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

Foreshadowing is a common 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 (https://thebanmappingproject.com/sites/default/files/plans/KV02_0.pdf)

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, <https://thebanmappingproject.com/&gt; 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 <http://collezioni.museoegizio.it/it-IT/material/Cat_1885/&gt; accessed 15 April 2021.

The cairns of the red mountain: Cairns and comparative anthropology

Cairns are a common enough feature of the Egyptian landscape, but one I find fascinating. They are apparently ordinary and innocuous, are easy to build and hard to date, and have recently been subject to the serious archaeological research they deserve (Riemer 2013).

So I was intrigued to meet some very familiar looking cairns while on holiday on Lanzarote, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Africa and some c. 2600 miles from the Nile valley. Cairns in Egypt exhibit a variety of different forms, and several of these different types were visible on Lanzarote. The route up and around the crater of the Red Mountain, an extinct volcano west of Playa Blanca at the south end of the island, was marked by a series of rough cairns made by simply piling stones in a heap.

Rough cairns marking the route up the Red Mountain, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016)

Some felt moved to mark their successful ascent of the extinct volcano by creating miniature piles of stones, and a vast array of similar stone piles were visible on the foreshore at Marina Rubicon, close to an area of former salt pans and derelict windmills. While the modern stone piles were probably engendered by the artistic impulses of the locals and the boredom of passing tourists, the accumulation of the features was very similar to the piles recorded at Egyptian sites and generally assumed to be of a ritual nature (see for example the upright stones at Gebel Tingar published in Storemyr et al.  2013).

Stones piled up vertically on the beach at Marina Rubicon, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote (2016).

Elsewhere in Lanzarote similar piles of vertical stones, arranged in lines, were used to mark field boundaries between vineyards or garden plots, much like simple navigational aids found along ancient desert roads in Egypt.

The explanation for these similarities is very simple, but their existence is thought-provoking. Like Egypt, Lanzarote is a place where there is very little wood (due to a lack of rainfall and high temperatures), but abundant small stones. Instead of building wooden markers and fences, it is far more efficient for people in both countries to use local stones to mark their property, their routes, their success and their artistry.

There may also be a common North African origin for the cairn-building activities in Egypt and Lanzarote, although it should be pointed out that there is no evidence of any direct connection between the Egyptians and the Canary Islands. The native inhabitants of the Canary Islands (commonly known as Guanches) are believed to have originated in North Africa, and their native language is similar to indigenous North African groups. Since the desert environment extends across much of North Africa, it would be logical for many North African groups to use cairns and other stone formations for various purposes. The ancestors of the Guanches are likely to have been part of this general ‘cairn culture’, just as the Egyptians were on the opposite side of the continent. It would be interesting to track the occurrence of cairns and stone piles around the Sahara, to see how common these forms are cross-culturally.

Cairn-building habits are convenient for the archaeologist, who benefits from surviving stone structures long after wood would have decayed in all but the best conditions. They can aid in the identification of routes and significant places, and they also demonstrate the continuity of human-nature. The tourists on the beach at Playa Blanca built additional stone piles to feel part of something that began before they arrived and will continue after they leave. It is likely that a similar motivation prompted those ancient Egyptians who contributed to the stone piles at Gebel Tingar, even if this was subsumed within more complex religious or ritual ideals.

The Lanzarote cairns also demonstrate a number of problems of cairn archaeology. The very simple forms used on Lanzarote are extremely similar to those used in Egypt, and probably elsewhere as well. If a modern cairn looks very similar to an ancient one, this makes any given structure difficult to date. It also raises questions of function. If the piles of stones on the beach at Playa Blanca are artistic, why should the structures at Gebel Tingar be ‘ritual’? How can we distinguish between the two? These are the questions I am trying to answer in my research on Egyptian cairns, cairn-culture and landscape archaeology.


Cairns feature regularly in papers in F. Förster, and H. Riemer, (eds.), 2013. Desert Road Archaeology in Ancient Egypt and Beyond, Africa Praehistorica 27, Köln, but see particularly H. Riemer, ‘Lessons in landscape learning: The dawn of long-distance travel and navigation in Egypt’s Western Desert from prehistoric to Old Kingdom times’ for cairns in navigation; and  Storemyr, P. Bloxam, E. Heldal, T. and Kelany, A. 2013. ‘Ancient desert and quarry roads on the west bank of the Nile in the First Cataract region’ and references therein for  collections of upright stones and stone piles as ritual structures at Gebel Tingar .

A brief description of the Guanches, their culture and the impact of colonisation is presented in J. L. Concepcion, 2014, The Guanches survivors and their descendants. 20th Edition.