25 February 2012

Hatshepsut in 'The Terrace of the Great God'

Death and rebirth in an Egyptian holy place

The temples and tombs of Abydos made the town one of the holiest sites in the ancient Egyptian world. At its heart was 'The Terrace of the Great God' and the magnificent temple of Osiris, god of the underworld.*  Somewhere nearby, under its desolate western hills, was also the gateway into the realm of the dead.

What more could a dead pharaoh want? 

Abydos had been a sacred site and burial place since Egypt's earliest history. The kings of the very First Dynasty had their tombs here.  The god Osiris himself (or at least his head) was buried there and this tomb, too, was the centre of pilgrimage.  The surrounding low hills offered luxury real estate for the dead: who wouldn't want to be buried in close proximity to the god who ensured eternal life?  Huge cemetery fields were filled with tombs of generations of ancient Egyptians, from the most humble local residents to high officials of the royal court.

Osiris resurrected

Every year, a festival of Osiris took place in the sacred landscape.  It began with a great procession in which they lamented the god's death at the hands of his perfidious brother, Seth.  Priests carried a statue of the (dead) god along a processional route from his temple to his supposed tomb.  Five days later, a new (living) image of the reborn god was carried to the temple to great fanfare: 
I would be among the crowd following Osiris when he appears in his final form, praising the god and singing in adoration ... and honouring the Great God
These processions were so popular that Egyptians, both royal and private, built chapels lining the route so that they could take part in the event for eternity. 

New Excavations at the 'Terrace of the Great God'

Just to the  west of the massive mudbrick wall that surrounds the still well-preserved Osiris Temple lies what is now called 'the North Abydos Votive Zone' site. This zone constitutes a transition between the cult buildings and settlement.  Beyond both lie the vast cemeteries stretching out toward the royal acropolis of Egypt's first pharaohs (one of whose tombs was imagined to be where Osiris was buried) and the high desert cliffs nearly a kilometre (2/3 mile) away.

Last year, a team of archaeologists led by Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner of the University of Toronto discovered a cache of animal mummies and human remains tightly packed inside the ruins of a 'monumental building'.  The walls of this building are two metres (6') thick and the design suggests a religious purpose, perhaps a small temple.

The dozens of animals mummies (mostly dogs, but two cats, too) had been thrown there at some time in the building's long history. They had probably been sacrificed to the jackal god Wepwawet, whose procession immediately preceded that of Osiris.  Prof. Pouls Wegner explained that people visiting the temple probably offered a sacrificed dog to this god: "I think this is just another form of votive activity really, in addition to putting out a spoken prayer or commemorating prayer on a stele, that one could sacrifice an animal that was associated with him in some way."

Tough on the dogs, but it's worth a couple of hounds in exchange for eternal life.

The "Perfect Goddess"

Dog-sacrifice is all very well, but what really excited my interest on 'The Terrace of the Great God' was the wooden statue of a pharaoh (right) that the team found in an adjoining chamber of the same building:  65 cm (25") high, it was covered with mud and termite droppings. Though badly decayed, the figure is clearly wearing a Nemes striped headcloth, the mark of a pharaoh. "There are very few royal wooden statues left," as  Pouls Wegner noted.

The statue's proportions match up with those of statues dating from the early 18th dynasty (ca. 1550-1330 BCE). Except for one crucial difference: this statue's waist is significantly thinner than what is expected of a 'normal' pharaoh.

This brought up an intriguing question: could this statue be a representation of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt about 3,500 years ago (r. 1479-1458 BCE)? 

No wooden statues of Hatshepsut are known to exist, so Pouls Wegner examined large stone statues of her.  "Even though she was portrayed as a man in her [statues], oftentimes they did give a nod to her female physique by making her waist narrower," she said. "In addition the contours of her cheeks and chin are sometimes depicted as being a little more delicate." 

Compare, for example, the painted limestone statue of Hatshepsut seated on her throne (left).  This life-size image shows the female pharaoh wearing her Nemes cloth and dressed in the ceremonial attire of an Egyptian king.  In spite of the masculine dress, the statue has a distinctly feminine air -- and an especially narrow waist -- unlike most other representations of Hatshepsut as ruler. This, plus the feminine form of her kingly titles, including "The Perfect Goddess",** suggests (at least to me) that this statue was carved early in her sole reign [On the gradual transformation of Hatshepsut from regent to ruling pharaoh, see the post, How 'God's Wife Hatshepsut' became 'The Good Goddess Maatkare'].

Could this new wooden statue also be of her?

Admirably cautious, Pouls Wegner says, "I think it's possible." 

I'll take that as a qualified 'Yes'.

In that case, it might equally be a product of her early days as pharaoh, before she switched to a purely masculine form (and masculine titles).  Given its size and light-weight material, the statue may well have been carried in the Osiris procession, not at the head of the line -- that was the god's place -- but right behind.

I can imagine the excitement when she saw the light again after 3,500 years. Reborn, as promised.

* Temples dedicated to Osiris existed at Abydos from at least the 6th Dynasty.  The existing great temple, remarkably well preserved, was begun during the reign of the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I (1318-1304 BC) and completed by his son Ramses II (1304-1237 BC).

** Her kingly titles on the sides of the throne are feminized to read "the Perfect Goddess, Lady of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)" and "Bodily Daughter of Re (the sun god)."


Top: Relief from Temple of Seti I,19th Dynasty:the deceased Osiris lying on a funerary bed, with Isis shown as a hawk hovering over him, at the moment of the conception of their son Horus. Photo credit Zangaki No. 619 Abydos Interieur du temple, via SCHOLARS, SCOUNDRELS, AND THE SPHINX: A Photographic and Archaeological Adventure Up the Nile, presented courtesy of Frank H. McClung Museum, The University of Tennessee.

Middle above: dogs whose mummy wrappings have fallen off.  Middle below:Royal wooden statue from the monumental building.  Photo credit (both): courtesy North Abydos Votive Zone Project

Bottom: Seated statue of Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art 29.3.2.  Photo credit: Rogers Fund, 1929.


16 February 2012

The Ultimate Empress of Rome

My review of Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress appeared today in the Times Higher Education

Here's what I wrote:

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress

16 February 2012

All roads lead to Ravenna

Judith Weingarten is fascinated by the woman who, amid decline and fall, ruled an empire for 12 years

The story of Galla Placidia (c.AD390-450) certainly starts with a bang: a young princess - granddaughter and daughter of Roman emperors, sister of the Western emperor then ruling at Ravenna, and aunt of the reigning emperor at Constantinople - is living in Rome at the time of its siege and sack by the Goths in 410. Galla is taken hostage, wanders with the Goths for three years, marries the Gothic king Athaulf in Narbonne and moves with the barbarians to Barcelona. When Athaulf is murdered, the next elected king trades her back to the Romans in exchange for grain; she marries (perhaps unwillingly) Constantius, the Roman general who had been clamouring for her release. And she isn't yet 25 years old.

It isn't Hagith Sivan's fault that this marvellous story is known only in sketchiest form and from meagre sources. She does her best to flesh it out by borrowing texts from 100 years earlier or later on the reasonable assumption that a woman of Galla's class and upbringing would receive praise or condemnation within the invariable limits of a woman's life: virginity, marriage, childbearing and - if she survived - blameless widowhood. The coming of Christianity (and Galla was strictly orthodox in her Christian faith) changed the words but not the metaphors used for women. Still, I can't help wondering who Sivan is writing for. It's hard to imagine anyone picking up this book who needs Gaul to be glossed as "(now France)", "the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar)" or "Ostia (port of Rome)" while leaving terms such as aedicule and epithalamium unexplained. If you don't understand the gloss "Arian (or homoian)", this may not be the book for you.

The chapters are often oddly disorganised. Stories are begun and left hanging. For example, it is implied that Galla's husband Constantius became co-emperor with Honorius, her brother, long before this is made explicit - and only then because they jointly proclaimed Galla as Augusta in 421. Poor Constantius died a few months later "in the midst of preparing an expedition against his new relatives in the east" - a campaign that bobs up out of nowhere. Earlier, when Galla had intervened in a disputed papal election (419-20), synods were convoked to decide between the claimants, Eulalius and Boniface. Two letters sent to bishops are attributed to Galla's hand, a rare case where we hear a woman's voice, however stereotyped the language. Although footnotes tell us that she supported Boniface, her letters are guardedly neutral. We never directly learn who won the holy office (I guessed Boniface, since later popes have that name, whereas there were no popes named Eulalius). The author's other habit is that of dropping a name into an event before the person is introduced. Soon after the papal schism, for example, we find Boniface fighting the Vandals in Libya. What? The pope leading a Roman army? The index reveals another Boniface entirely, a Roman general.

This general, as it happens, was one of Galla's champions. When Honorius died suddenly in 423, John, a notary (of whom we've previously heard nothing) was raised to the throne. Galla fled with her two children to Constantinople, returning two years later with an Eastern army, and her son, the six-year-old Valentinian, was proclaimed emperor. Galla, as regent, was now de facto ruler of the Western empire. Her 12-year regency was remembered as a period of peace, although it is a judgement hard to square with fairly continuous wars and civil mayhem. Britain was lost, as was most of Libya (to the Vandals), southwest Gaul (Goths) and northwest Spain (the Sueves). Self-inflicted damage included Boniface, now commander of the Western armies, who fought a battle near Rimini in 432 against his chief rival, the Roman general Aetius, winning the battle but losing his life. Mortally wounded, Boniface inexplicably urged his wife (Pelagia, a Gothic princess) to marry Aetius. Aetius enjoyed Boniface's wife and property until 454, when Valentinian III threw a spear at him; frustratingly, we're not told if it hit the target, but Valentinian certainly murdered him that year, whether having personally skewered him or otherwise. A year later, Valentinian was slain by Petronius Maximus, a senator, who seized both the throne and the emperor's wife, Augusta Licinia Eudoxia, daughter of Theodosius II, the senior (Eastern) emperor. After two months, Licinia revenged herself by inviting Geiseric the Vandal from Libya to sack Rome - "a perfect literary paradigm", as Sivan says, "to account for the end of an era". Licinia outlived Galla by at least five years so she, not Galla, is "The Last Roman Empress". Still, Galla has the splendid mausoleum in Ravenna to her eternal credit. If I were Galla, I wouldn't complain. The end was already nigh.

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress
By Hagith Sivan
Oxford University Press 256pp, £65.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780195379129 and 9136
Published 15 September 2011

06 February 2012

How to Feed a Pregnant Neanderthal

200,000 years of eating for two.

It's hard to imagine what 200,000 years means in human lifetimes but, between ca. 250,000 and 40,000 years ago, the only human beings living in Europe were Neanderthals.  From the Ukraine across to southern Spain, this land was their land.  Then, in an archaeological flash, ca. 28,000 BP (Before Present), the world had utterly changed.  Populations of anatomically modern Homo sapiens were everywhere on the continent -- and the Neanderthals had entirely disappeared.

What happened?

One answer may simply be the consequence of different rates of fertility and mother-and-child mortality between Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens (AMHS).  While many factors are involved, it now seems we can point an accusing finger at defects in Neanderthal nutrition.  What a mother-to-be eats has possibly the greatest impact on both her survival and her fetus, as well as, of course, on the new-born and infant child later feeding at her breast. 

What was the daily diet for a pregnant Neanderthal woman?  Or, to put it personally, what was Wilma eating (above, read about Wilma here) when she had a bun in her oven?

Hunter-Gatherer Calories

Producing and breast-feeding offspring requires an awful lot of energy, especially in large-brained species like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.  Even more so when, like recent hunter-gatherers, you're physically active most of the time. When translated into calories, healthy gestation in such circumstances requires the mama-to-be to eat an extra 1750 calories per day (whereas a pregnant woman in cushy modern Europe needs only 300 extra daily calories).  Neanderthal pregnant women required much, much more: their  average daily caloric intake was hugely above even what is needed by modern human foragers. 

So how did Wilma cope with that?

She went on hunting, I'm afraid.

A new study tells us that she was eating too much of the wrong kinds of food:*
... from the perspective of a modern fast food diet, a pregnant Neanderthal women would need to eat 10 large burgers per day (or three in the morning, three at mid-day, and four in the evening).
Wilma had to consume a whopping 5,500 calories each day.  That is an enormous quantity to supply, especially for a hunter-gatherer, and very much more than was needed by the anatomically modern Homo sapiens then making their way into Europe. The difference is due to such factors as the Neanderthal's more robust and massively muscular body, higher metabolic rates, less efficient body-temperature regulation, a lifestyle of constantly pursuing large game animals in close-range encounters, and reduced sexual division of labour.

Would Wilma have been better off staying in the cave, sewing warm clothing, than going out hunting like a lioness?

For a quarter of a million years, Neanderthals -- men and women -- were highly effective hunters.  Throughout this enormous period of time, the next meal depended on killing large to medium-sized land animals (red deer, ibex, roe deer, wild boar, tahr, and chamois, together with larger game such as bison, horse, rhino, and elephant).  Most of the time, Neanderthals would probably have enjoyed adequate calorie and protein intake.  Their highly carnivorous diet, however, lacked adequate intake of micronutrients such as vitamins A, C, and E, which means that many Neanderthal women probably had high incidences of abortions, miscarriages, and stillbirths resulting in high fetal-to-infant mortality.
This means that no matter what land mammals they would have hunted, Neanderthals would still have not been able to get the micronutrients to stay alive, especially with the metabolic needs of a pregnant Neanderthal.
This was clearly not a winning strategy, but Neanderthals weren't stupid: we have plenty of archaeological indications that they also routinely consumed other kinds of foods (plants, shellfish, and even sea mammals** -- all of which are rich in various essential nutrients not found in terrestrial mammals) when these were available.  Given the cold environments of Pleistocene Europe before ca. 40,000-30,000 BP, the Neanderthals were probably doing the best they could.  And that was good enough as long as the competition consisted of non-human predators such as wolves, lions, and hyenas. 

It's the Demographic Payoff that counts.  

Virtual reconstruction of Neanderthal child skeletons
left: age 1 week; right age 19 months
In a nutshell, the Neanderthals may have been doomed by their subsistence strategy when they were simultaneously confronted with a warming climate and the newly arriving Anatomically Modern Homo sapiens.  Compared to the wider range of foods consumed by AMHS, yummy Neanderthal meals of mammal meat and organs didn't look so good.  Humans need more than just calories to thrive, and none more so than pregnant women and lactating mothers, and their newborn and infants.  Regardless of the protein and fat provided, the Neanderthal diet was inferior to the more diverse, greener diets of the AMHS, especially in the essential micronutrients that decrease maternal and fetus-to-infant mortality, as well as increase average life expectancy.  The proof of the pudding is that fewer people would be added to the breeding stock in succeeding generations.  Healthier, longer-living AMHS populations would thus, sooner or later, swamp the Neanderthals.

Neanderthals either did not or could not initiate the lifestyle changes that would have allowed them to compete demographically with the newcomers.  So, our ancestors certainly weren't stronger and maybe not even smarter than Neanderthals; just hungrier.

Still, Wilma's not to blame for misjudging the effects of climate change.  And a reign of a quarter of a million years in Europe is nothing to sneeze at.  We should be so lucky.

* Bryan Hockett, 'The consequences of Middle Paleolithic diets on pregnant Neanderthal women', Quaternary International, 19 July 2011 (abstract available at ScienceDirect). I am especially grateful to Julien Riel-Salvatore, blogging at A Very Remote Period Indeed, for alerting me to this paper and for his incisive discussion of its significance.  Other sources include B. Hockett & J.A. Haws, 'Nutritional ecology and the human demography of
Neandertal extinction', Quaternary International 137 (2005) 21–34; available online; A.W. Froehle & S.E. Churchill, 'Energetic Competition Between Neandertals and Anatomically Modern Humans' PaleoAnthropology 112, 2009.

** On plants in their diet, see '
The Raw and the Cooked: Caveman Redux'; shellfish, see 'Neanderthals Shellfishing 150,000 years ago', and 'Shellfish gathering, paleoanthropologicalstrawman'; sea mammals: Modern Is As Modern Does?'.


Above left: Wilma, a Neanderthal reconstruction based on both fossil anatomy and ancient DNA. Reconstruction by Kennis and Kennis, photo credit: Joe McNalley.  Via
National Geographic website.

Centre: Wilma, dressed-up for summer hunting.  Credits as above.

Below left: from 'Childbirth was already difficult for the Neanderthals'. Photo credit: University of Zurich, via Science Centric News, 9 Sept. 2008.

Blog Archive