The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona

Khufu_mobile

Serpentine stone head, attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Author Photograph.

In July 2017 I was able to visit the Egyptian Museum Barcelona. The museum opened in 1994 to display the Egyptian collection of Jordi Clos and introduce the public to 1,100 Egyptian artefacts and various temporary exhibitions. It forms part of the Clos Archaeological Foundation, which also funds archaeological expeditions and training.

The museum is served by the efficient Barcelona metro and easily found between Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia masterpiece and the Passeig De Catalunya, where many other modernist buildings are located. The museum is clean, tidy and well lit and the exhibits are displayed across three floors.

Most of the objects in the museum are typical of this type of small Egyptian collection. The dates range from black-topped Naqada pots to Roman coffins, and the artefacts on display include bronze statues of gods, stone statues of pharaohs and courtiers, shabtis, scarabs, amulets, coffins and cartonnages, stone vessels, jewellery and tomb models. Many of these objects are typical, but there are also a number of particularly interesting pieces worthy of further study.

Highlights

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Large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a Sekhem scepter and (restored) staff (E-422). Author Photograph.

Upon entering the museum the first group of exhibits explain the nature and role of the Pharaoh in Egyptian culture through a series of artefacts covering all dynasties of Egyptian history. Amongst the usual royal statuary is an interesting serpentine stone head attributed to the IV Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (image top left), the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza. If correct this attribution would add an important new portrait to the relatively few known images of this Pharaoh.

There is also an interesting granite shabti of the XXV Dynasty Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa (E-643) and a serpentine shabti of the slightly later Napatan ruler Senkamanisken from their burials at Nuri in the Sudan.

In addition to the royal statuary are a number of private statues of courtiers, individuals and offering bearers in stone and wood. The highlight of these objects is a large wooden statue of a VI Dynasty nobleman carrying a sekhem scepter and a partially restored staff (E-422, image right).

There are several attractive painted scenes including the two priestesses in image at the top of this post (E-652).

Man_writing_tomb

XIX Dynasty relief of a man writing on a tomb (E-644). Author Photograph.

For those that prefer literary and literate objects, there are several inscribed statues and stelae, including a fine New Kingdom false door of Sebekemheb from the reign of Amenhotep III (E-261) and an unusual limestone relief fragment of a XIX Dynasty man writing on a tomb wall (E-644, left). The two VI Dynasty execration texts are less artistic or monumental but just as important as evidence of magical assault upon the enemies of the Egyptian state (in this case the enemies are Nubians).

Other highlights include a lovely wooden bed (E-434) with bovine feet and reconstructed leather strapping, dated to the Early Dynastic period according to it’s label.

MK_apron

XII Dynasty Middle Kingdom ceremonial apron of faience beads, including a decorative device in the shape of an animal tail (E-844). Author Photograph.

In addition to several wesekh and menat collars (at least some of which have been re-strung from ancient beads) the jewellery section contains a New Kingdom beaded skullcap decorated with gold flower motifs and a faience apron with a decorative feature mimicking a bull’s tail (right, E-844). This apron has been dated to the XII Dynasty by comparison with the similar belt and apron of Senebtisi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The XII Dynasty coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir is a great example of a Middle Kingdom rectangular-coffin with a beautifully clear offering formula on it. It is also cleverly displayed to inform the visitor about Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages. On top of the coffin are a series of objects typical of Middle Kingdom burials, including wood and stucco model sandals (E-988 and E-999), two stone vessels – including one alabaster example still sealed with cloth, a mirror in copper-alloy and wood, and a wooden headrest. The texts on the coffin and the context for Middle Kingdom funerary assemblages are covered in detail on an adjacent panel, illustrated with images from intact Middle Kingdom Egyptian tombs.

Meir_mobile

Typical Middle Kingdom burial assemblage, based around the coffin of Khnumhotep from Meir (E-188). Author photograph.

Informative display

Several of the artefacts have been cleverly displayed to enhance understanding of their archaeological context and Egyptian culture.  While Middle Kingdom burial customs are introduced by the coffin of Khnumhotep (above), tombs of the Old Kingdom are represented by a clever reconstruction of the VI Dynasty tomb chapel of Iny. An information panel introduces the sources for the reconstruction and the content of the reliefs. Iny’s false door stela and three other relief fragments from the tomb are displayed in the reconstruction, which places them in context using information from other fragments from the same tomb that are in other collections. This is an informative way to display multiple fragments from the same tomb, and reconstituting the tomb environment in this way undoubtedly improves visitor understanding of the archaeological and cultural context of the reliefs.

Iny_tomb

Part of the reconstruction of the tomb-chapel of Iny, showing the false door stela (centre left) and further fragments of relief in the context of a small VI Dynasty offering chapel. Author Photograph.

The funerary papyrus of the Lady Bary is equally well presented. Although this XIX Dynasty papyrus is extremely fragmentary, the display shows how the surviving papyrus relates to the original vignettes (where these can be reconstructed) and also includes an information panel detailing the conservation and investigation of the papyrus. This format makes best use of an artefact that might otherwise have languished in stores as too damaged for display, and ensures visitors gain an appreciation of what can be learned from even the most fragmentary of objects.

However there are also some missed opportunities in terms of display. While Third Intermediate Period coffins and cartonnage are relatively common, the XXII Dynasty cartonnage (E-345.4) of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, wife of Pamiu is a good example of the type. This empty cartonnage is displayed above a mirror to show the empty internal space where the mummy was located, emphasising the difference between a mummy cartonnage and anthropoid wooden coffin. The substantial pedestal allowed the cartonnage-covered mummy to stand up in front of the tomb during the funerary rituals. This display would be an ideal opportunity to explain the differences between cartonnage and wooden coffins and/or discuss how such objects were used in funerary rituals. Providing museum visitors with information about how artefacts were used enables them to engage with objects as elements of ancient lives, and contextualise what they see. Unfortunately in this case the information panel is limited to the name and titles of the owner, and an interesting opportunity to contextualise funerary artefacts has been missed.

TIP_cartonnage

XXII Dynasty mummy cartonnage of the Lady of the House Djed-Montu-iues-ani, displayed to show the inside of the cartonnage reflected on the underlying mirror and the large pedestal which contained the feet and allowed the cartonnage to stand up (E-345.4). Author Photograph.

Subsidiary exhibitions

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XVIII Dynasty blue painted pot typical of the period around the reign of Tutankhamun. Author Photograph.

When I visited there were two subsidiary exhibitions within the museum, which made use of artefacts from the collection to explore further specific aspects of Egyptian culture. These subsidiary exhibitions make clever use of artefacts that might otherwise be considered unremarkable or languish in storage.

Most of the lowest floor of the museum is occupied by a fascinating exhibition dealing with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Using excavation photographs, artefacts from the Barcelona collection (such as the typical Amarna period blue painted pot shown in the image left) and a facsimile of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, the exhibition demonstrates how the artefacts that accompanied Tutankhamun were luxurious versions of types in use in other funerary, domestic and ritual contexts. It was a pleasure to see the famous tomb dealt with as a part of a continuum of Egyptian culture rather than as an exotic treasure and the exhibition provided a new angle on an commonly-covered subject.

Beds_mobile

Partly reconstructed painted wood Ptolemaic drum (rear) and Middle Kingdom (XII Dynasty) model bed (front) both with leonine legs. Author Photograph.

The Animals Sagrats de l’Antic Egipte exhibition deals with the role of animals in the religion of ancient Egypt, including their deification and dedication as votive offerings. It contained the expected animal manifestations of various deities, appropriate animal mummies, zoomorphic cosmetic palettes and two tomb models including animal figures. As such it’s remit was somewhat wider than the recent Manchester Museum animal mummies exhibition, although it was a smaller exhibition. For me a highlight was a partly reconstructed drum with leonine legs in painted wood dated to the Ptolemaic period (304-30 BC) and a painted wooden model bed dated to the XII Dynasty (right).

Documentation

Although several innovative displays and highly informative panels explain the archaeological and cultural context of certain artefacts, the labels on many of the objects in the Egyptian museum are a little deficient in information. In particular there are no accession numbers on any of the labels and very few give details of the object’s provenance. Unfortunately unlike the Cuban Egyptian Collection there is no single catalogue containing details of the displayed artefacts or highlights of the collection.

The shop sells several catalogues associated with individual exhibitions and themes but none of these contains all the significant objects in the collection and some do not provide accession numbers, provenance and bibliographic information. I purchased a copy of the most informative of these catalogues, Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto (D’Amicone 2011), which includes many artefacts from the Barcelona Museum as well as other objects borrowed mainly from Turin and Florence for the 2011-2012 exhibition of the same name. Additional information on ancient Egyptian culture and certain objects is also available online on the museum’s website, but although this includes accession numbers it only covers a few of the many objects in the collection. All the accession numbers provided in this post have been gleaned from the Moda y Belleza catalogue or the museum website. Further information could undoubtedly be obtained by active research in the collection and communication with the museum and associated Egyptologists, but these methods would not be available to the casual visitor and are unlikely to be pursued by anyone but an Egyptologist actively researching the collection.

Provenance

There was also very little information on the origins of the artefacts or how they entered the museum. A review of the Barcelona artefacts present in the Moda y Belleza catalogue revealed that they had all been purchased, mostly within the last 30 years, with many documented in auction catalogues since 1992. This is consistent with the history of the collection, which grew rapidly after the foundation of the museum in 1994. A lack of archaeological provenance is a chronic problem with purchased antiquities irrespective of when they were bought, but it might be appropriate to include information on when the artefacts entered the museum and from where (auction, private collection etc) to provide a little additional context on the object labels.

Gneiss

Possible anorthosite-gneiss bowl, perhaps discoloured by post-depositional processes or fire. Note the darker bluish patches and streaks that are typical of anorthosite-gneiss. Author Photograph.

Further research

Several of the artefacts in the collection would benefit from more research than I have been able to undertake for this review. Among the stone vessels is a discoloured example (right), described as ‘alabaster’, which exhibits the blue-black striations and spots of anorthosite-gneiss from the Gebel el-Asr quarries. Since gneiss is often confused with other stones (typically diorite) and this example is both broken and discoloured some confusion might be expected, but it would certainly benefit from additional research. The discolouration might be product of post-depositional processes, but gneiss stone vessels are a feature of Early Dynastic tombs and at least two of the I Dynasty tombs (tombs S3471 and S3504) excavated by Emery (1949, 1954) at Saqqara were badly damaged by fire. It is possible that this vessel came from a similar context.

Beaddress

Bead dress described as Old Kingdom (E-843). Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

Another rather curiously labelled artefact (E-843) is described as an Old Kingdom bead dress (left). Both label and catalogue note that only two genuine bead-net dresses are known, and the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) entry suggests that this artefact is a modern confection created from ancient beads (potentially including beads from multiple periods). This is not explicitly stated on the object label but it would account for the juxtaposition of the funerary imagery of the winged scarab on the bodice (which is typical of much later periods of Egyptian history), and the much earlier style of the rest of the object which is reminiscent of Old Kingdom bead-net dresses like the example in the Petrie Museum.

There are other unusual artefacts in the collection, where the style, stated date or attribution is outside of what might normally be expected. During my online research and discussion immediately after visiting the collection several individuals raised concerns that the collection includes forgeries. Others have questioned whether it is appropriate that a modern museum was created in the late 20th century through the purchase of artefacts on the antiquities market. Further archaeological and scientific research might confirm the presence of absence of forgeries, but the other concerns are more difficult to address. For me writing this post has raised a number of issues relating to the nature and ethical implications of purchased antiquities in museum collections.  These problems cannot be properly discussed in this short museum review, but there is undoubtedly a need for further consideration of our attitudes to forgeries, unprovenanced artefacts and recently purchased antiquities in museum collections.

Conclusion

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a very interesting collection with many opportunities for further research. There are a number of very attractive and interesting artefacts, that will undoubtedly please both archaeologists and the public. Artefacts like the coffin of Khnumhotep and the reliefs from the chapel of Iny are treasures in their own right, and have been displayed to enhance their inherent importance by introducing the visitor to their archaeological and cultural context. The subsidiary exhibitions and informative presentation of artefacts like the papyrus of the Lady Bary make good use of artefacts that might otherwise languish in storage to contextualise and explain aspects of Egyptian culture.

It is unfortunate that the museum accession numbers and origins of individual objects (whether archaeological provenance or information about purchase) are not presented on the majority of the object labels. Some labels would also benefit from additional information and in some cases the objects could be used to expound further on ancient Egyptian culture. The cartonnage of Djed-Montu-iues-ani is well displayed but could be used to explain Egyptian funerary rituals in more detail. The museum would also benefit from a comprehensive published guide or guides to the displayed collection. Such publications could incorporate additional research into the origins and parallels for the artefacts in the collection and hopefully resolve some of the unanswered questions about a minority of the artefacts.

References

D’Amicone, E. (ed.) 2011 Moda y Belleza en el Antiguo Egipto. Exposición presentada en el Museu Egipci de Barcelona 20 de Octubre de 2011 – 20 de Julio de 2012. Museu Egipci de Barcelona: Fundació Arqueològica Clos.

Emery, W. B. 1949. Great Tombs of the First Dynasty I. Cairo

Emery, W. B. 1954.  Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II, London

Acknowledgements

I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, including the Early Dynastic bed and to various individuals who have commented on the collection online or privately.

I am also grateful to Lucia Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, Campbell Price, Ashley Cooke, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club and all the other commentators on various Facebook and Instagram posts, for their comments and suggestions regarding these artefacts and their interest in the museum.

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Ditch that total station and grab your tablet? ArcGIS Collector and QGIS QField mobile-GIS survey apps reviewed.

Several GIS platforms now offer apps that synchronise GIS-based fieldwork between your computer and your phone or tablet. With options to add differential GPS equipment to your mobile GIS kit and the capacity to take your basemaps and other data with you into the field, mobile-GIS eliminates the disconnect between data capture and GIS. So how do the latest mobile-GIS apps measure up in the field? Here I review two that I tested recently during fieldwork at the classical site of Olynthos, during ongoing fieldwork in Greece.

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Programming the differential GPS on the terrace of the Marsam Hotel, Luxor.

There have long been efforts to replace large and complex survey kit with smaller handheld devices. Until recently these typically involved either a substantial cost for the procurement of specialist hardware and software (such as the Leica Zeno and ESRI ArcPad) or experience in the management (and often programming) of open-source data solutions (such as many described in this discussion in GIS Stack Exchange). If you didn’t have the financial or programming resources to use these, then you were stuck with combining survey equipment, like total stations or differential GPS (see image left) with several different software programmes in order to create, process and import your data in a GIS (Geographic Information System). Once fieldwork data was incorporated into the GIS, it often required further processing to produce GIS-friendly layers for analysis and presentation and if the data was collected by a non-GIS specialist there were many opportunities for misunderstandings about the format required for GIS compatibility, resulting in stress and additional delay for one or both parties.

The advent of mobile phone and tablet compatible mobile-GIS apps has opened a range of new possibilities for recording fieldwork directly in a mobile-GIS platform, synced to your online or desktop GIS. During recent fieldwork at the site of Olynthos, Greece I trialed two different mobile-GIS apps ArcGIS Collector and QGIS QField on my Samsung Galaxy tab S2, running Android 7.

The fieldwork

The Olynthos Project is an interdisciplinary research project in northern Greece directed by Lisa Nevett of the University of Michigan, Zosia Archibald of the University of Liverpool and Bettina Tsigarida of the Ephorate of Pella. The project combines the excavation of houses on the north and south hills of the classical town, with field surface survey of the surrounding countryside and various scientific analyses (Nevett et al. Forthcoming). The project has typically used total stations for recording on site and printouts of Google Earth for identifying surveyed fields, with data from both sources incorporated into the project GIS in subsequent stages. Tablet-based mobile-GIS survey is not appropriate for precise recording of archaeological features in the excavation trenches, as GPS units integrated into tablet computers are only precise to c. 2.5-5m. But once combined with a satellite image basemap, this level of precision is perfectly acceptable for recording surveyed fields in the surrounding countryside or surface collection in grid squares on the unexcavated parts of the site.

The Olynthos Project began using ArcGIS Collector for surface survey following initial development of the Olynthos Project ArcGIS Online group and ArcGIS Collector maps by Peter Knoop and Caitlin Dickinson of the University of Michigan. The recent field season in July 2017 gave me the opportunity to test ArcGIS Collector against QGIS QField during archaeological fieldwork.

Mobile-GIS

ArcGIS Collector and QGIS QField are essentially simplified versions of their big brother desktop GISs, optimised for field data collection on a small mobile device with limited connectivity and processing power. Both apps operate on similar principles. You produce layers in your desktop GIS, convert them and upload them (directly or via the web) to your mobile device. The Collector and QField apps then run these ‘mobile’ versions of your GIS projects enabling you to a view, and create GIS layers in a format that is suitable for smaller screens and simpler for mobile devices to process. Both apps are designed for creating data in the field using the device’s GPS or a separate unit compatible with it. Both raster and vector data are supported and require processing for inclusion in the mobile app, raster data usually requires tiling to ensure it displays efficiently.

Despite their many similarities there are several significant differences between ArcGIS Collector and QGIS QField, not least of which is that Collector is proprietary and requires you (or your organisation) to have an online subscription, while QField is free and opensource (like all QGIS products).

ArcGIS Collector

Since many archaeologists, archaeological units and universities already have ArcGIS licenses and online subscriptions ArcGIS Collector is likely to be a significant player in future mobile-GIS for archaeological fieldwork. It requires you to have an ArcGIS Online account, through which the uploading and downloading or your mobile GIS data is managed. Setting up your Collector app is therefore a staged process, first you must share the layers you want to use to your ArcGIS Online account. Then create a map in your online account with a basemap (either ERSI ArcGIS imagery or your own tiled raster) and the layers you want to see or edit in the field. Finally you download that map to your Collector app on your mobile device. This process is a little cumbersome and confusing, particularly for those who haven’t used ArcGIS Online before. It’s easy to upload a layer but then fail to share or publish it correctly for you or others to view or edit it in Collector. This can be irritating, but there are online help pages and the usual forums (such as the ever-brilliant GIS stack exchange) and once you’ve created one map for Collector, familiarity makes the process a lot easier.

ArcGIS_Collector_interface

The ArcGIS Collector interface, showing the point data overlaid on ESRI ArcGIS imagery, with the attributes (including photo) on the right.

The good news is that once you’ve grasped the online part of the process, the interface (above) is clean and easy to use and using the app in the field is incredibly simple and straightforward. Once the app is linked to your ArcGIS Online account it identifies all the maps you and others in your organisation/group have created and offers you the opportunity to collect data using them.

You can operate Collector in two modes. If you just click on a map in Collector, it loads the map directly from your ArcGIS Online account via wifi or mobile data. This is straightforward, but if you don’t want to use mobile data or the connection is slow, then it’s a pain. Alternatively you can click ‘download’ on the map and download a section of it to Collector for offline editing. With a downloaded map you can use a basemap from your ArcGIS Online account, from ESRI ArcGIS imagery or from a raster on your device. You pick the geographical area you’re working in and the level of detail you need for your fieldwork and Collector will download just that area of your AcrGIS Online map so you can work offline, saving you time and mobile data. Once you finish recording in the field you can sync your downloaded map, uploading all your edits to their respective layers in ArcGIS Online (if you use Collector without downloading, the syncing occurs in real time via wifi or mobile data). You then return the edits to your computer by opening ArcGIS Online in your desktop GIS and adding your edited layers. The process within the app is generally slick and comfortable but a major issue with Collector is that it doesn’t currently support snapping. This necessitates various topological checks and editing of your data in ArcGIS desktop after you’ve downloaded it. I found this to be a serious deficiency in the ArcGIS Collector format, which is all the more surprising given that Collector is substantially older than QField, where snapping is straightforward to set up.

Overall I found Collector a straightforward app to use. Although the need to run the data through ArcGIS Online is slightly irritating and predisposes the process to additional errors, this is typical of a platform which is trying to serve a great variety of purposes across many industries.  The Collector app isn’t perfect (the absence of snapping is a serious defect in my opinion) and crashed a couple of times, but performance definitely improved when I downloaded the maps instead of using them through mobile-data/wifi. For anyone using Collector I would recommend keeping the number of layers, particularly raster layers, to a minimum by only using the layers you absolutely need in any given map. You can also improve performance by turning your rasters into tile packages and transferring them directly from your desktop to your mobile device. When you download your map to the Collector app it is also advisable to limit the ‘Work Area’ that is downloaded to the minimum that is necessary to complete your fieldwork, as this will speed up the download and performance generally.

QGIS QField

QField is the opensource QGIS version of ArcGIS Collector. It’s relatively new and still in the experimental stage, so may have some bugs, although these will be worked out as researchers find and report them. One great advantage of QField is that all data preparation takes place on your desktop GIS and there is no need to upload anything to an online account. Instead you prepare your data in QGIS desktop (including symbology, snapping and attribute fields), package it for QField using the QFieldSync plugin (Note that you must be using QGIS 2.18 for the QFieldSync plugin to function correctly) and then physically transfer it to your mobile device (with a cable). This eliminates many of the irritations of the ArcGIS Online transfer process, but does mean you need to pay attention to the QField online documentation about where you should store your project folder on your mobile device (I found this stage a little confusing, but more information will undoubtedly come out as people use QField more).

QField_interface_drone

QField interface showing the active layer (on the left) with menu above it and the data frame in the centre with a drone image of the Olynthos hills and surrounding surveyed fields (in red). The attributes of the yellow-highlighted field can be accessed by clicking on ‘198’ in the right pane.

On first look QField appears a little more confusing than ArcGIS Collector and the interface (see image above) is a little clunkier, but these are minor issues and will undoubtedly be resolved as development continues. Like ArcGIS Collector QField allows you to browse and view existing layers and create features. The workflows are typically clean and efficient, but unlike ArcGIS Collector you cannot edit the geometries of features that were transferred into QField from your desktop. You can only create and edit the geometry of new features. Although you can edit the attributes of existing features in QField, it is slightly disappointing that you cannot edit their geometries as it limits your capacity to edit previously created archaeological features based on new data obtained during your fieldwork.  It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it is irritating. Hopefully this will change with further development.

There are a couple of other minor issues with QField functionality. It’s frustrating that you cannot view features created outside of QField in vector layers set to ‘offline editing’. The advent of Android 7 has resulted in a bug in photo capture in the app (https://github.com/opengisch/QField/issues/133),  which is currently being resolved but prevented me from taking photos in the app.  However QField is still in the experimental testing phase and will undoubtedly improve with development. Given its stage development the quality of QField  bodes well for the future of opensource mobile-GIS.

GPS and accuracy

As our current survey fieldwork does not require better accuracy than the c. 2.5-5m provided by the onboard GPS I haven’t attempted to use these apps with an external GPS device. If necessary it would be possible to improve the accuracy with any one of a number of additional GPS devices, as described in this blog. This would undoubtedly add to the amount of equipment (and expense) involved and might provoke more compatibility and processing issues to occur, but would permit mobile-GIS to be used for much more detailed recording.

The future of mobile-GIS?

ArcGIS Collector and QGIS QField are very similar mobile-GIS apps and both permit a user to record data easily in the field, to a modest level of precision, and sync that data with their existing GIS using just a tablet or smartphone. Both apps significantly sped up data collection in the field and eliminated the need for additional data entry as records were transferred from total station or paper records to the desktop GIS. Currently ArcGIS Collector is the more developed and flexible platform, provided you can get access to it and are prepared to put up with the irritation of processing everything through ArcGIS Online. But QGIS QField is catching up fast, and has already surpassed Collector in some areas (notably the presence and ease of snapping) despite its experimental status. Although the occasional bugs might put some off QField, if you don’t have the resources for ArcGIS Collector, already have some familiarity with QGIS and are prepared to work around the occasional issue, QField is a great little platform that will only get better. In a few years’ time I can easily imagine using QField for preference if it continues to develop along its current lines.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Peter Knoop and Caitlin Dickinson of the University of Michigan for creating the Olynthos ArcGIS Online account and initial ArcGIS Collector maps of the site. I am also grateful to the University of Michigan for access to the Olynthos field data, ArcGIS Online and opportunity to work with the Olynthos Project. I am particularly grateful to Zosia Archibald for suggesting my involvement in the project, to David Stone and Lisa Nevett for collaboration on the GIS, to Bettina Tsigarida of the Ephorate of Pella and to the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports for permission to investigate the site and their collaboration on the project.

Additional References

For more information about the Olynthos Project see the Project website.

For fieldwork results to date see the forthcoming interim report Lisa C. Nevett, E. Bettina Tsigarida, Zosia H. Archibald, David L. Stone, Timothy J. Horsley, Bradley A. Ault, Anna Panti, Kathleen M. Lynch, Hannah Pethen, Susan M. Stallibrass, Elina Salminen, Sean Taylor, John Manousakis and Dimitrios Zekkos. Forthcoming. The Olynthos Project: Interim Report on the first three years of fieldwork (2014-2016). Annual of the British School at Athens.

 

 

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The myths about illegal antiquities and why you should never buy them!

Purchased antiquities suffer from many problems. They lack useful archaeological provenance, are often forgeries and include recently looted objects that have been ‘laundered’ with fake provenances and spurious histories. These problems affect unprovenanced antiquities whenever they were purchased, but are particularly pertinent to those artefacts currently circulating and recently obtained.

While there is a good argument to end the entire antiquities trade, at present it is legal to purchase archaeological artefacts provided they fulfill certain specific requirements. These requirements are intended to reduce the likelihood that the artefacts for sale were recently looted from archaeological sites or museums, and rely upon the stringent laws that the countries most affected by antiquities theft have enacted over the last decades. Historically (and particularly before 1950) the legality of purchasing or exporting antiquities varied greatly depending on their country of origin and thus there are ongoing legal and ethical debates about certain artefacts in museum and private collections. While these debates are illuminating, they are a large subject and do not have much bearing on the current legal framework or the myths that surround the modern antiquities trade.

‘Black market’ or ‘illegal’ antiquities are artefacts that do not meet the requirements, chiefly relating to provenance, that are intended to prevent recently looted or stolen antiquities from being sold legally. Illegal antiquities are obtained and sold against the laws of the countries that they came from and, depending upon their precise provenance and transit routes, their purchase may also contravene the laws of various intermediate countries and country of the purchaser.

The extent of the black market trade in antiquities has recently been emphasised by publicity over the US firm Hobby Lobby’s purchase of illegal antiquities to stock the owner’s Museum of the Bible. There is no dispute about the black market origin of these objects and Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay the US government $3 million in fines and forfeit the objects. The extensive press coverage of the Hobby Lobby case is due to interest in the company following an unrelated Supreme Court victory relating to their employee healthcare package. But the publicity provides an opportunity to revisit the stale arguments and myths about black market antiquities purchases. It is rare to find all of these myths deployed at once (although at least one article supporting Hobby Lobby manages to use all of these arguments, even those that are mutually exclusive), but they recur in various combinations whenever someone tries to justify purchasing or publishing black market antiquities.

Black market antiquities and the looting of archaeological sites.

It is widely recognised that removing artefacts from archaeological sites without proper excavation, recording or archaeological analysis destroys vast amounts of scientific information and the knowledge of the ancient world that this would undoubtedly produce. This destruction affects both the antiquities sold on to the open market without provenance and other artefacts, structures and deposits removed with the antiquity and then discarded, which could otherwise contribute to scientific knowledge.

Those who wish to justify the the purchase of black market antiquities often argue that their purchases do not contribute to the ongoing looting of archaeological sites in an attempt to minimise or justify their actions.

Myth 1: Purchasing antiquities improves the prospects for their protection by increasing their value, raising incentives for the protection and conservation of antiquities, museums and archaeological sites.

This repellent argument assumes that many countries won’t bother to protect archaeological sites or curate museum collections unless the objects in them have a high market value. So, goes the argument, purchasing antiquities raises their value and encourages the protection and curation of archaeological sites and collections.

The Reality

Leaving aside its patronising and racist overtones, the archaeological problem with this argument  is that it completely misunderstands the nature of antiquities. It views archaeological artefacts like diamonds, precious objects dug out of base rock whose value depends entirely upon the market’s appetite for them.

Antiquities are not diamonds. They are not dug out of base rock, but out of archaeological sites. Their archaeological context contains information of general scientific value and other data that is directly pertinent to the antiquity, all of which is lost when an artefact is looted. Black market artefacts (whether originally from a museum or an archaeological site) are typically sold either devoid of provenance or with a fake provenance, and information of direct relevance to the object is lost. This includes basic information like its original location (from the general site where it was found to the specific layer, building etc), period, date and whether it was found with any other objects that might together reveal more about it.

Amarna_letters

Five Amarna letters on display in the British Museum (1: EA 29831; 2: EA 29848; 3: EA 29832; 4: EA29855 and 5: EA 29844).

The Hobby Lobby case included a large number of clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Amongst the most famous such tablets are the Amarna letters (see above). These are a group (or assemblage in archaeological parlance) of clay tablets with cuneiform writing that were found in the Egyptian city of Aketaten (the site of which is known as Amarna). Although there is some uncertainty (and dispute) about how the letters found their way into certain museum collections at the end of the 19th century, sufficient numbers of them were excavated from Amarna to provide the secure archaeological context that gives them such great scientific value. They are dated to the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty, who ruled in the 14th century BC during the Egyptian New Kingdom (in the Late Bronze Age). Their original location is known, the site (Amarna), general (administrative) area of the city and, in some cases, the specific buildings. The Amarna letters can also be associated with each other as an assemblage, making it possible to use information in different tablets to build up a better picture of Egyptian foreign policy during this period.

If the Amarna letters were found today (or stolen from museum stores) and sold individually on the black market, much of this information would be lost. They would be given a spurious provenance or no provenance at all. We probably wouldn’t know which country they came from (since many sites across the ancient Near East were involved in exchanging such letters), much less which site or building, and we wouldn’t know which of them were found together and which were found hundreds or thousands of miles away.  As a result their contribution to our understanding of the ancient world would be much reduced, even though the actual artefacts would survive.

Proponents of this myth fundamentally misunderstand the nature of archaeological artefacts. Unlike diamonds a key element of the value (both scientific and economic) of antiquities is their provenance. The more precise that provenance, the more can be learned from an artefact. Those who purchase black market antiquities that have been stripped of that provenance through looting from an archaeological site or theft from a museum, are not increasing but destroying the value of those objects and any others that are removed (deliberately or accidentally) at the same time.

An additional problem of the lack of provenance associated with black market antiquities is that it leaves room for fakes to enter the market. Fakes have always been a problem for collectors and there have been a number of high-profile cases where even artefacts purchased through legal channels have been identified as fakes. Black market objects carry an even greater risk of forgery. Furthermore, antiquities with a religious theme are particularly popular with forgers and those with religious motives are often targeted by them, perhaps because the desire to believe they are genuine outweighs caution amongst certain purchasers. Recent examples include the various biblical forgeries perpetrated in upon scholars over decades by Oded Galan and the famous Gospel of Jesus Wife debacle. Not only have Hobby Lobby reduced the scientific and economic value of the artefacts they purchased, they placed themselves at risk of being duped by forgers.

Myth 2: Black market antiquities are not looted from archaeological sites, but only come from museums that have been destroyed or looted during conflict.

Aside from the desperate desire of some to argue that purchasing black market antiquities has no effect on looting, this myth may also be a result of ignorance of the amount of archaeological material still left in situ at sites across the world. Given the long period of research across many areas, especially in the Middle East, some people find it hard to believe there is anything left in the ground.

The Reality

It is certainly possible that some black market antiquities (including some of the clay tablets and bullae purchased by Hobby Lobby) were originally looted from museums. But one of the main problems with purchasing black market antiquities is that it’s completely impossible to know where these objects came from.

Many, if not all, black market antiquities from the ancient Near East are likely to have been looted recently from sites in Iraq and Syria. The scale of the looting that has taken place is unprecedented. This has prompted researchers like Sarah Parcak and groups like EAMENA and the Trafficking Culture group undertake research into the extent of looting. Their work has been widely reported and even prompted the creation of the Global Xplorer platform to crowd-source the recording of evidence of looting in satellite imagery.

DuraEuropos_31-12-2004

The Syrian site of Dura Europos in 2004, showing the city walls, grid-iron pattern of streets and some excavated areas.

You don’t have to be a professional archaeologist to see this. A quick review of a famous site in Google Earth over time can reveal the extent of the damage to anyone with a computer. The first image (above) shows  the ancient site of Dura Europos, on the Euphrates river in Syria in December 2004. The grid-iron layout of the ancient streets is clearly visible, as are the city walls and a number of excavated buildings. In the second image (below) from March 2015 the pock-marks of looting are clearly visible across the entire site. And they don’t appear randomly located either, there is a systematic pattern to them like a grotesque parody of an archaeological grid, indicating that this was regular systematised looting that probably involved a large number of people. It is highly likely that some of the bullae and tablets purchased by Hobby Lobby were extracted during this type of looting, at one or many sites across Iraq and Syria.

DuraEuropos_11-4-2015

Dura Europos in 2015, showing substantial looting in the centre of the city (just below the ‘s’ of ‘Dura Europos’) and the regular pock-marks of systematic looting across the town and in the extra-mural area to the left.

The evidence is very clear that looting of archaeological sites is ongoing and serious. Artefacts uncovered by looters are clearly selling on the black market. Although the precise origin of any individual black market antiquity is usually uncertain because  it is in the nature of that market that objects are sold without provenance, or with fake provenances, it’s simply ridiculous to suggest that purchasing black market antiquities has no impact upon the looting of archaeological sites.

Myth 3: Buying looted antiquities ‘rescues’ them from the black market and from people who might otherwise destroy them (if they are inconvenient in size or location) or remove them from public appreciation.

Others accept that purchasing black market antiquities contributes to the looting of archaeological sites, but argue that it is a necessary evil . Otherwise, so the argument goes, these objects would be lost to both science and the public either through destruction or by entering private collections.

This argument is often deployed if (like Hobby Lobby) the purchaser wants to put black market antiquities on public display in a museum; if the artefact was formerly in a state with a regime disliked by the purchaser; or if the artefact was found by chance and would have been destroyed.

The Reality

Black market artefacts are not puppies. They did not stray and were not abandoned by their owners. Whether from a museum or an archaeological site they have been stolen and like any stolen property should be returned to their rightful owners.

Those rightful owners are the people of the country where the museum or archaeological site is located. It is immaterial whether you like the government of that country because archaeological artefacts are not the property of the ruler of a country (whether an autocrat or an elected government). Rulers and governments come and go, but museum artefacts are intended to be available for generations to admire, research and learn from. This is why so many individuals in the archaeological and museums community were so angry at the sale of the Sekhemka statue by Northampton Museum. The statue was sold by the local authority under whose purview the museum came and who treated it as if it was their property, when it rightly belonged to the present and future population of that town. (Ironically the Sekhemka statue was undoubtedly looted from an archaeological site in the 19th century, an age when the purchase and export of antiquities was legal and before the current stringent antiquities laws came into force).

Countries that are recovering from shattering wars are in particular need of sites and artefacts that can be used to renew social pride, teach new generations of scholars and attract tourists.

Those who have considerable financial resources and a genuine interest in ‘rescuing’ archaeological objects should work with the many archaeologists seeking to protect cultural heritage and seek out and return looted artefacts to their countries of origin. Those who purchase a black market antiquity, whether to keep in a private collection or display in a museum are not rescuers, they are receivers of stolen property. 

Myth 4: Purchasing looted antiquities is a victimless crime because nobody gets hurt.

This myth is often deployed in conjunction with one or more of the earlier ones to argue that purchasing looted antiquities is a necessary evil, which does little archaeological damage and is a victimless crime.

The Reality

Tell that to Khaleed el-Asaad, the archaeologist murdered in Palmyra in 2015 because he refused to give up the location of the most valuable antiquities. Or to the two guards murdered at Deir el-Bersha in Egypt by gangsters who came looting.  These are just two of the most egregious examples, but many other local people, archaeologists, guardians and site workers have been threatened, injured, coerced and exploited by those seeking to loot archaeological sites and museums.

Like any illegal trade black market antiquities attract people who are happy to operate outside the law. This is includes gangsters, mafiosi, criminals of all kinds, and terrorists. Such people do not generally respect labour or property laws so the ordinary people who find artefacts or who live and work where sites are located are often exploited and threatened. Those who do the hard and dangerous work of looting may not get paid at all and if they do it will be a tiny faction of price ultimately paid for an antiquity. Most of the money made from the illegal trade goes to the various criminals, gangsters and terrorists with the connections to sell on black market antiquities, who use it to continue their various criminal enterprises, exploitation, abuse and murder.  As has been pointed out, this is not just about the group known as ISIS, although they have certainly profited from looted antiquities. Many other unpleasant groups and individuals, criminals and gangsters gain from black market antiquities all over the world. Purchasing black market antiquities is not a victimless crime, it puts money in the pockets of ruthless criminals of all kinds and encourages their continued exploitation, coercion and, sometimes, murder of ordinary people and archaeologists.

Buyer beware

Buying antiquities, whether on the black market or legally, is always a risky business. Whatever myths purchasers tell themselves, most black market antiquities are looted from archaeological sites, destroying precious scientific information. Purchasing them only encourages further looting and removes them from their legitimate owners, the people of the countries which originally contained or displayed them. And buying from criminals puts money in the hands of murders, and forgers. No matter how exciting an object is, it’s never worth buying an illegally obtained antiquity on the black market.

 

 

 

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The Egyptian collection in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana Cuba.

This post comprises a review of the Cuban collection of Egyptian antiquities housed in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, in Havana. I visited the collection on the 24 May 2017. The museum is easy to access in central Havana, close to the Capitol and major tourist areas. Entry to the Asturian Building, which houses the Egyptian and other Old World antiquities collections, was four Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) when I visited (one convertible peso is equivalent to one dollar). The 2015 guide to the Egyptian collection was a further 20 CUC, but is well written in Spanish and English and was certainly worth the investment. Despite some minor issues with the display, the Egyptian collection contains some real gems and is not to be missed if you happen to be visiting Cuba.

The location and origins of the Cuban Egyptian collection

The Egyptian collection of the Cuban Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is housed in Havana in the building once belonging to the Asturian Society of Havana. This is a large and beautiful building close to the Capitol, where the 114 pieces of the Egyptian collection share a large hall with the Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

Antiquities collected by Joaquin Guma Herrera, Earl of Lagunillos form the core of the Egyptian collection, supplemented by some small subsequent donations. These later donations include a predynastic Naqada II vessel and 25th Dynasty lapis heart scarab donated by Christian Loeben, curator of the Museum August Kestnet of Hannover, and a Third Intermediate Period coffin and cartonnage donated by the Republic of Egypt in 1974.

The Earl of Lagunillas’ collection was donated to Cuba in 1955 and first displayed in 1956 with the assistance of Professor Francisco Prat Puig of the Universidad de Oriente. After the revolution of 1959 the museum was reorganised and became a Museum of Fine Arts. The collection was reorganised again and moved to its current location by architect José Linaresin in 2001.

The Asturian Building (below) is a beautiful structure and the Egyptian antiquities are housed in a hall where Asturian Society gatherings once took place. Although the hall is beautiful, information about the exhibits is limited. There are no accession numbers on the labels, which typically only include date, material, object type and case number. Where relevant the labels also include those ancient individuals named or represented on the object. Unfortunately the museum has a strict policy against photography so I am unable to provide images of the objects as exhibited.

Cuba Museo des Belles Artes, Havana..

The Asturian Building of the Cuba Museo Nacional des Belles Artes, Havana. Author photograph.

Sadly the exhibits in the museum aren’t laid out either thematically or chronologically. In one case a Roman period stela, Roman bronze statues of Osiris and Isis and several scarabs of earlier date sit next to canopic jars from the Middle and New Kingdoms. Other bronze statues of divinities are located in a different case in another part of the exhibition, and stelae are scattered across several cases with relief fragments from multiple periods. This apparently haphazard approach to display may be due to a current reorganisation. Some pieces were absent and work was clearly ongoing when I visited. The lighting could also do with improvement. The signage would benefit from more background information for the casual tourist and the inclusion of interesting aspects of the antiquities (such as detailed provenance and links with pieces in other museums) that have been discovered by the authors of the recent catalogue (see below). The present situation does not do justice to the quality of the objects, but hopefully ongoing restoration and future redisplay will provide a remedy.

An excellent catalogue

Happily much more information, including the accession numbers and some excellent pictures of the objects, can be found in the accompanying catalogue (Sosa et al. 2015). The images (by David Rodriguez Camacho of Fotografo Arte) are particularly good, well laid out and very clear, and combined with images of objects from other collections as necessary. This is particularly useful given the occasionally poor lighting in the gallery.

In addition to the images, the catalogue provides useful information for both the casual visitor and those needing more details of provenance and the origins of the collection. After describing the history of the collection, the catalogue is laid out thematically. Each section provides background information regarding the objects presented in it, and there is enough in these sections for the non-specialist to understand the context of the artefacts in the exhibition. Meanwhile experienced Egyptologists will find considerable information about each artefact in the well-researched catalogue entries. So thorough were the authors that even though almost all the artefacts in the museum were purchased on the open market and had minimal provenance, several catalogue entries describe the tombs or temples where the objects originated, thanks to dogged archaeological detective-work. A prime example are the three fragments (MNBA Havana 94-25, 94-26 and 94-27) from the tomb of Irenakhti/Irenptah/Iry, which were purchased without provenance by the Earl of Lagunillas and subsequently identified as coming from tomb G 2391 at Giza, south of the causeway to Khafre’s pyramid.

Cuban gems

Berlin_AM1205_gneiss_Sen1

Gneiss statue of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senusret I, similar to the granodiorite head in the Cuban Museum (Berlin ÄM 1205). Author photograph.

As the catalogue makes clear, the Egyptian antiquities in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes are a fine example of a mid-20th century private collection. There are shabtis, scarabs, fragments of relief (mostly from false doors), stelae, statues and statue fragments, Greco-Roman period encaustic mummy portraits, canopic jars, a wooden coffin and mummy cartonnage, and a range of Late Period bronze statues. So far so typical! But a list of what are, Egyptologically speaking, the ‘usual suspects’ doesn’t do justice to their quality. Many of the antiquities are very good examples of their type, well preserved and beautifully made. The knowledge of the experts (notably Bernard von Bothner and William C. Hayes) whom the Earl of Lagunillas consulted on his purchases, is evident in the quality of many of the pieces.

The Cuban collection also contains several real gems. There is a very fine small relief of Seti I (MNBA Havana 94-36), and the head of a granodiorite statue of a Pharaoh (MNBA Havana 94-37) that has been identified as Senusret I of the 12th Dynasty. Although somewhat damaged it is physically similar to other images of that Pharaoh such as BM EA 44 and Berlin ÄM 1205 (above left) and an important addition to the corpus of Middle Kingdom royal statuary.

Cat_94-120_Amun_scan

Late Period head of Amun (MNBA 94-120) after Sosa (et al. 2015, 73).

Both Seti and Senusret are trumped by a black basalt head of Amun (MBNA Havana 94-120) that has become the emblem of the collection. Its photograph (right) is a good exemplar of the quality of the imagery in the catalogue, which more than compensates for the inability to take photographs in the gallery. Dating from the Late Period, this Theban statue fragment has two different surface treatments. The flesh is highly polished, while the crown is coarsely pecked, probably to take a covering of a different material. Traces suggest it was once covered in gold, although other precious stones, metals or inlays may have been used for different elements. The head has been matched to a body in the Louvre (E 12988), which was found during excavations in 1927, attached to the north wall of the corridor on the west side of the temple at Medmud. The archaeological context suggested that the piece was broken when Coptic extensions were made in the temple.

Other key objects in the collection include two reliefs that have been matched with other known fragments. MBNA Havana 94-35 is a beautiful polychrome fragment from the tomb of Neferu (TT 319), wife of Mentuhotep II. The fragment in Havana matches a photo in the Theban Expedition Journal from the 1925-6 season of the Metropolitan Museum excavations at Deir el-Bahri, but the artefact shown in the Journal has not been located. The catalogue authors suggest that it may be in Cairo.

More interesting for aficionados of British Egyptology is MBNA Havana 94-15, an 18th Dynasty scene showing the purification of the deceased outside the tomb (below right). This piece has been matched with one in Birmingham Museum (n. 68866) and the combined image shows a typical New Kingdom scene of mourning before the tomb. Sadly the tomb is unknown as both reliefs were purchased on the antiquities market, but the style suggests it came from Saqqara.

Cat_94-15_Brumreliefscan

Line drawing from Sosa (et al. 2015, 128) showing MNBA Havana 94-15 (right) combined with it’s partner Birmingham n. 68866 (left) to form a typical mourning scene of offering to and purifying the deceased.

One exception to the purchased artefacts is the 22nd Dynasty coffin and cartonnage of Tashebet (MNBA Havana 94-39), excavated by Labib Habachi from the tomb of Kheruef (TT192) in the Asassif. This beautiful coffin-set was donated to Cuba by Egypt in 1974, in gratitude for Cuba’s assistance with the archaeological work required by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Both coffin and mummy case are beautiful examples of Third Intermediate Period work.

Complementing Tashebet’s coffins is the Book of the Dead of Bakenweren (MNBA Havana 94-47), which dates to the same period and was found or purchased by William Franklin Hood in Luxor in 1858. It passed through the collections of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Brummer before being purchased by the Earl of Lagunillas in 1949. Like the other artefacts it is a lovely example of its type and is well-covered in the catalogue (see the featured image above).

Among the many other artefacts special mention must be made of a bronze and paste Uraeus (MNBA Havana 94-115), dating from the Late Period and probably attached to a white or atef crown. A Ptolemaic coffin of a falcon (MNBA Havana 94-56) is also worth noting for its similarity to examples of animal coffins from the recent Manchester Museum Animal Mummies exhibition. Of the many Egyptian alabaster jars in the collection, it is likely that MNBA Havana 94-82 and 94-87 originated in the Hatnub quarries, which were very active in the 11th Dynasty when these artefacts were made. Another alabaster cosmetic jar still contains the oily remains of its original cosmetic or unguent (MNBA Havana 94-89) and would be a prime candidate for further scientific investigation. Among the stelae there is a good example of a ‘hearing ear’ stela (MNBA Havana 94-30) with carved ears to help the invoked god hear the prayer, and a polychrome Roman stela without text (MNBA Havana 94-13).

The Cuban collection of Egyptian artefacts in the Museo Nacional des Belles Artes is a fantastic small collection. The small defects in its display (which will hopefully be rectified soon) do not detract from the quality of the objects individually and as a group, or their important relationships with other 20th century collections. The collection catalogue is a fantastic example of its type, with enough background information for the causal visitor as well as detailed information on individual objects, their provenance, relationships with other pieces and international ties. If you happen to be visiting Cuba, the Egyptian collection should definitely be on your list, and if you are able to obtain a copy of the catalogue (which sadly appears rarely on the usual websites) it’s well worth doing so.

References

Much of the information and three of the images in this blog are taken from the catalogue of the collection:

Sosa, M. A. Lastra, A. C. and Morfini, I. 2015. La Coleccion Egipcia del Museo Nacional des Belles Artes de la Habana. 

 

 

 

 

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Will a computer take my job?: Archaeology and technological development?

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about how soon the computers are going to take over, which jobs will be lost to mechanisation and how we deal with the resulting unemployment and political change. Journalists and think tanks have evoked the spectre of Skynet, the evil defence system from the Terminator franchise, to ask how we deal with the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and increased mechanisation. The BBC even published a handy computerisation checker to see if a robot will take your job over the next 20 years. Some have predicted that in time a large proportion of jobs will be automated, even those that require high skills, compassion or intellect, and that we need to prepare for the effect of this on society with political and economic measures like the citizens’ income.

At present archaeology is unlikely to be automated. It doesn’t appear in the BBC list of professions likely to be automated in the next 20 years. The closest profession to archaeology is ‘Social and humanities scientist’ with a 10.4% probability of automation, a figure low enough to be reassuring. But given the march of technology and the increasing availability of computer programmes for archaeological investigation, many have suggested that even complex jobs like that of an archaeologist will eventually be automated, even if this takes 50 or 100 years.

The idea of automation also has a deep, but often unconscious effect, upon the perception of archaeology amongst both professionals and the public, particularly where archaeologists are making use of highly computerised technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite remote sensing, geophysical  analysis,  and others. The perception, perhaps fueled by the way technology is used as a ‘magic box’ in popular culture, is that data goes in and unambiguous archaeological answers come out. This perception is both deeply inaccurate and dangerous for the scientific profession, including the ‘technological archaeologist’. It fosters the idea that answers generated by technology are straightforward and unambiguous, when in reality they are anything but (as is well demonstrated by the debate over the radar scanning of Tutankhamun’s tomb). It also reduces the archaeologist to little more than a ‘data chauffeur’, collecting or loading the data into the programme and then presenting the answer at the end.

While grotesquely devaluing the role of the archaeologist or scientist, it is the latter issue which I believe contributes to the oft-repeated  assertion  that even subtle, nuanced jobs requiring flexibility and creativity are at risk of automation.  After all, if the archaeologist (now downgraded to little more than a technician) need only load the data and present the result at the end, then is that highly educated scientist really doing anything anyone else couldn’t do? Surely as machines get better they’ll be able to load their own data and present the result, eliminating another job?

The reality is that obtaining useful answers to archaeological questions usually requires  various intermediate stages of data processing (sometimes in a different programme from the one that will perform the ‘main’ processing), initial analysis, further analysis and statistical validation. But even this list doesn’t really convey the actual role of the archaeologist or why we couldn’t just programme the computer to undertake all those stages. To really understand why human input is required throughout the process we need to look at how an archaeologist interacts with a computer programme to obtain useful answers to their questions, where the process is or could be automated, and where it relies upon professional judgement and experience.

I have long thought that some of the public anxiety and media hype about the rise of the machines exaggerates the reality of what technology can actually achieve. While it’s clear that many jobs will be automated in the future and we need to deal with the political and economic effects of that, to truly understand which jobs will disappear we need to unpick the details of our professions and truly consider which elements could be automated and which either require, or are faster, when undertaken by a human.

My own GIS research into visibility (often called ‘viewshed analysis’) has given me some insights into how difficult it would be for a computer to be an effective archaeologist. It has long been possible for a GIS programme to rapidly and efficiently calculate visibility from a given point, either to another point (i.e. line of sight) or more generally across the landscape (generating what is called ‘a viewshed’). To do this it needs only a digital terrain model of the topography and the point from which visibility is to be calculated. But knowing what is visible from say the Great Pyramid, or Stonehenge, doesn’t actually answer any particularly exciting archaeological questions. Even the most basic archaeological question – where could the Great Pyramid be seen from – requires us to both obtain more information and make judgments, judgements a computer couldn’t make. Firstly we must decide who is doing the seeing. If we are talking about people walking about on the ground, we need to know how tall they were. If we are interested in people within a nearby city or temple, we need to know both how tall they were and how tall was any structure they were standing on (the city walls perhaps?). The most basic of archaeological questions requires us to obtain more information and make professional judgements about the nature of nearby structures and the heights of the population.  And we still haven’t really learned anything useful yet – the Great Pyramid is obviously large and obviously very visible, so we didn’t need a computer to tell us it could be seen from a large area.

To really answer interesting questions about visibility at Giza we need to interact further with our GIS programme. We’ve now determined the height of the population and any relevant structures and calculated precisely where the Great Pyramid could be seen from. Why don’t we repeat the process for the other two kingly pyramids at Giza? That might provide us with useful archaeological information, such as are there any areas where all the pyramids could be seen? Are there any areas where they were all invisible? Do those areas correlate with any specific archaeological sites? These questions might provide us with really interesting answers. But to answer them we need to interact with the GIS in stages, re-running the analysis for each pyramid, then combining the results. This involves several procedures today, but even if we could code the programme to run through the sequence by itself, the results alone tell us nothing useful archaeologically.  We’d need to look at the areas from which the three pyramids are visible or invisible and use our archaeological knowledge and experience to consider if there are any sensible archaeological reasons they might have been excluded or included. Are there any archaeological sites that might have required a view of all pyramids (the capital Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis for example)? If so, do we think, based on our knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture that a deliberate decision was made to ensure the three pyramids were all visible from those sites? Can we perform a statistical analysis to show that our results are statistically significant and aren’t just coincidence? Or can we demonstrate by analysing lots of other locations on the Giza plateau, that the locations of these pyramids were the only ones that ensured a consistent view of all three pyramids from, for example, the capital of Memphis or the temple of Heliopolis?

Each stage of this putative research involves GIS analysis, from the initial viewshed showing where the Great Pyramid could be seen, to the last investigation of the viewsheds of other locations without pyramids across the Giza plateau. While the computer performs various specific analyses at each stage, it is the archaeologist who turns computerised assessments of the visibility of individual pyramids and locations on the Giza plateau into a genuinely interesting piece of research investigating where the three pyramids could be seen from and if that is both statistically significant (i.e. it isn’t coincidental) and culturally significant (i.e. it is consistent with Egyptian culture). At each stage the archaeologist is required to exercise both experience and judgement, in collecting data and setting parameters such as the height of the population, evaluating the results of the computer analysis with reference to archaeological data such as the locations of Memphis and Heliopolis, and directing the next stage of the research towards answering an archaeologically interesting question about the motives governing the positing of the Giza pyramids.

In this particular example, and in most computerised or technical archaeological analyses, the archaeologist is the keystone that holds the digital analyses together, forming them into a coherent piece of research that answers an archaeologically interesting question. The archaeologist is only able to do that because they have experience in the technical and cultural aspects of their subject and are able to make rational judgments based on that experience, which direct the research towards the often uncertain  goal of answering useful and interesting archaeological questions. We might one day create a computer that can do this, but no modern computer can even begin to perform that synthetic but instinctual task of guiding a developing project towards an amorphous goal. A goal that often changes as the evidence develops, while taking due account the constraints implied by the specific Egyptian culture and archaeological context.

While reassuring us about the potential for human archaeology during the rise of the machines, clear consideration of exactly how we work with and interact with technology is also to be welcomed for other reasons. A better understanding of the role of technology within scientific disciplines like archaeology will mean consumers of archaeological information and results will better understand the accuracy and limitations of those results and hopefully will be less likely to be ‘blinded by science’. It should result in greater respect for the ‘technical archaeologists’, who are sometimes sidelined as ‘operators’ and ‘technicians’, and a better understanding of the complexities involved in obtaining genuine answers to archaeological research questions using technology. I suspect that this latter issue, in particular, will become surprisingly important over the next decade. We have seen a huge technological step forward in terms of the variety of data, analytical techniques and computer programmes that are available, but unlike the previous generation of technological advances (such as Carbon 14 dating or residue analysis), the application of more recent techniques to archaeological data in order to answer research questions is not always straightforward. This has led to a certain amount of technically-driven archaeology, where a new technique is applied to archaeological data but not incorporated into a theoretical or analytical framework for answering meaningful archaeological questions (this is sometimes called ‘technological determinism’).  There’s nothing wrong with applying new techniques to archaeology, of course, but they need to be applied in a way that is archaeologically meangingful. My own research into Egyptian quarries isn’t intended to develop or showcase brand new technology, but to apply recently developed techniques to answering interesting, and often previously unanswerable, research questions. If we are to do high quality archaeological research and move beyond the excitement of new technologies, we need to actively consider the processes by which we move from technical analysis to answering research questions. And while we’re at it, we might be able to help out our scientific colleagues and wider society. By demonstrating how to make technologically cutting-edge work meaningful, we can show that the imposition of the human scientist into the technological process is a necessity that cannot simply be replaced by a computer algorithm.

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Global Xplorer: Satellite remote sensing, looting and crowd-sourcing.

On 30 January of this year, Sarah Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize launched the Global Xplorer platform she has created with her prize money. Like the many archaeological crowd-sourcing  projects on the Micropasts website, Global Xplorer is a crowd-sourcing platform allowing members of the public to take part in archaeological satellite remote sensing from their laptop, phone or tablet.

The heady combination of Sarah Parcak, National Geographic’s own ‘Space Archaeologist’, a TED prize, archaeology and satellite technology has prompted a number of media outlets to report on Global Xplorer, from Forbes to The Guardian. All this publicity means that interested members of the public will soon be working through the imagery on the platform.

But the thought of anyone with a computer logging on to archaeological sites has not been universally welcomed. This recent article on the Cairo Scene website, which has been publicised on social media by the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation, argues that Global Xplorer could be used by looters to identify targets, making the situation worse in countries where protection for antiquities is limited. As someone who works with satellite imagery, I decided to test out Global Xplorer and see if these concerns are justified and provide general review of platform.

Global Xplorer is a straightforward platform. There are several pages of information about the project with videos from Sarah Parcak. Archaeological and cultural details of the countries covered can be found under ‘Expedition’, and there are also areas for donations and FAQs. So far only data from Peru has been included on the platform.

Before you can begin working on satellite imagery you need to register, giving details such as name, email address and a password you generate. Then there is a tutorial explaining briefly what natural and archaeological features look like in satellite imagery and how to identify evidence of looting and avoid false positives. Once you’ve finished the tutorial you begin working on the tiles.

The first goal for users of Global Xplorer is to identify evidence of looting. You won’t be creating a map or identifying archaeological features, but locating traces of antiquities theft for further investigation. Following the tutorial you’ll be shown a 100x100m tile of satellite imagery. The area you need to examine is outlined in white, with a little bit of additional imagery greyed out around the edges to provide some extra context. Depending on whether you can see any evidence of looting or not, you click either the ‘Looting’ or ‘No looting’ buttons and the next tile loads. As you can see I appear to have ended up with a bit of amazon rainforest:

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The Global Xplorer interface.

It’s pretty clear that it would be almost impossible for tomb robbers or antiquities thieves to make use of Global Xplorer to further their nefarious activities. In addition to the off-putting effect of registration,  the user only sees a very small area at any given time, and it is entirely divorced from any geographic context. The FAQs confirm my assumption that the tiles have no coordinates or other geographically identifying data, and the tiles you are shown appear in a randomised order so you couldn’t even associate what you’ve seen in the previous tile with what you see in subsequent ones. Within the tiles there’s very little information to assist you in identifying the location. Even if a pristine archaeological site appeared inside that white square, at best you might be able to discern it was in the rainforest, in a field or in the desert and next to a building, road or river, but the sheer number of possible locations for each tile is immense. In fact the only way looters would be able to recognise an archaeological site is if they had already been there and were familiar with the terrain, and then we can hardly blame Global Xplorer for the looting.

On the other hand Global Xplorer is quite good fun. It works on your phone or tablet, so you can cover a couple of tiles while waiting for the bus/train/plane. It’s very easy and straightforward and quite relaxing in a strange way. While currently the goal is to identify looting, the ‘Current Campaign’ menu at the bottom of image above suggests that users will move on to identifying ‘Encroachment’ and ‘Discovery’ as the programme rolls out.

So if you have a few minutes and fancy trying it out, its straightforward to learn and easy to use, and you certainly don’t need to worry about antiquities thieves learning anything useful.

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A gneiss sphinx: Is the Hazor sphinx made from Gebel el-Asr gneiss?

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In 2013 an Egyptian sphinx was discovered at the Biblical site of Hazor, in what is now northern Israel. It was inscribed with the name of Menkaure, fifth king of the IV Dynasty and owner of the third pyramid at Giza.

On reading the reports of the discovery I was drawn to the stone from which the sphinx was made. Careful examination of the published photographs of the artefact reveal that the sphinx was made of a stone comprising dark blue and black bands in a light off-white matrix. These colours and patterning are typical of Gebel el-Asr  gneiss; comparable examples of gneiss are featured in my earlier post ‘When diorite is gneiss’, have been published by James Harrell’s website, and examples are visible on the Petrie Museum website. Egyptian objects made from examples of similarly coloured gneiss are shown below. The intact bowl (UC17722) and the broken bowl with a cartouche of King Khaba (UC15800) both date to the III Dynasty, other fragments (e.g. UC72412) from the Petrie Museum date to the IV Dynasty and come from Giza.

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Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC17722)

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Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC15800).

 

Confirmation of the stone used to produce the sphinx must await  further analysis of the artefact, but it is well known that the Gebel el-Asr quarries were exploited during the Old Kingdom and particularly by the IV Dynasty pharaohs. Gneiss stone vessels have been found in royal tombs from the I Dynasty onwards.  A gneiss stela of the II Dynasty Pharaoh Peribsen was found at his tomb at Abydos and is now in the British Museum (EA35597). Gneiss floor tiles were employed in the III Dynasty Step Pyramid of Netjerikhet Djoser. During the IV Dynasty large statues were produced in gneiss, including the famous example from the funerary complex of Khafre that is now in the Cairo Museum and was featured in a previous blog on this site (http://wp.me/p4wCoi-1g) . There is also considerable evidence of Old Kingdom activity at Gebel el-Asr, including stelae left at the site by the expeditions (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/Pre2003/ShawI/shawi.html).  Gneiss vessels were even found in the pyramid complex of Menkaure, the IV Dynasty Pharaoh, who also dedicated the sphinx found at Hazor.

The inscription and original location of the sphinx are also interesting. The excavators suggest that the Hazor sphinx was originally set up at Heliopolis (known as Iunu to the Egyptians), close to modern Cairo. They suggest it was later removed to Hazor in the second millenium BC by either the Canaanite Hyksos kings, who ruled the northern part of Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period; or the subsequent New Kingdom Pharaohs, who controlled much of Canaan.

Heliopolis was the associated with the cult of Ra, the sun god, who became increasingly important during the IV Dynasty. For the first time in Egyptian history, IV Dynasty Pharaohs had names incorporating the name of Ra. Djed-f-Ra, Kha-f-Ra and Men-Kau-Ra all had names compounded with Ra  and DjedefRa was the first to use the title ‘Son of Ra’, which was later employed by every pharaoh. The true pyramids of the IV Dynasty have also been associated with solar religion, and the succeeding V Dynasty took this a stage further with the creation of sun temples in addition to their pyramid complexes.

The increasing use of gneiss for statuary in the reign of Khafre, may reflect the same interest in solar religion. The excavators of Gebel el-Asr, Engelbach and later Harrell and Brown, noted that the gneiss had a distinctive blue glow in the sunlight. Harrell and Brown suggest that this luminosity made the stone particularly attractive to the Egyptians. Given that the Egyptians attributed divine powers to certain stones and equated them with various divinities, it would not be surprising if the luminosity of the gneiss acquired solar associations. This would make a gneiss sphinx a particularly apt gift for Menkaure to provide for the solar cult centre of Heliopolis at a time when solar theology was in the ascendant.

Offline References

For gneiss stone vessels in the Early Dynastic period and Old Kingdom generally see Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberger Oreintverlag, Heidelberg.

For  specific reports of gneiss vesssels found in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom tombs see Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo, Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte; pages 140,  180 of Reisner, G. A. 1931. Mycerinus. Cambridge Massachusetts, Harvard University Press; and page 13 of Petrie, W. M. F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties Part II. London, Egypt Exploration Fund.

For the gneiss floor tiles in the Step Pyramid see pages 105, 127, 193-5 of Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid. Cairo: Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

For the archaeological evidence of Old Kingdom exploitation of Gebel el-Asr see Engelbach, R. 1933. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert: A Preliminary Report” ASAE 33: 65 – 74; Engelbach, R. 1939. “The Quarries of the Western Nubian Desert and the Ancient Road to Tushka” ASAE 39: 369 – 390; and the interim report on the Gebel el-Asr project work in Shaw, I. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Storemyr, P. 2010. Quarrying and Landscape at Gebel el-Asr in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. In: F. Raffaele, M. Nuzzolo and I. Incordino (eds.) Recent Discoveries and Latest Researches in Egyptology: Proceedings of the First Neapolitan Congress of Egyptology, Naples, June 18–20 2008. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz-Verlag. 293–312.

For the geological investigation at Gebel el-Asr and the luminosity of the stone see Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57.
For the sun cult in general see Quirke, S. 2001. The Cult of Ra: Sun-worship in Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson.

For the names of the Pharaohs and their meanings see Quirke, S. 1990. Who were the Pharaohs? A History of their names with a list of cartouches. British Museum Press.

For the pyramids in general see Lehner, M. 1997. The Complete Pyramids. Thames and Hudson.

For the sun temples of Abusir see Bárta, M. Coppens, F.  and Krejčí, J. (eds), Abusir and Saqqara in the year 2010  Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. They are also covered briefly, with references, in Wilkinson, R. H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson: London.

For the relationship between stones and divinities see Aufrère, S. 1991. L’Univers Minéral dans la Pensée Égyptienne. Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire: Cairo; Aufrère, S. 2001. “The Egyptian Temple – Substitute for the Mineral Universe.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London. 158 – 163. For a specific case concerning turquoise see Valbelle, D. and Bonnet, C. 1996. Le sanctuaire d’Hathor maîtresse de la turquoise. Paris: Picard Editeur. See also treatments of magic and ritual in ancient Egypt such as Pinch, G. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Pinch, G. 2001. “Red Things: The Symbolism of Colour in Magic.” In: W. V. Davies (ed.) Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London; Wilkinson, R. H. 1994. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. Thames and Hudson: London.

Image credits

Gneiss objects from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, on a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Map of Egypt, made in Quantum GIS (www.QGIS.org) using data from Natural Earth (http://www.naturalearthdata.com)

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Animal Mummies at the World Museum, Liverpool

The Animal Mummies exhibition, which has previously been at Manchester Museum and the Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow, is now installed at the World Museum, Liverpool until 26 February 2017. Entry is free and it’s a great indoor holiday activity.

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Gilded Ptolemaic cat coffin made of two halves with a cat mummy sealed between them. Found at Saqqara by Cecil Firth and held by the Manchester Museum (Inv. No. 9303. a-b)

I was able to visit in late November when the exhibit was quiet, and found myself impressed. It may surprise the reader to learn that animal mummies are not this Egyptologist’s most favourite thing, but it happens to be true. Despite this I found the exhibition well laid out and highly informative. It has enough information to interest the general visitor, together with sufficient specialist material for the archaeologist, and child-friendly material including a downloadable family pack to help you get the most out of the experience. The schoolchildren who appeared during my visit particularly enjoyed the interactive elements, showing how mummies were made and are scanned and investigated, and the opportunities to dress up.

Broadly speaking the exhibit covers three main areas: The ancient Egyptian religious context for the creation and deposition of animal mummies as offerings to divinities, the rediscovery of animal mummies by archaeologists and their impact upon the Victorian imagination, and the modern rediscovery of animal mummies, their scientific investigation and potential to contribute to scientific discovery. Taken together the exhibit is informative without feeling like it’s too much to digest (or walk around).

Gilded Ptolemaic ibis statue, with hollow compartment for ibis mummy. From the Burrell Collection, lent by the Glasgow Museums (Inv. 13.283).

One of the highlights, is that the curators have sourced and presented the absolute best of animal mummy artefacts. The gilded ibis statue from the Burrell Collection (left) is a striking and beautiful object that demonstrates the overlap between coffin (since it has a hollow compartment for an ibis mummy) and cult-statue.

Another super object is the cat coffin (above right), carved in two halves with its occupant sealed inside it. It is a beautiful object and a long way from the unfortunate ends that some animal mummies came to. The destruction of so many mummies is described in the second part of the exhibition, together with some beautiful paintings showing the Victorian impression of Egyptian animal religion. Although sometimes hilariously inaccurate these attractive images have had a powerful influence over perceptions of Egyptian religion and the, often inaccurately portrayed, role of animal mummies in it.

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Cat mummy in a human coffin from the Late Period. (Garstang Museum Inv. no. E.537 a-c)

A crucial element of the exhibition is how it showcases the role of science in animal mummy investigations. Upon x-ray a small humanoid coffin (above) from the University of Liverpool Garstang Museum was found to contain the mummy of a cat. Precisely what religious or emotional purpose prompted this conjunction of mummy and coffin is unclear. Did someone pay extra for a special product in memory of a child? Was it a pet? Or was it just expediency?

Detailed MRI and CT scans have shown that some mummies contain very little animal material, perhaps a single bone padded out with linen, while others comprise more than one individual. The former might be anything from outright frauds, to cheaper versions containing the minimal effective (religiously speaking) animal matter for the poorest patrons. Examples with more than one individual include crocodiles (below) and one can’t help thinking that it was easier (and safer) to kill younger, smaller animals and parcel them up together, rather than feeding a single crocodile till it grew large enough to be mummified (or eat you).

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‘What big eyes you have Grandma’ – crocodile mummy made up of a single crocodile with two smaller crocodiles on its back and a package of bones from another animal behind its left hind limb. From Luxor. Roman Period. (National Museums of Liverpool, World Museum M14289)

The exhibition is a fascinating tour through animal mummies, their meaning to the ancient Egyptians, their meaning to their Victorian discoverers and purchasers, and the things we continue to learn from them. They even charmed this animal mummy sceptic and there’s plenty for children to do. So if you’re in Liverpool and have the opportunity over the Christmas holidays, then have a look at the animal mummies. They’ll make a nice change from reindeer and ‘Elf on a Shelf’ (although those crocodiles look like they might find an Elf to be a tasty treat).

References

For further reading about the science behind animal mummies see;

Zakrzewski , S. Shortland, A. and Rowland, R. 2016. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. Routledge: London. 200-201.

Ikram, S. Kaiser, J. and Walker, R. 2015. Egyptian Bioarchaeology. Sidestone Press: Leiden. 169-200.

 

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Undercurrents: Clichés and scientific archaeology in Egyptian foreign relations

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Pair of Cypriot ‘base ring juglets’ from the Petrie Museum (UC13419). Foreign pottery is found at various Egyptian sites, providing evidence of trade and exchange between ancient Egypt and its neighbours.

Scientific and archaeological papers presented at a recent conference on Egyptian foreign relations revealed that ancient Egyptian foreign relations were far more complex than elite and monumental and textual clichés express. Although I was aware that such clichés represent a very partial view of the ancient world, as the conference progressed I realised how far I had internalised and normalised the elite, ancient Egyptian worldview they presented. This experience raised questions as to how far we who study the ancient world absorb its mores, how we control for these in our research and investigate the social complexities obscured by them.

In September I was asked to present a paper on recent research in the Western Desert of Egypt at the University of Liverpool  Undercurrents conference  (sponsored by Marie Curie Actions), which looked at the relationships between ancient Egypt and the cultures on its periphery and across the ancient world.

The papers at the Undercurrents conference covered a wide range of cultures, sites and disciplines from satellite imagery, to Tutankhamun’s gold appliques, to the iconography of the gods of Pi-Ramesse. Every paper contributed to the overall theme, looking at the complex interaction between the Nile Valley and its neighbours, near and far. Pottery, like the Cypriot base-ring juglets (above left), played a significant role in several papers, but scientific analyses of various different types was also a key theme.

A recent increase in scientific analyses of data from multiple sources (e.g. Zakrzewski et al. 2015) is currently providing new insights into ancient Egyptian culture and society and this is likely to continue and increase. The studies presented in Liverpool are a part of this trend and demonstrate the value of scientific and archaeological studies for understanding the great variety of ancient Egyptian interactions with their neighbours and revealing the contrast between the genuinely complex and flexible web of ancient cultural interactions and the limited and clichéd impression of these relationships that we get from Egyptian sources.

We are familiar with the stereotypical ways Egyptian iconography portrayed foreigners from a variety of races. For each group the Egyptian artist emphasises specific distinguishing characteristics, including skin colour, dress, facial features, hairstyle and beard types, that identifies them as both ‘un-Egyptian’ and with a specific tribe or area.

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A line of bound Nubian captives at the foot of the colossal statues of Ramses II at Abu Simbel.

These stereotypes appear in stock scenes as dangerous enemies being vanquished or as bringers of tribute. The depiction of the foreigner as the chaotic ‘other’, requiring subjugation for the political and ritual protection of Egypt is most evident in the ubiquitous ‘smiting scenes’ (Köhler, 2002; below) which date back at least as far as Narmer palette and the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3200 – 2686 BC). The same religious and political message is conveyed by New Kingdom imagery of Pharaohs, in their chariots, triumphantly leading their armies to victory over the bodies of slain foreigners.

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The ancient Egyptians’ presentation of their ‘foreign relations’. A ‘smiting scene’ of Thutmoses III from the outer wall of Karnak temple showing the execution of captured foreign prisoners.

There is certainly some truth in these scenes. The New Kingdom Pharaohs fought battles with various foreign groups, taking prisoners and booty. How common real ‘smitings’ of captured enemies were is debatable, but there’s no doubt as to the impression that is intended by images of ubiquitous Egyptian victory. Foreigners are dangerous, threatening and must be vanquished. Only in their defeated state can they be permitted a presence on Egyptian monuments.

When they are not being brutally executed, foreigners are presented as grateful bringers of tribute in several Egyptian tomb scenes. The inspiration for these scenes may be diplomatic gift exchange, such as that described in the Amarna letters, which record diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and its neighbours (Moran 1992).

Egyptologists have long observed that if we were to believe the Egyptian sources, we might imagine that interactions between Egypt and its neighbours were dominated by war and tribute, with relatively little room for trade. We have assumed that recognising the ritual clichés inherent in Egyptian elite self-presentation of foreign relations immunises us, enabling us to objectively dissect the ancient sources, seeking a more detailed  and nuanced understanding of the complexities of ancient Egyptian foreign relations. Indeed this concept, that the recognition of bias or partiality enables us to manage it in our research, is a crucial element in all historical research and textual analysis.

But when faced with the scientific analysis presented at the Undercurrents conference I realised that I had absorbed and internalised much more of the ancient Egyptians’ self-presentation than I thought. Although I had always assumed that the clichés of dominion and tribute were merely the politically, socially and ritually appropriate face of a much more complex system of trade and exchange, my surprise at the reality of ancient trade relations revealed to me how far I had internalised the elite Egyptian worldview. As paper after paper revealed Egyptian society enmeshed in webs of trade relations and international fashion, that involved exchanging divinities and actively working with groups that are elsewhere presented as a threat to be conquered, I realised that I hadn’t been sufficiently skeptical. Skeptical of the endless lines of captive foreigners bringing tribute or awaiting illustrative (in both senses of the word) execution, of Egyptian claims to hostile encirclement by chaotic enemies, the endless battle reliefs and the ritualised fear of the non-Egyptian world. While paying lip-service to the idea that the reality was more complicated that the texts, my repeated exposure to and interest in ancient Egyptian written sources, iconography and imagery meant that, like an ancient scribal student copying texts, I had thoroughly absorbed and internalised the elite Egyptian worldview presented in those sources. A hefty dose of scientific and archaeological analysis was required to reveal the reality of this to me.

This raised many further questions for me. How do I respond to this in my future research, avoiding interpreting my data in terms of ancient cliché, without ignoring useful cultural information from textual and monumental sources? Given how far I had internalised an ancient Egyptian worldview, even while assuming it was only a partial impression of reality, then what else might I be missing?  How else has my 21st-century-mind become attuned to the imperatives of an ancient Egyptian scribe?  And if this affects me, then how does it affect my fellow archaeologists, classicists and historians who also work with complex, literate societies?

I cannot answer all these questions, indeed I wonder if anyone can, but I can attempt to answer the first one. If we can’t help but internalise the norms of the societies we study then it is even more important that we investigate those norms from multiple textual, archaeological and scientific perspectives, that we consider the evidence of different classes, sexes and ethnicities, and that we are aware of the ancient clichés hidden in our minds. To do this we need the increase in scientific and archaeological investigations that are currently moving beyond the elite and monumental elements of the ancient world. But we also need to integrate the results of those scientific and archaeological studies into our understanding of monumentality, iconography and textual interpretation. A better understanding of ancient reality hides in the cracks between science, archaeology, epigraphy, text-criticism and iconography. To excavate those realities we need to be prepared to integrate multiple sources, comparing, contrasting and questioning their different perspectives to understand the complex reality that is revealed by archaeology and scientific studies, the simplistic and clichéd way that reality was presented in ancient monumental iconography and politicised texts, and how those presentations influenced or brought about changes in economic trade and political activities.

References

Köhler, C. E.  2002. History or ideology? New reflections on the Narmer palette and the nature of foreign relations in Pre- and Early Dynastic Egypt. In E. C. M. van den Brink,  and Thomas E. Levy (eds), Egypt and the Levant: interrelations from the 4th through the early 3rd millennium BCE, 499-513. London ; New York: Leicester University Press.

Moran, W. L. 1992. The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Zakrezewski, S. Shortland, A and Rowland, J. 2015. Science in the Study of Ancient Egypt. London and New York: Routledge.

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Ancient Ottoman and Byzantine shipwrecks discovered in pristine condition in Black Sea — Byzantine Blog

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project has been on a mission to map out the floor of the Black Sea. The study was geared towards understanding how quickly sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, some 20,000 years ago. So it was to the researchers’ surprise when they stumbled upon a […]

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