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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Review of the British Museum’s Sunken Cities Exhibition

This post reviews the British Museum’s new Sunken Cities exhibition, which I recently visited. Photography is forbidden in the exhibition, so I haven’t been able to include any pictures from it here, but you can get a taste of the experience on the British Museum website.  Most professional reviewers seemed to enjoy it, but some suggested it would benefit from more lighting and less ambient music. The Guardian newspaper positively disliked it, complaining that it ‘patronises with Indiana Jones-style nonsense’ to compensate for dull objects.

I’m happy to say  that I found the Guardian’s reviewer completely missed the point. The exhibition contains an interesting mix of material recently excavated from the ‘Sunken Cities’ of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, contextualised with objects from other sites, periods and countries. Brief videos of the retrieval of the artefacts reveal the reality of underwater excavation, and the necessary scientific care that elevates excavation above ‘treasure hunting’ for ‘pretty things’, giving even the humblest artefact the opportunity to shine.  The low lighting, blue colour and music do manage to evoke an undersea feel, even an intimacy, but they are not strictly necessary as the objects are good enough to stand on their own merit. Far from a ‘weird pastiche’, the quality of the statuary shows that even in this late period Egyptian stone carving could be second to none, while the hybridisation of Greek and Egyptian styles produced some breathtaking work. The lighting felt a little low, but the objects were well lit, and the music was so inoffensive and bland I rapidly tuned it out.

The exhibition details the discovery and underwater excavation of the twin cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus, which lie submerged beneath Aboukir Bay on the north-western edge of the Nile delta, 30km east of Alexandria. The details of their discovery are briefly covered in the exhibition, but there are more details in the catalogue and in this New Statesman article (Thanks to Jan Piction of Petrie Museum Unofficial Page for the link). In a largely successful attempt to provide more information about the discovery, underwater excavation and lifting processes, there are regular videos throughout the exhibition showing the excavation of principal artefacts. These videos provide a welcome reminder that these are carefully excavated objects, whose provenance provides much of the scientific information that makes them so interesting.

The cities of Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus had their heyday in the Late period (664-332 BC) and Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC). Although Ptolemaic art is sometimes derided as a ‘pastiche’, the artefacts in this exhibition demonstrate that at its best it can be breathtakingly beautiful. The truly stunning statue of Arsinoe II is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen and perfectly demonstrates the heights that could be reached when Egyptian and Greek artistry were combined. A similar, later statue known as ‘The Black Queen’, that probably shows Cleopatra III as Isis, demonstrates that even when less inspired, Ptolemaic carving was of a high quality.

The layout is rather good. Monumental statuary is scattered throughout the exhibition, including three colossi (of the Nile god Hapy, a Ptolemaic Pharaoh and his Queen) from the Aswan granite quarries that also produced the Unfinished Obelisk. Smaller cases containing medium and small objects are located around the larger objects, allowing the visitor to see objects from all around and giving a sense of intimacy. Coming around one case I suddenly came upon the rather well-preserved rear of a granodiorite sphinx. His neatly carved tail, curling tightly around his hindquarters, was so appealing I had to restrain myself from patting it.

The excavations also found exciting new evidence for the rituals of the Osiris cult. These rituals are known from both Greco-Roman writers and inscriptions in Egyptian temples, but this is the first time archaeologists have found in situ physical remains of the riverine processions. These remains provide evidence for the physical context of activities described in the texts, and how the rituals were undertaken at Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus. Situations where we have archaeological and textual evidence of the same events are extremely valuable, because the two different types of evidence provide complementary insights into the ritual intent expressed in the texts, and the practical undertaking revealed by the archaeological record.

The discovery of the remains of the riparian Osirian processions prompted the inclusion of some exceedingly interesting artefacts in the exhibition. These explored the myths and rituals of Osiris across a wide temporal, geographical and stylistic range.  From a traditional Egyptian Osiris in sycamore wood to an entirely Greek Serapis, the artefacts demonstrate both the Egyptian and Greek Osirian traditions and their hybridisation.  The famous 13th Dynasty (c. 1747 BC) cult statue showing Isis reviving Osiris harks back to the origins of both deity and rituals in Middle Kingdom Abydos, while a second century AD Roman oil lamp showing Isis nursing Horus demonstrates the longevity of these deities and their  geographical range. This oil lamp comes from the town of Durolevum near Faversham in Kent, and is a reminder that the British Museum is only 2.6km from a Roman temple to Isis that once stood on the banks of the Walbrook river, south of Bank station in London.

It is difficult to put on an exhibition that honestly represents the process of archaeological excavation, explains to the visitor the excitement of discovering new information,  and includes sufficiently interesting objects while avoiding the impression that archaeology is all about treasure hunting. Sunken Cities largely succeeds! Far from patronising the visitor, it brings you close to some truly beautiful objects, but still manages to show the reality of underwater excavation. The artefacts from Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus are contextualised with other objects from different periods, giving a greater perspective and revealing how this new evidence fits into our understanding of the Nile delta, the Ptolemaic period, the mixing of Greek and Egyptian cultures, and the Osiris cult. If you feel the need for more information, the exhibition catalogue includes both pictures of the objects (with the museum numbers that are missing from the displays) and more background information about individual pieces and the excavation of the cities.

Overall I found the Sunken Cities exhibition a thoroughly enjoyable experience and would definitely recommend it. It is both artistic and informative. I have rarely been as stunned by the beauty of a statue as I was during this exhibition. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some artefacts that I have only seen before in textbooks, discovering Thonis-Heracleon and Canopus for myself and getting close to new evidence about the rituals of the Osiris cult. If you are in London before the exhibition closes on 27 November 2016 then don’t miss out.


Tickets can be booked online at British Museum Sunken Cities exhibition and entry is free to Members.

The exhibition catalogue Goddio, F. and Masson-Berghoff, A. 2016. Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. Thames and Hudson, provides images of the objects, a description of the discovery of the site, and background information on both the artefacts and their context. There is also a dvd showing the excavation of some of the objects, which is free if you buy the catalogue. 


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The failed (Egyptian) obelisk.

Apart from the many giant monolithic obelisks that survive in Egypt and elsewhere, there is one obelisk that is famous for its failure. The Unfinished Obelisk at Aswan would have been the largest ever erected at 42m, but it never left the quarry. This photo-essay looks at some of my images of the Unfinished Obelisk and briefly considers its significant for Egyptian archaeology.


The unfinished obelisk from the bottom, showing cracks from its ‘failure’ and subsequent attempts to carve it up.

At some time during its extraction from the Aswan granite, a large crack developed running lengthwise up the obelisk. The obelisk was abandoned, either because the stone was felt to be fatally flawed, or because the crack was too large for the masons to carve an obelisk of sufficient size to fulfill their commission.


The unfinished obelisk in the Aswan granite quarries.

Attempts were made to carve up the defunct obelisk to produce smaller granite items (leaving smaller, straight cracks across the obelisk at various points), but these were aborted, leaving the Unfinished Obelisk tethered to the granite.

Still bound to the living rock, the Unfinished Obelisk is a valuable source of information concerning stone quarrying and obelisk extraction. The trenches around the sides of the obelisk clearly show the use of pounders to separate the obelisk from the bedrock and these are even more visible around other partially excavated granite objects in the quarries.


A partially excavated colossal granite statue blank, showing the grooves left by stone pounders (left) and the author sitting in the overhang where the object would have been separated from the bedrock.

It was originally thought that these trenches were cut purely by endless pounding of the bedrock, using hard stones and sand to slowly wear away the granite (Engelbach 1923), but recent research and experimental archaeology demonstrate that fire was used to weaken the granite before pounding, making it possible to extract obelisks more quickly and with fewer workmen.

The new and continuing research into stone quarrying demonstrates how valuable unfinished stone artefacts are. In its failure as an obelisk, the unfinished obelisk has found a different kind of fame amongst archaeologists and tourists, and is arguably more useful than its perfectly finished brothers and sisters. Its quarry is now a tourist attraction, with an open air museum, and it forms part of a network of important ancient stone quarries recorded around Aswan and recently studied by the Quarryscapes Project.


Engelbach, R. 1923. The problem of the obelisks, from a study of the unfinished obelisk at Aswan. T. F Unwin Ltd, London.

Habachi, L. 1977. The Obelisks of Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner.

Per Storemyr’s blog contains several posts of relevance to stone quarrying and obelisks and links to a recent article detailing evidence for the use of fire in hard stone quarrying.

For a general introduction to stone artefacts and stone quarrying in Egypt see also Aston B. G. Harrell, J. A and Shaw, I. 2000. Stone. In P. T Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge University Press.

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Does the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill matter for archaeology outside the UK?

As if war, iconoclasm, looting, antiquities theft, collecting and poverty weren’t enough of a threat to global archaeology, over the last few weeks a new danger raised its head. Having decided that we don’t build enough houses in the UK, the current government has decided to lay the blame for this on ‘red tape’, and is proposing to reduce such bureaucratic obstacles in the imaginatively titled Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill (NPIB).

Although the text of the NPIB hasn’t been written yet, indications are that the Bill will ‘ensure that pre-commencement planning conditions are only imposed by local planning authorities where they are absolutely necessary’. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When I worked in pre-planning archaeology (writing desk-based assessments predicting the type of archaeology likely to be present on any given development site), I saw a large number of proposals and the pre-planning changes required by Local Authority Planners. Some were sane and sensible. Others . .  less so! It’s entirely reasonable to consider whether planning conditions are always ‘necessary’.

But there is a risk to archaeology from the NPIB. Unknown archaeological material, and known but less significant remains (i.e. those that are not Scheduled Monuments), are not protected by statute in the UK. Instead, they are protected under current planning policy (and its more famous forerunner PPG16). The resulting process ensures that both planners and developers know what archaeology is likely to be on a given site, through initial desk-based assessment and subsequent onsite field evaluation, if necessary. It means that any archaeological work can be programmed into the development, and costs and delays kept to a minimum. The excavation of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, where Shakespeare first rose to prominence, demonstrates the kind of problems, delays and expense faced by government, planning authority and developer in the days before the current system was put into place (as this post shows). The system isn’t perfect, and depends very much on the thoroughness of the planning authority and the archaeological contractor, but it works very well and has given us many exciting new finds, including the King of Prittlewell, a nationally significant find that made the headlines, and was found only a few miles from where I’m writing this.

The problem with the NPIB is that archaeological work is currently almost always enforced under planning condition. I have no doubt that even under the NPIB many planning authorities will consider archaeological planning conditions ‘absolutely necessary’ and continue to use them. The risk is that archaeology will be seen as an easy target, a scapegoat for the many other things which can and do hold up development (not least of which is opposition from local people), something planners can omit to appease developers and central government in the demand for faster housing. The Telegraph is already leading the charge to lump archaeology in the those things that are unnecessary brakes on development and should be swept away. We need to ensure that that doesn’t happen, while welcoming better planning legislation. Everything depends on how this law is drafted. So we need to show government how important it is that archaeology is protected, that reasonable archaeological work doesn’t hold up development and that the current system is far better than some ad-hoc process where development is delayed by exciting archaeological finds that were unexpected and weren’t planned for.

This isn’t just a matter for UK archaeology. Many of the techniques, skills, and the actual archaeologists, that are used around the world, have been fostered by planning archaeology in the UK.  At a time when we have unprecedented looting and destruction of archaeological sites in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, how can we lobby for better protection, for more stringent laws against illegal antiquities in the UK and internationally, if the UK government is reducing protection for the archaeological sites in its own backyard? When population growth threatens archaeological sites (in Egypt for example), the type of pre-development excavation that has been employed in the UK and elsewhere could be used to record (and so extract the scientific information from) archaeological sites, while permitting an expanding population the space it needs. The reversal of archaeological protection here is a matter of wider significance beyond archaeologists, archaeological organisations and academics working with UK material.

If we do not fight for UK archaeology, if the NPIB is used to undermine archaeological protection, then it sends out the message that archaeology doesn’t really matter. This would undermine UK involvement in many of the causes that matter to archaeologists all over the world including;

  1. Efforts to improve laws against illegal antiquities;
  2. International cooperation between UK and foreign governments in the prevention of looting and repatriation of stolen antiquities;
  3. Preventing museums selling artefacts on the international market;
  4. Government protection and investment in archaeological sites across the globe.

Various UK archaeological organisations are busy lobbying to ensure their voice is heard, but there is also a a petition  (or there’s this one if you live outside the UK) to sign to demonstrate how important it is to you that future legislation continues to protect archaeology and ensure it is dealt with in a timely manner, for the benefit of everyone. If you have an interest in archaeology, no matter what type, I urge you to sign it because this is about all of our past and is a matter for everyone with an interest in archaeology, no matter what continent!

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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.

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Fakes and conspiracy theories: A cautionary tale for users of facebook archaeology pages.

This post is dedicated to all the hard-working volunteer admins who monitor facebook pages and online forums. The experiences I detail below emphasise how important your hard work is, so thank you.

The internet is a marvelous thing for archaeology. Most people would agree, certainly anyone who’s had to track down an awkward journal article at 0300, learned the latest discoveries from the field just a few hours after they happened or found an otherwise unobtainable book online. But of course there are downsides to archaeology on the internet and I recently got an unexpected insight into one of those downsides.

We all know that there are those annoying ‘clickbait’ websites that will post conspiracy theory articles about almost anything in the hopes of getting traffic. They occasionally pop up on serious facebook pages and discussion forums about archaeology or Egyptology, posting long-debunked articles which are inevitably quickly removed by sharp-eyed admins (thanks for that guys). But I recently observed the (almost) birth of a full-blown conspiracy theory on a reputable facebook Egyptology page, and found the process fascinating and disturbing.

It began innocently enough. A poster to the page (we’ll call him ‘Fred’) added a picture taken by Harry Burton during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb and available from the Griffith Insitute website as Burton photo P0631. The picture shows the rope and mud seal closing the third golden shrine (More information is available from the online record), one of four that had been constructed around the sarcophagus within the burial chamber. Above the image Fred posted a comment to the effect that the picture was of the entrance to Tutankamun’s tomb, sealed for over 3000 years, with a question mark suggesting that he was interested in further information.

Fred had made a slight mistake, easy enough to do and basically harmless. The image wasn’t of the door to the tomb, but of the third shrine around the sarcophagus. He probably didn’t intend to create controversy. But this innocent mistake began a thread of discussion and comment that was on the verge of becoming conspiracy theory. Someone pointed out, correctly, that the tomb had been robbed in antiquity, so the original mud sealing can’t have survived on the outer door of the tomb. Someone else discussed the type of knot and suggested it was a modern example, arguing that the rope and fragile mud sealing wouldn’t have survived outside the tomb. Finally someone suggested the photo ‘looked fake’, probably having been influenced by the previous comments. The thread went on for quite a long time, with various posters adding pieces of evidence, that could easily have led to the conclusion this was a fake photograph with a modern knot.

There were several objectors to this consensus. Someone pointed out that this was a real photo from the excavation of the tomb. Someone else argued, correctly but unnecessarily in this case, that the dry climate of Egypt would make it possible for a rope and sealing to survive outside a tomb provided the micro-conditions were right. But a number of commentators had now become convinced that this was a fake. No-one cited the photo’s origin on the Griffith Institute website, but it is entirely possible that by now some readers of this thread had become so convinced of the falseness of the image that they would not have believed it. And even if they had found the same image on the Griffith Institute website, being convinced of the  falseness of the photograph, it is entirely possible that this faulty line of reasoning could have led some to conclude that that respected archaeological institution was somehow in cahoots with the fake photo, leading to claims that there was a ‘conspiracy’.

In the event none of the contributors to this thread made such a claim, indeed the Griffith Institute wasn’t even mentioned. After some time, someone did point out that this was not  tomb door, but an internal shrine door and the debate petered out. What is interesting about this case is not that it produced a conspiracy theory, but how easily it could have. A false premise (in this case that the image was of the door to the tomb), produces a faulty line of reasoning (that the rope would have rotted or been removed by the tomb robbers), that leads to an inaccurate conclusion (that a perfectly genuine photo is a fake). Many people provide evidence in support of the faulty reasoning or inaccurate conclusion. Often this evidence is perfectly legitimate and genuine and is only revealed to be irrelevant once the original false premise is corrected. After a certain time, attempts to correct the faulty premise or cite respected authorities on the matter only produce further skepticism and cries of ‘conspiracy’! Arguably what prevented the ‘tomb door’ picture thread from developing into a genuine conspiracy theory was the fairly mundane nature of a debate about the authenticity of a single photo of a mud-sealing on a rope. If it had concerned a major world event, the death of a celebrity or something else that caught the public imagination, it might well have snowballed. All from a simple, innocent error, made without malice by an interested contributor seeking further information.

The scary part is that the thread exists now, and likely will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. If it had ended as I suggested it might have done, with the conclusion that the photo was fake and the Griffith Institute was somehow ‘in on it’, this type of post could easily have been used in the future to support other erroneous claims, or indeed full-blown conspiracy theories.

It really made me think and re-evaluate what I do when I see this type of debate. And it gave me a whole lot more respect for all those hard working volunteer admins, who patiently request attribution, museum numbers and dates from contributors, who remove inappropriate posts (however the page defines them) and provide corrections where people are looking for more information or have made innocent errors. Perhaps we should all be ready to, politely, contribute correct information when we see unintentional errors?


The Griffith Institute has an excellent website with a large number of photos from the tomb of Tutankhamun, searchable object records, journals, plans, and excavation diaries. All of these valuable resources form part of their archive, which also includes Petrie’s journals, Davies’ tracings of Theban Tombs and many other important archival materials.

For the record, all the online resources are genuine archival materials digitised and made freely available. There are no fakes, and the Griffith Institute would never stand for them!


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Surveying in the Mansion of Gold; The Hatnub travertine (Egyptian Alabaster) quarries near Minya

The Hatnub travertine quarries comprise an area of the Eastern desert of Egypt, roughly 17km south-east of the famous site of Amarna. Since 2012 a joint mission from the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale and the University of Liverpool have been working in the largest quarry, Quarry P (below, looking west).P1060406

The primary aim of the Hatnub Epigraphic Project is the identification and recording of the hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions and graffiti in Quarry P, but also includes a total station survey of the inscriptions and graffiti and any other archaeological features our investigations may reveal.

Initially the total station survey used a local grid, with an origin at an arbitrarily located point given the designation 1000,1000,1000, but it subsequently proved possible to georeference the survey stations and data using a combination of satellite imagery (LC81760412013083LGN02) and existing site plans from the 1980s (Shaw 2010). This enabled me to give the total station survey points (called ‘Hatnub stations’ in the next image) real-world coordinates on the Universal Transverse Mercator Projection Zone 36 North, which covers Egypt. As a result I have been able to include the survey data in the site Geographic Information System together with other information from previous archaeological investigations and satelite imagery.

Although the visible inscriptions and graffiti in the quarry had previously been recorded and published (Anthes 1928; Blackden and Fraser 1892). The current project found several new inscriptions and graffiti and was also able to identify additional text belonging to inscriptions which had previously been published (Enmarch 2015).


The locations of both the known and new inscriptions and graffiti were recorded in three dimensions, to enable them to be plotted in both plan and elevation and provide a complete record of the written remains within the quarry.  As a result the most heavily surveyed areas are the locations where inscriptions and graffiti are located (Above, plan of the quarry in 2015); the north and south sides of the entrance passage, an area on the north side of the quarry wall known as ‘Cirque Nord’, a larger area of graffiti on the south side of the quarry wall, the ‘Cirque Sud’, and a large boulder on the path from the mouth of the entrance passage to the Cirque Sud. This large boulderP1060425 was particularly interesting. In addition to several carved inscriptions, it had also been decorated with small images of little seated men (Left). Resembling the ‘seated man’ determinative denoting an official in hieroglyphic writing, these images are small but largely devoid of any writing. In some rare cases they are accompanied by a name and/or title.   As a result of these features, this boulder has become known as ‘Little Man Wall’.

In addition to the inscriptions and graffiti, I also surveyed the rim and base of the quarry, and several features within it. This enabled me to determine that Quarry P is 50m wide, 75m long, 28m deep and has a 75m long entrance passage. Something of the scale of the quarry is visible in the first picture, taken from the eastern side, opposite the entrance passage. The small figures visible in the distance are the workmen, building retaining walls to keep the debris from falling back into the entrance passage. The distant blue shape on the horizon are the pickup trucks that transport us to the site.

In addition to the inscriptions, we have surveyed a number of other features around the quarry and particularly within the entrance passage. These  included a number of well-carved niches set into the walls, possibly for ritual or cultic purposes, smaller holes carved at various intervals along the walls of the entrance passage and a set of steps leading into the entrance passage.  In 2015 we began clearing the debris from the entrance passage, revealing several additional features, including a number of larger steps carved into the floor of the entrance passage, and some other features created to assist in the removal of larger stones from the quarry.


Anthes, R. 1928. Die Felsinschriften von Hatnub. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte und Altertumskunde Ägyptens 9. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

Blackden, M. W. and Fraser, G. W. 1892. Collection of Hieratic Graffiti from the Alabaster Quarry of Hat-nub. Private Collection.

Enmarch, R. Forthcoming in Autumn 2015 issue of Egyptian Archaeology 47. Magazine of the Egypt Exploration Society

LC81760412013083LGN02, Landsat 8 satellite image of the Hatnub area, taken in 2013. Landsat imagery is freely available from the  United States Geological Survey earthexplorer.

Shaw, I. 2010. Hatnub: Quarrying Travertine in Ancient Egypt. Egypt Exploration Society Excavation Memoir 88: London.

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When diorite is gneiss; Products of the Gebel el-Asr quarries

Gebel el-Asr does not appear to be a typical Egyptian archaeological site. There are no pyramids (not even small mudbrick ones), no temples and no large structures. You could easily drive past it without noticing, but you will certainly have seen its products in museums and on television programmes. Gebel el-Asr is the only quarry in Egypt that produced three varieties of metamorphic gneiss, prized by the Egyptians from the Predynastic to the Middle Kingdom for the manufacture of stone vessels and statuary. The most recognisable product of the quarry, the gneiss statue of Khafre from his valley temple (shown in the photo below), even has its own Wikipedia page

Sellicks_Khafregneiss-Cairo_crop Petrie_gneissbowl_CC-A_SA-NC

The Gebel el-Asr gneiss was originally described as ‘diorite’ by Egyptologists, but modern analyses of the stone have identified it as a form of gneiss. Geologists have divided the Gebel el-Asr gneiss into three slightly different forms, but as this differentiation is based on the proportions of different minerals within the stone, the material can be difficult to identify without detailed geological knowledge. As a result, there is considerable variability in the labelling of Gebel el-Asr gneiss objects and it is sometimes difficult to know if a specified object is actually made of the stone. Some artefacts are still labelled ‘diorite’ or ‘Chephren diorite’, while others are described as ‘gneiss’ or ‘Chephren gneiss’.  Specific labels such as ‘anorthosite gneiss’ or ‘diorite gneiss’ also occur.

Diorite gneiss and gabbro gneiss

Gneissic diorite, and gneissic gabbro are the most difficult to differentiate as they appear very similar, both have a banded appearance, are darker in colour and can only be differentiated geologically by the proportion of feldspars within them. They were favoured for the maufacture of statuary, including the famous statue of Khafre, but stone vessels were also produced. The early dynastic stone vessel shown above is UC6186 from the collection of the Petrie Museum (

Anorthosite gneiss

Gneissic anorthosite, the third variety of stone from Gebel el-Asr is easier to differentiate from the others as it has a lighter hue. It was commonly used for stone vessels, although the head of an anorthosite gneiss statue of Khafre is  also known and is located in the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim (Inv. 2666/1). A partly damaged anorthosite gneiss stone vessel from the Petrie Museum with the serekh of King Khaba (UC 15800)is shown below. Weights in several varieties of gneiss are also known.


Although the darkness and banding of any given Gebel el-Asr gneiss object may provide an indication of whether it is likely to be anorthosite gneiss or diorite/gabbro gneiss, the issue may become confused where artefacts contain transitions from one type of gneiss to another. Ultimately the only sure method of determining the precise type of stone is examination by a geologist with a hand lens or microscope. Where the precise type is uncertain and in the absence of detailed geological analysis, it is generally best to refer to all products as ‘Gebel el-Asr gneiss’ or ‘Khafre gneiss’, following the suggestion of Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm in their geological discussion of Egyptian stones and quarries Stones and Quarries of Ancient Egypt.


A description of the gneiss, references and further information can be found in Aston, B. G. Harrell, J. and Shaw, I. 2001. “Stone”. In: P. Nicholson and I. Shaw (eds.) Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 5 – 77.

A more detailed geological discussion can be found in the excellent guide to the geology of all Egyptian stones and quarries by Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm Stones and Quarries of Ancient Egypt published by British Museum Press (2007).

An article concerning the geological research done in 1990  is Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57.  James Harrell also has details and images of the gneiss on his website

For more information about Egyptian stone vessels see Aston, B. G. 1994. Ancient Egyptian Stone Vessels: Materials and Forms. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens 5. Heidelberger Oreintverlag: Heidelberg.

Image credits:

Statue of Khafre from the Cairo Museum, with permission from Richard Sellicks.

Gneiss bowls UC 6186 and UC 15800 from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, on a Creative Commons  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license


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