06 October 2014

Eritha, A Mycenaean Uppity Woman

Around the year 1300 B.C.E., a priestess named Eritha argued a law suit against the governing council of the district of Pa-ki-ja-na (= Sphagianes, "the place of ritual slaughter").  Eritha was high-priestess of the religious sanctuary at Sphagianes where she served the great Mycenaean-Greek goddess, Potnia (meaning "Our Lady" or "Mistress").  
Eritha the priestess claims that the land she holds is a 'freehold' on behalf of her divinity, but the damos [district council] says that she holds a plot of leased communal land.

Eritha v District of Sphagianes

The legal issue is clear: if Eritha had leased the land from the commune as an individual person, it would be taxable.  Eritha asserted, however, that she held it as "freehold" on behalf of her goddess, and thus it was free of all fiscal and service obligations.  This was no trivial dispute.  The amount of land involved was substantial.  It was also prime arable land located not far from the town of Pylos, where the king (the wanax) who then ruled over this part of Greece had his palace. 

We know about this legal case because it was recorded on a clay tablet (PY Ep 704) written in Linear B (the earliest known form of Greek) by a bureaucrat working in the palace of Pylos.  Faced with two powerful, competing entities -- a senior priestess versus her local governing council -- the scribe either lacked the will or the authority to decide whose claim took priority and simply recorded both claims as items to be dealt with at some later date.  In time-honoured bureaucratic form, he "kicked it upstairs".  Presumably, the king himself would have decided the case ... had not the mortal enemies of Pylos chosen this time to attack his capital.  And so it happened that, in the year that Eritha challenged the district council, the palace went up in flames and the kingdom collapsed. 

Death and taxes

The fire that destroyed the palace unexpectedly baked and thus preserved the Eritha v District of Sphagianes tablet. Like so many other ancient court cases, we do not know how this dispute was resolved nor even if the king had time to hear any arguments before disaster overtook him.  All we really know is that Eritha had an active dispute with the local government of Sphagianes and had challenged them over the classification of a large chunk of land.  

Presumably, every landholder in the community of Sphagianes shared the obligation to pay a certain amount of annual tax to the palace.  If Eritha's property wasn't taxable, the missing amount would have been shared out among the other landholders when the taxman came to collect whatever was due to the king.  The prospect of heavier burdens for the rest of the community (not to mention for themselves) must have prompted council members  to object to Eritha's claim.  Eritha, however, was trying to protect the interests of her goddess and sanctuary (though it's not impossible she had also slipped a bit of private land into the divine freehold).  Both the district council and the sanctuary had the wherewithal to act as independent legal entities.  And both sides tried to get the most out of the system for their supporters and also possibly for themselves.


This seemingly everyday squabble is actually of huge importance in women's history because it tells us, first of all, that Eritha must have had legal access to both private and official land holdings; otherwise there could be no dispute.  Clearly, despite being a woman, Eritha could legally own, or lease, arable land -- the most important commodity in an agrarian economy and the basis of all status and power.  Eight centuries later, Greek women -- at least those of whom we know anything, like the ladies of Classical Athens -- no longer had such rights: they could own personal effects like jewellery, clothes, and household goods, but (with very few exceptions) nothing more.  

Second, Eritha apparently had the authority to plead her own case.  No husband, guardian, or son is mentioned.  Remarkably, she was able to defend her own economic interests against her local governing council. And she did so in public. Again, no later Greek woman, not even a priestess, would have been able to represent herself in a legal dispute, let alone challenge public authorities.  Such audacity cannot have been common.  In fact, we hear of no legal case brought by a male official or landowner.  It is extraordinary (at least from the viewpoint of gender politics) that this is the only law suit recorded in the entire Linear B corpus.

Eritha thus has the dubious distinction of having argued the first legal case ever known in Europe.

An Uppity Woman

As chief priestess of "Our Lady", the great goddess Potnia, Eritha had an exceptionally high status.  She held leases in her own name on rather a lot of different tracts of land in the district, as well as having the authority to disburse some of this land to her own subordinates.  For example, she made a grant of land as a 'gift of honour' to a woman named Huamia, who was described as a 'servant of the divinity' (PY Eb 416; PY Ep 704).  Apparently, she had the right to reassign her own land holdings in accordance with her personal wishes.  Other tablets tell of two of her slaves (or servants) who each held a small allotment of public land: her high rank meant that even her lowly underlings qualified for official land holdings (PY Eb 1176; PY En 609).

Behind every uppity woman is a power base, in this case the cult sanctuary at Sphagianes.  Potnia and her shrine were closely linked with palatial cult and power.  The king of Pylos made monthly offerings to the great goddess and lesser deities connected with her sanctuary.  A unique tablet (PY Tn 316) records gifts to the gods in connection with a religious ritual.  Found in the  central archive of the palace, the tablet lists gifts of thirteen gold vases and ten human beings (8 women, 2 men) to female and male deities in order of descending importance.  Potnia takes pride of place  She is clearly the principle deity for the royal house at Pylos, at least at this time of year [July-August?]:

During the Month of Sailing.
And he [the king?] is performing a holy ceremony.
And he is bringing and carrying gifts to the shrine at Sphagianes.
To Potnia: 1 gold goblet, 1 woman [servant?]

Then, four minor goddesses who reside with Potnia at her shrine are given simpler gold bowls (plus two woman servants).  From the language used, it appears that the primary activity of the event was a procession and ritual performance at which the king offered gifts of gold vessels and female servants to Potnia and associated goddesses.

Beware of Mycenaean-Greeks bearing gifts

Which brings us back to the land at the centre of the dispute between the priestess Eritha and the damos of Sphagianes.  Can it have begun with a lavish royal gift of land given by the king to Potnia? The palace certainly had the power to tax the land of Sphagianes.  Perhaps the king simply comandeered a parcel of their communal land, declared it free of taxes, and presented it as a religious offering to the goddess.  If so, the district council's protest may have been aimed not so much at the alienation of land as the fiscal consequences -- a problem which only the king could resolve.  Thus, the dispute might have involved not two but three centres of power: the king, the damos, and Eritha fighting her corner on behalf of the shrine of Potnia.   

No wonder the palace scribe 'kicked it upstairs' for a royal decision.

A One-And-Only Eritha

This post was meant to review a marvelous new book, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, by Barbara Olsen (Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College).  For better or worse, I got carried away by the extraordinary implications of Eritha v District of Sphagianes.  Eritha, however, was an altogether exceptional woman.  She was not representative even of other high-born women at Pylos, let alone those of the middling or lower classes.  What rights had they?  What kind of lives did they lead?  We'll turn to that in the next post.  Consider Eritha's story, thus, as a kind of trailer for my upcoming review Barbara Olsen's fascinating study of the women at Pylos and Knossos. 


Barbara Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, Routledge, London and New York, 2014; Susan Lupack, "Redistribution in Mycenaean Societies. A View from Outside the Palace: The Sanctuary and the Damos in Mycenaean Economy and Society", American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011) 207-17; T.G. Palaima, "Kn 02 - Tn 316",  Floreant Studia Mycenaea.  Acts of the 10th International Mycenaean Colloquium in Salzburg , Vienna, 1999, 437-456.


Top: Fresco of the "Mycenaean Lady" from the Cult Centre, Acropolis of Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum, Athens inv. no. 11670. Photo credit:

Middle:"Goddess with Sheaves of Grain", Room of the Frescoes, Citadel House, Mycenae. Nauplion Museum.

Below: Two-handled gold goblet, the so-called 'Cup of Nestor' from Shaft Grave IV (Grave Circle A), Mycenae.  Photo credit: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/mycenae.html

28 September 2014

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

In the year 113 CE,  a rich Palmyran merchant named Taibul (or TYBL in his native Palmyrene) built a grand underground tomb for himself and his family, for their burials to be secure ... and remembered forever. 

The name of the tomb's founder and date of construction were inscribed on the lintel-stone discovered outside his 'House of Eternity'.  The tomb itself ('H' on the map: click to enlarge) lies about five kilometres southeast of Palmyra, in a large cemetery where all the tombs are subterranean -- so, when you get to the site, you don't see anything except, here and there, low heaps of sand-covered rubble from collapsed towers.  In fact, at the end of the dirt-track that leads to the necropolis, there appears to be only empty stony desert. 

However, the lack of anything to see above ground is more than made up for by what is hidden below: in 2002, Japanese archaeologists discovered this intact tomb from the period of Palmyra's rise to greatness.*  A tomb unlooted, and rich.  TYBL had been twice lucky.

Into the Tomb of TYBL

Leaving the brilliant desert sunlight behind, you pass through a massive single-slab door, descend the stone staircase, and find yourself in a long spacious room.  On the opposite wall there are three separate burial vaults; the most prominent is the central exedra (the semicircular arcade in the middle) with simpler arched chambers on either side.  Taibul lies with his nearest and dearest in the central vault -- set apart from more distant or less prestigious relatives by a great arch flanked by two pilasters with elaborately decorated capitals. Inside the exedra, three elegant stone funerary banqueting couches are arranged as if for a feast in a Roman dining room (triclinium).  Finely-sculpted figures of men, women, and children make up the banqueters.

No inscriptions have been published from the exedra but Taibul, as the family patriarch, is surely the middle figure reclining in the place of honour.  As the centre of the family scene, he would be the first person met by his descendants as they entered the chamber bringing vessels filled with water and wine to drink ceremoniously with their dead ancestors.  On his right sits his wife and son and, to the left (presumably) his brother and brother's wife.  More family members are memorialized on the sarcophagus below.  

Two stone couches placed on either side of Taibul's splendid monument are filled with men and women, surely close relatives, reclining or sitting according to sex and status, with still more family busts below.  Thus, three families are simultaneously joining in Taibul's funerary banquet while also celebrating their own.   

High Relief and False Sarcophagi

At the far end of the tomb, another arched chamber would have been immediately visible to anyone entering the tomb.  In the centre of its back wall, two sculptures in high relief are fitted into a niche. The top piece depicts a man reclining on a couch (although the couch is not actually illustrated), his three children standing behind him.  Below, two men, perhaps an adult son and his (predeceased?) father, take up two-thirds of the relief, leaving little space on their couch for a diminutive wife and two children.  These high reliefs are false sarcophagi.  They imitate the motif of the funerary banquet but are unusable, of course, for the deposition of the dead -- as they hang in the air and have no depth.  So, they are images of the dead for commemorative purposes only.  We really don't know what happened to the bodies of the people depicted on them but they might have been placed in the now-empty loculi which are visible to the left and right of the niche.


Naturally, not everyone is privileged to have sumptuous funerary monuments.

The simpler burials lack elaborate funerary couches and large sepulchres.  Instead, the dead are buried in loculi, narrow coffin-like horizontal spaces cut into the walls of the tomb.  Each loculus was sealed by a limestone slab portraying the head and upper body of the dead person interred within. 

Or rather, as recent excavation shows, the portrait of one of the dead persons within.  For, oddly enough, a loculus was not used for just a single body. Usually several bodies were buried inside even if there were many unused loculi nearby.  Since this is quite a recent discovery, we do not yet have any idea how they chose whose portrait would be used to seal the loculus.  Even odder, the sex of the bodies buried inside does not seem to determine the sex of the bust on the outside of the grave: all we can say is that interred dead males are generally more numerous than females.  Both sexes were placed inside with their heads facing the innermost wall.  And neither sex was buried with any grave goods except for the clothes that they wore on their bodies.  Dead infants, on the other hand, placed in pits in the floor of the funerary chambers, were given some small objects like glass beads and bronze bells to take with them to the other world.  

So, in death, as perhaps also in life, the ties of the extended Palmyran family were enormously strong.  Taibul's tomb served primarily the burial needs of his kin, based, I would think (as with  much of the elite), on cross-cousin marriages.  Publication is still  incomplete but we may imagine a tomb filled to the brim with stone images of Taibul's brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, all commemorated in the tomb's funerary art.

Or, sadly, of what remains of its funerary art.

Two Ladies from Taibul's Tomb

This richly-adorned lady, whose name is lost, is almost certainly the same woman who is pictured on the upper left of the loculi wall above.  Her face, hairstyle and turban match and her pose is the same: right hand holding spindle; index finger in the pointing gesture; spread fingers of her left hand holding her veil.  This is, of course, a very common female gesture.  Her specific jewellery confirms the identification: the bracelet and the shapes, number, and size of her necklaces are identical with the jewels worn by the lady on the wall.  But she is no longer on her wall.  Her grave-stone was jimmied off  and taken from the tomb by looters.  

Alas, Taibul, your luck has run out.

The Tipping Point

The four-year civil war has killed more than 200,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes. It is also destroying some of the world's most important art, buildings and monuments. As the war grinds on, illegal excavation and the looting of antiquities is running riot.  Sometimes the thieves are soldiers in the Syrian army.  Others are criminal gangs, crazed iconoclasts, or just desperate unemployed and hungry men.  It hardly matters: the resulting destruction of Syria's heritage is the same.  

Amidst the gloom, however, are rare flashes of light, such as the lucky swoop by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums that recovered the anonymous bejewelled lady from Taibul's tomb (reported on the Palmyra History and Archaeology website, with photographs of recovered loot).

The authorities must sometimes get tip-offs.  In just a single month  this year, they intercepted three different lots of looted Palmyran antiquities on their way to the international market (click for illustrations of the recovered objects): on 6 March 2014, 16 March 2014, and 30 March 2014.  April was much the same.  June and September were worse.**  And so it goes. These objects had all originated from known tomb groups or museum storerooms.  What is perhaps even more disturbing is the consignment seized on 19 June 2014, none of which was known to archaeologists, which means that illegal digging of unexcavated tombs is taking place around the city despite Palmyra being nominally under the control of the Syrian army.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

The grave-stone of Amta, Daughter of Yarha (left) had also been stolen from Taibul's tomb and was among the group recovered on 26th August.  As she is not pictured on the loculi wall but was registered among the tomb's unpublished contents, it seems all too likely that the thieves have emptied Taibul's tomb of its entire contents.  Can we doubt that all the funerary banquets, sarcophagi, high reliefs, and busts have also been cut from the walls -- and already crossed the border into Lebanon to be sold on to rich European, American, and Gulf collectors? 

Amta will be going back home, it is true, but her context is forever lost. Perhaps because of her beauty, the Syrian authorities gave her a whole page of her own boasting of her recovery.  Amta deserves her 15 minutes of fame.  But then, again, the gloom descends.   'Alas!' is the Palmyran last cry for the dead.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

*    Prof. Kiyohide Saito and the Japanese Archaeological Mission to Palmyra have been exploring, excavating, and restoring tombs in the Southeast Necropolis since 1991.  Their final research report summary (2004) is available at the Kaken website.

** A few days ago, it was reported that the entire Southeast Necropolis has now been looted. 


Top left: Plan of Palmyra's Southeastern necropolis with location of Talbul's tomb (Tomb H) circled.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Centre: Isometric plan of Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Second left: Exedra of Taibul's tomb. Credit: Sumitomo Foundation

Third and Fourth left:  Inside Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology 1, Palmyra History and Archaeology 2

Fifth left: Anonymous lady looted from Taibul's tomb.  Credit: DGAM

Bottom left: Amta, Daughter of Yarha.  Credit: DGAM

18 June 2014

Egyptian 'Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom' (Part II)

The Archaeology of Female Burial

Continuing my review of Grajetzki, Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom

Yes, I did say in Part I of this post that I would stop harping on the gorgeous jewellery of 12th Dynasty royal women and show you some serious implements of authority and war instead.  Well, sorry, girls will be girls. So hang on a moment and we'll get to blood and guts after the bling.

This is the pyramid of Pharaoh Senusret III (ca. 1837-1818 BCE) at Dahshur.   Around the king's enormous pyramid are clusters of smaller pyramids inhabited in death by his wives and daughters. Each such peripheral pyramid had an underground burial chamber containing the sarcophagus and two side chambers, presumably chapels dedicated to the cult of the deceased.  

X Marks the Spot

Instead of separate units for each queen or daughter of the royal loins, as was customary, there was (left) a most unusual underground  gallery connecting the burial chambers beneath the four small pyramids on the north side.  Under the first gallery, a lower shaft provided access to a long vaulted corridor connecting the four sets of chambers each with their sarcophagus and canopic chest.  

Long before the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan explored these galleries in 1894/5, they had been entered by tomb robbers -- probably during the Hyksos period (ca. 1650-1550 BCE) -- and all the sarcophagi were opened and looted.

I can well imagine the first reaction of De Morgan when he found the open sarcophagi and scattered debris left by the ancient thieves: after digging the main pyramid and finding nothing but dust in the king's  sarcophagus, and then these ransacked tombs, he might well have been a bit disheartened.  But the robbers had been careless or perhaps confounded (not expecting, I imagine, to find buried treasure in a tomb) and so missed two boxes filled with jewellery that had been placed in holes dug into the floor.

Thus, a lucky Monsieur de Morgan hit the jackpot: finding one badly decayed, partly gilded treasure chest on 6 March 1894, and another two days later.

Fit for a pharaoh's daughter

The first box almost certainly belonged to Princess Sithathor, as the box contained a scarab with her name and title, 'King's daughter Sithathor, lady of honour'.

It seems that the princess took with her to the grave much of the jewellery that she had already worn during her lifetime: the gold was much heavier than the thin or gold-leaf items that are usually found on mummies.  Surely her most cherished possession was this pectoral collar (above) made of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise, with the throne name of her father (?) Senusret II in the central cartouche.  On both sides of the cartouche a Horus falcon wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt is perched on the hieroglyphic sign for 'gold'. 

Other masterpieces from her treasure include two bracelets (left) of  hundreds of beads in alternate rows of lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise with gold spacer bars between them, and fastening pieces in the shape of a djed pillar (the sign 'Stability!'). Similar bracelets with djed-pillar clasps were found in the nearby burial of Senusret III's principle queen Weret II, a tomb only discovered in 1995.*

Smiting the enemy

The second treasure in the gallery belonged to the king's daughter (possibly also king's wife) Mereret.  Her box contained an even greater number of goodies including two pectoral collars -- one with the throne name of Senusret III and one naming Amenemhat III, his successor.**  The later pectoral (above) depicts a vulture  protecting the scene under its outstretched wings.  The king's throne name appears twice within a cartouche, between which is written "The good god, lord of the two lands, beating all foreign lands".  Not to leave any doubt, the enemies about to be clobbered are identified by a label which reads, "smiting Asiatics".  Accordingly, the king is (twice) shown smiting kneeling enemies with a mace. 

A mace?

Yes, that's how pharaohs smite:

Your mace is over the head of every foreign land ....

The depiction of the king on foot with mace raised ready to crack the skulls of his enemies is very ancient and it doesn't change much over time.  But why a mace?  Maces are basically only wooden clubs with a head made of some heavy and hard material, in this case stone. As one of the earliest weapons in ancient Egypt, the skull-smashing mace became a source of royal prowess long after it was abandoned as a practical weapon. Perhaps this was because the mace is a weapon requiring great force, rather than any particular skill, and so became a symbol of overwhelming power.

But that alone does not explain why the mace-wielding smiting scene endured for some 3,000 years: even Egypt's Roman pharaohs continued to crush opponents with a mace, at least on temple walls.  In fact, this is probably the longest-lasting and best-attested image in Egyptian culture.  Its staying power may well lie in its echo of the cosmic conflict between the gods Horus and Seth, their everlasting battle of good against evil, and the victory of order over chaos. The pharaoh was considered to be an incarnation of the falcon god Horus, the posthumous son of Osiris, a divine king slain by his brother, Seth.

Horus has brought Seth to thee [Osiris-King], he has given him to thee, bowed down under thee.  (Pyr. 1632a)

Which brings us back to Mereret.

In Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom, Wolfram Grajetzkio describes 76 pieces of  jewellery and precious objects found in her treasure chest: number 74 is listed simply as  'A mace head.'  So Mereret, too, amidst all her gold and dainty bangles took a royal weapon with her to the grave.***  She is far from the only royal lady buried with weapons and royal regalia.  As we saw in Part I,  Dr Grajetzki's careful listing of finds from the few intact female burials, credit all of the women with one or more maces, daggers, bows, arrows, and even spears -- as well as wooden staffs, flails, and sceptres of authority.  

In a word, these are standard features of the 'Court Type' elite burials -- for women as well as men. 

True, Mereret had just a single mace head in her treasure box -- but who knows how many weapons and regalia had originally been buried with her and later looted from her grave?  A goodly number, I would say, given those in intact female 'Court Type' burials.   But the "Most Weapons Award" should probably go to the comparatively  non-aristocratic 'Lady of the House', Senebtisi, whose unlooted tomb was excavated at Lisht in 1906/07 by Herbert Winlock of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lady Senebtisi lacked nothing when it came to worldly goods.  Despite not having a royal title, she nonetheless had a 'Court Type' burial.  Her mummy was adorned with loads of jewellery (three broad collars, gold necklaces, gold hair ornaments made of 98 golden rosettes, armlets, anklets, and much much more).  She also had a full panopoly of royal sceptres and staffs, a beaded flail (similar to that on the left), two bows, an alabaster mace with a gold-mounted shaft, a rock crystal mace-head, and a copper dagger with gilded wooden sheath.

She was, it seems, quite ready to have a battle royal.  Yet I don't think for a moment that she was a warrior-woman in any way, shape, or form [in this, disagreeing with Rebecca Dean (see Sources, below)].  Nor can we really explain the weapons and regalia as a means of projecting their worldly power: if anything, there seems to be a decrease in women's and thus queens' status in the Middle Kingdom.

Wolfram Grajetzki is, of course, well aware of the fact that female Court-Type burials contain muddled gender-related goods.  In fact, he takes us on a tour of rich tombs in other ancient cultures where weapons are occasionally buried with high-ranking women.  But there really isn't much known about female burials in the Middle Bronze Age around the eastern Mediteranean, the time period of this post.  So, he doesn't say much -- except to warn against the danger of projecting our own gender expections onto ancient burials.  

How true.

Dr Grajetzki does, however, put his finger on the underlying symbolism -- if only alluding to it briefly -- when he says: 

Although these insignia and weapons are in other contexts associated with gender and in many cultures more typical for burials of men, they appear as ritual object in late Middle Kingdom tombs of women.  In this context they are not gender related but confirm the identity of the deceased as Osiris, and clearly show that the deceased was treated as Osiris in ritual.
What has Osiris to do with it? 

It's complicated.

In ancient Egypt, the act of creating new life was not attributed to females.  Rather, the male created the 'spark of life' while the female's role was to stimulate the male sexually and then receive his child (fully formed in the semen) into her nuturing body.  That's how it was supposed to work both for earthly fertility (having babies) as well as for -- a crucial mental leap -- the rejuvenation of the dead.  It all goes back to the Creation.

Atum and Osiris

In the Egyptian creation myth, the primal deity Atum brought forth all creation via masturbation.  The only female entity involved was his hand --  the word 'hand' is grammatically feminine in Egyptian -- which helped Atum create himself by acting as the stimulant.  Thus, the deceased says:
I am Atum who made the sky and created what exists, who came forth from the earth, who created seed, Lord of All, who fashioned the god, the Great God, the Lord of Life.... (Book of the Dead, Spell 79)
Osiris, god of the netherworld, has the same creative power, somewhat weirdly creating his own rebirth after his murder and dismemberment by his brother Seth.  When his sister-wife Isis had reassembled him in a wrapped human form (i.e. the first mummy), Osiris magically recreated himself through the same act of masturbation as Atum.  Osiris essentially raises himself from the dead.  When his body had been reunited by mummification, that sexual act reawakened him to life.  Hence, the transition to the blessed afterlife became a model for mortals, but one that only really worked for the male sex.  The female had no active role in the mechanism of rebirth.

You can well imagine that this created problems for half of the elite world.  Nonetheless...

You will become Osiris (CT, Spell 4)

The circle was squared by having the dead take on a masculine form once placed inside the sarcophagus, regardless of the original gender of the body.  To start with, both male and female deceased likened themselves to the god of rebirth, assuming the name of Osiris + their personal name.  Thus, for example, Zenobia would have become Osiris-Zenobia (regardless of her female sex).  This would give her the regenerative powers of a creator god, simultaneously masculine and divine.  Second, her mummy  was shaped into the form of Osiris, with the same wrappings whether the person inside was male or female.  Third, scribes stuck to the masculine pronouns he and him instead of the feminine she and her when writing magical texts on a woman's coffin.  All together, this meant that the deceased female was given a temporary masculine divine identity in order to be reborn after death. 

Wake up!  May you appear as Osiris... in your hand is the sceptre, in your hand is the flail.

Yes, but to be sure to wake up in the 'Fields of Peace' I suggest we add a fourth way for wily elite women to masculinize themselves: let them place in their tombs such manly objects as weapons, the regalia of kings, and even metal tools.

If nothing else, this will confuse generations of Egyptologists.

But don't worry.  After becoming one of the 'blessed dead',  the lady returns to her feminine self, her true form for all eternity.

In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum of Art investigated a shaft in the western most of these tombs that led to a tunnel which in turn led to a three chambers actually located under the southwest corner of the king's pyramid. Fragments of a canopic jar found within this tomb bore the name of Khnumetneferhedjetweret (Weret II), who was the wife of Senusret II and the mother of Senusret III.  See also "Queens and Princesses in the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2004).

** Egyptologists generally agree that such scenes cluttered with figures and hieroglyphs are characteristic of the goldsmith's art under Amenemhat III, indicating a slight decline in the goldsmith's art. There's certainly something crowded in the composition, at least to our eyes; but would Mereret have agreed with us?  I rather suspect not.  

*** Stone maceheads already appear in female burials in the Predynastic period.  A study of 100 Predynastic burials with mace heads indicated that the weapons were more common in the graves of males but not at all rare in female graves.  Given the unreliability of sex determination in early excavations, we should be cautious (although the sex bias probably lies in the other direction).  However, three such burials appear quite certain: Predynastic Naqada 1488 with two stone mace heads; 1401 with three stone mace heads and a flint knife; and 1417 with a decorated limestone mace head and several flint knives.  For references, see Dean in Sources, below; for maces in Predynastic graves, see Stevenson in Sources, below.

Sources: Besides the book under review, I have made especial use of M.M. Luiselli, "The Ancient Egyptian Scene of 'Pharaoh Smiting his Enemies': an attempt to visualize cultural memory".  In (M. Bommas, ed.) Cultural Memory and Identity in Ancient Societies, 10-25;  R. Dean, Women, Weaponry and Warfare in Ancient Egypt: A Brief Examination of Available Evidence ; A. Stevenson, Alice, 'Mace',  UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.  On the exciting new topic of the fluid genders of the dead, see H.L. McCarthy, 'The Osiris Nefertari: A Case Study of Decorum, Gender and regeneration,' Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 39 (2002), 173-195; and the trio of papers by K. Cooney, which she so kindly sent me: 'Gender Transformation in Death' Near Eastern Archaeology 73.4 (2010) 224-237; 'Where does the Masculine Begin and the Feminine End?' In (B. Heininger, ed.) Ehrenmord und Emanzipation, 99-124; and 'The Problem of Female Rebirth in New Kingdom Egypt', In (C. Graves-Brown, ed.), Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: "Don your Wig for a Joyful Hour", 1-25. 

Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom:

The Archaeology of Female Burials

By Wolfram Grajetzki

University of Pennsylvania Press

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209198
E-ISBN-10: 0812209192
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245677
Page Count: 288
106 illus.
Publication Year: 2013


Top: Pyramid complex of Sensuret III in Dahshur. Copyright © 2000-2014 Dariusz Sitek, Czestochowa - Chicago-Ann Arbor.

Upper left: Plan of the underground galleries of the pyramid complex of Sensuret III.  Credit: W. Grajetzki, from the book under review, p. 83, Fig. 65.

Middle left: Canopic jars of Princess Sithathor .  Photo credit: Egypt, The pyramid of Sensuret II at Dahshur.

Upper centre: Pectoral of Sithathor with the throne name of Senusret II in central cartouche.  Photo credit: Sergiothirteen on the Ancient Egyptian Jewellery Flickr group.

Lower left 1: I cheated: this photograph is actually of the restrung djed-pillar bracelets of Queen Weret II (A. Oppenheim, "Queens and Princesses in the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2004).  The similar bracelets belonging to Sithathor were in deplorable condition with scattered beads and only the djed-pillar clasps intact.

Middle centre: Pectoral of Mereret with the throne name of Amenemhat III.  Photo credit:

Lower left 2: A rounded pear form of mace head known as a "piriform" used throughout the Naqada III period (3250-3100 BC).  Photo credit: Tour Egypt net.

Lower left 3: Girdle of Mereret, gold and amethyst, length 60 cm.  Cairo Museum JE 30879 - 30923 (CG 53075). Photo credit: Tour Egypt

Below centre: Was sceptres from the tomb of Senebtisi, Lisht North, Tomb of Senwosret (758), Pit 763, MMA 1906–1907.  Photo credit:  Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Rogers Fund, 1908;  Accession Number: 08.200.51.

Lower left 4: Collar and beaded flail from burial of Princess Nefruptah, daughter of Ameemhat III,  in Hawara.  Photo credit  sergiothirteen on Flickr.

Bottom left: Colossol statue from Coptos showing the god Min engendering his own creation. Ca. 3200 BCE. Ashmolean Museum 1994.105e.  Photo credit: Katherine Wodehouse (via K.M. Cooley, 'Gender Transformation in Death' (see Sources), Fig. 1.

28 May 2014

Egyptian 'Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom'

The Archaeology of Female Burials

Ask anyone: the glory of Middle Kingdom art is its sculpture --  and I agree: it really does reach an extraordinary high level, especially during the 12th Dynasty (ca. 1983-1778 BCE).  Most of the grandest statues, of course, depicted kings and princes but royal sculpture also extended, if less often, to the females of the ruling families.  One of the finest such pieces is this masterly polished head of Princess Ita, a child of Pharaoh Amenemhat II (1919–1885 BCE), the beloved king's daughter of his body.*  

We actually know something about this princess.

The reason I want to tell you about her is that I've just read a fascinating new book by Egyptologist Wolfram Grajetzki, Honorary Research Associate at University College London.   In his Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom: The Archaeology of Female Burials, Dr Grajetzki pulls together for the first time all possible information on Middle Kingdom tombs belonging to elite and royal women (the so-called 'Court Type' burials of people closest to the king; in a word, his courtiers).  It's a surprisingly short list.  So many of their tombs were excavated in the nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries when, to be honest, archaeologists were more interested in getting objects for museum collections than in recording details of the dig, let alone correctly sexing the skeletons.  Most tombs were also massively looted in antiquity resulting in fragmentary finds and badly-disturbed contents. 

There was no such insult to the grave of Princess Ita.  She and other females of her family were the lucky ones.

Horus has placed gold on his eye, a gold collar (Pyr. spell 742)

Ita's tomb was found in the pyramid complex built by her father, Pharaoh Amenemhat II, at Dahshur, about 30 km (19 miles) south of Cairo.  The pyramid was re-discovered  by the French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan (left) in 1894 but it was in deplorable state -- a shapeless heap of rubble with only piles of white limestone chippings -- the remains of its outer casing -- to mark the spot.  Around the west enclosure wall of the pyramid, however, De Morgan found three underground galleries, each of which contained two burials.  

Miraculously, the burials had been missed by grave robbers and they produced sumptuous examples of Middle Kingdom funerary objects.  

If  you've got it, flaunt it!

The first gallery excavated by De Morgan's team belonged to the king's daughters Ita and Khenmet.

Princess Ita's tomb consisted of two chambers, one completely filled by the sarcophagus, while the other contained her burial goods.  Her body was found inside a set of three containers. The outer sarcophagus was a simple sandstone rectangular box.  Then, a middle coffin decorated with gilded edging and inscribed on the inside with religious texts and on the outside with wedjat eyes D10 , symbols of protection and royal power.  The poorly preserved inner anthropoid coffin (that is, shaped like a human mummy) was embellished with inlaid silver eyes, a headdress in blue with golden bands, and a broad beaded collar on the breast.  The actual mummy wore around her neck the remains of a broad collar made of silver and beads of lapis lazuli, carnelian, and turquoise, and was decked out with multiple armlets and bracelets.  

We don't know if Princess Khenmet, who was buried near Ita in the same gallery, is her sister or not.  Like Ita, she was laid to rest in a set of three containers: an outer sarcophogus made of quartzite, a wooden coffin with inscriptions almost identical to those found inside Ita's coffin, and a badly-decayed inner anthropoid coffin -- its head covered in blue and gold and with inlaid silver eyes.  She too was described as a king's daughter but boasted the additional title of "the one united with the white crown" (Khenmetneferhdjet, perhaps not a title but a longer version of her name).

Khenmet's jewellery was drop-dead gorgeous.

The broad collar around her neck had gold falcon-head terminals.  Look at them closely: the eyes, eyebrows and mouths of the falcons are inlaid with lapis lazuli.  The collar is made of 103 pieces of gold in the shapes of the ankh (life!), djed (stability!), and was (power!) signs. 

The two golden crowns right under the words 'flaunt it!' (up above) belonged to her too.  The circlet on the left consists of a series of golden flowers with carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise inlays, each connected by gold wires to smaller gold flowers.  The second crown is of heavier gold and inlaid with the same gemstones.  In the middle, between rosettes and flowering plants, stretches the figure of a vulture made of gold leaf and with black obsidian eyes.  The vulture suggests that Princess Khenmet was a queen; if so, her elevation may have happened quite late in life -- after most of her funerary equipment had already been made, since the title of a king's wife never appears.  

She had lots more gold jewellery (five bracelets on each arm, chokers, and clasps among other items), as well as a collection of separate gold pieces (above), perhaps from several different necklaces, which looks quite un-Egyptian in character and is more  reminiscent of goldwork from the Aegean, perhaps Minoan Crete.

Despite its beauty, I'd really like to get away from the fabulous golden gee-gaws and consider something quite different.  No one doubts that the jewellery reflects the personal identity of these women.  They are the adornments, so to speak, of their social and religious functions at the royal court.  It is also exactly what we expect wealthy ladies to take with them to the grave.  But other objects found in both Khenmet's and Ita's tombs are more debatable: such as wooden staffs and sceptres (signs of authority), a set of bronze tools, including chisels, burins, and knives, a mace (symbol of power), and daggers.  Khenmet had a dagger made of gilded wood.  But Princess Ita trumped her royally in daggers.

Royal Insignia

Near Ita's waist,  perhaps having dangled from her belt, was this remarkable dagger (left).  The crescent-shaped pommel is made of lapis lazuli.  The grip is beaten gold and inlaid with disks of lapis lazuli and green feldspar. The disks are inlaid with crosses of thin gold and between the disks are squares inlaid with light brown carnelian. A solid gold shoulder holds the bronze blade attached by three gold rivets. The gold was surely too weak to support the pressure of a thrust if the dagger was meant to be used -- so it must have been made as a funerary object for the tomb.  Just like the foreign pieces (above) of Khenmet's necklace, this dagger is also un-Egyptian in style: the rosette-like pattern of the handle is a fairly common design on Minoan Crete, while the blade's shape points to manufacture in Byblos on the northern coast of Lebanon.  

I have taken the time to describe this dagger in detail not only because it is one of the masterpieces of ancient metalwork but because it should make us ask the question: what is this superb weapon doing in a woman's tomb?  She was not alone in having a  dagger.  Princess Khenmet was buried with a gilded dagger as well as a mace.  Some elite women in similar 'Court Type' graves elsewhere had daggers, too, and often other weapons: maces, bows, arrows, and even spears.  If jewellery in the tomb describes a woman's identity, weren't these weapons also part of that identity? Yet, when the daggers are even noticed (other than for their craftsmanship), they are usually explained as weapons to be used against the evil forces to be met in the underworld.  In other words, they have nothing to do with the woman in life.  In fact, as we see from Dr Grajetzki's careful listing of finds from the few intact female burials, weapons as well as wooden staffs and sceptres are standard features of the "Court Type" burials -- for women as well as men.  Why, then, are they weapons when found with men, whereas with women they become magical tools for the afterlife?** 

We'll come back to this eternal question in Part II of this post.  We'll also consider the rich burials of women in other pyramid complexes; and, yes, look at more jewellery, too. Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom may not be an easy book but the suitably cautious and meticulous author has given us a real boost in our understanding of The Archaeology of Female Burial.

Part II: Continuing our review of 'Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom'

*This identification is not certain but the head strongly resembles that of a small, badly damaged sphinx statue  (now in the Louvre Museum) from the Syrian site of Qatna, inscribed with her name and text.

** My regular readers will be reminded of the story last October about the Etruscan prince found buried with a spear, who turned out to be, upon osteological analysis, a female: How a Prince Became a Princess: Quick Sex Change in Etruria.  Whereupon the spear was no longer seen as a weapon and symbol of authority but morphed into a symbol of the union of man and wife -- regardless of the fact it was found with her body, not his.  Later, discovering some needles in a bronze pyxis near her body (Part II: What's up with Etruscan gender?), the spear vanished from the story and the tomb was re-baptised 'The Embroiderer's Tomb', a perfect example of the conservation of gender regardless of the finds and their context. 

Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom:

The Archaeology of Female Burials

By Wolfram Grajetzki

University of Pennsylvania Press

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209198
E-ISBN-10: 0812209192
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245677
Page Count: 288
106 illus.
Publication Year: 2013


Top: Head from a Female Sphinx, ca. 1876-1842 B.C.E. Chlorite, 15 5/16 x 13 1/8 x 13 15/16 in., 124.5 lb. (38.9 x 33.3 x 35.4 cm, 56.47kg). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 56.85. Creative Commons-BYImage: Brooklyn Museum photograph.

Upper left: Jacques de Morgan, Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, 1894/5: the illustration is  from the 'illustrated London News' and shows the dramatic moment of the discovery of Princess Khenmet's diadem.  Photograph via http://ib205.tripod.com/intact_burials.html

Middle centre: Golden crowns from the tomb of Princess Khenmet.  Original photograph: Emile Brugsch in Maspero 1908, Cat. Egyptian National Museum, vol.1, via Athena Review Image Archive.

Below left: Burial chamber of Princess Itakayet, daughter of Amenemhat II, at Dahshur.  Photo credit:  A. Oppenheim, "Queens and Princesses in the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dahshur". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 2004).

Lower centre: Gold pectoral with semiprecious gem stones worn by Khenmet's mummy: via  http://ib205.tripod.com/intact_burials.html.

Below centre: Gold jewellery from Khenmet's tomb (from Crete?). Egyptian Museum, Cairo 52975-9.  Via K. Benzel, 'Ornaments of Interaction: the Art of the Jeweler' in (J. Aruz, K. Benzel, J.M. Evans, eds.) Beyond Babylon, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2008) p. 102, Fig. 33.

Bottom left: Dagger from the tomb of Princess Ita.  Photograph via Eternal Egypt website.

08 May 2014


[My long blog silence was caused by the pressure of work + a computer crash.  I mark my return with something not close to my subject but close to my heart.]

Some faint hope for Zenobia, the Syrian ibis

Zenobia, queen of the ibis colony in Syria
Almost exactly a year ago, we were grieving not only for Syria and its raging civil war, but for Zenobia, seemingly the last ibis of Palmyra (left). 

Zenobia was the only Northern Bald Ibis to make it back to the breeding grounds in the desert near Palmyra after their annual winter migration to the Ethiopian highlands (the whole, sad story in Zenobia, Last Ibis in Syria). 

It had started out so well.

Right on schedule, Zenobia flew off with her mate, Odeinat, the one and only hope for her to continue the dynasty:

Taking flight after tagging
Zenobia had been paired the previous year to Odeinat, the last surviving male ibis.  But his satellite tag stopped transmitting before he ever reached Ethiopia -- the final bleep having been sent from southern Saudi Arabia in July 2012....  

After which he went radio silent.  Zenobia returned to Palmyra alone and no other birds followed her home.  Since no sole bird, not even a queen, can breed by herself, the Syrian branch of ibises -- once numbered in the thousands -- moved from Red-List Endangered (the highest level of threat) to the edge of Extinction.

On the Brink

That didn't stop Zenobia, however.  According to her satellite transmitter, in autumn she set off again to fly to Ethiopia for her winter break -- which meant crossing seven countries and flying over 6,000 kilometres (3,800 miles) to the Ethiopian highlands.

But was she alone?

Or did some Turkish ibis fly with her?  

A Turk in Time?

In July 2013, six birds from the semi-wild Northern Bald Ibis population at Birecik, Turkey were released in a trial re-introduction to nature.  Three were fitted with satellite transmitters and ringed. Four of the birds were juveniles, and two were one-year-old birds. The hope was that the gang of six would survive and migrate.

For the first two weeks, the birds remained very close to their home breeding station.  However, excitement mounted as five of the birds departed south, and the intriguing news was that they had stopped off very close to Palmyra in mid-August, where the remaining wild population was now just the one individual, our intrepid Zenobia.

What happened next is unknown.  The war had spread to Palmyra, making it almost impossible for the Syrian team of Bird-Life International to continue field checks at the ibis breeding site in the desert.

A Flutter of Hope 

Ibis grabbing tasty scorpion prey by its sting
A trusted Ethiopian field-worker of Bird-Life International, however, picked up the trail.  News from the highlands moves slowly: in February, as I've only just heard, he visited the site where the relict Syrian birds mainly overwintered.  He reported spotting three adult northern bald ibis!  These included the female Zenobia, who was accompanied by an unringed adult.  Another lone ibis was also sighted it the area.  So, there’s a faint hope that Zenobia and the unringed bird (one of the Turks?) are indeed a pair, and might make it back to breed in Syria. 

If so, they should be returning to Palmyra any day now. 

Keep your fingers crossed for Zenobia, that rarest of rare birds and last queen of the colony at Palmyra.

Sources: We have been following Zenobia's story from March 2007 (Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra) with further hopeful flights of Latest News in 2011 and 2012, only to be grounded in 2013 with  Zenobia, Last Ibis in Syria


Top: Zenobia the ibis, during satellite tagging at Palmyra in 2006. Photo courtesy of G. Serra (via NATGEO News Watch)

Upper left: Conservation officer, Adel Abouajaja, releasing Nader  (meaning 'rare'), at the Northern Bald Ibis Conservation Project in Morocco.  Photo Credit: Víctor García Matarranz (via SEO/Grepom).

Lower left: Northern Bald Ibis.  Photo credit: Brian Stone (via SEO/BirdLife).

Bottom: Ibis catching scorpion by its sting.   Undoubtedly this is a skill learned when they’re young, demonstrating the importance of learning in these birds.   Photo Credit: Víctor García Matarranz (via SEO/Grepom).

02 February 2014

A Lyrical Literary Miracle: More Sappho (2 Updates)

The Tenth Muse

Although they are
only breath, words
which I command
are immortal .*

So said Sappho over 2,600 years ago and time has proved her right. 

Yet, until 2004, the world could read only three complete poems by the Lesbian poet.  In that year, a fourth poem was discovered and, now, just this January, we have been given a fifth. 

More about the new poems in a moment.  Be patient, and you'll be among the very first to read the newest of the new poems in an English translation which appeared only two days ago.  But, first, a word about what we don't have.

There were once nine books of her poems that were written down in the 7th century BCE.  By the time of Tzetzes, a 12th century CE chronicler, most of her poems had already vanished (Since the passage of time has destroyed Sappho and her works, her lyre and songs....).  All that is left to us now are small scraps of papyrus, often with just a single legible word or two (such as down-rushing to describe a wind, or gold-knobbed goblets with no explanation) and disjointed phrases giving the middles of some lines and the ends of others (like my favourite, tender but obscure,  far more sweet-sounding than a lyre . . . more golden than gold . . .).  Sixty-three fragments retain a complete line while only 21 can boast a whole stanza.  That's what had survived of the writings of a woman who, as Plato said, should be honoured not merely as a great lyric poet but as one of the Muses, the goddesses who inspire all art:
Some say there are nine Muses: how careless!
Look -- Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth!
Poem # 4

Then, just a decade ago, a papyrus manuscript containing fragments of three of her poems, one previously unknown, was discovered in the archives of the University of Cologne.  That papyrus (left) was found in the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy -- that is, the flexible layer of papyrus strips which was moulded while wet into a plaster-like surface around a mummified wrapped body, so that designs could be painted on it.  The text had been copied onto the original papyrus scroll early in the third century BCE, not much more than 300 years after Sappho wrote, which made it the earliest manuscript of her work then known. 

The scholars who unwrapped it realized that parts of the new poem corresponded to a fragment found in 1922 in one of the ancient rubbish heaps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus.  In the Oxyrhynchus portion, we had only line-ends, preceded and followed by line-ends of other poems, and it was not clear where one poem ended and the next began. By putting all the bits and pieces together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, they recreated a substantially complete poem of twelve lines, made up of six two-line stanzas.  This brought the number of Sappho's complete poems to four. 

As 'A New Sappho Poem', it was published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS 24 June 2005) with the 'new' original Greek and an English translation by Prof. Martin West, emeritus fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a renowned translator of Greek lyric poetry, and on any reckoning the most brilliant Greek scholar of his generation.  Remarkably, within a month, two poets, Lachlan Mackinnon and Edwin Morgan, published further translations with slight differences in tone and emphasis, also in the TLS (click on their names to read them).  

Three translations in so short a time feels like an embarrassment of riches!

Some will prefer West's version, some Mackinnon's or some again Morgan's, but I say that the finest, which appeared in the TLS half a year later, is by Richard Janko; and here it is:

Pursue the violet-laden Muses’ handsome gifts, my children, and the loud-voiced lyre so dear to song;

But me - my skin which once was soft is withered now by age, my hair has turned to white which once was black, my heart has been weighed down, my knees give no support which once were nimble in the dance like little fawns.

How often I lament these things. But what to do?

No being that is human can escape old age.

For people used to think that Dawn with rosy arms and loving murmurs took Tithonus** fine and young to reach the edges of the earth; yet still grey age in time did seize him, though his consort cannot die.
I imagine that Sappho's contemporaries must have heard a song ringing something like this, perhaps responding to it as did Solon ( ca. 638-558 BCE), ruler of Athens and no mean poet himself, who asked for someone to teach him her song "so that I may learn it and die."

Poem # 5

Papyrus fragments that were recycled as mummy casings continue to surface on the market, since many of them belong to private collectors.  Last year, a very lucky private collector walked into the office of Dirk Obbink, Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature at Oxford University and Director of the Ancient Lives Project for imaging papyri.  The anonymous collector, who presumably had no idea of what it contained, showed Dr Obbink a tattered scrap of papyrus, probably dating to the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.

The papyrologist quickly realized what he was looking at  -- "indubitably" in his words, parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho.  Dr Obbink asked for permission to publish the papyrus and his preliminary article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, has just appeared in an on-line version (link restored).

This is a spectacular literary discovery. 

One of the poems is remarkably well preserved, with just a few letters missing and not a single word in doubt.  Elements of this longer poem link up with fragments already known to be by Sappho, while the metre and dialect in which the poems are written point to her as well.  The clincher is a reference to her brother, Charaxos – who is named by Herodotus, the fifth-century BC historian, when describing a poem by Sappho that recounts the tale of a love affair between Charaxos and a beautiful slave in Egypt; as well as to her younger brother Larichus who was previously known only by name.  Appropriately, this has been dubbed 'the Brothers poem'.

The Brothers poem depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker -- perhaps Sappho herself -- advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favourites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

And now -- just two days ago -- Prof. Tim Whitmarsh (University Lecturer in Greek and Professor of Ancient Literatures at Oxford University) published the first translation of this poem in The Guardian newspaper.  'Read Sappho's "New" Poem' here:
But you always chatter that Charaxus is coming,
His ship laden with cargo. That much, I reckon, only Zeus
Knows, and all the gods; but you, you should not
Think these thoughts,

Just send me along, and command me
To offer many prayers to Queen Hera
That Charaxus should arrive here, with
His ship intact,

And find us safe. For the rest,
Let us turn it all over to higher powers;
For periods of calm quickly follow after
Great squalls.

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to [ … ] are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should [ … ] his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.
The new Sappho papyrus probably came from Egypt and perhaps from Oxyrynchus, but its provenance may never be known. A thriving black market for papyri means that many of them emerge not from archaeological digs but from souks, bazaars and antiquities shops. And there are yet more thousands of unpublished papyrus fragments in museum and university collections. 

The bottom line: two papyri with 'new' poems by Sappho have appeared in just the last ten years.  There is hope, there is hope.  
You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us.***

* Most unusually, this text (Edmonds [Loeb 1928] Lyra Graeca 1a) comes not from a papyrus but from a vase painting. Translation by Mary Barnard, Sappho: a New Translation, Berkeley, 1958, no. 9.

** As in so much Greek poetry, Sappho invokes myth to make her point.  Tithonus was a youth so beautiful that the dawn-goddess took him as husband. At her request Zeus granted him immortality. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So, unlike his immortal lover, Tithonus grew old and feeble, having eventually to be shut in his chamber "where he chatters away endlessly but barely has the strength to move", as Dr West says.  Dr Janko has a more elegant explanation:  a crucial feature of the myth of Tithonus familiar to Sappho’s contemporaries, but unknown to all but a few of her readers today, is that, in legend, the aged Tithonus turned into a cicada, a 'singing' insect that the Greeks thought had an immortality of a sort, since it  rejuvenated itself by shedding its skin.  Thus, Tithonus can continue to sing for ever -- an ideal image for the aged poet herself, with her wish to have her poetry win glory beyond the grave.

** Edmonds (Loeb 1928) Lyra Graeca 76. Translation by Mary Barnard, Sappho: a New Translation, Berkeley, 1958, no. 60.

Updated  4 February 2014

Three major items in the last few days:

1. Who was first to translate the 'Brothers Poem' into English?  Tim Whitmarsh (who is quoted above) was certainly first to publish in the major media (The Guardian and, again, in HuffPost Culture UK), both appearing on 30 January.  But he may have been pipped at the post by Steve Dodson who translated the poem on his blog LanguageHat, as 'New Sappho!' on 29 January (followed by an interesting discussion and revisions in the comment section).

But the first first-prize really must go to the eminent literary critic (and author of Sappho's Gift: The Poet and Her Community [in Italian 2007; in English 2010]) Prof. Franco Ferrari whose translation into Italian appeared on the 19th of January at Roberto Rossi's website, Il grecoantico: versioni, cultura, testi, letteratura, 'Se Larico diventasse finalmente uomo!  A real treat for my Italian readers.

2. The second, quite scrappy poem on the new papyrus has now been translated by Thomas H. Buck and Katy Waldman on the Slate Culture Blog (along with their own version of the 'Brothers Poem') on 31 January: 'Read Two newly Discovered Sappho Poems in English for the First Time' -- which is true of the second if not of the first.  Here is their version of what remains of the Aphrodite (Cyprian goddess) poem:
How could anyone not gorge always
Cyprian goddess, whomever you should love
and fervidly wish to call back to you?
You have …

Having summoned me idly you cut
longing …  
This is normally what you get, the little that remains of nearly all of Sappho's poems -- which underlines just how exceptional is the virtually complete 'Brothers Poem'.

3.  All is not well in academia.  Dr Dirk Obbink has taken his draft article off-line (so it's no use clicking on the link given above; it is broken) after being harshly criticized for pre-publishing the new Sappho papyrus which is without provenance and the property of an anonymous collector.  5 February 2014: the link has been restored.  Strictly speaking, scholars are not supposed to publish dodgy papyri, however enticing (and authentic) their contents.  The increasingly acrimonious tone of blogging and twittering is best caught on Adrian Murdoch's Bread & Circuses blog, 'Growing Anger at Lack of Response to Sappho Discovery'.  I, for one, hope that Dr Obbink will come back on-line to calm his critics.  More updates will possibly follow.

Updated 6 February 2014

Dirl Obbink returns to the fray with a punchy article, 'New Poems by Sappho', in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS 5/02/14), that staunch support of Oxford dons.  He calls the new Sappho poems 'an Oxford secret' -- which is a secret you tell one person at a time.  It seems to me that he may have intended his pre-publication online draft simply as an alert to papyrologists -- hence, the new texts were given in Greek only -- whereas the TLS  is meant to reach a wider educated and academic audience.  Perhaps he hadn't planned on Sappho going viral.

Of especial note, Dr Obbink writes about provenance, telling us first that "the papyrus’s text was found to overlap, in two narrow vertical bands of letters, with fragments of two previously published papyri containing fragments of Sappho."  If I understand correctly, this fragment is from the same scroll as two fragments published long ago, which presumably had passed provenance muster.  And he states unequivocally that it has "documented legal provenance."  I hope this closes the rather sordid episode of loud whispering and twittering.

The TLS article also gives a new English translation of the 'Brothers Poem' by Christopher Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford.  It seems, doesn't it, that Sappho and Oxford go together like love and marriage.  And there is a translation, too, (also by Prof. Pelling) of the fragment now dubbed the 'Kypris poem'.  Which translations do I prefer?  Ah, that's an Oxford secret.

Sources: In addition to those published in the TLS (all clickable, above), I have made use of James Romm, Scholars Discover New Poems from Ancient Greek Poetess Sappho, The Daily Beast, 28/01/14; Charlotte Higgins, Sappho: Two Previously Unknown Poems Indubitably Hers, Says Scholar, in The Guardian, 29/01/14; Laura Swift, New Sappho Poems Set Classical World Reeling, on The Conversation, 30/01/14; Richard Welland Crowell, Sappho's Lyric Poetry, AncientGreekOnLine, 2009;  Holt N. Parker, Sappho Schoolmistress, 1993; D.A. Campbell, Greek Lyric I (Loeb) 1982; Sappho biography by The Poetry Foundation


Top:  Bronze Bust of Sappho. Roman copy of Greek original of ca. 350 BCE, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nationale, Inv. 4896.  Photocredit via King's Collections, King's College London.

Above left: University of Cologne Papyrus (2004). Photocredit via William Harris, Sappho: New Poem No. 58from the Koln Papyrus.

Middle left: Portrait of Sappho, identified after other inscribed portraits representing the poet with the same hairstyle.  Black basalt, modern copy (16th–18th centuries) after a Greek original, possibly an ancient bust reworked. Photocredit: From the Kircherian Museum in Rome, Accession number Inv. 65167, Photographer/Source Jastrow (2006). 

Bottom left: Plaster cast of  middle-to-late 1st century BCE bronze bust from the peristyle garden of the House of the Papyri, Herculaneum; Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, Inv. Nr. 16162.  The Allard Pierson is doing a clever fund-raiser, Haal ons van zolder (Take us down from the attic) to move their many beautiful plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture into newly furbished public exhibition rooms.  To pay for the costs of the move, they are 'auctioning off' the casts.  Sappho cost just Eur 75 -- I 'bought' her, so she should be on her way out of the closet quite soon.

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