A hieroglyphic primer, Part 3


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For our final installment we’ll look at three actual ancient inscriptions from the Field Museum of Natural History. I stress again that my articles on hieroglyphs won’t equip you to be able to conduct translations or learn the ancient language, but hopefully you’ll get a sense of how hieroglyphs work. And now you can see them in context.

I’ve divided each inscription into bite-sized chunks and color-coded them to help make the process easier to follow. In the second article I mentioned that you cannot translate by trying to search out individual glyphs but must learn to recognize groupings of glyphs. This is similar to how in English you don’t read by picking out individual letters but instead by recognizing whole words by of groupings of letters. I’ve seen beginners just starting the study of the ancient language wrestling mightily because they’re obsessing over an individual glyph but missing the grouping to which it belongs. That must be avoided.

In my color-coding below, you can see how I myself look at an inscription and recognize groupings of glyphs: the color-coding follows my own way of seeing things, even though other translators might see these inscriptions somewhat differently.

I’ll provide two references to help you follow along. The first is the standard codification of hieroglyphs as set by Sir Alan Gardiner long ago (see here). The second is, again, the system of Manuel de Codage by which we can parse the glyphs into known sound values (see here). The words in italics in this article are the transliterations of the sound values.

So, let’s begin.

The sarcophagus of Amunemonet

This is a pink-granite sarcophagus dating to the New Kingdom. On stylistic grounds, I’d tentatively date it to late Dynasty 18 or early Dynasty 19 (c. 1300-1200 BCE). It comes from the sprawling Saqqara necropolis in which New Kingdom officials established their own section of cemetery. The mummy was not recovered and the lid is not extant.


Sarcophagus of Amunemonet, New Kingdom; the detail shows the section we’ll be translating

The sarcophagus is inscribed on all exterior sides but not on the inside We’ll be looking at just the proper left side of the head end (see the detail in the photo; the head of the mummy would’ve been positioned at that end). The inscription is hard to see clearly in dim lighting and photographing it can be  a challenge, so I transcribed it as follows:


Transcription of the inscription

From which direction do you read it? If you recall from the last article, look at the direction the glyphs are facing and read into them. So, in this case you read from right to left, top down (never bottom to top in hieroglyphs). Now to break it down:

  1. The rearing snake and paddle in the first, red-shaded block are commonly seen in religious inscriptions (i.e., prayers, spells). Together they say “Words spoken” (transliterated Dd-mdw). This announces that a person or deity is speaking the following words. In this case it is the owner of the sarcophagus who’s speaking.
  2. The staggered glyphs in the second, blue box show how hieroglyphs can be tucked under others and spread about, but still follow a sensible order. Here at top we have a vertebra with spinal tissue poking out, below which is a glyph often referred to as either the placenta or sieve, and then two reed leaves. This spells out “the revered one” (imAxy). In other spellings a quail chick (w) replaces the reed leaves.
  3. The following, red box is a simple preposition. The placenta and mouth glyphs spell out “before” (xr).
  4. Here we have a name. The clue is the final squatting glyph—a determinative. The glyph includes a curved beard sticking off the chin, which is an indication of a deity. We start with a pair of glyphs that look like chevrons, then a square, and lastly the pair of reed leaves. The name is Hapy (transliterated HApy). This is one of the gods of the canopic jars, specifically the baboon-headed god who guarded the lungs.
  5. At the bottom of the register we arrive at the start of the identifiers of who was buried in the sarcophagus. You should recognize the scribal kit from the previous article: scribe (sS). The plant in front of it is the glyph for king (nswt). There’s no determinative here like in the example in the second article, but it’s immediately identifiable as sS-nswt, “scribe of the king.” Remember, because of honorific transposition, the king’s glyph appears first even though not spoken first.
  6. At the top of the second register is another identifier, or title. This one is abbreviated, although spelled out more completely in other places on the sarcophagus. You deal with a lot of abbreviations in inscriptions and must learn to recognize them. In this case it’s a rolled-up papyrus scroll seen from the end, with strings hanging down from the side. This is another scribal title and in full the title is sS-Sat, literally, “scribe of documents.” It’s often translated as “secretary.”
  7. The next, red block tells us for whom the person was a secretary. The water ripple (n) in this case is a preposition: ” to” or “of.” The basket over the top of two strips of land is one of the most common epithets of a king: nb-tAwy, “Lord of the Two Lands.” So, with 6 and 7 together we have sS-Sat n nb-tAwy, “secretary to the king.” This would’ve been the owner’s most important title.
  8. All of the glyphs in this long, blue box tell us the man’s name. We have a reed leaf (i), game board (mn), water ripple (n), what’s thought to be a side view of ribs below that (m), another reed leaf (i), a fish (int), another water ripple (n), and a little bread loaf (t). All of these spell out the name Amunemonet (imn-m-int). The name means “Amun is in his valley.” Amun was the main state god at this point in Egyptian history. The glyph of the three hills is a determinative for “valley,” to remind you of the intended meaning of int in this case; the squatting man is the determinative hinting that all of this is a name. This is an example of how a word (or name) can carry more than one determinative.
  9. The little grouping of glyphs in the third and final register is an epithet we encountered in the offering formula in the second article: “true of voice” or “the justified” (mAa-xrw, see Block 13 in that example). This is usually (although not exclusively) an indication that the owner has died and is considered worthy of an eternal afterlife.

So that’s the inscription in this portion of the sarcophagus. The same inscription is repeated all along both sides but mentions different deities each time (the next one to the left, for example, is Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed canopic god who guarded the intestines). At the head is an inscription for the goddess Nephthys and at the foot one for Isis. Essentially, Amunemonet is on his way to the afetrlife and is entreating these deities to let him in.

Before moving on, there’s a fun fact about this sarcophagus. Not seen in the above photo is a hole that had been bored through the bottom of the head end, near the ground. It doesn’t belong there, of course. The sarcophagus was excavated in the ruins of an early Coptic Christian monastery in 1907-08 and purchased by our museum. This monastery had been abandoned by the eighth century. The monks had dragged the sarcophagus onto the grounds of their monastery, and likely used it as a bathtub.

The coffin of Nakhti

This is one of the oldest coffins in our collection. On stylistic grounds it can be dated to Dynasty 11 and to the region of Asyut, in Middle Egypt. It’s around 4,100 years old. The mummy is long gone and probably was little more than bones when the coffin was found in modern times, but the coffin itself is in an excellent state of preservation.


The coffin of Nakthi, c. 2100 BCE

Typical for coffins of this period, the body was placed on its left side so that the head lined up with the pair of Horus Eyes on the “east face.” This allowed the soul reclining inside the coffin to see out and observe the rising sun, as well as to keep an eye on relatives and friends to make sure they were coming to visit the grave and leaving offerings.

There are a lot of glyphs but we’ll be looking at just the top-right of the east face:


The start of Nakhti’s offering formula

If you followed along in the second article, you might be able to recognize the color-coded glyphs as the start of an offering formula. The glyphs here face to the right, so you read them right to left.

  1. This is the telltale arrangement for the start of countless offering formulae from pharaonic Egypt: plant (the bread loaf is a phonetic complement for the plant), reed tray with bread mold, and triangle. Together they say “An offering which the king gives” (Htp-di-nswt). The plant stands for “king” (nswt) and comes first because of honorific transposition, the reed tray means “offering” (Htp), and the triangle is a bread cone which means “to give” (di). You might notice how the arrangement of glyphs is a little different from the example of an offering formula in the second article, but that’s common for offering formulae. Just the same, you’ll see these three glyphs together and should automatically know, “It’s an offering formula.”
  2. The second, blue box is the name of a god. The squatting figure with the curved beard is a hint, just as with Amunemonet’s sarcophagus. The preceding eye and throne are telltale arrangements for the god Osiris (wsir).
  3. Here we have the name of a city. You know this because of the circle-glyph with crossroads, at the left end of the red box. The basket at front is the familiar glyph for “lord” (nb). The djed pillar and quail chick are phonograms that spell the city’s name: Djedu (Ddw). This was one of Osiris’ main cult centers, and was in Lower (northern) Egypt. The glyphs say nb Ddw, “Lord of Djedu.” The modern name of the site is Busiris.
  4. The next small grouping also has a squatting figure with a curved beard but is not a name. It’s a determinative for the banner and club, which spell “the great god”(nTr-aA). This refers to Osiris.
  5. The final grouping is another city name, although the circle-glyph at the bottom-left corner is damaged and a little hard to see. We start again with the “lord” basket and then have a chisel (Ab). The leg behind it (b) is a phonetic complement reminding us that the final sound of the chisel is a “B.” We then have a set of hills above the circle-glyph which carries the sound value Dw (a “djoo” sound). This is the ancient city of Abdju (AbDw), the site of Abydos in Upper (southern) Egypt and Osiris’ primary cult center. In total we have nb AbDw, “Lord of Abydos.”

The rest of the formula goes on about Osiris and concludes with the name of the coffin’s owner, Nakhti (“Strong one”). The register below it, also reading right to left, mentions numerous deities who provide for and protect Nakhti.

The stela of Sensobek and Intef

Our final inscription comes from a replica on display in our Egyptian exhibit. The original limestone monument is in the collection of the British Museum (EA577) and was on display at the Field Museum in 2003 as part of a large temporary exhibit called Eternal Egypt. It’s an enjoyable artifact for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a “talking stela” whose glyphs light up in time with a recorded narrative that explains to visitors what each part of the inscription says. The stela is well suited for this purpose because it is large and all of the glyphs are easy to see.

Second, it’s a good example of a monument with mixed hieroglyphic orientation: part of it reads horizontally in both directions and part vertically, from right to left. It also contains an example of a set of glyphs which bisects a line of inscriptions between two figures and is shared by both figures. This is the fun of hieroglyphs.

The stela dates to early Dynasty 12 (c. 1985 BCE) and tells us primarily of two men: Sensobek, who is the main figure on the stela, and his father, Intef. Sensobek’s mother is also mentioned. Aside from the interesting inscription the stela is also a good example of the balance ancient craftsmen sought to capture in figural and hieroglyphic art.


Stela of Sensobek and Intef, Dynasty 12 (c. 1985 BCE)

We start at the top-right and read from right to left all the way to the third register. At the center of this register is the set of glyphs that bisects the third register. I’ve indicated this by surrounding them in a dotted blue box and with arrows pointing both left and right. To the left of the bisecting glyphs you read right to left; to the left of these glyphs, left to right. Just note the direction the glyphs are facing. And remember that figural art and hieroglyphs work together. The figure at left faces to the right, so the glyphs immediately above him are facing into him; the same goes for the figure at right, only in reverse.

  1. By now you should recognize this grouping of glyphs as the start of an offering formula, as we’ve seen before: “An offering which the king gives” (Htp-di-nswt).
  2. Here is the throne and eye, which you might remember from the previous example is the name of the god Osiris (no squatting-figure determinative appears in this case). Below the eye is the familiar “lord” basket glyph (nb). Behind the basket is a standard atop which protrudes a feather. This is the word “the West” (imntt). Behind that is a little bread loaf, which acts as a phonetic complement to remind you that the final sound in imntt is a “T.” We won’t worry about the little vertical line. All told we have nb-imntt, “Lord of the West,” the west being where all the deceased souls resided with Osiris, who was their ruler.
  3. That brings us to the second register, with an agricultural tool, an eye, a falcon, and a glyph that represents an animal’s esophagus and gut. The eye here has nothing to do with Osiris but works with the preceding tool to form the sound value mAA, which means “seeing, to see.” The esophagus and gut represents the sound nfr and, strange though it may seem, was a very common word to express goodness, beauty, perfection, and similar concepts. Altogether, this block says, “Seeing the beauty” (mAA nfr).
  4. You might recognize this pair of glyphs from the previous example, even though the two glyphs are arranged a little differently. The banner and club express “the great god” (nTr-aA), another reference to Osiris.
  5. You might also recognize this grouping of glyphs from the previous example. They say,” Lord of Abydos” (nb-AbDw), the site in southern Egypt that was Osiris’ primary cult center. You often see this in inscriptions accompanying Osiris.
  6. The last grouping in this register forms a preposition. The reed leaf (i) and water ripple (n) spell the word “by” (in). By now you can probably see the numerous different ways the water ripple might be used in hieroglyphs.
  7. Now we come to the third register and its bisection. Go right to the center (what I’ve numbered 7a), in the dotted blue box. These three glyphs are shared by both sets of inscriptions branching off left and right. The mouth glyph, square, and extended arm represent the three phonograms r, p, and a, respectively. They actually accompany the first set of glyphs immediately to both left and right (7b and 7c), so let’s look at those. They both say the same thing: the forepart of a lion (HAty) and extended arm (a). Altogether rpa HAty-a tell us “hereditary prince and count.” This is how it’s conventionally translated. The epithet doesn’t necessarily mean a literal prince and count but is more of an honorific. Someone with this title was high up in the court or in the regional government, akin to a powerful aristocrat. Both of the men depicted share this title.
  8.  I’m continuing right to left here, reading into the figure standing at the left. This red box contains an oxe tongue, a banner, a club, and three little vertical slashes. The oxe tongue (which looks kind of like a crooked stick here) stands for imy-r, which means “overseer.” You might recognize the banner and club from the example of honorific transposition in the second article. It literally says “servant of the god” (Hm-nTr), which we typically translate as “priest.” The three vertical slashes at the end are a common method by which plurality was indicated. So altogether we have imy-r Hm-nTrw, “overseer of priests.” That w behind nTr is how the Egyptians voiced the plural, just like our “S” in English.
  9. Then, at the left end of the third register, we have the name of the man who stands right below. There is honorific transposition here because the name of the god Sobek (the great crocodile god) is part of the name. This is the first three glyphs: the folded cloth (s), leg with foot (b), and basket with a handle (k, even though the handle here seems to be absent). As explained in the second article, we actually don’t know many of the vowel sounds, so our introduction of the “O” and “E” in the god’s name is a modern literally convention (you will sometimes see it spelled as Sebek). Then behind the god’s name is a door bolt (s or z) and a water ripple (n). The word sn means “brother,” so the name Sensobek means “Brother of Sobek.”
  10. Now going to the right of center, into the face of the man to the right, we again have the title imy-r Hm-nTrw, “overseer of priests.” So the two men were both “hereditary prince and count” and “overseer of priests.”
  11. Then, at the right end of the third register, we have the name of that man. There is a personified (“walking”) water pot (ini), a water ripple (n), a bread loaf (t), and a horned viper (f). The water ripple serves as a marker for past tense. The bread loaf is an abbreviation for the word “father” (it). The horned viper serves here as a suffix pronoun and means “his.” This is the name Intef, which means “His father brought him” (ini-it.f). You might also see it spelled as Antef and Inyotef. This was a common name in the Middle Kingdom. Intef is the father of Sensobek, to the left. The last two glyphs are the familiar mAa-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”) and indicate Intef is probably dead.
  12. Now we start on the vertical inscription. It all reads right to left, top to bottom. It all faces Sensobek and is a clue that Sensobek is the primary person for whom this stela was made. There is a duck, a hoe, and a horned viper. The duck is the sound value sA, meaning “son.” The hoe is mry, meaning “beloved.” And the horned viper is, like above, the suffix pronoun .f. These glyphs say sA mry.f (“his beloved son”).
  13. In the blue box below we first have a water ripple (n), which in this case is the preposition “of.” Then there is a throne in front of a heart. The throne (st) is not related to Osiris here. It belongs with the heart (ib) to spell “affection” (st-ib, literally, “place of the heart”). The horned viper is yet again a pronoun, so we have n st-ib.f (“of his affection”). It goes with the grouping above: “his beloved son, of his affection.”
  14. Next we have a folded cloth in front of the ankh. The folded cloth here (s) serves as a causative, which means it’s causing some action to occur based on the glyph it accompanies. The ankh (anx) means “life,” so together this says s-anx,“to cause to live.” We might parse this as the phrase “who brings to life.”
  15. Then we have a mouth (r) and water ripple (n), which form the word rn, “name.” Below that is another water ripple, which here stands as the preposition “of.” Next is a bread loaf (t), which, as seen in the name Intef, is here an abbreviation for “father” (it). Then we have the horned viper again, the pronoun “his.” This gives us rn n (i)t.f, “the name of his father.”
  16. In the following, red box is a prepositional phrase. The sideways head is the pronoun Hr, often translated as “on” or “upon.” The glyphs below spell out the word tA,” earth.” Numbers 14, 15, and 16 work together to spell the phrase s-anx rn n (i)t.f Hr tA, “who brings to life the name of his father on earth.” In other words, Sensobek is keeping the name of his father, Intef, alive.
  17. Here we have a repetition of the earlier titles  HAty-a imy-r Hm-nTrw,  “Hereditary prince and count, overseer of priests.” The rpa from the earlier instance is absent here.
  18. Finally in this register we again have Sensobek’s name, although it’s spelled a bit differently. Rather than spelling out the name of the god Sobek phonetically, the artist used a logogram that depicts an abstract lurking crocodile (the first glyph in this box). This one glyph denotes the divine name sbk, “Sobek.” Below that the next two glyphs appear to be reversed but spell sn, for the name Sensobek. The final horizontal slash is probably an abbreviation for mAa-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”), and might indicate that Sensobek himself was dead when this stela was carved.
  19. Now we’re in the final register, which appears in front of the face of Intef but because of orientation still refers to Sensobek. The tied fox pelts (ms) and water ripple (n) are a handy clue that the following glyphs will refer to one’s mother. The phrase ms-n means “born of.”
  20. We then have the name of the mother. There are two legs with feet (each carrying the sound value b), a reed leaf (i), and a squatting female figure (a determinative). We would render her name as Bebi. Below her name is again the phrase mAat-xrw, “true of voice” (or “the justified”). Note the t in my transliteration after mAa as well as the bread loaf (t) between the two vertically arranged glyphs on the stela. The terminal t was a feminine gender marker.

So there you have a complete monument carved almost 4,000 years ago. It’s a beautiful stela that tells us of a man named Sensobek, his father, Intef, and Sensobek’s mother, Bebi (presumably Intef’s wife but we can’t guarantee that, because she isn’t referred to as such here). Were it not for our ability to read and translate hieroglyphs, we wouldn’t know any of this and all of those little pictures would be meaningless. The ability to translate hieroglyphs opens a whole new world of understanding about a great ancient civilization long extinct.

Some recommendations to learn hieroglyphs

I’ve stressed numerous times now that my three articles will not truly teach you hieroglyphs but can only give you a basic understanding of how they work and how we translate them. But if you’re truly interested in knowing the ancient language, you should let nothing stop you. There are all sorts of useful books out there that can get you started and bring you far. I’d like to end by listing some of them, and I’ll present them in something of a logical order for studying ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

  1. Manley, Bill. Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners. 2012
  2. Zauzich, Karl-Theodor. Hieroglyphs without Myster: An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Writing. 1992
  3. Collier, Mark and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs.1998
  4. Kamrin, Janice. Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A step-by-step approach to learnig ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. 2004
  5. Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2001
  6. Hoch, James E. Middle Egyptian Grammar. 1997

The first four in my list are fairly simple basic beginner guides. Of them I’d have to say Collier and Manley’s jointly authored book is my favorite (#3 above), although all four are worthwhile and contain fun and useful exercises. The last two are more formal grammars, meaning they will teach you the actual nuts and bolts of the ancient language. They are more advanced. You could make do with one or the other but I found both to be very useful and instructive.

Some reads who have a working background in the ancient script might wonder why Alan Gardiner’s venerable Egyptian grammar: Being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs isn’t on my list. It is indeed a fine book and was the scholarly standard for a long time. I keep a copy for reference in my library. But it’s now almost 50 years old and is somewhat outdated. In those modern colleges with a department of Egyptology that teach hieroglyphs to their students, the standards today are Allen and Hoch (#5 and #6 in my above list).

A strong note of caution. Remember book stores? Some still exist. When you visit the ancient history section and find the books on ancient Egypt, you will often find books by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. He was an early curator of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum and wrote prolifically. The copyrights on his books are long expired and you can usually buy them dirt cheap, so people tend to snatch them up at places like Barnes & Noble. His books include a grammar on ancient Egyptian as well as a two-volume hieroglyphic dictionary. The problem is, Budge died  in 1934 and was writing well before a lot of modern linguistic conventions were established. His books are outdated and contain a lot of mistakes. Don’t buy them if you’re serious about learning the ancient language. As the character Daniel Jackson says in the feature film Stargate: “I don’t know why they keep reprinting his books.”

There are any number of other books to aid you. I strongly recommend a good dictionary of hieroglyphs, and one of the best still in print is Raymond Faulkner’s A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (I have the 2002 edition). The entries are hand-written in hieroglyphs, followed by translations. Very useful in conjunction with this book is David Shennum’s English-Egyptian Index of Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (1977). It reverses the order so that you can look up an English word and see its transliteration, and it includes the page number relevant to Faulkner’s dictionary for each entry.

I also highly recommend a good sign list. In most cases (not necessarily all) modern sign lists still follow Gardiner’s original codification system for the glyphs (here’s the link again). I recommend sticking with this system for the sake of consistency in your lessons. Most of the books in my list above contain some version of sign lists, but Allen’s and Hoch’s are particularly good. Just the same, I get a lot of use out of James Hoch’s separately published Middle Egyptian Grammar Sign List (1998).

I sincerely hope some of you readers will look into this. Studying the ancient language is challenging and fun, and good for the mind (it exercises the same part of the brain that math does, which is nice if you’re a dullard in math like I am). If you have a nearby museum with an Egyptian exhibit, you can study and work on translations there. That’s actually how I myself got started with my studies. It’s also useful to work on inscriptions you might see in books and magazines. There’s a lot of material out there at your disposal.

Thanks much for reading, and please do let me know if you have questions or suggestions. And to all WordPress readers: Happy New Year!

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2


Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara: 1906-1907. 1908

Excavations at Saqqara: 1908-9, 1909-10. 1912.

Ranke, Hermann. Die Ägyptischen Personennamen. 1935

Russian, Edna R. Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum. 2001

Yurko, Frank J. Egypt: A Companion Guide to the Exhibit Inside Ancient Egypt. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1992.


A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2


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Now we’ll take the opportunity to examine hieroglyphs more closely: their categories, their phonetic functions, their orientations in context, and some examples of inscriptions.

Classifications of hieroglyphs

As a rule hieroglyphs can be classified into three broad categories: logograms, phonograms, and determinatives.

  • Logograms: Glyphs representing specific words.
  • Phonograms: Glyphs representing specific sounds.
  • Determinatives: Glyphs used for classifying words.

What complicates things is that certain glyphs might move from one of these categories to another, depending on how they’re used. The student must train himself not to focus on a specific hieroglyph in an inscription but on groupings of glyphs, just as when we read English we don’t search out specific letters but rather recognize whole words.

The number of hieroglyphs fluctuated from period to period and averaged around 800, and there was always the potential for odd variations of particular glyphs. But in general individual glyphs in the above categories can be broken down into three more categories: monoliterals, biliterals, and triliterals. Their names are self-suggestive. A monoliteral is a glyph that represents only a single sound, a biliteral two sounds, and a triliteral three sounds. Here is a chart showing the most common repertoire of monoliterals:



In each case the first column shows the glyph, the second its transliteration symbol, and the third the common way most of these glyphs are pronounced in English and other modern languages (which in all cases does not necessarily represent the potential ancient pronunciations).

A note on transliteration: This is a system employing basic characters from the Western alphabets to represent the sounds or sound approximations of the ancient pronunciations. When typing something like this blog, in which font selections are limited and one doesn’t have access to the full range of transliteration characters, there is a simplified system called Manuel de Codage (see here). Henceforth this simplified system is what I’ll be using, when needed.

In my chart above, the last two glyphs at bottom-right represent a convention developed by the ancient scribes to represent certain sounds that were not part of the ancient Egyptian language. The recumbent lion, then, was often used to represent the “L’ sound (and in some cases so was the mouth glyph), while the lasso stood for a long “O.” Examples are seen in the Greek names Ptolemy and Cleopatra. You can see by the transliterations of these two glyphs that in both cases, when used in regular Egyptian words, they’re actually biliterals.

There are not many monoliterals and they weren’t used often to write out names or words in native Egyptian. In native writing they served other purposes, such as denoting phonetic complements (more on that later) and, as seen, the phonetic spellings of foreign names. Far more common in the hieroglyphic repertoire were biliterals and triliterals, a small sampling of which can be seen here:


Examples of biliterals and triliterals

Biliterals and triliterals formed the brunt of spellings. Another category of hieroglyphs is the determinative, which served a useful purpose. Ancient Egyptian was a language containing a small vocabulary (by English standards, at least) and a lot of homonyms. The context of a word in a sentence would help to clarify its meaning, but in many cases a “sense sign” or determinative was added to the end to clarify it further. A good example is the ancient Egyptian sS (“sesh”):


The determinative in practice

At top is a scribal kit: a reed stylus, cord with water pot, and palette with ink wells. Behind the kit is a squatting man, which in this case is the determinative. The kit tells use the word “sesh” while the man clarifies the word denotes a person, in this case a scribe. At bottom is the scribal kit again, so once more we have “sesh.” But here at the end is a papyrus roll tied closed, a determinative which tells us the word is something to do with the writing arts: “document” or “to write.” As sense signs determinatives are not read aloud; they are merely literary aids. If you haven’t already guessed it, sS is a biliteral.

There is a rich collection of determinatives, and again, a glyph used as a determinative in one case might mean something else if used another way (the squatting man above, for example, might elsewhere be used as a noun for man or person or even as a pronoun).

Where are the vowels?

You might have noticed something about the columns of transliterations in the above charts: the absence of vowels. The fact is, we have a poor understanding of vowels in the ancient language. Pure vowels do not appear in the hieroglyphic repertoire. You see weak consonants that might act like vowels in some cases, such as our own letter “Y,” but in practice vowels weren’t written. As with other Semitic languages like the original Hebrew and Arabic, the consonants were the important thing. The speaker would use skeletal groupings of consonants and plug in vowels to produce words. Much the same is true for writing: a literate person would see groupings of consonants and automatically know how the vowels would work.

This means we cannot know exactly how a lot of the ancient vocabulary sounded when spoken. As a convention in modern linguistics we tend to add a schwa (a mid-central vowel sound, like a neutral “E”) to help flesh out words so we can speak them. You see this in my own example of sS (“sesh”). The same is true for names and other proper nouns. Linguists have been a bit freer with adding vowel sounds to names just so they sound more natural when we speak them. This is why you might find King Tut’s name spelled as Tutankhamun, Tutankhamen, and even Tutankhamon. In truth all we have preserved in the pronunciation of that name is transliterated as twt-anx-imn.

Phonetic complements & transposition

Earlier I mentioned phonetic complements. This is a somewhat fussy aspect of hieroglyphic writing but it’s useful to point out and easy to understand. In some cases hieroglyphs might have different sound values or meanings from one use to the next—it is again context that will often point this out. But phonetic complements help to remind the reader of the final sounds of a glyph, which in turn help to remind one of the glyph’s meaning. A biliteral will often carry one phonetic complement at the end of the glyph to represent its final sound, and a triliteral its two final sounds.


Phonetic complements

At left is a biliteral bird glyph denoting the sound value wr; the mouth glyph at the bottom denotes that the final sound is an “R.” Next is the familiar glyph of the ankh, a triliteral (anx) followed by its complements “N” and “KH” (a kind of guttural sound).

There are other rules to muddy the waters, including honorific transposition. This is where a grouping of glyphs is purposely out of order because a glyph denoting something of importance (a king, a god) is placed first even if not spoken first.


Honorific transposition

At left is a flag or banner and a club. The flag is a triliteral (nTr) often used to denote a god, goddess, or divinity in general. The club in this case is the biliteral Hm, meaning “servant.”  You would speak the term as Hm-nTr (“servant of the god,” that is, “priest”) but in writing the banner is first due to its importance. Similarly, in the second example is a plant glyph at top representing the tiliteral nswt (“king”) with its phonetic complements. Below is a duck denoting the biliteral sA (“son”). You would speak the term as sA-nswt (“son of the king”) but in writing the glyph for “king” comes first because of its importance.

One also frequently sees honorific transposition within personal names and proper nouns. Here are the glyphs composing the name of King Tut:


A cartouche-shaped chest from the tomb of King Tut

I’ve color-coded it to make it simpler to follow. We know the name as Tutankhamun (“Living image of Amun”), but it’s written differently. In the green box is the name imn (“Amun”), the great god of Thebes who was the focus of royal cult and worship for most of the New Kingdom. In the red box are the glyphs spelling twt (“image”), and in the blue box the glyph anx (“living”). So although the name is said “Tutankhamun,” when written it gives most importance to the deity Amun. (The three glyphs at bottom say “Ruler of Southern Heliopolis” [i.e., Thebes], a common epithet for Tutankhamun.)

If that’s not enough, there is also graphical transposition. This is where glyphs are purposely out of order simply because graphically or aesthetically, they look better that way in an inscription. In both honorific and graphical transposition, it’s just a matter of knowing the vocabulary and the glyphs to understand how to make sense of them.

Orientation of glyphs

Even if you can’t read or translate hieroglyphs, there is almost always an easy way to tell in which direction glyphs are to be read: just look at the direction they are facing. See this chart:


Orientation of glyphs

Generally look for hieroglyphs that represent living things or even parts of living things. Starting at far right (note the little arrows), the plant glyph is pointing off to the right. Next, the bird glyph looks to the right. Behind the bird, the open hand faces the right. Farther in, both the eyeball and squatting figure favor the right. Behind them, the bent arm with hand faces the right. This means you read the inscription from right to left. When one glyph is above another, you always read the top glyph first.

One of the fun things about hieroglyphs is how they can be multidirectional, even on the same monument. The direction the glyphs face will clue you in. Most horizontal inscriptions are right to left in ancient Egyptian, as in the above example, but you will see left to right, too. Plenty of inscriptions are vertical, which means you always read top to bottom (never bottom up); in a vertical inscription, the direction of the glyphs will tell you whether you’re reading right to left or left to right, top to bottom. I’ve heard tell of a single ancient inscription that was deliberately written bottom up, but I’ve never seen it and am left to wonder if it’s a modern myth.

Many inscriptions and texts include not only hieroglyphs but figural art. There is often a common-sense approach to reading the direction of these, too.

The Book of the Dead of Isty

Here is the final scene in the Book of the Dead of the temple chantress Isty (probably Dynasty 21), from the Field Museum. At left is a shrine in which you see the enthroned god Osiris and his sister-wife, the great goddess Isis. They look off to the right. Note that the hieroglyphs immediately in front of them all face to the right, telling us that part of the text reads right to left—it faces the two deities and reads into them, telling us that the inscription concerns them (and in fact the start of the text tells us Osiris is speaking). Meanwhile, the lady Isty looks to the left, into the shrine. Her glyphs just to the right of the shrine face to the left, so they are to be read left to right. This part of the text concerns Isty herself. So when glyphs accompany figural art, there is often an order and a relationship between the two. Hieroglyphs and figural art were generally a unit.

The offering formula

Many inscriptions and texts you’ll see at museums are funerary in nature, and many of those writings will contain some version of an offering formula. This was a “spell” to ensure the deceased would always have food, drink, and provisions in the afterlife. To the ancient Egyptians the sacred traditional nature of hieroglyphs meant they weren’t just simple writing but were powerful, functional invocations. To show it, write it, and speak it was to make it happen. I tend to refer to it myself as “functional magic.” No two offering formulae might be the same, but they all served the same purpose. Here is one I transcribed from a stela at the Field Museum:


Offering formula

I’ve segmented it into blocks so that we can break it down into logical bite-sized chunks. First you’ll notice by the direction of the glyphs that this is read right to left. You’ve probably already noticed how the glyphs in such texts are arranged in neat squares and rectangles where possible. We call these arrangements cadrats, which was simply for the economy of space. Let’s look at the numbered segments.

Block 1 is the tell-tale start of an offering formula. It might appear somewhat differently in different offering formulae, and might or might not contain phonetic complements where appropriate, but the plant, triangle, and reed tray are a giveaway: “An offering which the king gives.” The plant represents “king,” the triangle (a bread mold) the verb “to give,” and the reed tray “an offering.” The glyphs are out of order due to honorific transposition, but when seeing this arrangement you’ll always think of “An offering which the king gives.”

Block 2 is a very typical spelling for the name of the god Osiris (eye ball, throne, and squatting god). Block 3 uses the basket (half-circle) to denote the word “lord” and behind it the name of the city Djedu, one of the chief cult centers for the god Osiris. Block 4 is the epithet “the great god,” and Block 5 again starts with the “lord” basket and then the name of the ancient site of Abydos, Osiris’ chief cult center.

Block 6 then starts the action Osiris is performing on behalf of the person for whom the formula was written. The outstretched arm with bread loaf is another way to say “to may give,” and the serpent below it is actually a suffix male pronoun (thus, together, “that he give”). Block 7 begins the listing of what the deceased will receive; in this case, the rectangular house plan with descending paddle says “a voice offering” or “invocation” of “bread” (the bottom right-most glyph) and “beer” (the bottom left-most glyph). Then, in Block 8, the offerings continue with self-descriptive glyphs: oxen and fowl. The cylindrical glyph is a cake, and some read this while others view it as a determinative and do not read it. The three slashes below the cake is one of the conventions for expressing plurality. Block 9 is seen in many offering formulae and adds “linen and alabaster” to the offerings.

Block 10 is a common arrangement with two prepositions and the glyph of upraised arms denoting the part of the soul called the kA. The water ripple representing an “N” sound was often used as a preposition of one form or another, and altogether the block says “for the soul of.”

Block 11 is the title of the man for whom this formula was written. The personified pot from which liquid pours refers to the man literally as “pure one,” which we typically render as “priest.” Here the three water ripples are determinatives for the water pot, and not prepositions (the water ripple served numerous purposes in the ancient writing).

In Block 12 we come to the man’s name. The biliteral game board with its phonetic complement give us mn, and the pair of reed leaves a y. This renders the name Meny, a fairly common one in ancient Egypt. The squatting man at the end is a determinative, which can be one way to help recognize a name in an inscription.

The final two blocks are epithets of Meny, kind of like titles. Block 13 is the phrase mAa-xrw (“maa-kheru”), which literally means “true of voice” but is usually rendered as “the justified.” It usually denotes (although not exclusively) that the person has died and has reached the afterlife safely. And finally, Block 14 is the phrase “possessor of reverence.”

In total, then, the offering formula reads as follows: “An offering which the king gives to Osiris, Lord of Djedu, the great god, Lord of Anydos; that he may give a voice offering of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, alabaster and linen, to the soul of the priest Meny, the justified, possessor or reverence.”

Some concluding notes on grammar

Again, it’s not the purpose of this article to teach you hieroglyphs. A blog can’t do that. I just want to give you a general idea how glyphs work. Ancient Egyptian was a very different language from English or most any modern Western language. For one thing, while English is an SVO language (favoring an order of subject, verb, then object), ancient Egyptian was VSO (verb, subject, then object). Ancient Egyptian generally lacked the linking verb “to be” but contained a rich and complex arrangement of adverbial and prepositional phrases of the sorts not quite seen in English.

Pronouns were also somewhat complex. Some were independent and stood alone much like our pronouns do, while others stood as suffixes at the ends of words. Words did have genders as with German and other European languages, and as with French, adjectives followed the nouns they modified. There was only a limited use of articles, and usually more so in the later stages of the language.

Perhaps all of this gives you a sense of challenges one might face when conducting translations. In many cases it can be straight forward, but in many others, due to the very different syntax and grammar, it can be tricky. This is why one translator might come up with something different from another translator, although if they both did their work sufficiently, the overall meaning of the translations should meld with each other.

In the final installment of the article, we’ll look at actual examples of inscriptions and translate them. Until then, thanks for reading.

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 3


Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 2001.

MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1


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A couple of years ago during a quiet moment in the Egyptian exhibit at the Field Museum, I was walking around the gallery when a young kid walked up to me with a notebook in his hand. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “would you help me to figure out what these hieroglyphs mean?” He showed me his notebook to reveal a bunch of glyphs he had seen in the exhibit, and drawn as carefully as he could.

Now this is my kind of kid, I thought. His name was Michael and he was eight years old. It’s not unusual, in my experience at the museum, to encounter a youngster with an interest in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. But Michael exhibited a deeper interest in one so young, and I was delighted to spend some time helping him to understand the inscriptions he had drawn. In fact, we ended up spending quite awhile together, his mom observing quietly from the background.

Hieroglyphic writing happens to be one of my favorite topics and one of my favorite areas of study. Over many years I’ve invested a lot of time and some measure of personal expense to be able to learn and translate the ancient script, up to including lessons under an Egyptologist. On one level it makes me a better docent, being able to explain to visitors young and old what an inscription says; this serves to enrich visitor experience. But on a personal level it opens a whole new area of understanding to me in my studies, being able to read the writing almost as though the ancient scribe were speaking to me. As one Egyptologist said, “Museums are full of ancient voices.”

I thought it might be fun to do an article on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, to help readers to understand how they work and why they are so important to our broader understanding of ancient Egypt. After all, were it not for our ability to read the ancient writing, we would ultimately know almost nothing meaningful about pharaonic Egypt. We might even still be laboring under the fable that the pyramids of Giza were grain silos (with apologies to Dr. Carson, but really?).

My article will not teach you to translate and understand hieroglyphic inscriptions. That takes a lot of training and a significant amount of time and commitment. But hopefully I can aid you in understanding the basics of how hieroglyphs work. The next time you’re at a museum you might even be able to pass along some of this knowledge and impress your friends.

A fussy note. I often hear museum visitors say something to the effect of, “Look, Egyptian hieroglyphics.” The word “hieroglyphic” is a modifier and is more properly used in the sense of “hieroglyphic writing” or “hieroglyphic script.” When referring to the script as a noun, it’s just “hieroglyphs.” So instead, say, “Look, Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

The origin of hieroglyphs

One of the enduring mysteries of ancient Egypt is how the hieroglyphic script developed. The evidence for this has come in fits and starts and we’re forming a better picture of it today, but much remains to be learned. It used to be thought that the hieroglyphic writing system emerged around the time of the founding of the Egyptian kingdom (c. 3100 BCE), which placed it second in antiquity only to Sumerian cuneiform.

But then came Günter Dreyer and his team from the German Archaeological Institute. Dreyer had been digging since the 1970s at the sprawling site of Abydos, where Egypt’s earliest rulers had been buried. In 1988 in Cemetery U at Abydos, Dreyer and his excavators unearthed a tomb that would change our understanding of history.

Designated Tomb U-j, it’s one of the largest tombs in that area of Abydos and dates to late prehistory. Carbon dating places it at about 3320 BCE.


Tomb U-J, Abydos, c. 3320 BCE

What set Tomb U-j apart from the rest that date to that early time were the nearly 200 ivory and bone tags excavated there. At 3320 BCE, they were inscribed with the earliest-known hieroglyphs. This bumped back the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphs to a time contemporary with the earliest Sumerian cuneiform. This now leads Assyriologists and Egyptologists to quibble over whose form of writing came first. Hopefully future archaeological evidence will clarify this for us.


Inscribed ivory tags excavated from Tomb U-j

There is still a lot of debate over how exactly the ivory tags should be interpreted. Günter Dreyer himself seems confident that they can largely be read phonetically, in the manner of hieroglyphic inscriptions from the pharaonic period. Not everyone agrees, but there is largely consensus that the tags represent the names of estates from which goods buried in Tomb U-j came.

Tomb U-j represents a formative stage in late prehistoric Egypt. No single ruler controlled all of the Nile Valley yet. Rather, regional rulers or “proto-pharaohs” controlled their regions of Egypt. This was especially true in Upper (southern) Egypt, where successions of rulers in the prehistoric cities of Hierakonpolis, Naqqada, and Thinis (Abydos) were vying for greater control over the southern reaches of the Nile Valley. This is where the kingdom of Egypt would be born (c. 3100 BCE), eventually to absorb the regions of Lower (northern) Egypt.

It’s believed that the hieroglyphs first appearing in Abydos were a regional or local convention, and that this form of writing was absorbed as an ideological tradition by the earliest kings once the kingdom was founded. The writing system was already well established by Dynasty 1 (Early Dynastic Period), and was well regulated and formulated by the onset of the Old Kingdom (2663-2195 BCE).

The decipherment of hieroglyphs

As was the fate of most human languages down through time, ancient Egyptian eventually died out. It thrived for thousands of years, and even though it’s gone, the fact that it was written has frozen it for us like a time capsule. We can see its cognates and relations to other Semitic languages and how it changed as a spoken tongue down thought time.

Ancient Egyptian  belonged to the Afro-Asiatic family and was related to languages that still exist such as Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Berber, and Chadic.

Hieroglyphs weren’t the only form of writing in pharaonic Egypt. In fact, hieroglyphs probably stopped representing the every-day spoken tongue by the end of the Old Kingdom. It was maintained (with periodic changes and updates) as a “ceremonial” form of writing and was used mostly for religious and ideological purposes. Hieroglyphs were reserved largely for monumental texts such as funerary inscriptions and royal public decrees. A linear or cursive form of hieroglyphs was often used for religious texts like Books of the Dead, although one sees this form also used in ancient graffiti.

A form of writing called hieratic started to appear around the same time as hieroglyphs. Hieratic is based on hieroglyphs but is much more cursive and rich with ligatures. One can often see the shapes of hieroglyphs in hieratic, although the two aren’t the same. Nor do they quite read the same. As mentioned, hieroglyphs fairly soon ceased to represent the daily spoken tongue. This means that as the living language changed, the language of the hieroglyphs did not and represented an archaic form of the tongue. For a long time hieratic was used to write the daily spoken language.

An example I often use with museum visitors is Old English to modern English. By the time of King Tutankhamun (1343-1333 BCE), the language of hieroglyphs preserved a form of the tongue about as outdated to them as Old English would be to us.

Hieratic continued to be used for administration, legalities, journals, stories, and other daily-life purposes until the seventh century BCE. A new script that rose in the north, demotic, was by then a better representative of the daily spoken language, and soon replaced hieratic for that purpose. Demotic appeared on the scene around 650 BCE.

Hieroglyphs were still used for religious and monumental texts, and once demotic arose, hieratic was also put to religious use. Many Books of the Dead and other funerary texts from the later periods, for instance, are written in hieratic.

Christianity made early inroads in Egypt. This naturally had profound effects on the culture of Egypt. As Christianity supplanted the ancient traditional religious traditions, closely related practices like writing were affected. Hieroglyphs and hieratic died out by the early centuries CE, and demotic would follow the same fate. The early Christians of Egypt adapted the Greek alphabet and included some demotic characters to represent sounds in the Egyptian language that Greek lacked. This Christian form of Egyptian writing is called Coptic. It was in use for centuries but exists today only as a liturgical language in Coptic Christian masses. Still, Coptic represents the last vestige of the ancient Egyptian language.


Top-left: hieratic; top-right: demotic; bottom: Coptic

Islam arrived in Egypt in the seventh century BCE, and this too promised profound changes. Arabic supplanted Coptic as the spoken and written language of Egypt.

This is a long way to go but I hope paints a clear enough picture. The ancient writing went extinct, and with it the ancient language. Coptic went some way to preserve the language, but the Egyptians themselves forgot how to read the ancient hieroglyphs. And once the Egyptians forgot, so did the world.

Down through time the occasional educated person attempted to make sense of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but none succeeded. Others seem to have made it up as they went along, a good example of which was Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). As with many others, Kircher was convinced the hieroglyphs represented a strictly ideogrammatic language of esoteric wisdom. On an obelisk in Rome he encountered an inscription originally commissioned by Ramesses II in the thirteenth century BCE (most of Egypt’s obelisks had ended up in Rome thanks to the avid collecting habits of great Roman emperors).

We know today that the inscription reads: “Horus, strong bull, beloved of Maat, Usermaatre setepen-Re, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, son of the Sun, Ramesses.” Kircher, on the other hand, went at it more creatively. I record here only a portion of his “translation:”

“Supramundane Osiris, concealed in the center of eternity, flows down into the world of the Genies, which is the most near, similar, and immediately subject to him. He flows down into the divinity Osiris of the sensible World, and its soul, which is the Sun. He flows down into the Osiris of the elemental World, Apis, beneficent Agathodemon, who distributes the power imparted by Osiris to all the members of the lower world.”

It goes on and on, painfully.

Modern folks bent on alternative or fringe histories have their own bizarre ideas. I remember coming across a web page where an Egyptian fellow argued that ancient Egyptian wasn’t really a dead language but was actually an early version of Arabic and spoke of Allah.

But down through time people did not even have any idea of how to approach the ancient script. There were those like Kircher who believed it revealed esoteric knowledge, and there were many who believed the little pictures in the script had to be taken literally. That is, a depiction of a hand must mean hand, one of an owl must mean owl, et cetera. As long as folks had these ideas in mind, there was certain to be no progress.

That changed in 1798 when an ambitious general named Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in an effort to control shipping and trade routes through the Mediterranean (and hence get the better of their British rivals). With his expedition Napoleon brought a large number of historians, engineers, artists, and other specialists to study the ancient land of Egypt.

In 1799 soldiers working on a fort near the Delta town of Rosetta were disassembling an old wall when they discovered a large stone slab covered in writing. The top two-thirds were covered in hieroglyphs and another strange script, while the bottom third contained ancient Greek. This would go on to be known as the Rosetta Stone.

Napoleon had no problem conquering Egypt from the Mamluks who had been controlling it, but they did not do so well against the British. Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the French fleet fleet in the Battle of the Nile, and Napoleon fled Egypt. To the victor go the spoils, as it were, the the British confiscated the Rosetta Stone. It’s been in the British Museum ever since.

It wasn’t the end of Napoleon, of course. He would rise to rule France and conquer most of Europe. Meanwhile, a young Frenchman of humble birth, Jean-Francois Champollion, was making strides in his efforts to learn languages. The fellow was a natural linguist. Early on Champollion developed a keen interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and wanted nothing more than to decipher that script.


Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832)

Most of Champollion’s instructors were highly skeptical of his goals, which left the young man largely to strive on his own to decipher hieroglyphs. He managed to get an inked copy of the Rosetta Stone but worked even more so from the epigraphic drawings people had made during their trips to Egypt.

Meanwhile, in Britain, there were those bent on figuring out the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone. They were led by the polymath Thomas Young. Any scholar worth his salt could read ancient Greek in those days, so they figured it would be a relatively simple matter to compare the ancient Greek at the bottom of the stone with the hieroglyphs at the top, and affect a translation.

It wasn’t quite that easy, of course. They were able to determine that the odd script in the center of the stone was another version of ancient Egyptian (what we now call demotic), but they could not translate it. Young was able to prove that the glyphs inside the cartouches at the top of the stone were used to spell the name Ptolemy (from the line of Ptolemies who had ruled Egypt in the Greek period), so that established that hieroglyphs could be used to write foreign names. Therefore, hieroglyphs had phonetic properties. But Young and his team made no progress on the rest of the stone, and many argued that in native Egyptian it didn’t represent a form of writing so much as a conveyor of ideas.

Back in France, young Champollion believed differently. He was one of the few who intuitively understood that the Coptic language of Christian Egypt was the last vestige of the pharaonic tongue, so he turned to a local Coptic priest, attended Coptic masses, and learned the liturgical Coptic language. This proved critical.

Champollion was working on some drawings a friend had made in Egypt and turned his attention to a cartouche in the transcriptions. The inscription had been copied at Abu Simbel, a site on the very southern fringes of Egypt. Champollion knew the Coptic word for “sun” was “re,” and this cartouche had a sun disk in it. The rest is history.

As the story goes, Champollion read the name in the cartouche and ran excitedly to his brother’s house to give him the news. And before he could deliver it, Champollion fainted dead away. His brother put him to bed. Champollion had a penchant for over-taxing himself, and his tireless efforts had caught up with him.

But upon waking Champollion could demonstrate that he could, in fact, read the name in the cartouche. I’ve outlined it in red here:


Champollion did not yet have a mastery of all the glyphs, of course, but he knew enough to understand what was written there: Ramesses. This was the cartouche of Ramesses II, one of the greatest pharaohs ever to sit on the throne of Egypt.

Eventually Champollion was able to go to Egypt himself. The story of his life is actually quite fascinating, between his involvement with the fortunes and fall of Napoleon and his efforts to stay out of the crosshairs of the Catholic Church, which was terrified that he would find proof the world was older than Christianity preached. But true to form, Champollion over-taxed himself and suffered a stroke while in Egypt. He died shrotly after returning home.

Champollion proved hieroglyphs could be read as a mix of phonetic and logogrammatic writing. He achieved a great deal in his short time, and one wonders how much farther we might have come had he lived to a ripe old age and taught us even more.

In the next installment we’ll take a look at how hieroglyphs work and the different kinds the Egyptians used. Thanks much for reading.

And Happy Holidays to the WordPress community.

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 3


Adkins, Leslie & Roy. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs.2000

MacArthur, Elise V. “The Conception and Development of the Egyptian Writing System.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010

Stauder, Andréas. “The Earliest Egyptian Writing.” Visible Language, Christopher Woods, ed. 2010


The forgotten pharaoh


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Egypt’s fortunes had fallen. The stability and fortunes of the Middle Kingdom were in the past, and foes pressed in from north and south. To the north in the Delta were the hated Hyksos, a kingdom of Canaanites who had migrated into Egypt over a long stretch of time and now held sway over all of Lower Egypt. They were pressing south, hoping to swallow up more of the Nile Valley. To the south, Egypt’s ancient Nubian enemies made inroads north to expand their terrotiry.

Egypt’s autonomy had shrunk to the region of Thebes in Upper Egypt, where long-smoldering resentments had led to war with the Hyksos. Kings like Seqenenre-Tao, Kamose, and Ahmose led prolonged efforts to drive the Hyksos from the sacred Two Lands. Seqenenre would die in that war, his badly preserved, wound-riddled  body telling us today how violent his end had been.

This was the Second Intermediate Period (1781-1550 BCE), one of three intermediate periods during which the Egyptian kingdom fractured, toppled, and led to rival kingdoms and concurrent dynasties. By their nature these intermediate periods are a challenge to research and understand. The fall of central authority led to fewer historical records and confusing and sometimes contradictory evidence. For instance, in the time of Seqenenre, Kamose, and Ahmose, we recognize the kingdom of Thebes as Dynasty 17 and the rival Hyksos kingdom as Dynasty 15, even though they were concurrent. There was a minor eastern Delta kingdom known now as Dynasty 14. Prior, Dynasty 13 was split in two, tumbling from the Middle Kingdom into the early Second Intermediate Period and a plethora of minor, short-lived kings. There is still a lot about the Second Intermediate Period we don’t understand.

One of those has turned out to be the number of other minor regional kingdoms that might have existed at the time. The University of Pennsylvania under Josef Wegner has been digging for many years at the Upper Egyptian site of Abydos. Located not far to the north of Thebes, Abydos is one of Egypt’s most ancient sites and was the original burial ground of Egypt’s earliest kings, who reigned over 5,000 years ago.


Map of ancient Egyptian nomes and historical sites. Note Abydos in Upper Egypt.

Egypt’s earliest history still has a lot to tell us, and archaeology is key. We know significantly more about the era of the kingdom’s founding in c. 3100 BCE than scholars did even 50 years ago, but there is much more to learn. Teams like Wegner’s will make it happen. But along the way archaeologists can never be certain what they might find to help fill in the gaps in other historical periods.

Wegner and his team were digging in the southern area of Abydos in January 2014 when they came upon something unexpected. One of the first things they unearthed was a massive stone sarcophagus chamber that turned out to have belonged originally to a king named Sobekhotep (probably Sobekhotep I, first king of Dynasty 13, c. 1780 BCE).


Lower-right: massive sarcophagus chamber of King Sobekhotep (in background are other tombs subsequently unearthed).

But as it turned out, it seemed that Sobekhotep’s sarcophagus chamber had been dragged from its original interment and reused in a different tomb. Exactly whose tomb that was is still not certain. But further excavations led to the discovery of other tombs, and they opened up a new window on a forgotten dynasty in ancient Egypt.

One of the other tombs was simple in design but of high-status for its time and place, and in clearing away the sands, Wegner and his team unearthed inscriptions.  The four-chambered tomb turned out to belong to a king who had been lost to history.


The painted and inscribed burial chamber of the new tomb, designated CS9.

The inscriptions tell us the king was named Senebkay, whose name means “My spirit is healthy.” The tomb had been looted in ancient times, so there was no great treasure of the likes of Tutankhamun. Chances are, Senebkay couldn’t have afforded that sort of burial, anyway. Excavations unearthed the fragments of a canopic box in which the king’s organs had been stored after mummification, and the canopic box, like the sarcophagus chamber in the nearby anonymous tomb, turned out to have come originally from Sobekhotep’s burial. Ancient Egyptian kings had a penchant for helping themselves to earlier kings’ goods, which was perfectly legitimate for a ruler and also very helpful if that ruler was not flush with wealth.

In sum, Wegner and his team had discovered the burial ground of a line of kings who appear to have been rulers of just the Abydos nome. Senebkay was among them. The painted tomb reveals his full name to have been Woseribre Senebkay, and one of the epithet’s record that he was “King of Upper and Lower Egypt.” That was a bit of a stretch, given that Senebkay’s reach wouldn’t have extended much beyond the Abydos nome. One of the other inscriptions refers to him by the traditional epithet “Son of Re.”


Cartouche of Senebkay preceded by the epithet “Son of Re.”

Wegner dates this local Abydos kingdom to 1650-1600 BCE, placing it late in the Second Intermediate Period. How it might fit into the current order of Second Intermediate Period dynasties is not clear.

By good fortune Senebkay’s remains were found in his tomb, although the body had been reduced to bones. But his skeleton is largely complete.


The skeletal remains of Senebkay.

This allowed for a thorough examination of the remains and some interesting findings about how the king lived and met his end. Muscle attachments in the pelvis and legs were robust and highly suggestive of someone who spent a lot of time on horses. This was something of a surprise because horsemanship in Egypt had only recently entered the kingdom, probably through the Hyksos and their connections with others in northern areas. The first widespread uses of horses was to be for chariot warfare, and it may have been developing in around Senebkay’s time but would not become common place until the succeeding New Kingdom.

More interesting were the insults inflicted on Senebkay’s body. He bore numerous wounds, some of them likely lethal. His skull bears evidence of violent axe wounds, which probably did result in his death.


The skull of Senebkay, anterior  and posterior, revealing lethal wounds likely inflicted by battle axes.

The remains also revealed numerous wounds to the feet, lower legs, and hands. This suggests Senebkay was attacked while in an elevated position—such as on a horse. It’s possible while in battle on horseback, Senebkay found himself surrounded by foes who were hacking at him until they were able to drag the king from the horse to the ground, and finish him off with blows to the head.

It’s eerily similar to the grisly end met by Seqenenre-Tao, the king of Thebes.

The poor state of Senebkay’s preservation, especially by royal standards, suggests the king may have died in battle away from home and could not be properly mummified in time.

It’s possible the line of Abydos kings was composed of equestrians. It’s unexpected because although chariotry was arriving on the scene at that time, combat while riding horseback was not the norm.

But who killed Senebkay? That’s not so easy to answer. It does appear he died in battle, so we can narrow down the assailants from there. An obvious culprit would be the Hyksos. After all, Senebkay and his Abydos nome lay between the Theban kings and the rival Canaanite warriors in the Delta. And if Senebkay lived and died around 1600 BCE, this places him in the timeframe of known hostilities between Thebes and the Hyksos.

Or was it Thebes? Perhaps Senebkay came up against the army of Seqenenre, Kamose, or Ahmose in their efforts to consolidate power in their prolonged push against the Hyksos. For that matter, was it the Nubians? We have evidence of a tentative alliance between them and the Hyksos, so that enemies could crush Thebes from both sides. Perhaps Senebkay got caught up in such a conflict, although ultimately we know that Nubia’s efforts to seep north at this time did not amount to much.

However it happened, Senebkay met a bloody end. He was buried over 3,600 years ago in a four-chambered tomb we call CS9, and over time the sands swept in and buried the final resting places of Senebkay and his fellow Abydine rulers. They were entirely forgotten until Josef Wegner and his team came along in 2014.

This leaves one to wonder what else might still lie buried at Abydos and other ancient sites in Egypt. This is the kind of story I like because it’s a vivid reminder of discoveries still to be made and new knowledge to be absorbed. Archaeology is key. The more we dig and explore, the more we fill in the blanks of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.

In all probability Senebkay and his fellow Abydos kings were largely forgotten by the dawn of the New Kingdom, in 1550 BCE. Sweeping north, Ahmose was finally successful in driving the hated Hyksos from Egypt. He would besiege and slaughter their remnants in a fortress in the Negev. Thus began Egypt’s greatest age of glory, when it enjoyed unprecedented wealth, reach, and power.This was Egypt’s age of empire and onto the stage of history came truly powerful pharaohs like Tuthmosis III, Ahumhotep III, and Ramesses II. Senebkay and his fellow Abydos kings disappeared into history as the sands swallowed up their humble tombs, and there they would wait quietly for 3,600 years.


“Gant Sarcophagus Leads Penn Museum Team in Egypt to the Tomb of a Previously Unknown Pharaoh.” www.penn.museum. January 2014.

Gleeson, Molly. “Summer 2016 Conservation in South Abydos.” www.penn.museum. July 2016.

“New Forensic Evidence Confirms Violent Death of Pharaoh Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. February 2015.

Wegner, Josef. “Discovering Pharaohs Sobekhotep & Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. April 2014.

Verhelst, Paul and Matthew Olson. “First Glimpse of a New Pharaoh: The Remains of Senebkay.” www.penn.museum. PDF.

The Fringe Scorecard

I enjoy discussing and debating the ancient Near East, and ancient history in general. The internet offers a variety of opportunities for like-minded people to do so, and to that end I’m a member of a lively and diverse message board called Unexplained-Mysteries. The site offers a variety of forums for different topics, and I spend most of my time in the Ancient Mysteries & Alternative History forum. There I can actively carry out my passion to discuss conventional academic historical research and to debate and argue against fringe notions.

I have a number of friends at Unexplained-Mysteries, and two of the most ardent supporters of conventional history are posters named Hanslune and Harte. Recently Hanslune started a discussion which he titled “May I suggest a project for the board?” He had read through John Baez’s “The Crackpot Index” and this list gave Hanslune the idea to start a similar one at our forum. Hanslune suggested we “create a ‘fringe index of confusion’ for archaeology or perhaps specifically just for Ancient Egypt” The list at which he eventually arrived ended up being mostly for ancient Egypt, which is one of the most popular discussion topics in the Ancient Mysteries forum.

I was quite entertained by the list, to which numerous posters contributed, and thought it would be fun to add it to my blog. I myself didn’t have much to do with the project, so I present the list below with only minimal modifications and alterations (with the hope that Hanslune will forgive me—but he gave me permission to post it to my blog). This is a point system by which you can award points for each fringe notion or idea that contradicts logic and history. The amusing (or perhaps disturbing) thing is, pretty much everything in the list below is from examples we’ve seen fringe posters use in their posts.

‘The Harte Ultimate Dumb’ chart (THUD) Index for AE Cranks .005

A simple method for rating potentially “revolutionary contributions” to Egyptology:

  1. Start at 0
  2. 5 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false without showing evidence that it is indeed false.
  3. 5 points for every statement that is clearly made up.
  4. 5 points for repeating that slaves built the pyramids.
  5. 5 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.
  6. 5 points where the term logic or reasoning is used to support something that isn’t logical or reasonable.
  7. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite given careful correction.
  8. 5 points for every use of annoying language, such as “is it possible that…”.
  9. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment: such as saying the C-14 dates done in 1995 are faked.
  10. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).
  11. 5 points for each mention of “Petrie”, “Lehner” or “Hawass” when it has no bearing on the point, 1 point for any of the lesser giants of Egyptology.
  12. 5 points for bringing up long-disproved ideas such as: The pyramids are situated at the center of the world, they were granaries, they could be seen in Jerusalem, or that they show supernatural precision or accuracy in construction or alignment.
  13. 5 points for demonstrating the phenomenon of pareidolia and not understanding this.
  14. 5 points for claiming you have done ‘years of research’.
  15. 5 points for mentioning that a documentary is to come in the future explaining everything but for now just “accept what I say.”
  16. 5 points for using as a source; Sitchin, Von Daniken, Osmanagic, Velikovsky, Cayce, Berlitz, Dunn, Donnelly, Icke, Blavatsky, Plongeon, Churchward, Posnansky, Fell, Taylor, Joseph, Wilson, Cremo, Childress, Collins, Coppens, Wyatt, Russell, Rutherford, et cetera.
  17. 5 points for using as a source those who are still alive and might well come up with something in future but are currently bad sources (e.g., Bauval, Hancock)
  18. 10 points for using speculation or your opinion and mistaking them for facts.
  19. 10 points for saying Egyptology is not a science.
  20. 10 points for not understanding consilience.
  21. 10 points for mentioning Mu or Atlantis and 50 for Lemuria.
  22. 10 points for each claim that Egyptology is fundamentally misguided or wrong (without good evidence).
  23. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.
  24. 10 points for deriding the study of any aspect of Egyptology as unimportant and not limited to its culture, religion, geographical location.
  25. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it. (10 more for emphasizing that you worked on your own.)
  26. 10 points for claiming scientists have helped and worked with you but not saying who they are or pointing out their contributions or credentials.
  27. 10 points for mailing/emailing your theory to someone you don’t know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.
  28. 10 points for advising that your idea is released to the world and you don’t want money for it (as if anyone would pay you).
  29. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory while you are the one who’s going to appraise the entries yourself.
  30. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.
  31. 10 points for each statement along the lines of “I’m not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations” that support my idea.
  32. 10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is “only a theory”, as if this were somehow a point against it.
  33. 10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory is well supported by the evidence, it doesn’t explain “why” they occur, or fails to provide a “mechanism” or is deemed illogical or unreasonable by the theorist.
  34. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a “paradigm shift”.
  35. 10 points for refusal to go to conference to promote your idea either by presenting or showing a presentation/data table.
  36. 10 points for stating you have degrees that supports your contention that you are well educated on the subject but refusing to provide supporting information.
  37. 10 points for trying to impose a modern cultural model on the ancient Egyptians (we wouldn’t do that so they wouldn’t, or we would do this so they would)
  38. 10 points for ‘borrowing’ an earlier idea and representing as your own or as new material.
  39. 10 points for not understanding that Hawass is not the head of world-wide Egyptology.
  40. 10 points for not understanding that NOT only modern Egyptians can be Egyptologists.
  41. 10 points for not understanding that not all Egyptian Egyptologist are Muslims and that their religion discredits them from speaking about the ancient Egyptians.
  42. 10 points for implying that Atlantis or a ‘lost civilization’ is the source for Egyptian civilization.
  43. 10 points if the claimant gives themselves the epithet of ‘Indiana Jones’.
  44. 15 points for implying that the pyramids have magical influences (without good evidence).
  45. 15 points for making engineering claims without providing drawing, mathematics, or experts to support your contention that what you say is possible.
  46. 15 points for saying that your theory or idea is more efficient for doing ‘x’ without showing it actually is and for believing the ancient Egyptians only did things efficiently.
  47. 15 points for declining to gain support of scientists outside of Egyptology for technical issues for no definable reason.
  48. 15 points for bringing up Troy.
  49. 20 points if your theory supports any failed 19th century nationalistic or racial idea, that the Egyptian civilian or pyramid came from the Jews, Aryans, Illuminati or other groups.
  50. 20 points for emailing Egyptologists complaining about them but not recognizing the theorist’s obvious great knowledge.
  51. 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel Prize when it has been explained to you that (accursed) Nobel left no money for archaeology or Egyptological prizes.
  52. 20 points for every use of science fiction works, forgeries, or myths as if they were fact.
  53. 20 points for constantly forgetting your idea is just an idea and not proven or accepted by consensus.
  54. 20 points for pretending that consensus support for your idea is not important.
  55. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.
  56. 20 points for naming something after yourself.
  57. 20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.
  58. 20 points for each use of the phrase “debunked” used the wrong way.
  59. 20 points for each use of the phrase “self-appointed defender of orthodoxy” when your ideas are not orthodox.
  60. 20 points for complaining that Egyptology is not paying attention to your idea when you have never published it.
  61. 20 points for suggesting Egyptology hates you for your idea and that anyone who disagrees is a paid shill of said Egyptology or Government.
  62. 20 points for posting links to evidence or papers that don’t actually support your contention.
  63. 20 points for suggesting that a general property is a unique feature and therefore evidence for your idea (such as noting that water, sand or limestone rock is present in Egypt).
  64. 20 points for bringing up a Biblical myth and treating it as real (without providing evidence that it is).
  65. 20 points for making a claim in a press release.
  66. 20 points for using the term ‘decode’ (this increases exponentially each time it is used).
  67. 25 points for using personal incredulity as evidence or using of buzz phrases like “Egyptology or science can’t explain that!” or “How could primitive man have done this?”  Or a misapplied appeal to “common sense.”
  68. 25 points for making a claim in a You Tube video with no written support.
  69. 25 points for treating the idea that the ancient Egyptians used ‘advanced technology’ (new age) to include levitation, telekinesis, magic, pyramid power (without providing great supporting evidence).
  70. 25 points for using strawmen arguments that no Egyptologist has ever said or implied.
  71. 25 points for using arguments from Egyptologists that were later dropped as still being valid.
  72. 25 points for complaining that Egyptology is based on assumption and demanding these be dropped so the writer’s weaker assumptions are accepted.
  73. 25 points for insisting that only evidence from a very narrow dating range near the object or construction in question can be deem associated with said place.
  74. 30 points for suggesting that a famous Egyptologist secretly disbelieved in your theory but who has never mentioned it.
  75. 30 points for suggesting that Egyptology is groping its way towards the ideas you now advocate but they refuse to acknowledge your great wisdom.
  76. 30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without REALLY good evidence).
  77. 30 points for allusions to a delay in your work while you spent time in an asylum, or references to the psychiatrist who tried to talk you out of your theory.
  78. 30 points for pretending that if you post something on an obscure website or non-obscure website that that means all of Egyptology then know about it.
  79. 30 points for pretending that if Egyptologists (or other scientists or professionals) don’t publish refutations of your work their silence means they accept it.
  80. 35 points for taking real scientists work, especially images and applying conclusions to their work that they never made.
  81. 35 points for insisting that your theory operates in a special world and that while you have no degrees (or the right ones) only those with the correct degrees may criticize it.
  82. 35 points for stating that knowing the language of ancient Egypt is not necessary when translating what the hieroglyphs mean.
  83. 35 points for believing that the pyramids are the true focus of Egyptology and nothing else in their culture actually matters.
  84. 35 points for stating that some aspect of Egyptology has been shown to be wrong but declining to show the evidence for such a position.
  85. 35 points for bringing up the television show ‘Ancient Aliens’ and considering it a source; additionally citing dubious online sites as sources that themselves don’t source their claims, usually recycled from pseudo-participants higher up on the food chain.
  86. 35 points for suggesting that the ancient Egyptian technology to build the pyramids appeared out of nowhere.
  87. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis.
  88. 40 points for refusal to accept the scientific method or peer-review as a valid system of research.
  89. 40 points for claiming that the Egyptology is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame.
  90. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case.
  91. 40 points for suggesting or claiming that Egyptologists are plotting against you.
  92. 40 points for suggesting or claiming that Egyptologists are generally evil for not listening to you or worse yet pointing out your many errors.
  93. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day Egyptology will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)
  94. 40 points for suggesting that events tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of years ago somehow directly affect the Egyptians (without excellent evidence).
  95. 45 points for stating that the hieroglyph associated with an image of Egyptian art need not be read to ascertain what the image is about.
  96. 45 points for changing the meaning of ancient Egyptian words while not understanding the language.
  97. 45 points creating ‘evidence’ by using photo-shop or other dishonest methods.
  98. 50 points for suggesting you are an ancient Egyptian.
  99. 50 points for claiming supernatural or paranormal support or collaborators.
  100. 50 points for claiming extra-terrestrial support or collaborators.
  101. 50 points for making un-evidenced statements that either don’t grasp or heavily exaggerate the timeline of other aspects of a given cultural group so as to distort their known contribution to world civilization.
  102. 50 points for changing the meaning of ancient Egyptian words while understanding the language but doing so with no support from others who can read the language.
  103. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.
  104. 75 points for suggesting or pretending that your dismissal of evidence causes such evidence to disappear from the physical world.
  105. 75 points that the evidence to support your theory will be found in the future – but for the present your ideas or theory should be accepted anyway.
  106. 100 points if your theory consists of trash talk against science and Egyptology while concentrating on what you perceived as their grievous errors and bias. In your mind they are so evil and inept that your own weak and un-evidenced idea must be accepted based solely on the presumed weaknesses of the orthodox position.

Unexplained-Myseries forum discussion: http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/topic/297664-may-i-suggest-a-project-for-the-board/?page=1

The Joseph Smith Papyri: A critical analysis


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Author’s note: I realize this article could be taken as controversial to some and off-putting to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not my intent to offend Mormons, but as to the subject of this article, I do openly call into question the veracity of the work of Joseph Smith. All historians familiar with the source material herein discussed share the same overt skepticism. In this article I do not wish to delve into modern religion or faith but simply to provide my own brief critical analysis of the Joseph Smith Papyri and specifically that papyrus which Smith pronounced to be “The Book of Abraham.”


In July 1835 one Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland, Ohio with four Egyptian mummies and a collection of Egyptian papyri. At this point in time Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, was living in Kirtland. Around five years earlier Smith had completed his Book of Mormon for his nascent religion, and in constructing the Book of Mormon he is said to have interpreted golden plates containing an obscure language he referred to as “Reformed Egyptian.” It is not surprising, then, that Smith should take an immediate interest in Chandler’s small but valuable collection.

Within a month Smith and members of his church had rounded up the funds and purchased Chandler’s collection for the sum of $2400 (Ritner 2013: 1). Soon thereafter Smith recruited several church members as “scribes” and set about examining the papyri. Smith is said to have quickly recognized the biblical nature of some of the papyri, including one he regarded as “The Book of Abraham”. This papyrus (designated P.  Joseph Smith 1) is the focus of my article.

For the record, however, the Joseph Smith Papyri included a Book of Breathing (also known as a Breathing Permit), several fragments from different Books of the Dead, and several more that were eventually lost after the collection was split up. It is not known for certain what became of the lost fragments of papyri but they are thought to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Marquardt 2013: 65-66). It’s a pity they were lost because one text was an interesting papyrus known in modern scholarship as a hypocephalus:

A hypocephalus similar to one originally in the Smith collection, but now lost.

A hypocephalus similar to one originally in the Smith collection, but now lost.

This amuletic device, usually made of papyrus and plaster, originated in the Late Period (664-332 BCE) of ancient Egypt and contains Spell 162 from the Book of the Dead, a spell providing heat and light (thus, life) to the deceased (Taylor 2010: 61, 130). It was placed under the heads of mummies.

Joseph Smith’s “Translations”
As mentioned, I’m going to narrow my focus to the text Smith named “The Book of Abraham.” For a more comprehensive treatment of the full set of papyri, there are numerous modern sources but I would recommend Robert Ritner’s The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Signature Books, 2013). Ritner, a prominent Egyptologist with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, has exhaustively researched these papyri and their backstory.

Smith interpreted the papyri in a similar fashion to his Book of Mormon with its mysterious golden plates written in “Reformed Egyptian.” The main difference here is, while no evidence exists for the golden plates, most of the papyri in question are still extant and plenty of people, from professionals to laymen, have examined them. Smith had his scribes at the ready while he examined the papyri and “dictated” the contents of their ancient writing. The manuscripts which record his interpretations are still in the archives of the LDS, and the church men who acted as scribes are named in the manuscripts.

So at least we have a fairly detailed written account of how Smith approached the matter, from the hands of his own brethren. These records include an “Egyptian Alphabet” which Smith devised to show how he “translated” the papyri. That is to his credit, I suppose. Always show your work, after all.

But it should be pointed out that Egyptian hieroglyphs had been deciphered by the Frenchman Jean François Champollion in 1822, only thirteen years before Smith conducted his “translations.” As a matter of fact, news of Champollion’s achievement did not widely reach the United States until the early 1840s. By this time Smith was publishing his “translations” in Mormon literature.

In other words, there was no one yet in the Western Hemisphere who could realistically understand or decipher ancient Egyptian writing (which further includes the more cursive hieratic script seen throughout the Smith papyri). Presumably, as with the mysterious golden plates in 1830, Smith was receiving divine inspiration to be able to interpret the papyri.

His “Egyptian Alphabet” reveals that Smith believed each Egyptian character could bear numerous levels of meaning, which he called degrees. As an example, the character he took to have the sound “Tota toues-Zip Zi” could be interpreted in this way (Marquardt 2013: 34; spelling mistakes from manuscript preserved):

  • 1st Degree: “The land of Egypt”
  • 2nd Degree: “The land which was discovered under water by a woman”
  • 3rd Degree: “The woman sought to settle her sons in that land. She being the daughter of Ham”
  • 4th Degree: “The land of Egypt discovered by a woman who afterwards sett[l]ed her sons in it”
  • 5th Degree: “The land of Egypt which was first discovered by a woman <whter [while?] under water>, and afterward settled by her sons she being a daughter of Ham”

Some of the papyri, including that called “The Book of Abraham,” contained vignettes (depictions or pictures) which Smith had produced as woodcuts for inclusion in his publication.

Smith “deduced” that the papyrus we designate as P. Joseph Smith 1 was “The Book of Abraham” and was written in the very hand by that biblical patriarch. Here is the actual papyrus:

The papyrus Smith called "The Book of Abraham"

The papyrus Smith called “The Book of Abraham.”

According to Smith’s “translations” this was a book in which Abraham related his story of escaping human sacrifice in Ur of the Chaldeans and ended up in Egypt, where he became the keeper of ancient archives stretching back to the dawn of time. Here is how Smith published the opening to “The Book of Abraham” (1:2; ibid):

…having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I [Abraham] became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.

This was published in 1842 in a Mormon newsletter called Times and Seasons. As mentioned, woodcuts were also published which were adapted from actual vignettes which appeared in the papyri. This is the illustration published with “The Book of Abraham:”

Woodcut accompanying "The Book of Abraham" as published in 1842.

Woodcut accompanying “The Book of Abraham” as published in 1842.

This is the scene which is supposed to show the attempted human sacrifice of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans. Smith “translated” the vignette to mean that the Chaldean priests practiced Egyptian customs and worshiped Egyptian deities. Note the numbers within the illustration. Based on Smith’s “translations” the objects so numbered are thus identified (adapted from Times and Seasons, March 1842, Vol III, No. 9):

  1. The Angel of the Lord
  2. Abraham, fastened upon an Altar.
  3. The Idolatrous Priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice.
  4. The Altar for sacrifice, by the Idolatrous Priests, standing before the Gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmachrah, Korash, and Pharaoh.
  5. The Idolatrous God of Ekenah.
  6. The Idolatrous God of Libnah.
  7. The Idolatrous God of Mahmachrah.
  8. The Idolatrous God of Korash.
  9. The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh.
  10. Abraham in Egypt.
  11. Designed to represent the pillars of Heaven, as understood by the Egyptians.
  12. Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament, over our heads, but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shamau, to be high, or the heavens: answering to the Hebrew word, Shaumahyeem.

Smith fancied himself a linguist and professed to be able to translate a number of ancient tongues, even though he had no formal education in them. “The Book of Abraham” is probably his most fanciful example of such work.

In October 1880 “The Book of Abraham,” along with other literature created by Joseph Smith, was canonized by LDS Church members as official scripture (ibid 61).

Academic Analyses
Eventually there was sought academic opinion on Smith’s “translations,” beginning around 1859. Smith had been dead for fifteen years by then, and Champollion had translated hieroglyphs almost forty years earlier. So by this point in time, many scholars were starting to become adept at ancient Egyptian writing and could offer a reliable, academic assessment of the Joseph Smith Papyri.

In 1912 a collection of recognized scholars including A.H. Sayce, W.M.F. Petrie, J.H. Breasted, and A.C. Mace, reviewed the “translations” and uniformly dismissed their credibility (with some measure of derision). Understandably this didn’t sit well with a lot of Mormon members, who could not assault the academic merits of the Egyptologists’ assessments so decided instead to try to attack the character of the field of Egyptology (Ritner 2013: 4-5). This is a typical fringe ploy, or in this case the ploy of a church whose tenet is being questioned, and it never passes muster. If one’s counterargument cannot address and challenge the merits of an academic position, the counterargument has no legs to stand on in the first place.

Looking again at “The Book of Abraham,” a proper academic assessment reveals it to be an ancient Egyptian funerary text called the Book of Breathing (also called the Breathing Permit). The earliest appearance of this funerary text is the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE), when the Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great ruled Egypt. Based on textual analysis and the tracing of the family line of this papyrus’s owner, the Book of Breathing which Smith called “The Book of Abraham” can be dated to the first half of the second century BCE (Coenen 2013: 77).

This is obviously a very long time after the patriarch Abraham is supposed to have lived (and is beside the fact that no extrabiblical evidence exists for the patriarch, but that’s another matter). This Book of Breathing actually belonged to a Theban priest named Hor (the Greek derivation would be Horus, so this priest was named after the great falcon deity, as many Egyptian men were down through time).

It is perhaps useful to explain that by the mid-Ptolemaic Period, the Book of Breathing was beginning to replace the Book of the Dead in many burials, although examples of the latter are still known down to the onset of the Roman period in Egypt. Books of Breathing absorbed some of the content and purposes of earlier funerary texts such as the Book of the Dead. Their main purpose was to preserve the importance of breathing to the deceased, to prolong the existence of the name, and to prevent the eternal “second death” that all ascended souls feared (Hornung 1999: 24).

Academic analyses of the Joseph Smith Papyri has gone on until the present, although understandably access to them is highly restricted. A lot of scholars who’ve attempted to analyze the papyri have had to make due with photographs and the analyses and translations of earlier scholars.

Along the way scholars have noticed that Smith and his scribes back in the 1830s affixed the fragile papyri to stiff sheets of paper to stabilize them, and in many cases small fragments were incorrectly fitted into lacunae (holes in the papyri). It’s been further noted that Smith seems to have invented some characters in the ancient texts and “filled in the blanks” according, evidently, to his imagination. For example, above I posted the image which supposedly shows Abraham tied to an altar while a Chaldean priest attempts to sacrifice him. Here is a close-up of the actual state and nature of that vignette in the Book of Breathing of the priest Hor:

The actual fragmented vignette in the Book of Breathing of Hor.

The actual fragmented vignette in the Book of Breathing of Hor.

As is known from a plethora of other, similar funerary papyri, this is a depiction of the mummification of the underworld god Osiris (or the papyrus owner as Osiris). The figure on the bed is a deceased individual undergoing mummification. The damaged standing figure is not a priest performing human sacrifice but is the jackal-headed god Anubis; he does not clutch a knife. The bird-figure above the head of the deceased person is not the “Angel of the Lord” but is the deceased person’s ba, or soul, waiting to rejoin the body. And the four figures below the funerary couch are not deities called Libnah, Mahmachrah, Korash, and Pharao, but are the canopic jars into which the deceased’s mummified internal organs will be placed. This is all Egyptology 101. Compare the fragmented vignette above to the complete image below, from another funerary text:

Intact mummification scene from another funerary text.

Intact mummification scene from another funerary text.

This is the actual content and nature of “The Book of Abraham.” Not surprisingly it has nothing to do with biblical lore. It is strictly traditional ancient Egyptian funerary material.

Also, although Smith proclaimed that this text spoke of Chaldean priests of Ur performing Egyptian rituals, there is no evidence of Egyptian cults from the Mesopotamian city of Ur (Woods 2013: 89-91). This, too, was an invention on Smith’s part, but no doubt allowed him to explain why documents found in Egypt should “relate” such information.

The academic assessment takes into account the fact that no one in the United States in Smith’s time could read or understand hieroglyphs, and a careful academic analysis cannot accept “divine inspiration” as an explanation. While his own church members of the time fervently believed in his “translations,” Smith’s own “Egyptian Alphabet” shows he actually had no knowledge of the grammar or vocabulary of that ancient language. The words and interpretations (including the five-part degrees for vocabulary) do not correspond to any reality of the ancient Egyptian language.

The Papyri After Smith
Joseph Smith died violently in June 1844 and the mummies and papyri passed to his mother, Lucy M. Smith. Lucy Smith died in May 1856, and within a couple of weeks this collection was sold to a man named Abel Combs (Marquardt 2013: 61). After that the collection was sold and resold again, and was eventually split up. In the 1940s some of the papyri ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As mentioned earlier, some of the other papyri. including the hypocephalus, is believed to have ended up in a small collection that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.

In the mid-1960s the Metropolitan Museum, as museums occasionally do, began to sell pieces of its collection to raise money. The surviving Joseph Smith Papyri actually made their way in November 1967 back to the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As all big religions do, the Mormons had their share of problems from within throughout the years, and a breakaway sect that eventually called itself the Community of Christ, in Missouri, subsequently repudiated Smith’s “translations” of the papyri and does not regard them as canonical. The LDS Church continues to regard them as canonical but since reacquisition in 1967 most LDS members appear no longer to recognize them as a literal translation of an ancient text (ibid 67). However, that Smith received “divine inspiration” to discern the overall meaning of the papyri seems still to be the case.

As an aside, while doing research for this article I was curious to see what modern Mormons might have to say about the papyri. Online I found a Mormon message board that had several discussions about the papyri, including “The Book of Abraham,” so on some level this material is still relevant to LDS members.

I am no atheist and was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic household. I am no stranger to the requirements devout people must have to believe or accept the tenets of their faith, and how strange some of the background to a faith may be. But that’s just it: it’s a matter of faith. Do I believe Smith’s translations or his interpretations of these ancient papyri? Of course not, but I recognize that faith is not science.

I welcome comments from believers and non-believers alike, definitely including Mormons. I’ve known very few Mormons in my life and have never talked to them about these papyri, so I’d be curious to hear what active LDS members have to say.


Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. 1999.

Ritner, Robert K., ed. The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. 2013.

Taylor, John H. Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. 2010.


A mummy named Harwa


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One of the most popular exhibits at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is our ancient Egyptian exhibit, which goes by the name “Inside Ancient Egypt.” It’s a large exhibit and not surprisingly one of its biggest draws is the myriad of mummies on display. There are around twenty, originating mostly from the later periods of pharaonic history (which is, coincidentally, the source of most mummies you see in museums).

Of all of these mummies the favorite of museum goers and staff alike is usually Harwa. Displayed to the right of Harwa is his elaborate coffin. What makes Harwa particularly interesting is the fact that his head is unwrapped and you can see his face very clearly; there is also the fact that Harwa is unusually well preserved, a happy fate certainly not shared by all Egyptian mummies.

I thought it might be fun to do an article about Harwa. What can his mummy tell us about him? What can his coffin reveal to us? When did he live and what did he do in life? In point of fact it’s amazing what we can discern about an ancient person just from his mummy and coffin, so I’d like to share some facts about Harwa with you.

First, allow me to clear up a mistake I occasionally see associated with this mummy. This is not the mummified body of the more famous Great Steward and nobleman of the early seventh century BCE who erected a sprawling tomb (TT37) at el-Assif, Thebes. That was an earlier man by the same name. Although “Harwa” was not necessarily a common name in Egypt (and is not even Egyptian in origin, as we shall see), it is attested for numerous individuals in the later dynasties. Possibly the only commonalities between that Harwa and our museum’s Harwa is that both shared the same name, both lived in the Late Period, and both were buried in the vast Theban necropolis.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s see what we can learn about Harwa. We’ll start with his mummy.

The mummy of Harwa

The mummy is that of a Late Period man dating to the late seventh century BCE, specifically to around the early 600s BCE. I’ll explain later why I assign that date to him. While he is commonly referred to as coming from Dynasty 25, I might instead suggest very early in Dynasty 26 (Saite Period, so named because the Delta city of Sais was the administrative capital of Egypt at that time).

Harwa's display in the exhibit

Harwa’s display in the exhibit

I should note before continuing that the placement of Dynasty 25 varies according to the preferred chronologies of certain Egyptologists: some place it at the end of the Third Intermediate Period and others at the start of the Late Period. The Field Museum favors the latter placement, as do I. This article is not for the purposes of a discourse on dynastic chronology but the Third Intermediate Period is that length of time during which Egypt was ruled primarily by Libyan-borne pharaohs. Therefore I personally find Dynasty 25 a nice fit for the start of the Late Period—it marks a time of profound transitions when Egypt was fast losing its autonomy, was ruled by foreign powers, and was beginning to approach its historic end. Dynasty 25, for instance, was when pharaohs of Kushitic (Nubian) heritage ruled Egypt.

The mummy of Harwa is displayed behind an anthropoid glass shield on which is mounted a rich array of funerary amulets. None of these belong to Harwa (and, indeed, they represent a quantity arguably considerably larger than most mummies would have at any one time). The amulets come from different periods but are excellent examples of their type. They are displayed in front of Harwa to represent an approximate positioning of funerary amulets upon the mummified body, inside the wrappings. In fact, in Harwa’s X-rays I have a difficult time finding clear indications of even a single amulet in his wrappings. Not all people used them in burial.

Harwa’s age at death is inconsistent in published material: I’ve seen a range anywhere from early 30s to around 60. While most of us familiar with Harwa tend to favor the older age at death, to my knowledge a properly trained forensic expert has never examined the mummy or its X-rays. When you gaze upon his face, you tend to see that of an elderly man—and 60 years would’ve been very elderly in a time when most males in the Near East averaged about 35 years of life.

An unusual fact about Harwa is that he was the first mummy to be flown on an airplane and the first to be publicly displayed by X-ray (Martin 1941: 386-388). In the early 1940s the Field Museum loaned him to a special General Electric exhibit in New York where he was displayed behind a fluoroscope that would automatically light up at timed intervals, to reveal the skeleton inside the wrappings.

Harwa has been X-rayed more than once through the years, as have many of our Egyptian and Peruvian mummies at the Field Museum. In the late 1970s Harwa was the subject of a medical analysis at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where researchers examined X-ray images and took a biopsy of his right hip to search for signs of disease. Their conclusion is that in life Harwa suffered from ochronosis, a disease causing acid buildup in connective tissues and leading to calcification of some joints and articular surfaces. The researchers found this most notable in the narrowing of Harwa’s hips and knees and by the dark-stained deposits in his vertebra (Stenn et al 1977: 566-568), which looked to be calcified.

Lateral X-ray of Harwa; note the density of the intervertebral discs

Lateral X-ray of Harwa; note the density of the intervertebral discs

Similar conclusions have been reached in many other Egyptian mummies in museums around the world, but more modern analyses might indicate otherwise. The world-leading center for the scientific study of Egyptian mummies is the Manchester Museum in northern England. Their scientists have been engaged in advanced and sophisticated scientific examinations of mummies for 40 years. Researchers at Manchester have noted that the finding of ochronosis might be incorrect, and might be better explained by changes in images of the body caused by the mummification process itself, largely due to imaging contrast issues (Adams & Alsop 2008: 38).

Harwa’s face is that of a serene and dignified elderly man. He almost appears to be asleep:

The face of Harwa

The face of Harwa

The preservation is practically perfect. The only damage is a missing little patch of skin above his right eye (not visible in the above photo), which exposes a bit of the frontal bone of his skull. That is likely to be the result of relatively modern damage, from the unwrapping of his head. It isn’t clear whether Harwa’s head was unwrapped before he even came to Chicago in 1904, or at some point in the early years of the museum’s possession. In any case it is no longer the practice to unwrap mummies most anywhere in the world, due to changes in ethical attitudes and, perhaps even more so, to the availability and superiority of CT scans as a tool to study mummies.

Some ancient damage is evident to Harwa’s nose. It is common to see collapsed noses on mummies such as Harwa, due in part to the pressure of the bandages simply collapsing the cartilage through time. But if you stand before Harwa and look carefully at his right nostril (not visible in the above photo), you will notice a large tear. This artifact is damage from the ancient embalming procedure of excerebration, by which the embalmers thrust a hooked rod up the nostril and into the skull to remove the brain matter a bit at a time.

The above image gives you a hint of how densely Harwa is wrapped by linen material, which is also evident as the dense white material outside the body cavity in the X-ray image above. Generally the body was first wrapped by thin strips of linen, after which any number of burial shrouds might have been wrapped fully around the body. As was common in the Late Period, both Harwa and his bandages were coated with dense deposits of hot pine resins (both to seal the body and to glue the wrappings together).

Harwa appears to have undergone an elaborate and expensive mummification. In this late stage of Egyptian history mummification standards were slipping, and one tends to find fewer well-preserved bodies compared to somewhat earlier periods when the mummification process had been perfected to a high art. Included in Harwa’s embalming was the traditional removal of internal organs: stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines. Unlike the ruined brain that had been removed through the nose, these four organs were preserved. They remain forever with Harwa, wrapped into four bundles between his legs:

Full frontal X-ray of Harwa; note the four bundles between his legs

Full frontal X-ray of Harwa; note the four bundles between his legs

Many readers are probably familiar with the four Canopic jars in which the embalmers traditionally placed the four organs. This practice had been largely discontinued at the end of the New Kingdom (c. 1068 BCE), perhaps because tomb raiders often smashed and destroyed the vessels (and the organs within them). While Canopic jars were still being produced and would continue as such for a long period of time, they were usually left empty or the stone from which they were made not even hollowed out. The organs in the later periods were often restored to the body cavity or placed between the legs (Ikram & Dodson 1998: 289).

So with Harwa we have a man upwards of sixty years of age who lived in the late seventh century BCE. He is extremely well preserved. Harwa’s exposed flesh is hairless, which might be due to his job in life (see below) or the putative practice of shaving off the hair for mummification and burial. Certainly not all Egyptian mummies are bald, but Harwa himself is indeed smooth.

The cause of death is unknown. Many of our mummies in storage have been CT scanned, which sometimes is a better diagnostic tool for finding evidence of disease, but Harwa has not been and nothing stands out in his skeleton. As stated, the old finding of ochronosis might be in error and wouldn’t have been fatal in any case. At some point it’s possible Harwa will be CT scanned by our curators, and perhaps then some evidence of pathology will present itself.

The coffin of Harwa

The elaborate coffin in which Harwa was buried is typical of an upper-class man from Dynasty 25 or Dynasty 26. It further confirms Harwa’s elite standing and wealth in his culture, at a time when most people still could not afford mummification and its requisite, costly burial equipment.

Coffin of Harwa

Coffin of Harwa

Unfortunately the coffin is difficult to photograph well because of the dim lighting of the display as well as the faded texts and vignettes, but one can begin to appreciate how expensive such a coffin would be. Unlike many coffins, it’s possible this one was custom made for Harwa. It’s covered with depictions of deities and other scenes and lengthy religious texts, many of them excerpts from Book of the Dead spells (a fairly common feature of Late Period coffins). Altogether the coffin’s design and iconography confirm that it comes from the Theban necropolis (the same massive burial ground where the great New Kingdom pharaohs were buried centuries earlier, in the Valley of the Kings).

The beard jutting from the chin is not the sort men actually wore in life, but is a symbol of Osiris, the god who ruled the underworld. The same is true for the green face, which is actually an unusual feature, but Osiris was also a fertility god associated with the fecundity of the Nile Valley crops.

On the coffin’s midriff is a funerary scene:

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

Harwa is shown as a mummy lying on his funeral bed. At his head is the goddess Nephthys and at his feet Isis, both of whom raise their hands to their foreheads in a grieving gesture. Below the funeral bed are the four Canopic jars, even though Harwa’s stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines are wrapped up in four bundles between his legs (see X-ray above). And above him flutters a human-headed bird, which represents Harwa’s ba—that aspect of the soul embodying one’s character and personality.

It was believed that this aspect of the soul needed to return to the mummified body at dusk, where it would remain safe through the hours of night. The funerary scene and hieroglyphic texts on the lower portion of the coffin come from Spell 89 of the Book of the Dead. Placing them here ensured that Harwa’s ba would indeed safely return to his mummy every evening before the sun set.

On Harwa’s chest is a beautiful depiction of the winged goddess Nut:

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

She spreads her wings as though to protect Harwa, and in each hand she clutches the ankh symbol (eternal life). Note the pair of eyes flanking the goddess’s head. These are the eyes of Horus and were typical on coffins from significantly earlier periods of pharaonic history, as a means to allow the soul within the coffin to see out. On Harwa’s coffin they’re an archaic feature typical of this later period, even though the face of the coffin has a set of human eyes.

Note also the disk atop Nut’s head. It contains tiny hieroglyphs which spell her name (nwt). Above the disk is the bottom edge of the floral collar painted onto the coffin. The fact that the disk with glyphs lies just below the collar instead of intersecting it, allows Egyptologists to date the coffin to around 625 BCE or later (Taylor 2003: 115). This is how specific coffin typology can be, due to the development of iconography down through time. To reinforce this date, there are 22 deities depicted laterally down the sides of Harwa’s legs, another feature of the time. This is why I personally would date Harwa to about 600 BCE and to Dynasty 26 instead of Dynasty 25.

Down the front of Harwa’s legs are seven vertical bands reading top to bottom, right to left. The farthest right band is specific to Harwa and his family line (while much of the rest of the lengthy inscription comes from the Book of the Dead, as noted above). I’ve reproduced the hieroglyphs in the rightmost register:

Harwa'sFamilyGlyphsThe inscription reads: “Doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, Harwa, the justified; son (of) the doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, Pakharukhonsu, the justified; (who is the) son of Harwa, the justified. His mother, lady of the house, Medi-Iun, the justified.”

In life, then, Harwa was a doorkeeper in the Temple of Amun, the largest and most prestigious temple in Egypt. His father, Pakharukhonsu, held the same title before him. Pakharukhonsu’s father (and Harwa’s grandfather) was also named Harwa, so perhaps it was a family name—although it was common to name one’s son after one’s father. And Harwa’s mother was named Medi-Iun.

The name Harwa appears to be Semitic in origin, with the root H-L-W. It’s attested since Akkadian times under the form elelu and probably means “Beautiful Because Sweet” (Teeter, Gaudard, & Tradritti 2013). Some linguists argue that most or all ancient Egyptian dialects lacked the sound “L,” which might explain why it is rendered the way it is in Egyptian inscriptions.

The Temple of Amun (modern Luxor) was an extremely powerful and wealthy institution. As with any large state temple it would’ve had an army of employees, and doorkeepers were of a lower rank (Erman 1894: 304). However, it’s important to understand that the position was more for the sake of prestige than for income, and in fact it’s altogether possible the family’s personal wealth and standing are what landed his father and then him in that position. Typically only the highest-class citizens were involved with the great temples. And it’s clear Harwa was very proud of this: his name and title are repeated many times over the surfaces of his coffin.

I should note that published materials also describe Harwa as the overseer of an agricultural estate owned by the Temple of Amun. Given that the great temples—and especially Amun’s—owned vast agricultural lands in the Nile Valley to make themselves self-sufficient, this is quite plausible. However, I have never been able to find this fact in the visible inscriptions, so until such time that I am able to see and translate it, I shall refrain from claiming that title for Harwa.

It’s only a pity that the coffin is so close to the back wall of the display case; otherwise, we could note whether there are inscriptions on the back, too. This was common for elaborate coffins of the Late Period. I’ve always wished the curators who designed the exhibit had stuck a large mirror behind the coffin.

Harwa’s coffin is a true masterpiece, fitting for an elite man in the Late Period of Egypt. Together with his incredibly preserved mummy, it’s clear Harwa was a wealthy and comfortable man. He is one of the greatest treasures of our Egyptian collection, and I’ve spent years discussing him with enthralled museum visitors. One might say Harwa is our rock star.

Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and questions.


Adams, Judith E. and Chrissie W. Alsop. “Imaging Egyptian Mummies.” Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science. ed. Rosalie David. 2008.

Erman, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. 1894.

Ikram, Salima and Aidan Dodson. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. 1998.

Martin, Richard A. 1941/ Vol. 53, No. 4. “X-Raying a Mummy at the Field Museum of Natural History.” The Scientist Monthly.

Stenn, Frederick E:, James W. Milgram; Sandra L. Lee; Raymond J. Weigand; Arthur Veis. 1977. Vol 197, No. 4304. “Biochemical Identification of Homogentisic Acid Pigment in an Ochronotic Egyptian Mummy.” Science, New Series.

Taylor, John H. “Theban coffins from the Twenty-second to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty: dating and synthesis of development.” The Theban Necropolis: Past, Present and Future. ed. Nigel Strudwick and John H. Taylor. 2003.

On the translation of Harwa’s name: Personal correspondence with Emily Teeter and Francois Gaudard of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; personal correspondence with Francesco Tradritti, Field Director of the Harwa Mission, Università di Enna Unikore. 2013.

Nip Tuck: circumcision in ancient Egypt


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Main_PhotoRecently for practice I translated an ancient Egyptian stela on display at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, Illinois. It’s a large and colorful stela of an official named Uha, and it’s unusual in that it contains information about his circumcision. I had never translated a monument with this aspect of the ancient culture, so was interested in seeing what it had to say in the original ancient language.

Along the way I spent some time researching the subject and thought it might be worthwhile to compose an article about it. There is a lot of interesting information out there, and I noted that some of it on the internet is misleading or incorrect. I also was reminded of the polarizing effect the subject of circumcision has on modern people, some of whom are not disturbed by it, some of whom find it “barbaric,” and others who regard the practice as a religious or cultural norm.

My article for the most part will be limited to the subject of circumcision as it pertains to ancient Egypt.

The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the mid fifth century BCE, stated the Egyptians “practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.” He also wrote: “They [Egyptians] are the only people in the world—they at least, and such as have learnt the practice from them—who use circumcision.”

Were we to take Herodotus at his word, then, we might think circumcision was a universal male practice in ancient Egypt and that the Egyptians invented the practice. But neither case can be stated absolutely. No one knows who first instituted the act of circumcision, and it certainly was not a universal practice among males. Examinations of mummies has shown, however, that circumcision was commonly practiced (Filer 1995: 90) among ancient Egyptian males.

Try as I might, I could find no corroboration that female circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt. Examinations of female mummies have not revealed evidence of circumcision (Aufderheide 2003: 474). What we can say with a high level of confidence, then, is that circumcision in ancient Egypt was a male practice.

The prevailing evidence shows that circumcision was conducted in the pre-adolescent stage of a male’s life. This is borne out in textual evidence as well as in the examinations of male mummies. As with other African peoples to this day, it was not done in infancy but perhaps in some cases marked an initiation rite between boyhood and manhood. At the same time, there is no extant evidence that circumcision was required for all males; likewise, there is no evidence that circumcision was governed by one’s social class or status (Nunn 2002: 171).

Not even all of the kings appear to have been circumcised, in so far as it is observable on their mummies. Consider Ahmose I (1549-1524 BCE), founder of Dynasty 18 and the New Kingdom:

Mummy of Ahmose I, Dynasty 18

Mummy of Ahmose I, Dynasty 18

Kings were of course at the peak of social hierarchy, the epitome of manhood, and the divine intermediaries of the gods. It has been speculated that perhaps Ahmose wasn’t circumcised because he was sickly or suffered from hemophilia (Harris & Weeks 1973: 127), but other kings such as Amunhotep I and Amunhotep II also appear not to have been circumcised. The more plausible scenario is that it wasn’t a cultural absolute.

As a museum docent I am sometimes faced with odd or somewhat embarrassing questions. Such questions are often (though not always) posed by children. On display in our Egyptian exhibit at the Field Museum is the unwrapped mummy of a boy who died around 2,500 years ago, at ten to twelve years of age:


Late Period mummy of a boy (Field Museum)

One afternoon I came across a young boy of around seven who was squatting down and studying what he could see below the hands of this mummy. The mummy is so well preserved that his genitals are intact. The young museum visitor looked up at me and asked why this mummified boy was not circumcised. I’ve never paid much attention to what one can see below the mummy’s hands and am not inclined to now, either, but my first thought upon this young boy’s question to me was, Where are this kid’s parents? To cut it short I answered frankly that not everyone was circumcised, and then pretended to be caught up by another group of visitors.

While on the subject of museums, let’s return to the stela of Uha on display at the Oriental Institute:

Stela of Uha, First Intermediate Period (Oriental Institute)

Stela of Uha, First Intermediate Period (Oriental Institute)

The stela comes from the site of Nag ed-Deir and dates to the First Intermediate Period (c. 2100 BCE). It shows Uha in his kilt and broadcollar and clutching a sekhem-scepter (emblem of power); behind Uha, in diminutive size, stands his wife Henutsen, who affectionately clasps Uha’s hand. Uha carries numerous titles in the lengthy horizontal inscription, among them seal bearer of the king and lector priest. The fourth and fifth registers are specific to his circumcision.

The translation is my own but can be compared against the published translation in the O.I.’s companion book to the exhibit (Teeter 2003: 34): iw sab.k Hna s(w) 120 nn.s xaA nn.s xAw im nn AXa im nnw AXa im (“When I was circumcised, along with 120 men, none therein struck, none therein were struck; none therein scratched, none therein were scratched”). Basically Uha is bragging that neither he nor his male companions struggled or had to be forced in their circumcisions. This is a common theme in the few monuments which mention circumcision, but what makes the stela unusual is that Uha was apparently in the company of 120 other men (Hna s[w] 120). Mass circumcisions are otherwise unattested in ancient Egyptian monuments. If such an occasion did occur, it must have been a highly unpleasant sight to behold.

Incidentally, in my preparations for conducting my translation, I broke one of my own rules and turned to the internet, just to see what was out there. It turns out Uha’s stela is easy to find on the web, and there are numerous translations. On several I came across mention that there were “120 men and 120 women” on the day of the mass circumcision. This is incorrect. While the stela clearly mentions the figure of 120 men, no women are mentioned in the group. As noted earlier, evidence is lacking that females underwent circumcision in ancient Egypt.

Considering the impressive length of pharaonic history and the practically countless inscribed monuments, circumcision is not well represented historically in ancient Egypt. There are only two monuments which specifically depict the act of circumcision: in the tomb of Ankhmahor at Saqqara and in the temple precinct of Mut at Karnak (Filer 1995: 90). Other monuments such as Uha’s mention circumcision but do not depict it. Circumcision is not mentioned in the extant medical papyri (ibid).

The depiction in Ankhmahor’s tomb is worth reviewing. Dating to Dynasty 6 and specifically to the reign of King Teti (2355-2343 BCE), it is the oldest extant depiction of the act of circumcision from ancient Egypt. Here is a line-art version of the depiction, which appears on the east thickness of a doorway in the tomb:

Tomb relief showing circumcision, Saqqara

Tomb relief showing circumcision, Saqqara

Ankhmahor was a high-ranking official whose tomb was small but beautifully decorated with relief carvings. It is found in the pyramid complex of Teti. His titles included overseer of all the king’s works, overseer of the two treasuries, priest of Maat, and lector priest (Kanawati, N. & A. Hassan 1997: 11-12).

The above scene depicts two men being circumcised. The scene has been interpreted in different ways but the nude male at right is surmounted by an inscription in which he says: sin wnnt r mnx (“Sever, indeed, thoroughly”). The man kneeling before him says: iw(.i) r irt r nDm (“I will proceed carefully”).

All our male readers are probably squirming by now. At left is one man restraining the nude male there, while another kneels before him to preform the procedure. The glyphs in front of the kneeling man identify him as a Hm-kA, mortuary priest. In the inscription he is telling the man doing the restraining: nDr sw m rdi dbA.f (“Hold him fast. Do not let him faint”). The restrainer says: iri.i r Hst.k (“I will do as you wish”).

(These translations are from Kanawati, N. & A. Hassan 1997: 49.)

The nude male at left is not given lines. Presumably he is doing everything he can not to pass out. This is understandable.

As I mentioned, the depiction has been interpreted in different ways. Below the elbows of the restrained male at left is the word sb, which is typically translated as “circumcise.” The Egyptologist Ann Macy Roth has plausibly argued that this word should act together with Hm-kA to form the sentence sbt Hm-kA (“Circumcising the mortuary priest”), which makes the restrained nude male at left the mortuary priest (Nunn 2002: 170-171).

Roth’s proposal makes sense because it’s otherwise confusing why a mortuary priest should be performing circumcisions. The scene as a whole is somewhat odd in its context because, while the tomb of Ankhmahor shows other scenes involving medical care, the circumcision depiction is isolated on a door thickness and does not even include Ankhmahor. It’s been argued that one or both of the nude males might be sons of Ankhmahor, who are depicted elsewhere in the tomb.

In an entirely different interpretation, it’s been stated that perhaps the man at right isn’t being circumcised but is undergoing a procedure to correct phimosis. In other cases it’s been argued that the same man is undergoing a procedure to numb his penis prior to being circumcised.

So it remains unclear under what circumstances a male in ancient Egypt would be circumcised. While it seems clear Herodotus’ accounts of the practice are exaggerated, the fact is many men were circumcised (again, evidently in late puberty). It might come down to how some people in ancient Egypt viewed purity rites. To the ancient Egyptians purity was not so much a state of mind as it was a physical phenomenon (Teeter 2011: 32). There are scattered references that circumcision was an act of physical purity (ibid), and I personally have always wondered if it was a preference or perhaps an obligation among men in certain priestly classes. Recall that in both our examples here—Uha and Ankmahor—these men carried priestly titles.

Remember that in both ancient times and modern, circumcision has been a fixed cultural feature and an act of initiation into manhood. While some modern people find the practice “barbaric,” it is not one’s place to force his or her attitudes into someone else’s cultural or religious beliefs.

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome comments.


Aufderheide, Arthur C. The Scientific Study of Mummies. 2003.

Filer, Joyce. Disease. 1995.

Harris, James E. and Kent Weeks. X-Raying the Pharaohs.1973.

Kanawati, N. and A. Hassan. The Teti Cemetery at Saqqara: Volume II: The Tomb of Ankhmahor. 1997.

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. 2002.

Teeter, Emily: Ancient Egypt: Treasures from the Collection of the Oriental Institute University of Chicago. 2003.

Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. 2011.

The enigma of Akhenaten


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The grandest period of ancient Egypt was Dynasty 18 (1549-1298 BCE). This was early in the New Kingdom, the period of empire for the Egyptians. A number of powerful empires were rising in the Near East at this time, but Egypt was one of the most formidable.  Under the long reign of the warrior-pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1479-1424 BCE), Egypt ruled everything and everyone from deep in Nubia to northern Syria. Although famous and powerful pharaohs would emerge after this dynasty (Seti I, Ramesses II, Ramesses III), Egypt would never again be as far-reaching and influential as it was in its heyday of Dynasty 18.

Dynasty 18 is also one of the best-attested periods of pharaonic history. We have a rather solid understanding of and ample attestation for its pharaohs, their queens, their progeny, the nobility, and many of the events that occurred in the period. But this is not the case for a rather short stretch of time late in Dynasty 18 that today we refer to as the Amarna Period.

The Amarna Period is so named after a site in Middle Egypt called Tell el Amarna. It centers around the life and times of one of Egypt’s most mysterious, memorable, and puzzling pharaohs: Akhenaten (1359-1342 BCE). This king reigned for only seventeen years, yet he left an indelible impression on the overall history of ancient Egypt.

The irony is, this enigmatic period—often called the Amarna Interlude in Egyptology—was meant to have been forgotten. It represented a time of social, religious, administrative, and diplomatic upheaval in ancient Egypt, all at the hands of Akhenaten. Many people today are familiar with this king, or at least with the basic peculiarities of his reign. But if the succeeding kings of the New Kingdom had had their way, we would know nothing at all about it. That’s another irony: a number of kings who were erased from the history in ancient times—Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun—are some of the most popular among modern devotees of ancient Egypt.

To this day the Amarna Period is heatedly debated among professional and amateur historians alike. We joke of the Amarna tar pits: they will suck you in and suffocate you. A major part of the problem is that later kings, beginning with Horemheb at the end of Dynasty 18, enacted thorough erasures of the preceding history to try to hide it from their own descendants. They certainly did not destroy all evidence, of course, but they were quite successful in leaving to us a heavily fragmented record of this period.

We’re not even sure of the exact succession following Akhenaten. Did he reign at the end concurrently with his queen Nefertiti, or did she predecease him? Did Smnekhkare reign concurrently at the end, or did he die before Akhenaten? Was Smenkhkare the sole successor? How does the enigmatic figure of Neferneferuaten figure into the succession? Did Nefertiti reign as a coregent into the first years of the boy-king Tutankhamun? These are just some of the scenarios posited by Egyptologists. It’s simply not clear what happened after Akhenaten died. The historical record becomes clear again only once Tutankhamun was on the throne.

But this is not the subject of my article today. Rather I wish to explore why Akhenaten enacted his religious reforms and attempt to shed some light onto the bizarre characteristics of Amarna artwork, which is often misunderstood in modern times.

Amunhotep IV Comes to the Throne

Very little is known about Akhenaten prior to his ascendancy to the throne of Egypt. Prior to this, he is attested only once, on a jar sealing in the ruins of his father’s great palace at Malkata, in Western Thebes (Dodson & Hilton 2004: 146). Akhenaten was not originally in line for the throne, however. His father was the great pharaoh Amunhotep III (1388-1348 BCE), often referred to as Amunhotep the Magnificent. This was one of the wealthiest and most powerful kings of ancient Egypt, and universally revered by later kings. Amunhotep III was not a warrior-pharaoh because by his time there was no one left for the Egyptians to conquer: his predecessors (especially Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis III) had already conquered everyone from Nubia through the Levant and established the Egyptian empire. Amunhotep III lived off their fat and was a prodigious builder, especially at the great temple complexes of the god Amun at Thebes and Luxor.

Eastern entrance to the Karnak temple complex.
Eastern entrance to the Karnak temple complex.

Amunhotep III’s oldest son and crown prince was Tuthmose. He was supposed to have succeeded his father. But based on the dearth of monuments belonging to Tuthmose, it appears the crown prince died young. While his tomb has never been found, the mummy of a young boy discovered in 1898 in the side chamber of another king’s tomb might be the body of Tuthmose. While we can never know with certainty if it is his mummy, the mummification is consistent with the techniques of Dynasty 18. The body is that of a boy around eleven years of age.

Prince Tuthmose? The mummy of a young boy probably from Dynasty 18.

Prince Tuthmose? The mummy of a young boy probably from Dynasty 18.

The death of the crown prince elevated a younger son to direct line to the throne. This son was born as Amunhotep (IV). He would later change his own name to Akhenaten, but more on that later. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Tuthmose not died young. We would never have had the Amarna Period, nor would there ever have been a king named Tutankhamun. While the ancient Egyptians themselves might have preferred that scenario, most of us who study ancient Egypt today quite favor the way things worked out.

If the poorly preserved mummy of Amunhotep III can tell us anything, it’s that he was probably in ill health and in a lot of pain in the last years of his long life. This includes rather terrible dentition as well as a severe abscess that might in fact have contributed to (or caused) his death.

The mummy of Amunhotep III.
The mummy of Amunhotep III.

But Amunhotep III himself might have been one of the primary causes for the upheavals his son Akhenaten would go on to cause. Amunhotep favored a deity known as the Aten, which in essence was the visible sun disk in the sky. As such the Aten was a minor aspect of the great sun god Re. The Aten long precedes Amunhotep III in the pantheon of Egyptian deities, but was first elevated by Amunhotep. This king called himself the “Dazzling Sun Disk” (Redford 1999: 50), a reference to the Aten. He called his vast palace complex in Western Thebes “Splendor of the Aten” (today it’s known as Malkata or Malqata) and named one of his royal boats “The Aten Sparkles.”

Many historians have speculated that young Amunhotep IV (Akhenaten) was trained by priests of the Heliopolis temple complex (Foster 1999: 90). This was the primary cult setting for the ancient god Re, the primary sun god. Taken together with Amunhotep III’s preferences for the solar aspect called the Aten, it’s probably no wonder that Akhenaten fell under the same influences. The difference is, Amunhotep III seems to have venerated the Aten on a personal level and did not try to force this god onto the people; the main state deity was still Amun, or Amun-Re, and the temple complexes of Thebes and Luxor remained the most important sites of veneration in Egypt. At this time in Dynasty 18, Thebes was the religious capital of the state (the administrative capital was in the northern ancient city of Memphis).

Akhenaten, on the other hand, would go to extremes. He would engineer sweeping religious reforms that would unseat Amun and proscribe his entire cult. The great temples at Thebes and Luxor would be closed. Akhenaten would erect a new, purpose-built city for the Aten, and would shut himself up in its precincts for the rest of his life.


This is a question with which Egyptologists wrestle to this day. Akhenaten’s motivations are not entirely clear. It could involve any number of scenarios. Let’s explore three of them.

1. Religious Zealot

A common theory is a pretty straight-forward one. Akhenaten was a religious zealot. His devotion to the Aten was such that there remained no room for other deities, even though Egypt had been polytheistic for millennia. So fanatical was Akhenaten’s devotion that he closed the temples to Amun, proscribed the veneration of most other deities unrelated to the solar cult, and even abandoned the ancient cult of Osiris, who offered most anyone the promise of eternal afterlife. To this day we don’t have a good understanding of what Akhenaten himself believed of the afterlife, but it’s clear Osiris didn’t fit into it. While some aspects of burial rites remained intact, such as a royal tomb and a lot of the equipment that went into it, many of the traditional icons were abandoned. For example, here is a corner fragment of Akhenaten’s sarcophagus:

A corner of Akhenaten's sarcophagus showing Nefertiti in a protective posture.
A corner of Akhenaten’s sarcophagus showing Nefertiti in a protective posture.

In traditional polytheistic times each corner of an elite stone sarcophagus featured one of four goddesses (Isis, Nephthys, Selket, and Neith) with wings outspread in a protective posture. On Akhenaten’s sarcophagus, all four of the traditional goddesses was replaced by one female figure: that of Akhenaten’s great wife, the chief queen Nefertiti.

It is commonly stated that Akhenaten was the world’s first monotheist. This is not how his reign began, however. One might classify him more as a henotheist, where one deity is favored above all others but the existence of other deities is not denied. From the start the Aten was closely identified with the great deity Re-Horakhty, a union of the very old gods Re and Horus. In one depiction Akhenaten is shown in the presence of Maat, the traditional goddess personifying truth, balance, and order.

But it is certain that soon into his reign, Akhenaten proscribed veneration of other deities, most especially Amun. In a practical sense there could be only one state deity, so Akhenaten tossed out Amun in favor of the Aten. It was the Aten who henceforth was to receive attention. It seems clear Akhenaten at first tried to establish the Aten side by side with Amun because he erected large temple precincts at Thebes, the traditional home and cult center of Amun. But it did not last. At some point after year five or six of his reign, Akhenaten closed the temples dedicated to Amun. All of the natural and economic resources formerly focused on Amun were switched to the Aten. The powerful priests of Amun were out of a job.

As the years of Akhenaten’s reign progressed, he became increasingly monotheistic. He was no longer shown in the presence of other deities. Only the Aten was featured in royal art and monuments. And in contrast to the traditional deities of generations past, the Aten was not depicted in animal or anthropomorphic form: it was simply a radiant sun disk with arms reaching down like rays, hands clutching ankh symbols, to bestow life onto Akhenaten and his family.

The Aten as a sun disk streaming down rays to the faces of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
The Aten as a sun disk streaming down rays to the faces of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Note the hands and ankh symbols at the bottoms of the rays.

The Aten was even provided a royal titulary inscribed inside cartouches, in the manner of a king. Changes in this titulary enable historians to track the approximate date when a monument was commissioned.

One of history’s great poems comes from the Amarna Period. Called “Great Hymn to the Aten,” it was found in the Amarna tomb of the nobleman Aye (who some years down the road would end up becoming king after the death of Tutankhamun) (Foster 1999: 99). This long poem is often attributed in modern times to Akhenaten himself. While there is no evidence to demonstrate this, it is revealing of Akhenaten’s belief system and how he himself viewed the status of the Aten. Written as though Akhenaten is speaking the lines, a certain stanza in particular stands out (Pritchard 1958: 227-230):

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!…

Akhenaten probably did emerge into monotheism. The Aten was the “sole god.” That Akhenaten viewed himself as divine and in commune with the Aten is evident in another stanza (ibid):

Thou are in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re [Akhenaten]…

This extended to Neferiti, his queen, who together were alone the intermediaries between the Aten and mankind. This was obviously problematic for the religion of the Aten, which today is often called Atenism, but we’ll come back to that.

There is also the name change. Around the fifth years of his reign, the man originally born as Amunhotep (IV) changed his name to Akhenaten, “Servant of the Aten.” So proscribed was the god Amun now that Akhenaten sent his agents to carve out the name of Amun wherever it could be found. This includes the theophoric personal names containing the element of Amun. This is one way a lot of monuments dating to the Amarna Period and before can be dated to that period: “Amun” is carved out of them. And remember the name of Akhenaten’s father: Amunhotep III. As odd as it seems, the name of this king was no different. The “Amun” element was carved away. Only instances of his throne name, Nebmaatre, were left intact.

With this summary it might seem Akhenaten was a zealot or fanatic, but there two more possibilities to explore. But before moving on, let’s clarify a modern misconception. In reading about Akhenaten you will often come across statements that he was a philosopher, a man before his time, and a man of peace and harmony. He may have been something of a philosopher, and perhaps even a man before his time (which smacks of bias toward Judeo-Christianity, given the monotheism angle), but we ought to dismiss notions of a peace-loving dove. Proscribing a long-standing cult to an ancient god, ending the veneration of other deities, and forcing upon the population a new form of religion would simply not have been a peaceful process. In all likelihood Akhenaten would’ve needed his military to make it happen. This is my own speculation, mind you, but the reforms could not have been peaceful.

On the subject of Judeo-Christian bias, this has manifested itself among modern fringe circles in a rather unusual way. Some modern folks favoring alternative history have tried to identify Akhenaten with Moses. I think it goes without saying that we need not take this seriously.

2. Acting Against the Amun Priesthood

Another theory also holds weight. Even before the time of Amunhotep III and Akhenaten, the priesthood controlling the cult of Amun had become very powerful. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that some of the high priests of Amun rivaled Pharaoh in wealth and power. Kings were obligated to bestow land and other gifts onto the cult of Amun—tax free. The temple complex of Amun ended up controlling significant portions of the arable land of the Nile Valley, and from this came great amounts of wealth.

Obviously this did not sit well with many kings. The ideology and concept of kinghood is one thing, reality is quite another. Not all kings were adept at exercising and maintaining power, and a weak king was the tool of powerful priesthoods. Whether this bothered Amunhotep III is not really clear, because while he began the elevation of the Aten, he also supported and expanded the cult of Amun. Perhaps Akhenaten wasn’t so forgiving.

And perhaps his closing of the Amun temples was a direct reflection of that. There was not enough room for two state deities, and as I said earlier, Amun was now proscribed while all attention and resources were switched to the Aten. This might also explain the establishing of a brand-new capital city at a brand-new site (see below), where Akhenaten built not only new palaces and residences for his followers, but a couple of brand-new temples for the Aten.

So perhaps Akhenaten obliterated the cult of Amun as a way to restore unrivaled power to the throne—his throne. Establishing a new cult for a once-minor solar deity would be an effective way to do it. The priests of Amun no longer threatened royal authority.

3. Plague

A more modern theory involves epidemic. Most scholars agree that a plague had struck Egypt in the reign of Amunhotep III. It is thought to have spread into Egypt from Canaan. A telling sign of this is that Amunhotep III erected a great many colossal statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet.

Sekhmet, goddess of war and disease.
Sekhmet, goddess of war and disease.

As with other deities, Sekhmet had numerous job descriptions. She was a goddess of war, a favorite past time of pharaohs. But if you recall, Amunhotep III was not a warrior-pharaoh. Everyone had already been conquered by the time he came to the throne. Why build so many Sekhmet statues, then? Another role of this goddess was pestilence and disease. She was a fearsome goddess and punisher of mankind if not appeased, so it is thought Amunhotep commissioned so many statues of her to appease the goddess and motivate her to stop the plague.

It didn’t work. The plague likely continued into the reign of Akhenaten. He had sired six daughters and it seems plausible that two or more died from the plague.

People must have been desperate. Akhenaten and Nefertiti must have felt the same. The land was unclean, and the old gods were doing nothing to save the people. Therefore, why not elevate a new deity who might be more beneficial to Egypt? This was the Aten’s big break.

But elevating a new god would not have been enough. If the very land itself was unclean, it was best to leave. In year five of his reign Akhenaten commissioned the building of a new capital city at a site in the middle of the Nile Valley that had been used for nothing before. It was virgin territory, and therefore clean. Akhenaten built his new city and called it Akhetaten, “Horizon of the Aten.”

To expedite the building process of new palaces, temples, and private residences, Akhenaten’s engineers devised a new form of  building block known today as the talatat:

Talatats, the principal building stone of Akhenaten's city.

Talatats, the principal building stone of Akhenaten’s city.

The talatat is a small stone block that allowed for the quicker building of monuments, big and small. As the photo shows, they sufficed for relief carvings and inscriptional material, as well. On average the reliefs and inscriptions of the Amarna Period are not of the refined caliber of the works of many other pharaohs, but what mattered was speed. And the city of Akhetaten went up fast.

That Akhenaten had a defined idea for the shape and function of the purpose-built city seems clear. Throughout the area he commissioned sixteen known boundary stelae of enormous size and fully inscribed them.

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

These stelae explained the size of the new city, and although often fragmentary today, their texts are illuminating. One reads in part (Kemp 2012: 34):

I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my farther, in this place. I shall not make Akhetaten for him to the south of it, to the north of it, to the west of it, to the east of it. I shall not expand beyond the southern stela of Akhetaten toward the south, nor shall I expand beyond the northern stela of Akhetaten toward the north…

I shall make the ‘House of the Aten’ for the Aten, my father, in Akhetaten in this place. I shall make the ‘Mansion of the Aten’ for the Aten , my father, in Akhetaten in this place…

From the start, then, the new city had fixed boundaries and purposes. The “House of the Aten” and “Mansion of the Aten” describe two different temples erected for the veneration of Akhenaten’s deity. Along with the palaces and logistical infrastructure, everything Akhenaten needed was there in his new city. And he does not seem to have left the city after he moved there in year five or six.

Artist's concept of the city of Akhetaten, showing the Great Temple to the Aten, the city's principal temple.

Artist’s concept of the city of Akhetaten, showing the Great Temple to the Aten, the city’s principal temple.

One can see the plausibility of the plague theory. Akhenaten elevates the Aten to supremacy and abandons the old gods. He moves 20,000 people to a new purpose-built city well away from the diseased old cities. He walls himself up in Akhetaten and avoids all other places.

Of course, these acts can also describe a religious zealot. As far as that goes, they can also fit the scenario of abolishing old cults to elevate a new one. This is why the debate continues. There is no clear explanation for why Akhenaten enacted such sweeping and upsetting reforms. It could well be a combination of all three scenarios, or for a reason we don’t even know.

The Style of Amarna Period Art

Another enduring mystery of the Amarna Period is its unusual art forms. In more traditional times kings were usually depicted as uniformly muscular, buff, handsome—the perfect male figure, in other words. Not so in the Amarna Period. Akhenaten sponsored a completely new artistic form that upset tradition and revised the human appearance. Amarna Period artwork is immediately recognizable:

Statue of Akhenaten.

Statue of Akhenaten.

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters.

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters.

Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti, as well as their progeny, are shown in androgynous form. Without cartouches and names in accompanying inscriptions it can be difficult to distinguish male from female figures. Both possess long faces with full lips, elongated torsos with breasts, wide hips, and spindly limbs. It’s not difficult to imagine how confused the earliest archaeologists were when they first excavated at Amarna and came across these monuments. I once read that the earliest archaeologists, in fact, had thought this king named Akhenaten was a woman. He certainly resembled one.

But one must take care in interpreting pharaonic artwork, regardless of the period of time from which it comes. This artwork is usually not portraiture as we understand the concept. A good example is the long-lived Ramesses II, who died at around ninety years of age (1212 BCE) but whose statues always show him as young, handsome, and virile.

Down through time historians and other specialists have had a hard time understanding the human forms of Amarna artwork. They just look “wrong,” somehow. From this have come a myriad of attempts at medical explanations, Marfan syndrome being one of the most common. The physical characteristics of Amarna artwork do seem to fit with some aspects of Marfan. But as modern scientific analyses of royal Amarna mummies have confirmed, there is no evidence in the physical human remains for such a disorder (Rühli & Ikram 2013: 7; Hawass et al 2010: 637).

It’s unrealistic in the first place that both Akhenaten and Nefertiti would’ve had such a disorder. Unlike many pharaohs of Dynasty 18 who married sisters or half-sisters, Nefertiti was not a sister of Akhenaten. There’s no certain evidence she’s of royal blood, period, but the debate continues. Her parentage is simply unclear to us. I must state that there is no universal agreement on whether the mummies of these two royals have ever been found. Hawass is virtually alone in identifying an unnamed mummy from a tomb designated KV55 as Akhenaten (ibid), whereas most specialists agree this is the body of a man too young at death to have been Akhenaten and is more than likely the mummy of a short-lived king named Smenkhkare; a plausible mummy for Nefertiti is even less likely.

The point is, there is no evidence in the extant Amarna mummies for a disorder like Marfan, so that as well as other pathology is unlikely to be the explanation for the odd human form in Amarna artwork.

So, how else to explain it? We might never know for certain, but it might well involve the nature of Akhenaten’s sweeping religious reforms. Many believe the art can be explained as a religious convention to stress the physical androgyny of a creator deity. As with the Aten, sex is not required to create. Therefore, Akhenaten and Nefertiti reflect this in their forms, as do their daughters. By extension, based on traditions of old wherein private people followed royal convention, the same human forms are seen in the depictions of nobility in Amarna. This makes a medical explanation like Marfan even less likely.

It’s telling that all of the prominent creator deities of traditional pharaonic Egypt were male, so this stands at odds with the above scenario. Then again, the Aten was neither male nor female in nature, so I don’t know how far that argument can be carried. Still, others have posited that the odd human form is nothing more than a more natural and free-flowing preference fostered by Akhenaten (Silverman et al 2006: 17). This must be considered, too.

Some have also posited that the elongated heads of Amarna artwork suggest head-binding. This practice has been done in certain areas of Africa, as well as of course Mesoamerica. However, the sum total of analyses of human remains show that skull deformation was not practiced in ancient Egypt (Filer 1995: 91). Besides, focusing just on the odd heads ignores the equally odd characteristics of other body parts.

Then of course there is fringe crowd who like to express that the heads look that way because Akhenaten and clan were aliens. This might be suitable fodder for a nitwit setting like the TV show Ancient Aliens, but it is not to be taken seriously.

Why Akhenaten and Atenism Failed 

The religion of the Aten was more or less doomed to fail. For one thing, even if he was a king, Akhenaten forced his beliefs onto a people who had held to polytheistic beliefs long before the Amarna Period. The entire episode must have seemed bizarre to them, and upsetting. For another, it never took hold in Akhenaten’s own time, anyway. Other, smaller temples to the Aten were erected in other cities up and down the Nile Valley, but cults to old deities never completely disappeared. Even under Akhenaten’s nose in his city of Akhetaten, excavations of private residences in modern times have shown that household deities like Bes and Tawaret were still present.

Equally significant is how Akhenaten presented the concept of the Aten to the population. Recall the line from the “Great Hymn to the Aten” in which Akhenaten states that only he “knows” the Aten. In essence, the common people themselves were not permitted to pray directly to the Aten. This was never the case with the old traditional deities. People may rarely have been allowed inside the great state temples, but the gods venerated in those temples could still be worshipped privately in one’s home or in humble village shrines. In the reign of Akhenaten, on the other hand, it seems that people were expected to send their prayers to Aten by praying not to it but to Akhenaten and Nefertiti—they and only they would then send those prayers onto the deity. It was a rather impersonal religion to the vast majority of the population, in other words.

I use a modern comparison when I explain the gist of this. Imagine being a Roman Catholic with a crucifix of Christ on your bedroom wall. Along comes a new Pope who completely upsets and revises tradition: henceforth you are to worship the crucifix absent the figure of Christ, but you must also pray only to the Pope in order for your prayers to be sent on to the crucifix. Of course this sounds bizarre, and I admit the comparison is somewhat clumsy, but it helps one to image how ancient Egyptians must have felt when Akhenaten came to power.

Akhenaten died around 1342 BCE. An odd fact is, as unpopular as this king must have been, there is no evidence he was assassinated. It would certainly help to have a definitive mummy for the king, but it is what it is. In any case, the religion of the Aten died almost as quickly.

As I mentioned earlier, the exact succession of rulers following Akhenaten remains unclear and is hotly debated to this day. The historical record becomes clear again only when the boy-king Tutankhamun came to the throne in 1343 BCE. He was only around eight years old, so he exercised no real power. The true power behind the throne were government officials such as Aye, Horemheb, and Nakhtmin. They used Tut as a convenient tool to restore orthodoxy in short order.

The purpose-built city of Akhetaten was abandoned fairly quickly. It’s evident that people lived there for some time afterward, and estates for the Aten continued (such as for the production of wine). But the city itself lost all significance, and by the reign of Horemheb (1328-1298 BCE) at the end of Dynasty 18, Akhetaten’s talalate buildings were being razed and used as fill for other royal constructions. Today Akhetaten (modern Amarna) is a lifeless desert landscape with mostly only foundations of buildings remaining:

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

The religion of the Aten fell equally into ruin. Without Akhenaten and Nefertiti as figureheads to sustain the religion, it had no life left. The Aten returned to its former status as a minor aspect of Re.

Akhenaten’s fate was worse. Branded a heretic, he was to be forgotten for the rest of time. His name was never again to be spoken aloud. He was to be referred to, if at all, as “the criminal of Akhetaten.” Akhenaten fell into the dust bins of history and was forgotten.

Until the advent of modern archaeology, a lot of which has focused on Tell el Amarna since the nineteenth century. That’s another irony. This king was supposed to have been forgotten for eternity, erased from history, but in modern times he is one of the favorites for research subjects in Egyptology. Probably only Tutankhamun has had more books written about him as far as pharaohs are concerned. Akhenaten is just as popular among us amateur historians, and is even well known among laypeople.

The mummies of the succeeding pharaohs must be spinning in their graves. Or tombs. Or glass display cases in the museums of Egypt today.

Thanks for joining me. I welcome comments and questions.


Dodson, Aidan and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. 2004.

Filer, Joyce. Disease. 1995.

Foster, John L. “The New Religion.” Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun. 1999.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA. 2010.

Kemp, Barry. The City of Akhenaten and Neferiti: Amarna and Its People. 2012.

Pritchard, James B., ed. The Ancient Near East – Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. 1958.

Redford, Donald B. “The Beginning of the Heresy.” Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun. 1999.

Rühli, F.J. and Salima Ikram. “Purported medical diagnoses of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, c. 1325 BC–.” HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. 2013.

Silverman, David P., Josef W. Wegner, and Jennifer Houser Wegner. Akhenaten & Tutankhamun: Revolution & Restoration. 2006.

The death of Tutankhamun: accident, disease, or murder?


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Around the year 1343 BCE a young boy came to the throne of Egypt. He was the last male heir in a long and powerful line of kings we today call the Tuthmosids, but he was only around eight years old. He followed on the heels of almost twenty years of social upheaval at the hands of Akhenaten, a king uniformly reviled by the pharaohs who succeeded him. Akhenaten had tried to install something akin to a henotheism or even monotheism in a culture that had been solidly polytheistic for millennia. Given that this young king, a boy called Tutankhaten, was too young to exercise real power or leadership, his powerful advisors and officials found themselves in a very convenient situation: they could use the little king to restore tradition and bring back the enormous cult of the proscribed deity Amun. And that’s exactly what they did.

One of the first things these officials did was change the boy-king’s name to Tutankhamun, “Living Image of Amun,” to help establish the fact that Amun was back. They married him to an older half-sister named Ankhesenpaaten, whose name was changed to Ankhesenamun, “She Lives for Amun.” They moved the nation’s capital from Akhenaten’s purpose-built city of Akhetaten back to Waset, the traditional religious capital of pharaonic Egypt. It is better known today as Thebes. (The modern place name is Luxor.) The god Akhenaten had venerated and whom he had forced upon Egypt as the new state deity, the Aten, was not proscribed but instead was returned to its former status as a minor aspect of the great sun deity Re. As for Akhenaten himself, the old king was branded a heretic and his name was not to be mentioned again; henceforth he was to be called “the criminal of Akhetaten.” The city of Akhetaten itself swiftly waned and fell into ruin, most of its stone temples and monuments disassembled down to their foundations by later kings and used as fill within the walls of massive temple pylons in the vast temple complex of Amun.

So came the reign of Tutankhamun, the boy-king. In our modern world he is synonymous with ancient Egypt. Most everyone has heard of him. To most people Tutankhamun is the most famous pharaoh of that long-ago civilization. He was certainly not the only one to come to the throne as a child in ancient Egypt, but the average modern person is not likely to be as aware of other boy-kings such as Pepi II.

The irony is, Tutankhamun was a minor king. He was something of a footnote in the history of ancient Egypt. He was likely forgotten within several generations of his own lifetime. This is largely due to two facts: he reigned for only around a decade and died at about eighteen years of age, and he was, after all, from the royal line of the reviled “criminal of Akhetaten” and was subsequently erased from their own history. Tutankhamun does not appear on any of the ancient kings lists of that great civilization. He was meant to be forgotten. We are not certain exactly how Tutankhamun was related to Akhenaten: many if not most historians used to believe he was the son of the heretic, but recent genetic testing has thrown that into significant doubt. That’s perhaps another story, but the point is, he was from the line of the heretic, so his fate was to be damned to eternal obscurity.

Until, that is, Tutankhamun’s tomb was found in 1922. Designated KV62 (Kings Valley Tomb 62), it was the first royal tomb to be found almost intact. Not completely intact, mind you, because it had been raided at least twice, but great quantities of burial goods were found in KV62: almost 5,400 objects packed into a rather ignominious little tomb the size of the average modern garage. No royal tomb unearthed to that point in time had been anywhere near as spectacular.

This is what has made Tutankhamun—King Tut—so famous in our own time. KV62 is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history and the event made its discoverer, a rather surly Brit named Howard Carter, a household name. He and Tut are forever linked in the annals of Egyptology.

But why did Tutankhamun reign for only ten years? What felled this king at such a young age? This is a question that has persisted in archaeology and the wider scientific community since the day the mummy was first unwrapped. And it is what we’re going to explore here.

I should caution before proceeding that to this day there is no universal agreement on any single explanation for the cause of death of this young king. It continues to be debated. I’ll share my own belief, but it is only one of many. They range from scientifically astute to absurd. Few ancient bodies have been as poked and prodded as the mummy of King Tut, but it does provide clues. So, first I think it best to go back to the beginning, to the first time the mummy was examined.

The Original Autopsy in 1925

Three years passed after Howard Carter discovered KV62 before his team got around to unwrapping and examining the mummy itself. The autopsy was led by an anatomist named Douglass Derry, who had considerable experience working with Egyptian mummies. The irony is, as meticulous as Carter was in painstakingly clearing the artifacts from the tomb, the autopsy was botched. Significant damage was done to the mummy of Tutankhamun. The mummy had been so thickly coated with resins and unguents when placed in its nested coffins 3,300 years ago that it was stuck fast when Derry, Carter, and the others tried to remove it. They ended up disassembling the mummy into numerous pieces. The head came off after a myriad of attempts to pry off the king’s iconic gold burial mask.

The mummy itself was in sorry shape even before Carter came along. As he notes in his publications, both the wrappings and body were heavily carbonized (Carter 2003 ed: 174, 198). This was evidently a chemical reaction due to the layers of resins and unguents that had been applied to the body in the mummification process, and was not associated with any antemortem condition or injury. It contributed to the fragmentation of the mummy during the rough handling in the autopsy.

Carter immediately observed that the mummy was that of a young man but there was no obvious sign of cause of death during the examination (ibid 198). Derry noted a fracture to the left distal femur, to the extent that the left patella (knee cap) was quite loose. It was placed in the mummy’s left hand when the autopsy was completed. The poor condition of the body presented many cracks and fractures, but given the limitations of the time it wasn’t clear if the fracture to the left leg happened before or at the time of death, or if it was the result of rough handling on the part of the embalmers 3,300 years ago.

Carter had hoped to X-ray the mummy of Tutankhamun, but the radiographer died on his way to Egypt.

The team built a tray, filled it with sand, and carefully reassembled the mummy within the sand. This was placed back into one of the coffins and finally into the quartzite sarcophagus, evidently with the hope that no one would notice the fragmented condition of the body.

The First X-rays: Evidence for Murder?

The first X-rays of King Tut were shot in 1968. This was conducted by a team from the University of Liverpool, and led by R.G. Harrison. Further X-rays were shot in 1978 by the University of Michigan, led by James E. Harris. In both cases the X-ray machine was brought to the tomb itself. That said, Harrison’s project was the first time the mummy had been viewed since Carter’s excavation over forty years earlier. Understandably Harrison was surprised to find the mummy in such poor condition; Carter’s little secret was out.

The series of X-rays revealed a number of things, including the oddity that the king’s sternum and frontal ribs were missing. This is a significant and often misunderstood point to which we will be returning. But it was the radiographs of the king’s skull that drew the most attention—at least later on. Neither Harrison nor Harris posited a clear cause of death but images of the skull showed an unusual difference in density to the base of the occipital bone (the bulge at the back of the skull) and a couple of loose bone fragments rattling around in there.

X-ray of King Tut's skull. Note the loose bone fragment within. The arrow points to the base of the occipital bone.

X-ray of King Tut’s skull. Note the loose bone fragment within. The arrow points to the base of the occipital bone.

In March 1999 a researcher named Bob Brier published a book entitled The Murder of Tutankhamen. Brier is not strictly an Egyptologist but is nonetheless a noted leader in the field of paleopathological studies of Egyptian mummies. He is also the first person to have mummified a human body since ancient times, for the sake of a scientific experiment. The experiment was highly successful and earned Brier the nickname of Mr. Mummy.

Brier had observed and studied the X-rays from 1968 and 1978, and wondered at the possibility of assassination. He is hardly the first to posit the idea of Tut’s having been murdered—the idea surfaced almost as quickly as the 1925 autopsy, given how young Tut was when he died. This coupled with the heretical line from which Tutankhamun came, has long made the idea plausible. Brier explored the idea in his book to a depth never before attempted (see Brier 1999). Was it Aye, the shrewd and old official who in fact succeeded Tut on the throne? Or was it Horemheb, the general of the army and thus a very powerful man?

Brier enlisted the aid of an expert investigator who suggested the difference in density to the base of the occipital bone might indicate a subdural hematoma, the result of a vicious blow to the head that resulted in coma and death. Then there are the loose bone fragments—more evidence of a blow to the head.

The idea of subdural hematoma struck me as somewhat plausible. What didn’t, however, was the bone fragments rattling around in the skull. When Tut was mummified late in Dynasty 18 the embalmers removed his brain through his nose, as was commonly done in elite mummifications. Then two courses of resin were poured into the cranial vault, another technique commonly used by ancient embalmers. This is evident in radiographs as opaque masses that solidified at the back as well as the top of the cranial vault.

X-ray showing the courses of hardened resin as a white, opaque mass at the back and top of the cranial vault.

X-ray showing the courses of hardened resin as a white, opaque mass at the back and top of the cranial vault.

What struck me as decidedly odd is, if the loose bone fragments resulted from a vicious blow to the head, why were the fragments not well embedded into the resin? So back then, while I personally considered assassination as a possibility, I myself was not completely certain of the scenario.

Raging Hippo, Panicked Horse?

A physician named R.W. Harer presented two odd explanations for Tut’s death. The first, in 2006, involved a hippo crushing Tut’s chest in its powerful jaws. The second, in 2011, posited that a horse kicked Tut, collapsing the chest cavity with fatal results (Rühli & Ikram 2013: 8). Both theories were presented at conferences of ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt). Neither theory is impossible. To this day the hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, and its jaws could easily crush a man. And who knows how many people down through time have been killed by panicked horses?

Harer based his theories on the odd nature of the chest of Tut’s mummy. As I mentioned when describing the original X-ray imaging, the sternum and frontal ribs were missing when the body was examined in 1968. Carter never mentions this condition in his thorough notes, so that has been left unexplained. Harer wasn’t the first to focus on the damaged chest; another researcher explained it as possibly the result of a horrendous chariot accident. The chest was so crushed that the embalmers 3,300 years ago had no choice but to remove and discard the shattered sternum and ribs.

Here is a CT scan image showing the condition of the chest:

CT scan showing missing sternum and ribs, as well as other damage (adapted from Kmt magazine).

CT scan showing missing sternum and ribs, as well as other damage (adapted from Kmt magazine).

The frontal ribs were clearly cut away with a saw. Was this the result of “cleaning-up” work of ancient embalmers, or something else? Also notable is the absence of clavicles (collar bones). Moreover, there appears to be no evidence for the remains of Tut’s heart. The embalmers usually made every attempt to leave the heart in the thoracic cavity (for religious reasons), and though they weren’t always successful, every attempt would be made for a king, certainly.

In my opinion this mystery has been successfully solved, thanks primarily to a careful examination of archival photos conducted in 2007 (see Forbes, Ikram, and Kamrin, 51-56).

Howard Carter’s excavation photographer was Harry Burton, who was one of the finest archaeological photographers of his day. As Carter painstakingly cleared the king’s tomb in the 1920s, Burton photographed everything. This includes the mummy during the autopsy process. Below is a closeup of one of Burton’s photos of the unwrapped mummy prior to reinterment in KV62:

Original photo (1926) of the king's mummy (adapted from Kmt magazine).

Original photo (1926) of the king’s mummy (adapted from Kmt magazine).

Compare this image with the previous one. In 1926 the chest was still intact. The clavicles were still in place. Note also the beaded cap on the mummified head, which is entirely absent in the previous CT scan image. Over the chest are several necklaces which Carter records in his notes as deliberately left in place because they were stuck firm within the resins coating the body. Perhaps the same was true for the beaded cap. Lastly, note the remains of eyelids. Compare this with a modern photo of Tut’s head:

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

In sum total, theories for ancient damage to the chest are probably best abandoned. Something must have happened between 1926, when the mummy was reinterred, and 1968, when it was next officially studied for the purpose of X-raying. In the interim was an event that involved nearly the entire planet: World War II. The theory is that during the war, when in fact the ancient tombs of Egypt were left largely unguarded, modern raiders entered the tomb to retrieve the embedded necklaces and beaded cap from the mummy. They cut through the chest to keep the necklaces intact, causing great damage, and roughly handled the head to remove the beaded cap (thus the frail eyelids disintegrated).

I agree with this theory. It best fists the available evidence thanks to Burton’s photos in 1926 and Harrison’s in 1968. On another note, Burton’s photos show that the king’s penis is intact, while the 1968 photos show it went missing, having broken off the body. It was later found within the bed of sand on which the mummy lies.


A recent paper has thoroughly summarized the myriad of diseases different researchers through the years have suggested for Tut’s demise (Rühli & Ikram 2013). We needn’t delve into all of them, but a brief summary is in order. Through the years a number of researchers have posited all manner of ailments, including Marfan syndrome. This one was primarily due to the decidedly odd appearance of artwork in the Amarna Period, the period to which Akhenaten belongs:

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Akhenaten, his queen Nefertiti, and their daughters (as well as nobility in many cases) are shown with spindly limbs, long digits, drooping faces, overly full lips, wide hips, and pendulous breasts. Some of these characteristics do tend to fit Marfan. However, analysis of royal mummies from the Amarna Period have never shown indications of Marfan syndrome, so this is unlikely. It is more the consensus today that the odd human forms in the bodies of Amarna figures is a religious-artistic expression based on Akhenaten’s religious reforms, in a manner to express androgyny in the human form.

Some researchers have posited Klinefelter’s syndrome, Froehlich’s syndrome, or other disorders of the sort. The main problem here is that such disorders tend to cause infertility, and we know Akhenaten had six daughters (ibid 10). This cannot be the case for Akhenaten, but what if his line passed one of these disorders along to Tut? This also is implausible. Genetic studies of Amarna mummies conducted from 2007 to 2010 have fairly well confirmed that the two still-born infant girls found in KV62 in the 1920s are in fact Tut’s daughters (Hawass et al 2010: 641).

The same genetic tests revealed some interesting things about Tutankhamun, however. Macroscopic studies as well as genetic material have revealed traces of malaria tropica in the boy-king. This may not be what killed him, but it certainly would have weakened him and led to troubled health. On the other hand, in ancient times malaria often would have been fatal, if advanced enough. Also, CT scans during these examinations revealed two metatarsals in the king’s left foot with clear signs of deformation consistent with osteonecrosis (bone death) (ibid 642-643). This infection might also not have caused the king’s death, but there would have been no way in the Late Bronze Age to stop such infection and eventually it might have proved fatal had the king lived long enough. I’ll come back to that, but suffice it to say, by the time Tutankhamun died, he was already evidently weakened and ill.

The Original CT Scans: Questions Answered

Tutankhamun’s mummy was CT scanned for the first time in 2005. As with the X-rays and subsequent CT scanning, the device was brought to the tomb. The CT scanner kept overheating and there were jokes about the curse of King Tut, but several cheap fans aimed at the machine circumvented the curse.

Tut’s age at death has been variously estimated down through the years as anywhere between seventeen to twenty-seven years (Hawass 2005: 33). The CT scans in 2005 placed the estimate at eighteen or nineteen years of age at death, on which most researchers agree today.

The original CT scans is where the osteonecrosis of the left foot was first noticed. The king’s left foot was somewhat deformed and must have been painful. Telling is the fact that a great many walking sticks were found in the tomb when Carter cleared it in the 1920s. I was one, I must admit, who always pooh-poohed this as relevant to the king’s health because kings and noblemen were often buried with walking sticks. They were symbols of authority in pharaonic times. I should have known better. Tut’s tomb contained an overabundance of them. Subsequent analysis of these walking sticks show wear and tear to the tips of many of them, so clearly Tut needed them in life. His left foot was unstable.

The CT scans were very important in other ways. They were able to disprove a blow to the head as cause of death. Recall Bob Brier’s theory I mentioned earlier. The CT scans proved the difference in density at the base of the occipital bone was not related to any sort of injury. And the bone fragments rattling around in the cranial vault were identified as broken pieces of a cervical vertebra and part of the foramen magnum (ibid 34), the hole at the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes. These fragments were more than likely broken loose in 1925 when Douglass Derry, Howard Carter, and the rest of the team were vigorously prying the gold burial mask off the mummy’s head.

As I mentioned earlier, during the original autopsy in 1925 Derry noticed a broken left leg. The fracture was at the epiphysis (growth plate) right above the left knee. The following images show the location of the fracture on the king’s leg:

Details of the king's distal left femur. The arrow in the image at left points to the site of the fracture.

Details of the king’s distal left femur. The arrow in the image at left points to the site of the fracture.

Now, the king’s body is covered with cracks and fractures, most hairline in nature. The mummy was found to be in poor shape in 1925. The carbonization that occurred naturally to the body down through time did a lot of damage. However, in this case, most of the scientists and researchers who examined the fracture were in agreement that the resins the embalmers had applied to the body during mummification, seeped into the wound itself. This means the wound must have been there prior to the mummification process.

This in turn indicates it must have been an injury sustained at or around the time of death.

What, Then, Killed King Tut?

I must stress again as I bring this to a close that there is no universal agreement on the cause of death of the famous boy-king. My article should make this much clear. However, I personally find much to agree with in the theory reached by Hawass and his team following the 2005 CT scans.

Tut was buried with six disassembled chariots in his tomb. He was clearly a typical teenager with a need for speed. Remember the left foot with the osteonecrosis, which is tied into this. A popular theory is that one day in the eighteenth year of Tutankhamun’s life, he was out riding one of his chariots when he hit a nasty bump. He was tossed upwards in the chariot, and came down on his unstable left foot, which couldn’t support his weight. He toppled out of the rapidly moving chariot and landed on his left leg, which shattered at the epiphyseal plate above the left knee. The damage was such that the kneecap was torn loose.

This would not have been survivable in the Late Bronze Age. While ancient Egyptian physicians were adept at treating many kinds of fractures, as is evident in human remains from that time, a compound fracture with such devastating injury would’ve been fatal. The fracture itself wasn’t the mechanism of death, but inevitable infection would have been. Tut more than likely died from gangrene.

Can we be sure it was a chariot accident? To this point in time no ancient Egyptian newspaper has been found reporting Tut’s lethal accident, but kidding aside, we can never be sure. It’s just a popular theory. Such an injury could just as easily been sustained in battle, perhaps from a Hittite battle axe, and there is evidence to suggest Tut himself led his army into battle at least once. But that, too, can only be a theory.

We will never know for certain how it happened, but I for one agree Tutankhamun died from infection after shattering his left leg 3,300 years ago.

I thank you for your time and attention. As always, I welcome comments and questions.


Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. 1999.

Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamen. 2003 edition.

Forbes, Dennis, Salima Ikram, and Janice Kamrin. “Tutankhamun’s Missing Ribs.” Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 18, No. 1, 2007.

Griffith Institute (The) – University of Oxford website.

Hawass, Zahi, et al. “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family.” JAMA. 2010.

Hawass, Zahi. “Special Report: Scanning Tutankhamun.” Kmt: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 16, No. 2, 2005.

Rühli, F.J. and Salima Ikram. “Purported medical diagnoses of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, c. 1325 BC–.” HOMO – Journal of Comparative Human Biology. 2013.