Category Archives: Student Blog Post 2

Pyramid Culture

The mortuary practices in antiquity are quite interesting to study.  It amazes me how different the observances are between ancient Egyptian culture and modern Western culture, or even my culture (Eastern).  The variety in social, philosophical, religious, and economic circumstances is as relevant in discussing the deviations as location or era.  But another factor to consider is the psychological.  The grieving process in Ancient Egypt after a leader has passed, I would assume is a shorter time because their entire reign is spend preparing a monumental feat.  A stark reminder of their existence on this earth (and subsequent passing) is showcased to all, even before they have died.  But how much could citizens mourn for a demi-god, especially if he was so aloof and disconnected from plebeian life?  How could they simply accept his many accomplishments that line the walls of his tomb?

In my culture, we cremate the departed and morn for 13 days.  But life is thought as cyclical (birth -> death -> reincarnation) until nirvana is reached.  The soul’s judgement is not based on one life’s judgement, but rather the karma that computes over several lifetimes.  Since one has had so many lifetimes, a single particular existence commonplace.  The rites given to a king are the exact same as the rites given to a scholar or a warrior or merchant, and ashes are indistinguishable.  Furthermore, there is little variance between where the final resting place for the ashes: scattered in a wind, rivers, mountains (a particular corner of the world is not reserved for “the Greats”).  Another part of the lecture (or lack of) that caught my attention was women.  They are rarely mentioned yet they are one of the most noteworthy portions of the population.  Where are the pyramids for women?  Where are the female pharaohs?  When did the concept of a patriarchal society develop.  Even in the mortuary practices of my culture, there is no variance with what happens with women versus men.  The grieving process is another detail that deviates.  It seems to me that the grieving process family of pharaohs and nomarchs experienced is notably shorter than the cathartic 13 days most Hindu family undergo.

Personally, the erection of a monument during your lifetime (planning, allocating human/monetary capital, and presiding over construction) that will one day be your final resting place is the most macabre undertaking.  I want to argue that the ego of the pharaoh’s is proportional to the size of their pyramids, but that prove me to be culturally insensitive.  Yet, I sympathize with their need for posterity to remember their importance.  It was common belief that building monolithic structures was the only mechanism by which one could be recalled.  But there is also a grain of altruism here: pyramid and funerary texts.  It is fantastic how they preserve their religious and historical teachings through mortuary practices.  Pyramids were a useful forum for priests to review/record the past decades, kings, and vague hymns that can be passed down to newer scholars.  But with this much cultural conservation, how could such a powerful  civilization fade?

There’s Always A Place After!!!!

The city of Abydos was a necropolis in southern Egypt. Many archeologists find themselves asking why the mummies of the elite and early royals were buried there. Abydos has a spiritual significance in the burial of the elite of Egypt. It was considered the entrance to the Duatt (also known as the underworld) which is a ceremonial center. The journey behind the Duatt is important because it helps us to understand more in depth the social and cultural constructions that can be found in viewing dynastic chronology. Egyptians believe that when you die your body goes to the Duat and split into two spirits: Apophis and Ra. These two spirits eventually go their own ways and travel separate journeys. However, the spirits have to come back and replenish themselves in the body of the person they just left. One of the things that we talked about in class regarding the legend of the Duat in Egyptian culture, deals with the journey in itself. The supporters of the elite would bring offerings to the dead in order to better help them through the journey in the afterlife. It was important that the spirits were fed and constantly replenished. The offerings helped to make sure that this happened so that the dead could successfully complete their journeys on to the next step where they found out which world they will ultimately reside in. In fact, their where hieroglyphs along the walls of the tombs that were essentially directions a step by step guide that explains how to get through the underworld successfully. What I thought was so interesting about this entire aspect it how it sheds light into other areas of the dynastic such as the mortuary practices of early pre-dynastic and dynastic cultures. For instance in the earlier sections of the course we talked about the burial practices of the Naqada and how they buried their dead in locations that are away from the residential complexes. There is a presence of the elite being buried separately from the lower classed individuals, but not only that the individuals of the Naqada were buried with their belongings, with minimal to no hieroglyphs along the tomb walls of the dead. However, as time progresses there becomes more a presence of the elite and an even stronger presence of burial sacrifices and the importance of them in understanding as well as executing the journey the dead will embark on during their second life.

Sicily has Mummies!

Today in class when Professor Watrall was discussing the story behind the sphinx and how the pyramids were used to bury the King/Pharaohs of old I started to wonder about other cultures and if the Egyptians’ were the only ones that mummified they diseased. To be completely honest the only kinds of mummies I have ever heard of or seen on T.V. were Egyptian, except for that horrible “Tomb of The Dragon Emperor” movie. So I went online to if there were any other mummies besides the Egyptian that being studied to with serious interest and I stumbled across an article that that really caught my eye.

The articles was entitled, “Sicilian Mummies Bring Centuries to Life” and it talks about a five year Sicilian Mummy project and the new advances that that technology has to help us get a better synopsis of the past. Led by anthropologist Dario Piombino- Mascali of the Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity in Palermo look at the life of religious men and their wealthy supporters of the late 16th– mid 20th century lived, dealt with diseases and the diseased, and interacted. Mascali’s team ran x-rays and CT scans to help preserve the bodies of many specimens. What the test found were traces of healthy dietary practices such as the consumption of dairy products, meats, fish, grains and veggies but what the test also found that gastronomic affluence of these foods lead to signs of maladies such as gout and skeletal disease. Also they found multiple cases of degenerative disorders from over two-thirds of the specimens. As the study goes on new discoveries are being uncovered in Sicily. For example there was another team ran by a forensic scientist that ran pilot programs on some of the specimen’s intestines and found that a man in his 40’s had myeloma but the real surprise came from one of his students that found evidence of milkwort, a pollen plant with antitumor agents used in China and Turkey but thought to be uncommon in Sicily. This find shows that these people had an esoteric knowledge of medicinal plants and found effective ways for treating cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

Personally I found this article to be really interesting because it kind of gives us a prelude to what we can look forward to in the future by looking at the past. Looking at this article really got me excited about all the possibilities that can come to play by looking at past civilizations. Maybe one of the treatment methods for cancer from the past may get us one step closer to discovering a cure for it or may even be the cure. I feel that this article really opens up another door of archaeology, anthropology, and forensics. There more that we can learn from past civilizations then just the social order and demographics. Literally the possibilities are endless!

Here’s a link to look at some pictures of the mummies and see where the project took place:


Today, we discussed the factors that archeologists believe led to the collapse of the Egyptian Kingdom. Overall, the themes of decentralization and uncontrollable climate changes seemed to emerge as the key reasons as to why the collapse occurred.

I recall that in talking about empires in general, Professor Watrall had mentioned that archeologists and historians have come to the conclusion that all empires collapse. Beyond this, one of the key reasons to this was their inability to cope with new and emerging problems. Reasons for these inabilities? The empires could not find a viable and cost-effective solution to said problems that gave instantaneous results. Most solutions did not amply supply a return on cost and would be long-term solutions, whose benefits would not be felt for a long period of time. With that, said solutions would be deemed unviable, and the ingenuity of empires in collapse would generally begin to cease.

With Egypt, it seems this true due to the droughts that occurred. It was easy enough to see in the causeway to Unas, where images of starving men were lined. Nonetheless, this is an empire that had existed in some form for thousands of years. I don’t mean to downplay the effects of a drought on an ancient civilization, though, I do feel that after reaping the benefits (and suffering the consequences) of completely depending on the Nile, Egypt would have some sort of solution to the draught that had occurred to at least spare the Kingdom from collapsing completely as it did. Why would such a solution not exist after dealing with the Nile for thousands of years? Had it been lost? Was Egypt too decentralized at this point to deal with it? Had the power and wealth of the pharaohs been so great that they had forgotten about the well-being of their people? I might sound like an incredible nerd right now, but I recall in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf spoke of how the dark ages of Gondor had begun by citing the fact that the houses of dead kings were far more lavish than those of the living citizens. This certainly seems to have been true with ancient Egypt. The massive pyramids, the sphinx, and the entire domain of the sacred have lasted for thousands of years. They are today, still in relatively good condition. Perhaps for pharaohs, solutions to oncoming droughts and subsequent food shortages seemed like a much less “fun” thing to spend the Kingdom’s money on than a brand new tomb.

Artisan Towns: Deir el-Medina

We talked in class today about the “Lost City of the Pyramids,” and this reminded me of a somewhat similar arrangement from later in Egyptian history. Last semester, in the Egyptian Archaeology class that Dr. Watrall also teaches, I wrote a paper about the site Deir el-Medina. I thought I could share some parallels between theses sites which people might find interesting. Deir el-Medina was a town where artisans working in the Valley of the Kings lived. A lot is known about the site not only from its actual remains, but also because ostraca survive with writings from the people who lived there. Very careful administrative records were used to keep track of things such as who was absent from work when.

The community has some similarities with the town at Giza, but it is also quite different. Deir el-Medina was dependent on state rations of grains, and it kept the artisans near their work so they could be properly focused on the immense task at hand. On a different level, these artisans were much more separated from the rest of Egypt than the workers at Giza may have been. This is because of the change in the nature of royal tombs. As we learned in class, nothing could compare to the pyramids in scope in later Egyptian history. The work the artisans of Deir el-Medina did was very secretive. They reported directly to the pharaoh’s vizier, and without a giant pyramid to point out the location of the tomb, they were to keep the location of their work within the valley a secret to protect it from vandalism and robbers.

Another interesting aspect of Deir el-Medina is the fact that some very elaborate tombs for the residents have been uncovered. This makes sense because the people who lived there would have had the necessary skills to make beautiful tombs for themselves and for their loved ones. They mimicked elite designs with small pyramid superstructures, showing the lasting impact of pyramid imagery even into the New Kingdom. A prominent workman by the name of Sennedjem left a beautiful tomb behind that once held twenty mummies, all relatives of his. I have included a picture I found last semester that shows the beautiful artwork.

These comparisons seem to really emphasize the continuities throughout Egyptian history regardless of collapse during intermediate periods. Ideology lasted, and certain systems were used across different periods such as creating towns for artisans who worked on important projects for the pharaohs, especially elaborate tombs.

Dikika Baby

In a region apart of Africa known as Dikika, meaning “nipple” in their local language, after a distinct hill that is shaped as such, Zeresenay Alemseged, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, led a group of fossil hunters into one of the most challenging places on Earth. This region was known for its extreme heat, flash floods, malaria, and even the sporadic arguments between different ethnic groups but most importantly for its abundance of undiscovered fossils.

After about a year, their search for hominin remains came up empty. However, they did find various mammal fossils ranging from elephants to antelopes and because of this, Zeresenay knew they were looking in the right place. He knew that these types of animals would have been extremely successful in a forest type environment near a river, which is the exact same atmosphere hominins would have lived in as well.

However not long after, Tilahun Gebreselassie, a member of Zeresenay’s team, was the first to spot a tiny skull “peering out from a dusty slope.” From what they could see at this point, her face not much larger than a monkey’s but from its smooth brow ridge and shortened canines, they knew instantly they had just discovered the remains of a small hominin. The infant’s skull was not only in perfect condition but placed underneath the skull in a “ball of sandstone” were various bones of its upper body as well and according to Zeresenay, this was “something you find once in a lifetime.” After spending about 3.3 million years preserved in sandstone, the worlds oldest baby would now be known as Dikika baby.

Dikika baby is not only the most complete infant skeleton to be discovered but is perhaps “the best fossil of her species, Australopithecus afarensis,” which is the same species as a previously discovered fossil that we know as “Lucy.” However, Dikika baby not only has fingers, feet and a complete torso, but a face, aspects that were not found with Lucy.

Although it is unknown how the three year old little girl died, they suspect that the river buried her body in pebbles and sand, “protecting it from scavengers and weather,” ultimately preserving it for all these years. Now, instead of having to glue together the pieces, Zeresenay and his team must slowly drill away the sandstone from the remains so they are able to study its anatomical details. So far, this has taken him five years.

From her fossil, they were already able to see details that are not usually seen in australopiths. She had a full set of both “milk teeth and unerupted adult teeth,” tiny ribs situated along a spinal column, tiny grasping fingers and where her throat would have been, an unusual example of a hyoid bone, which is extremely important for speaking. Dikika baby presents an opportunity to see how the “human voice box” evolved.

Based on her fossils, she was a completely different creature from anything they had seen before. Dikika baby very similar to us from the waist down but her upper body was much more apelike. She had a small brain, flat nose, long and curved fingers and a long, projecting face, all features that are present in chimps and apes, not humans. Her shoulder blades, similar to a gorilla’s, also suggested that it was easy for her to climb, presenting the idea that she not only spent time on the ground, but also in the trees.

Zeresenay and other scientists were also able to learn a little more about hominin brain development based on Dikika baby’s brain size. Her brain size was roughly 330 cc, which is about the same size as a three year old chimp, creating the idea that her brain was progressing no faster than a chimps. This hinted at scientists that Dikika baby had a extended period of dependence on her parents, a life stage that we call childhood. This discovery then lead to Holly Smith, a hominin development specialist, realizing that having a large brain meant nothing if you were not able to live long. So with a longer childhood, it was also clear to scientists that they were able to live longer lives as well.

In conclusion, Dikika baby was not just important because of the evolutionary steps she created but also for the “light she shed” on how her species lived and evolved those millions of years ago.

Article link:


Pyramids Power and Pharaoh in Popular Culture

Let us take a look at something from the approach of someone who has no Anthropology training to speak of and instead considers themself a social scientist. I took a quick survey of my co-ed fraternity and I began with a simple ideal for this survey: put down the first word you thing of when you read the word Egypt. Out of the 100 members, a total of 63 forms were submitted to me with 35 being female and 36 male. Out of those forms, the results were not surprising with a staggering 60 people responding with Pyramid as the word that they most associate with Egypt.

I conducted this survey Monday afternoon after our discussion of The Great Pyramid of Kofu sparked my interest in the subjects once again. The Pyramid is seen as the defining image of Egypt for many reasons. It is one of the of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, being both the oldest and the only remaining of these wonders and is a magnificent feat of engineering and study to this day serving to awe tourists and visitors with it’s beauty and size.  Oddly though, these aren’t what drew me to The Great Pyramid however. What drew me in was its depictions in other media such as movies, cartoons, and comic books. I consider myself a die hard geek and so I recall The Great Pyramid in dozens of depictions ranging from Giant Robot, spaceship, living being, or being built by wizards, aliens, or ancients monsters.

Beginning with one of my favorite depictions of the pyramid was its depiction in the television shows Power Rangers Zeo. The great pyramid in actuality is the great robot known as Pyramidas that was able to fire massive laser beams, fly, and transform into it’s massive battle mode complete with arms and a face. However to most 90’s kids who were on the geekier side of the fence the most famous image of the pyramid came from the show Yu-gi-oh, in which the main character possessed a magical necklace shaped like a pyramid that contained the spirit of an Egyptian Pharaoh that allowed him to become the great king of games, a master strategist. He promptly used these ancient magical powers to play card games and stop ancient monsters (it was a simpler time). The final scene I would like to present is of the movie Transformers Revenge of the Fallen, in which the most powerful and evil Robot was actually fueled by a power beacon that it had hidden in the top of The Great Pyramid.

What is interesting to consider though is that one theme is present in the three example listed as well other depictions of Pyramids in popular culture: the theme of Power. Pyramidas was the strongest robot in the show, the evil robot in Transformers was the strongest in that, and the magical amulet in Yu-Gi-Oh was said to contain great power of the Pharaoh. If memory serves the pyramids were built as a sign of the Pharaoh’s power and authority and it would seem that from its modern depictions the Pyramid is still viewed as a sign of great power and authority some thousands of years later.


African Heritage

I came across an interesting article while browsing the other day. I freely admit that I am skeptical of the source–it’s on the library website as a scholarly source, but the obvious bias and skewing of information is a little sketchy. Regardless, the article does bring up a few interesting points that I would like to discuss. I know at least one of the other posts has addressed this in part already, but please bear with me.
Essentially, the article is written to draw our attention to the African origin and element of Ancient Egyptian culture. The author is more than a little upset about Egyptians being categorized as “caucasian” back in the day due to Europe’s ethnocentric way of looking at complex civilizations, and he gets a little bit carried away in bashing that concept. I’m not sure how much of his evidence and arguments are actually legitimate, since my own knowledge on the subject is rather sparse. Regardless, he does seem to be onto something.
There is truth in what he says about depictions of Egyptians (especially deities) being painted dark colors. I was always under the impression that it was a stylistic thing–but it is possible that it was meant as a representation of darker-skinned people. Why did I have this assumption that the dark colors were stylistic? I’ve seen pictures of these drawings. I live in a diverse age, where I encounter many people of varying skintones on a daily basis. Why then would I assume, upon seeing a drawing with people painted different colors, that this detail was merely stylistic?
The answer is neither new nor particularly attractive (and I’m sure, at this point, that you can guess where I’m going with this). We, as a part of Western society, recognize that Western society has said and done some pretty horrible things to and about other cultures. Nowadays, we generally try our best to avoid continuing that unfortunate tradition. However, when you have spent your entire life surrounded by Western culture, it becomes difficult to recognize and pick out the remaining subtle traces of stereotypical ethnocentric Western thought. We don’t mean to dismiss the Egyptians’ portrayal of themselves and their gods as dark-skinned people–simply put, we have difficulty (especially when ill-educated on the subject) coming to terms with the reality of the representation when it is so clouded by preconceptions we didn’t realize we had.
The article goes into depth about African identity and the African culture as the origin of complex civilization– I’m not going to go into depth on this, since I don’t know which parts should be taken with a grain of salt. I will say, however, that his argument brings up an intriguing question–Why would Western European states decide to recognize Egypt’s origin as Caucasian rather than African, even when given evidence to the contrary? Why did the concept of admitting the oldest and most advanced society they knew was of African origin gall them to the point where they felt they had no choice but to reject that concept? Truth be told, they should have expected Egypt to identify with other African states simply due to proximity and ease of travel between them (versus Europe, which is on the other side of the Mediterranean from them rather than simply upriver).

The article can be found by searching this information in the MSU library database:
Ancient Egypt: Africa’s stolen legacy
Saafu Khpera. New African 389 (Oct 2000): 18-25.