26 September 2011


As an archaeologist, I love it when the present intersects with the past -- or, even better, when the past erupts into the present -- so I'll go a bit off topic today and tell you about a fantastic new exhibition by the Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot.  Since I'll be helping the artist install the show, there won't be any other postings until after the opening.

The Presence of the Past: Lost Archaeological Worlds 

2 October 2011 - 31 December 2011

It opens next week at Castle (in Dutch, Slot) Zeist.

What's a modern artist doing in the Baroque country palace of Count Willem Adriaan van Nassau (Slot Zeist)?

It happened like this.

When Bierenbroodspot was shown around the palace built by the bastard Count (for such he, sadly, was), she saw a suite of rooms -- ungilded, unembroidered, and unsilked, a great rarity in the lavish palace -- and pictured in her mind's eye the bare bones of an archaeology in the making.  It would be a place, no less, where the gold of her own paintings would find an inspired home. 

So, first, she transformed three stately 17th century rooms into an imagined excavation ground. 

Sand and rocks from the desert frame treasures brought back from her travels in the Middle East and North Africa.  

The visitor peers into a pyramidal case set on stilts, 1.60 m high (5'3"), and higher still in the next room, and the next, so you see the peaks rising as you pass from room to room.  Each is filled with tumbled masonry and shattered stones, sculptures thrown together haphazardly by time and history.

These are the milestones marking her journeys across Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the trouvailles of a decade's habitation in an old caravansarai -- her own 'high place' -- above the site at Petra in Jordan.*   

Now picture yourself walking into an undiscovered tomb just as the sun first strikes what is fallen in the dust some millennia ago.  Look up: those are the storied places picked out on the walls, pinpoints of light in the darkened rooms, Bierenbroodspot's paintings inspired by voyages in these magical lands. 

Out of the chaos of happenstance, the works of art come into the blinding light.

The Emperor's Dream, tempera on canvas, 3.5 x 2.0 m [11.5'x 6.6']: Bierenbroodspot 2011
Imagine, now, reversing the arrow of time, as if looking through the Hubble telescope, and the distant past is transformed into a future space.  That is Bierenbroodspot's wondrous world, full of revelation, amazements, and mystery.  These are the living, dreaming spaces that Bierenbroodspot recreates in The Presence of the Past.

Paintings and sculpture: some nitty gritty background

Bierenbroodspot’s paintings are grounded in gesso (liquid lime mixed with Arabic gum) which dries to a hard fresco-like surface. Underlayers of green umber and dark blue indigo give the canvas as much a sculptural as painted texture. Gold mica flakes and black mica flakes are worked in layers of paint and scraped with a palette knife. 

Bierenbroodspot uses gold as a colour, gilding in a way never done before. The gold is translucent, not glittering, a colour like an unearthly strong yellow ochre.

Just as the artist is bringing a more sculptural quality into her paintings she is painting her sculpture, as the ancients did, breaking down the barriers between dimensions. 

Stones of white or flushed palest rose alabaster absorb the colours: murex purple, red sand, lapis lazuli, oils of ultramarine or emerald green, metallic paints (iridescent silver or bronze). Bierenbroodspot says,

My stones must pulsate with life – it does not matter any more what form, what style: only the material and the magic is a personal choice.
Bronze Sculptures

Bronze casting is a technical affair in which at least four or five different specialists take part: and most modern sculptors usually leave it all up to them -- they don't even watch while their bronze statues are being made.

Arslantepe (SE Turkey), Painted bronze, 2010
But she does.  Bierenbroodspot is at home with the sounds of chisels and the clanging hammers of burr-removers, the smells of hot wax, hot metal, stearine, fish glues, acids, and plasters.  She puts her own varnishes onto plaster moulds with mysterious markings and seams:

It is that thread of mystery -- the alchemy of the bronze process that is unchanged over time.
The artist transforms something silent and vanished into what is marvellous and beautiful. This is a parallel world, a place that may once have existed in time, been inhabited and gone. Descending through layer and layers of time, the one appears in the light of the other. They fit together perfectly. And together, they become something totally different.

Time Travel in Blue

As a backdrop to the exhibition, a film of the artist's theatre performance, Time Travel in Blue (previewed earlier this year at the Park Theatre, Alphen a/d Rijn) will be shown in the cinema at Slot Zeist.** The event features Bierenbroodspot, composer/cellist Ernst Reiseiger, percussionist Alan Ganga-Purvis, and Senegalese singer Mola Sila, with fashion-diva Fong Leng as the goddess Inanna. 

More Time Travelling With the Artist

A new book by Bierenbroodspot, The Presence of the Past, has just been published by Bekking & Blitz (specialist publishers of museological and historical works) to coincide with the occasion of the exhibition at Slot Zeist.  

I've swiped this text from the book's back cover:

This is the live journal of Dutch artist Gerti Bierenbroodspot’s journeys into the timeless ancient world.

Bierenbroodspot brings her ‘iconic landscapes’ to life with hundreds of new, unpublished photographs of her years living and working in the deserts of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, and at her caravanserai beside the rose-red city of Petra in Jordan. These are pictures of her Time Travels, the objects and adventures and dreams that she takes with her into her studio. 

160 pages, full-colour, published October 2011 

And, finally, a sneak preview....

Memories of Libya

A second art adventure will take place in Amsterdam when Bierenbroodspot opens her show, 'Memories of Libya' at the Morren Gallery.

These are her contemplative memories of travels in pre-revolutionary Libya and the many weeks spent in her makeshift studio opposite the entrance to Lepcis Magna.  The ruined city was for her like a giant sculpture-garden, a paradise of carved stone, giant in proportions and symmetry. Granite columns with white marble Corinthian capitals cast dark shadows onto crumbled walls clad in slabs of swirling onion-skin (cippolini) marble....

16 October - 20 November 2011.
Prinsengracht 572, Amsterdam

*Bierenbroodspot was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1999 (Order of the Netherlands Lion) as the latest in the line of great Dutch artists who travelled and worked in the East. King Hussein of Jordan made her a Knight of the Hashemite Kingdom in recognition of her contributions to European-Jordanian relations (1995). She is also an honorary citizen of the city of Baalbeck in Lebanon.

** Director Erik de Goederen, Blikvanger Produkties, Linschoten.


Upper left: photo credit Michiel1972 at nl.wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

Paintings and sculpture © Bierenbroodspot


04 September 2011

Hatshepsut and the Turin Papyrus Map

This is probably the world's oldest topographical map. 

It was drawn about 1150 BCE by an Egyptian scribe named Amennakhte who prepared it for a quarrying expedition into the Wadi Hammamat ('Valley of Many Baths') in the middle of the Eastern Desert.  The map shows a 15-kilometre (9.5-mile) stretch of the wadi and its surrounding hills.  The fragment pictured above -- at the far left of the 280 cm (9'2") long papyrus -- shows the ultimate destination of the journey: the quarry (where they extracted a beautiful grayish-green stone to carve into statues of gods, king, and nobles), a gold mine, a small settlement, and a temple dedicated to the god Amun (the large white area in the middle subdivided by walls).  Our scribe helpfully labelled the map's main features; for example, he tells us where the roads lead to, notes the distance between quarry and mine, and gives the locations of more scattered gold deposits in the hills. Unlike modern maps, however, the top of the map is orientated to the south-west; that is, to the source of the Nile river in Nubia, so we have to read it more or less upside down. 

While the scribe's map was chiefly intended to be a guide to the gold mines and quarry, he also carefully indicated three separate roads that ran all the way from the Nile Valley, past the quarries and mines, onwards to the shores of the Red Sea (called Yam on his map).  

The first of the roads is labelled 'The road that leads to Yam", which heads southeast towards the port of Quseir (now a scuba-diving hot-spot on the Red Sea Riviera; approx. at number 17 on the map).  The second road is simply 'Another road that leads to Yam"; exact destination unknown.  The third road is described as "road of Ten-pa-mer", which means "the road belonging to the harbour'.

That's the road we want! 

For that is the road leading to the harbour of Saww/Mersa Gawasis on the Red Sea.  As we now know, this port was the jumping-off point for deep-sea voyages to Punt, some 1,200-1,300 km (800 miles) away to the south.  Punt itself has only been recently located -- thanks to some cutting edge science -- in what is now Eritrea: that's how Hatshepsut comes into this story, for it was she who sent the most famous naval expedition to Punt (read all about that voyage at Eti, the Eritrean Queen of Punt?). 

One of Hatshepsut's Punt ships setting sail, with red-painted Egyptian men at the oars and Red Sea fish in the waters beneath
That expedition made it possible for the female pharaoh to boast:
                 My southern boundary is as far as the lands of Punt.
But she was not the first ruler to send a fleet to the very edge of the known world.  Egyptians were sailing from Sww/Mersa Gawasis long before her time.  First to take the plunge was Senusret I (ca 1956-1911 BCE), the second king of the 12th Dynasty who left a record of his achievement at Saww.*

The Harbour of Saww

Mersa Gawasis is located on a fossil coral terrace at the northern end of Wadi Gawasis, above what is now the dry remains of an ancient bay that once flowed through a channel into the Red Sea.  When Senusret's men were here, the site was a sheltered lagoon, lush with mangroves, and deep enough for launching large ships to sail the Red Sea. Over the intervening millennia, 3 metres (9') of sand blew onto and covered the terrace slopes. After the sand heaps were removed, archaeologists discovered eight man-made caves cut about 20 metres deep into the terrace which had been used as harbour storerooms and workshops -- all much as they were left almost 4,000 years ago.**

Even before exploring the caves, there was evidence that Middle Kingdom sailors were putting out to sea from this harbour in their quest for the fabulous goods to be found at Punt -- myrrh, ebony, gold, ivory, live baboons, and exotic animal skins.  An inscribed stela with the name of Senusret's vizier, Intef-iker, found in a shrine described ships built on the Nile at Coptos in Upper Egypt for a voyage to Bia-Punt ('the mines of Punt'***) involving more than 3,200 men.  Those sea-going ships must have been dismantled for transport and carried by men and donkeys more than 150 km (95 miles) along the wadi routes of the eastern desert and then reassembled at the port. 

More inscriptions were awaiting discovery.

Outside Cave 2, twelve niches cut into the rock once held inscribed stelae. One such stela was carved with an offering scene to the god Min ('lord of the eastern desert') and bore a cartouche with the royal name of Pharaoh Amenemhat III (ca 1831-1786 BCE).  Under the god's image, the text recorded an expedition led by two royal officials to Punt.

Not to be outdone, the cartouche of his successor, pharaoh Amenemhat IV (1786-1777 BCE), was found on one of 43 wooden cargo boxes.  Covered with gypsum plaster to protect its contents, an inscription in black ink, written on the box's side, (above left) described its contents as ... the wonderful things of Punt

But even greater treasures were now about to be found....

Hatshepsut's Ali Baba Cave

This is what the archaeologists saw after they had cleared over 6 metres ( 17') of windblown sand from the entrance to Cave 2.  

Two large wooden objects hove into view -- curved cedar steering-oar blades, each over 2 metres long.  This may not look like much to normal people but it's quite enough to set an archaeologist's heart going pitter-patter. The oars may be the very ones used on one of the 21-meter-long (70') ships taking part in Hatshepsut's own 15th-century naval expedition to Punt. Well-preserved and intact, the oars are the first complete parts from a sea-faring ship ever to have been found in Egypt.  Near the oars were found pieces of pottery dating from 1500 - 1400 B.C.

As the excavations continued, the archaeologists discovered more ship timbers, including a complete deck-level beam (3.29 m long, 0.28 wide, and 0.18 thick), planks and decking, and their fastenings.  The precisely-bevelled deck beams, hull planks, and copper fittings belong to the oldest deep-sea vessels ever found anywhere.  Extensive damage to the planks by marine worms or borers provide irrefutable evidence of seafaring.

Clearing the Decks 

The finds suggest that Punt ships were being disassembled outside the caves.  

What seems to have happened was this.

After a successful voyage, ships anchored on the lagoon's edge below the cave terraces.  As the cargo was unloaded, shipwrights inspected the hulls, marking damaged timbers with red paint (traces of which remain).  Shipbreakers then dismantled the hulls, pulling planks off the ship, and carried the timbers into the caves.  There, they cleaned the planks and prepared them for storage or  recycling, or even to be used as fuel for cooking or warmth.

Anchors Away

About 25 limestone anchors (left) have been found, the largest ones weighing as much as 55 kg (120 lbs).  The white limestone used for their manufacture comes from a quarry about 10 km (6.2 miles) to the west of the harbour.  Those anchors which can be dated to the Middle Kingdom are the oldest certain anchors yet known from Egypt.  

Sailing means sails and rigging, too.  Completing the marine equipment in the caves are fragments of linen (cf.: the square sails pictured on Hatshepsut's ships [above] almost certainly of linen) as well as rigging ropes, and hanks of marine rope.

Money for old rope

About 30 coils of ship rope were found neatly laid and knotted on the floor of Cave 5 (left).

High-quality rope was expensive in ancient Egypt  A coil of ship's rope 100 cubits long (45-50 m; 165') would have cost a silver deben -- equal to the price of two fine cattle.  Why did the sailors leave so much valuable rope behind?  Perhaps its worth was diminished by several months at sea.  Yet the ropes had been carefully coiled lengthwise and wound in the middle as to allow easy storage for future use -- a technique for storing long ropes still used nowadays to prevent them from getting entangled.  This suggests either that there were not enough bearers to carry it back to the Nile ... or that they had intentionally left the rope ready for an anticipated future sea-going operation. 

But, as far as we know, the sailors didn't come back.  For reasons unknown, after Hatshepsut's time they never returned to these caves at the port of Saww.

* Earlier expeditions to Punt took place but we don't know their port(s) of departure.  The oldest known expedition was organized by Pharaoh Sahure of the 5th dynasty (2458-2446 BC). Around 1950 BC, in the time of King Mentuhotep III, 11th dynasty (2004-1992 BC), an officer named Hennu and three thousand men from the south transported material for building ships through Wadi Hammamat and on to Punt.  Did either expedition leave from Mersa Gawasis?  There are neither inscriptions nor pottery to suggest such early voyages in the areas excavated.

** Excavations since 2001 have been under the direction of the Archaeological Expedition of the University of Naples "l'Orientale" and Italian Institute for Africa and Orient (IsIAO), Rome, in collaboration with Boston University.  The final report on the 9th season can be found at Archaeogate.

*** The location of Bia-Punt is unknown.  It's thought to lie somewhere in the north of Sudan, perhaps near today's Port Sudan.

My thanks to the journalist Angelika Franz, whose article, 'Das sagenhafte Goldland Punt' in bild der wissenschaft  09/2011, stimulated my interest again in Saww/Mersa Gawasis.  Also, have a look at the Min of the Desert project, which has reconstructed an ancient Egyptian seagoing ship using ancient techniques, many suggested by the Mersa Gawasis finds.

Other main sources include J.P. Delgado, 'Nautical and Maritime Archaeology, 2006-2007 Seasons', AJA 112, 2008, 307- 309; Abel Monem A.H. Sayed, "The Land of Punt: Problems in the Archaeology of the Red Sea" in Hawass & Pinch Brock (eds), Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century, Cairo, 2003, 432-439; J.A. Harrell, the Turin Papyrus Map From Ancient Egypt, University of Toledo, Ohio website; C. Ward & C. Zazzaro, 'Evidence for Pharaonic Seagoing Ships at Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Egypt,' International Jrl of Nautical Archaeology (2009). 


Top centre: left half fragment of Turin map.  Photo credit: J. Harrell (via Wikipedia)

Upper left: map of Red Sea area via Geology Magazine

Middle centre: A relief at the temple of  Hatshepsut in Thebes, carved ca. 1480 B.B., showing a merchant ship on the trading expedition to Punt. Vessel artifacts match this depiction. Photo credit: Stephane Begoin via Discover Magazine.

Lower middle left: Cave entrances on terrace, via Memphis Tours Egypt Blog

Next left: Inscribed wooden cargo box via Archaeogate

Lower centre: Steering-oar blades exposed on a deep deposit of windblown sand in the entrance to Cave 2. Photo credit: Ward & Zazzaro 2010, Fig. 2

Next left: Anchor and associated ceramics in WG 36 via Archaeogate

Lowest left: Coils of rope in Cave 5 via Archaeogate


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