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.


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 purchaseg black market antiquities that have been stripped of that provenance through looting from an archaeological site or theft from a museum, are not increasing but destroying the value of those objects and any others that are removed (deliberately or accidentally) at the same time.

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

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

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

The Reality

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

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


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.


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

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

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

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

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

The Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reality

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

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

Buyer beware

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




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

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

The location and origins of the Cuban Egyptian collection

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

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

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

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

Cuba Museo des Belles Artes, Havana..

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

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

An excellent catalogue

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

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

Cuban gems


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.


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.


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.


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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Global Xplorer interface.

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

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

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

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


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

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


Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC17722)


Gneiss bowl in the Petrie Museum (UC15800).


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

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

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

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

Offline References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits

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

Map of Egypt, made in Quantum GIS ( using data from Natural Earth (

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Animal Mummies at the World Museum, Liverpool

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


For further reading about the science behind animal mummies see;

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

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


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Undercurrents: Clichés and scientific archaeology in Egyptian foreign relations


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tutankhamun, Nefertiti and all that jazz: What have we learned?


Striding statue of Nefertiti in older age, from Amarna. Now in the Neues Museum, Berlin (AM 21263).

It’s been almost a year since the media first noticed something afoot in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The saga is well known and has been much debated. (For anyone who’s been on fieldwork in Antarctica or the Pegasus Galaxy you can find a summary of events in this National Geographic article). It is interesting to consider what the past year can teach us about Egyptology in the media age and what lessons it has for the future.

Scientific method

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is that the entire saga represents a case of the scientific method directly applied to Egyptology and undertaken in the full glare of professional, public and media scrutiny. The application of scientific techniques is now common in both archaeology and Egyptology, but they mostly appear in the media after they have produced a helpful result; a carbon date for an undated site or object, the residue analysis that reveals what an ancient population ate, the DNA analysis of the family of Tutankhamun. While experts may discuss and even dispute results in learned journals, such debates rarely make it into the media and are usually associated with the minutiae of the research. The public never gets the opportunity to watch the scientific process played out in real time. Scientists and social-scientists quietly formulate hypotheses, construct experiments and undertake fieldwork or analysis to investigate those hypotheses, analyse the results and come to conclusions. Those conclusions are usually published, and occasionally make it to the media, but we are rarely presented with a case where experiment, fieldwork or investigation proved the hypothesis wrong. Until now!

Like any scientist Nicholas Reeves came up with a hypothesis (published in this article), that Tutankhamun’s tomb contained hidden chambers holding the Kingly burial of Nefertiti. This hypothesis was then tested, with a visual inspection in September 2015, followed by the first radar scans in November 2015, after which we were told that Mamdouh Eldamaty, Minster of Antiquities, was ‘90% certain’ there was something behind the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.

Some specialists in ground penetrating radar (GPR) were skeptical, some Egyptologists countered Reeves’ evidence for Nefertiti’s presence and there were general calls for the radar data to be made public for peer-review by other GPR specialists. Once the data was made public, the skepticism increased and the Ministry of Antiquities sought to repeat the experiment with a new set of radar scans undertaken by a different specialist. A key aspect of the scientific method is that results should be repeatable and comments made by the Ministry of Antiquities reveal that they clearly intended the new scans to be seen as part of a scientific approach to the research in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

We all know that the new radar scan contradicted the initial one. Various experts have examined the new scans and believe there are no voids behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tombs. No voids, no chambers and no Nefertiti. It appears that after nine months of public and media scrutiny and debate, a very public demonstration of the scientific method has proven the null hypothesis.

The backlash

There has been considerable criticism of the events, their management, the media response and of Egyptologists ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, as one social media commentator put it. So what are we to learn from these events and how should we react in future?

Should Reeves have been denied permission to investigate in the tomb?  I think the answer to this has to be ‘No’. Reeves’s theory was within the bounds of the possible, and he had a range of evidence to support it. It’s possible to disagree with some or all of his evidence, but there are plenty of equally contested theories in Egyptology. At least Reeves’ hypothesis was testable. Since so few theories can be directly subject to this type of experimentation and testing, it’s important that when a testable theory comes along we do actually test it.

Given that the research was necessary, then should Reeves and the Ministry of Antiquities have undertaken the work in secret? Again, the answer must surely be ‘No’! For many pieces of research this is usually the approach taken, with a researcher quietly beavering away until he or she comes up with a useful conclusion that can then be made public. Such an approach is unlikely to have been effective in this case.  As if mysterious tombs, hidden chambers and the prospect of golden treasures weren’t enough to capture the imagination, the characters were the perfect combination;  the most famous tomb in Egyptology (Tutankhamun’s), one of the most famous women in Egyptology (Nefertiti), belonging to one of the most debated periods (Amarna), with a side order of gender roles (did Nefertiti reign as Pharaoh?), religion and incest. No media outlet could resist such a combination once they got a whiff of something going on. It’s also exactly the sort of subject that leaks rapidly on social media, causing confusion and conspiracy theories to abound. I have previously written about how rapidly conspiracy theories can develop. Only imagine how they would accrue around headlines like ‘Secret Investigations in the Tomb of Tutankhamun’. Secrecy would also make academic and peer scrutiny difficult to obtain and suspect to those ‘out of the loop’, and might even encourage the burying or fudging of inconvenient results. Transparency is surely the best thing in such cases, even if it risks embarrassment. In an age where people are skeptical of scientific research and ‘experts’, then science (like justice) must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

So given that a testable hypothesis should be tested, and that this should take place in a transparent way when the circumstances dictate, can anything be done about the media hype? The media (and ultimately the public) are likely to remain deeply interested in hidden tombs, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, the Amarna period, and the prospect of golden discoveries for the immediate future, if not forever. These are the things that have captured the public imagination. Of course there are plenty of people who have a much wider interest in Egyptology and archaeology. The number of Egyptology and archaeology societies, Facebook pages, amateur groups, forums and charities like the Egypt Exploration Society and the Friends of the Petrie Museum testify to a widespread and incredibly knowledgeable body of people with a broad interest in the subject. But the national media report for the whole country, not just professional Egyptologists or knowledgeable groups, and cater for the whole sweep of opinions from the celebrity-obsessed (who naturally take to ‘royal’ celebrities of an ancient age) to the ‘fringe’. It is almost inevitable that most Egyptology in the press and media will be limited to the usual themes; Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, golden discoveries, tombs, temples and mummies.

So should we Egyptologists engage? Should we present our research in an exciting way so the public gets a chance to hear what we’re up to?  I think we need to engage to a certain extent. We need to talk up our research, if only because people need to understand why we do what we do and what’s important about it. But of course we shouldn’t misrepresent our work, or only study topics that are appealing to the media. In light of the results of Reeves’ theory and the media responses to them, I think it’s very important that we defend the scientific method, that we emphasise that not all research produces golden results and that we remind people that the process they have seen played out in public is a, perhaps flawed, but clear example of the scientific process in action. Behind every exciting discovery are months, years and decades of quiet research, much of which came to nothing. Sometimes you produce exciting results and sometimes there is nothing there, and knowing when there’s nothing there is also a valid and useful result. 

This strikes me as being particularly important in view of some of the reactions I saw on social media to the Tutankhamun saga. While many people were disappointed but philosophical, observing that archaeological theories often come to naught,  others appeared almost angry that the theory wasn’t proven, arguing that they’d been misled and objecting to Egyptologists who ‘went along with it’. While its certainly true that prompt publication and peer-review of the data from the first scan would have been preferable, and helped to avoid any suggestion of misdirection, this does not mean that Reeves or anyone else perpetrated a ‘scam’. There was confusion about what the data from the first scan actually showed and it was not published or peer-reviewed as soon as it should have been, but such mistakes can be made when the stakes are high, things are being undertaken in the public eye and there are various different scientific, government and academic parties involved. The mistake was rectified, the data from the first scan was published and a second set of scans commissioned, reaffirming the importance of the scientific method. The fact that this research was permitted in the first place, announced publicly, and ultimately followed proper scientific methods is a positive thing. 

More significantly, if people react angrily when a theory breaks down then there will be greater pressure to deny requests for permission to undertake such research, requirements for secrecy that will harm public perception of the probity of scientists, archaeologists and Egyptologists, and even the temptation to hide, obscure or fudge unfavourable results. Quite apart from the morality or otherwise of any of these reactions, there are enough people trying to persuade the public that we are all covering up one giant conspiracy or another – we don’t need to add fuel to the fire.

There is nothing wrong with undertaking research and hypothesis testing in the public eye, indeed I argue above that in this case it was necessary, but if people believe they will be abused or derided when they are wrong, theories will not be published, research will not be undertaken and we will all be the poorer. The same goes for those who respond to such theories, giving public commentary, interviews or presenting television programmes. Archaeologists absolutely need to be prepared to discuss theories publicly, to provide context in the face of hype, to express the full range of possibilities that may come out of any given research and to remind the public that the essence of science is the testing of hypotheses and the investigating of theories. Ignoring possible theories because they don’t accord with the orthodox view is a dangerous path that strangles scientific debate and cultural progress. We should all be working to avoid that scenario and we shouldn’t be ashamed that sometimes our research proves the null hypothesis, that only demonstrates the importance of the scientific method to us and to the world at large.


In addition to the links in the text, A. Dodson, 2009, Amarna Sunset, published by American University in Cairo Press, provides a good introduction to the general period of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti and to the many debates surrounding it.

The sequel, A. Dodson, 2014. Amarna Sunrise, also by American University in Cairo Press, gives additional background and incorporates some of the newest evidence, including recent DNA tests of the relevant mummies. In addition to giving the author’s take on the Amarna period, both books provide an introduction and references to some of the latest debates concerning this period of Egyptian history.







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The Cleansing of Mosul

A thoughtful and interesting post on the continuing destruction in Iraq.

Gates of Nineveh: An Experiment in Blogging Assyriology

As the focus has shifted to Palmyra, relatively little media attention has been paid over the past several months to ISIS’ continued destruction of cultural sites in and around Mosul. Nevertheless, ISIS’ campaign to eliminate anything it perceives as being opposed to its ideology has continued. Over the past few months, many structures previously left untouched have been destroyed.

The Southwest Palace of Sennacherib

Situated atop the ancient tell of Kuyunjik, the Southwest Palace was one of the first buildings of Nineveh to be excavated by Austen Henry Layard in 1847. The palace contained the famous Lachish siege reliefs now preserved in the British Museum.

Over a hundred reliefs were left in situ and the palace was preserved as a museum. Some of the reliefs were broken or looted in the 1990s.

Left: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 2, 2016 showing the Southwest Palace missing its roof but with reliefs still in place. Right: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 9, 2016 showing the reliefs are gone and most internal walls have been destroyed. Left: Image taken by Digital Globe/ASOR on May 2, 2016 showing the Southwest Palace missing its roof but…

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