Artefacts from the Anglo-Saxon burial at Prittlewell exhibited in Southend Museum.

It’s not every day that an intact royal burial is discovered less than a mile from your childhood home, but in 2003 that’s exactly what happened to me. Even more amazing, this royal burial was found in Prittlewell in Southend-on-sea in Essex, which is often assumed (rather unfairly) to be a cultural backwater. I was living at home at the time and looking for archaeological work when I noticed a large white tent had gone up over excavations taking place along Priory Crescent. Knowing that commercial British archaeologists only get the privilege of working in a nice dry tent when they have found something truly significant, I eagerly awaited the publication of whatever had been discovered.

The results of the excavation did not disappoint! A well-preserved, intact and richly furnished Anglo-Saxon burial had been discovered in a c. 4x4x1.5m wood-lined burial chamber (Hirst and Scull 2019, 30-31). The quality of the grave goods suggested the highest stratum of Anglo-Saxon society, inviting comparisons with Sutton-Hoo and even Tutankhamun!

The exhibition

After excavation, the artefacts were conserved by Museum of London and are now on permanent display in the Southend Museum. I went along in early June 2019 with my daughter. Being only one at the time she wasn’t very impressed, but if you have older children they will probably enjoy looking at the artefacts and exploring the digital displays. Eight-year-old me would certainly have loved it.

Overview of the exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum

The exhibition of the Prittlewell Princely Burial at Southend Museum. The artefacts are displayed in a central case, while the interative wall displays detail the excavation and post-excavation process. (Hannah Pethen June 2019)

The permanent display occupies a relatively small room at the rear of the museum, which made it slightly challenging to visit with a large pram. Crowding might be a problem if you visited during a very busy time or coincided with a school party, but it wasn’t crowded when I attended. The displayed artefacts are all located together in a single large case, which the visitor can walk around. Artefact numbers and further information are provided in labels in the case, but the hard work of contextualising the objects, and explaining the process of excavation and interpretation is done with digital displays on the walls. This makes for an efficient and effective exhibition space. The visitor can read descriptions of the excavation and watch videos about the conservation and research into the artefacts, before turning around to examine them in the case. This approach places the excavation and conservation of the artefacts front and centre. The story of the exhibition is literally the story of the excavation and post-excavation process, and the artefacts are contextualised as pieces of evidence that provide information about the burial, the owner and his culture.

Star finds

Hanging bowl

The northern or western British hanging bowl. The first object to be found, it was still hanging on its hook on what had been the wall of the burial chamber. Now in the Southend Museum (Author Photograph).

The gold belt buckle has become the star of the exhibition and a potent symbol of the site, but (like many objects in Egyptian tombs) it was probably made especially for the burial and was not used by the deceased during life (Hirst and Scull 2019, 46). The beautiful, highly-decorative hanging bowl originating in northern or western Britain shows clear links with the late Roman traditions (Blackmore et al. 2019, 175), while the Eastern Meditteranean flagon and basin reflect trading links beyond Europe (Hirst and Scull 2019, 49-50; 52-54).

Fans of glass will find the glass beakers interesting (see the featured image above the title). Two highly decorative blue glass examples with trailed decoration are typical of elite Anglo-Saxon burials, while the simpler green pair are more common (Hirst and Scull 2019, 58). To my eyes, they also owe a lot to Roman glass traditions, but others may disagree.

Copticflagon

The Eastern Mediterranean flagon from the Prittlewell Princely Burial reflects trading links across Europe (Author photograph).

I found it slightly disappointing that the exhibition does not include all of the surviving artefacts from the burial chamber, but this is probably either because the missing artefacts are too fragile for permanent display or because further conservation and interpretative work is necessary before they can be exhibited. Space in the exhibition case may also be a factor.

Some artefacts are represented by scant traces identifiable only by scientific analysis; fragments of gold braid, which told of a luxurious piece of cloth laid over the face; a painted wooden box; and remains of over 19 different types of textile preserved through association with metal (Hirst and Scull 2019, 44-45; 72-73; 76-77). The metal fittings of the decomposed wooden lyre are exhibited on a stand cut to the shape of the wooden lyre body, which was only visible as a shadow in the sandy soil of the grave. It is in the identification and reconstruction of these badly-decayed artefacts, that scientific excavation demonstrates its great value.

The tomb owner

The body interred in the Prittlewell tomb completely disintegrated in the acidic soil, leaving only a stain to show where the coffin was located. The excavators suggest the owner was male based on the absence of female dress items and the presence of weaponry, although clothing and weaponry are not always conclusive in sexing burials. A possible owner has been proposed in the person of Seaxa, brother of King Saebert of the East Saxons, but Hirst and Scull (2019, 97) are careful to point out that although Seaxa died at roughly the correct time, there may be other candidates of whom we are not aware.

Additional material

In addition to the information available in the exhibition, Southend Museum publicised the exhibition on their News page and also run a blog, which recently featured a post about brooches found in other graves in the same cemetery as the Princely burial. The burial has also been featured on the Museum Crush website and parts of the excavation can also be seen on the MOLA Youtube channel. There is also information on the MOLA website, including an interactive model of the burial chamber where you can explore the stories behind the artefacts.

Burial_chamber_reconstruction

Reconstruction of the burial chamber from the digital displays in the exhibition. Hirst and Scull (2019, 88-89) contains the same reconstruction. (Author Photograph, June 2019 at Southend Museum).

In terms of guidebooks or catalogues, there are two choices: The full excavation monograph, published by MOLA and costing £35 (Blackmore et al. 2019) and a smaller volume at £15 (Hirst and Scull 2019). Unless you plan to do academic or archaeological research into the Southend area, the Hirst and Scull (2019) volume will be quite sufficient. Reconstructions of both the entire burial chamber (image above) and of individual artefacts are provided as appropriate throughout and the book is really well illustrated. It contains a detailed description of the discovery and excavation of the burial, a thorough review and discussion of the artefacts, and analysis of who was buried and their cultural and political context.  I really liked this approach as it mirrors what archaeologists do when we excavate. We work from the known to the unknown. The exhibition and its accompanying books begin with the story of the discovery and excavation of the site, move to the conservation and investigation of the artefacts and finally put it all together to propose the identity of the deceased and his position, historically and geographically.

Conclusion

Overall the exhibition of the artefacts from the Prittlewell Princely burial was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a great pleasure to see the objects after conservation and read the full story of the excavation and post-excavation process as part of the exhibition. I hope that in future we may see more of those artefacts that have not yet been displayed, and perhaps even some reconstructions of those that are missing due to decay and disintegration. The accompanying books were also very well done, with the smaller Hirst and Scull (2019) volume containing just the right amount of information to inform without overwhelming the reader.

References

Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019 The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Blackmore, Lyn. Blair, Ian. Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA Monograph Series 73. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Advertisements
Posted in Exhibition review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Essex’s Tutankhamun? Learning from seemingly incongruous comparisons.

An intact royal burial in Essex

In 2003 Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) found the intact burial chamber of an Anglo-Saxon noble or prince in Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. The discovery was widely reported and media interest renewed with the subsequent permanent exhibition of the artefacts in Southend Museum in 2019. The excitement, elite nature of the tomb and presence of precious metals prompted comparisons with the discovery of Tutankhamun.

An unexpected comparison

While writing my review of the permanent exhibition I found myself thinking about the comparison between the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun. Several commentators on social media had made slightly derisory remarks about it. Did they have a point? I set out to compare the two.

In many respects, the Prittlewell Princely burial and Tutankhamun’s tomb are vastly different. They are world’s away from each other, coming from very different cultures separated by c. 3,500 miles and c. 2000 years (since absolute dating of Egyptian Pharaohs is disputed this figure is approximate). The Prittlewell tomb was smaller than Tutankhamun’s, with artefacts numbering in the 10s rather than the thousands, and it did not contain nearly as much precious metal or jewelry.

Tut_Stool_JE62035

Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE 62035) in the Cairo Museum (Author Photograph).

The Prittlewell burial was also much less well-preserved than Tutankhamun, requiring every modern technique of excavation and conservation to carefully extract the surviving artefacts. In Tutankhamun’s subterranean tomb the dry, relatively constant environment preserved the wooden and other perishable objects, many of which were carried out on the shoulders of the excavators. At Prittlewell, only modern ‘block’ excavation methods (where a fragile artefact is removed from the site within a large block of soil and fully excavated in the lab) have made it possible to identify and preserve many of the objects.  The difference in preservation is stark and most evident in the folding stools found in each burial.  Tutankhamun’s folding stool (JE62035) is almost perfectly preserved and is on display in Cairo (image above left). The Prittlewell Prince also took a folding stool to his burial, but as the fifth image in this Museum Crush post shows, it did not fare as well as Tutankhamun’s. Although reconstructions are possible on paper (Hirst and Scull 2019, 70) the remains of the stool are not included in the current exhibition, presumably because of its state of preservation. Such artefacts have only been identified and preserved from the Prittlewell burial thanks to careful modern excavation, conservation, and scientific techniques

Tut_cartouche_JE62117

Tutankhamun’s cartouches on an Egyptian alabaster vessel (JE 62117) from his tomb (Author Photograph).

There are also considerable differences between the occupants of the tombs. While Tutankhamun’s name is plastered all over the objects in his tomb with typical ancient Egyptian concern for its preservation, the identity of the Prittlewell tomb owner remains unknown. He is now believed to have been a royal prince rather than a King, but any suggestions as to his identity remain speculation (Hirst and Scull 2019, 96-97).

The occupant of the Prittlewell burial was also associated with a much less powerful political entity than Tutankhamun. The Kingdom of the East Saxons was only one of several in what is now England (Hirst and Scull 2019, 99-102). Tutankhamun, by contrast, ruled what can only really be described as an early superpower, with an empire, vast influence across the Middle East, and regular diplomatic interactions with both equals and vassals.

Surprising similarities

What then are the similarities that prompted this comparison, or was it just hyperbole? I came to a surprising answer. There are some important parallels between Tutankhamun’s tomb and the Prittlewell Princely burial and they become more interesting the more you investigate them.

While it wasn’t a worldwide sensation like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the Prittlewell burial certainly caused a stir amongst archaeologists and the public. Newspapers and TV carried the story and in 2005 it featured in a Time Team Special. Such publicity rapidly attracted those who wished to make use of the discovery for their own purpose. Like the many debates and scandals surrounding Tutankhamun, the Prittlewell Prince rapidly became involved in local controversy. Protestors, objecting to the road-widening scheme which originally prompted the excavation of the site, set up the protest ‘Camp Bling’  and argued that the road scheme should be stopped because it would destroy the burial site. Despite the spurious nature of this argument (the burial site having already been removed by archaeological excavation), the road has never been widened.

MW 2.30

‘Camp Bling’ road-widening protest, Priory Crescent, taken 20 January 2006 by David Kemp. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).

The discovery of both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince both encouraged the archaeological community. Howard Carter spent years excavating the Valley of the Kings before his discovery of Tutankhamun demonstrated that there were still important discoveries to be made there. The Prittlewell burial, sandwiched between a road and a railway cutting in the middle of a town, demonstrated that significant archaeological discoveries are possible even in heavily urbanised areas. Such discoveries provide huge validation for archaeologists. Your average commercial archaeologist spends most of their career working in all weathers knowing that most of their work will only contribute incrementally to the sum of archaeological understanding. This incremental knowledge is important, but when you are toiling away in the rain, hacking through hard clay to excavate a dull field drain or tree throw, its encouraging to think that one day you might help to recover a truly remarkable find.

VK_fromabove

The Valley of the Kings from above (El Qurn). Howard Carter cleared the central part to the bedrock before finding Tutankhamun. (Author Photograph).

Both finds also shed new light (and provoke even more questions) about relatively obscure periods of history; the Amarna period in the case of Tutankhamun, and the Anglo-Saxon period in the case of the Prittlewell Princely burial. We are all intrigued by the unknown, and obscure periods of history often attract the attention of both enthusiasts and scholars. New discoveries offer the hope of new parallels for existing artefacts and architecture, and additional scientific evidence that may fill in some of the historical and cultural gaps in our current understanding. Of course, these hopes are rarely fulfilled and more often than not such new discoveries provoke even more questions than they answer, but it is the excitement that we feel as enthusiasts and researchers that feeds into the public imagination.

Finally, thanks to the excitement and media attention that always surrounds such discoveries, both Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince were given fond nicknames, although they might not appreciate being called ‘King Tut’ and the ‘King of Bling’ if they were here to hear them.

Reception and exploitation

Reviewing the similarities between Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Princely burial, a clear pattern emerges. The similarities between these two very different burials are all about our reception of them as archaeological discoveries, rather than any intrinsic similarities between the burials, cultures or people buried.  It is the public and scholarly excitement over the excavation of an intact (or largely intact in the case of Tutankhamun) burial of an elite individual, from a thrillingly obscure or controversial period, accompanied by rich grave goods that are comparable. Such comparisons say more about us than about Tutankhamun or the Prittlewell Prince. They speak to our positive enthusiasm for archaeological discovery, our interest in the past and fascination with obscure or controversial periods of history. Less positively they reflect excitement over ‘buried treasure’ and (sad inditement of our society that it is) speak of a desire to consume and even exploit the past that is present in some quarters.

So yes, in many respects the Prittlewell Princely burial is Essex’s Tutankhamun. Although far removed from each other in time, space and culture Tutankhamun and the Prittlewell Prince are highly comparable in terms of the public reaction to their discovery and the use made of them by various groups. That such similarities are present with regard to two so very different archaeological discoveries says much about our culture, and that is a rare and valuable treasure in itself.

References

In addition to the digital references cited in this and my previous post, the main references for the Prittlewell Prince are:

Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019 The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-sea. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

Blackmore, Lyn. Blair, Ian. Hirst, Sue and Scull, Christopher. 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Crescent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, 2003. MOLA Monograph Series 73. Museum of London Archaeology: London.

There are innumerable references for Tutankhamun, the discovery of his tomb and its fate. The following are good introductions to the discovery, archaeological context of his tomb and the debate about how the discovery has been used and abused since:

Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.

Romer, John, and Romer, Elizabeth 1993. The Rape of Tutankhamun. Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.

Posted in Archaeology and Egyptology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of the Garstang Museum’s ‘Before Egypt: Art, Culture and Power’ exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the University of Liverpool

On 11 May a new exhibition of Egyptian material opened at the of the University of Liverpool. Curated by Gina Criscenzo-Laycock of the University’s Garstang Museum, it features pre- and early Dynastic Egyptian and Nubian material from that museum and some significant loans from other collections.

The exhibition is free to enter and is relatively easy to find in the Grade II listed gothic Victoria tower of the University of Liverpool. Entering off Brownlow Hill, you pass through the Waterhouse restaurant and walk up the stairs to the first floor. The exhibition is located in three rooms of the Victoria Gallery. Details and a map are provided on the Victoria Gallery and Museum website. The main part of the exhibition is located in two large rooms to the right of the stairs, with the Lapis Lazuli Lady housed in a room of her own (Virginia Wolf would surely approve) on the opposite side of the stairwell.

Garstangcase

John Garstang, some of his personal items and notebooks and a plate glass negative from his excavations. (Author Photograph)

The exhibition is broadly chronological, beginning with the Neolithic (roughly 5000 BC) and ending with the Early Dynastic (c. 3000BC) Naqada Royal Tomb of Neith-hotep. Relevant additional information is presented as appropriate, including a section on John Garstang, excavator of many of the objects in the exhibition.

On the balcony, before the doorway into the first room, is a display covering Flinders Petrie‘s development of sequence dating, which provides the basis for much of our predynastic chronology. A brief description of sequence dating is accompanied by a chart showing the chronological development of a typical sequence of pottery types, illustrated by examples of those pots in cases below.

On the opposite side of the same doorway is a large timeline, introducing the Predynastic to Early Dynastic Period. It also suggests that the Late Neolithic period began with people accessing the ladies and gents via the adjacent stairwell!

NeolithicToilets

Timeline introducing the chronology of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic period. Toilets can be found downstairs, apparently in the Early Neolithic period. (Author photograph)

The first few cases of the first room are devoted to predynastic material culture. Cases featuring typical predynastic pottery (see the Featured Image) and cosmetic palettes occupy the left and right walls of the first room, respectively. Quintessentially Naqada II vessels with typical boat imagery appear in one case (one example is available as a 3D model). Animal decoration and theriomorphic vessels reflect the fauna of the Nile valley. Star pieces include an open pottery bowl with four modeled-clay hippopotami around the rim (Manchester Museum 5069) and a breccia stone vessel in the shape of a frog (British Museum EA65240). The carved stone vessels demonstrate the skill and patience of predynastic craftspeople. Their imitations in painted pottery remind us that the fake designer handbag is the modern descendant of a long tradition!

Gneiss bowl of King Khaba

Gneiss bowl with serekh of the Dynasty III pharaoh Khaba. Manchester Museum 10959. (Author photograph)

One particular stone vessel deserves a special mention. Manchester Museum 10959 is a hard stone bowl inscribed with the name of Early Dynastic (Dynasty III) King Khaba. The label lists it as ‘diorite’, but it is unmistakably Gebel el-Asr gneiss, specifically anorthosite gneiss. This is hardly surprising. Gebel el-Asr gneiss is located on the surface, could be extracted as conveniently sized pebbles and boulders, and was worked since the Neolithic period (Schild and Wendorf 2001, 16-17). Large numbers of gneiss vessels came from Dynasty I royal tombs (Petrie 1901b, 13 and pl.ix.11) and it continued to be a favoured stone for vessel manufacture into the Old Kingdom (Firth and Quibell 1935, 105, 193-5, pl.19 pl.88-91).

The predynastic antecedents of Egyptian material culture are clear from other artefacts too. As you enter the first room you are greeted by an oversize Naqada II cosmetic palette with its top carved in the form of bird’s heads, decorated with a representation of a human figure and two ostriches (Manchester Museum 5476). It is an obvious precursor to outsized, heavily carved, proto- and Early Dynastic palettes with more typically Egyptian iconography, such as the Narmer Palette or the Two Dog Palette. Manchester Museum 5476 demonstrates that these later products were clearly the culmination of a long tradition. The exhibition does not discuss the racist theories prevalent when the artefacts were excavated, but the obvious continuity between predynastic artefacts and Dynastic material culture clearly refutes the early 20th-century assumption that the unification of Egypt and flowering of Dynastic culture were due to the influx of a new cultural and racial group.

Hierakonpolis_fortcemetery

Display case dedicated to the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery excavations, with an excavation photograph of a typical burial behind, and typical vessels below. The information panel at the bottom of the case is not shown but included a reproduction of a page from Garstang’s notebook containing a sketch of a burial, as well as a verbal description of the site. (Author Photograph)

Much of the Garstang collection came from controlled excavations and Garstang’s excavation records are held by the Garstang Museum. Although there is little archaeological context in the early cases that set up the fundamentals of predynastic culture, the rest of the exhibition has context in spades. In the first room, two cases reflect the interplay between artefact and excavation archive. Each case features typical artefacts from one of Garstang’s excavations, accompanied by a large reproduction of his excavation photographs (see image above). In one case (the excavation of the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery) a copy of Garstang’s sketch of an intact burial also accompanies the artefacts and photograph. The source of the artefacts in the exhibition is further contextualised in a small case featuring a photograph of Garstang, his excavation notebooks, a pencil and plate glass negative from his excavations. It’s pleasant to see this case, because explaining how the artefacts in an exhibition were excavated (or obtained) and by whom ought to be part of every exhibition. I’d have liked this case to go further and recognise the wider excavation team (including unskilled workmen and skilled Egyptian excavators, as well as foreign specialists), but its very good to see the archaeological origins of these artefacts presented to the public.  It’s important for exhibitions to demonstrate that artefacts are most ‘valuable’ when archaeologically excavated and accompanied by their excavation archive because it is this that contextualises the artefacts and enables new discoveries to be made from old data.

Qaa_nebty

Fragment of a quartz vase with the nebty name of Dynasty I Pharaoh Qaa. (Manchester Museum 1237. Author Photograph).

The second room focuses on the process of state formation that led to Dynastic Egyptian culture. There is a super display case about writing and power featuring a number of significant artefacts, including a potsherd with a serekh of Narmer (E.5248), a sealing with the earliest example of a cartouche used to enclosure a King’s name (E. 5251), a fragment of a quartz vase with the nebty name of King Qaa and an ivory tablet of Menes with the name of King Menes from the Naqada Royal tomb (E.5116). These are joined by some interesting sealings from the Naqada Royal tomb that foreshadow displays in the rest of the room.

In the centre of the room is a display case on Women and Power. It features a number of fantastic artefacts: a sherd naming Queen Mereneith (British Museum EA32645); a fragment of an ivory box with the name of Queen Bener-ib alongside that of her husband Hor-Aha (British Museum EA35513); and, because no display on Women and Power in ancient Egypt is complete without Hatshepsut, a model rocker from a foundation deposit at Deir el-Bahri with Hatshepsut’s throne name (Maatkare).

Hatshepsut_Rocker

Wooden model of a rocker, from a foundation deposit of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri and carrying her ‘throne’ name (2014/226). (Author Photograph)

The inclusion of this eclectic group in the exhibition becomes clear when you reach a clay seal impression with the name of Neith-hotep in a serekh. According to the information panel, this is the only example of a serekh surmounted by a goddess (Neith) rather than a god and the occurance of a female name in this most royal format raises questions about Neith-hotep’s role. These questions are amplified by the nature and contents of tomb of Neith-hotep at Naqada (The Naqada Royal tomb), which forms the subject of the remaining cases on room 2.

Neithotep_Serekh

Clay seal impression with the serekh of Neith-hotep (E.1335) displayed between two predynastic (Naqada II) female figurines (British Museum EA50676 and EA50947). (Author photograph)

The Naqada Royal tomb is a relatively little known but fascinating structure. Garstang re-excavated it in 1904 and recovered hundreds of objects missed by the original excavator, Jacques de Morgan, who only spent 15 days on the project in 1897. Although heavily robbed and burned, the artefacts still testify to the power and status of their owner, Neith-hotep, wife of Narmer and mother of Hor-Aha. The status accorded her in death and the presence of her name in serekh suggests she may have been more than a Queen consort. In a final panel, the visitor is asked to vote whether they consider her a Queen (consort) or female Pharaoh. The panel suggests we take into account the grandeur and size of her tomb, but also examine our own cultural biases. Do we want her to be a female Pharaoh because we are so aware of gender equality? Or are we only questioning whether she could be a female Pharaoh because our image of Pharaonic power is male? It is a fascinating discussion of a little known tomb from the very beginning of Egyptian history, and one which exposes the public to the kinds of questions Egyptology forces us to ask about ourselves. I began studying ancient Egypt because I wanted to research a radically different culture that would force me to re-evaluate my cultural biases. Even after nearly 20 years, studying ancient Egypt still does this to me every day and seeing this aspect of it presented to the public was hugely exciting.

Your vote on the status of Neith-hotep constitutes the last act in room 2. To see the Lapis Lazuli Lady you must leave room 2 and turn left, walking past the staircase and into the exhibition rooms beyond it. The Lady is introduced by a panel detailing Garstang’s excavations at Hierakonpolis and the remarkable circumstances of her discovery. Her headless body, found in 1898 in the Fort Cemetery by Quibell, had to wait eight years until Harold Jones (standing in for Garstang, while the latter was away) found her head. A brief description of her discovery and origins can be found in the Winter 2016 volume of Nekhen News. As that article makes clear, debate continues about whether she was carved in Egypt, or elsewhere. The role of female figures generally continues to be discussed (see for example The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines). Whatever conclusions are drawn about her origins and purpose, the Lapis Lazuli Lady is undoubtedly a beautiful piece of work, in a material that emphasises the inter-regional connections of pre- and early Dynastic Egypt.

LapisLazuliLady

The Lapis Lazuli Lady from Hierakonpolis. (Ashmolean Museum E.1507, E.1507a). (Author Photograph).

Overall Before Egypt is a super exhibition. Rarely do you see so many fantastic predynastic artefacts on display in one place. The focus of the exhibition is also to be applauded. In addition to the importance accorded archaeological provenance, the presence of so many less well-known aspects of the predynastic is very welcome. With Egyptian prehistory there is often a tendency to focus on the classic sites; Naqda I, II and III; historic and current discoveries at Hierakonpolis; and, as we move into the early Dynastic period, the royal tombs at Abydos. Instead of these usual suspects, we are given A-group Kostamna, the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery and the Lapis Lazuli Lady (because you cannot entirely escape Hierakonpolis), and the Naqada Royal Tomb of a possible female Pharaoh.

The information associated with the exhibits is consistently good and highly informative. Apart from where links and references indicate otherwise, all the information about the artefacts in this review was taken from the information panels.  When I visited the accompanying book had not yet been published, but the Garstang Museum’s blog and sketchfab page include a number of artefacts in the exhibition. The 3d models on the sketchfab page are a particularly brilliant complement to the exhibition, allowing you to get much closer to those artefacts (at least in digital form) and compensating for occasional difficulties with the lighting. There is also a dedicated blog post about many of the artefacts in the exhibition. My only complaint is that visitors should be more clearly directed to the blog and sketchfab page when viewing artefacts which feature in them. Nevertheless, the information provided with the objects is highly interesting and manages to make a varied group of sites and artefacts cohere into a consistent story of Egyptian prehistory.

Edit

Thanks to @Tetisheri13 for information that there is a forthcoming book to accompany the exhibition. I cannot wait to read it and shall review this separately once it becomes available.

Thanks also to Ashley Cook of Liverpool World Museum (@EgyptCurator) for pointing out that the head of the Lapis Lazuli Lady was actually found by Harold Jones while Garstang was away visiting other sites. There’s a whole blog to be written about the assistants and subordinates who, often almost singlehandedly, excavated sites whilst the excavation directors were elsewhere.

Bibliography

Firth, C. M. and Quibell, J. E. 1935. Excavations at Saqqara: The Step Pyramid Cairo: Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte.

Petrie, W. M. F. 1901. The Royal Tombs of the Earliest Dynasties Part II. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.

Schild, R. and Wendorf, F. 2001. The Combined Prehistoric Expedition Results of the 2001 Season. ARCE Bulletin 180:16–17.

Posted in Exhibition review | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Re-thinking Beds and bedrooms in Ancient Egypt: Thoughts provoked by Nadine Moeller’s The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt 

In early 2017 I began thinking seriously about beds and bedrooms in ancient Egypt. I had just been asked to review Nadine Moeller’s recently published book The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom and heard a fascinating lecture by Manon Schutz about beds in ancient Egypt at the Essex Egyptology Group. I found both challenged my assumptions about how we view domestic space, particularly ‘the bedroom’ and what these things meant to the ancient Egyptians.

Rectangular rooms with some form of ‘niche’ at one end, have long been identified as ‘bedrooms’  in Egyptian houses. A series of sloping mudbrick sleeping platforms found at Giza in the settlement of the Pyramid builders confirm that some of these niched rooms were used for sleeping (An image is available on page 73 (Fig 33) of the original field report).

Wanderer_warmed_by_kang300

Fig 1: A man, possibly Harry A. Franck, sitting on the Kang in his room in a Chinese inn (From Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_bed-stove#/media/File:Wanderer_warmed_by_kang300.jpg)

However, the idea of the ‘bedroom’ as a private place for sleeping, is very much a modern construction and probably isn’t applicable to the ancient Egyptian context (Manon Schutz, 2017, presentation to Essex Egyptology Group).  Bedrooms might, therefore, have been used for a great many activities, including public ones such as meeting visitors and transacting business. The mudbrick beds from Giza included in Moeller’s (2016, 203) discussion of Old Kingdom settlements are reminiscent of the traditional Chinese ‘Kang’, a brick platform warmed by hot air from a stove (Fig 1. left). Kangs were multifunctional structures, that were also used for sitting, receiving visitors and general living and it is possible that Egyptian beds and bedrooms were equally multifunctional. Moeller (2016, 377-380) notes that ‘multifunctionality’ is a major feature of Egyptian houses and Manon Shutz emphasised that this is also true of beds, which could be used as seating and were status indicators (Fig 2).

Bed_Yuya_Tuya_CairoMuseum

Fig 2: Elegantly gilded bed from the tomb of Yuya and Thuya in the Valley of the Kings. Now in the Cairo Museum (Author Photograph)

Taken together the multifunctional role of the bed and the bedroom can also be related to the more general layout of Egyptian houses. Moeller (2016, 194; 343) describes a core set of rooms in Old and Middle Kingdom houses. The precise layouts of the rooms vary over time and the number of rooms increases with the size of the houses, but throughout the periods they are always laid out to obscure visibility and restrict access into the innermost rooms. This is also clear in the layout of New Kingdom houses at Amarna (Fig 3).

Amarna_House_Q44-1

Fig 3: House Q44.1 at Amarna, from the transverse hall, with the main hall behind it. Entrances behind the main hall lead to more private rooms, including ‘bedrooms’.

If bedrooms were more public spaces than we have been conditioned to think, then official business might have been transacted in the ‘bedroom’, perhaps with the owner sitting on the bed where he could demonstrate his wealth and status. The petitioner, messenger, or fellow official would be lead through the maze-like series of rooms, perhaps decorated to impress visitors, along the indirect route prescribed by the layout of the core rooms. The convoluted layout of the rooms suggests that your access to the interior of the house was directly proportional to your status, with lower status visitors perhaps dealt with by lackeys or subordinates in the outer rooms.  Those of sufficient importance would be ushered through to the ‘bedroom’ to see the official seated in his (or perhaps ‘her’, where we are talking about a queen, priestess or another powerful woman) bedroom/office, perhaps on his own bed.

There is relatively little evidence available to reveal precisely how ancient Egyptian houses were used, so proving hypotheses about where guests were received and business transacted is difficult and it is often possible to construct an alternative scenario. Personal preference, questions of decorum and practical considerations might also have been considerations. But by challenging the centrality of our ideas about room use, privacy and social dynamics, it’s possible to rethink Egyptian civilisation on its own terms rather than through the lens of our experience.  To this end, Moeller’s book is a challenging and thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of Egyptian settlement archaeology.

You can read my full review of  Nadine Moeller’s The Archaeology of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt: From the Predynastic Period to the End of the Middle Kingdom for free online at the American Journal of Archaeology.

Manon Schutz’s lecture to the Essex Egyptology Group is reviewed in their June 2017 Newsletter, where you can also read an earlier version of my thoughts on this subject.

 

Posted in Archaeology and Egyptology, Book reviews, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Provenance, fakes, uncertainty and ethics: The problems with legally purchased antiquities.

Akhenaten

Gilded bronze statuette in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum attributed to Akhenaten by its label. Author Photograph.

The Barcelona Egyptian Museum contains many fascinating objects, some inspired presentations of Egyptian artefacts and two interesting exhibitions that further explain aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. My previous post (The Egyptian Museum of Barcelona) covers the highlights of the museum but only touched on the issues my visit raised concerning the presence of possible forgeries and the ethics of creating a modern museum from purchased antiquities. This post follows on from my previous review and another recent post about black market antiquities to consider the nature of purchased antiquities and the implications of them for reviewers and researchers of museum collections.

To post, or not to post?

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is a small gilded bronze statuette that is attributed to Akhenaten by its label (left). My instagram image of this particular artefact prompted a number of disbelieving comments. There are several aspects of the style of the statuette that are suspicious, such as the way the kilt drapes over the thighs. The date is also incongruous. I have yet to identify a single comparable statuette of this type from the Amarna period (so if anyone reading this can think of one, they are welcome to put a link or reference in the comments). Bronze statuettes are much more commonly associated with later periods of Egyptian history. In fact the Barcelona Museum also has a number of gilded bronze statuettes of divinities dated to the Late Period, such as a gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith (below right), that the object label attributes to the XXVI Dynasty (i.e. within the Late Period as expected).  All these aspects combine to raise doubts about the authenticity of the Akhenaten or, at the very least, its attribution. One alternative to an out-and-out forgery is that the statuette was originally of an unnamed Late Period pharaoh, later falsely identified as the famous Akhenaten by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer to raise its value.

Neith_mobile

Gilded bronze statuette of the goddess Neith. Identified as XXVI Dynasty. Author Photograph.

The reaction to my Instagram post about the Akhenaten statuette was my first intimation that writing a blog about the Barcelona Egyptian Museum might not be straightforward. Having read the many questioning comments I wondered whether I should continue with my intended post. Various questions bubbled up. Was it ethical to write about objects that may be forgeries? What impact might it have on my reputation? How could I be fair the museum, while writing about the possibility of forgeries being on display? And should I even consider writing about a museum when most of the objects had been purchased so recently on the antiquities market, given that I am generally of the opinion that the purchase of legal antiquities is inadvisable at best and unethical at worst?

The obvious solution would have been to leave well alone. I could not be criticised if I didn’t post anything. But that would deny me the opportunity to review the other interesting artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. It would also be cowardly. The debate my image of the Akhenaten had provoked and my reaction to it, exemplifies the difficulties we experience in working with purchased and unprovenanced antiquities. If I simply ignored the problem I would be contributing to the silence about these issues. This post is therefore an attempt to interrogate the questions and anxieties unprovenanced antiquities raise in the minds of researchers and how these influence our reactions to and treatment of such objects.

Purchase and provenance

Falsedoor_Iny

The false door and two side panels from the VI Dynasty tomb-chapel of Iny in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum. Author Photograph.

As I mentioned in my previous post, most of the object labels in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum do not give details of the provenance or the origin of the artefacts. Research on the museum’s website and wikipedia page revealed that the collection was a recent creation, with most of the artefacts purchased on the antiquities market since 1992. Further evidence of the recent origin of the collection came from the bibliographies of the artefacts from the Barcelona Egyptian Collection that featured in the Moda y Belleza catalogue of the exhibition of the same name (D’Amicone 2011). Many of the objects currently in the museum featured in the catalogues of the major auction houses from which they had been purchased from 1992 onwards.

Since most artefacts purchased on the antiquities market originate in private collections and very few come from archaeological excavations, they rarely come with detailed archaeological provenance. It is almost impossible to identify the precise house, tomb or temple context for a given object, and it may also be difficult to determine which site, region and period an artefact came from. At best the occurrence of named individuals on artefacts sometimes allows them to be associated with other objects, a known tomb, temple or site. This is the case with the VI Dynasty false door stela (image above) and reliefs of Iny in the Barcelona Museum, which were identified as part of Iny’s now lost tomb-chapel and associated with further reliefs from the same structure that are now in other museums. The multiple XII and XIII Dynasty stela now in various private collections and museums but originally from the Abydos North Offering Chapels (Simpson 1974) represent a more extensive example of the same process of archaeological detective work.

But detectival methods of assigning provenance are usually only applicable to inscribed objects and even if an object can be associated with a site or assemblage it is rarely possible to reconstruct its precise archaeological provenance to the level of a findspot or room. Even though we know that the false door and relief fragments in the Barcelona Museum come from the tomb-chapel of Iny, we do not know where that tomb-chapel was. We might suspect that it was in the Memphite region, but we cannot know precisely where. We do not know what else formed the tomb-complex or what other archaeological structures and artefacts might have been associated with it.

For most artefacts that lack archaeological provenance, the situation is even worse. Usually the only contextual information available is a rough date and perhaps the general site or region where the artefact originated, as determined by stylistic comparison with similar objects of known provenance.

Forgeries or rare artefacts?

Tetisheri

The statue of Queen Tetisheri in the British Museum, now thought by many to be a forgery. (Courtesy of David Blogg)

Artefacts that lack archaeological provenance are inevitably more likely to attract suspicions about their authenticity. Forgers have been active as long as there have been collectors, but a number of high profile recent cases indicate that forgery is increasing in ‘growth’ areas of the antiquities market including religious artefacts, biblical archaeology (Burleigh 2008) and (naturally) Egyptian objects.

Recently purchased artefacts are not the only potential forgeries. The proposition that the British Museum’s statue of Tetisheri is a forgery demonstrates how an artefact accepted as genuine for decades can later be questioned. Given the varied origins of most Egyptian collections, it is probable that every one has at least one or two forgeries. But those with a higher proportion of purchased artefacts are likely to contain more forgeries.

While scientific testing can sometimes resolve questions of authenticity, they are more often a matter of expert opinion and can therefore provoke considerable debate among experts with different views. That there is still debate about the authenticity of the statue of Tetisheri, demonstrates the problems of discerning forgeries from genuine antiquities.

NK_Coffinface_female

Gaudily painted pottery coffin mask with female face.  Dated to the New Kingdom according to it’s label. A similar mask has recently been offered at auction. Author Photograph.

An artefact is most likely to be accepted as genuine if it is typical of its period and material in style and execution. The bronzes of (supposedly) Akhenaten and Neith, which began this post exemplify this feature of archaeological research. Since a large number of Late Period statues of deities are known the Neith is much more easily accepted as genuine than the incongruous Akhenaten.  However, there is no archaeological reason why one should be more genuine than the other if both are unprovenanced. The only difference is that the Neith conforms to our art-historical expectations, while the Akhenaten doesn’t. Unfortunately if we always suspect the unusual, and accept the familiar we risk dismissing genuine artefacts because they are different, thereby losing the information they could provide about the variety of Egyptian art and consolidating cliched ideas about the conformity of Egyptian artefacts. It would be ironic indeed if further research and scientific testing revealed the Akhenaten to be genuine, while the Neith was a forgery.

Suspiciously poor quality or just not typical of ‘Egyptian art’?

Hideous_coffin

Roman pottery coffin dating from the 3rd to 4th century AD (E-620). Purchased from Christies in 2002. Author Photograph.

Another facet of this problem is the tendency to assume that poor-quality or ‘unEgyptian’ artefacts are fake. Amongst the coffins in the Barcelona Museum are two painted faces from pottery coffins, one male and one female (image above left). These are exactly the kind of artefacts that might be written off as fakes, but an almost identical female mask was recently offered for sale at auction. There is still the possibility that all three masks are forgeries, but it would be unwise to write them off without further research just because they are a little outside the norm or do not match our expectations of Egyptian art.

An astonishingly hideous 3rd to 4th century AD Roman pottery coffin (E-620) raises similar questions and doubts (right). There is no doubt it is a truly ugly object to our eyes, but just because it doesn’t conform to our expectations does not necessarily make it a fake. It is entirely possible that the owner was satisfied that the coffin would perform its function, and utterly uninterested in its (to our minds) aesthetic deficiencies. The scientific discovery of poorly formed, badly decorated or illiterately inscribed artefacts demonstrates that the requirements of ancient Egyptian purchasers were not necessarily the same as ours. The pseudo-hieroglyphs on the Late Period coffins excavated from Iurudef’s tomb at Memphis were presumably thought sufficient by their owners, but could easily have been thought a modern forgery if they had not been scientifically excavated (Martin 1991, 144).

Genuine components, modern design?

Beaddress

Bead dress in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum described as IV Dynasty (E-843) by its label. Note the winged-scarab motif on the bodice. Author Photograph.

In the Barcelona Egyptian Museum is an artefact (E-843) described as ‘Dress composed of beads. Faience and turquoise. Old Kingdom’. There are several curious aspects of this artefact that could lead to the assumption that it is a forgery. Firstly, unlike the excavated Old Kingdom bead-net dresses in the Petrie Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts the Barcelona dress only appears to cover the front of the person. Given the structure of the shoulder straps and bodice there is insufficient bead netting to cover the sides and back of a human. The design of the dress, combining broad shoulder straps with a long skirt, is generally consistent  with the excavated Old Kingdom dresses, but the inclusion of a winged-scarab motif in the bodice (see feature image above the title of this post) strikes a discordant note, both because it is a funerary motif and because such beaded images are more generally associated with the Late, Ptolemaic or Roman periods of Egyptian history, rather than the Old Kingdom.

Given these discrepancies it would be very easy to write this off as a forgery, but it is much more likely to be a recreation of a dress using ancient beads, probably from several different periods, made by some antiquities dealer to increase the value of his merchandise. Indeed the Moda y Belleza catalogue (D’Amicone 2011, 195) comes to this exact conclusion, but because this is not reflected on the object label it would be easy to draw the wrong conclusions. Unfortunately the uncertainty that is provoked by the dissonance between the nature of the object and the information on the label does not just affect this one artefact, but could potentially cause the viewer to question the authenticity of others as well.

The problem of uncertainty

None of the artefacts in the Barcelona Egyptian Museum which have provoked concern have been demonstrated to be forgeries, and indeed many (if not all) of them may yet prove to be genuine. However, the uncertainty that is provoked by objects like E-843 or the incongruous Akhenaten does not just affect the reception of those artefacts. By extension it can lead the suspicious researcher to question other objects in the same collection or similar artefacts elsewhere. As I experienced when considering how to write about the artefacts in Barcelona, even the possibility of reviewing fakes can lead to anxiety on the part of a researcher about the ethics of their actions, the reactions of their peers and the impact of their research on their academic reputation.

This anxiety is not without cause. There is a general sense that the presence of forgeries in a collection should be a source of shame. This might be justified if artefacts are envisioned as primarily economic assets, where the sale of a forgery is tantamount to fraud. But it seems a bizarre position to take when in almost every other aspect of archaeological discourse we emphasise the scientific and historical value of artefacts and rail against their treatment and sale as economic assets. If we truly believe an artefact is of purely scientific value, then finding a forgery is like locating an erroneous reading in a set of scientific data. It is useful to identify and exclude it from our research, but should otherwise cause minimal anxiety. This is not to minimise the risk of forgeries skewing archaeological discourse, but it does seem that our reactions to them can be out of all proportion to the risk they pose to scientific enquiry.  Perhaps more importantly the treatment of forgeries and potential forgeries as a source of embarrassment and shame precludes honest discussion of this problem amongst both museum and archaeological professionals and prevents us from exploring the impact of forgeries upon our research.

Part of this impact is the effect uncertainty has upon research. As I have demonstrated above it is incredibly easy to doubt the authenticity of unprovenanced and purchased artefacts, particularly when they do not have many obvious parallels or do not fit with our preconceived ideas about Egyptian artefacts. This has a significant impact upon our understanding of Egyptian culture and our ability to study unprovenanced artefacts. Almost any artefact that has been purchased (whether recently or many decades ago) without clear archaeological provenance might be suspected. But since the more typical an object is the more likely it is to be accepted, genuine but atypical or unusual artefacts run a greater risk of being dismissed as forgeries. On the other hand fake but typical objects might well be included in catalogues and typologies because they fit our preconceptions. Inevitably this risks skewing our research towards the ‘typical’ and prejudicing us against the unusual. At the same time anxiety about publishing or displaying an artefact that later turns out to be fake can inhibit the research and display of genuine but unusual artefacts.

Dealing with legally purchased antiquities

Silver_diadem

Silver diadem, probably of 17th Dynasty date and likely recovered from Dra Abu el-Naga, West Bank, Luxor. This artefact has an established history in a series of private collections and is currently on loan to the British Museum from the al-Sabrah collection. (Author Photograph)

One obvious way to eliminate the anxieties associated with unprovenanced antiquities is to avoid them altogether individually and corporately. This is an admirably ethical position, but like many noble ideals it also raises some practical questions. Should we just ignore collections like the Barcelona Egyptian Museum, either from anxiety that it may include forgeries or ethical objections to the recent purchase of the artefacts? If the ethical objection is foremost, then how long must an artefact have been in a museum before we can legitimately engage with it? There are many thousands of purchased antiquities that reside in museum collections around the world, including many important artefacts held by major museums. Can we arbitrarily decide that research into the Barcelona Egyptian Museum artefacts is unethical, while working with museum collections that include artefacts purchased during an earlier era?  Is it ethical to ignore artefacts that may provide important archaeological evidence to confirm or challenge our research just because they were purchased? As I discovered when visiting the Barcelona Egyptian Museum if we decide to ignore purchased artefacts then we potentially lose important evidence and ignore interesting artefacts, but when we engage with them we must wrestle with ethical concerns and fears about accidentally including forgeries in our research. I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions but perhaps it is time we began discussing these ethical and professional concerns more openly?

As we do so we should remember that all museums include purchased antiquities, that any museum or expert can be deceived by fakes and it is highly probable that every museum has at least a few forgeries hiding away in the stores (and sometimes even on display). While no-one would argue that we should accept the casual display of known fakes, we should recognise that forgeries occur and can be difficult, time-consuming and contentious to identify. The only way to manage unprovenanced artefacts and suspected fakes is to open an honest discussion about forgeries within Egyptian collections, the difficulties inherent in identifying them and the impact of forgeries and unprovenanced antiquities upon our research. Negotiating the ethical and professional questions raised  is never going to be easy, but if we can be honest about these issues we can develop productive debates and advance our research.

References

Burleigh, N. 2008. Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land. Smithsonian.

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.

Martin. G. T. 1991. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. London: Thames and Hudson.

Simpson, W. K. 1974. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven.

Acknowledgements

I am indebted for Manon Schutz of Oxford University for information about several of the artefacts, to David Blogg for the photo of Tetisheri when she was still on display and to Roland Enmarch for the reference to the tomb of Iurudef.

I am also grateful to all of those who commented about these artefacts online and especially to Luca Miatello, Dario Nannini, Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, the online members of the Facebook groups Sussex Egyptology Society Unofficial Page and the Coffin Club for their suggestions regarding possible parallels and dates for some of these artefacts.

I am also grateful to all the friends, colleagues and museum professionals who have engaged with me on this subject thorough constructive discussions about forgeries and the ethics of studying purchased antiquities. Long may these debates continue to inform professional discourse.

Posted in Protection and destruction | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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

P1070804

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

Blue_painted_pottery

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.

Posted in Museum collections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Hannah_DGPS

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.

 

 

Posted in GIS | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

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 created 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 to 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.

Posted in Protection and destruction | 1 Comment

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. 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Museum collections | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Academic life | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment