Bonus Blog Post: Language and Documentation

Over the past semester, one aspect of Ancient Egyptian society that has stood out to me is the amount of documentation and writing left depicting Ancient Egyptian culture. The inscriptions of Pharaohs and Gods/Goddesses in temples, papyri demonstrating the use of pi when constructing pyramids, and the infamous Rosetta stone – a decree made by Ptolemy V written in three languages – Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek.

As a history major, the existence of such written materials is really interesting – especially since the topics of the writing are so diverse. Through written materials and inscriptions, we can learn about science and technology in Ancient Egypt, religious culture, decrees and governmental organization, and one of the most fundamental features of culture – language.

File:Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.jpg

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus demonstrates the use of pi when constructing pyramids.

I feel like we touched on a lot of the larger archaeological finds regarding written works, and the use of language in Ancient Egypt in this class, and I admire that decision. When talking about archaeology and Ancient Egypt, it’s easy to get caught up in the mummies and the statues and forget about the importance of language and the written evidence left behind.

One topic that I would have liked look more into was the use of language in everyday life, especially in regards to trade. Was it common for people to speak more than one language, and what languages were more popular? Was this division separated by social classes? How did Egypt’s use of language differ from that of other societies, like the Syrians and the Nubians?

While we can learn a lot about Ancient Egypt from human remains, mortuary contexts, and other archaeological finds, we can infer additional information from written documents. Someone – probably an Ancient Egyptian – had to write those legal documents or carve/paint the inscriptions in the temples.

Herbal Wine in Ancient Egypt

As one would expect near the end of the semester. I was starting to run out of topics to write about for my student blog posts. So, in order to find a topic, I went to JSTOR and typed “Ancient Egypt” in the search. And I found an article – Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wine.

Ancient Egyptians were able to make herbal wine thanks to the climate and the fruit trees that grew in the area. The fruits from the trees offered sugar and ethanol that allowed for the production of alcohol with an alcohol content up to 3.8%. Patrick McGovern, the author of the paper, discusses it more in detail, explaining the chemical process, as well as the likelihood that human populations eventually succeeded in making the wine through trial and error. This specific wine was mostly used to treat diseases and ailments.

One of the first questions that one would probably ask is, “How can we tell what the chemical make-up of Ancient Egyptian herbal wine was?” While Ancient Egyptians may have left insight about medicinal practices and herbal wine in historical documents, the focus of this paper is the chemical composition and process. Thus, McGovern gathered his information by studying the organic materials found in the tombs.

The majority of the paper focuses on the chemical composition of the wine, which included herbal genera, honey, milk, and tartrate acid/tartrate (which is still used in modern wines). One interesting aspect is that a lot of these organic materials are still used in herbal medicines in Egypt today. Another interesting piece of information was that not all of these organic materials were originally from Egypt. Some materials, such as A. Seibeni and T. annuum, are native to Iran and Morocco, demonstrating the importance of trade to this practice of developing herbal medicines.

McGovern does mention historical documents depicting the process of creating herbal additives and wine, including inscriptions on the walls of temples, such as the Temples of Philae and Edfu. Overall, the collection of materials, development and use of the product, and the documentation, demonstrates the widespread political, economic and cultural influence simple things – like herbal wine – in Egypt possessed.

Ancient Egyptian Herbal Wines
Patrick E. McGovern, Armen Mirzoian, Gretchen R. Hall and Ofer Bar-Yosef
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , Vol. 106, No. 18 (May 5, 2009), pp. 7361-7366

Princess Shert Nebti’s Tomb

Since we’re talking about mortuary and funerary contexts in class, I thought it would be interesting to post this recent news article about the discovery of a tomb that potentially could belong to an Ancient Egyptian princess. It’s suggested that the tomb is from 4500 years ago (5th dynasty) and belongs to Shert Nebti, who was the daughter of King Men Salbo. In addition to Shert Nebti, tombs of four other officials were also found.

In terms of context, the burial context is near Saqqara, in the Abu Sir complex. Archaeologists determined that the tomb belonged to Shert Nebti by looking at the limestone pillars buried around the tomb. In addition, there is hieroglyphics – which is how I assumed they determined that the tomb did, in fact, belong to Shert Nebti. As of yet, they have not found the tombs of her father, mother, or any siblings, but they are hoping that they might be found somewhere near Shert Nebti’s burial place.

This article got me thinking about the vast number of people that must be buried somewhere in Egypt. Taking this example, Shert Nebti was a princess from 4500 years ago. Knowing that the Egyptian Empire lasted until 50 B.C. (ish) we are looking at around 2500 years of burials. We have found many skeletal remains, whom are now part of osteological collections studied around the world. But this begs the question: Are we ever going to run out of skeletal remains to excavate? (Hopefully not during my lifetime).

As a final note, this excavation was completed by Czech archaeologists from Charles University in Prague. It’s a continuous wonder why Egyptian archaeologists and Egyptian universities are not leading these excavations. Is it because the Egyptian government does not trust the Egyptian people? Or is it because the Egyptian people are not concerned with Ancient Egyptian history? Or is it because of the current political unrest?

Research Proposal: The Role of Famine in Ancient Egypt

Various aspects of Ancient Egyptian life could lead to famine. Financial hardships could limit the amount of food a family could buy, while the Nile – the main supply for natural resources – could dry up or flood, resulting in a famine affecting much of the surrounding area. I am interested in pursuing this research because famine has demonstrated physical and figurative affects on communities throughout history. This study will provide insight into the prevalence of the famine in Ancient Egypt. I will observe evidence of the role of famine through various factors to determine the significance (if any) of famine in Ancient Egyptian society.

I plan on researching the prevalence of famine in Ancient Egypt through several different methods. First, I will identify evidence of famine through historical documents and literature, such as written records and prayers. I will also draw evidence from narratives inscribed during the Ancient Egyptian empire, but about an earlier time period in Ancient Egyptian history. Finally, I will use evidence of malnutrition in skeletal remains to indicate famine. I plan on identifying famine time periods by looking for evidence of malnutrition in pathologies, such as cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, linear enamel hyperplasia in the teeth, and other diseases that present evidence of malnutrition. Since I don’t have any skeletal collections at my leisure, I plan on drawing information from past studies to provide a comprehensive and comparative view of malnutrition and famine in Ancient Egypt.

Most of my sources will be research studies by scholars in Ancient Egypt or bioarchaeology. Evidence from historical documents will come from translated materials. For example, John L. Foster’s Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology presents evidence of famine through historical documents such as prayers, which can give insight into the events of the time period during which it was written. Another example is Paul Barquet’s La stéle de la famine á Séhel. This piece focuses on a famous stela that provides a narrative about a seven-year drought that resulted in famine and political and social instability. Although this recorded information on the stela may not be historically accurate, the story still provides information regarding how Ancient Egyptians saw famine in connection with their own history, and the divine role that famine played in Ancient Egyptian society. Another article that I will be using is Cindy Malnasi’s Paleopathology in Ancient Egypt: Evidence from the sites of Dayr Al-Barsha and Sheikh Said. This articles discusses various pathologies and diseases found in Ancient Egyptian populations that give evidence to malnutrition, and thus can provide support to any skeletal evidence that I wish to use to argue the prevalence famine might have had in Ancient Egyptian society. Through written records, recorded narratives, and paleopathological evidence in skeletal remains, I hope to demonstrate the physical and figurative role of famine in Ancient Egyptian society.


Foster, John L. Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2001. Print.

Barquet, Paul. La stéle de la famine á Séhel. Institut français d´archaéologie orientale – Bibliothéque d´étude Paris, volume 34. Cairo, 1953.

Malnasi, Cindy. “Paleopathology in Ancient Egypt: Evidence from the Sites at Dayr Al-Barsha and Sheikh Said.” Thesis. University of Central Florida, 2010. Print.

Merneith and other Ancient Egyptian Women

While Cleopatra is arguably one of the most commonly-known pharaohs, the majority of leaders were men. Thus, the mention of Merneith on Tuesday in the list of pharaohs piqued my interest about Merneith, other royal and civilian women in Ancient Egypt. What political and economic rights did they have? And what typical gender roles (such as everyday tasks and occupations) were assigned to women? What social and governmental positions did they hold?

Contrary to most other ancient societies, and even some societies today, women in Ancient Egypt were fairly equal to men. According to an article on Cornell’s website, women in Ancient Egypt, “enjoyed the same legal and economic rights, at least in theory, and this concept can be found in Egyptian art and contemporary manuscripts”. Actually, division of economic and legal rights was not be gender, but social status.

Women had many legal powers in Ancient Egypt, including, but not limited to, owning land, buy, borrowing, and selling slaves and servants, and the ability to sue and divorce. The Cornell articles argues that this was different than other ancient societies like Ancient Greece where a woman required a man to represent the woman in all legal matters.

However, some gender roles are comparable to other ancient societies and some cultures today. For example, pregnancy and having children was a way to measure a woman’s success. Furthermore, on a website dedicated to information about women in the ancient world, it states that it was an accepted idea for women to be in charge of the household, and that men should – although heads of the household – refrain from involving themselves in household matters.

Finally, like I mentioned earlier, Cleopatra and other royal women demonstrated that while Ancient Egyptian women typically worked in the household, it was not unheard of for a woman to hold a governmental position. Cleopatra, Merneith, and others like Nefertiti illustrate the importance royal women had in Ancient Egyptian society.

Additional Information on Hierakonpolis

During class on Tuesday, Ethan touched on the Hierakonpolis site, and in particular, mentioned the Potter’s house. I found it interesting because the majority of sites that are found are a symbol of great art or engineering in the past. Specifically, pottery is something that we have touched on many times in this class, because of the use of pottery in relative dating. Also, the production of different types and styles of pottery demonstrate a change in culture and style, as well as successful trading between different communities. Ancient Egyptians were able to create works of art that were not only stylish, but useful and wanted by members throughout the known world at that time. In addition, another thing I find interesting about Hierakonpolis is that the society lasted for thousands of years – thus there is thousands of years of context in the same place.

On the other hand, the Potter’s house demonstrates that not everybody knew what they were doing. Thus, I decided to look more into the Potter’s house, and I found a website (a sub site of that gave a detailed report on Hierakonpolis and the objects, structures, and humans remains found there.

The Potter’s House is Egypt’s oldest preserved house – a testament either to the engineering, or the ability of a kiln to save a house forever. In addition to the Potter’s House, there are other works of art and engineering that demonstrate the continued growth of technology. There is evidence of industrial-strength breweries, decorated stone-cut monuments, and Narmer’s temple – Egypt’s oldest temple.

In addition to structures, there is also evidence of material culture through grave goods such as tools, jewelry, and bows and arrows. In one case, in a Nubian cemetery context, a carving of a scarab was found. I remember, in addition to cats and pyramids, another thing that people often associate with Ancient Eygpt are scarabs. This scarab – though it was found later, during Dynasty 13) – was a part of a bracelet consisting of eggshells and beads that belonged to a teenager.


Even though I had never heard of Hierakonpolis before this class, I find it really interesting. There is a wealth of information relating to this ancient – as well as later – society that is all available in it’s original context.

Modern mummification with ancient tools

Although we haven’t explicitly talked about Dynastic mummies yet, Bob Brier’s lecture last week  revolved around his attempt to create a modern mummy using Ancient Egyptian tools prompted me to write a post about how the details of mummification were discovered using historical documents and eventually,  actually mummifying a human cadaver.

In a short article, Brier noted that while a lot is known about Ancient Egyptian burial and mortuary practices, the only known detailed account of mummification was written by none other than Herodotus.

When writing his book, Brier realized that he didn’t know a lot of details regarding how Ancient Egyptians were mummified. He asked questions such as, “Did embalmers drain the blood?” and “How do you remove a brain through a nose?”. In order to answer these questions, Brier set out to mummify a body donor using Ancient Egyptian tools and practices.

This isn’t the first time that scholars have used tools to learn more about the practices of past societies. I think the use of Ancient Egyptian tools to answer questions about embalming practices is an interesting way to study Ancient Egypt. However, I wondered how Bob Brier knew how to use the tools without any accounts dictating how. Thus, I went to the lecture hoping to understand how Dr. Brier figured it out.

Although he discussed many tools necessary for mummification, I’m gong to focus on the tool used to remove the brain to one’s nose. Dr. Brier explained how originally he (and other archaeologists) thought that the tool was used by inserting the tool up the nasal cavity, and removing pieces of the brain a little bit at a time. It turned out that this practice didn’t work. However, one method that did work was using the tool as a whisk, turning the brain into a liquid form, and then inverting the body and letting the brain seep out through the nose. (You have to admit, it’s a little cool and gross at the same time).

It was great example of problem solving, but there is still a little part of me who wonders if this is actually how the tool was used, or if we simply found another way using the same tool.

The New Chicago Demotic Dictionary

A couple weeks ago we discussed the languages and scripts use throughout Egypt’s history. Even though we are currently discussing predynastic and pre-historic Egypt, I read an interesting article this week that I would like to share.

As Ethan mentioned a couple weeks ago, the Demotic language was used by the general public in Egypt from approximately 650 B.C. to the last-known use in 452 A.D.. The language is also well-known to scholars because it’s presence on the Rosetta Stone.

In an article in ScienceDaily, the editor of the new Demotic Dictionary, Janet Johnson, stated that the Demotic language was used in a number of Ancient Egyptian contexts, such as business and legal documents, religious literature, and scientific texts such as medicine and astronomy. Although Demotic was widely used during Egypt’s history, it has only been within the last half-century that research and scholarship has really expanded on this ancient language.

The Chicago Demotic Dictionary contains thousands of words that will allow Demotic scholars to decode more Demotic materials to better explain life in Egypt 1500-2500 years ago.

After looking into this new dictionary, I was curious if there were any other dictionaries on ancient languages. I came across an Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic dictionary by Budge, but after looking at some reviews, it seems that a lot of Budge’s material is out-of-date. The big difference between these two reference materials is that the Demotic dictionary seems more reserved for scholars, while there are a number of Egyptian hierglyphic study books aimed for the general public.

Thus, I propose the following question: Why do publishers aim books on decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics towards the general public, while it is only this year that a Demotic dictionary is being published – but still aimed more for scholars? I’m not insinuating that there are no scholar-orientated hierglyphic dictionaries, or that the general public has no knowledge of the Demotic script, but I find this discrepancy in popularity very interesting, and I am curious to hear what you guys think.

Ancient Egyptian Cultural Heritage Today

In class on Tuesday, Ethan mentioned the construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum that is currently being built in Giza. Reported to be one of the biggest archaeological museums in the world, this is obviously a big construction project (with a big price tag) designed to demonstrate Egyptian cultural heritage. However, I was curious as to how the common Egyptian population perceives Ancient Egyptian culture and its preservation, especially considering the political unrest and change in leadership in the past year.

In the article, “The Case Against the Grand Egyptian Museum”, the author, Mohamed Elshahed recalled how he was treated with suspicion when he attempted to enter The Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, even though he was Egyptian and his friend (an American) was able to enter without any problems. He explains that although the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities aims to preserve Egyptian cultural heritage by protecting artifacts from theft, their means of accomplishing this goal is by limiting access to Egyptians, but promoting tourism to visitors from other countries.

Thus, many Egyptians do not particularly benefit from the existence of the current museums in place. One could argue that the promotion of tourism leads to government funds that can support the general population, but it seems that the building of a $550 million museum might hurt the Egyptian people rather than help them.

First, the museum is located in Giza – far away from the general population. Elshahed also states that a lack of public transportation would also limit the number of Egyptians who could visit the museum.

Second, this is not a purely Egyptian project, either. Japan has loaned approximately $350 million for this project, a loan that future generations of Egyptians will have to pay. In addition, the contractors who are building the museum – Heneghan Peng – are from Dublin, Ireland.

Third, this project was born under the leadership of Hosni Mubarak, a president who was ousted after repeated protests during the Arab Spring of 2011. It’s possible that the Egyptian people may want to forget the Mubarak era, and that includes projects such as the Grand Egyptian Museum.

I realize that this blog post became more of a “reasons why the Grand Egyptian Museum should not be built”, but I think it’s very important to think not just about the preservation of Ancient Egyptian cultural heritage, but to also look at it’s importance to the Egyptian people. If the Egyptian people lose touch with their cultural heritage, how are we to be sure that future finds will be protected in the future?

The Ethics of Repatriation

I noticed that another student discussed the reasoning behind the opinion that the bust of Nefertiti be returned to Egypt. And after going over the history of antiquarians, and the national collection of Egyptian (and other ancient societies) artifacts, I decided to utilize this blog post to delve deeper into the ethical issues surrounding the current dilemma: Do museums keep the artifacts that they collected during excavations, or should they return them to the original homeland?

I first want to point out that repatriation is not just an idea, but an act that is already being carried out in the world. In the United States, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) requires scholars to return any human remains of Native American ancestry to the respective tribe. In closer relation to this class, Egypt can reclaim royal mummies in order to have them returned to Egypt – not unlike NAGPRA. This is why you can only see royal mummies in Egypt today.

So why do museums believe that they can keep the artifacts, when practices of repatriation are already being put into place? In one article, it is mentioned that the British Museum argues that the Rosetta Stone should stay in England because it would be unsafe in Egypt and also, so that more people can see the Rosetta Stone. However, the author argues that this view does not address the ethical issues of keeping the stone. Regardless, the author believes that the stone should remain in London, stating, “The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the words of the pharaohs, so of course Hawass is entirely correct that it is an essential piece of Egyptian identity. However, it’s also an emblem of decipherment, a cultural byword recognized around the world as the ultimate key to a past so long obscured.” Thus, the Rosetta Stone represents decipherment, and since the British and the French deciphered the stone, they get to keep the stone.

Although some of the grander items (like the statue of Ramses and the bust of Nefertiti) remain in Europe and the U.S., some artifacts have been repatriated back to Egypt. However, in some cases, the artifacts were returned because Egypt blocked excavations or cut off ties to the museums that they intended to obtain the artifacts from. Is preventing the future study of Ancient Egypt as a means to repatriate artifacts an ethical move, or is Egypt simply playing at the same level as the museums?