Finally, an update

It’s been a very long time since I wrote anything, so I thought I should check in. This is what happen when you have a a big stroke. I went from hospital to hospital for weeks, until April that’s when I landed at Avante Rehab Center in Chicago. It’s an excellent facility with a fine staff but I miss my independence. The stroke largely crippled my left leg and damaged my left arm, which is why I am in intensive therapy.

I am told I will walk again but it still will take a lot of work.

It may sound sadistic but I really enjoy therapy. I like to move my Limbs, and they have excellent equipment. I look forward to it every day.

My sister and nephew visiting me at one of my hospitals

Therapy has enabled me to stand again and I’ve already taken a few steps. It felt great!

Another form of therapy I enjoy is speech therapy. My speech was not affected by the stroke but my memory and recall were. You have helped me greatly. There are even speech therapy games I’ve put on my iPad.

Avanti is not my permanent home but I’m glad to be here while I need it. I hope to return to posting more frequently because I miss it. I think those of you who checked in and I appreciate it. I appreciate all of you. This one will be short when I look forward to talking with you again. As always I appreciate comments and questions. God bless!

Inventory Stela: Pious fraud?


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Every now and then something is unearthed in Egypt that can give pause to historians. It doesn’t happen all that often anymore, but the historical record can provide us numerous examples. One of the best examples is an unassuming, rather unimportant little stela usually called the Inventory Stela, also known as the Stela of the Daughter of Cheops (Khufu).

The stela was uncovered in 1858 at Giza by the Frenchman Auguste Mariette (1821-1881). Mariette was one of the titans of Egyptian studies at the dawn of Egyptology. He worked in a time when his European and American colleagues were first trying to wrap their minds around the great pharaonic civilization, digging frantically all over the Nile Valley in a quest not only to find gold but to wrest facts and details from the very distant past.


Auguste Mariette (1821-1881)

The historians of Mariette’s time were only beginning to flesh out the dynastic history of Egypt. Hieroglyphs had been deciphered by the Frenchman Champollion only 36 years before the Inventory Stela was excavated. Given these limitations,a little monument such as this stela was certain to cause some measure of confusion and possibly lead some folks down the wrong path.

Mariette found the stela in the rubble out front of the farthest-left (southernmost) little pyramid to the east of the Great Pyramid. These little pyramids had been made for either the wives or daughters of Khufu, the king for whom the Great Pyramid was built. The little pyramid in question is today known as G1-c (see red circle below):


Pyramid G1-c to the east of the Great Pyramid


Each of the three little pyramids had a small mortuary temple to its east, mirroring the larger arrangement of the Great Pyramid. Each queen or daughter buried there would’ve had her own mortuary cult and cadre of priests to service her afterlife needs, just as Khufu himself did, albeit on a much larger scale. These mortuary temples today are in ruins.

G1-c Pyramid

The ruins of the mortuary temple for G1-c

It was in this jumble of ruined masonry that Mariette found the Inventory Stela. The stela is made of hard limestone. It’s 30 inches high and 15 wide, contains four registers of  inscriptions, and relief carvings of divine statues (Zivie-Coche 2002: 83). It’s the inscription that caused confusion in Mariette’s day and the inscription has become the darling of many fringe adherents, who are quick to glom onto most anything that might suit their agenda.


Inventory Stela (Cairo Museum, JE 209)

The stela is in rough shape and there are numerous lacunae, but enough is intact to make sense of what the stela was for. You will come across different translations of the text on the stela, some very poor and some more on the mark. Here I provide a reliable and professional translation from Zivie-Coche’s book (ibid 85):

Live the Horus Medjed, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Cheops, given life. He found the house of Isis, Mistress of the Pyramids, next to the house of Haurun, northwest of the house of Osiris, Lord of Rasetau. He (re)built the pyramid of the king’s daughter Henutsen beside this temple. He made an inventory, carved on a stela, for his mother Isis, the mother of the god, Hathor, Mistress of the Sky. He restored for her the divine offerings and (re)built her temple in stone, that which he found in ruins being renewed, and the gods in their place.

When studying and interpreting an inscription like this one, the student is obligated to follow it to the letter and not insert information that doesn’t belong. Therefore, it’s critical to start with a reliable and modern translation.

Fringe adherents have abused this inscription in all manner of ways. They have an obsession with trying to establish that the pyramids and Sphinx are thousands of years older than anyone thought and were built by some nebulous, unproven, and lost advanced civilization that existed there prior to the Egyptians. Or maybe it was aliens. This stands foolishly against modern science and the evidence from carbon dating that shows these pyramids and temples were erected around the very time we always thought (Bonani et al 2001).

So in taking the stela at face value, it would seem the Sphinx and pyramids were already there when Khufu came along. The inference is, he just repaired things and took them as his own. You will see this preached time and again in fringe literature. You will even see fringe writers claim the inscription “proves” Khufu found the Great Pyramid itself already in place, even though the inscription nowhere says that.

Referring to the inscription above, you can see where it clearly states Khufu was supposed to have “(re)built the pyramid of the king’s daughter Henutsen beside this temple.” This is the little pyramid designated G1-c, built, as mentioned, for one of Khufu’s wives or daughters, The temple in question is today’s jumble of ruins out front of G1-c that was originally the little pyramid’s mortuary chapel. The chapel in the inscription is referred to as “the house of Isis, Mistress of the Pyramids.” In other words, it was a chapel dedicated to Isis, the great mother-goddess.

What we know today is that the old mortuary chapel really did become a temple to Isis, but not in Khufu’s time (Dynasty 4, c. 2500 BCE). On archaeological grounds, the conversion to the temple can be dated to some time in the Third Intermediate Period. We can narrow it down to the reign of Psusennes I (1047 BCE-1001 BCE), in Dynasty 21, based on his cartouche found in the ruins (Petrie 1883: 65). By the time of the Third Intermediate Period, the monuments on the Giza Plateau had been abandoned for many centuries.

In Mariette’s day the stela was already causing confusion because of its inscription. Flinders Petrie felt the stela was either a refurbished copy of a very old monument, or “more probably an entire invention” (ibid 49). Others, such as Maspero, believed the stela should be taken as an historical document (Maspero 1894: n. 364-65).

So, is the stela from the Old Kingdom or from some later time? A great deal of time has elapsed from the days of Mariette, Petrie, and Maspero, and thus we have the benefit of generations of steady scholarship and concerted studies. We have learned a tremendous amount since those distant days and have greatly refined our abilities to interpret and understand things like the Inventory Stela.

This being the case, certain features on the stela present immediate problems. For one thing, in style and form the stela is not of the type one generally sees from the Old Kingdom. That’s immediately noticeable. That might possibly be explained away in some manner, but there’s more.

A notable problem is the name Haurun in the inscription. This is a reference to the Great Sphinx. Haurun was originally a Canaanite god and one of manifestations of Baal. Egypt did end up assimilating this deity, as it did numerous foreign gods and goddesses, but Haurun did not end up becoming part of the Egyptian pantheon until the New Kingdom—many centuries after the time of Khufu. Only at some later time was Haurun associated with the Sphinx, to the point that it became a name for the Sphinx. How this occurred is not known, but it may have been the presence of Canaanite workers living in the area; perhaps they identified the Sphinx with their deity Haurun (Wilkinson 2003: 108). But to be certain, referring to the Sphinx as Haurun is a noticeable anachronism; we don’t even know what the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom might have called the Sphinx.

Similar anachronisms appear on the stela. As mentioned, the stela includes relief carvings of divine statues. This is the “inventory” portion of the stela. It’s a listing of statues that were once featured in the little temple to Isis. This goddess herself presents an immediate problem, as does the mention of Osiris: neither of these deities appears to have been part of Egyptian veneration as early as Dynasty 4. Neither appears in the Egyptian pantheon  until the end of Dynasty 5. For that matter, the title attributed to Isis on the stela, “mistress of the pyramids,” is nowhere else given to her in Egyptian history.

We can say the same about some of the other divine statues on the stela, including the mention of such deities as Nephthys, Harendotes, and Harmokhis. These did not exist in the pantheon in Khufu’s time.

Yet another problem exists with the mention of the “king’s daughter Henutsen.” She is supposedly the royal daughter for whom the little pyramid, G1-c, was erected. While the pyramid was certainly built for one of Khufu’s royal women, daughter or wife, there is no evidence contemporary to Khufu for a daughter named Henutsen (Dodson and Hilton 2004: 53). She’s an invention for the narrative.

Everything considered, then, this stela cannot date to the Old Kingdom. So to what point in time can it be dated?

We’ve seen that the little temple to Isis was first established in the Third Intermediate Period, probably Dynasty 21. But the stela itself is much later. The Giza Plateau fell into ruins after this period and sat abandoned for a number of centuries, until Dynasty 26 (664 BCE-525 BCE). This is also known as the Saite Period due to the capital city of the time: Sais, in the Delta. Egypt itself had been much diminished by then, but there was a brief resurgence under the powerful king Psamtik I Wahibra. This king restored much of the stability and power of Egypt, at least internally, and a lot of attention was given to Giza, which experienced a renaissance.

The stela is of the style and form of the Saite Period. While many of the deities mentioned on the stela were unknown in Dynasty 4, they all would’ve been familiar to the Egyptians of Dynasty 26. The stela was simply part of the plan to bring grandeur back to Giza.

Most scholars today agree that the Inventory Stela dates to Dynasty 26. Therefore, the stela can be thought of as a pious fraud. The Egyptians had their own sense of history, but this must not mean we should believe they viewed history the way we do. Their perspective was far removed from our own (Zivie-Coche 2002: 87-88). They were not trying to pull one over on anyone but were, indeed, honoring the past and the memory of one of their great, distant monarchs, Khufu.

This is a lesson in critical thinking. We have to view things in context and dig deeper. The stela tells us everything we need to know. It is the mistake of the fringe not to dig deeper but to jump to conclusions based on a thin veneer.

I welcome comments and questions, and thanks for reading.


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

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

Maspero, Gaston. The Dawn of Civilization: Egypt and Chaldea. 1894.

Flinders, Petrie. The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh. 1883.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. 2003.

Zivie-Coche, Christiane. Sphinx: History of a Monument. 2002.


Great Pyramid: the fringe obsession


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Main_Photo.jpgA Happy New Year to all WordPress readers! May 2018 bring you many blessings.

It’s barbarically cold in Chicago, so I thought I’d compose a less formal article today. I’m certainly not setting foot outside.

It goes without saying I do a prodigious amount of reading, and sometimes that takes me into the murky realm of fringe writers. And in my interactions with visitors at the museum, I occasionally come across folks who have some very strange ideas about ancient Egypt. Sometimes what they say makes me smile, and sometimes I want to rip out what’s left of my hair. That wouldn’t take long, really.

I also help moderate a very popular internet message board called Unexplained-Mysteries. The forum where I spend most of my time on UM is Ancient Mysteries & Alternative History, which is where I encounter the largest number of wacky fringe ideas. There is almost always a thread or three about ancient Egypt, and of these, one is almost always guaranteed to be about the Great Pyramid.

That’s not altogether surprising. Most fringe writers and readers really don’t have a working understanding of pharaonic Egypt, and to the average person the Great Pyramid is one of the singular icons of that great civilization. You think of Egypt, you think of that pyramid.

Few ancient monuments are as recognizable as the Great Pyramid, and arguably no ancient monument has been as misrepresented and abused as the Great Pyramid. No blog (or, indeed, book) could adequately cover all of the fringe themes about the Great Pyramid. I stress “theme” because none of these are theories in the proper historical sense of the word. A working theory requires evidence that can be substantiated. The fringe doesn’t do theories, so “theme” is an appropriate word.

Although this pyramid often appears in my blog, and is the main subject of more than one article, it isn’t actually of key interest to me. There is so much more to pharaonic times, and that’s part of the problem. Fringe fans do not seem to be aware of that. We’ll return to this sentiment in a bit. But suffice it to say, I often do write a lot about the Great Pyramid simply because there is so much public attention poured on it. I want to present the facts and erase misunderstandings.

Let’s take a brief look at just some of the oddball themes..


One of the most common is aliens, and there is a wide variety of alien themes attached to the Great Pyramid. It’s a landing pad for alien spacecraft.  Together with the other pyramids at Giza it’s a land marker for alien spacecraft. The precision with which it was built “proves” only aliens could’ve erected the monument. I could fill quite a few articles describing just the alien themes, but then again I might take to ripping out my hair. I need what’s left of it.

In other versions of alien themes, benevolent aliens came to earth and taught primitive humans how to work stone. That’s probably a bit more palatable, but it still requires that aliens had to teach us stupid humans how to build stuff. And why would a super-advanced race of aliens traverse the endless cosmos just to come here to earth to teach ancient man how to build in…stone? They couldn’t manage better building technologies?


Related is the precision angle. Looking at the skill that went into the pyramid, not all fringe proponents think aliens did it but perhaps some lost civilization that was highly advanced and possessed super-technologies. Sometimes this is attributed to the survivors of the destruction of Atlantis, who resettled many thousands of years go in the land of Egypt. Never mind that Plato wrote the story of Atlantis as an allegorical tale, Atlantis feeds the fringe almost as much as the Great Pyramid does.

This goes back to a lack of knowledge about ancient Egypt and the tremendous amount of research that has gone into historical studies over the past 200-plus years. We know there was no great civilization in northeast Africa prior to pharaonic Egypt. No evidence exists for such a thing, and there would be surviving evidence for such a thing.


Well, it’s true the skill level to build the pyramid was impressive, even if not quite as “perfect” as the fringe tends to think. But the fringe seems incapable of understanding how an Early Bronze Age civilization could manage such a feat. That deficit in comprehension is not the fault of Early Bronze Age engineers.

There are several fringe authors who advocate for advanced, lost technologies. They refuse to believe that the tools known to have existed in ancient times were fit for the job, so they force in arguments that there were power tools of the sort we use today—or tools even more advanced than ours. Their main argument if the tool marks left behind on stone masonry, which they refuse to believe ancient tools could’ve made, even though experiential archaeology has proved time and again that known ancient tools were perfectly suited to the work.

And the amount of perfection is indeed exaggerated. The Great Pyramid and many other pharaonic monuments are indeed very accurately oriented toward certain cardinal directions, but that is a direct reflection of religious and ritual requirements. And it hardly requires advanced astronomical tools to find true north. I was trained to do that as a kid in the boy scouts. The fact is, it’s the casing stones that are extremely well fitted (where they survive), but not so with the rest of the pyramid. The farther into the pyramid you go, the more rubble and mortar you encounter. The blocks are in a variety of sizez and shapes. This is not perfection.

There is the fellow who for a while was passionately advocating that the blocks of the pyramid were actually poured like concrete. Never mind that there is no evidence the Egyptians ever  had the infrastructure for such an industry. That old theme has died away, along with so many others.

I even know one fellow who for years has tried to convince people on forums like the one I moderate, that there was a lost geyser technology that enabled the Egyptians to lift the stones so high. He tends to be chased out of forums because he simply cannot offer realistic evidence to support any aspect of his bizarre theme. It’s all in his head.

There is so much more, such as levitation employed through sound or mind power and other ideas divorced from reality. But you get the idea. People who don’t understand ancient engineering skills and potentials, and have no desire to acquire realistic learning, will attach all sorts of truly odd themes to the pyramid.


Before moving on I also need to touch on this. Very popular to this day are the themes that the pyramid is thousands of years older than conventionally thought. The conventional theory is that it was built around 2500 BCE. Two rounds of extensive carbon dating have shown that it might have been built around a century earlier than thought, which was a surprise to no one in Egyptology. But even now, fringe writers want their readers to believe the pyramid is more like 10,000 years old.

This goes back to an absence of education about pharaonic Egypt, and the known stages of development the people in the Nile Valley underwent leading up to state formation (c. 3100 BCE). We know these facts because of real-world archaeology and research, and of course modern science like carbon dating. But fringe writers constantly either try to ignore the science or pretend it’s just wrong, which might be convenient but ultimately just reveals fringe writers’ lack of knowledge about the applicable science.


What this all boils down to, I stress again, is a very narrow and insufficient understanding of ancient Egypt, on multiple levels. The fringe is obsessed with the Great Pyramid, as though it is the only thing in the Nile Valley the Egyptians ever built. In point of fact, the Great Pyramid was of great importance only in Dynasty 4, when it was built as the eternal home, or tomb, for King Khufu. It was for his mortuary cult. The next king immediately started the building of his own tomb, at a site called Abu Rawash, and that monument then became the focus of the state.

Extant evidence shows us there were priests working in Khufu’s pyramid complex until the end of the Old Kingdom (c. 2195 BCE), so there was an active cult for Khufu during all of that time. That’s pretty good. But after that Egypt fell into chaos and civil war, during the troubled time we refer to as the First Intermediate Period. Giza was abandoned. It would never again hold the place of prominence it did in Dynasty 4, and the Great Pyramid arguably less so. That is historical fact. Khufu was of course remembered for generations after his death, but his pyramid was not any sort of focus to the Egyptians in later centuries.

Dynastic Egypt experienced numerous rises and falls, from the glories of empire during the New Kingdom to the repeated invasions of foreign kingdoms during the Late Period. In one brief time during the Late Period, Dynasty 26, Giza did experience a renaissance, but it really wasn’t the Great Pyramid that was the focus. The main monument at Giza that was of importance to later generations was the Great Sphinx.


The Great Sphinx of Giza

The monarchs of the Saite Period (Dynasty 26) revered the Sphinx and restored some of its former glories. The one pyramid at Giza which became of importance at that time was one of the little pyramids to the east of the Great Pyramid, whose small temple complex had been turned into a little temple to the goddess Isis. It had originally been erected for the burial of a queen or daughter of Khufu, but that was forgotten by Dynasty 26.

The logistics and manpower it took to build the Great Pyramid was truly impressive. It shows the skill and resources of Dynasty 4, not to mention the stature and power of Khufu. But in reality the Great Pyramid is just a massive pile of stones, even if it was the tallest building on earth until the Eiffel Tower.

But think of the later monuments the Egyptians built. The more time went on, the more advanced their building skills became. Arguably the single-most important building from pharaonic Egypt isn’t the Great Pyramid but the Karnak temple complex, known in ancient times as Ipet-Isut, “the most select of places.” This temple served a wide variety of purposes but was the principal cult center for Amun, the most important deity of the New Kingdom and for centuries thereafter. Generation after generation of pharaohs added to it.


The Karnak temple complex

Its massive pylons and soaring columns made Karnak one of the largest religious structures mankind ever built, and its architecture and masonry represent a level of engineering skill several orders of magnitude superior to that of the Great Pyramid.

One of the greatest pharaohs of the New Kingdom was Ramesses II, who reigned for 67 years. Ramesses was a prodigious builder, including at Karnak. And what he didn’t build he might claim for himself, by erasing a preceding king’s name and carving in his own. Archaeologists have nicknamed him “the Chiseler” for this practice.

But one monument that was all his doing was the great temple at Abu Simbel, just inside ancient Nubia to the south of Egypt. It served as a reminder to the Nubians that Ramesses was the big man on the block and it was best to mind him. It is still a popular tourist stop to this day.


Abu Simbel, the great monument of Ramesses II to the south of Egypt, Dynasty 19.

Each statue—all four of which depict Ramesses himself—stands about 60 feet tall, and a temple with columns was carved deep into the mountainside. This edifice dramatically reflects the far-reaching power and might of Ramesses II, and is unlike anything builders in the time of the Great Pyramid would’ve dared to attempt.

But we all have our favorite Egyptian monuments. I love all of them, some more than others. If I were to chose an overall favorite, it would have to be the great mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at the site Deir el Bahri.

Deir el Bahri

Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, Dynasty 18.

Hatshepsut is one of those kings who fell out of favor and was erased from history by later kings. This was mainly because Hatshepsut was a woman. Women were not supposed to be kings. So a lot of her monuments and inscriptions were destroyed after she died, but later kings kept her mortuary temple largely intact. It was used for centuries for the rituals and processions of later generations. They may have wanted to forget about Hatshepsut, but her temple was too beautiful to ignore.

All told, the Egyptians were indeed master stonemasons. They were the first in the world to build colossal monuments with stone, and no one could do it like they could. They didn’t need aliens or levitation or geysers or super-technologies. They needed only themselves and their own ingenuity.

A new year has dawned, placing pharaonic Egypt even farther back in time. But we continue to study them and celebrate them. We continue to understand what was important to them and why. We will never stop learning. I dare ask, when will the fringe start learning?


No bibliography for this article. I was just in the mood to write, and perhaps to vent a little. The above comes from memory.

King Tut: rock star, pop idol, enigma


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It was November 4, 1922, and another hot day in the Valley of the Kings. It was always hot, and dry, and dusty. But the Valley had yielded countless finds and many treasures, so the heat and aridity did not stop industrious diggers from their pursuits.

The British Egyptologist Howard Carter was just the latest in several generations of archaeologists who had been exploring the Valley in their search for tombs of the great kings of ancient Egypt’s glittering New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE). He had been digging in Egypt since 1891, but his main pursuit since the days following World War I was the tomb of a little-known pharaoh named Tutankhamun. They had found a handful of his statues, they had seen his name on monuments, but where was he buried?

Carter’s sponsor was the British noble Lord Carnarvon (George Herbert), and it was Carnarvon who was financing Carter’s search for Tutankhamun. But Carnarvon was getting tired of shelling out his fortunes for so little gain, and this dig in November 1922 was in fact Carter’s last chance. It was supposed to have ended already, but Carter had talked Carnarvon into one last season.

So imagine Carter’s amazement on that dusty day when one more sink of the pickaxe struck a stone step under the sand. Clearing the sand away, they found a stairway that descended below ground to a door—and that door still bore the necropolis seals. This tomb promised to be intact.

The discovery of this tomb, designated KV62 according to the ordering system in the Valley, is the stuff of archaeological legend. We needn’t dwell on it here. There is a mountain of literature about the discovery and tomb clearing, and I would refer to the reader to most any book written by a reputable historian or researcher.


The opened door to the tomb. Carter is second from the right; Carnarvon is to Carter’s right.

Suffice it to say, Carter and his team spent years clearing almost 5,400 artifacts from this small tomb: foodstuffs, furniture, jewelry, shrines, statues, chariots. funerary items, and of course his mummy. It was like a neglected garage that had never been cleaned. It certainly made Carter famous, and although he never dug again, he spent much of the rest of his life on the lecture circuit, recounting his glories to enthralled audiences all over Europe and the United States.

Carter was the right man for the excavation. He was disciplined and meticulous. He and his team labeled, photographed, and plotted every last object retrieved from the tomb. You can see pretty much all of it on the Griffith Institute’s website Anatomy of an Excavation. At the same time, Carter was a challenging man to work with. He didn’t seem to care much for most people and disliked crowds even more so. The media was little more than a nuisance to him, so he was overly selective in whom he allowed to cover his excavation efforts. He certainly did not get along well with the Egyptian government, nor did the government care much for him.

The discovery caused a sensation the world over, so this must not have sat well with Carter in some ways. Every day people stopped by to watch the work, and Carter was often stopping his progress to give impromptu tours to important Europeans on holiday in Egypt. Carter was aware of the excitement his discovery was causing, but he would rather he and his team have been left to their own devices.

So I sometimes wonder what Howard Carter would think of people’s fascination with Tutankhamun today. Working in two different, beautiful ancient Egypt exhibits in Chicago, I am not surprised by how often the subject of King Tut comes up. If the average person thinks of an object that represents the glory and mystery of ancient Egypt, I’m willing to bet the Great Pyramid is what comes to mind. If the average person thinks of an individual, it is likely to be King Tut.

There is an irony to this. To those of us today, Tutankhamun might seem to be the most famous king from ancient Egypt. But in point of fact, Tut was a fairly minor king. He was at the end of a long line of very powerful kings we call the Tuthmosides. To this line belongs some truly powerful kings revered by later generations of Egyptians, such as Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III, and Amunhotep III. Also in this line are highly controversial and endlessly fascinating kings like Hatshepsut and Akhenaten, who were erased from history by later kings. And of course later there were powerful kings like Ramesses II, against whom Tutankhamun did not measure up.

Tutankhamun just did not live long enough. He came to throne around 1343 BCE and was only around nine years old. He was dead ten years later. So he simply didn’t have the longevity to accomplish much and make a name for himself. Added to this was his association with the oddball king Akhenaten, the heretic who proscribed the worship of many traditional gods. Later kings wiped out Akhenaten’s memory, and part of that memory was the boy Tutankhamun. This is why so little had been found by archaeologists by Carter’s time.

Nevertheless, today King Tut is one of the most recognizable icons of pharaonic times. The exhibits featuring artifacts from his tomb pack in millions of people the world over. I worked one of them at the Field Museum in 2006. It was at our museum for eight months and brought a million people just through our doors. There are countless books about King Tut, both non-fiction and fiction, there are movies—there is a whole pop-culture craze that swirls around this dead boy king. I have a tissue dispenser in the shape of Tut’s famous death mask: the tissues come out of his nose.


King Tut in the 2014 film Mr. Peabody and Sherman

The 2016 film Mr. Peabody and Sherman even features King Tut. The young heroine Penny seems smitten with the boy king and agrees to marry him, and nothing Peabody and Sherman say can dissuade her. The only thing that changes her mind is when Tut’s advisor tells her that when the king dies, she also must die. I spent a lot of time at the museum after this movie came out, ensuring kids that in real life back then, the queen was not put to death when the king died. I eventually watched the movie myself, and inaccuracies aside, I recommend it for some good laughs. It’s just another part of the Tut phenomenon.

It is simply Tut’s tomb that made him so famous to us. It contained so much gold and bling and riches, so many mysterious and fascinating objects, that even from 1922 it made Tut a household name. A great deal of mystique and mystery have been attached to Tut because of KV62, because until that point in time, every royal tomb that had been excavated, had already been picked clean by raiders millennia ago. Just imagine what might have been inside the tombs of kings like Tuthmosis III, Amunhotep III, and Ramesses II.

A great deal of nonsense has also been attached to King Tut and his tomb. One of the greatest misconceptions is the curse of King Tut, which is more Hollywood than reality. Some of it was caused by the misinterpretation of inscribed artifacts within the tomb, but there simply is no curse inscribed in that tomb.

Back in 2006, when we had the exhibit at the Field Museum, I remember sitting at home one evening and watching a local news affiliate talk about the exhibit. One of the most beautiful objects on display was one of four gold coffinettes that used to hold Tut’s preserved organs:


Gold coffinette of Tutankhamun.

The news anchor showed an image of the coffinette and there was a closeup of hieroglyphs that one could see inside it. The anchor proceeded to explain that those hieroglyphs were a written curse. I very nearly screamed at my TV. Or maybe I did scream. The inscription was not a curse but a ritual prayer. This is a good example of how the modern media tends to distort the facts.

There are all sorts of wild, half-baked fringe ideas about Tut. One of the most popular is that Akhenaten and King Tut were aliens, mostly because the artwork of that period shows their bodies in distorted styles. One of the amuletic devices found on Tut’s mummy was a meteoric dagger, and because meteors come from space, this only encourages some in the fringe to build on the alien scheme.

But as the pages of my humble blog reveal, the fringe has attached itself to ancient Egypt and has no shortage of ways to distort and misrepresent this ancient culture.

As I write this article, there is a new exhibit in the works for Los Angeles: King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh. It opens March 2018. As far as I have been able to determine, Los Angeles is the only venue. This exhibit is in preparation for the installation of Tut’s treasures in the new museum Egypt has been building at Giza, which will be opening in the near future (or so they say). Once Tut’s treasures are in place at Giza in the new museum, they might not travel ever again. But we’ve all heard that before.

There is much we still don’t know about King Tut. How he died remains one of the greatest questions today. His mummy has been poked and prodded and studied more than any ancient body from history, literally right down to his DNA, but there is still no universal agreement on cause of death. There is still much we don’t know about the Amarna Period, the time period in Dynasty 18 when Tut lived, mainly due to the later kings so industriously wiping away Akhenaten and Amarna history. We still can’t be absolutely certain of the order of succession between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. Many questions remain, and that only adds to the mystique.

Tutankhamun is both enigma and rock star. He is one of history’s greatest icons. He will continue to enthrall everyday people, and I will continue to talk about him and answer questions at the museum. I don’t mind in the least. Tut is not one of my own “favorite” pharaohs, but his Amarna Period is endlessly fascinating to study. The romance of King Tut just never seems to get old in popular culture.


Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. 1999.

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

Griffith Institute (The) – University of Oxford website.

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

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

Did the Hebrews build the pyramids?


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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


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

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

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

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

So, let’s begin.

The sarcophagus of Amunemonet

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


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

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


Transcription of the inscription

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

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

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

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

The coffin of Nakhti

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


The coffin of Nakthi, c. 2100 BCE

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

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


The start of Nakhti’s offering formula

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

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

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

The stela of Sensobek and Intef

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some recommendations to learn hieroglyphs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2


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

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

Ranke, Hermann. Die Ägyptischen Personennamen. 1935

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

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


A hieroglyphic primer, Part 2


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

Classifications of hieroglyphs

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Examples of biliterals and triliterals

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


The determinative in practice

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

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

Where are the vowels?

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

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

Phonetic complements & transposition

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


Phonetic complements

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

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


Honorific transposition

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

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


A cartouche-shaped chest from the tomb of King Tut

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

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

Orientation of glyphs

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


Orientation of glyphs

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

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

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

The Book of the Dead of Isty

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

The offering formula

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


Offering formula

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some concluding notes on grammar

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

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

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

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

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 3


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

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

A hieroglyphic primer, Part 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

The origin of hieroglyphs

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

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

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


Tomb U-J, Abydos, c. 3320 BCE

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


Inscribed ivory tags excavated from Tomb U-j

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

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

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

The decipherment of hieroglyphs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Islam arrived in Egypt in the seventh century 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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


The skeletal remains of Senebkay.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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