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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khafre_Enthroned.

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 (http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/).

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 http://www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/Faculty/Harrell/Egypt/Quarries/Hardst_Quar.html.

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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Gebel el-Asr quarries: Discovery and excavation

The Gebel el-Asr quarry is an almost invisible site in the south-west of Egypt, located some 65km north-west of Abu Simbel. It is also known as Chephren’s Quarry and Chephren Diorite Quarry after the famous statue of Khafre, which is now in the Cairo Museum and was carved from stone quarried at the site. This famous statue is shown in the photo below.  Before the construction of Lake Nasser, the quarry was sometimes known as Tushka Quarry, after the terminus of the 80km ancient quarry road leading from the site to the Nile.

Sellicks_Khafregneiss-Cairo_crop    GebelAsr_location_map

The Gebel el-Asr quarries were rediscovered in 1932 by a British Military car patrol vehicle that strayed from its intended route during a sandstorm. Two archaeological expeditions travelled to the site in 1933 and 1938. They confirmed that the site was the source of the stone for the already famous statues of Khafre, recorded the location of the remains and removed the inscribed artefacts.  The same expedition excavated a loading ramp, where large blocks were lifted onto sleds or other forms of transport for transfer to the Nile, and recorded the longest surviving Pharaonic quarry road, the 80km ancient road between Gebel el-Asr and the Nile.

Geological investigations were undertaken in 1990, and in 1997 the Gebel el-Asr Project began survey and excavation of loci across the site, in an effort to document and excavate the remains before any further destruction could occur. The site had been badly damaged due to the nearby reclamation and hydrological works associated with the Tushka Project, and continuing development made survey and excavation a priority.

Gebel el-Asr Project studied an Old and Middle Kingdom operational centre at Quartz Ridge, excavated two stone built loading ramps and an area of Old Kingdom settlement in the south of the quarrying region. The ancient quarry road from Gebel el-Asr to Tushka was also surveyed and two Old Kingdom camps were excavated along this road. Crucially, the Gebel el-Asr Project team were able to bring the importance of the site to the attention of the then Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) and obtain SCA protection for the surviving sections. Government protection should ensure some level of preservation of the site, although it can be difficult to police such a large area, particularly when it is located at such a considerable distance from nearby settlements.

The early 21st century has also seen further investigation into the inscriptions from the site, particularly the Middle Kingdom stelae from the carnelian mine at Stelae Ridge. These are currently being translated by a team from Yale, who recently published an assemblage of stelae from one of the cairn-shrines at Stelae Ridge. My own PhD research concerns the physical, archaeological and landscape context of the Middle Kingdom cairn-shrines at Stelae Ridge, and I will be sharing selected elements of that work on this blog over the next few months.


The 1930s expeditions were reported by Engelbach in Annales du Service des antiquités de l’Egypte (ASAE); 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.

The results of the geological expeidtion in 1989 are presented in Harrell, J. A. and Brown, V. M. 1994 “Chephren’s Quarry in the Nubian Desert of Egypt” Nubica 3.1: 43 – 57. Additional information concerning the Gebel el-Asr stone varieties, as well as other stones used in ancient Egypt, can be found on James Harrell’s website http://www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/Faculty/Harrell/Egypt/AGRG_Home.html.

The interim results of the Gebel el-Asr Project are presented by the Project director Dr Ian Shaw and colleagues 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 stelae of Sabastet from Cairn VIII at Stelae Ridge see Darnell and Manassa. 2013. A Trustworthy Seal-Bearer on a Mission: The Monuments of Sabastet from the Khephren Diorite Quarries. In: H. Fischer-Elfert and R. B. Parkinson (eds.) Studies on the Middle Kingdom in memory of Detlef Franke. Philippika Marburger altertumskundliche Abhandlungen 41. Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden. 55-92.

Image credits:

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

Map of Egypt, made in Quantum GIS (www.QGIS.org) using data from Natural Earth (http://www.naturalearthdata.com)



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23 Vintage Photos of Egypt’s Golden Years

A great blog about historic images of Egypt.

Egyptian Streets

A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s

By Mohamed Khairat, Founder, EgyptianStreets.com

Egypt in the 1900s was a different place. Egyptian cinema was the third largest in the world, Cairo was a city that foreigners dreamt of spending their holidays exploring, Egyptian music flourished and shook the world, Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together as neighbours, and women had freedoms that were unheard of in many other countries.

Egypt was a place of liberal spirits, unhampered by sectarian and ethnic prejudices. The rights of men, women and children were championed.

Yet, all that has changed, and often may Egyptians forget the Egypt that used to be. Here are 23 photographs of vintage advertisements and other images that will teleport you to Egypt’s ‘golden years’ and show you an Egypt you may have forgotten ever existed.

(These photographs are available thanks to ‘Vintage Egypt. Click here for more)

1. “The Japanese do…

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