Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A poor boy’s grave – How did a teenage Egyptian weaver end up with a “very nice” coffin?

The coffin of Nakht is faded and looks quite plain. However
high resolution photographs taken of the coffin show that originally
it was well decorated. Also it appears to have been made out of imported wood.

 The team was able to read the hieroglyphs beside the drawing on the bottom
of the coffin. They were surprised to find that this is a depiction
of the goddess Neith, a deity associated with weaving. This means that
some of the art on Nakht's coffin was personalized for him.
Photos courtesy Royal Ontario Museum

About 3,200 years ago, at a time when Egypt was recovering from civil war, a boy named Nakht worked as a weaver for a funerary chapel.
His diet was poor, he suffered from malaria and ultimately he died in his teenage years, likely not much older than 14.
His occupation may have contributed to his poor health. Ancient records suggest that weavers were near the bottom of the social heap. One man named Dua-Khety, who was trying to encourage his son to become a scribe, wrote:
The weaver inside the weaving house is more wretched than a woman.
His knees are drawn up against his belly.
He cannot breathe the air.
If he wastes a single day without weaving, he is beaten with fifty whip lashes.
He has to give food to the doorkeeper to allow him to come out to the daylight.
(Translation by Adolf Erman)
While this account (dating back more than 3,500 years) is probably exaggerated, it shows that weavers were not held in high regard.
So until recently Nakht appeared to be an open and shut archaeological case. “We thought we knew who he was,” said Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada.
But now new research suggests that Nakht`s story is quite a bit more complex. Recently a team from the museum, along with Anders Bettum, a doctoral student from the University of Oslo, took high resolution photos of the boy`s coffin. They also took the chance to re-examine its hieroglyphs and determine what kind of wood the faded box is made from.
Their research was released this past weekend at a colloquium held in Toronto, with Gayle Gibson presenting the results.
She told the audience that when their work was complete the team came to a surprising conclusion – that for a malnourished, un-mummified, teenager Nakht had a high-end coffin. Its quality is such that it seems unlikely that the boy could have paid for it with his own earnings. There is also no evidence that it was re-used or stolen from another tomb.
It is a “very, very nice coffin and very personalized, with lots of images of him,” said Gibson. Among the badly faded drawings the team uncovered is a scarab beetle with sun disks, located near where his hands are crossed. They also found an image of the sky goddess Nut, stretching her wings to protect his genitals. There are even drawings showing Nakht himself, wearing robes and a collar.
“Even if we can just make out these drawings they’re very good quality,” said Gibson.
There’s more. High resolution images of the coffin show that the colour green was often used as a decoration, something surprising considering its cost. “Different colours of paint cost different amounts of money and green was one of the expensive ones,” said Gibson.  
The team also examined the base of the coffin, something that is not currently on display. To their surprise the goddess decorating it turned out not to be Isis (a god appearing on the base of many coffins) but rather Neith, a goddess associated with weaving.
“Somebody particularized the goddess on the bottom of the coffin just for him – this is really quite extraordinary,” said Gibson. “Somebody really loved this kid.”
So far the team has been unable to determine what kind of wood the coffin was made of, but they have ruled out sycamore and other domestic sources, meaning that it was likely imported.  
“We’ve got a boy who is a weaver, who is suffering from all these diseases, who is (suffering) from malnutrition and yet he’s got a personalized, beautifully decorated coffin, made from imported wood,” said Gibson.
Professor Kathlyn Cooney is an Egyptologist at UCLA and has done research on how much a coffin cost in ancient Egypt. In a recent essay, published in the book To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures from the Brooklyn Museum, she pointed out that most Egyptians could not afford a coffin at all, much less one made with imported wood and decorated with expensive colouring.
“Most Ancient Egyptians could afford only to wrap their dead family members in a textile of some sort, like a palm rib mat, and inter them in a communal grave,” she writes.
“We often assume that all Egyptians prepared a coffin of some kind for their body, but the textual and archaeological evidence proves that only very few could afford to do so.”
So how did a teenage weaver, who was presumably quite poor, pull it off?
We may never know for sure but there is more evidence that this teenager was no ordinary weaver. His coffin was excavated in 1903-1904 by the Swiss Egyptologist Edouard Naville. He was found in a tomb located on the east side of the Temple of Montuhotep II, a building constructed nearly 4,000 years ago.
The tomb was built before Nakht’s time and would have been used by at least one other person before him. Nevertheless the location, so near the temple, would still have been special. “It’s a re-use of a really classy place,” said Gibson.
She believes that the hieroglyphs spelling his name read as “User-ka-re Nakht,” which roughly means “Userkhaure is strong,” a name that is unusual.
“When you put it this way, User-ka-re Nakht, that would be like me calling myself ‘Elizabeth is a great queen,” said Gibson, adding that you can only have a name like that if the pharaoh hired you.  
“This is a very odd thing, how can the king have hired this boy who died when he was 14, 15, maybe 18 tops.”
Setnakht Userkhaure
The key to understanding this boy’s special status may lie with the pharaoh that his name appears to pay tribute to.
Setnakht Userkhaure was the first king of Egypt’s 20th dynasty. Ancient records indicate that he came to power following a period of civil war.
“The land of Egypt was overthrown from without, and every man was (thrown out) of his right,” reads a record in the Harris Papyrus (translation by James Henry Breasted). “The land of Egypt was in the hands of chiefs and of rulers of towns; one slew his neighbour, great and small.”
Userkhaure would have had to unite the land by force, raising a large army to fight all who opposed him. “Had Nakht’s family somehow been on the right of this civil war?” said Gibson, “was his father maybe a veteran of the king’s battles?”
Unfortunately the coffin contains no references to Nakht’s parents. It doesn’t even record his mother’s name. “It is quite unusual not having his mother’s name,” Gibson said.
She doesn’t believe it likely that Nakht was directly related to the king – the son or grandson of the pharaoh would probably be better fed and certainly would have a better job than that of a weaver.
A mystery
Until new evidence emerges the team is left with a mystery. How did a malnourished teenager get a personalized, beautiful, coffin? One which most people in ancient Egypt could not hope to afford?
Did he have a link to the king or perhaps an uncle in the coffin business so to speak? On the other hand maybe we’re wrong about the stature of Egyptian weavers and some of them were well off.
“It is really odd that he should get a coffin that nice,” said Gibson. “We’re going to have to look very carefully at these jobs and these children and what their jobs are.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why slash apart a mummy? New research in Peru leaves archaeologists with ancient mystery

Archaeologists were surprised to find that every single mummy at La Real,
more than 100 of them, had been slashed apart.

La Real is located on the coast of Peru, near the city of Arequipa

 Nearly 700 ceramics have been discovered at the site including the
example pictured here.

1,200 beautifully preserved textiles have also been found at La Real.

Just above the slashed mummies archaeologists discovered a layer of animal remains,
these include the foot of a puma, pictured here.

Seven human trophy skulls were also found at the site. The thread
used to hang them on is still intact.

In addition to slashing mummies the people of La Real smashed and burnt
pottery and scattered the pieces in the tomb.

 Food offerings were also found at La Real, including the remains of peanuts.
NOTE - All photos courtesy Dr. Justin Jennings
A team of researchers, investigating artefacts and skeletons from a site called “La Real,” in Peru, have come across evidence of an unusual ritual.
They discovered that about 1,400 years ago people at the site were carefully bundling up their dead into mummies by using a sack, twine, textiles and a headdress. Then, after all this work was completed, they ripped them apart. 
“The mummy bundles have been slashed open,” said Dr. Justin Jennings, of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Canada, who is co-director of the team analyzing the remains. “We didn’t find a single (intact) mummy bundle.”
The work that went into this practice was considerable. “Imagine sewing all your clothes and then ripping them up.”
The site at La Real, located in the Majes Valley, consists of a sealed cave containing mummies, and an outlying structure which has what appears to be offerings. More than 100 mummies were buried in the cave along with a layer of animal remains including a puma foot, dog heads, parrot heads, llamas and even the remains of a condor.
Nearly 700 ceramics and 1,200 textiles were discovered at the site along with food offerings, such as peanuts. Several examples of exotic goods were also found including silver and gold embossed plaques, feathered textiles and, most gruesomely, seven human trophy skulls, each with a thread at the top to use as a hanger.
La Real was discovered in 1991 when workers expanding a soccer field came across the sealed up cave. Archaeologists were called in and a salvage excavation was carried out, with the aim being to excavate, catalogue and store the material. Recently a team led by Justin Jennings and Willy Yépez Alvarez re-opened the investigation – analyzing the human remains and artefacts in an effort to determine what was happening at the site.
“This is not a swash-buckling story of excavation,” said Dr. Jennings, “this is us in the lab, doggedly trying to put these things together – that was actually quite a task.”
Jennings discussed the team’s findings at an archaeological conference in Toronto last weekend.
“Extreme” levels of violence
When the team analyzed the skeletal remains of the mummies they discovered that, when the people were alive, they suffered from an “extreme” level of violence.
“At La Real, 32 out of 104 adult crania with at least half of their cranial vault bones present show at least one head wound,” writes Dr. Tiffiny Tung, of the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, in a paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
She analyzed the skeletons whose sex could be determined and noticed that men were more likely to die a violent death then women. Among these crania, 16 out of 39 males (41%) and five out of 26 females (19%) exhibit wounds.”
Jennings said that the results get even gorier. “What’s interesting is oftentimes there would be multiple blows to the head suggesting of course they’d survived one blow, it would heal up, and then they would get hit again,” he said. “The (aim) was not to kill but simply just to bonk on the head.”
Curiously the researchers found that men were more likely to be hit in front of the head, while women were hit more often in the back. Jennings said that the men may have been engaged in “face to face combat or violence.”
Tung noted that in later times, when Europeans came to the Andes, they recorded evidence of a ritualistic style of fighting. “Tinku is a ritual battle in which men (and sometimes women) square off and fight with fists or maces, or they hurl stones at each other with slings,” she writes. This is a practice that can lead to “serious skull fractures.”
Why slash apart mummies?
The big question is why would the people who lived near La Real hack apart the mummified bodies of their own people?
“You do have a violent reaction against the mummies that you don’t usually see,” said Jennings. “People will have respect for the dead, even if they’re killing the living.”
The fact that the cave’s seal was intact, and precious metals found inside, suggests that it wasn’t done by grave robbers or invaders.
Jennings pointed out that in addition to slashing the mummies the people also destroyed objects. They hacked textiles apart, smashed pots, set them on fire and scattered their remains in the cave. “Not only have you broken and shredded these (but) then you go ahead and add fire to the equation,” he said.
Jennings said that social changes that were happening in the region may hold the key to understanding what was going on at La Real.
Archaeological evidence shows that around 1,400 years ago people in the Majes Valley were being incorporated into a civilization known as the Wari. Society in the region was changing from one that was largely egalitarian, to one that had large class differences.
“Wari influence is important because Wari ideas are very much about social stratification, about power, about the role of elites,” said Jennings. “You’re seeing gold, feather work, textiles, (this) seems to be suggesting the beginning of social stratification.”
The destruction of the mummies at La Real may be a reaction to this, “although people were willing to accept those newfound statuses in life, it was a different story in death,” said Jennings. “It seems to me in some sense to be almost a violent reaction,” he said, “its anti-status.”
He compared the situation to the 2004 United States presidential election when John Kerry, a somewhat unpopular senator, was running against George W. Bush, a deeply divisive president.
“You weren’t voting for Kerry, you were voting against Bush,” said Jennings. “In some sense this may be the same kind of thing – you’re voting against us in death.”
The people of La Real objected to the fact that their society was becoming more unequal. Even though they were powerless to stop it in life, they thought they could do something about it in death.
“I think La Real captures those 200 – 300 years were there was an active role being played by people trying to fight against these changes.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

No scurvy? Archaeologists analyze skeleton of Franklin expedition crew member

This satellite shot shows part of the Northwest Passage. Franklin died trying
to navigate this arctic waterway, along with every member of his crew.
Image courtesy NASA

On May 19, 1845 Sir John Franklin, an experienced arctic explorer, set out on what would be his last voyage of discovery.
Leaving from Greenhithe, England, he commanded two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. His mission was to pass through and chart the Northwest Passage, the waterway which runs through arctic Canada, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific.
The unforgiving environment of the passage, strewn with ice packs and small islands, would doom his expedition, killing Franklin and every single member of his crew.
A message found in a cairn near Victory Point on King William Island says that his ships were frozen in ice for nearly a year and a half. Trapped in the arctic the crew began to die with Franklin himself passing away on June 11, 1847. At that point Captain Francis Crozier took over the expedition. He decided to try to save his remaining men by marching south across the ice and arctic tundra.
“Crozier must have been very desperate indeed to have made this decision,” writes William James Mills in his book Exploring Polar Frontiers.
Needless to say the plan failed with none of the crew surviving. Rescue expeditions and scientific surveys would find human remains on or near King William Island. 
In the past, analysis of these remains has suggested that the crew members suffered from lead poisoning, a potentially deadly condition that may have caused them to engage in irrational behaviour. The crew could have gotten it through the tin cans that their food were stored in, they might also have gotten it from the water system on board.
It has also been suggested that the crew suffered from scurvy and tuberculosis, conditions that may have doomed many crew members who had been stuck in the ice for nearly 18 months. Cut marks on some of the bodies indicate that the men may have resorted to cannibalism.
New research
New research on the skeleton of a Franklin Expedition crew member, now buried under the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, sheds light on this fateful expedition.
In a paper set to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers led by Simon Mays, of English Heritage, show that this man did not suffer from scurvy or tuberculosis, two diseases that have been linked to the death of expedition members. They are also conducting tests for lead poisoning, results of which will be published in a future paper.
The skeleton was found in a shallow grave in 1869 by Charles Francis Hall, an American adventurer searching for remains of the expedition. He sent them back to England, being reinterred at the Naval College and identified as the remains of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on the expedition who was a native of Devon.
“That the body was accorded formal burial suggests that the death occurred before the final throes of the expedition when the dead seem to have been left unburied and, in some cases, cannibalised,” writes the team in their paper.
In 2009 renovations in the Painted Hall at the college meant that the skeleton had to be dug back up. This gave researchers a chance to re-examine it using modern scientific techniques.
They were able to use isotope tests to determine if the remains are that of Le Vesconte, something which they concluded is unlikely.  
The oxygen and strontium isotopic composition of dental enamel reflects the locale in which a person lived when the enamel was forming during childhood,” wrote May’s team in their paper. “The combination of strontium and oxygen isotopes still leave a large number of places to choose from and include major cities such as London, York and Edinburgh (however) it does preclude the western seaboard, most of southwest England,” the area where Devon is located.
The team cannot say for sure whom this skeleton belongs to. One possibility is that it may be the remains of HDS Goodsir, an assistant surgeon on the expedition. When the team reconstructed the face of the skeleton, by using its skull, the result was quite similar to his. The isotope analysis was also a match.
“HDS Goodsir was born and raised in Anstruther, Fife, eastern Scotland, a location which would provide strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios consistent with those found in dental enamel of our skeleton,” write the research team.
However it’s possible that other crew members could also be a match. The team cautioned that portraits of many of the expedition crew members do not exist and we cannot be certain that the skeleton is in fact that of the long-dead assistant surgeon. Ultimately we may never know who lies buried beneath the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ancient Egyptians made the arduous trek to Chad new research suggests

View From Egypt to Chad in a larger map

The Bodele Depression. New research suggests that the Egyptians
travelled to this area. Today it's an arid, dusty, low-lying area, but 4,000 years ago
two lakes flourished here. Lake Bodele was about the size of
modern day Lake Superior. An ancient version of Lake Chad also
existed, albeit about the size of Lake Erie. Image courtesy NASA

A trip across the desert of southwest Egypt is not for the faint of heart.
Modern day travellers departing southwest from the Dakhla Oasis will find themselves hitting their flasks as they traverse the Egyptian wilderness. Water sources are scarce, the area is sparsely populated and the lack of landmarks means you’ll want to keep your GPS system in good order.
Passing by Gilf Kebir, a plateau the size of Puerto Rico, you’ll find prehistoric cave paintings, evidence of a time when the climate was much more favourable to human life. Assuming you keep a southwest direction, and don’t get lost, you’ll come across a mountain range called Jebel Uweinat. Straddling the Egyptian-Libyan-Sudanese border, travellers will find springs there and – if you know where to look – a recently discovered 4,000 year old inscription, written in the name of Mentuhotep II, a pharaoh credited with reuniting Egypt.
If you continue southwest you’ll cross the border into southeast Libya and, if you keep on going, venture into the northeast corner of Chad, in Central Africa.
It’s a daunting, perilous, journey. And now, thanks to a body of new archaeological, textual, environmental and linguistic research, we have evidence that the ancient Egyptians undertook it.
In an article recently published in the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, Thomas Schneider, a professor at the University of British Columbia, lays out this wide assortment of evidence.
“It’s something really new,” said Professor Schneider in a telephone interview. “There’s a new window opening into the past of Egypt.”
Follow the trail
One line of evidence, which suggests that Egyptians travelled to Chad, is found in the archaeology of the southwest desert.
“The Dakhla Oasis, situated some 300 km from the Nile Valley in Egypt’s Western Desert, can be regarded as the most southwesterly outpost of pharaonic civilisation,” writes Frank Förster in a British Museum article.
in 1999 and 2000, the German desert traveller Carlo Bergmann found several sites which form a chain of staging posts on an almost straight line, the end of which lies close to the Gilf Kebir Plateau in the Libyan Desert, about 400km southwest of its starting-point in Dakhla.”
Or so he thought. In 2007 Mark Borda and Mahmoud Marai, a pair of explorers, found the 4,000 year-old Mentuhotep II inscription far to the southwest of Gilf Kebir at Jebel Uweinat. As mentioned earlier, this is a mountainous region on the borders of Egypt, Sudan and Libya.
Professor Schneider says that this is a significant discovery which shows that royal expeditions went much further southwest then Gilf Kebir. “At important places expeditions always left inscriptions,” he said. “I think it was also a demonstration that this is an official expedition trail set up by the Egyptian state.”
Schneider says that creating a trail that went from the Dakhla Oasis through the mountains of Jebel Uweinat would have been an incredible logistical feat. “You would have to establish way stations with water depots in the ground at specific places,” he said. “You would have to establish also these physical markers, these piles of stones, for example, that help you find the trail at certain distances.”
This would require lots of people. “You would have to mount an expedition with probably dozens of people, donkeys etc, all the equipment needed.”
Reaching Chad
Chad, unfortunately, is not an easy area for modern day archaeologists to work in. It is one of the most impoverished countries in the world and has faced years of civil war and strife. In 2008 armed rebel groups actually penetrated into N’Djamena, the country’s capital, before being repelled in a battle.
The country has also been experiencing climate change. Over the past few thousand years it has become more arid, with its northern half now being made up largely of desert. 
With all these problems it is no surprise that archaeological evidence of the ancient trail ends at the border of Egypt, Libya and Sudan. But, even with a lack of on the ground archaeology, Schneider says that a case can still be made that ancient Egyptians reached the country.
He pointed out that 4,000 years ago Chad was an inviting place. If Mentuhotep’s expedition did reach the country they would have a found a land dominated not by desert, but by lakes, vegetation and wildlife.

Scientific studies published in the last few years show that there were two large lakes in the country. One of them, Lake Bodele, was a 91,000 square kilometre water body, making it larger than modern day Lake Superior. To the south there was Lake Chad, at that time a 22,000 square kilometre entity about the size of Lake Erie.
These bodies of water used to be even bigger, at one point they formed one large mega-lake. “At its peak sometime before 7000 years ago the lake was over 173 m deep with an area of at least 400 000 square kilometres, bigger than the Caspian Sea, the biggest lake on Earth today,” writes scientists Nick Drake and Charlie Bristow in a paper.
Land of lakes
It’s important to remember that the sun played a pivotal role in Egyptian religion. Every day it would rise in the east and set in the west. “The west for the Egyptians was always the underworld, also the realm of the dead,” said Schneider.
This can be seen in Egyptian burial traditions. “Most of the necropolises of Egypt were located in the west,” he said. “To some extent the Egyptians were aware that once they moved to the west they moved to the realm of the dead.”
Chad, being far to the west of Egypt, may have played a role in these traditions.
Professor Schneider has been investigating an ancient text called the Amduat, a “guide” of sorts that helped the king through the afterlife. Divided into 12 “hours,” complete examples of it were painted onto the walls of royal tombs 3,500 years ago. “It describes in a comprehensive way the topography of the underworld – a place that was unknown to the living Egyptians,” said Schneider.
He believes that some of those topographical references were inspired by actual places in ancient Chad. “Initially it is very down to earth with measurements, with descriptions.”
Schneider, in his paper, writes of one example, seen in the first hour, that, “Re gains access to the underworld through the ‘western portico (arry.t) of the horizon,’ a passageway of 1,260 km,” a pretty exact number for a mystical place.
“If this number has any factual basis, it could be seen as the distance between the oasis of Dakhlah [the start of the trail] and the northern shore of Lake Bodele,” writes Schneider.
The second and third hours of the Amduat may also refer to Chad. The second hour tells of “a region dominated by a gigantic body of water that fills the entire hour, a sweet- water ocean that is the source of abundant vegetation on its shores,” writes Schneider. Another measurement is given here, the “gigantic lake with its surrounding lands is given the precise dimensions of 309 by 120 jtrw (3,245 km by 1,260 km).”  
Intriguingly the text refers to the “green plants that are in the Wernes” and describes the underworld figures as “farmers of the Wernes.”
Schneider said that the word “Wernes” is important. It’s a word that does not appear to have an Egyptian etymology and its ancient pronunciation was wūd˘-ensəu, which is remarkably similar to fwodi-yezze-u, a word spoken in the Tubu language of Central Africa. It roughly means “waterway/lake of the sun.”
That isn’t the only language similarity between Egyptian and Tubu. Schneider said in his article that about 4,000 years ago the consonantal sequence of Apophis, a snake-like villain in Egyptian mythology, was d-r-p-p. “On that basis, an appropriate etymology is provided by the Tubu duro bu bu (which means) ‘very big snake.”
The third hour of the amduat tells of a second large lake albeit the same size as the one mentioned in the second hour (3,245 km by 1,260 km).
This topographical structure of an intermediate realm stretching from the Nile Valley 1,260 km (120 jtrw of 10.5 km) to the West, and followed by two gigantic lakes, finds an exact match in the palaeo-environmental situation of the Western Desert and the Chad Basin around 2000 bce,” writes Schneider.
Professor Schneider says that when this mix of archaeological, environmental, textual and linguistic evidence is combined together it suggests that there was contact between ancient Egypt and Chad. Royal expeditions could have travelled from the Dakhla oasis, through the mountains of Jebel Uweinat and entered into Chad – a land that, 4,000 years ago, was a rich lake country.
This is “a route where not just physical commodities (but) also ideas, concepts could have entered Egypt,” said Schneider.
“Egyptian intellectual history needs to be at one point re-written,” he said. “There are influences from regions that we never believed, 10 years ago, that there might have been influence.”