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).

Blog Archive