Egyptian styles, forms or motifs. Occasionally the discourse expanded to include medieval reception, Neo-Classical architecture, thought also turned to different geographical areas – notably Egyptianizing architecture in modern Egypt itself.

Egyptianizing forms in building clearly have their origins in Ancient Egypt and include such familiar features as temple pylons, obelisks and the pyramid. A distinction had to be made between true Egyptianizing architecture and that which had only borrowed the basic shape. For example, ‘pylons’ were only considered Egyptianizing if they also included a cavetto cornice and/or torus moulding, as well as the trapezoid form; examples without the accompanying features and were therefore not considered.

Fig 3 copyOne notable example of an Egyptianizing tombstone is the pylon-shaped marker of Samuel Rostill Lines in front of the entrance to St. Phillip’s cathedral. The grave marker is trapezoid in shape with torus moulding added in metal on the sides. The cornice across the top is also embellished with a metal sun disk with outstretched wings (left). It is significant that the usual uraei (cobra heads) have been replaced in this example with dove heads and the wings also appear to be those of a dove, rather than a falcon. Most of Lines’ direct family were also buried in the vault beneath the tombstone. This family was instrumental during the Nineteenth Century in establishing the Birmingham School of Art and a number of their works can be seen in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Samuel Lines resided at 3 Temple Row West, a home directly across the road from this resting place (Bommas 2007: 2). The forum speculated about Lines’ choice for such an elaborate tombstone, but no clear conclusion was reached during this session.

Nearby the tomb of Samuel Lines is the tall, white Portland stone obelisk dedicated to the memory of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (below left), one of four obelisks around St. Phillip’s cathedral. Burnaby travelled widely while in the British army until his death at the Battle of Abu Klea in 1885 during the Sudanese Mahdist Revolt. This monument is a rare example of an Egyptianizing form in Birmingham that was perhaps selected due to a relation between the protagonist and Ancient Egypt. It is likely that Burnaby travelled up the Nile on his way to supress the Mahdist Revolt along with Lord Wolseley and perhaps encountered some Egyptian forms on that travel.

While the forum group were already familiar with these examples it was pertinent to question what the purpose of their forms meant, and why a Christian symbol wasn’t selected for their memory instead.

BurnabyIt was clear to the group that, from the examples with individuals that could be researched, these monuments all belong to members of an emerging elite class in an ever growing industrial Birmingham. All were placed in conspicuous areas, no doubt to serve as focal points for their memory. It was the enduring nature and permanence of ancient Egyptian architecture that some members of the forum attributed the use of the motifs in modern Birmingham. Symbols themselves are only useful if their meanings are understood by observers, although their meanings can change over time and within social/spatial/cultural contexts. These motifs, such as the shapes and symbols discussed above, certainly had the potential to communicate notions of elite power, enduring stability, and an understanding of ancient knowledge; although such messages may not have fully understood by all members of their intended audience.

The forum also considered the impact of Egytianizing architecture in modern Egypt itself. Examples given were: the courthouse in Aswan, the new museum at Minya (still in construction), and the Luxor train station – all notably civic constructions. Much of these related to either, engendering a national identity that connected to the ancient past, or for the attraction of foreign tourists and the government’s efforts to promote an orientalist vision of their history – which includes examples of traditional Islamic forms in tourist contexts such as the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, or the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, Cairo. Less work has focused on this aspect of Egyptianizing architecture and further discussion may reveal more reasons for the choice of ancient Egyptian forms in these instances.

At a slight tangent to the main topic the forum group also considered associated Egyptianizing items from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, including the Wedgwood Egyptian or Basaltes forms and some orientalist art work in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery by Muller and Holman. A painting by David Roberts in the museum was discussed in relation to Egyptianizing forms and the sources for their reproduction, or the personal experiences of their designers. Roberts’ painting of the ‘Departure of the Israelites from Egypt’ is distinctly Egyptianizing yet also very un-Egyptian. The work was completed before Roberts visited Egypt, and is therefore different from the familiar paintings of Roberts during his time travelling up the Nile. The painting also reminded the forum group of a comment made in a previous session that, ‘Egypt’s job was to prove the Bible was correct’, in reference to the origins of scientific study and travel in Egypt.

It is difficult to summarize such a broad topic, and in no way can this brief report stand in place of the in-depth discussion from this forum session. But it can be said that the forum postulated that the familiar Egyptianizing forms surrounding us in our urban environment have a multitude of meanings and purposes ultimately depending on the social, temporal and geographical context of their designers and observers. The enduring nature of ancient Egyptian architecture eventually came to be a symbol of endurance itself and likely contributed to its use in nineteenth-century Birmingham.

Suggested reading

Bommas, M. 2007. Egyptomania in Birmingham, Birmingham Egyptology Newsletter 1:3, 1-2.

Gregory, S. R. W. 2006. Selly Oak Pyramid, Birmingham Egyptology Newsletter 1:2, 1.

Humbert, J. M. and C. Price. 2003. Imhotep Today: Egyptianizing Architecture. UCL Press: London. (Introduction).

Go and explore Birmingham.


The Egyptian Pantheon: Gods or Forces of Nature?

Steven Gregory

The discussion began with the definitions of ‘god’ as found in the Oxford English Dictionary which suggest that:

1 (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe; the supreme being. 2  a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity.

From this it seemed certain that ancient Egyptian thought clearly encapsulated ideas which related to what can be properly, in modern terms, be called ‘god’ in as much as they allowed for one or more universal creators and these were certainly personified as superhuman and, in some cases, were ascribed the role of ruler of the universe. However, there was some agreement that the nature of the ancient pantheon was, in many respects, different from modern ideas relating to ‘god’; and recognition of this brought to attention potential difficulty in the choice of terminology used in the interpretation of texts and images occurring within the monuments of the ancient ritual landscape.

It was suggested that the modern use of sacerdotal terminology in interpretation of ancient ritual texts and imagery appears to stem from the categorization of all of the less human characters of the decorative programme – those classified in the ancient Egyptian language as being of the nTrw – under the general head, ‘gods.’ Logically, it follows that the architectural structures in which those entities appear have been variously designated as ‘temple,’ ‘chapel,’ ‘shrine,’ ‘altar’ or afforded similar religious connotation. Thus there has been apparent consistency in that the monuments, being associated with gods, are temples and the officiants operating therein were priests; albeit priests likely quite different in nature from those acting as officiants in any modern religious order. It was also mentioned that this practice was also apparent in studies of the ancient Greek culture and there presented difficulties in properly understanding the nature of that civilization in some respects.

The apparent danger seems to be that while some of the entities in question clearly fall within the general category ‘gods’, the use of associated religious terminology may offer the implication that ancient practices in some way resemble those of modern religious orders and thus tend to skew historical interpretation. In this way the impression may be generated, for example, that, as in much of the modern western world, there was some distinction in ancient Egypt between church and state; or between matters consider to be either sacred or profane. In discussion on this point some of the group believed that such distinctions may in fact be justified in respect of the ancient culture – particularly in relation to activities within ‘temples’ as opposed to matters conducted within the outside world. However, the argument was made that while there may be differences in behaviour within the described spheres of activity, such differences may be defined as those between elite and non-elite sections of the community; or between areas under royal/state control to those activities supervised on a more local or personal level. Such differences  may not necessarily relate to matters of ‘religion’.

In relation to the terms applied to the activities in question – those thought to be in any way connected with the gods – some thought that they may properly be described using, respectively, such general terms as ‘religion’, ‘temple’, and ‘priest’ in consideration of the system, the buildings used, and persons operating within the sphere of activity under consideration. These sacerdotal terms seemed so wide ranging that no direct parallel with modern systems or activities should necessarily be imposed. Conversely, many thought that the same could not be said for such terms as ‘diocese’, ‘church’, ‘vicar’, or ‘pontiff’ as these terms convey notions far too specific to sections of the modern world to be appropriate as descriptors for the ancient culture. Nonetheless, there was some support for the position that no sacerdotal terminology was appropriate as a general expression to identify any particular aspect of ancient ritual activity connected with the monumental landscape. Rather, the material and activities studied should be assessed, as far as possible, within the spatial, temporal, and ideological contexts of the period of their origin and more appropriate terms employed. Perhaps using anglicized versions of the Egyptian original words, where no suitable modern alternative is apparent, or by using less loaded terms such as, for example: ‘official’, ‘ritualist’, or ‘functionary’ to describe one taking part in activities depicted in artistic form as opposed to ‘priest’.

In relation to the question posed in the title of the session, there was general agreement that the principal state gods – those described in the various cosmologies – originated as ideas regarding the various forces or entities at work in generation and continuing operation of the universe. Those notions, both tangible and more abstract, given form to permit expression in written texts and visual media. There was some support for the idea that these ‘gods’ may, at some point, have become distinct from the original ideas generating them; whereupon each, in their own individual form, were worshipped as ‘gods’ themselves rather than respected as the avatar of the notion represented by their form.

Overall, there was a lack of consensus on many of the points raised during the discussion. It therefore seems that, as the ‘gods’ inform a significant proportion of the texts and the images of the monuments, and are therefore a primary evidential source for much study relating to ancient Egypt, a great deal more thought needs to be given to the most appropriate terminology used in describing them and their various roles.

Suggested reading

Assmann, J. 2008.  Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism.  University of Wisconsin Press: Madison.

Frankfort, H. (1948) Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hornung, E.  (1982) Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shafer, B.E. (editor) (1991) Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Wilkinson, R.H. (2003) The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt,  London: Thames and Hudson.


Did aliens build the pyramids? and other misconceptions

Carl Graves and Lisa Doughty

The topic of discussion for the Forum of Friday 14th June 2013 was focused on the prevalence of many modern misconceptions – such as ‘did aliens build the pyramids?’, the age of the Sphinx, and the ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ – in the scope of modern Egyptological thought. It was to be discussed whether these kinds of statements do in actuality have some use in the academic discipline of Egyptology, and to examine what the origins of such misconceptions are; in particular, whether they perhaps have their roots in academic thought.

Upon consideration of the topic’s title, ‘did aliens build the pyramids?’, it was established that such misconceptions are not just limited to those of a somewhat refutable nature, such as those detailed above; indeed, they can be seen to appear in the more ‘intellectual’ areas of Egyptology, in which these misconceptions have been perpetuated by ‘academic’ documentaries and the like. Such programmes are among the most easily accessible medium in which to portray (albeit selected) scholarly thought, and with the inclusion of non-specialists who may inadvertently make mistakes, the enigma of the misconceptions is maintained. This can also be seen to be the case in museums; often the exhibitions may actually accentuate and even build upon the misconception in question. For instance, by inordinately focussing on the lives of the Pharaohs and those of the slaves, the visitor then has a somewhat skewed representation of life in ancient Egyptian society. Thus, such misconceptions can be said to be perpetuated by representation; if portrayed by a reputable source, the conviction in question is able to undermine all other thought. It was from this that the Forum then agreed that such continuation of these ‘myths’ is largely the result of an initial mindset focussing on both the business and financial aspects of academia, with the allure, sensationalism and mysticism of Ancient Egypt being a far more exciting topic to bring in the public than other areas of Egyptology.

This was then followed by a look at the origins of the initial interest in the discipline of Egyptology; the invasion of Napoleon’s troops in 1798 instigated a revival of the fascination with that mysterious land of the Pharaohs. Over the years, a greater interest in that of Biblical archaeology began to take precedent, and many excavations in Egypt were largely funded as a result of this. It was considered by the group whether misinterpretation of the monuments, artifacts etc. during this time may have unintentionally created a somewhat warped evaluation of Egyptian culture, which in turn prompted the notion that the Egyptians were an ‘alien’ culture – something which led us to reflect upon the ancient historian Herodotus. Known as the ‘father of lies’, Herodotus’ account of Egypt has often been questioned in relation to its reliability as a historical source, and thus in the authenticity of its evaluation of Egyptian society and culture (see the previous BE Forum about Herodotus). Perhaps writing with his audience’s views in mind, Herodotus may have felt the incentive to relate to his primarily Greek audience the ‘oddness’ of the Egyptians, thereby confirming their beliefs, and again perpetuating common misconceptions.

The origins of modern misconceptions were further discussed when the group considered whether they were possibly the result of Neo-racist views, which were perhaps influenced by such work as Herodotus’, and  further encouraged (more recently) when the West met the East during Napoleon’s expedition. For instance, for some, the building of the pyramids by the ancient Egyptians is incomprehensible; they believe that technologies at that time were not sophisticated enough to permit the construction of these monuments and henceforth must have been made by ‘aliens’. It was thus deliberated by the group whether it is this that creates a sense of ‘dumbing down’ of the ancient Egyptians. In line with this, it could be said that these misconceptions are politically created, incorporating aspects of both memory and cultural identity in line with modern thinking and understanding. By definition then, the pyramids may have been built by this ‘alien’ culture, and are therefore ‘alien’ constructs. It is this mysticism and allure of the Egyptians which invigorates a sense of curiosity and discovery; similarly with secret societies and conspiracies, Egyptian iconography and culture are often portrayed as a secret we deserve to know. It could also be said of academics that it is the curiosity and the need for research which often inspires one to study.

The Forum concluded then that such misconceptions were probably born in academia; Herodotus, as an ‘academic’ of his time, researched, and perhaps misinterpreted, the peoples of ancient Egypt, through which a sense of mystery was ultimately derived. As to whether aliens did build the pyramids, the group answered with a unanimous ‘no’, but did believe that the origin of this misconception may be much deeper than it first appears; the possibility of Neo-racism was highlighted as a possible factor which may have prompted this thought. It was also made clear that misconceptions are not just limited to the field of Egyptology; Schliemann’s ‘discovery’ of Troy and the mask of Agamemnon have all accentuated this line of thinking in Hellenic studies too. Finally, it was concluded that whilst both business and money are key elements in encouraging misconceptions, the support and public interest they bring is in fact ultimately necessary for Egyptology to continue as an academic discipline.

Further Reading/Watching

Aliens built the pyramids:

Ancient Astronauts:

Alien’s built the pyramids…you decide:

‘Why Aliens Did NOT Build the Pyramids’:

Pharaoh’s Curse:

Curse of the Pharaoh’s:

Age of the Sphinx:

Age of the sphinx and pyramids:

Something different:


Should marginalized groups write their own history?

Eleanor Simmance

The topic under discussion (Friday 31st May 2013)  applies to ancient and modern histories alike. As such, whilst the focus was on ancient Egypt and the ideas introduced were largely based on the suggested reading, the discussion also delved into aspects of Greek, Roman and nineteenth and twentieth century history.

A brief introduction presented the idea that the decision regarding how successful an author has been in representing the people they write about ultimately lies with the reader. The hypotheses of Samuel Coleridge and Virginia Woolf that the best minds are androgynous and free from social influences were also mentioned.

The first question put to the group was how we are to define the term ‘marginalised group’, and if it is self-defined or a social construct applied by others. This percolated through the entire discussion. The forum considered whether a ‘marginalised group’ can be any that is set apart on a social level, including the elite. General opinion was that the elite is often the one doing the marginalising and therefore cannot be classed as such itself. The Greek polis and Roman Republic were used as examples where people were described according/opposite to, the status quo (we need an ‘Other’ to define ourselves). Queer Theory, which could be applied in any situation which goes against the norm, was introduced. This ‘norm’ varies, so between and within different societies ‘marginalised groups’ will be viewed differently; perhaps there is no all-encompassing definition.

It was suggested that ‘marginalised groups’ might be those who were denied access to resources, space and certain rights, and those who do not appear in the written and archaeological record. Consequently, the minute (but, for some members of the Forum, distinguishable) differences between the terms ‘minority’, ‘muted’ and ‘marginalised’ were considered. It was also insinuated that it is scholars themselves who create these groups, applying modern distinctions to ancient cultures.

The debate turned towards how much we should know of a scholar’s political, cultural and social associations, with agreement that we must examine the historiography, and indeed the ancient sources, carefully to assess their context. Examples were made of nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological reports, such as those of Wainwright at Balabish, which are decidedly derogatory towards the Egyptian locals. It was argued that we should not brush off these views as typical for the contemporary European social context, and we should point out the wrongs as a mark of respect and conciliation towards groups who were being marginalised. Similarly, it was suggested that whilst we may not be able to recapture under-represented groups in history, we can focus more attention on them. In answer to the overall question, it was put forward that if members of these groups did not write about their own history or question it, it may have never been brought to wider attention, the Feminist movement being a prime example.

Returning once again to the definition of ‘marginalised group’, the Forum decided that despite the risk of ‘ghetto-ing’, which could preclude wider acceptance into society, it was not necessarily negative: it empowers members, gives them a feeling of inclusion, and sets them up as spokespersons. It is also a form of memory, for which an example was given of Japanese Americans and their group experience and memory of World War II. An important distinction was drawn between self-definition and being labelled by another who makes presumptions, which often have positive and negative consequences respectively.

It was then agreed that the writing of the history of ‘marginalised groups’ should not be exclusionary. Scholarly discourse should be a ‘safe area’ whereby people should not be made to feel uncomfortable for writing about another social group. To balance this, scholars need a level of understanding of these groups, though being well-informed and empathetic is easier with modern groups with whom we can still interact. This led onto discussion of whether we, whatever our social grouping, can effectively and accurately write about the history of ancient civilisations. Borrowing a term from the Forum session on the 3rd May, ancient societies may not be considered ‘culturally relevant’ to their present-day descendants, so even if one was consider oneself part of a ‘marginalised group’, the ancient counterpart cannot truly be understood.

To end the Forum, it was agreed that we, nowadays, benefit from being part of a multicultural society, and that inroads have been made into addressing the history of ‘marginalised groups’. It was pointed out that in current Classical scholarship, books on masculinity are appearing, showing that attitudes towards simple constructs of male against female and more generally ‘norm’ against ‘other’ are being challenged, which can only benefit scholarly thought.

Further reading:

Dowson, T. A. 2008. Queering Sex and Gender. In C. Graves-Brown (ed.) Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt 27-46. The Classical Press of Wales: Swansea.

Foster, H. J. 1974. The Ethnicity of the Ancient Egyptians. Journal of Black Studies 5: 175-191.

Robins, G. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. The British Museum Press: London.


When does grave robbery become archaeology?

Emily Millward

The question for discussion at the Forum on Friday 3 May 2013 was the point at which archaeological excavation oversteps boundaries and becomes grave robbery. The debate questioned cases of archaeology and grave robbery not only in Egypt, but cross-culturally including South America, the Middle East, and Britain.

The group all presented their initial ideas on the differences between archaeology and grave robbery. It was immediately obvious that the general consensus was that grave robbery originates from a need for profit or gain whilst archaeology is fundamentally driven by curiosity and the need to answer scientific questions. The fact that archaeological excavations receive permission from an authority to be carried out verses the illegality of looting or grave robbery was also agreed upon.  The clear difference in technique was also suggested by members of the group stating that in general archaeology consists of systematic recording rather than the careless treatment of human remains and relics employed by grave robbers. On the other hand, the group considered early Twentieth Century excavations, such as Garstang at Beni Hassan, which demonstrate that archaeologists have not always methodically recorded their findings; one member of the group rightly stated that despite any recording archaeology is essentially still disruption, if not total destruction, of the original context of a burial assemblage.

Using the case study of the Staffordshire Hoard – found on farm land near Lichfield via metal detector in 2009 – legislation pertaining to archaeological finds came to the forefront of the discussion. One of the main aims of archaeology is to present the past to future generations and to researchers and so the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which records and makes accessible finds in the UK, allows this to be achieved. The group agreed that such schemes are important and so too are questions of who owns the land on which finds are discovered. However, the discussion did not discount the important aspect of morals and the extent to which both ancient and modern taboos and traditions should be respected.

One of the most relevant points raised during the discussion was that the ancient Egyptian viewpoint no longer exists creating a disassociation between ancient Egyptian culture and present opinion for both looters and archaeologists. This point led to a large portion of the discussion focusing on whether a culture is still relevant and the affect that this will have on the perspective of modern societies. The extent to which education regarding past cultures would reduce looting was mentioned, with the general viewpoint being that currently many cultures (particularly modern Egypt) have been conditioned into believing that ancient Egyptian culture is ‘not for them’ resulting in a disassociation and disrespect for their own heritage. Feeding into this disconnect was the climate in Late Egyptian history when the Islamic influences wanted no association with ‘Pagan Egypt’.

Finally the group agreed that although archaeology is beneficial in many ways – in saving remains and relics from environmental factors and providing knowledge of the past – the general consensus was that the situation is a tenuous one as archaeologists and looters have a moral duty to both the living and to the dead, although for very different reasons. We concluded that the argument comes back to ‘cultural relevance’ and that despite technical and intentional differences both archaeology and looting are driven by economic motives. Perhaps the viewpoint is correct that archaeologists are simply grave robbers with ‘Dr.’ in front if their name.

Further reading:

Attwood, R. 1996. ‘Guardians of the Dead’ in K. Vitelli (ed.) Archaeological Ethics. AltaMira Press: Oxford. 34-41.

Scarre, C. And Scarre, G. 2006. The Ethics of Archaeology. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.


Virtual Museums: What are they and what do they do?

Carl Graves

The Birmingham Egyptology Forum group delved into the vague topic of ‘Virtual Museums’ on the 8th March 2013. Initially we were keen to debate how virtual museums affected long established ‘brick and mortar’ museums, and assess whether they posed a threat to their income, or were detrimental to their visitor numbers. However, very quickly the discussions turned to even more appropriate questions including; what is a ‘museum’? Can virtual museums exist without established museums? And, what is the difference between museums and exhibitions?

At the outset many around the table had preconceived answers to these relatively ambiguous questions – but the debate resulted in many changing their minds, or in other cases clarifying some concepts to the benefit of the forum.

Brought to the front for a large part of the debate was the definition of ‘museum’, which Wikipedia categorizes loosely as ‘an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts’. While everyone around the table was aware that museums are usually classified as ‘buildings’, it was proposed that ‘museum’ as a concept could perhaps include abstract ways of conserving, presenting and interpreting objects (objects being either artifacts, collections, buildings, among others – depending on the nature of the museum). Within this framework the forum continued to define the differences between ‘museum’, ‘exhibition’, ‘collection centre/store’ and ‘virtual museum’. One statement made was, ‘museums are therefore buildings containing many exhibitions.’ Most of the forum members agreed with this statement, with the premise that to be a museum the objects should be interpreted and presented in some way – so as to differentiate from a ‘collection centre/store.’ At this point the forum began to debate freely about how ‘virtual museums’ fitted into this background.

It was realised very early in this discussions that each person around the group had very personal ideas about what a virtual museum was, as well as what a museum was. To some, a virtual museum should include some element of virtual reality – to recreate the experience of being in a museum environment, perhaps including three-dimensional virtual spaces. For others, a virtual museum could include the simple digitization of objects/collections and their presentation alongside interpretation. Within the latter example would fall our own project, ‘CONNECTIONS: Communication in Ancient Egypt’ ( Although, everyone agreed that a virtual museum was not a way of displaying objects themselves, but simply the digital copies/impressions of these pieces.

A significant point made by the group was that simply taking an image of an object is in some way already interpretive, with regards to orientation and use of photography (colour, size, effects, etc.). Also, virtual museums in many ways assist in the conservation and care of collections, in that they reduce stress on objects through handling and display, thereby allowing more fragile objects the same degree of study, without being put in damaging situations. In this attitude a virtual museum can certainly be labelled a version of a ‘museum’ and should therefore be differentiated from potential ‘virtual collections’ or ‘imaginary museums’. It was debated whether collection databases online could fall into the category of ‘virtual collections’ – although with the elements of interpretation that come with imaging and description, this issue was left undecided.

While much debate at this forum session focussed on those issues above, we did eventually come back around and attempt to answer the questions we had originally proposed. Extra reading done by the group proved that museums with virtual counterparts had reported increasing visitor numbers since their online platforms went live. They attributed this to an increased accessibility of their objects and the desire for authenticity amongst their visitors. The issues of cost are more geographically particular and can depend whether museums charge admission fees or not. In the UK for example, at sites such as the British Museum, they rely heavily on donations and shop sales. While they charge for some of their temporary exhibitions, should they have a more extensive web platform they may reduce their income, at the cost of what could be a very expensive online development.

Clearly this session requires much more debate, and is fraught with personal opinions and preconceptions about museums and their virtual partners. This forum was one of the most lively debated so far and has sparked a number of possible future session titles, the most clear being ‘what does ‘museum’ mean to you?’ As ever, opinions are encouraged at the Birmingham Egyptology Forum, and it is always good to see people changing or refining their ideas during our debates. Hopefully the summer semester will see a return to this topic, and perhaps offer an opportunity to clarify some of the group’s answers to those questions proposed.

Further Reading/Viewing

Chapman, H. P., Gaffney, V. L., and Moulden, H. L. 2010. The Eton Myers Collection Virtual Museum. International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing 4, 81–93.

‘CONNECTIONS: Communication in Ancient Egypt’: (15/03/2013)

‘Museum’, Wikipedia: (15/03/2013)


Did Herodotus ever visit Egypt?

Steven Gregory

The question for debate during the Forum session of Friday 22nd February 2013 was: ‘Did Herodotus ever visit Egypt?’ The significance of the question being that present understanding of ancient Egyptian history, particularly in relation to the 26th, Saite, Dynasty, is to some extent reliant on Herodotus’ accounts. While Herodotus claimed to have visited Egypt, a number of scholars have suggested that he did not, thereby throwing considerable doubt on the reliability of Herodotus as a historical source.

The Forum considered firstly that, during the period in question, there is ample evidence for the presence of Greeks in Egypt and therefore there seemed to be no reason to necessarily believe that Herodotus could not have visited the country. There was some discussion as to how far he would have been able to travel, bearing in mind that Egypt was, at that time, under Persian rule. Nonetheless, limitations to travel for those having the wherewithal to undertake it may be more relevant in modern times than in the past. In the absence of evidence for travel restrictions for foreign visitors one must again allow that it is feasible that Herodotus visited those places he described. Travel as far as the First Cataract should certainly have been possible as, one may assume, such journeys were made frequently by the indigenous population in furtherance of trade, or general movement of goods and people. Nonetheless. one may wonder if Herodotus would be free to question members of the local population at will; or whether his interviewees would be willing to part with information; or with accurate information.

Of principle interest was the nature of the material presented by Herodotus; some of which he claimed to have been provided by local priests, other matters he recounted from personal experience. In relation to third party information some thought was given to the amount and quality of material that would have been available to priests. One may consider how knowledgeable they would themselves have been. While certainly cognisant of their roles in society, their daily practices and activities, how much would they know of their political systems and the underlying mythologies seems less certain. In addition, one must consider the difficulty in communicating complex philosophical ideas in a foreign language, perhaps through interpreters – a practice likely to result in a somewhat garbled or misrepresentative account in the first instance. Also considered was the manner in which such information may have been recorded by Herodotus: was he taking contemporaneous notes, or did he latter compile a recollection of his travel memoirs – perhaps a combination of these and other methods.

After some debate the Forum agreed that there is so much information which accurately reflects certain elements of ancient Egyptian tradition and culture that Herodotus must have visited the country. The anomalies in his accounts are no more than may reasonably expected from one seeking information from a variety of individual sources, each of which may have been reliable to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, it seems certain that some information given to Herodotus may have been embellished in the fashion of many tales told to travellers in any place at any time. Many of the Forum recounted that they had themselves received much more or less reliable information when visiting Egypt from what might be termed both official and unofficial sources – much of it subsequently proving to be rather questionable. Thus, for someone visiting a foreign land with little or no prior knowledge of its culture, the accounts presented by Herodotus are precisely what may be expected.

The unanimous conclusion of the Forum was that Herodotus did visit Egypt. The authenticity of Herodotus’ accounts is supported by the fact that he himself often doubts the reliability of his sources; and further by the occasions in which he offers descriptions of places, sometimes comparing them with other significant landmarks in his homeland in a manner strongly indicative of personal experience and reflection. While it seems apparent that he was distilling his accounts for presentation to a Greek audience, possibly in a somewhat dramatised fashion for the purpose of entertainment, much of the material is worthy of consideration in academic study – with the caveat that one should treat the work with appropriate caution and seek additional evidence from other primary sources where available.

Further reading:

Africa, T. W. 1963. Herodotus and Diodorus on Egypt. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22, No.4: 254-258.

Armayor, O. K.. 1978.’Did Herodotus ever go to Egypt. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 15: 59-73.

Brown, T. S. 1965. Herodotus Speculates about Egypt. The American Journal of Philology 86, No.1: 60-76.

Lloyd, A. B. 1975. Herodotus: book II: Introduction. Leiden: Brill.

Redfield, J. 1985. Herodotus the Tourist. Classical Philology 80: 97-118.


The decline of the Nomarchs

Carl Graves

The topic of discussion during 8th February’s forum focused on the long held theory of a decline in nomarchial families at the end of the 12th Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The group particularly concentrated on the information presented by Detlef Franke in his seminal paper ‘The career of Khnumhotep III of Beni Hasan and the so-called “decline of the nomarchs.”’

The dialogue commenced by considering a number of questions raised by the paper, and which the group felt they would like answering during the ensuing debate. The first issue to overcome was to clarify what the topic could entail, particularly with reference to the role and position of Khnumhotep III and his dynastic family at Beni Hasan as presented by Franke. Many within the group were unaware that Khnumhotep III, and indeed his immediate ancestors (within the Oryx Nome) were not ‘nomarchs’ at all, although they did hold regional administrative positions. The forum therefore decided that the debate should be flexible and include all regional officials of the late 12th Dynasty. However, this is proved to be very difficult to incorporate due to the scope of this topic and so generally the discourse continued to focus on nomarchs – and in some instances to the family of Khnumhotep III (as ‘Overseer of the Eastern Desert’).

It was noted from the reading of Franke’s references to earlier histories of the period that the language used in these examples reflects a reliance on European Medieval experiences of feudalism. The use of terms such as ‘lords’, ‘kingdoms’ and ‘serfs’/’serfdoms’ all mirror analogies to help familiarise audiences with concepts of decline during the late 12th Dynasty. However, the nuances inherent in some of these terms give ideas of a parallel between developments in Medieval Europe with those of Middle Kingdom Egypt. While these models can be useful tools in some instances to discuss unfamiliar topics, they should always be used with caution so as not to encourage skewed and romantic views of historical periods that may cloud further discussion.

Rather than simply focussing on approaches, the group continued further to debate the roles of nomarchs in Middle Kingdom Egypt and their associated administrative networks. One point raised very early in the forum was whether the nomarchs were important at all by the end of the 12th Dynasty – it was pointed out that Franke only lists evidence of six individuals at this period. While some people in the group felt that this reflected matters of preservation, others thought that six people in archaic positions scattered around Upper and Middle Egypt likely presented very little threat to centralised Middle Kingdom royal power. However, others disagreed with this point and felt that a united six people would certainly have provoked royal suspicion. This led on to a discussion about Middle Kingdom royal attitudes and in some instances paranoia that is expressed through the literature that hearkens back to the conflicts of the First Intermediate Period. It was suggested that this paranoia may have resulted in the eventual removal of dynastic administrative families in provincial areas of Egypt. This idea linked well with Franke’s presentation of a gradual removal of regional officials, whereby the king refused to reappoint sons to their fathers position and instead educated their children in the royal court to incorporate them into careers at the royal residence and instil in them loyalty to the palace.

It was noted by the group however that Khnumhotep II mentions the royal appointment of his position in his autobiography, from his tomb at Beni Hasan. Similarly, it is likely that Khnumhotep IV (owner of another tomb at Beni Hasan) was also a son of Khnumhotep II – and perhaps also succeeded to his father’s position. This apparently occurred after, or perhaps alongside, the promotion of Khnumhotep III to the royal palace, which entailed that Franke’s example of Khnumhotep III for his theory is flawed.

Although there are some serious issues with the information presented by Franke, the forum agreed that the model he promoted can be used to study the decline of provincial officials during the late 12th Dynasty. However, it is difficult to say whether this occurred during the reign or at the request of Senwosret III, or whether his reign simply witnessed the result of a policy installed some generations before. To close the discussion the forum ended with consideration of the implication of removing the regional administration in this period. If this was a process of recentralisation by the monarchy, then it ultimately appears to have failed and perhaps contributed to the onset of the 13th Dynasty and subsequent Second Intermediate Period.

Nonetheless it appears that further research is needed to understand the ‘decline of the nomarchs’ and the impact this had on late Middle Kingdom government.

Further Reading

Franke, D. 1991. ‘The career of Khnumhotep III. of Beni Hasan and the so-called “Decline of the Nomarchs”’, in S. Quirke (ed.), Middle Kingdom Studies, New Malden, 51-67.

Simpson, W.K. 2003. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. London. (For a translation of the autobiographies of Khnumhotep II and Amenhotep – two officials from Beni Hasan).


How Religious were the Ancient Egyptians?

Carl Graves

The forum discussion of 25th January focused on religion in ancient Egypt, and in particular, ‘how religious were the ancient Egyptians?’ (Kemp 1995) This topic has long been discussed in Egyptology and is one which many people form their own personal opinions about, making this week’s forum a particularly lively one!

To open the discussion the group first analysed the problems of discussing ‘religion’ in a culture that had no specific word for religion or religious beliefs, and also the trouble of using modern terminology when discussing the topic – or indeed many other topics in Egyptology. While the entire forum agreed that terminology must be used carefully when discussing ancient Egyptian religion, there were many separate opinions expressed regarding the nature of ancient Egyptian religiosity.

Access to ‘religion’ and ‘religious’ institutions was debated, with some believing temples to be focal points of communities, while others elaborated that temples should be seen as the major land owners of the area behind large closed walls, and were more indicative of state establishments.

It was agreed by most that the ancient Egyptians probably had deities that were personal to them (although we all agreed that the use of the word ‘patron’ should be avoided). These deities were probably those closest to them, such as local gods or goddesses – and when these link with ‘state gods’ (such as Ptah in the stelae of Neferabu), it is not because of this status that they were approached, but instead links to smaller local cult places of worship.

An interesting turn in the discussion occurred when it was suggested that there was a hierarchy of deities in Egypt, and if such requests were not respected by the local deity then the donor may well wish to seek a higher order to deal with their appeal. In this way shrines, such as that of Osiris at Abydos, may have become focal points for pilgrimages, and indeed contributed to state power and control.

It was clear that state religion was (and often still is) a useful tool to control populations, and also provide an economic model – albeit one that is more elusive in periods earlier than the New Kingdom. This lack of evidence does not necessarily denote a lack of religiosity however and following Baines’ approach may instead suggest matters of decorum in donating to deities in earlier periods of Egypt’s history.

No one was able to confidently state that the Egyptians were non-religious  however it is clear that our own personal and individually held religious beliefs occasionally cloud the discussion. Perhaps this topic is worthy of a further forum session to discuss the implications of separating ‘religiosity’ from everyday experience and daily life in ancient Egypt.  .

 Further Reading

Assmann, J. 1984. Ägypten : Theologie und Frömmigkeit einer frühen Hochkultur. Stuttgart.

Baines, J. 1987. ‘Practical Religion and Piety’, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 73, 79-98.

Frood, E. 2007. Biographical texts from Ramessid Egypt. Atlanta.

Kemp, B. 1995. ‘How Religious were the Ancient Egyptians?’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5.1, 25-54.

Luiselli, M. 2008. ‘Personal Piety’, In J. Dieleman and W. Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.

Shafer, B. (ed.) 1991. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths and Personal Practise. London.

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