Your mummy has toe rings

Interesting piece here on Live Science – 3,300-year-old skeletons have been found with copper toe rings.

The toe rings were likely worn while the individuals were still alive, and the discovery leaves open the question of whether they were worn for fashion or magical reasons.

Supporting the magical interpretation, one of the rings was found on the right toe of a male, age 35-40, whose foot had suffered a fracture along with a broken femur above it.

However, the second skeleton found near Amarna, capital of the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten (I have a fondness for him and his era) had no obvious injury or ailment of the foot, so why he/she was wearing it is unknown.

Wearing copper rings for medical reasons continues to this day; I know people with arthritis and rheumatism who wear them on their wrists, though as I’ve been fortunate to avoid such maladies I can’t speak as to their effectiveness. One thing that isn’t considered in the Live Science article, though, is that it’s possible the toe rings were worn then, as now, for fashion reasons.

“My heart is broken and my blood is boiling”

That is how Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, feels about the wanton destruction carried out by looters in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. If you haven’t read the story, here it is in Dr Hawass’ words:

As every one knows, the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, is naturally lit and due to the architectural style of it, there are glass windows on its roof.  The criminals broke the glass windows and used ropes to get inside, there is a distance of four metres from the ceiling to the ground of the museum.  The ten people broke in when I was at home and, although I desperately wanted to go to the museum, I could not leave my house due to the curfew. In the morning, as soon as I woke up, I went directly there…   Luckily, the criminals who stole the jewellery from the gift shop did not know where the jewellery inside the museum is kept.  They went into the Late Period gallery but, when they found no gold, they broke thirteen vitrines and threw the antiquities on the floor.  Then the criminals went to the King Tutankhamun galleries.  Thank God they opened only one case!  The criminals found a statue of the king on a panther, broke it, and threw it on the floor.

But apart from damaging priceless artifacts – and for a rough list of what was damaged, see Eloquent Peasant – two mummies were destroyed and had their heads ripped off.  The mummies, which have not yet been identified in the media, may have been those of Tutankhamun’s grandparents, and were among the best-preserved in the museum’s holdings.

It’s possible, based on what I’ve read on Twitter and elsewhere, that the plan was to sell these on the black market. The salaries of many Egyptians are so low, and unemployment is so high (these are some of the reasons people have been protesting for the last week) that it might be a temptation too far for some. That the would-be thieves came in through the roof suggests a certain element of organisation and planning, although nothing more has been said about them.

Quite apart from attempting to steal some of the most priceless treasures any civilisation has produced, the desecration of the dead is something I find particularly horrifying. Whether it was Carter hacking up Tutankhamum in order to remove him from the coffin, or this atrocity, the destruction of a corpse is just unforgivable. I accept that removing the bodies from their original context in their tombs was, in itself, disturbing the dead, but as it was for their long-term preservation and safeguarding it was clearly for the best. What happened in the Cairo museum was mindless vandalism and cruelty, depriving not only the dead of their dignity but future generations of the chance to learn of and see these historical figures first-hand.

Perhaps part of my disgust is that mummification keeps the bodies so close to the state in which they were in at death. I think this adds to the horror of what happened, because these criminals destroyed two bodies which were clearly identifiable. I can only wonder at the inner workings of whoever could bring themselves to do this. Like Dr Hawass, my blood too is boiling. When I heard that the museum had been broken in to and mummies beheaded, my heart skipped a few beats. I have loved Egyptian history for as long as I can remember, and I am passionate about the preservation of all history. It is all part of human civilisation, and if we don’t remember and treasure what has gone before, what is the point of going forward?

Dr Hawass’ statement, which had to be faxed to Italy to be put online, as the Egyptian government has shut down the internet there, also mentions that stores of antiquities at various other dig sites have been looted. We can only hope that some of these can be recovered, but history teaches us that they may be gone unless turned in or otherwise stumbled across. In Cairo, Egyptian citizens mindful of their magnificent heritage surrounded the museum to keep looters out until the army could take control of the building. I am unsure what is happening at other sites.

While I know there are those who believe Dr Hawass to be more intent on grandstanding and seeking publicity, the fact remains that he is a master of his field and that his passion for antiquities sparks something in everyone who hears him. I met him once, very briefly, when he gave a guest lecture in UCC. I still have my lecture notes with his autograph, “Zahi”, scrawled across them. His enthusiasm for Egyptian archaeology and heritage was infectious, and so I know that his distress at what has happened is all the more intense.

“My heart is broken and my blood is boiling”. These words sum up the feelings of anyone who loves history and who shares the horror at the events of this week.

I’m also watching Egyptology News for updates on the situation.

UPDATE: 30/1/2011, 21.23: KV64 has more on the damage.

Egyptian sources

I have always loved Egyptian history, even though I’ve never been able to study it (as far as I can tell there isn’t a single course in Egyptology in Ireland). However, the Duke Papyrus Archive might make that a small bit easier, containing as it does about 1,400 papyri dealing with subjects from religion to slavery. The site is quite simple but does what it needs to do, and there’s a search function if you need to dig up something specific.

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.