Foreshadowing is not just for movies: A Turin papyrus and the shrines of Tutankhamun

Foreshadowing is a comment trope in movies, where a seemingly irrelevant clue or allusion becomes highly relevant later in the narrative. When done tactlessly it can be annoying, for example when too obvious foreshadowing gives away the plot or hints at its resolution. Even when effective, it can seem over-coincidental. But real life is sometimes stranger than fiction, as when an article he wrote in 1917 foreshadowed Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

In 1917 Carter and Gardiner published a paper in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology on the Turin papyrus plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV (Turin Cat. 1885). This papyrus was first studied in 1867 by Lepsius, who correctly identified it as a plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV (KV2) in the Valley of the Kings, but as the tomb had yet to be fully excavated and recorded Lepsius had to work without recent measurements or records.

The main part of the ancient Egyptian plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV from Turin Papyrus Cat, 1885.
The ancient Egyptian plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV, Turin Museum Papyrus Cat. 1885. (Image from the Museo Egizio Turin, CC BY 2.0 IT)

Following Carter’s excavation and recording of KV2, Carter and Gardiner published a new treatment of the Turin papyrus, comparing its plan and notations to the excavated tomb and finding the plan of KV2 to be more accurate than expected.

Plan, section and axonometric view of KV2, the same tomb shown in Turin papyrus cat. 1885
Plan and section of KV2, the tomb of Ramesses IV, from the Theban Mapping Project website (

During the course of the article Carter and Gardiner discuss the details of the plan, including the burial chamber, which is shown with six yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus.

Detail of the burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses IV from the Turin Papyrus (Cat. 1885) showing six yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus.
The burial chamber of the tomb of Ramesses IV from Turin papyrus cat. 1885, showing the yellow rectangles around the sarcophagus in the centre bottom of the image. (Image from the Museo Egizio Turin, CC BY 2.0 IT).

These rectangles clearly confused Carter and Gardiner (1917, 133), who concluded that all but one of the rectangles were temporary steps put in to allow the mummy to be inserted into the sarcophagus. The second to outermost rectangle, which is shown as ‘yellow corner blocks, interconnected by read lines’ they suggest was a funeral canopy.

Five years’ later one of the authors of the article would finally resolve the question of the yellow rectangles, when Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62). Inside the burial chamber, Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus was surrounded four gilded wooden shrines, with a funerary canopy between the outermost and the second shrine, exactly as the Turin plan shows. The layout of these shrines was recently displayed to the public during the successful Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, where the position of the shrines was shown as four gold rectangles on the floor and ceiling of the exhibition room surrounding a representation of the Pharaoh’s mummy, adorned with some of his jewellery.

Image shows a dummy adorned with Tutankhamun's jewellery in a sarcophagus-like case. On the floor and ceiling four nested gold lines show the positions of the four nested golden shrines set around the sarcophagus in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.
Image from the 2019-20 Exhibition Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, showing the layout of the shrines around the sarcophagus in the burial chamber. (Author photograph, taken in the Saatchi Gallery in 2019).

These golden shrines, recently in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square and shortly to go on display in the Grand Egyptian Museum, are truly impressive. Forming literal walls of gold, they also offered an additional surface for funerary imagery and underworld books, including the first examples of the Book of the Heavenly Cow.

Image of a golden shrine with a per-wer roof and cavetto cornice. The doors and walls of the shrine are decorated with funerary inscriptions.
The second shrine of Tutankhamun (Author photograph, taken in the Cairo Museum)
Image shows the rear interior wall of a golden shrine, with a large cow held up by various gods, with hieroglyphs above, seen past the vertical uprights of the shrine doors. The
The Book of the Heavenly Cow, from the rear, inside wall of the first (outermost) shrine of Tutankhamun (Author Photograph, taken in the Cairo Museum).

When Carter and Gardiner co-authored their article on Turin Papyrus 1885 they cannot have imagined that one of them would resolve the question of the yellow-rectangles in such a spectacular fashion within just a few years of publication. Sometimes foreshadowing in real life is stranger than fiction.


Carter, H. and A. H. Gardiner 1917, The Tomb of Ramesses IV and the Turin Plan of a Royal Tomb, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 4: 130–158.

Lepsius, R. 1867. Grundplan des Grabes König Ramses IV in einem Turiner Papyrus K. Berlin: Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Theban Mapping Project, Theban Mapping Project Website, <; accessed 15 April 2021.

Museo Egizio, Turin, Papyrus with the plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV on the front and some administrative texts on the reverse, Museo Egizio Collection <; accessed 15 April 2021.

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

Free high-resolution satellite imagery and how to find it.

The resolution of satellite imagery is crucially important to its usefulness to the archaeologist because it directly impacts the features you can see and the precision with which you can georeference other data. For some purposes (such as overviews or larger maps) we might only need low or medium resolution imagery, but in many cases high resolution imagery is essential to our research objectives. During my recent georeferencing project, it was necessary to use the highest resolution imagery I could obtain to locate the historic maps as precisely as possible.

Unfortunately, although you can purchase high resolution satellite imagery from various providers, it is often expensive and the contract comes with quite strict restrictions regarding what you can do with it and with whom you can share it. This makes free high resolution imagery a very valuable resource for the archaeologist, although it does have limitations. There are various ways to obtain free high resolution satellite imagery, but here I compare the imagery provided by three of the most common providers Google Earth, ESRI ArcGIS World Imagery and Bing Maps. Imagery from all these providers can be accessed online in their applications, where you can also access archived imagery through Google Earth historical imagery or the ESRI Wayback app. But if you want to do much more than look at the imagery it is advisable to access it through a GIS. If you are using ESRI ArcGIS World Imagery you can access it through the basemapping layers of ArcGIS, but all three providers can also be accessed through the Contributed Services of the QuickMapServices plugin of QGIS.

Comparing imagery of Dra Abu el-Naga

Dra Abu el-Naga, at the north-eastern end of the Theban Necropolis, is a an important area where 17th Dynasty royals and Ramesside nobles were buried. It continues to be excavated by various teams, including the Djehuty Project, the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the University of Pisa and is the subject of several recent publications, concerning its geomorphology and landscape archaeology.

The following images compare three different open-source high resolution satellite images of Dra Abu el-Naga at the same scale. You can also see a more dynamic comparison in this video on my YouTube channel. first satellite image comes from Bing maps. It is reasonably clear at a scale of 1:2000, revealing the structures of the excavated tombs and the open shafts in front of them, but when you zoom in it becomes blurry and the features are difficult to distinguish (from 1:59 minutes in the video).

Image showing a satellite image of the northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga. Tomb structures and open shafts are relatively clear.
The northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga in the Theban necropolis, as rendered by Bing maps on 2 March 2021 in QGIS using the QuickMapServices plugin ©2021 Maxar, ©2021Microsoft.

The Google Earth satellite image is much brighter and somewhat clearer than the the Bing maps image (from 2.45 in the video). It’s worth noting that the Bing maps image appears to be older than the Google Earth imagery. The Google Earth imagery shows tombs in the bottom left corner, which are covered with debris in the Bing maps image (above).

A satellite image showing the same northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga as it appears in Google Earth imagery. The image is brighter and tomb structures and shafts are visible. More tombs are visible in the bottom left of the image where debris has been removed.
The northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga, as shown in Google Earth satellite imagery on 2 March 2021, displayed in QGIS using the QuickMapServices plugin ©2021 ORION-ME, ©2021 Maxar Technologies, ©2021Google.

In my opinion the ESRI ArcGIS World Imagery is the best of the three, although it is not as bright as the Google Earth imagery. The tomb structures and shafts are still visible, but the imagery is sharper and easier to understand (from 4:10 in the video). It also stands up to zooming better than either the Bing maps or the Google Earth imagery. It’s worth noting that you may need to use ArcGIS to export ESRI World Imagery. Although its possible to view it in QGIS, it failed to export as an image.

Image of the northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga showing tomb structures and shafts. The image is of a good contrast, recent and shows the features well.
The northern part of Dra Abu el-Naga as shown by ESRI ArcGIS World Imagery on 2 March 2021, displayed in ArcGIS 10.

Limitations of free imagery

Bing, Google and ESRI do not own their own satellites, instead they provide imagery from commercial and government sources. These free high resolution images will not be as good as if you purchased them for yourself, but provided we’re aware of the limitations they can still be incredibly helpful.

The first problem with these images is that they are often provided without metadata, so we don’t know which satellite took them or when. Nor do we know the precise resolution, whether the image is pan-sharpened or which electromagnetic bands are included. Based on how clear they appear I would guess that all the images in this blog post have a resolution of 30-60cm, with the Bing maps image being the lowest resolution and the ESRI image the highest. But it is just a guess. Similarly I believe the Bing image is older than the Google Earth and ESRI images, based on the greater exposure of archaeology in the latter, but I cannot say precisely from the imagery.

Another difficulty with free imagery is that it is updated by the provider intermittently. An image that covered your site last year might have been replaced by now with a less useful version, perhaps with cloud cover, dust or an error in georeferencing. Even if there isn’t an obvious error or kink in the georeferencing, you may find that the new image doesn’t match the rest of your data as well. Global imagery providers use a global coordinate system to display satellite imagery, which may be different from the local coordinate system and projection you are using. As a result you may find a feature does not appear in exactly the same location in the new satellite image as in the old one. The difference is not likely to be large and may not be significant for your project, but if you are using free high resolution imagery for survey or other precision tasks, a shift of a few metres could represent a serious problem.

A lot of the value of high resolution satellite imagery is in the multiple multi-spectral bands provided and the opportunities for raster analysis and pan-sharpening. Free high resolution imagery does not provide access to the individual bands, permit bands to be recombined or allow for raster analysis. While such imagery can form a useful basemap for display or georeferencing, it isn’t suitable for various remote sensing applications or analyses.

Don’t forget to reference

Referencing your satellite imagery is just as important as citing written sources, and perhaps more so, because the ‘fair use’ carve outs are much less clear and tested with this relatively new type of data. ArcGIS provides relatively clear instructions on citing their products. ArcGIS, Bing and Google Earth programmes watermark downloads, but these watermarks may not be included when using 3rd party software, such as QGIS. You may therefore need to check relevant information for how to cite Bing and Google Earth maps in your captions. You may also need to include acknowledgements or further references depending on the terms of service.

Acknowledgements and References

The first two images in this blogpost were created in QGIS using Bing and Google Earth satellite imagery respectively. The third image was created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

Posted in Remote sensing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Finishing the map, georeferencing the pyramid of Djedefre

In a previous post I described how I georeferenced a difficult map of Abu Rawash. During that process I had to ignore the pyramid of Djedefre because it was drawn at a different scale to the rest of the map. Here and in this video I discuss how I subsequently georeferenced the pyramid of Djedefre at the correct scale.

The map of the pyramid of Djedefre was cropped from map I in Porter and Moss’ (1932) Topographical Bibliography volume IIIi, which is featured in my previous post.

Comparison of the angle of the causeway after accurately georeferencing the pyramid (left) and the angle of the causeway in the satellite imagery (right). Map cut from Porter and Moss 1932, volumne IIIi, map I.

First, I identified the archaeological features in the map and the satellite image. Although the pyramid is very clear in the satellite imagery, this process was complicated by the long ramp or causeway heading north from the pyramid. Initially I assumed this was the pyramid’s causeway to the Valley Temple, but the angle of this feature in the map, and the angle in the satellite imagery were different. This made me wonder if the feature I could see in the satellite imagery was some kind of recent Decauville track for removing spoil from the pyramid, and the actual causeway ran at a different angle and had been removed. Having georeferenced the map I think the feature is probably the pyramid causeway in both cases, the angle in the map being incorrect due to the differences in scale between the drawing of the pyramid and the rest of the map. If you review the image of the georeferenced map in my previous post you will see that the end of the causeway as drawn in the map lines up with the end of the feature in the satellite image, even though the pyramid is incorrectly drawn. This suggests that the angle of the causeway became misaligned when the pyramid and the rest of the map were joined together. Nevertheless I chose to ignore the causeway when georeferencing the pyramid, because its questionable accuracy would make georeferencing more difficult and it was readily visible in the satellite image anyway.

I then scaled the image to the correct scale to align it to the satellite imagery (from 1.20 minutes in the video). As I note at 4.59 in the video, one thing to be aware of when georeferencing maps is that the lines of the map occupy space within the GIS – so the line of the enclosure wall of the pyramid complex represents 3m on the ground after georeferencing. This can make it difficult to align the map with satellite imagery, particularly if the map only covers a small area and/or is cropped from a much larger map.

Once I determined approximately the correct scale (1:2250) I began linking the ground control points in the map and satellite imagery (from 4.15 minutes in the video). This revealed further inaccuracies and forced me to make decisions about which points in the map I believed were more accurate than others. In this previous post I discussed the importance and limitations of RMSE. The georeferencing of the map of the pyramid of Djedefre really emphasises how RMSE and residuals can be used to improve georeferencing, and also the limitations of the process. I used the RMSE and residuals, combined with the visual position of the map on the satellite image, to test the ground control points (from 10.08 in the video). They rapidly revealed that parts of the pyramid complex had been drawn inaccurately in relation to each other. After noting that the satellite pyramid and south-west corner of the enclosure were in dashed lines, I opted to set the ground control points elsewhere as it seemed likely that the satellite pyramid was more speculatively drawn. Testing various ground control points also revealed that the enclosure wall around the complex was drawn closer to the pyramid than it really is, forcing me to chose whether to include the complex enclosure wall in the ground control points or concentrate on the pyramid. I chose to focus upon the pyramid and mortuary temple, and rectified the map with an RMSE of 3.59, which was an improvement on a previous attempt, but still far from the 0.75m RMSE which would represent the 1:3000 ideal (Conolly and Lake 2006, 82-83). The inaccuracy in the map, its scale and the resolution of the satellite imagery are all contributors to this high RMSE. Depending on what I need to do with the map, I may seek out a more recent map or re-georeference it. Georeferencing a map this small, with this many inaccuracies, to satellite imagery, is always going to be difficult and likely to produce a high RMSE.

A satellite image of Djedefre's pyramid complex overlaid with the plan from Porter and Moss 1932, map I.

Acknowledgements and References

Conolly, J. and Lake, M. 2006. Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge.

Porter, B, and Moss, R. 1932, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Texts, Reliefs and Paintings III: Memphis 1. Abu Rawash to Abusir. Oxford.

Maps and images throughout this blog post were created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

All the satellite imagery used is ArcGIS World Imagery. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA FSA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community.

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Errors, inaccuracies, resolution and RMSE: Georeferencing a difficult map of Abu Rawash’s pyramid and cemeteries

In a previous post I introduced the georeferencing work I was doing, with a video of me georeferencing Porter and Moss’ map of the Cemetery F mastaba field at Abu Rawash. Here I delve into the process a little more, with help from a further video, which shows me georeferencing a more difficult map of Abu Rawash using ArcGIS basemap World Imagery.

The map I am georeferencing in those videos is map I in Porter and Moss’ (1932) Topographical Bibliography volume IIIi. It shows the entire area of Abu Rawash from the pyramid of Dejedefre, to the north-west cemetery in Wadi Qaren and the village of Abu Rawash on the edge of the cultivation.

Map of Abu Rawash showing the pyramid to the south-west, and various cemeteries in the desert around.
Map I from Porter and Moss’ 1932, Volume IIIi, of the Abu Rawash area.

Accuracy and precision.

When working through the georeferencing process, its important to carefully consider the precision and accuracy you are aiming for, taking into account likely distortions in the image to be georeferenced; the resolution and accuracy of the data (the satellite imagery) you are georeferencing with; and the ultimate function of the georeferenced image.

All data, even GCP collected on site with differential GPS, have some level of error in them. What matters is that they are sufficiently accurate and precise for the task you have in mind. Accuracy and precision are also different. Accuracy refers to whether something is correct. In other words, is the map you are georeferencing in the right place? Precision is easiest to think of as resolution or the level of detail. Something can be very precise but very inaccurate, or something can be very accurate and very imprecise. It is accurate to say I live in the United Kingdom, but it is not very precise. It is precise to say I live in N7 6RY (A postcode in Finsbury Park, London) but that is not accurate – I do not live there any more.

The accuracy of the georeferenced image can be affected by drafting or composing errors in the original map, or by distortions introduced during printing or digitising. Such inaccuracies and distortions affect how well the map can be overlaid on the satellite imagery. The satellite imagery can also contain distortions. Gross and obvious distortions, like the kinks in the Deir el-Bahri temples I published in a previous post and distortions due to the angle of the satellite to the ground affect the georeferencing process.

As with accuracy, the precision of the georeferenced image is affected by the precision of the map we are georeferencing, and the resolution of the satellite imagery. If the map is sketchily drawn or details are missing this may make it more difficult to locate precisely. The resolution of the satellite imagery (or any other ground control data) also affects the precision of the georeferenced image. Georeferencing requires that we line up the map with the same features in the satellite image. The more precisely a feature appears in the satellite image, the more precisely we can locate the map we are georeferencing. The pixel size (resolution) of the satellite imagery therefore places considerable limits upon the precision of the georeferenced image.

Locating the archaeological features at Abu Rawash

It feels like it ought to be easy to identify the pyramid of Abu Rawash and associated cemeteries. After all, pyramids are not known for their discretion, particularly once they’ve been excavated. While the pyramid of Abu Rawash is pretty clear in the satellite imagery, the huge amount of quarrying and agricultural and housing development in the Abu Rawash area made it difficult to identify the geographical and archaeological features in Porter and Moss’ 1932 map. The Survey of Egypt 1:25,000 scale map of 1942 shows how little development had taken place 80 years ago.

Map of the Abu Rawash area from 1942 showing minimal modern development in the desert.
Abu Rawash in 1942 (Survey of Egypt 1:25,000 scale map of Kirdasa).

In contrast the modern satellite image shows the pyramid and cemeteries as islands of archaeological landscape in a highly developed area.

Image of the Abu Rawash area showing considerable quarrying and development around the pyramid and cemeteries.
The area of Abu Rawash today, note the considerable development and quarrying in the area.

This made it more difficult to relate Porter and Moss’ map to the satellite image, although the preservation of the pyramid and the cemeteries did help (see from 0.35 minutes in the video).

Scaling the map for georeferencing

Once we identify the area, we need to scale the map to fit that area in the satellite imagery. You can see me undertaking this task from 1.10 minutes in the video. During the process, I discovered an inaccuracy in Porter and Moss’ map – the pyramid of Djedefre had clearly been drawn at a different scale to the rest of the image. Drafting and composing inaccuracies of this type are frustrating but do occur with historic imagery. Other sources of inaccuracies include distortions introduced during the scaling of maps for publication and when publications are scanned or photographed to generate digital images. Photography is particularly problematic as the camera lens needs to be parallel to the image to avoid distortion, but even scanning can produce minor inaccuracies. Dealing with these inaccuracies often means adjusting the georeferencing, splitting an image or ignoring part of the map during the georeferencing process. In this case I chose to georeference the map, while ignoring the pyramid and subsequently cropped out the pyramid and georeferenced it separately.

Adding control points (GCP)

Once Porter and Moss’ map had been scaled to approximately the right scale, it was aligned more precisely to the satellite imagery using ground control points (GCP). These appear in ArcGIS as ‘Links’, and operate essentially as pins. You select a point in the map and then select the same point in the satellite image and ‘pin’ them together. You can see me undertake this process from 7.20 minutes in the video. Ideally, it would be possible to locate these links very precisely in each set of data, but in this example, we are constrained by the contents of Porter and Moss’ map, which does not include many clear points that can be related precisely to points in the satellite imagery. The resolution of the satellite imagery is also a factor. The ArcGIS Basemap World Imagery uses a variety of satellite imagery sources, but the highest resolution of any commercial satellite imagery is currently c. 30cm and much of the imagery is likely to have a resolution of c. 40-50cm or more. This means that the pixels of the satellite image represent 40-50cm on the ground. Any feature smaller than that is invisible, and features that are only slightly larger are difficult to identify. Another effect of the satellite imagery resolution is that when we zoom in close the satellite imagery appears blurry, and a point becomes more difficult to locate than when zoomed out (you can see the effect of this from 8.45 in the video).

Root Mean Square Error (RMSE)

Once we have added four links in ArcGIS, we can open the link table and see a RMSE for the entire map in the top box and the residuals for each point in the right column of the table. Turning off links or adding new links will alter the position of the map and the RMSE accordingly (from 10.30 in the video). The RMSE represents ArcGIS’ calculation of the fit between the actual and desired link positions (Conolly and Lake 2006, 82-83). In simple terms ArcGIS uses the first three links to estimate where it thinks any further links should be. It then calculates the residual for each point as the difference between where you placed a link and where the map ended up based on the other links that have already been placed. The RMSE is the product of all the residuals. Although RMSE is useful, it’s important to recognise that it is reliant upon the accuracy and precision of the map and the satellite imagery. If there are inaccuracies in either, they will increase the RMSE. It is also reliant upon the locations and positioning of the points you choose. The old adage of ‘junk in, junk out’ definitely applies and it is entirely possible to have a low RMSE and a very inaccurate and imprecisely positioned map. So while you can reduce your RMSE by removing links with high residuals and adding new links, it is sometimes better to accept a higher RMSE and keep an important link, recognising that the higher RMSE is due to inaccuracies in the map. Alternatively, it may be necessary to chose which ground control points you believe are more accurate and only link to them.

We aim for an error of less than 1:3000 so for an original image at a scale of 1:15000 an RMSE of under 5 (i.e. 15000/3000) is ideal (Conolly and Lake 2006, 82-83). Ideally we would use the scale given in the original image, but Porter and Moss do not include scale information so we have to work with the scale we established during georeferencing. When I scaled this map I settled on a scale of 1:9000, so any RMSE under 3m would be very acceptable. Here our RMSE is slightly above 3m, which is not unreasonable given the inaccuracies in the map and the difficulty of locating very precise control points due to the resolution of the satellite imagery and changes to the landscape. I subsequently repeated the georeferencing and obtained an RMSE of 2.88, but reducing the RMSE by a large amount is not always possible depending on the scale and accuracy of the map, and the resolution of the satellite imagery. The map of Cemetery F, for example was at a scale of just over 1:500, meaning its RMSE should be 0.16m or under, but I was only able to get it to 0.3m. Nevertheless, under the circumstances that is acceptable because of the resolution of the satellite imagery, which makes it impossible to place a point more precisely than within 0.3m. This is compounded by the imprecise edges of certain archaeological features in the satellite imagery, such as the mastabas of Cemetery F or the satellite pyramid of Djedefre, and any inaccuracies or distortions in the maps. In such cases it is important to be aware of known inaccuracies and distortions in the map and satellite imagery or you can be driven to distraction trying to get inaccurately positioned features to line up.

Ideally, if the RMSE is too high and cannot be reduced, we would seek an alternative source of data, but such data does not exist for some of these sites. In those cases it is much better to have a slightly less than ideally georeferenced map, than none at all. It is also important to be aware of the purpose of your georeferenced map. In this case the relatively modest aim was to locate archaeological features to within 10m, which is achievable with the accuracy of the maps and the resolution of the satellite imagery.

Overall I was satisfied with the georeferencing of the Abu Rawash map. It was a very difficult map to georeference; hard to locate due to the changes to the landscape; difficult to scale due to the inaccuracy in the pyramid; and difficult to find enough precise features to use as GCP links . Nevertheless, the final georeferenced version gives useful insight into the archaeological landscape. With careful thought and reference to the underlying satellite image, it will be possible to locate any relevant archaeological features during the rest of the project.

A map of the Abu Rawash area, overlying a satellite image. The pyramid is clearly at the wrong scale and angle compared to the rest of the image.
Final georeferenced version of Porter and Moss’ 1932 Volume, IIIi, map I of Abu Rawash.

Acknowledgements and References

Conolly, J. and Lake, M. 2006. Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge.

Porter, B, and Moss, R. 1932, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Texts, Reliefs and Paintings III: Memphis 1. Abu Rawash to Abusir. Oxford.

Maps and images throughout this blog post were created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

All the satellite imagery used is ArcGIS World Imagery. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA FSA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community.

Posted in Archaeology and Egyptology, GIS | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wonky Giza pyramids: Oblique satellite imagery and georeferencing

I’m currently working on a project georeferencing (or georectifying) a lot of historic maps published in Porter and Moss’ Topographical Bibliography. I’m georeferencing these maps with ArcGIS basemap World Imagery and as a result have spent many days looking at satellite images of Egypt.

Satellite imagery is a hugely valuable resource, but it can be misleadingly precise. One feature of satellite imagery that isn’t immediately obvious is the problem of parallax. Parallax is the displacement of an object when seen from different positions. It’s incredibly useful in astronomy, but more of a problem in geodesy. Maps provide a vertical view of surface of the earth, flattened onto a flat plane below the imaginary godlike viewer. Satellites (and aeroplanes) fly across the curving surface of the globe taking images as they move. This means that some or all of the each satellite image is taken from an oblique angle and that can produce parallax.

The parallax is really clear in a georeferenced map of the Giza pyramids. In the satellite image below the points of the three Giza pyramids are to the north-west of the points in the overlaying georeferenced map. This is because the satellite was at a slightly oblique angle to the ground of the Giza plateau when the image was taken. As a result, when I georeferenced this map I had to be careful to line up the map with the corners of the pyramids to ensure the best accuracy. If I had used the tops of the pyramids my map would have been misaligned.

Map of the Giza pyramids overlying a satellite image of the area.
Georeferenced map of the pyramids of Giza, overlaid on the ArcGIS basemap satellite imagery. Note how the tops of the pyramids in the satellite image are offset to the north-west compared to the map. (Map III of Porter and Moss 1932, Volume IIIi)

Acknowledgements and References

Porter, B, and Moss, R. 1932, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Texts, Reliefs and Paintings III: Memphis 1. Abu Rawash to Abusir. Oxford.

Maps and images throughout this blog post were created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

All the satellite imagery used is ArcGIS World Imagery. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA FSA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community.

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

Shifting mastabas: Georeferencing a plan of a Fourth Dynasty Egyptian mastaba cemetery, at Abu Rawash.

I am currently working on a project to georeference (or georectify) maps of various Egyptian sites from Porter and Moss’ Topographical Bibliography (which can be found online at this Griffith Institute website). Georeferencing is something of a Cinderella job in geographic information systems (GIS) work – its important, but is often ignored in favour of more exciting methods and results. So for those who haven’t had the (sometimes dubious) pleasure of georeferencing a map for themselves, I’m making some videos of the process and uploading them to my own YouTube channel. The first video is available now and features me georeferencing a cemetery at Abu Rawash, north-west of Cairo.

Abu Rawash

Abu Rawash is the site of the pyramid of Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Djedefre with cemeteries dating from the Early Dynastic period onwards. Cemetery F, like the pyramid, dates from the Fourth Dynasty and contains the high status mastaba tombs of a number of important royal courtiers. The outlines of these mastabas remain visible in the satellite imagery, with their burial shafts appearing as black marks in the centre of the structure.

Cemetery F, as it appears now in satellite imagery. The outlines of the rectangular mastaba tombs are clearly visible, most with two burial shafts in the centre.

Cemetery F was excavated by Bisson de la Rocque, and it is his plan that Porter and Moss include as Map II[1] of volume IIIi of the Topographical Bibliography:

Plan of Abu Rawash Cemetery F aligned and scaled to the mastaba field in the satellite image. (Published in Porter and Moss, 1932, MapII).


Georeferencing is the process of taking an image and providing it with coordinates that allow the image to be correctly positioned in relation to other geographic data. Most of the historic sketches, excavation and survey plans made by generations of past archaeologists exist as published images. Georeferencing those images is often the first task in collating archaeological data and relating it to modern maps, survey data and satellite imagery.

My task was to use the GIS to locate Porter and Moss’ plan on the satellite image of the mastaba field, allowing, me to obtain geographic coordinates for any of the tombs within it. The georeferencing process I used divided into 3 parts: locating the archaeological features from the Porter and Moss map in the satellite imagery from 2:07 in the Cemetery F video); scaling the Porter and Moss map to the approximately the correct scale (from 2.55 in the Cemetery F video); and then using ground control points (GCP) to link locations on the Porter and Moss map to the same points in the satellite imagery (from 4.30 in the Cemetery F video). This task was complicated by the lack of scale in Porter and Moss’ (1932, Map II) published image (the scale in the image above has been added by me after georeferencing) and the resolution of the satellite imagery, which makes precise location of ground control points difficult at these scales. Nevertheless, the mastabas were relatively obvious in the satellite imagery and georeferencing was therefore easier than it might have been.

The video of me georeferencing mastaba Cemetery F at Abu Rawash, is now available on my YouTube channel and the next image shows the finished project, with the map from Porter and Moss overlaid on the satellite image from the ArcGIS basemap World Imagery layer.

Porter and Moss’ 1932 Map (II[1]) of Cemetery F at Abu Rawash, georeferenced and overlaid upon the mastabas as they appear today in the satellite imagery.

Acknowledgements and References

Porter, B, and Moss, R. 1932, Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Texts, Reliefs and Paintings III: Memphis 1. Abu Rawash to Abusir. Oxford.

Maps and images throughout this blog post were created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

All the satellite imagery used is ArcGIS World Imagery. Sources: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA FSA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community.

Posted in Archaeology and Egyptology, GIS | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Kinky Temples: Satellite imagery ‘fails’!

High-resolution Google Earth imagery is a great resource and one widely used by archaeologists the world over. But with tens of thousands of individual satellite images of most of the planet there is bound to be the odd error. During a recent project I was looking in detail at satellite images of the Theban Necropolis, only to discover that Deir el-Bahri appeared to be suffering from some form of spatial anomaly. In the satellite image, the north-west end of the temples of Hatshepsut and Montuhotep display a distinctive kink, like melted caramel.

Screenshot taken on 18 December 2020 of ESRI ArcGIS® basemap satellite imagery, showing the temples of Deir el-Bahri . The north-west end of the temples and the cliff behind have been warped into an improbable kink.

I can’t determine the precise cause of this kink in the satellite image without more information. It may be something in the projection of the image in Google Earth. Accurately projecting images of a 3d, ellipsoidal earth onto the flat plane of a computer screen using a coordinate system that covers the entire planet is mathematically complex and inevitably leads to compromises and errors. But given that this kink is within a single satellite image, it is more likely to be the product of a georeferencing or georectification error. A satellite image that is projected in ArcGIS, Google Earth or any other GIS, contains information about the global coordinates of the image that allow it to be precisely located in the correct position within whatever coordinate system the GIS is using. These global coordinates allow the image to be ‘warped’ such that it more accurately presents the surface of the earth as it appears. This is sometimes called ‘rubber-sheeting’, which conveys the process very picturesquely. The global coordinates for georectification are calculated from the satellite ephemeris (the information about where the satellite was and how it was positioned when the imagery was recorded) together with other relevant information, including a digital elevation model. If there is an error in the data, the image can be twisted and warped in an improbable and inaccurate way. And so we have kinky temples – Hathor would surely approve!

Detail of the previous image showing the warping of the north-west end of the temples of Deir el-Bahri

Joking aside, this is an important reminder that although incredibly useful and typically highly accurate, satellite imagery can and does contain errors. In this case the inaccuracy is large and obvious, affecting an incredibly famous and well-surveyed site. The most novice researcher would be unlikely to miss such an error or believe that the temples truly bend in this improbable fashion. But even in this case, the warp is much more difficult to discern in the cliffs behind than in the rectilinear temples. Smaller-scale errors, in less well known areas, with fewer structures can be much harder to spot. In satellite imagery, as in everything else, it pays to be vigilant. Never assume that the ‘data’ is infallible.


The imagery presented in this blog post was created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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!


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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