Bonus Blog: Archaeologists and Context

I think the most important thing we covered throughout the class was the archaeologists who made these Egyptian findings and what they brought to the field. If they actually destroyed sites with ineptitude or in their rush to carry off sparkling treasures, I think it was important to frame great finds with the methods and intent of the people who were responsible. From times where there was a race to snatch treasures from the hands of other “archaeologists” to return them to the proper home country to times where new methods and respect for the modern nation of Egypt have led to new discoveries.

Going more in depth with the tomb of Tutankhamen from an archaeological perspective rather than a popular perspective provided a helpful contrast for me. Howard Carter made detailed drawings of the arrangement of items in Tutankhamen’s tomb which were especially meaningful since the tomb was undisturbed. However, the media was still heavily involved in this finding, leading to the mummy’s popularity. Maybe that means the site is especially well documented, but it also might mean that the focus of Howard Carter was more on the fame he would receive from the find than the effects the find would have in academia.

We spend a lot of time talking about the context of a find in time and place as far as the site goes, and I think the context surrounding its discovery is equally important. It reflects on the interpretations of the archaeologists and what may have been lost for one thing to be found. This is especially true for early archaeologists when there weren’t professional, accepted practices, but it can be applied today as well.  Archaeologists from many nations still dig in Egypt and have different things invested in the results of their dig. The Egyptian government oversees everything, and this only further complicates who all is involved for better or worse.

Sacred Animal Necropolis

The sacred animal necropolis came up in lecture this morning, and that happens to be what I’m interested in for my final paper. In case anyone else found that subject intriguing, I thought I’d share the site of archaeologist Paul T. Nicholson who is currently involved in digs at the necropolis in Saqqara.

Many of the animal catacombs were actually discovered because archaeologist W. B. Emery was looking for Imhotep’s tomb in Saqqara in the 1960s. More recently, at the entrance to the falcon catacomb, the team found a cache of votive bronzes that they have been working to conserve since the find in the 1990s. Current work at Saqqara under Nicholson has focused on dog catacombs associated with the temple of Anubis. The current goals for the excavation involve examining the bones of the canines, which is a newer area of interest at the animal necropolis. Also, because past notes about the site are faulty and incomplete, a complete survey of the catacombs is underway.

In class today, we came back to the issue of early Europeans and how they treated Ancient Egyptian sites. I’m biased because I think that animal mummification and the cults they were associated with are fascinating. It seems like a real loss to me that these mummies are spread so far and wide because they were so popular as souvenirs for European tourists. I’m curious what other people think about the issue. Is it a great loss that these mummies were removed in large numbers from the sites? How does it compare to the loss of royal mummies and the treasures from their tombs? Are we still more focused on the riches of pharaohs, and is that justifiable? I know that any losses from ancient sites mean a loss of information that might be really groundbreaking or illuminating. Is there even a way to gauge the potential that lost artifacts might have had?

Mystery of Akhenaten

It’s really interesting to me how this class has come full circle in some ways as we finished discussing the New Kingdom. We started by talking about things such as king’s lists and chronology, and now we’ve discussed the rulers such as Seti I who created these king’s lists and their purpose seems more clear. Even though we already knew that the lists helped establish legitimacy and continuity across dynasties, I think it makes a whole lot of sense realizing how great some of the leaps were. This also makes me think of Akhenaten and the threat he posed to the status quo between pharaohs and temples. I wanted to know what some viewpoints are about his possible mummy since he had such a radical impact on Egypt even if it didn’t outlast his reign.

An article in National Geographic from 2007 caught my eye because it immediately followed CT scans of some unidentified mummies from the Valley of the Kings which includes the mummy that may or may not by Akhenaten. The reason that some scholars believe it could be Akhenaten or a family member is because his cartouche on the coffin has been demolished similar to the examples we saw in lecture today trying to remove Akhenaten from the historical record. The scans revealed that there may be a relation between this mummy and the mummy of Tutankhamen, who some scholars believe to be the son of Akhenaten. Both have distinctly egg-shaped skulls and other similar traits that could indicate kinship such as slight scoliosis of the back. The mummy is a male who died between the ages of 25-40 which at least doesn’t refute the idea that he is Akhenaten.

There are still a lot of questions about the end of Akhenaten’s life and whether Tutankhamen was his son. Either way, dynasties are hard to verify, and it doesn’t help that later pharaohs so meticulously didn’t include Akhenaten in their records and his legacy was so carefully destroyed. On another note, these same researchers were able to determine that two female mummies found near Tutankhamen’s tomb definitely do not belong to Nefertiti, so the famous queen is still missing.

Animal Mortuary Finds

Animals held special religious significance for in Ancient Egypt. As early as predynastic times, animals were given special burials near the graves of the wealthy at Hierakonpolis. Renée Friedman (2003) has discovered the remains of elephants associated with a specific elite tomb which may have housed an early king in predynastic Hierakonpolis. She has hypothesized that the elephant was the ka of the great ruler as early pharaohs associated their names and powers with specific animals. In dynastic times, mortuary practices for special animals became more elaborate an are found on a larger scale.

Saqqara is home to more than just pyramids. It is also home to many animal cults. North Saqqara is sometimes referred to as the animal necropolis. The most famous of these, of course, is that of the Apis bull made famous after Auguste Mariette discovered the Serapeum in North Saqqara. The Apis bull was seen as “the living image of Osiris,” and he had a temple in Memphis and a tomb in Saqqara (Mariette-Bey, 1928, p. 10).  Mariette (1928) gauged that the Serapeum dates to the 16th Dynasty and lasted through the years of the Ptolemies. The Louvre houses some artifacts uncovered by Mariette such as statues of the Apis bull where sanctuaries once stood and sphinxes that lined the processional way up to the temple (David, n. d.). These findings point to the religious importance of the site and the high esteem with which the Egyptian people held the deity.

Later excavations in Saqqara revealed other mummified animals outside the Serapeum. Emery (1965) went to Saqqara seeking the tomb of architect Imhotep and instead found mummies of bulls and thousands of ibis mummies in a labyrinth. Most of the mummies were from the Ptolemaic period, but some dated to the Old Kingdom. Paul Nicholson (1994) expanded on this work by further exploring hawk (or falcon), ibis, mothers of Apis, and baboon catacombs. He found both genuine mummies and pseudo-mummies made of different kinds of bones. Of the birds, ibises were more likely to be genuine mummies according to Nicholson because they were easier to raise in captivity than birds of prey. Therefore, there was a larger supply that could be mummified.

Site reports from the archaeologists who dug at these sites provide the most information. Their findings are important because animal cults provide a piece of Egyptian religious life. These religious cults using animals to honor specific gods are also a reflection of the wealth in Egypt, particularly in the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic periods that many of the mummies date to. The animals were carefully buried in catacombs, and it would have been expensive to construct the labyrinths and prepare thousands and thousands of animals for burial. This was particularly true for the Apis bull that had great national importance, and everyone mourned at his death (Ray, 1978, p. 151). Finding a successor that met all the appropriate requirements was carefully accomplished. Money was spent on the Apis bull to keep him alive and healthy, and it was appropriate to bring him gifts and offerings. There is a lot of focus on the greatness of the tombs built for pharaohs, and although mortuary findings from animals are not necessarily of the same caliber, they still had central significance in Egyptian religious life just as the pharaoh did.


David, E. (n.d.). Apis bull. Retrieved from

David, E. (n.d.). Processional way of sphinxes. Retrieved from

Emery, W. B. (1965). Preliminary report on the excavations of North Saqqara 1964-5. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 51. 3-8.

Friedman, R. (2003).  The elephant is revealed. Retrieved from   

Mariette- Bey, A. (1928). Classics of science: Discovery of the Serapeum. The Science News-Letter, 13 (352). 9-10.

Nicholson, P. T. (1994). Preliminary report on the work at the sacred animal necropolis, North Saqqara, 1992. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 80. 1-10.

Ray, J. D. (1978). The world of North Saqqara. World Archaeology, 10 (2). 149-157.

Peribsen and Set

It always amazes me how one simple artifact can lead to so many bigger ideas about ancient society. I was fascinated by the discussion of the pharaoh Peribsen which stemmed from his serekh on stelae outside his tomb in Abydos. While most serekhs have the image of the falcon to stand for Horus, Peribsen had an ambiguous animal associated with the god Set. Associating with Horus makes a lot of sense because of his relation to kinship. Set, however, was a kind of villain in Egyptian myth, responsible for killing Osiris.

However, it seems that Set was associated with Lower Egypt much as Horus was associated with Upper Egypt. The use of Set on Peribsen’s serekh can be interpreted as some tension between Upper and Lower Egypt during his reign. This idea is reinforced by behaviors of the following pharaoh, Khasekhemwy, which is yet again divergent from usual practice. His serekh included symbols of Horus and Set both. This could indicate that the kingdom was reunited under his rule.  His name means “the two powers have appeared.” I wonder if this is a reference of the two powers of Upper and Lower Egypt as well as the powers of both Horus and Set. Somehow, he was able to claim the patronage of both.

I think it’s unfortunate that so much from the royal tombs of Abydos have been lost. On the other hand, I am amazed at how much can be guessed from what little there is. Mythology was so important to the Egyptians and the divine significance of pharaohs that the larger themes of these stories can be used to interpret actual events. A unifying belief system embedded in politics and society helps with interpreting what the symbolism meant to Egyptians in real terms. I wonder what our symbols today will indicate to future archaeologists even if a unifying religious culture is not present.


Both of our readings from this week mentioned the royal cemeteries at Abydos. I looked into that further for this week. It always helps me to envision things when I’ve seen photos and learned more details.

The tombs in Abydos are probably from Early or Protodynastic times. The tombs were already heavily looted before excavations began. Things that weren’t of value to thieves were helpful for archaeologists, however. Sometimes when things were stolen, ivory or wood labels were left behind. Besides helping to identify the goods that were once buried there, they also help to determine who was buried there. This is crucial since the only human remains were of servants in subsidiary graves.

In Cemetery U, tomb U-j was an exciting find because it included 11 storerooms for grave goods, indicating great wealth even though only pottery remained. The presence of sarekh on pottery also shows that he was probably of royal status. A much more lavish tomb is attributed to Aha, the leader suspected of uniting Egypt. His grave contained 34 subsidiary graves for his courtiers who would follow him into the afterlife as well as the remains of lions. Stelae named the servants and the jobs they performed for the pharaoh. Later tombs included an entrance, showing that tombs could be built during a pharaoh’s lifetime. Before, the entire subterranean structure was probably covered with sand once the pharaoh was buried, leaving no entrance.

Other interesting finds include a severed, bandaged arm in the tomb of Djet. It is thought that the thieves had chopped up the bodies into pieces to make it easier to transport. Apparently they forgot a piece. Many imported goods and pottery were found in the tombs as well as luxury goods such as fine jewelry. I wonder what more was once buried in these magnificent tombs before greedy people came along, chopping bodies up and stealing fine grave goods.


The Many Faces of Egypt

Something I’ve been thinking about as we discuss the upper and lower Predynastic is how the term “Egypt” is so broad and doesn’t cover all the little differences and spectrums that make up Ancient Egypt. In the Predynastic, Upper and Lower Egypt had very different cultures and relationships with the world around them. Lower Egypt might have identified more with Middle Eastern areas they traded with more than the other “Egyptians” down South. Even more interesting is the fact that these differences persisted to some extent even when Egypt was unified.

After “unification,” Egypt wasn’t actually always unified. We know from our discussion of chronology that there were periods with multiple pharaohs and rule from outside Egypt. Even in dynastic times, it wasn’t always a cohesive whole.  I think it’s interesting that we have this vague idea of what Egypt was even though it changed throughout ancient times and sometimes across the territory not everyone served the same ruler or lived the same way.

This applies to class as well. Grave goods from the wealthy show us what the Egyptians were capable of artistically and technically. These beautiful goods fit into our idea of Egypt. However, the roughware we saw this week, characteristic of everyday use in Upper Egypt, show the variety within even one culture. Just because Egypt had access to great wealth doesn’t mean that everyone that lived in Egypt came into contact with that wealth or experienced it in the same light.

These differences make sense when I think of present times. There is an idea of what “America” means and the United States stand for. However, you can travel the country and find customs that are strange or foreign. Learning about even recent history can seem distant and removed from our own time. There are some beautiful, expensive things in our country that not all of us will come into contact with. I wonder why it is so hard to see these same gradations when looking at a civilization such as Egypt.

Animal Burials

In our reading from this week, Bard touched on animals that were found buried in a cemetery that was classified as “elite” from the Naqada culture (pg 100). She didn’t really go into the possible significance of these finds, but I found it very curious and have been trying to puzzle out what it could mean. I found a cool interactive dig website with an article written by the archaeologist that dug at this site, Renée Friedman, including photos of the giant elephant bones.

Archaeo-zoologists were on the site to help identify the animals and figure out how many different animals the bones belonged to.  They determined that there was not only one elephant buried in the cemetery but two. The elites they were buried near must have been extremely wealthy to import not one but two elephants. The elephants were buried with great honors. One was buried with grave goods including pottery, amethyst beads, eye makeup, and an ivory bracelet (a little cruel). Also, there were arrowheads in the grave that may be grave goods or cause of death.

Friedman’s theories about the elephant find were fascinating to me. She suggests that the effort put into this burial and the costs of it all were too much for this to be just a burial of a pet, even an exotic, expensive pet. She suggests that the elephant was a ka for a ruler buried in the elite cemetery. Apparently a ka in Ancient Egypt was a “manifestation of the might and the power of the ruler himself.” In Dynastic Egypt, a ka was usually human, but early kings often associated themselves with animals through their names. They received spiritual power from the animals they shared a name with.

I’m impressed that a leader would go to such lengths to demonstrate their power and prepare for the afterlife. I’m excited to learn about pharaohs and what they would do to demonstrate power using animals because I’m sure it’s much more elaborate.

Diffusion Model

I have learned in past classes about the diffusion model and the movement of culture and ideas, but I never really stopped to think about it. It’s described as if one group has a great idea and it fans out to other, lesser groups that couldn’t come up with it on their own. I understand that when groups interact, there is an interchange of ideas that can benefit both groups. Sometimes someone will take up a successful idea from another culture, and sometimes there will be a fusion of ideas as one group takes something new and combines it with their own beliefs and ideas.

However, I don’t think it’s fair to act as though some groups couldn’t come up with an idea on their own. There is evidence that groups far away without contact came up with agriculture separately. It should also be possible for two groups within traveling range to still come up with similar ideas. Ideas and systems like agriculture that completely change how society functions and how the people see the world can appear many times among many peoples. I think there is a lot of ingenuity in the world, and no single group has the monopoly on visionaries.

Current history also reflects this way of thinking. We are often taught that a single person or group of people is responsible for some groundbreaking scientific theory or invention. In reality, big ideas and problems are not considered by just one person. It is possible for many people to be working on similar solutions, but the race comes down to who gets published first and who receives the official recognition for the idea. I think that great ideas don’t come only once. It only makes sense to me that many ancient peoples, including the Ancient Egyptians, were able to come up with forms of agriculture to improve their lives separately and without the influence of their neighbors.

Archaeology Then and Now

I was struck by the reading from Bard’s book this week and her discussion of the growth of Egyptian Archaeology. Things that seem like common sense to me now took years for early archaeologists to make a standard part of excavation. The fact that pottery was once thrown out as useless is mind-blowing to me.  These archaeologists came in seeking things of monetary value and didn’t see all artifacts from the past as having intrinsic value. The scientific thoroughness of modern archaeology seems the only way to do the past justice, and I have a hard time understanding the mindset of those first explorers.

The discussion of these modern methods and the way archaeology has expanded to include other disciplines really opened my eyes to the complexity of a site. In order for a scientific approach to be applied accurately, it only makes sense that a lot of different factors would have to be taken into account. I didn’t know that specialties like zooarchaeology and geoarchaeology existed. Such specific disciplines could help date or add context to artifacts that couldn’t be fully explained previously.

I can’t imagine all the complexities that must go into collaborations between all these specialists for one site. If each specialist were used to a certain approach and a certain language of analysis, it would take careful communication for all of the specialists to come to a consensus about the meaning of any discovery. Compiling all the facts together would be quite an undertaking to cover all of the details that are now available to a team spanning many disciplines. I am curious to see what other specialties will continue to pop up to fill in gaps of knowledge in the archaeological record. What will form next to fill a need in the field of archaeology? It makes me excited to consider what new understandings we could reach if people from many different walks of life took an interest in archaeological finds and put their own specific talents to work in decoding enigmas from the past.