King Tut Did What?

Most of what the general populous knows about the “legendary” pharaoh Tutankhamun does not pertain to his rule over Egypt. This is because he was not very impressive compared to rulers such as the various Ramses. His wide spread fame is due to the discovery of his basically untouched tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. Even so, there are some interesting aspects about the boy king that people are not generally aware of.

Tut ruled from 1336 BC to 1327 BC. Through examination of his remains he is thought to have been around the age of 17 when he died, but he gained the throne of pharaoh at about the age of 8 or 9. It is commonly thought that he was the sun of Akhenaten. His wife and queen was Ankhesenamun who was the third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Tut and his administration had a lot of work to do after his father left the Egyptian state in quite a mess. The old religion was restored and construction began to rebuilt destroyed temples of deities. Also, the capital was moved from Akhtaten back to Thebes.

Even though he is often thought not to be, Tut did have some historical significance. He could have continued with his father’s administration instead of going back to the old ways. This would have definitely had an impact on the Egyptian state. The best answer for why this did not happen is because Tut was so young when he ascended the throne. What does an 8 year old know about ruling such a vast and powerful kingdom as Egypt? For awhile, things were basically run by the viziers and administration. The priesthood also saw this time as a perfect opportunity to reestablish their authority in helping the rule Egypt.

Of course there is the controversy over how Tut died. Was it murder? Assassination? People are constantly working to discover the answer to this but it reality, does it matter?

Princess Sheretnebty and New Finds in Egypt

I recently read an article titled, “Tomb of ancient Egyptian princess discovered”. South of Cairo, hidden in the bedrock, archaeologists have found the tomb of and ancient Egyptian princess that has long been forgotten.The structure dates back to 2500 BC, during the 5th Dynasty. Archaeologists are confused by the location of this tomb for someone who was of royal status. The majority of members of the royal family of the 5th Dynasty were buried elsewhere. As research continues, archaeologist hope to discover the remains of the princess inside the tomb but currently what lies within is a mystery. A false-door was found at the tomb bearing the princesses name, Sheretnebty, and an inscription found in the limestone reads, “King’s daughter of his body, his beloved, revered in front of the Great God, Sheretnebty,” in hieroglyphics. The tomb of this princess was also surrounded by four other tombs cut into the rock. These tombs were for people of important affiliation with the royal family during the fifth Dynasty. A new door has been opened to learning and documenting information about the 5th Dynasty, the royal family, and others of historical importance of Ancient Egypt.

Through great new discoveries in ancient Egyptian Archaeology, such as the tomb of Sheretnebty, scholars are able to look deeper into the past of the ancient world, even more so than before. An increase in archaeological excavations in Egypt means an increase in knowledge of the past, this is why it is important for researchers to continue work in Egypt, even though the topic of ancient Egyptians may seem somewhat jaded. Though it seems that there may be no more to discover or explore in Egypt today, for the past hundred years of excavations in the country have produced thousands of significant fines, though it seems that great new discoveries are still popping up today, like in the case above.


As I was reading about the New Dynasty for class this week, I was immediately drawn to one Pharaoh’s reign in particular: Akhenaten (meaning “agreeable to Aten” which is the disk of the sun in ancient Egypt, an aspect of the Ra, the sun God). He seems to generally be considered a strange and mysterious man, heavily influenced by his mother. During his reign, came major changes to the ancient Egyptian religious and cultural traditions that we became familiar with in the Old Kingdom. The Pharaoh’s original name was Amenhotep IV, yet he was a follower of the monotheistic religion of Atenism, and changed his name in recognition. In his reign, Akhenaten started a religious revolution in ancient Egypt, making Aten Egypt’s one god, instead of worshipping to multiple deities, as in the past. It is believed that Akhenaten’s revolution came in the fifth year of his reign, and began the construction of a new capital, Akhetaten, or the “Horizon of Aten”, in the site now known as Amarna. Though construction was not finished, in 1346 BC, or the seventh year of his reign, the capital of Ancient Egypt was moves from Thebes to Akhetaten and construction seemed to have continued for a couple of years after. The traditional worshipping and ceremonies in the new capital were drastically different from those before, tagged with this newfound monotheism. In 1344 BC, Akhenaten proclaimed not just the oneness of god, but the Aten is the “universal” god, and forbid the worship of any others. He even went as extreme to change the hieroglyphs to read one “god”, instead of “gods” (plural); this changed not only the hieroglyphs, but Egyptian art itself. These changes were incredibly radical in ancient Egyptian times, and that is why Akhenaten is such a major Pharaoh in ancient Egyptian history.

Egyptian Art as a Reflection of “Reality”

I found one aspect of today’s class lecture particularly interesting: the carved artwork in the mortuary temples of Ramses II depicts an alternate reality.  According to Dr. Watrall, the artwork at both Abu Simbel in Aswan and the Ramesseum in Thebes depict Ramses II as the victorious conqueror during the Battle of Kadesh.  This is  a false reflection of reality; the battle was an enormous military victory for the Hittites as they forced Ramses II and his army to withdraw.  The Hittite victory eventually ended in a peace treaty–the first in recorded history in 1258 BC–which partitioned the Near East into spheres of influence controlled by the Hittite and Egyptian empires.

Why would Ramses II have his mortuary temple walls covered in falsehoods?  Why would he have himself shown as a military victor when he lost the battle, and as Dr. Watrall stated, almost got himself killed by riding into the fray?  Perhaps his motivations were much like ours are today.  No one likes to lose, especially when important things are at stake, so it makes sense that he did not want himself to be depicted as an unsuccessful military leader for all of eternity.  Perhaps it was also an ideological statement.  If Pharaoh was supposed to be the mortal incarnation of the gods, one can imagine that gods do no lose wars.  Thus, in order to maintain his position as the the godly king, perhaps Ramses II chose to alter reality to make sure he “won” the war.

The other part of this which I found interesting is that the depictions of Ramses II in his mortuary temples were not meant to be seen by the public.  If he was concerned about his image, or maintaining his “godly” status in the eyes of the public, they would not be able to see the “corrected” reality he carved into his temples.  So why would he be concerned that his temples show him as the battle victor?  Perhaps there are other documents which can answer this question.


Bard (2007) reviews the process of mummification:

“There is evidence of efforts to preserve the body before the beginning of Dynastic times, and the techniques of mummification evolved over many centuries. By New Kingdom times the mummification process achieved a high degree of preservation… the techniques of mummification reached a high point during the 21st Dynasty” (p. 251).

There are two major questions which present themselves after a short discussion of mummification, its adoption and perfection. 1)  How did practitioners measure the success of their techniques? Did they practice on animals or check in on previously processed mummies to confirm experiments or alterations/improvements to the process? 2) Why was there an emphasis on retention of the body form? The whole body was not required for this (brains and viscera removed), so how does this altered body fit in with the ideology?

Origins of mummification

First, let us consider the naturally occurring conditions in Egypt and how they would affect a dead body: extreme heat in the Nile Valley leads to rapid decomposition. A family member passing away in the house would be very noticeable (smell, bloat, discolor) very quickly. But the extreme nature of the heat of the desert might serve as a deterrent to the insects that would otherwise accelerate decomposition (flies that lay eggs on corpses have a heat ceiling of about 100* fahrenheit – when it’s hotter than this, they aren’t flying, so they don’t find bodies to oviposit on).

The arid desert environment may also preserve bodies – natural mummification is seen in desert skeletal collections dating from Predynastic times. Natural mummification can occur in as little as a few months, as long as there is sufficient heat and air flow to desiccate the tissues. But the mechanics of this (heat and airflow) are not the processes used by Egyptian priests. How were successful anthropogenic (man-made) methods developed? The body was mummified during a process that lasted over two months, entombed, and that was that (except for the spirit going to and from the tomb to receive the nourishment left for it in the mastaba or pyramid). If it’s priests doing the mummifying and who have access to the holy spaces, they would theoretically have access to earlier preparations, but for royal mummies, multiple coffins/sarcophagi would be too heavy to remove in order to check on the body.

Cultural context

The second, and perhaps more socio-culturally relevant issue is not related to the mechanics at all. It is a question of intention and rationale. Rakita and Buikstra (2008) reconsider the cultural convention of mummification as it relates to Hertz’s rites of passage. “We prefer to view mummification as a method for sustaining the position of the soul in the liminal phase… For the Andeans, death as a culturally defined event simply did not exist for some individuals” (105). The presence of the dead in a continually liminal stage puts them in a place of great power as conduits between the world of the living and that of the dead. As divine king, the pharaoh was already an earthly deity. Perhaps it was important to maintain his earthly presence for the benefit of order in the country.

In any case, treatment of the dead and their continued interaction with the living is clearly an important factor in Egyptian ideology. The treatment of the body in particular can demonstrate how certain beliefs were enacted by past peoples. Although scholars have recreated in great detail the mechanics of postmortem processing of royal bodies, fitting this process into the ancient Egyptian worldview has only recently been considered from a theoretical perspective.

*Side note: keep in mind, these practices are not so strange. Modern American convention preserves the body chemically for a wake/funeral and great care is taken to ensure the body decays as little as possible (iron casket lain in a cement vault). Although it didn’t start out this way, modern (Christian) Americans rationalize this process as a way to retain the body for eventual return of the soul at the Resurrection.


Bard, K. A. (2007). Introduction to the archaeology of ancient Egypt. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Hertz, R. (1960). A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death. Death & The right hand (pp. 27–86). Free Press.

Rakita, G. F. M., & Buikstra, J. E. (2008). Corrupting Flesh: Reexamining Hertz’s Persective on Mummification and Cremation. In G. F. M. Rakita, J. E. Buikstra, L. A. Beck, & S. R. Williams (Eds.), Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium (pp. 97–106). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

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.

Symbolic Interpretation

The importance of symbolic interpretation of artistic representations becomes strikingly apparent when we study the archaeological record dating to the reign of Akhenaten. Akhenaten held the throne for a period of 38 years during the Amarna period (Ethan Watrall class lecture 11/13/2012).  During this period there are significant observable changes in Egyptian artistic representations.  A particularly interesting subject is the drastic change in the artistic representation of the Pharaoh, who during this time was represented with dropping chin, wide hips and pendulous belly.  These changes give the Pharaoh a more androgynous appearance than was previously reflected.  Egyptologists and Egyptian archaeologists have debated whether the physical changes in the Pharaoh’s appearance represent a genetic disorder or rather have religious symbolism and suggest that the Pharaoh’s androgynous appearance is a physical manifestation of the belief that the Pharaoh is the mother and father of all of Egypt (Ethan Watrall class lecture 11/13/2012).

A second observable change in the archaeological record is the royal family being depicted in more affectionate and intimate settings than had ever been recorded previously. One fragmentary stela is even thought to depict king Akhenaten with queen Neferiti and their children seated on his lap (Bard, 2008, p.227).  Scenes of such an intimate moment in time seem to displace the king from his godly position and attribute him mortal qualities that had previously been unrepresented in the Egyptian historic record. It has therefore been hypothesized that such representations may have held ideological significance (Bard, 20008, p.227).

Similarly, dating to the Amarna period, scenes depicting the army marching down the Royal Road of Akhetaten have also been uncovered (Bard, 2008, p. 228). Such artistic representation may be equated to modern political campaigns and Akhenaten may have been attempting to bolster support for the military during a time of economic strife (Bard, 2008, p.228).

The three examples presented in this post are a fascinating example of the importance of symbolic interpretation.  I think they help demonstrate the fact that the Egyptians often depicted what they wanted for themselves or their future and not necessary the reality of life.

Depictions of Egyptians

The art of ancient Egypt always impresses me, but one of my favorite aspects of the monuments and carvings from that period has been the depiction of the people. Pharoah Akhenaten stands out from all other ancient pharaohs with his depiction as a long headed and pot bellied man. His royal family is also long headed and pot bellied. There are many theories on why there is this drastic change in the appearance of the pharaoh and his family, but since his mummy has not been positively identified there is no ability to test theories that he suffered from some type of genetic disorder. There is also a theory centered on the presence of alien life forms that point to an extraterrestrial influence on the pharaoh (there are several ‘interesting’ blogs on the topic). The mystery will likely remain until Akhenaten’s mummy is discovered and tested for genetic disorders as well as examined for skeletal evidence of his distinct cranio-facial features.

Akhenaten is not the only person that stands out in ancient Egyptian art. The representation of the foreigners present on the temple walls is also distinct from Egyptians. While in Egypt, I remember being fascinated by these depictions. The stark differences in skin tone and cranio-facial structure along with distinct dress and hair styles demonstrates that the Egyptians were aware of several things. First and foremost, they were interacting with their neighbors in some capacity whether it was through warfare, peaceful trade, or the formation of alliances. They were no longer isolated by their physical boundaries which they had used to keep to themselves for centuries previously. The Egyptians were also defining their ethnicity as being very distinct from these other populations, both physically as well as culturally. Most depictions were created to show that the Egyptians were in a powerful position over these foreigners.

The Egyptians used art to distinguish between their own people as well as themselves from foreign outsiders. They implied their power and dominance over these foreigners through their graphic depictions of battles. These artworks were created by and for a higher status group of individuals. It is important to keep in mind that these depictions represent an idealized version of the differences between individuals and that these differences may not have been as important on an individual basis.




The Beer Archeologist

Yesterday, my neighbors came over to dinner, and started talking about a brewery out east, called the Dogfish Head Brewery stationed in Delaware, which has worked with archeologists to recreate beer that ancient civilizations used in the past. The Dogfish Head Brewery works with an archeologist named Patrick McGovern, who supplies the brewery with data about the crops used to make the ancient beer as well as chemical tests o determine the location of ingredients. After hearing this from my neighbor, I did research of my own into the topic, and I quickly found an article about this in the Smithsonian called “The Beer Archeologist.”

According to the article, Dr. McGovern is a specialist of ancient fermented beverages. He cracks open ancient kegs and identifies the chemical compounds housed within the containers. In attempts to recreate the beverages, they have looked at remains of pottery from various archeological sites, like the Tomb of Pharaoh Scorpion I, where remains of savory, thyme, and coriander were identified. Analysis of the ancient pottery shows that Ancients used a variety of ingredients, some very strange to brew beer. Some other ingredients identified include:olive oil, cheese, carrot, chamomile, dates and some hallucinogens like poppy and hemp.

When the Dogfish Brewery set out to replicate the beer, they tried to be as authentic as possible in obtaining ingredients. They found native strands of yeast, and applied a spice mix called za’atar, which contains similar spice like thyme and coriander. The Dogfish Brewery now makes a brew called Ta Henket (ancient Egyptian for “bread beer”), which you can find at their brewery.

I think that this topic was so interesting because archeologists are mirroring the present and the past. By examining and recreating ancient Egyptians’ beer, we are experiencing, to the best of our ability, their ancient culture. If you want to read more about Dr. McGovern, the link is below.

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.