Category Archives: Student Blog Post 2

Cultural Context

Archaeology differs from other branches of Anthropology in the unique viewpoint it is afforded. Archaeology gets to view cultures across time, seeing change and development and delving into the human race’s past. However, this also means that Archaeology faces problems other branches may not. It only has the material remains of a people to study, not the people themselves so direct ethnography or participant-observation cannot be utilized. This makes it difficult to figure out the social and cultural context of evidence found. This can be easier to do when the cultures being studied make great use of writing, but for cultures where writing is scarce or non-existent  the problem is compounded.

One of the areas this difficulty is most apparent in is religion. It is difficult for archaeologists to figure out the meaning of objects that seem to be sacred, or even if they are sacred at all. Wenke dryly observes in Patterns in Prehistory that archaeologists have been accused of declaring any building “large enough to stand upright” a temple (249). Each building or artifact uncovered has to be carefully considered within the context it was found. An elaborate building surrounded mostly by simple mud dwellings pretty clearly has some significance. Determining what exactly this significance is however, is the difficult part. Frustratingly, the archaeologist may never know what is what that an individual or culture was thinking about a particular object.

Early Egypt provides an example of a culture that does have some writing to aid archaeologists in determining the meaning of what they found. The Egyptians had especially complex ideas and rituals surrounding mortuary practices. From painting and writings found in tombs we can see what their view of the afterlife was. The Egyptians believed that when one died they had to go through a harrowing process in the afterlife, including having their heart weighed against a feather. Not only is this procedure depicted on the walls of tombs, it is written out in The Book of the Dead. These paintings and writings also explain why boats have been found buried near tombs. They were used to transport people in the afterlife. Archaeologists know so much about the religious practice of Egyptians because it was documented in their tombs and writings. It is much easier to match up artifacts to known practices. Egypt provides an example of why having cultural context is so useful to archaeologists but also so difficult or even impossible to obtain.

Ancient Egyptian Pyramids

This week, we finally got to talk about pyramids. Let’s face it we all love pyramids. They’re big, old, and mysterious. We have all wondered about them before. Maybe pyramids were the only reason you took this class. I think pyramids interest so much because of the three simple reasons I listed above. They are from a land so foreign to us so alien to us. They were built over thousands of years ago by people that we don’t know much about. By people that never even dreamed about having the technology we have today. They were built by these people with minimal tools and no machinery. It’s amazing that they ever got built and even more amazing that they are still standing today. This leads us to the last reason, which is the mystery behind these insanely large, complex structures. Our heads are filled with wonder when we see images of them. Why were they built? How were they built? Who built them? How long did it take? Is there any meaning behind them? Now that I have been taking this class some of these questions are obvious and some still not quite. They were built by the Egyptians that lived in Old Kingdom times and beyond. They were organized projects, put in motion by the Pharaoh for many reasons. One reason being to exert power and force to show that he was still the ruler. Another reason could be to leave his mark on the land. To be remembered for many years. This goal was obviously accomplished. Some Pharaohs built multiple pyramids which is just mind boggling to me. I feel like it would take years to build just one. It’s amazing that the Pharaoh could find people willing to work on multiple pyramids. But this point just speaks to Pharaoh’s organization, power, and authority of his kingdom. However, I still wonder how they were built and how long it took. I cannot imagine working on a project of this size in that time period.

I believe these pyramids ultimately speak to how different our times are compared to these. One ruler, over all that built these structures just to show he still is better and bigger than you. Could you imagine in our time if President Obama decided he wanted to exert his authority by building a similar structure. Using time and money just so he could show you he is still your superior. It is indeed mind-boggling.

Graffiti in the Giza Pyramids

I had remembered reading something about strange markings a robot discovered while exploring the tunnels in the Great Pyramid of Giza a while ago and talking about pyramids in class recently made me curious to see what had become of them. I came across two articles, which I’ll link below. One of them, from CNN examines hidden graffiti that has recently been examined at the Great Pyramid, and the second is a NOVA interview with Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner about who built the pyramids.

The robot, named Djedi after the magician Khufu consulted when building the Great Pyramid, captured images of a number of hieroglyphics written in red. A Harvard professor remarked that the marking were similar to ones found across Egypt, and that they usually marked the work gang that built the room. These graffiti marking often show up in places that were never meant to be found like the foundations exposed when archaeologists dig below floor level. These marking give us a picture into the organization of the workers who built Egypt’s large monuments, the Great Pyramid in particular. Any particular gang of workmen was divided into two crews which were then divided into five phyles, the Greek word for “tribe”. The phyles are divided into divisions with each division identified by a single hieroglyph. This knowledge comes from the burial chambers within the pyramids where these marking are found. Archaeologists find a cartouche of a king with some red markings beside it, this represents the group of workers who were working there. In the Old Kingdom, gangs of workers were named after kings, and then the divisions differentiated by what they called themselves. One well preserved marking, in the King’s Burial Chamber of the Great Pyramid, reads “The Friends of Khufu Gang”. Now this really interested me because many traditional, older theories for the construction of the pyramids involved large slave forces. But workers calling themselves “The Friends of Khufu” doesn’t sound a whole lot like slavery. On some monuments, archaeologists have found the sign of one gang on one side of the monument, and the sign of another gang on the other side, making it seem like groups of workers were competing with each other to see who could get the most done.

Reading about how workers in ancient Egypt were tagging their works makes me think that these workers were proud of what they were doing. They weren’t coerced into manual labor by oppression, and they certainly weren’t treated like slaves. These workers saw the grandeur and magnificence of what they were undertaking and they were proud to do the work.

Here are the articles:

Ancient Egypt: Myths Debunked

I originally began this post by searching for the topic I wanted to write about for the last blog post: whether or not Egyptians were buried with food.  I was curious because during class our professor kept reiterating the fact that the pottery inside the tombs/graves/pyramids were unused, non-domestic pieces.  So what about the food?  Didn’t the dead also need nourishment with their pottery?

Some sites such as wikipedia confirmed that the Egyptians were in fact buried with food, but I stumbled upon a site that was attempting to debunk what they called Ancient Egypt’s top ten myths (  After reading through the myths listed, I realized that a much better topic would be to take one or two of the myths and to find relevant current information on it that would relate to this week’s class discussions.

Some of these myths we have discussed in this class as well as in a previous class I took on Ancient Egypt such as the burial of slaves with the pharaohs.  In class, we briefly brought up the topic of how the tomb of the pharaoh Horus in the Abydos Necropolis had several graves in parallel lines behind next to it where other bodies and a lion lay.  It was mentioned then over the uncertainty of whether or not those were willing deaths but it was commonly thought that they were all sacrifices who had been strangled to better serve their king in the after life.

Another myth involved whether or not slaves built the pyramids which according to this site’s article they did not.  In a previous class I took with this same professor, our lessons agreed with the falseness of this myth.  According to the site, the builders of the pyramids were buried in tombs near the pyramids and were fed beef which was seen as a luxury food.  Being buried next to the pharaoh was seen as a high honor and neither of these two honors would ever have been bestowed upon a slave.

One myth I hadn’t thought of was the decoration of the pyramids and tombs.  When we say there were artifacts buried with the deceased in tombs, I still imagine that it was great riches.  If the pharaohs had their ships buried in boat graves near their tombs and pyramids then why wouldn’t they have great treasures buried with them as well?  No where in class have we ever discussed great treasures though, and while we might find inscribed walls to be treasure, to the untrained it is worthless.

The Corruption of the Priesthood of Amen

Our talk about the taxation of Egyptian farmers and the lack of taxation of temple lands sparked my interest.  This got me thinking about the growing power, and eventual corruption, of the temples and priests that was mentioned.  I did some research and found that the corruption spanned many rulers, all of which had some part in the increasing power of the temple and priesthood of Amen.

To start, Amen-Re was considered the true father of the pharaoh, which helped legitimize the power the pharaohs held over Egypt.  The priests held a large amount of power with the general public, which they preserved by appearing as defenders and guardians of the oppressed people.  The kings tried to limit the power of the priests of Amen to simply religious affairs.  This was holding order until around 1498 BC, when Hatshepsut took control.

Hatshepsut was the only legitimate heir from the line of Amenhotep (his granddaughter, actually).  To become king, her half-brother Thutmose II became her husband.  When Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut took control; Thutmose III was still young and in the care of the priests of Amen (he was originally supposed to become a priest himself).  As time passed, many chose sides.  There were those who believed a woman could not be king and supported Thutmose III.  Hatshepsut also had her supporters, the priests of Amen.  To legitimize her claim to power, Hatshepsut had them declare her Pharaoh (the first woman to do this) and was from then on depicted with the masculine attributes of pharaohs.  Her supporters reaped the rewards of her power; the First Prophet of Amen became the administrator of the temple’s wealth, head of all the gods’ priests in Upper and Lower Egypt, and prefect of Thebes and vizier.  Hatshepsut also built the stunning temple Deirdre el Bahri, along with other smaller chapels.  This is where we see the priesthood and temples gaining undue power.

While Hatshepsut was ruling Egypt, Thutmose III had become head of the army, and eventually took control back from his mother.  His rule saw many conquests with much accompanying wealth.  This wealth was first distributed to the warriors/soldiers, then the priesthood of Amen took their share, and in the end not much was left for Pharaoh.  As their wealth and power increased, the power of the king decreased.  The priests were now starting to push the king out of power, turn him into a figurehead and maybe try to get rid of the position all together.  But still Thutmose III enlarged the temple’s landholdings and added to the Amen temple at Karnak.

A couple of pharaohs later (Amenhotep III) the worship of the red disc of the sun, Aten, gained popularity and followers.  When Amenhotep III died, his son was brought up devoted to Aten, not Amen.  As Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV’s name was changed to Ahkenaten and the funding to the temples of Amen subsequently stopped.  The wealth, land, and slaves that belonged to the temples were most likely seized by the king.  There was still a large public following of Amen, however, and the temples were eventually rebuilt by Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  The co-regent also returned all of the confiscated wealth to the priesthood.

This corruption of the priesthood of Amen was fostered by many pharaohs, and it certainly did not end with Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  While it appeared to come to a head in Hatshepsut’s time, the pharaohs before her are just as responsible.  Or perhaps it was an inevitable occurrence, with the state religion being so closely tied with the power of the Pharaoh, and so adamantly followed by the people in many aspects of their daily lives.

The Heb-Sed Festival

In class the other day we discussed briefly the Heb-Sed jubilee or festival. It caught my interest so I decided to find more information on it.

First I’d like to talk about the reason that this festival was held. The festival was a renewal of the pharaoh’s power and an affirmation of the health of the pharaoh for the whole nation to see. It proved that they were still capable of running the country. We have seen something similar to this in class already where Narmer is scene traveling down the Nile in a procession that is meant to reaffirm the power that Narmer holds over Egypt.

Second I’d like to talk about the ritual itself and what it was composed of. It was usually held after a thirty year ruling period and then after this period held every three years. However, it wasn’t unheard of for pharaohs to shorten the period between each festival for reasons like failing health etc. Some pharaohs even started before the thirty year, an example of this being Hatshepsut who celebrated the festival in her 16th year as pharaoh. (Kinnaer)

The festival varied over the years so the is not one simple procession however most seemed to include a ritual offering to the gods from the king, a crowning of the king with the crowns of both lower and upper egypt, a race alongside the Apis Bull where the pharaoh ran around a track 8 times, four times as the king of upper Egypt and four times as the king of lower Egypt. Finally, there was a procession where the king was carried to “the temple of Horus, where he receives the crook and the flail as the king of Lower Egpyt. Next, as king of Upper Egypt, he was carried to the two chapels of Horus of Edfu and Seth of Ombos, where he was handed a bow and arrow, with which he shoots an arrow in each one of the four directions.” (Arab) In some variations of the festival the king was on a boat going down the Nile which symbolizes the sun god’s journey to the underworld. (Dunn)

There are various Egyptian gods associated with this festival, all with their own representations and symbols. Some pharaohs decided not to include certain gods in their festivals and use others instead. The mythology on the Heb-Sed festival is not very clear. However here are a few gods that may or may not have been involved over the years: “the cobra-goddess Wadjit of the Delta town of Buto,… the vulture goddess Nekhbet of el-Kab”, Sed, and Ma’at. (Dunn)

Heb-Sed. Kinnaer, Jacques (

The Sed-festival: Renewal of the kings Rule and Health. Dunn, Jimmy (

The Sed-festival: Renewal of the kings’ Reign. Arab, Sameh (

Using Religion for Power

What really interested me from the lectures and reading for this week, was this idea of Power of Elites through Religion. About how they used it to create a greater social stratification in the society.  What drew my attention was the discussion about how part of the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt was somewhat brought on by the decline in tribute from the Nomarchs, as well as thoughts, from the article “Ancient Mesopotamia” by Susan Pollack, about the social differences between the “Priests” and civilians. This made me contemplate why did they give tribute to the Pharaoh in the start. What was pulled from the lectures was that Pharaohs were given their power by this idea that they were the god in human form. So that their power was from the idea that they were a god. Giving them control over their people through religious beliefs. By using this power the Pharaohs were able to convince the people to build many things in their honor. Giant Pyramids that would house their mummified bodies and treasures. During the time of the Old Kingdom colossal projects were finished and constructed. The creation of separate burial grounds that far exceeded that off “normal” civilians was part of the way this power help to social stratify the society even more.

Then I drew the connection from the reading about Ancient Mesopotamia about how the only differences in housing was with in the Ubadid society was between the temples and the civilian housing. That the temples were built on platforms that would draw them as high as 1 to 10 meters above the surrounding housing. The temples tended to not be larger than the normal households their construction was what made them different. Thought went into the construction of the temples with focuses on decorative architectural features, such as mosaic decorations, recessed portals, and niched facades. Even though the temples tended to contain house hold artifacts it also held more finely created ceramics that were painted and sometimes shaped unusually.  The unusual painted and shaped ceramics were only seen with in the temple part of the site. This created a difference between those who lived with in the temple and those who did not. Power also came with this differentiation  the very creation of these elaborate temples, and their sheer numbers in the sites that litter Mesopotamia can be used to show the acceptance of the Priest with in a separate category.

So in these two examples the use of Religious thought and roles can be seen as a way to for certain individuals to gain power as well as social standing. It is curious to me whether this occurs with in every beginning of every society? As well as this idea that without religion would certain monumental structures have been created?


Solar Boats of Ancient Egypt

In June of 2011, archaeologists unearthed the stones concealing another solar boat in close proximity to the Great Pyramids of Giza. A similar boat was found nearby in 1954 and is believed to be the world’s oldest intact ship. It is currently housed in its own museum at the base of Khufu’s pyramid. Both boats were found disassembled and it will be several years before the new boat will be fully restored and ready for exhibition. The ships were able to survive 4,500 years of decay because of the air tight shafts they were laid to rest in. To keep the second boat preserved from intruding insects and other decomposers, the pit was completely sealed in a climate controlled tent. Robotic cameras were sent in first to examine the boat, and it will take several months of excavation to extract all the pieces of the new boat.

While findings on the newly unearthed boat have yet to be published, we know a great deal about the first Khufu ship. The boat is 143 feet long and is constructed of over 1200 individual pieces. Since Egypt does not have any naturally growing good timber trees, the wood had to have been imported. The boat has no mast, but may have been used as funerary barge during Khufu’s funeral procession.

The boat’s association with the Great Pyramid of Khufu is a reflection of the Ancient Egyptian’s obsession with the afterlife. It is likely that the boats were laid to rest to assist Khufu in his journey through the afterlife. This was a common burial practice amongst ancient Egyptian’s who would fill their tombs with a wide variety of grave goods. Likely to have never even touched the water, the boats were instead directly interned next to the pharaoh’s  tomb for his use.The boats are also an embodiment of the sun god Ra’s daily journey across the sky in his solar boat, only to descend below the horizon to do battle with his foes. The soul of the pharaoh was said to accompany Ra as he made this journey.

Just last year an even older boat was discovered by a team from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology. This smaller boat is estimated to be 5,000 years old and date from the time of the Pharaoh Den. It is currently being restored at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The boat is expected to go on display sometime this year. Solar boats were not an uncommon phenomenon and a total of seven have been identified in association with the Pyramids of Giza.