Bonus Blog: The Importance of the Pyramids

My view in this regard is obviously biased due to the fact that I spent a great deal of time while crafting my research paper thinking about it, however I believe that perhaps the most important topic in Egyptian Archaeology is the issue of the Pyramids.

It is true that, in many ways, the study of the Pyramids has been overdone compared to many other aspects of Egyptian Archaeology (and indeed, archaeology overall), however this is precisely why it is so important.  I would highly doubt that there is anyone in the world today that has not heard of the Great Pyramids of Giza.   They have become such a source of wonder and awe, and have been since the time of Herodotus, how could they be anything but important?

The Pyramids are therefore significant because they inspire a sense of wonder in people, and therefore an interest in archaeology generally.  I remember when I was in elementary school, I liked to write a lot, and one of the rather horrible stories that I wrote included the Great Pyramids and the Sphynx.  While I would not consider myself to have been a totally normal child, my perception of Egypt, and the past generally, was very much informed by a knowledge of the Pyramids.  In many ways, they were some of the things that got me interested in history and archaeology in the first place.  Therefore, simply for trying to get people interested in history and archaeology, the Pyramids can serve as a very valuable topic.

The Pyramids are also significant as far as combating pseudoarchaeologists, who are intelligent enough to realize that the Pyramids inspire such a sense of awe in the average person.  Because of the fact that everyone and their mother know about the Great Pyramids, they use them as a prime source for all of the whacky ideas that they develop, and since everyone has an interest in the Great Pyramids, they can use this to spread their ideas.  Thus teaching about what archaeologists know about the Great Pyramids, and the other pyramids that have been created throughout Egyptian history, is a significant way to combat pseudoscientific ideas.

I will admit that, as far as the overall field of Egyptian archaeology in itself, the Pyramids may not be the most important topic, however when one considers archaeology as a whole, they are very significant.  If we wish to continue to learn about the past, and inspire people to inquire about the past in the future, then we have to develop ways to get people interested in the first place, and the Great Pyramids are one way to do that.

Egypt the Civ

For about two weeks now, ever since one of my friends found it for a fairly inexpensive price on Amazon, I’ve been playing the computer game Civilization IV religiously.  For anyone who doesn’t know about it, essentially you take command of an historical civilization and try to rise to world dominance.  One of the very interesting aspects of the game is that you can spread your civilization’s culture into the border regions of your Empire, and occasionally even take control of a rival civilization’s empire by spreading your culture into it.

This was one of the things that naturally popped into my mind today while Ethan was discussing the Egyptian Third Intermediate Period.  In Civ IV, when you militarily take control of an opponent’s city, the population of that city tends to not like it very much and often revolts against foreign rule.  When the Assyrian Empire took over most of Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period, it clearly met resistance, especially from the Kingdom of Kush in Nubia.

Kush by this point had been essentially enculturated into Egyptian culture, and as the Nubians saw themselves in this light, they undertook a campaign to take back the lands of the god Amun.  Much the same occurs in Civ IV.  As your culture spreads to adjacent lands, and area that once saw itself as English, for example, comes to see itself as being a part of your culture, and therefore will be more likely to rise up in defense of your culture.

I have several reasons for bringing this up.  The first is that it is interesting how aspects of our popular culture, like my playing video games, can have an affect on how we view the world and the past.  If I didn’t play Civilization, I may have had a totally different outlook on these topics.  How we interpret the past is therefore very much dependant upon what we know and do on a daily basis.

My second point is that it would be very neat if anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians used things like video games and other more recently developed media in order to teach their subjects.  There are plenty of games and movies (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, Stargate, and Inglourious Basterds to name a few) that reinforce misnomers about the past and humanity as a whole, and since people find them entertaining, these ideas become more prevalent than those of academics.  If academics would use these forms of media more, and for example, made more games like Civilization (which is by no means perfect as far as not spreading false or incorrect information), then the overall knowledge base of people would increase in these areas because they would actually want to learn more about them.  By doing these things, it would not only increase the popular knowledge of the past, but make learning about it much more fun and enjoyable.

Pyramids and Aliens

I promised myself when I started taking this class that I wouldn’t write about this particular topic every week, but while thinking about what I’m going to do for my research, I feel that it is an issue that is intertwined with my topic in our modern culture. As we talked about a few weeks ago, Heit el-Ghurab is interesting for several reasons, one being that it demonstrates the daily lives of the people who built the Great Pyramids of Giza. The other reason however, which relates to the aforementioned topic I’ve tried not to bring up, is that it flies directly in the face of the Ancient Alien “theorists”.

 

The reasons for this should be self-evident to anyone who’s ever listened to those guys speak. They tend to make the Great Pyramids out to be these immense amazing things with no precursors (which is another discussion in and of itself) and that could have only been built by aliens. But when they make these claims, they completely ignore the fact that Heit el-Ghurab is right next to the Great Pyramids! I mean, this site is the smoking gun of what happened and who built the Pyramids. There are worker’s barracks, floors strewn with fish scales, vast storehouses for grain, bakeries for making bread and breweries for making beer. All of this very very obvious evidence indicates that it wasn’t aliens that built the Pyramids, it was Egyptians! I mean, if I found a gun sitting on my best friend’s desk and later that day found out that he’d kill someone, I wouldn’t assume that the Mafia killed that person and then put the gun on my friend’s desk as part of some massive cover-up. No, I would assume that my friend killed someone, and this is exactly the same thing! The evidence from Heit el-Ghurab so obviously shows that the Egyptians built the Pyramids that it’s asinine that anyone would seriously think otherwise.

 

Early Mortuary Complexes and Power

When one thinks of Egypt, pyramids almost certainly come to mind. The pyramids that people typically imagine however, namely the Great Pyramids of Giza, are by no means the only pyramids that were constructed in Egypt. Pyramids and pyramid-building were not something that spontaneously emerged with the construction of the Great Pyramids either, and there was a long tradition of pyramid and other mortuary complex building far before the Great Pyramids were ever even conceived.

I would therefore like to research these earlier mortuary constructions, namely early mortuary monuments that helped to inspire the creation of pyramids, leading up to the early Step Pyramids such as that of Djoser. By examining some of these early complexes, I hope to observe that the Great Pyramids did indeed have architectural predecessors that all were built upon fundamental architectural and idiological concepts.

I would also like to examine what these early mortuary monuments and the mortuary remains found therein reveal as far as the power of these early Egyptian rulers. I would imagine that as the power of the Egyptian rulers increased, their ability to create more and more elaborate monuments would also increase and thus helped lead to the grander step pyramids. Mortuary remains at these pyramids and complexes could therefore uncover a great deal as far as an increase in social status of Egyptian pharaohs throughout the early dynastic period and to the time of Djoser.

The first monument that I would like to examine is the temple mound of the 1st Dynasty at Hierakonpolis, where archaeologist Mark Lehner says that “…basic concepts of Egypt’s divine kingship appear to have originated” (Lehner,1997). Ideally, this site will demonstrate how the status of the pharaoh was perceived during one of Egypt’s earliest royal periods, and can be compared to the status of the pharaoh at later periods. This site will also help in comparing mortuary complexes with later styles.

The tombs at Abydos would also be helpful in examining this transition in pharaonic mortuary practices and power. The complexes found at this site represent the next step in the evolution of pharaonic mortuary complexes (Lehner, 1997), and therefore are helpful in examining how power changed and expanded.

I would next like to examine the development of funerary mounds and mastabas at Saqqara. These mortuary complexes represent the next stage of development in pharaonic mortuary practices (Lehner 1997), and are therefore significant in seeing how pyramids came to be. I hope to observe how both the complexes themselves, as well as the mortuary remains themselves, demonstrate change in pharaonic power and status.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser is the last monument that I would like to examine in detail, which represents the beginning of actual pyramid-building (Lehner 1997). I would like to examine both the complex itself and how it relates to previous mortuary complex-constructions, as well as the mortuary remains discovered at the complex and what they indicate about pharaonic social status and power.

Theoretically, I shall observe from this investigation both evolutionary links in construction style between the earlier mortuary complexes, as well as an increase in pharaonic power from the eariler periods to the later periods. In what ways pharaonic power changed, however, can be much more complicated than simply saying that pharaonic power increased, and I would therefore like to examine in what ways power changed throughout early Egyptian dynastic history. This will assist in understanding the overall level and complexity of pharaonic power throughout Ancient Egyptian history, as well as help to demonstrate in what ways mortuary practices related to this power.

Resources

Badawy, Alexander. “The Ideology of the Superstructure of the Mastaba-Tomb in Egypt.” Journal of Near East Studies, 15. (July 1956): 180-183.

Case, Humphrey, and Joan Crowfoot Payne. “Tomb 100: The Decorated Tomb at Hierakonpolis” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 48. (December 1962): 5-18.

Kemp, Barry. “Abydos and the Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty.”Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 52. (December 1996): 13-22.

Naville, Edouard. “Abydos.”Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 1. (January 1914): 2-8.

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2997.

 

Holy Pharaoh!

As people living in a modern secular nation, we tend to think of religion as something that is fundamentally separate from government. Yet as we’ve been discussing the transition to the Old Kingdom of Egypt in class this week, it becomes ever more apparent that this point of view is a relatively new idea. The Egyptians believed that their pharaoh was either divine or semi-divine, and therefore Egyptian theology became fundamentally intertwined with governance. This type of thinking was not, of course, limited to Egyptian society alone, as the middle ages of Europe would attest.

This point of view therefore raises several questions in my mind, namely, why exactly did Egyptians believe that their ruler was connected to their gods, and if something at least similar to this has been the norm throughout history, how did our society ever start to break away from it?

To me, at least part of it rests in our world views. Up until relatively recently in history as well, what the average person knew about the world was very much restricted to their local community. If in Egyptian society, for example, a theology developed that included the pharaoh as a god or demigod, then this might even make sense based on their limited knowledge of the rest of the world. From the point of view of the pharaoh of course, it’s all about maintaining and justifying power, but when you are ruling a population that is relatively ignorant of the outside world this would be far easier than in today’s society.

With such advancements as the printing press in Europe and the knowledge that was disseminated after the Enlightenment, a more secular view of the world and rulers makes sense. Since they became actually able to read the bible, for example, Protestants began to reject the idea that the Pope was the inheritor of Saint Peter and therefore denied what was essentially seen previously as the Pope’s divine authority. The more knowledge people gained, and the more it was more widely distributed, the more logical it became to start separating the secular from the divine.

I could be way off base, but thinking this way helps me to understand how a pharaoh could have been seen as a god. I suppose it doesn’t entirely explain it (for example, why did the Japanese have a view similar to that of the Egyptians in regards to their Emperor by World War Two if they were as advanced technologically as the rest of the West), but it’s at least something to think about.

Masks and Aliens

During his talk on Hierakonpolis this past Tuesday, Ethan mentioned a couple of masks that were unearthed at the site and that there had initially been worry that the masks would be used to fuel the ancient alien people.  Curious to find out if they had indeed done so, I was shocked to find that after an (admittedly superficial) Google search, it would appear that no one has done so yet!  The closest I could find was a blog in which they were mentioned by someone who seemed to be interested in legitimate Egyptian archaeology.  I’m therefore somewhat curious as to whether or not this means that the ancient-aliens types simply haven’t found it yet, or if the History Channel is cooking up something special.

This does, however, raise a larger question that I’ve been pondering for a while.  I’ll admit, I watch this show quite often for a good rage/laugh, and as it seems to be the thing to do these days, the show seems to constantly bring up the whole end-of-the-world 2012 thing.  They’ve done it so much that it seems they’ve staked the whole “reputation” of the show on the idea that things are going to change drastically by the end of the year, if the world itself doesn’t end.

So I’m curious.  Do any of you think that once December 21st passes, this show will lose some of its following?  In other words, once people see that the world didn’t end, we’re all still alive, and the world is overall the same as it has been, will the ancient aliens “theory” lose believers?

In my own opinion, and I suppose I’m very pessimistic in this sense, I don’t think it will make too much of a difference.  To me, whether they’d like to admit it or not, the whole ancient alien/2012 apocalypse phenomenon has all the trappings of a fanatical religious group.  No matter what actually happens, or what evidence will come up to contradict their claim, they’ll just end up denying the evidence so that they can keep hold of their particular world view.  And of course, if I’m wrong and the world really does end in December, I won’t be around to worry about the fact that I never “saw the light.”

What the Narmer Palette and Battlestar Galactica Have in Common

What follows is probably a rather unlikely link between what we’ve been discussing in class and a tv show that has been addicting me for about a month now:  Battlestar Galactica.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it follows the journey of a small group of humans attempting to find the mystical planet Earth after their civilization has been destroyed by a group of supposedly evil robots called Cylons.  While I know almost nothing about the original series, the newer incarnation of the show that was made in the last decade has a great deal to do with religion, especially how various characters use religion as a means of control and as a justification for control in their fragmented society.

In the show, the character Laura Roslin, President of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, claims throughout the first and second season to be a leader described in her culture’s sacred texts as the one that would essentially lead the people to the Promised Land.  She is therefore using popular religious notions and able to garner a great deal of support and, at least for a time, maintain her power over a society that would otherwise be fragmented.

As we talked about in class, the Narmer Palette, dating to the end of Dynasty 0, contains a picture of the king Narmer slaying an enemy.  Perched nearby Narmer is a falcon representing the Egyptian god Horus, indicating that Narmer’s execution of the man he is holding is thought to be justified by at least one of the gods.  Religion is therefore being used as a justification for the actions of Narmer.  Whether the people at the time believed that Narmer was really protected by the gods in his action cannot be known, but that doesn’t mean that Narmer didn’t try to establish this idea.

My point is that people using religion to justify their actions is fundamentally human.  This use of religion can be seen in very early Egyptian civilization, much later in Greece (read the Iliad), and even today (and not just through awesome science fiction shows).  I’m not suggesting that religion is a bad thing in itself, but it has been used in the past to justify actions and consolidate people’s hold on power.

The Sub Pluvial and Today’s Climate Change

One of the things that interested me about class this week was the discussion of the sub pluvial, which allowed for the habitation of areas of Egypt and the rest of North Africa that are now bone-dry deserts.  When the climate changed, however, there is evidence that the inhabitants of this now desert region moved towards the Nile River Valley and made that their primary area of habitation.  Thus a change in the climate created a change in location for a society.

While this last point goes without saying, I find it interesting in light of the modern debate of global warming (which to me at this, to say that it’s not happening is sticking your head in the sand like an ostrich, but that’s neither here nor there).  While there are still many people out there who attempt to counter the idea that current global warming and climate change is manmade, in an immediate sense it doesn’t really matter what’s causing it.   If such change in climate made such a large chunk of North Africa uninhabitable seven thousand years ago, when there were relatively few humans living there or in the rest of the world, even minimal climate change nowadays would be devastating for humanity.

Even if current climate change weren’t manmade, the effects would still be devastating to the nearly seven billion people alive today.  If, for example, areas of the Midwestern United States were to become desert, not only would that screw the people of the Midwest, but it would lead to massive food shortages for all of those who depend on the crops grown there.  Therefore, while climate change led to migration after the sub pluvial in Egypt, climate change today could potentially end our society.

My point therefore is this:  we have archaeological and historic examples of how climate changes alter societies.  It’s happened before, and we can prove it.  Even if, for the sake of argument, climate change weren’t happening right now, why wouldn’t we prepare for it when it inevitably does?  Manmade or not, it’s happened in the past when it’s almost assuredly not been manmade, and therefore it seems reasonable to assume that climate change will happen in the future whether we cause it or not.  If the past has taught us anything, it’s that all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

The Destruction of the Past

All the talk in class this week about the beginnings of museums in Egypt got me thinking.  As we all know, last year Egypt had a revolution that ousted then President Hosni Mubarak from his long dictatorial rule over the country.  One aspect of this revolution that got at least some attention in the media had to do with the looting of artifacts at the Cairo Museum.  Initially, the government head of Egyptian antiquities, Zahi Hawass, caught flak for not better protecting the artifacts.  However, some average citizens did end up protecting the museum, and even the Egyptian military placed sentinels around it to protect it from further harm.  Fortunately as well, according to CNN, many of the artifacts that were stolen were recovered

Zahi Hawass pretending he's Indiana Jones

.The good news Egypt and the rest of the world would seem to be that many of the revolutionaries and former government officials had a respect for Egypt’s cultural heritage; however such looting in a country at least somewhat dedicated to the preservation of its past does raise several interesting points.  One of the fundamental and unavoidable aspects of archaeology is that once an artifact is recovered from a site, that’s it.  You can never go back, do the same excavation again, and get the same information.  This means that if an artifact that has been excavated is looted or destroyed, it’s gone forever, along with all the information that could have been gleaned from it.

Egyptian soldier protecting artifacts at the Cairo Museum

To me, this represents something of a problem.  While it’s not like I’m against museums or anything, does it really make a lot of sense to take such priceless and irreplaceable artifacts all together in one place?  If the participants of the Egyptian Revolution hadn’t been so devoted to their cultural heritage and had stolen or destroyed more of the artifacts of the Cairo museum, that would be it.  Those artifacts could never be replaced.  And it’s not like the destruction of cultural material is unheard of.  In 2001, for example, the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan which had existed for fifteen hundred years, simply because it did not fit with their religious world-view. Even in ancient times, the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria resulted in the destruction of tons of documents, the potential historical value of which we can’t even begin to guess because they were, well, destroyed.

Statue of the Buddha at Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

My point in all this is that the more that’s discovered and excavated and collected, the more likely it is that it can be destroyed by social upheaval and lost forever.  Of course, it’s not like we can just not excavate or not learn about the past, because that way we’d learn nothing and in many ways it would be just the same as if it had been destroyed.  So, the way I look at it, no matter what we do, we’re sort of screwed.  As students of the past, we know that all civilizations eventually fall in some fashion, so all the information that we learn now has the potential to be destroyed and completely lost later.  It seems to me that the only thing we really can do is try to educate the public as to the importance of their cultural heritage, as seems to be what overall was done in Egypt, and pray that that will help to save our past from destruction for as long as possible.

Writing is Power

 

           

Our discussion of the writing of the ancient Egyptians perhaps fascinated me the most this week. Specifically, the comments of the Egyptian scribe Khety as given in the textbook, where he says that “scribes give orders and others have to obey them,” are of particular interest. Clearly this attitude demonstrates the power held by those in ancient Egypt who could read and write, which constituted a very small amount of the population.

 It’s easy, however, to forget that those who are able to read and write have always had a great deal of power. As Ethan mentioned in class, the writings of Herodotus would help to shape how Europeans saw Egypt and therefore affected early archaeological work there. Despite whether or not you are a Christian, there can be no doubt that the writers of the Bible, and all those who have altered and edited it over the course of thousands of years, have had a profound impact in controlling the lives of people even to this day.

 This brings me to my point that, while at first glance the idea that the scribe Khety had a great deal of power simply because he could read and write may even seem silly, the reality of the matter is that those who write today probably have an even great amount of power than he did. Because Khety lived in an age where most people couldn’t read and write, it would really be only a small number of people who would know what he wrote.

 With the vast amount of people who can read today, the ability to write is therefore even more of a powerful force than it was in Ancient Egypt. Take for example the writings of someone like J.K Rowling. While the Harry Potter series may be fantasy, there can be no doubt that Rowlling’s own ideas about good and evil, morality and immorality, etc. are interwoven into her works. Because so many people can read around the world today, her ideas can change the opinions (or shape them) of millions of people. Even the writers of TV shows like the Simpsons or the Colbert Report have a great impact over how people view the world, which in reality gives these writers an insane amount of power.

Thus while Khety may have seen how the ability to write gives one power, the power he would have had cannot even compare to the power of a writer today. I would even argue that the increase in literacy has given writers more power, not less, because again, their ideas can reach a far wider range of people. Thus the ability to write, in and of itself, should be seen as an exercise of power.