Glitters in the dust

Paul Sussman’s article about Egyptian tomb KV56 shows just how significant a very tiny discovery can be:

Our first season of excavating didn’t produce much … It was the second one when things started to get i nteresting. One morning one of the workers and I were scraping away in a corner of the burial chamber when we noticed something glinting in the lamplight. It was a small plaque, or rectangle of beaten gold, beautifully worked and stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Seti II. Ayrton had found 13 identical plaques, part of a chain that would have hung around the pharaoh’s neck. This was one he’d missed.

On one level it was simply a pretty, if extremely rare, trinket, adding nothing to our knowledge of ancient Egyptian history. On another, it was a truly remarkable find – an object that no one had seen or touched for three millennia and that had once been worn by a man considered to be a living god.

The team later found many more pieces of pharaonic jewellery, the first to be found in the Valley of the Kings since Tutankhamen’s tomb was excavated. Here is a presentation paper on the dig in question.

Our understanding of the past can be informed by something as small as an arrowhead: it tells us an enormous amount about the culture that produced it, from giving an idea of their funerary rites to an indication of their material wealth and industrial ability. I work with documents rather than artifacts, but some of the same principles apply. From a document, I can get a good idea of the society that produced it. I am not greatly familiar with palaeography, but the manuscript itself would tell me about the wealth and organisation of the society, as would the elements used to make the ink or decoration.

Document diggers like me may not have the chance to unearth a piece of ancient golden treasure, but finding something significant in an overlooked line of text is a reward in itself.

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1 thought on “Glitters in the dust

  1. How right you are! Of course manuscripts can also provide clues to industrial or technical ability too. Everything we know about text markup and page layout in antiquity (see my website) comes from analysing the clues in medieval manuscripts.

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