Did the Hebrews build the pyramids?


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Some time ago my friend Mary Jo was facilitating in our Egyptian exhibit with a young couple. The young man and woman wanted Mary Jo to tell them more about the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt. Specifically, they wanted to learn more about how the ancient Jews built the pyramids. Mary Jo answered quite correctly that we have no evidence that the Hebrews were involved with pyramid building.

Now, as one might imagine, this is a topic that pops up frequently in our exhibit. Some docents are well versed in the subject, some don’t really care to discuss it in fear of offending visitors. It is never our intent to offend. Our intent is to inform and educate. So, as I stress to prospective docents whom I train, we must be honest. Diplomatic but honest. Mary Jo herself is particularly good at doing this. But she was a bit nonplussed when the couple with whom she was speaking seemed offended and argumentative. They didn’t want to believe her information. They had walked off before I could get the chance to take part (and side with Mary Jo—I love a spirited argument).

I enjoy talking about the Bible in our exhibit. For the most part I meet people who are very open minded and want to know the facts. I’m only too happy to share the facts. I’ve discussed these matters with everyone from Christians who have a layperson’s interest to Orthodox rabbis who’ve forgotten more about the Old Testament than I’ll ever learn.

So when I heard about Mary Jo’s encounter, I thought it might make for a useful article on my blog. I wanted to write it sooner, but as my previous article expressed, I’ve been dealing with some weighty health issues lately. This, the 4th of July, is a good opportunity to write the article at long last. It’s either that or do nothing but watch some reruns of NCIS.

That said, who really built the pyramids of Egypt? And what’s the origin of the myth that ancient Jews built them? The latter answer I’ve known for many years, and the former answer I’ve been researching for much longer. And along the way I’ve learned a great deal about all extremes of the myth.

When thinking of ancient Egypt most people picture the Great Pyramid of Giza, the biggest of them all. It was erected in Dynasty 4 for a powerful king named Khufu (c. 2540 BCE). Consequently many regular folks think this is the pyramid the Hebrews were forced to build.


The Great Pyramid of Khufu, third millennium BCE)

All of us docents hear this, practically every day we’re there. And it’s a worthy topic to discuss. It might be wrong, but at least it’s grounded in something plausible on the face of it. I’d much rather discuss that than aliens building the pyramid or that the pyramid was some sort of high-tech power plant, topics which are divorced from reality. We won’t waste time on them here—we’re sticking with the Hebrews (although there’s always material for future articles).

Well, then, where did the myth start? Why do so many people take it as fact that Hebrews built these incredible Egyptian monuments in the Early Bronze Age? It must be Hollywood, right? Well, Hollywood has done much to perpetuate the myth, but movies aren’t the origin.

In the first century CE, when Rome ruled the world, there was a prominent Jewish man from Galilee named Joseph ben Matityahu who became a general of Hebrew forces in the first Jewish uprising against Rome. He surrendered to Roman forces in 67 CE. In short order Matityahu was granted his freedom and took the name Titus Flavius Josephus—the “Flavius” portion being the family name of the Roman emperor Vespasian.

Matityahu, now Josephus, spent the rest of his life writing histories of the Hebrews for a largely Roman audience, to make his people and heritage better understood to Rome. Josephus was a prolific writer…and we can blame him for the origin of the pyramid myth. Yes, it really does go back that far in time. In Book II of his work Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus writes:

…they set them [Hebrews] also to build pyramids: and by all this wore them out, and forced them to learn all sorts of mechanical arts, and to accustom themselves to hard labour.

So that’s where it starts. Down through history, the error was compiled and compounded. Now, Josephus was a brilliant man and well educated, so much of his tracts on Jewish custom and law are arguably reliable. But as with other writers of late antiquity, the farther back in time an event was that he wrote about, the less accurate it tends to be. And the pyramids of Egypt do indeed date far back in time. They were already remarkably ancient by the time Josephus lived.

Some adherents to the Bible play more loosely with the facts, and they can be clever. Exodus 1:11 talks about how Hebrew slaves built the store houses of Pithom and Ramses, and in their labors they made mud brick. Well, quite a few of the smaller pyramids are in fact made largely of mud brick, with stone exteriors and chambers. Well, there you go! So some historians and enthusiast. especially from early times, have figured that these mud-brick pyramids were older and less refined than the bigger masonry pyramids like the Great Pyramid, so the Hebrews must’ve built those mud-brick pyramids. It has some internal logic, right? The Egyptians must’ve been learning along the way and got better at their engineering and architecture, so their monuments got only bigger.

But cold-hard fact shows us the opposite is true. Those smaller mud-brick pyramids were built later. In Dynasty 4 Khufu was a truly powerful king who could marshal limitless resources and had the full measure of the state behind him. But by Dynasty 5 fortunes had changed and the Egyptian kings had become weaker. They did not have the power and wealth to erect massive monuments. Mud brick was cheaper and easier. A good example is one of my own favorites of the later pyramids, that of King Unis from the end of Dynasty 5:


Mud-brick pyramid of Unis, dynasty 5, c. 2400 BCE

It looks like little more than a big anthill today and is not so impressive on the outside. What makes it stand out is the full range of Pyramid Texts inscribed onto the walls of its interior chambers. That was not yet a tradition in Khufu’s early time. Unis was the first king to have these texts (religious funerary spells).

The Egyptians continued to erect smaller pyramids until the end of Dynasty 6, when the Old Kingdom ended and the government and country collapsed. It descended into civil war. Pyramids were still sporadically made through this troubled time, although still of mud brick. Egypt rebounded wonderfully in the Middle Kingdom (c. 1990 BCE) and more pyramids were erected, but still only of mud brick. No pyramid ever again would reach the height and grandeur of the Great Pyramid, even though kings of the Middle and New Kingdoms were arguably a lot more powerful than Khufu. The religion was changing at all levels, as the underworld god Osiris was embraced by all classes. Pyramids were no longer the focus they used to be.

But that’s neither here nor there. What were the Hebrews up to during all of this long stretch of history, if they weren’t building the pyramids? The answer is simple. They didn’t yet exist. One still sees folks trying to force them into an Egyptian context in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, you’ll see an image such as the following (and similar) often identified as Hebrew slaves in Egypt:


Slaves at work in Egypt, New Kingdom

Such images on tomb and temple walls do in fact often depict slaves at work, but they’re not Hebrews. The inscriptions that often accompany them say they’re Syrians, Libyans, Nubians, and other such foreigners—but they’re not identified as Hebrews.

Almost every king of the New Kingdom in particular has been charged as the pharaoh of Exodus. The fact is, from the Egyptian perspective and outside the pages of the Old Testament, there is simply no evidence the Exodus even occurred. I don’t want to derail us with a long diatribe on the historicity of Exodus, mainly because I’ve already written an article on that (see “Exodus: Fact or Fiction?“).


Ramesses II: mummy (left) and typical statue, Dynasty 19

But suffice it to say, most historians who try to fit Exodus into an historical timeframe tend to favor Ramesses II as that pharaoh. This has much to do with Exodus 1:11’s mention of the Hebrews having built the store cities of  Pithom and Rameses (mentioned earlier). And the first recorded mention of a people called “Israel” appears on a large victory stela commissioned by Ramesses’ son and successor, Merneptah, in 1208 BCE:

19 Israel Stela

The Merneptah victory stela, Dynasty 19, c. 1208 BCE

This happens to meld nicely with archaeology of the Holy Land, which shows a people identifiable as “proto-Hebrew” starting to rise among Canaanite populations in the Levant at the tail-end of the Bronze Age.

So historically, temporally, and physically, the Hebrews could not have built the pyramids of Egypt. Well, then, who did? Was it aliens? Apologies, I’ve already promised we’re not going to go there.

That answer is also simple: the Egyptians built the pyramids. And they really weren’t slaves. Not technically. But they didn’t have much say in the matter. If a king needed soldiers for a military campaign or a lot of workers to build a big monument, he had all the manpower he needed. In an early period such as when Khufu reigned, men could be drafted into the military or into works projects; Egypt didn’t have a professional standing army until the New Kingdom. Word would go out from the court to the regional governors to raise manpower. In occasional Old Kingdom tombs, some autobiographies actually include the tomb owner’s pride in being able to raise all the men the king wanted from his region. This was a system called corvée labor, and it was common throughout the ancient Near East.

In many instances those subjected to corvée labor were not paid, but we know the Egyptian laborers were paid. This was generally in foodstuffs, beer, cloth, and the like. And the men assigned to work gangs were not forced to spend the rest of their lives in labor. They would spend a number of months at the work site, and were then sent back home to their fields and herds. Fresh manpower was raised as needed. This is not to say no slaves were present, because certainly some were. But slaves were more commonly sent under military guard to distant quarries to fetch more exotic stones, and other such tasks. Most workers on-site were paid laborers.

I’m not going to dumb things down by saying all of these paid laborers were thrilled and honored to be part of the king’s work project. I can’t begin to imagine how grueling and dangerous the work could be. And we’ll never know how many men were killed while building something like a pyramid. But they weren’t slaves—and they certainly weren’t Hebrews.

You can’t force an entire people into slavery if that people’s culture and society didn’t even exist yet. The fact is, we don’t have much evidence for Hebrews in Egypt in any numbers prior to the Late Period (starting c. 731 BCE). By that time they were largely merchants and mercenaries serving the king’s army and residing mostly in very southern Egypt, in their own communities around Elephantine. They would later cluster in very northern Egypt, in and around Alexandria. And of course by that time, when the Greeks had taken over Egypt, the pyramids were already very ancient. As we docents like to remind folks: the pyramids are older to Cleopatra than she is to us.

There is no mention of the pyramids in the Bible, in the Old Testament or otherwise. The Hebrews of old don’t mention them because they, the Hebrews, had nothing to do with the pyramids.

As always, I thank you for reading and welcome your comments.


My bibliography is largely the same as that for other articles I’ve written, such as for Exodus; this new article approaches the information from a different angle.

Bonani, Georges et al. “Radiocarbon Dating of Old and Middle Kingdom Monuments in Egypt.” 2001

Bruins, Hendrick J. “Dating Pharaonic Egypt.” Science, Vol. 328. 2010.

Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? 2003.

Finkelstein, Israel & Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. 2001.

Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. 1992.

Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 1992.

Verner, Miroslav. The Pyramids. 2001

Wilkinson, Toby. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. 2010.

Reality interrupted

It sounds like a cliche but it’s the truth: my life will never be the same. All because of a couple of little organs in my back.

I’m departing from my usual modus operandi to do something different. No history article here, and no combating of bad science and the fringe. I’m going to use this article to share some personal information about myself, which I generally don’t do. But in writing this I’m hoping anyone who reads the article can take advantage of my cautionary tale.

It actually started a very long time ago. Sometime around my mid-twenties I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I am now fifty. I adjusted well to the disease and lived for many years with no problems. I took my insulin, tried to watch my diet, rarely bothered with regular doctor visits, and went my merry way. Are you listening, readers with diabetes? Many people have the disease. And everything in this paragraph describes many folks’ experiences with diabetic.

It started to change in the spring of 2014. I was going blind. I had developed serious hypertension (high blood pressure) and it, together with diabetes, was attacking my eyes. The technical term for this is bilateral diabetic retinopathy, which means the disease was damaging the retinas in both eyes. Well, I rather had to go to the doctor for that. I spent the entire summer and much of the fall going to Northwestern Memorial in Chicago to undergo extensive laser surgery and numerous other treatments. This included three invasive major surgeries to my eyes and even injections in one of my eyes. That wasn’t fun.

Northwestern did an amazing job restoring my vision. It will never again be perfect, but it’s pretty good again. But this article isn’t really about my vision treatments. It was only the first sign, which I should’ve taken more seriously. I had a battery of blood tests for the first surgery and they were concerned about my kidneys. The bloodwork showed they were not performing optimally. My primary physician—yes, I was regularly seeing a doctor now—emphasized that I see a nephrologist, a doctor specializing in kidney care.

So I rushed to the nephrologist, right? A smart person would’ve—but I wasn’t being smart. I skipped it and hoped for the best. My vision continued to improve but thanks to the appalling disaster that is our health-care system in the United States, I eventually lost my health insurance. I could no longer afford regular visits with a doctor.

As it happens, and as I now know, soon after I couldn’t report to the doctor on a regular basis, my blood pressure was creeping back up. I could see this on the little blood-pressure machine I use at home, but a machine doesn’t treat blood pressure. It only alerts you to it. I went on my merry way, again.

The symptoms were starting to show. I was getting more and more tired. I was drifting off to sleep at work, which was something I never did. I was putting on weight and my legs, ankles, and feet would get swollen. I had a serious cough and felt heavy. I have a medical background from training as a paramedic many years ago, so I certainly had an idea what was wrong: kidney disease.

It all came apart last November (2016). One morning upon climbing out of bed to get ready for work—I promptly collapsed like a bag of potatoes to the floor. I could not get back up. I was conscious but not very alert. It’s difficult to describe the experience. I had almost no awareness of the passage of time. I remember thinking that I need to text my boss to let him know I wouldn’t be coming in, and I managed to snag my phone from the edge of my desk, but I couldn’t make my fingers work. Meanwhile, the phone eventually started to ring, and I suspected it was my boss calling to check on me. I couldn’t operate the phone to answer, and was surprised to discover I could barely even talk.

I thought I was having a stroke.

At some point I heard a knock on my door, but I couldn’t answer. A few more knocks, and then I heard the jangling of keys in the lock. I live in an apartment building and the handyman, Mike, came in to check on me. My boss had called the apartment management, so that’s why Mike was at my door.

Mike found me sitting there on the floor. He asked me some questions and I understood everything he said, but I could only nod or give a thumbs-up. I couldn’t talk or move. I could only sit there on the floor, staring at my desk, like some sad version of performance art.

Mike called 911.

Everything that transpired from there resulted in a long and epic journey, as they say. Mike told the paramedics that I’m diabetic, so the first thing they did after putting an oxygen mask on me was test my blood sugar. On a normal adult male without diabetes the blood-glucose level should be roughly between 80 to 100 (going from memory here). My blood sugar was usually around 120, which is high but not terrible for a Type 1 diabetic.

That morning, as I sat slumped on the floor, my blood sugar was 26. To this day I’m amazed I never passed out.

The ambulance rushed me to Weiss Memorial, which is nearby my place in Chicago. There they put me on oxygen with epi. That opened my airways right up. I really liked oxygen with epi! And then they did a full blood panel. One of the things they test for in a diabetic is creatinine, a protein that builds up in your body but that healthy kidneys will flush out. The creatinine level in a healthy male my age is between 0.8 and 1.3 (mg/dL).

There in the ER at Weiss Memorial, my creatinine was over 10.

My kidneys were shot. They still have some function, and almost every doctor and nurse I meet asks if I’m still peeing. I still am, which must show some kidney function, but there may come a time when I will stop peeing altogether.

I had to go on dialysis. I spent eight days in the hospital undergoing batteries of tests and scans, and started dialysis almost immediately. For the short term a surgeon implanted a catheter that stuck out of my neck so they could wheel me down the hall to a little room for dialysis. Soon before I was finally discharged from Weiss Memorial, they moved the catheter to my upper-right chest, just above my nipple. And there it sits to this day.

After getting home I immediately started dialysis in a clinic similar to this one:


There, every Tuesday and Thursday and Saturday, I sat in a chair for four hours so my blood could be circulated through a machine and filtered. That’s what the catheter is for: so I could have my body connected to the machine. I’m not much for selfies, but here’s a closeup of my chest I took while sitting in one of the chairs last December:

My Chest

Apologies for my pasty-white flesh. You can see the white bandage on my right chest. Underneath that is where the catheter enters my body, into a major blood vessel. From there it goes into my heart. From the white bandage you can see two tubes descending: one tube sends my blood out and the other sends it back in, freshly filtered. A healthy person has two kidneys that do this filtering very well, to scrub out excess fluids and waste products like creatinine. But I’m now one of those folks whose body needs help with this.

Needless to say I now have a nephrologist. I actually met him when I was admitted to the hospital. I like him quite a lot. From the start he thought I would be a good candidate for a different kind of dialysis. When you sit in a chair in a clinic for several hours to have your blood cleansed, the process is called hemodialysis. That’s what I was experiencing since November. You can do this at home, too, but hemodialysis can lead to unpleasant side effects. Numerous times while in the clinic I experienced some of them: especially low blood pressure and epic cramps. And I do mean epic. Largely because of these side effects, if you do hemodialysis at home you need to have someone with you while you’re undergoing treatment. This option wouldn’t work for me because I live alone.

But the other form of home-care is called peritoneal dialysis. I was a good candidate for this. It doesn’t require someone to be with you. Inside your abdomen is a stout lining called the peritoneum that holds your stomach, intestines, and other abdominal organs in place. Along the way some brilliant researcher discovered that the peritoneal lining can filter blood just like a dialysis machine does.

To prepare for this I had to undergo yet another surgery, this time at St. Francis Hospital. The surgeon implanted a new catheter in my abdomen, which extends from my body to the left of my navel. Back at my dialysis clinic a nurse attached an extension (transfer set) to it so I could use the catheter with their specific machinery. It looks something like this:


No, that’s not a photo of my body. I’m not that sleek and curvy, but you get the idea. The coiled end sits deep inside my abdomen and the brunt of it, with the extension the nurse put on, sits outside my body.

True to my luck, however, sometime soon after the catheter was implanted, it got badly kinked inside my body. I had to undergo yet another surgery to have it fixed. The surgeon couldn’t explain how it got kinked so badly inside me but is confident it won’t happen again. The surgeries were not at all pleasant but at least the catheter started working.

As I write this article, I’ve just completed four full days of training to use the equipment inside my apartment. On this, the fifth day, two nurses came over to my apartment to watch me prepare the equipment for tonight’s treatment. I’m done training, and it went well. Three different nurses trained me at the clinic, and they were terrific. From now on, every two weeks, the clinic’s chipping department will be delivering fresh supplies to me. I took this photo so you can see most of the supplies piled inside my apartment:


Hopefully I won’t need anything in that closet too soon, but I don’t think I will. These boxes are just the solution bags that will be filtered through my peritoneum, so my blood can be cleaned. Every night I will use two 5,000 ml bags and one 3,000 ml bag. The solution is basically a form of sugar water that pulls the accumulated toxins through my peritoneum, as well as excess fluids my weak kidneys can no longer flush out. All of this drains into bags on the floor. Here is a photo of the machine:


The machine is called a cycler. It’s not large but is quite heavy. I’m thankful for the handy-dandy cart that was designed especially for it. The lit-up screen gives you directions for proper set-up and takes you step-by-step through the process, to get it going. On top and to the left and right are the solution bags that will fill my peritoneum and flush out—the drain bags are there on the floor, to the left.

I’ve been training all week on this device, so I can tell you the fluid that enters the waste bags looks a lot like weak urine. You empty the bags into the toilet or a sink. They drain pretty quickly.

All of this is called peritoneal dialysis. This is my home treatment. Eventually they will remove the old catheter that’s still in my chest. I look forward to that because I am not allowed to get it wet. Since it was implanted last November, I have not been allowed to take a normal human shower. I take sponge baths instead. I miss showers and want to take them again.

Thanks to the cycler (the machine in the above photo) there’s really not much chance of screwing up and harming yourself. The machine basically won’t let you do that. But the process involves a lot of connections with tubing, and the single-greatest risk with peritoneal dialysis is infection. Specially, peritonitis. I want to avoid that. So I wash my hands carefully, use hand sanitizer, wear a mask, and let none of the connections touch the floor.

My first full treatment is tonight. I have the machine ready to go, so it waits till I connect my catheter before bedtime. It will run overnight, as I sleep. The process really does work. Together with the hemodialysis I was undergoing in the clinic, this whole process has turned my health around. I breathe clearly. I sleep quite well. I have much more energy during the day. There is still some swelling, but not nearly that much. I have lost over thirty pounds. My bloodwork is looking pretty good lately.

Dialysis works.

But it’s really not something you want to do unless you have to. It takes a lot training, commitment, and discipline. This is now my life. This is my new reality.

So take it from me, people, and learn from my mistakes. Take care of yourselves. Eat healthy, get exercise. See your doctor regularly. If you have a disease like diabetes, make sure you keep it under control. And did I mention, see your doctor regularly?

I wish you all good health. Thanks for reading.

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 3


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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 CE, 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


, , , , , , , , ,


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


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

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


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.