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“New Texts from Ancient Egypt: Revisiting the Egyptian Alabaster Quarries at Hatnub” Roland Enmarch (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of March Roland Enmarch came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the ancient texts left on the walls of an Egyptian alabaster quarry in Middle Egypt.

He started his talk by giving us the geographical and geological context for the quarry. Hatnub is in the Eastern desert fairly close to Amarna. The name “Hatnub” (hat-noob) is how the original excavators of the site in the 1890s pronounced the ancient name that they read on the walls (which is transliterated ḥwt-nbw). Modern Egyptologists would pronounce it more like “Hut nebu” (hoot neb-oo) because the assumptions made about how the vowels sound have changed, but the name has stuck with the original pronunciation. It’s quite likely that neither pronunciation bears much resemblance to what an actual Ancient Egyptian would’ve said. The name means “Mansion of Gold” which is reminiscent of the names of areas in temples – so was this perhaps a sacred place? Or does it refer to wet alabaster glistening after rare rainfall?

Hatnub is a place where Egyptian alabaster can be found. This name for the rock is technically incorrect – modern geologists use the term alabaster to refer to a specific sort of white rock which is not at all the same sort of rock as “Egyptian alabaster” (which is more accurately called calcite). It formed in the limestone in an earlier geological period when Egypt was wetter. The limestone got dissolved away by the water leaving cave systems. These were then filled by Egyptian alabaster, which was deposited from the water of hot springs into these caves. If the spring wasn’t hot but instead was at ambient temperature then the rock that was deposited was Tufa limestone. Because of the way the Egyptian alabaster is formed in ancient cave voids it occurs in discrete pockets rather than long strata.

Egyptian alabaster was valued by the Ancient Egyptians for several reasons – of course one of these was the visual aesthetics of the stone. It’s also relatively rare, as it needed a hot spring to’ve existed to deposit it which is a rarer occurrence than an ambient temperature spring. Enmarch said that the Egyptians also valued it for sacred properties, and it’s often found in religious contexts. He also showed us a picture of the famous scene from the tomb of Djehutihotep in Deir el Bersha showing a large statue being moved by many many men – this statue was made of alabaster, and the text accompanying it includes “The road on which it came was very difficult indeed.”

Hatnub was discovered in modern times by Percy Newberry & Howard Carter in 1891 while they were looking for the tomb of Akhenaten. The inscriptions weren’t officially recorded at that time, but Enmarch said they were copied and circulated privately, so it was known that they were there. The texts were then properly recorded in 1907 by Georg Möller, and the work was published after his death by R. Anthes in 1928. Although other archaeological work has been carried out at the site (by Ian Shaw in the 1980s) this remained the most recent study of the texts until the study that Enmarch himself is undertaking. And this old study has limitations as the sole source of knowledge of the inscriptions – it has no photos, just drawings, and it was written up by someone who had never been to the site (and who could not always decipher what Möller had described). So Enmarch and his colleagues have embarked on a proper modern epigraphic study after an initial visit in 2012 showed that there was much that could still be learnt from these inscriptions. Their initial goal, which they have largely finished was to record all the inscriptions that have survived using modern methods (digital photography).

Enmarch next talked us through how you (or how an Ancient Egyptian would) approach the quarries at Hatnub. There are well preserved pre-classical roads in the desert which lead from the cultivated regions to the quarries. The road network includes causeways to build up the road so that the inclines are never too steep to pull large blocks of stone along. These might be built of blocks of stone, and still look pretty solid these days. Alongside the roads at intervals are small horseshoe-shaped man-made stone features which aren’t yet understood – perhaps they are wind shelters? Part of the project is to investigate these & map them on the road network to see if anything can be learnt about them. As well as these structures there are also stone cairns near the road on a high part of the desert near Quarry P. These cairns could be for marking the route, but they may also have some sacred purpose. In front of the cairns themselves are rudimentary structures, and there are little cleared paths up to the cairns.

Quarry P is the part of Hatnub where most of the inscriptions have been found, and the rest of Enmarch’s talk concentrated on this area. It is a large & deep oval pit, and nearly all the alabaster has been removed from it (there are fragments on the floor and some small parts left in the limestone walls of the pit). It is an open cast mine which definitely didn’t have a full roof, although there may’ve been an overhang which has since collapsed, and there are giant (ancient) spoil heaps around it. Enmarch said that it feels like being in a volcanic crater (although obviously there is nothing volcanic about it).

The inscriptions are not evenly distributed around the walls of the quarry, instead they are concentrated in particular regions. Enmarch first talked us round these regions showing us the inscriptions that were previously known from the 1928 publication. The south wall of the entryway to the quarry has lots of features that were in this paper, some of which have been damaged since they were originally recorded in 1907. The oldest inscriptions here date to the reign of Khufu – they generally have both his cartouche and his Horus name, and may have his image and other protective symbols. They indicate the royal patronage of the quarrying expedition and the Pharaoh’s domination of the area.

In the main oval area there is a boulder (a piece of rock which wasn’t good enough quality to quarry) which is covered in carvings of little men – so it’s called “little man boulder”. Enmarch has identified 40 features mostly only noted briefly in the 1928 publication, which are mostly standing or sitting men with no texts. These are a lower class record of presence (rather than the royal inscriptions of the south entryway). They are mostly in relief or in red ink and many are now faded or eroded to near invisibility. Modern digital photography is a particularly useful tool in these circumstances & Enmarch showed us how he’s been able to enhance the images to see these inscriptions clearly. For a lot of his images he’d first show us a picture of what looked like almost completely bare rock, and then the enhanced image with a fairly clear inscription or image – it was very impressive to see what could be revealed.

The north west wall of the oval catches the sun first thing in the morning, and there is a red ink inscription here dating to the time of Pepi II which shows the king seated alongside his royal names plus an account of the expedition. This says that the leader of the expedition extracted as much stone as was required and transported it to the king. The south wall of the oval is covered with texts and images, and is marked out with rocks and stelae (which were removed in 1907 and sadly were then in Berlin in WW2 and destroyed). Two large red ink inscriptions in hieratic date to the time of Teti I. Others of the inscriptions here are dated by which Nomarch had ordered the expedition – the dating on these is unclear, they might be during the First Intermediate Period or they might date to later. They are placed near the 6th Dynasty inscriptions, to gain prestige from associating themselves with them. There are also modern additions to some of these inscriptions – the figures outlined in white, which seems an odd thing to do. And sadly some have been deliberately defaced as well.

After a break for coffee & cake Enmarch took us round the site again, this time talking about the inscriptions that they have discovered which weren’t published in 1928, and also to give us his thoughts on the motives behind some of the inscriptions. The older inscriptions are just royal names & images, but from the 6th Dynasty onwards there is also biographical details of the expedition leader like those you might find in their tomb. They are tweaked to be specific to the place rather than a tomb – for instance they include a formula about making offering to the inscription (and thus the person) but as this is a quarry the return you will get for doing so is that your own expedition will be successful. The later inscriptions that refer to Nomarchs rather than Pharaohs are all close in date (within a few decades) and explicitly address themselves to later expeditions that they expect will come after them. This is unusual for an Ancient Egyptian quarry and Enmarch suggested that perhaps it’s because it’s closer to home than many Egyptian quarries and so felt more like somewhere the living would be visiting after your death.

On the south wall of the entryway there are some panels that look almost bare to the naked eye (whilst still looking like panels) – Enmarch’s enchanced digital images show up figures & texts in these, and he’s doubled the number of texts dating to Pepi II’s reign this way. These new texts include a red ink text written in hieroglyphs which is exciting as normally the red ink ones are hieratic and the hieroglyphic ones are carved. And as a counterpoint another new text is an incised hieratic text, again unusual. One of the inscriptions gives a name for the quarry which is “Northern Hatnub of the Hare Nome” (this dates to Pepi II’s reign as well). The north wall of the entryway has no previously published inscriptions, but Enmarch’s project has discovered some here as well. Some of them survive as no more than Pepi II’s name, but one has a lengthy hieratic text listing the members of the expedition that left it behind. And on the Little Man Boulder there is also a newly discovered incised hieratic inscription that possibly lists the names of expedition members.

The south wall of the oval has several new texts. One of these is a big inscription found round a very faded figure which was only briefly noted in the 1928 publication. Image enhancement shows it up very well & it consists of multiple texts dating to the reign of a Nomarch called Djehutynakht (but which Djehutynahkt is unknown). It’s mostly a moral biography like one would find in a tomb (where the tomb occupant lists the things they have done that they should’ve and the things they haven’t done because they should not). Another interesting text in this area is written by the Scribe of the Portal Ahanakht, in which he presents himself as the best at everything he does. In the text he refers to himself several times as “a scribe”, something he appears proud of, and there are many references to his knowledge & skill with words both as someone who can write words and someone who can construct a well turned phrase. Enmarch thinks that the handwriting of this inscription matches several others on this wall, and so Ahanakht may well have been the official scribe for several of these expeditions – and this inscription is him making sure that he is remembered as well as his masters.

One of the new inscriptions that they have discovered on the north west wall of the oval is high up on the quarry wall, and the style of the hieroglyphs is early dynastic. Taken together these imply that the early dynastic period is when this quarry was first worked. And it’s corroborated by the fact that the inscriptions from the time of Khufu are lower down the walls, and so the quarry had been used for some time by the 4th Dynasty.

Looking at the dates of the inscriptions the quarry was worked out by early in the 12th Dynasty. However there’s one inscription from a much later date – set within the 6th Dynasty inscriptions is a text that dates to the 18th Dynasty. This was a previously known inscription, but Enmarch has discovered a new line of text – which names a sculptor, possibly even the man who made the famous bust of Nefertiti, who possibly came from Amarna to assess if there was any stone left. Backing up the date of the inscription are pottery fragments found at the site of the distinctive blue painted ware of the era.

To sum up Enmarch told us that they haven’t made many major changes to the known chronology of the site, but they have discovered new & interesting details. There is still more to learn – they are currently clearing the debris at the bottom of the quarry to expose more of the lower portions of the walls, which may have new inscriptions.

I really enjoyed this talk – one of my favourite places I’ve visited in Egypt is Vulture Rock which is covered with inscriptions from the prehistoric era through to Old Kingdom expeditionary inscriptions which are presumably much like the ones at Hatnub that Enmarch described in this talk. So this talk aligned well with my interests 🙂 I also liked seeing what digital photo enhancement could do with these inscriptions, the amount of extra detail that could be pulled out was amazing.