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Peeling Back the Shadows (SSAE Chesterfield Study Day 12 July 2014)

On Saturday J and I visited Chesterfield to go to a study day being held there by the SSAE called Peeling Back the Shadows. This consisted of two talks (each split into two parts), one given by Chris Naunton about Tutankhamun and one given by Barry Kemp about the latest work at Amarna. We’d originally signed up for it because the holiday we were booked to go on last year was accompanied by Barry Kemp – that holiday got cancelled, but when we signed up for the study day we were signed up for it again for this year so this seemed a neat way to get a preview of our holiday. Sadly it got cancelled again (due to Foreign Office advice about travel to Middle Egypt) and we’re actually going on a different holiday (still to Egypt) this year instead. However, it was still an interesting study day to go to!

“What Killed Tutankhamun?” Chris Naunton

Chris Naunton started his talk by explaining that he’d deliberately chosen the title to be sensational and that he doesn’t have a definitive answer, just one that he thinks is plausible. This talk is a companion piece to a documentary that aired in two different forms last autumn (my post about the two hour version, and the one hour version).

The point of the documentary and of Naunton’s research about Tutankhamun was to revisit what is known about the Pharaoh and see if there was any more information that could be gleaned from the evidence we have. So he started with Howard Carter – in order to properly understand the records Carter left of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb it’s a good idea to be aware of the context of these records. So Naunton gave us an overview of Carter’s biography up to the point of the tomb discovery. Carter first became involved in excavation in Egypt when he was brought in as an artist and epigrapher for Griffith’s Archaeological Survey of Egypt. This project was intended to record all the standing monuments (tombs, temples etc) in Egypt in the late 19th Century – a scope that was a bit too ambitious, but they did record several sites. Prior to Carter’s involvement the recording of the reliefs was fairly basic and although the hieroglyphs and the basic outline of the artwork was recorded many of the nuances were lost. Even though Carter was only in his late teens at the time he joined the project he was a trained artist, who had great talent at watercolours. He revolutionised the recording of the reliefs, capturing much more of the detail than before – and this achievement wasn’t superseded until photography became the routine way of recording them.

Carter was trained as an archaeologist by Petrie – almost by accident, as the person who had been intended to be Petrie’s apprentice that season had been sent home in disgrace. He became regarded as a competent and reliable archaeologist, and in this capacity he was a member of the EES expedition to excavate Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. The leader of that particular expedition was Édouard Naville, who is not regarded as a particularly good archaeologist any more – even at the time he was thought of as a bit slapdash, hence Carter’s inclusion on the team. Carter continued to establish himself as prominent Egyptologist, even becoming Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

After this biography of Carter, Naunton moved on to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. At the time at which it was discovered there was a strand of thought that held that the Valley of the Kings was exhausted – that all discoveries that could be made had been made. This was definitely the opinion of Theodore Davis who had made many discoveries there at the beginning of the 20th Century – he even thought he’d found Tutankhamun’s tomb, but we now know what he found was a cache of discarded mummification materials associated with Tutankhamun. Carter disagreed with this assessment, so was still looking for tombs – and famously found the tomb of Tutankhamun in what was the last season he had funding for from Lord Canarvon. Another important piece of context for this discovery is that prior to finding his tomb egyptologists didn’t know much about Tutankhamun. His name was known, and where he fits in the succession (post-Akhenaten, pre-Horemheb) and that was about it. It was also known that his reign was the one during which the old religion was restored after the heresy of Akhenaten.

In some senses Carter was overwhelmed by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. There was so much material in the tomb that he spent the next several years removing and cataloguing it, but not much research or examination was undertaken. And this is still the case – even the major iconic objects haven’t been thoroughly examined and those that aren’t on display may not even have been seen for decades. We don’t actually know that much more about the Pharaoh than we did before his tomb was discovered.

Up until now Naunton was explaining the context for his decision to re-examine some of the evidence we have about Tutankhamun. The second half of his talk then covered much the same ground as the documentary. Most of the work that has been done on Tutankhamun has focused on his mummy, and there has been a lot of speculation about what he died of. The only definite fact is that he died between the ages of 17 and 19 – so given we know he took the throne at 9 years old he had a short reign of a little less than a decade. There have only been four first-hand studies of the mummy of Tutankhamun, around which there have been built many many theories. The first was Carter’s initial examination (with the help of an anatomist) in 1925. In 1968 the mummy was x-rayed for the first time, and this work is where the murder theories have come from – well, not from the study itself, but from the subsequent media speculation. In those x-rays there seemed to be a portion of the skull that had been damaged as if it had been hit hard by a blunt weapon – but subsequent work suggests that this happened post-mortem, perhaps during the mummification or afterwards. In 1978 further X-rays were taken, concentrating on the teeth and skull. And in 2005 Zahi Hawass’s team CT scanned the mummy.

There are many theories about Tutankhamun’s death which generally fall into a couple of categories. The first is that Tutankhamun was murdered – and mostly these come from the 1968 X-rays, which are generally not considered to support this hypothesis by people who know what they’re looking at. The second category of death causes are those that speculate that Tutankhamun wasn’t a very healthy individual. There have been many proposed defects – some of which build on physical data, and some on the objects in the tomb (which included a large collection of walking sticks, and at least one decorative panel not from the tomb which may show Tutankhamun using a walking stick much like a crutch). Naunton put the list of proposed illnesses up on a slide and there were far too many to remember – Salima Ikram has published a thorough review of all the relevant literature and Naunton quoted her conclusions as being reasonably dismissive of the idea that there is any overwhelming evidence for any of these.

Naunton’s own theory concentrates on the torso of the mummy – most of the previous theories have been concerned with the head or the legs of the mummy. He was careful to point out that not everyone agrees with him that the damage on the torso is linked with Tutankhamun’s death – some experts say that this damage occurred after death. Naunton explained some of his evidence that the damage was least relatively soon post-mortem. Part of his rationale was that examination of the broken edges of the ribs shows that they were cleanly broken. Over time dead bone becomes more fragile and the bone won’t break cleanly – so the damage must’ve been either during death or fairly soon after death.

This theory is the one that he explained in the documentary, so I’ll only given an overview here – basically the damage along the left side of the torso can be explained as resulting from a chariot wheel running into/over Tutankhamun when he was in a kneeling position on the ground. Naunton hypothesises that the Pharoah had fallen out of his chariot and then was run over by it. Perhaps on the battlefield, perhaps while out for a ride in the desert. Originally it was thought it couldn’t be military, because there are no known battles during Tutankhamun’s reign. But careful analysis of battle scenes depicting him suggest that these aren’t generic “Pharaoh in Battle” scenes. There are enough unique details to indicate that they are intended to represent a particular event – so perhaps Tutankhamun did see battle.

The other oddity that Naunton re-examined was the state of the mummy. Carter several times in his notes discussed the charred appearance of the mummy and its wrappings. It has been suggested that this was damage caused by Carter (he did use heat to get the mummy out of its case) – but Naunton thinks Carter would’ve mentioned that in his notes. Generally he recorded what actually happened even if it might be seen as an error. Again the theory that Naunton puts forward was in the documentary – he believes that the mummification of Tutankhamun was done in a hurry and the body was sealed in the coffin before the oils on the wrappings were dry. It’s possible for some types of oils (including some of those known to be used in mummification) to spontaneously combust – and Naunton believes this is what happened to Tutankhamun’s mummy.

To conclude Naunton pointed out that we still don’t know very much detail about Tutankhamun, but his name and image are now some of the most iconic representations of Ancient Egypt in modern culture. And in many ways this is what the Pharaoh would’ve wanted – one of the key tenets of the Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife were that if your name and image were known then you would be immortal.

This was an interesting & entertaining talk, despite a lot of it being stuff I’d seen or heard before because it had been in the documentary. Naunton presented it from a different angle this time by including the context for Carter & his discovery of the tomb. I was particularly struck, as I am every time it comes up, how little of the tomb contents have been properly examined and published!

“The House of the Aten at Amarna” Barry Kemp

The second talk of the day was of a very different style – Barry Kemp was giving us an overview of the most recent work his team have done at Amarna. I was at a slight disadvantage here because I think his talk assumed you had more context than I actually did, even though he gave a brief overview of the history of the excavation at the site. But by the end I think I’d put together a coherent picture of what he was talking about, so that’s OK 🙂 A lot of the talk was showing us pictures of the area that they’ve excavated or diagrams of the site and artists impressions of the building, which is hard to summarise in text – I’ll give it a go, tho.

The main focus of the work, and thus of his talk, recently has been on the Great Aten Temple in Amarna. The site was first excavated by Petrie during his seasons in Amarna, and subsequently by Pendlebury. In recent years the modern cemetery immediately next to the archaeological remains has been expanding, and so Kemp has focussed on the temple site both to record it more thoroughly before any (more) of it vanishes and to clearly demarcate the boundary between the land the villagers can use and the land that’s for the archaeologists to study.

It has been generally assumed that we know what the temple looked like when it was standing – there are pictures of it in the reliefs on tomb walls in Amarna (such as the tomb of the Priest of the Aten Meryra). These depict a fairly standard looking temple entrance with pylons, flag posts and a courtyard in front of it with eight columns on each side. Behind this there is a very large courtyard filled with offering tables. Kemp’s more recent work shows that while some of this is accurate some of it is artistic licence – in particular the flag poles, which can’t be where they are depicted as there isn’t room!

Petrie had plotted out the basic foundations of the entrance, plus a large group of offering tables to the south of the temple. Next to excavate was Pendlebury, assisted (amongst others) by Ralph Lavers who drew a plan of the site. It’s not entirely clear how much, if any, extra work Pendlebury did on the bits that Petrie had already discovered – all the photos were taken after Pendlebury’s team had cleared the site so you can’t tell which pits were already there! Lavers plan is a pretty good representation of what was known to be there, Kemp’s work has more been filling in the detail rather than changing that overview.

Kemp’s team have been undertaking two main strands of work on the temple site. One is excavation work – re-excavating Pendlebury’s spoil heaps (which include significant amounts of archaeological material that Pendlebury missed in his haste) and also new excavation of the entrance to the temple and the offering table area to the south. The other strand is to re-create parts of the temple layout in order to mark it out clearly. This involves capping the foundations with low modern mudbrick walls in order to protect the archaeological remains. They have laid out their best guesses for the walls and the columns when there aren’t foundations to follow. Doors are hardest to locate, but they can make assumptions based on other places.

The excavations at the temple have revealed the foundations of the pylons at the entrance, and a courtyard with the bases of eight columns on either side. This is as expected from the depictions in the tomb paintings – the difference is that the columns are so close to the pylons that there doesn’t seem to be space for flagpoles. Around the columns, and leading to the north of the structure, is what appears to be the remains of the the construction ramp for the columns. And next to the columns at the front is a part of the foundations that appears reinforced to take a particularly heavy object. Kemp speculates that this might be an obelisk – the temple was also known as the Temple of the Ben-Ben (the sacred stone) and an obelisk would be particularly appropriate in that context. Whether or not it was ever put in place is unknown.

There are now known to’ve been two building phases of this temple – I’m assuming this is from earlier work done by Kemp and his team. The offering tables to the south that had been found by Petrie are now shown to be from the first phase – Kemp has discovered their bases were covered by the rubble and floor of the second phase. This building rubble includes pieces of stone with carvings on them. They are mostly what is known as “sculptor’s trial pieces”. But some appear to’ve been pieces of statuary from the first phase of the temple that were then deliberately broken and used as rubble rather than be re-used in the second phase. Which seems wasteful of the Egyptians, but Kemp doesn’t know the reason for it. This class of object includes a torso from a very fine statue that was almost certainly of Nefertiti, and probably at least one other figure. The piece doesn’t match any other statue (available for comparison) so the rest is possibly still to be discovered in this rubble layer.

Some of the second phase rubble layer also gives clues as to the dating of the first and second phases. There are fragments of cartouches containing the name of the Aten from the first phase which use the later form name of the Aten – so these date to somewhere after Year 9 of Akhenaten’s reign (or thereabouts). Under the platforms for the columns at the front they have discovered a wine label, dating to Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign. So the first phase of the temple was built sometime after Year 9, and it is then torn down and rebuilt sometime after Year 12. Obviously it must pre-date Year 17 (as that’s the when Akhenaten dies). Kemp said that it’s possible that this second very ambitious temple wasn’t completed in Akhenaten’s lifetime (and thus not completed at all). Even if it was finished then Akhenaten didn’t have many years to worship in it.

Kemp also told us about the evidence for popular participation in the religion of the Aten. This is a matter of some debate – was this just a state religion in which the elite participated with everyone else carrying on worshipping the gods they always did? Or was it something that percolated down through all levels of society? Or something of a mix of the two? There are two pieces of evidence that Kemp has uncovered that fit on both sides of this spectrum. The first of these is a rather interesting grave of a child partly under the phase 2 rubble layer. It had been robbed, but a small, and rather rough, pendant remained – probably representing the god Ptah. By context this must be from the early Amarna era, but by style it looks a lot more like a Late Period piece. As it seems to represent one of the old gods at least some people (probably of low status, given the workmanship) were still worshipping those rather than the Aten. The other piece of evidence he talked about was from some basins that they have discovered outside the front of the temple complex. Kemp said that these might be evidence for popular participation in the Aten religion (but I can’t remember what reasoning he gave).

This was a fascinating talk about the detail of the current work at Amarna. The most interesting part was the last section of it where Kemp gave us a glimpse into how the archaeologists build up a picture of what happened when and where – the little details of dating and so on.