The enigma of Akhenaten


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amunhotep IV Comes to the Throne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Religious Zealot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Acting Against the Amun Priesthood

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

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

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

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

3. Plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Style of Amarna Period Art

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

Statue of Akhenaten.

Statue of Akhenaten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Akhenaten and Atenism Failed 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

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

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

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

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

Thanks for joining me. I welcome comments and questions.


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

Filer, Joyce. Disease. 1995.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Autopsy in 1925

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

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

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

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

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

The First X-rays: Evidence for Murder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raging Hippo, Panicked Horse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

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

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


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

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

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

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

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

The Original CT Scans: Questions Answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, Then, Killed King Tut?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. 1999.

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

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

Griffith Institute (The) – University of Oxford website.

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

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

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

Magdalenian Girl…or Woman…or Girl?


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This article is somewhat of a departure from my usual fare. For one thing, it has nothing to do with the ancient Near East. For another, I will not be assaulting the usual fringe whimsy of aliens or giants or Atlanteans, what have you.

Recently the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, opened a fascinating new exhibition called “Scenes of the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux.” My article, then, will take us to France of the Upper Paleolithic, and specifically to the Dordogne department (southwest France). I have never been terribly interested in prehistoric Europe but have found myself captivated by the museum’s new exhibit.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibit, including the incredibly realistic, replica cave-wall sections with painted representational images, belong to the French government. However, as is typical with the Field Museum, numerous artifacts on display are from the Field’s own vast collection. A particular item belonging to the Field, and one of the first things guests encounter upon entering, is a prehistoric skeleton.

In my own time working in the exhibit thus far, this skeleton has become my favorite spot to talk with people. Given my penchant for ancient Egyptian mummies, I suppose this isn’t surprising. The skeleton is presented in the Lascaux exhibit as the Magdalenian Woman.

There is of course no way to know what her actual name was. There is no real way even to know what language she spoke. Indo-European (the language family to which modern French belongs) would not even exist for many thousands of years. She is called as the Magdalenian Woman after the Magdalenian period of Paleolithic Europe, so identified by its type of tools and other aspects of material culture. This Paleolithic culture existed in Europe between 17,000 and 11,000 years ago. The period was named for a rock shelter called La Madeleine in the Dordogne department.

The Magdalenian Woman may date to a period of time when the painting activities of the Lascaux cave system were nearing their end or even slightly later. We can’t be sure she ever saw the cave paintings there, although it’s possible: where she was found is only a short distance southwest of Lascaux. Nevertheless, she puts a very human face on the exhibit.

The site where she was found is called Cap Blanc, northeast of the town of Les Eyzies. There is a cliff overhang decorated with beautifully engraved animals dating to the Magdalenian period. These engravings were first discovered in 1909 on the property of a Monsieur J. Grimaud. As with all other decorated cliff faces and cave systems Cap Blanc generated a lot of interest, and many visitors came to see the engravings. Grimaud wished to provided easier access to the cliff face, so he hired a team of workmen to dig the ground to a slightly lower level.

Work proceeded in 1911. In the process, a workman drove a pickaxe into the ground and right through the Magdalenian Woman’s skull, which shattered. This ignominious event is how the remarkable skeleton was discovered, and work ceased so a proper excavation could be performed.

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

The excavation itself was expertly preformed and arguably all remaining sections of the skeleton were successfully retrieved. At once Magdalenian Woman became one of the best-preserved Paleolithic skeletons ever found.

The excavated grave of the Magdalenian Woman in Cap Blanc, France

The excavated grave of the Magdalenian Woman in Cap Blanc, France

Her journey to the Unites States is partly known and partly not. One story has it that the property owner, Grimaud, smuggled her out of World War I Europe in a coffin marked as an American casualty of war. The gist of it is, Grimaud was hoping to sell the skeleton to a museum in New York, for a price the equivalent of $250,000 today. Needless to say, no one in New York was terribly interested.

Henry Field, then president of the Field Museum in Chicago, got wind of this and traveled to New York. He was eventually successful in talking the price down with Grimaud, and purchased the skeleton for around $1,000. At the Field Museum in the 1920s, an exacting life-sized diorama was constructed to show the engraved cliff art of Cap Blanc as well as the grave of the Magdalenian Woman, and tens of thousands of people lined up to see her. It remains one of the Field’s most successul days to the present time.

Early on there was some debate on the sex of the skeleton but it was eventually identified as female, due largely to the pelvic bones (one of the most important sex indicators in human skeletons). A greater debate was the age of this individual at death. As Field anthropologist Bob Martin has noted, from the neck up this individual looks to be an older adolescent girl while from the neck down she seems to be an adult female.

A great deal of confusion early on was due to the Magdalenian Woman’s third molars, or wisdom teeth. They had not erupted. This was unusual for people of the Upper Paleolithic, whose wisdom teeth in extant skeletons are usually there. They cause all manner of problems for many people today and often have to be pulled, but 15,000 years ago, when the Magdalenian Woman lived, the coarser diet allowed for greater jaw development and a more efficient development for all teeth, including those third molars.

For this reason she was thought to be a girl of about 18 years of age, which is about when the wisdom teeth will erupt in modern populations. However, in recent X-rays and CT scans conducted at the Field, new information surfaced to change this understanding. The Magdalenian Woman evidences normal degenerative wear on bones such as the vertebrae, and her epiphyses are fully fused. This happens only in a fully mature adult.

What the recent studies also reveal is that the wisdom teeth of the Magdalenian Woman seem to have been impacted, and thus could not have erupted from her jaw.

X-ray showing the Magdalenian Woman's impacted wisdom tooth in the proper-right mandible.

X-ray showing the Magdalenian Woman’s impacted wisdom tooth in the proper-right mandible.

Given the overall state of the skeleton as well as the impacted wisdom teeth, the Magdalenian Woman is now thought to have been around 30 years old at death. This would’ve been a fairly typical lifespan in the Upper Paleolithic.

These are the findings of the anthropologists who poured many hours into the analyses of the Magdalenian Woman’s skeleton, and I tend to defer to them. However, not everyone agrees. I’ve met a couple of dentists and have showed them an image of the above radiograph, and both noticed something immediately about that impacted wisdom tooth in the lower jaw. Its roots never formed. This leads them to believe that the Magdalenian Woman was indeed a girl. See the archaeological diagram below, which is a tool used to help establish the age of an individual based upon the development of his or her teeth:

Archaeological diagram to help define the age of a skeleton based on dental development.

Archaeological diagram to help define the age of a person based on dental development.

If you compare this chart with the above radiograph image, the mandible of the Magdalenian Woman does indeed more resemble the dental development of an adolescent (note the jaw of the 15 year old at bottom-left). The third molar is still inside the jaw and root development is not complete. This is clearly different from the dental development of an adult (note the jaw at bottom-right, of a 21 year old).

I have no expertise in dentistry or its important archaeological applications, but I have to admit the two dentists I’ve met made a good point. I am left to wonder if there is some medical condition that would cause delayed development of the third molar in this way, because, as noted earlier, all other age indicators on the skeleton are clear on the mature age of the Magdalenian Woman. The epiphyses (growth plates) do not fuse on the long bones and other bones of children, and the Magdalenian Woman does not otherwise evidence health issues to make one wonder about that.

In years past this skeleton was known as the Magdalenian Girl because of those wisdom teeth, but her new moniker is the Magdalenian Woman due to the recent studies performed at the Field Museum. You’ll also see her identified as the Cap Blanc Lady. The real mystery is why an adult female would have the third molars of an adolescent girl.

It is indeed a remarkable skeleton. It is the most complete Upper Paleolithic skeleton in North America. She is a treasure of the Field Museum’s collection and was removed from Evolving Planet, our permanent exhibit about evolution and dinosaurs, to be installed inside the Lascaux exhibit for its run. Some years back the Field produced an exacting replica of the skeleton as a gift to the Cap Blanc Museum, which stands now at that cliff overhang on what was once Monsieur J. Grimaud’s private property.

That the Magdalenian Woman was buried at this site some 15,000 years ago is not in dispute. This was a grave site. While human bodies have not been found inside the elaborately decorated caves of Solutrean and Magdalenian Europe, they have in fact been found out front of open-air, decorated Magdalenian cliff overhangs. Her cause of death is not known—nothing on her skeleton gives us information about that.

The Field Museum has a professional working relationship with the renowned French artist Elisabeth Daynes, whose hyper-realistic forensic reconstructions are well known—she did the bust of Tutankhamun which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 2005. Daynes has done a number of these reconstructions for the Field Museum, and for our run of the Lascaux exhibit she did one for the Magdalenian Woman:

Forensic bust of the Magdalenian Woman by the French artist Elisabeth Daynes.

Forensic bust of the Magdalenian Woman by the French artist Elisabeth Daynes.

Few artists are as skilled at this sort of thing as Daynes. She has brought the Magdalenian Woman to life. Certain things are of course only a surmise, such as the shape of the nose and lips and ears, as well as eye color and hair color. Given that this was Ice Age Europe and more than 100,000 years after Homo sapiens first left Africa, the skin color is probably accurate. The elaborate bead-and-shell net cap was not found in the Magdalenian Woman’s grave, but other graves dating to the same period have rendered such shells and beads, so it is theoretically possible. And quite beautiful, in my opinion. As is the forensic bust.


I’ll leave you with some other photos concerning the Magdalenian Woman:

The skeleton of the Magdalenian Woman as displayed in the Lascaux exhibit.

The skeleton of the Magdalenian Woman as displayed in the Lascaux exhibit.
An old display of the Magdalenian Woman with inaccurate positioning.

An old display of the Magdalenian Woman with inaccurate positioning.

CT scan reconstructions of the Magdalenian Woman's skull, which assisted Elisabeth Daynes in producing the forensic bust.

CT scan reconstructions of the Magdalenian Woman’s skull, which assisted Elisabeth Daynes in producing the forensic bust.

Postscript (6/22/13)

Subsequent to my posting this article I was able to meet with a Field Museum curator, J.P. Brown, who has done a lot of the CT scanning work on our collection’s human remains. Brown showed me scans of the Magdalenian Woman’s jaw I had not seen before, and cleared up this issue of the third molars for me.

The third molar in the radiograph image in this article shows the only one in the woman’s jaw that developed to any extent. Two of her other wisdom teeth are severely underdeveloped and have only vestigial roots, while the fourth never developed at all. It’s simply not there.

So, in summary, it would appear that there was not enough space or tissue in that area of the jaw for the Magdalenian Woman’s third molars to grow properly.


Bahn. Paul. written in bones: how human remains unlock the secrets of the dead. 2012.

Brothwell, DR. Digging up Bones. 1981.

Fagan, Brian M. In the Beginning: An Introduction to Archaeology. 1985.

Field Museum of Natural History: Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux.

Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave. 2002.

A response to nonesense, on Giants


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Recently I contributed an article on the misconceptions of giants in ancient Egypt. That article can be found here. One should think that common sense alone would bring a halt to such beliefs before they fester, but this is not always so in the world of alternative and fringe ideas.

A reader name nonesense wrote a very long comment, and frankly I believe it is too long and rambling to leave intact at the end of my A Giant Misconception article. It might discourage others from commenting. But rather than just deleting nonesense’s comment, which was my first inclination, I thought I would write this article in response to it. If nothing else, nonesense’s full comment will give reader’s a rather vivid and unconcealed (if not shocking) dose of the world of the fringe.

I believe I’ve encountered nonesense before. I’m a Moderator and poster at a message borad called Unexplained-Mysteries, and I am almost positive nonesense has posted there under the name “egyptian lad.” He initially took part in a couple of discussions about ancient Egypt in which he introduced his beliefs about ancient giants, and then started his own forum thread for a more inclusive discussion on the subject. You can peruse it in this link.

You be the judge: are nonesense and egyptian lad the same person? It’s entirely possible. Nor would it be surprising. In the signature area of my own posts at Unexplained-Mysteries, there is a link to my blog. And I must be honest about something: it is egyptian lad’s strange brand of “beliefs” about ancient giants that inspired me to write my article on the misconceptions about giants. In my ongoing battles against the fringe, I’ve found inspiration more than once on that message board.

What follows is nonesense’s comment, in full. I’ll be removing nearly all of it from the comments section below my Giants article, so it will now live here:

because there is a conspiracy run, So this truth of giants will remain hidden, its forbidden archaeology, they are hypocrite, Actually the aim lies in Saving the old biology sciences from denial and collapse, If Giant Humans truth appeared, Then Evolution,darwinism is wrong….Then Dinasours would be actually  skeletons of Giant Animals who lived in the same age of Giant humans….its complicated matter.

The archaeologists fabricated most ancient artifacts and monuments in egypt,they removed entire chapter of ancient egypt history.

Most pharaoh kings/queens are fake……most dynasties are made up and they put king so to belong in age so and so.

They limited the age of ancient egypt to fit the pharaohes era, Ancient egypt is actually older ancient place in the world,The sphinx and pyramids maybe over 20,000 b.c.

The mummification is one of the biggest lies they invented.

There are Giant Human Mummies in egypt but hidden untill today, addition to giant sarcophaguses and coffins, its forbidden by archaeologists , they only show the stuff of people of our size and claim that those were the builders of egypt by lies and hypocrisy.

On the german newspaper bild, there is an article about Giant finger stolen from the graves around the giza pyramids, the finger was 38 cm….u of course going to say its fake images and photoshoped as usual, Around the giza pyramids and pyramids of egypt generally, there are many high graves, they call it mastabas, these mastabas are numerous and full of giants skeletons and mummies….Untill now, they are locked up by archaeologists and only legalized guys of the conspiracy allowed to enter it.

Many locations too are banned, and there are artifacts stores, You or Me or Any visiter not allowed to enter it, they only pick up things from the artifacts to show for the publicity and claim that it was for king so… create another legend from their imagination.

Hence, u put Anubis God image,The ancient egyptians didnt record anything about mummifaction, Look at the arts of so called mummifaction action, it was the God of afterlife or death, Anubis making check on the coffin of dead……..its a spiritual action by their god rather than mummification work. 

Plus: Mummies have been found world wide and everywhere, its not a science….Its nature work…..if u believer in god, Its God’s work, God saved some dead bodies of people unrotten which we call mummy now. 

Someone would say YOU ARE MAD? then who wrapped them into the cloth sheet and put into the coffins and sarcophaguses?

My Answer: 

some people from the old times or the early british archaeologists run a big game over ancient egypt,They replaced the bones of kings that were in coffins and sarcophaguses and put the unrotten dead bodies of unknown people to claim it was king so and king so.

Actually todays,If you open the modern egyptians’s graves, you gonna find mummies of modern egyptians, Its all nature work!….the stories are many about modern egyptians, people continuously find unrotten dead bodies inside graves of modern egyptians. Of course they create superstition about it, thats its angel work and that guy is connect to god and so.  

On 1898: Mummy was found in the area of jabalain of red sea.

The archaeologists rushed to take this mummy and wrap iby clothed sheet and put in coffin, to claim it was mummy of king so and so, While this mummy actually is for unknown person.

Its now put in the egyptian museum and of course named by one of pharaoh kings.

for your knowledge too: most pharaoh mummies were diseased, those dead people had no medicine to get cure.

So logically, they reach a mummification science while they were suffering of diseases and so backward on medicine?

today, the scientists play by genes of humans and went so far on medicine and still no one can mummify a dead body of any president or guy for more than 2 century

There is surely nothin called mummification science, its lies of archaeologists the cheaters who fabricated everything.

the truth will be revealed on the future, Actually ancient history must be re-written cuz its all false and wrong and lies.

So, then, what follows is a response to and critique of some of the things nonesense included in his comment. We, again, shall turn to real-world evidence and what it can tell us.

Nonesense opens with the conspiracy angle: archaeology is trying to hide “the truth” from all of us. If you’ve read my Giants article or the article I wrote called Tactics of the Fringe, you’ll understand why I cannot for a moment take such a charge seriously. This would require us to believe that all archaeologists and historians and related specialists have been working in perfect concert for two centuries with all academic institutions involved in pharaonic studies, to conceal giants from us. It is a patently silly if not plainly ludicrous notion. This is not how the real world works, so we needn’t take such a charge seriously to begin with.

The one thing about which nonesense wrote on the conspiracy idea that I will comment on, is his belief that archaeologists have replaced the original “bones of the kings” with the “unrotten dead bodies of unknown people.” This strikes me as odd, naturally. For one thing, the original sarcophagi of kings have been found almost always empty. Many kings such as  Tuthmosis III and Ramesses II were found in the late nineteenth century in secondary tombs and caches, and in reused coffins, such as in the famed tomb known as DB320 (or TT320). In most cases the original coffins of great kings are lost to history.

Moreover, what is the source of all of the bodies with which the “bones of the kings” were swapped? Were archaeologists raiding nearby Muslim cemeteries? Did the local inhabitants of the villages not mind this practice? Also, if the orignal bones were swapped with modern bodies, I guess the original bones didn’t belong to giants if the replacement bodies fit so well in the ancient sarcophagi and coffins, reused or not.

Before moving on, I must also point out a salient question: If modern archaeologists have been so overwhelmingly successful in hiding “the truth” from all of us, how is it that conspiracy fans like nonesense know so much about it? This alone always leaves me chuckling. “No, archaeologists have hidden everything but I just happen to know the truth!”

Let’s look at some other points nonesense brought up. For example, nonesense claimed  “most dynasties are made up and they put king so to belong in age so and so.” This sort of statement reveals the average fringe proponent’s lack of even basic familiarity not only with the field of Egyptology but with pharaonic history in general. Modern historians did not devise the system of dynasties into which pharaonic history is divided. For this we have to travel all the way back to the third century BCE and the Egyptian priest Manetho, who was commissioned by his Ptolemaic rulers to write a history of his nation. None of Manetho’s original work, Aegyptiaca, survives but fortunately he was extensively quoted by other writers of late antiquity, most notably the Jewish historian Josephus (see Against Apion). Manethos is the person who devised the dynastic system still used by Egyptology today, although it has undergone some minor revisions. It is modern Egyptology which has created the broader kingdom periods such as Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom in which Manetho’s dynasty system now resides.

Nonesense is also certain that “archaeologists fabricated most ancient artifacts and monuments in egypt.” Considering the tens of thousands of pharaonic monuments now scattered around the world in a great many museums—stelae, statues, sections of tombs and temples, figurines, coffins, sarcophagi, canopic jars and chests, et cetera—such a statement is not remotely realistic. Not only does this imply that archaeologists have been awfully damn busy in workshops in the past two centuries, it also presupposes that they’ve invented the practically countless inscriptions and religious texts and biographical accounts such monuments contain. Goodness, is nothing about ancient Egypt authentic?

Astonishingly, this would also have to include the surviving and standing monuments and temples and tombs with their great body of inscribed material.

Nonesense mentions a “giant finger” found at Giza. This was actually the topic of a discussion at the Unexplained-Mysteries board and, I believe, the first one in which egyptian lad (whom I’m convinced is nonesesne) participated as a poster. He probably missed the fact that nearly all of us were having a good laugh in that thread over what is clearly a clumsy and ridiculous hoax. It’s the sort of obvious hoax that clutters the internet.

In the same paragraph nonesense mentions the mastaba tombs of Giza. There are many at that necropolis alone, not to mention a great many others scattered throughout numerous other Old Kingdom necropoli in the Nile Valley. Supposedly these were for the burials of giants. I would invite the reader to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s digital library for the Giza Mastaba Series. Many of the mastabas at Giza have been excavated several times, and many of these excavations have been published on the MFA’s web page. You can download them as free PDFs. They’re not exactly thrilling reading, but if you like to visit the real world of archaeology and gain an understanding of what archaeology can reveal, these are great resources. I’ve read all of these reports and check back now and then to see if new ones are available (the page is updated when new material is prepared), and to date I haven’t read anything about giants. Then again, the archaeologists are supposed to be lying. Of course.

Nonesense charges that these mastaba tombs are locked shut and hidden from the public. Some such tombs are, generally because they’re so ancient that they’re not safe for tourists to explore. Most, however, are not locked. In fact, you can enter and explore many of them. It’s called tourism.

Nonesense also comments that the Giza pyramids and the Great Sphinx are over 20,000 years old (“over 20,000 b.c.,” in his words). As I’ve reported in other articles, carbon dating of mortar samples from these pyramids shows they cannot be older than perhaps a century than conventionally thought. This means the Great Pyramid, for example, might have been built around 2600 BCE instead of 2500 BCE. That’s entirely possible, but 20,000 years ago? Of course not. As for the Sphinx, the continued excavations, geological surveys, and other avenues of research conducted by the Giza Plateau Mapping Project have demonstrated that the Sphinx does, indeed, date to the pyramid complex of Khafre, who built the second Giza pyramid. In other words, the Sphinx also was prepared around 2500 BCE (or 2600 BCE).

My own favorite comments of nonesense pertain to mummification. Nonesense would have us believe that the ancient Egyptians did not artificially mummify but that all mummified bodies are the product of Mother Nature.

Nonesense is the only person I’ve come across who makes this claim. It strikes me as bizarre, given the massive body of evidence from pharaonic Egypt for artificial mummification. It can be tracked in crude attempts all the way back to the prehistoric site of Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, where bodies were carefully wrapped and smeared with resins—this was over 5,000 years ago.

I have to ask, if Mother Nature did all of the work, how did that clever gal not only dry out bodies but eviscerate many thousands of extant examples to remove their internal organs and excerabrate to remove their brains? Was it Mother Nature who not only did this but carved the canopic jars in which the internal organs were stored? And with the late-period mummies, after the point when the jars were no longer used, did Mother Nature not only dry the organs but carefully wrap them and re-introduce them into the abdominal-thoracic cavity? Clever gal, indeed.

Just to be clear on this, the ancient embalmers slit the lower-left flank (in most cases) to reach in and cut out the internal organs: stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines. If you study the photos of ancient Egyptian mummies, you will often see this slit in their left sides. The incisions were originally only about the size of a fist, but over time they tore on many mummies to the extant that they look like huge gashes today. And on the subject of excerabration (the technical modern term for the removal of the brain), this was most often done by breaking through the ethmoid bone behind the eyes, scrambling the brain matter into a paste, and withdrawing it in semi-liquified blobs through the nostril. So obviously, with both evisceration and excerabration, Mother Nature had nothing to do with it. Regardless of how clever she is.

Nonesense claims that the ancient Egyptians did not “record anything about mummification.” This is not correct. Plenty of ancient Egyptian texts provide all sorts of information about mummification procedures and protocols. This includes contracts and agreements between embalmers and their clients, as well as papyrus texts found in the Ptolemaic Period tomb of a family of embalmers—these papyri preserve numerous details, such as leaving the body in natron for a period of 35 days instead of the customary 40 days observed in other, older periods. Also preserved is a sort of “grocery list” containing the specific ingredients and materials embalmers would need to mummify a body.

The one point on which nonesense is correct is that no surviving text or inscription lists the specific steps for physically performing a mummification. It seems most embalmer’s workshops were family businesses, and these families were probably keen on protecting their trade secrets, so it’s understandable that they did not leave written instruction manuals lying around.

But numerous ancient Greek historians interviewed Egyptian embalmers. Such writers include Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and Plutarch, and they included fascinating details about how mummifications were conducted.

Given that we couldn’t be sure if the Greeks wrote down everything correctly—or, indeed, whether the embalmers they interviewed were even telling them the truth—a researcher named Bob Brier used a human cadaver to perform a mummification in the 1990s. Brier followed the details provided by the Greek writers, as well as pharaonic records to make sure he was using all of the correct supplies and tools. The experiment was a grand success—Brier was the first person to mummify a body in the Egyptian manner in over a millennia. The experiment was recently duplicated in Great Britain, on a man who was terminally ill and had requested that his body by mummified.

In total, the evidence for mummification is insurmountable. It’s quite odd that nonesense would question it. As I see it, this approach doesn’t even fit well with his whole ancient-giant theme, but in fact goes even farther to discredit it. One simply cannot question something so obvious and come out still standing.

Nonesense mentions a mummy found in 1898 at Jabalain near the Red Sea. Supposedly this mummy was rushed into a coffin to claim it was “king so and so” when in fact the identity of the mummy was unknown. The facts here are a bit muddled and comprise a mix of fringe whimsy and the faith of Islam.

Many Muslims believe the Pharaoh of Exodus was Ramesses II. Many biblical scholars would concur, although the truth is no one can be sure on that score, nor can anyone be certain that something like the biblical Exodus even happened.

Mummy of Ramesses II, Dynasty 19, putative Pharaoh of Exodus

I am not an expert in Muslim studies and I respectfully invite any Muslim reader to comment on this based on his or her own teachings, but in researching this comment of nonesense I came across numerous web pages of Muslim studies stating that the mummy of Ramesses II was found at this Red Sea site. I am not sure where this information originated, but it is incorrect. The mummy of Ramesses II was one of those found by Émile Brugsch in 1881, in the secondary burial of DB320.

What’s true is that Brugsch was highly concerned that once he fully entered the tomb, Egyptian villagers would quickly descend on the scene to loot the tomb. He excavated the entire tomb in record speed and completely cleared it of its many mummies, in the process taking few notes and recording very little about the archaeological context of everything in DB320 (much to the never-ending frustration of modern archaeologists). All of these mummies and their associated burial equipment were then sent up the Nile to Cairo, for further study in a secure environment.

In other words, the “Jabalain mummy” doesn’t even exist.

I need not comment at all on the implications of ancient giants on the scientific theory of evolution (“Evolution, darwinism is wrong”). If nonesense would think about this for a moment, he might see how abjectly it works against his cause. And it shows a decided lack of understanding about evolution, but that’s a whole other debate.

On the subject of debate, I don’t intend to allow this to become one with nonesense. I feel that a blog just doesn’t work well for such a thing, while message boards are ideal for the purpose. I felt it necessary, however, both to respond to nonesense’s comment and to provide an example to the reader of what the pro-giants crowd believes in. It’s quite stunning.

Thanks for reading.


In this article I did not follow my usual practice of citing my sources within the body of the article. However, in the interest of providing sources, below is a list of some of the references I used. More details about them can be provided, if desired.

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

Flavious Josephus: The Complete Works. Translated by William Whiston. A.M. 1998.

Giza Mastaba Series. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ikram, Salima and Aidan Dodson. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Wquipping the Dead for Eternity. 1998.

Lehner, Mark et al. Giza Plateau Mapping Project

Manetho. Translated by W.G. Waddell. Loeb Classical Library.1940.

A Giant Misconception


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Archival photo from the New York Times, 1936. Note the giant skeleton nestled against the ruined wall.

PhotobucketRecent research led to a goldmine. A friend of mine who works in the archival department of the New York Times was looking for some information for an article on the history of archaeology in Egypt, when he came across the above image and the scanned article at right. The article dates to 1936 but does not mention the name of the staff writer. My friend prefers to remain anonymous (I’ll call him “Jonas”) because these items were in an old folder marked CONFIDENTIAL, and he doesn’t wish to get into trouble. A memo paper-clipped to the folder, Jonas explained in the email to which these items were attached, had words to the effect that this was deemed to be of a highly sensitive nature and was never meant for public consumption.

It’s possible whatever archaeological team was conducting the dig when the giant skeleton was unearthed, felt it better to keep everything secret. Probably the academic institution to which this team was attached was the impetus for the secrecy—academia does not like to upset its applecart. The article mentions a photographer named Henry Leichter who was working at the time for the University of Chicago (Oriental Institute), but neither Jonas nor I have been able to determine if it is this university which wished to bury the shocking discovery of 1936.

But due to my friend’s plucky spirit, it need be buried no more. He and I have brought the truth to light. I’m glad Jonas remembered my love of all things ancient Egyptian, and that I write this blog, so here we have found a way to publish what had been hidden from the public eye.

What’s more, everything in the above paragraphs is a steaming load of bullcrap. I made it up. All of it. I Photoshopped the photograph, as well as typed the “article” and used Photoshop to give it an aged look. It was quite fun. Oh, and I don’t have a friend who works for the New York Times. I don’t think I even know anyone who works for the New York Times.

You readers who are familiar with my blog either knew straight away that I was pulling your leg or must have quickly begun to wonder if I had fallen off the edge of sanity. But the above photo as well as the fake article are of the type you see all over the internet, on half-baked web pages professing to offer “proof” that the ancient world was populated by giant humans.

After all, giants are mentioned several times in the Old Testament (see Genesis 6:4 as an example). The Bible wouldn’t mislead us, would it? The original word in ancient Hebrew is Nephilim, which is most likely a loan word from the Aramaic naphil, which does in fact mean “giant” (see Heiser, So it must be true, then, right?

Perhaps not. The day ancient religious texts are the sole means by which we analyze and study ancient civilizations, is the day on which we must concede that we’ve abandoned the greater amount of our common sense. I am not demeaning the Bible, mind you. It is rightfully the greatest book ever written, but it’s not a history book.

I’m sure many of you have seen the Photoshopped images I mentioned. Just Google “ancient giants” in Images and you come up with all sorts of hits. The following photo is a good example:

Some of these fake images are very well done, and I must admit many of them are better than the one I slapped together at the top of this article. This one here is quite realistic, except for the fact that the shadow of the skeleton in its pit and the shadow of the squatting man are extending in opposite directions. Quite a few of the fake photos out there have obvious mistakes. But many do not, and they look quite convincing.

That doesn’t make them authentic, of course. Anyone who has Photoshop, as well as most any sort of word-processing program to type out a “newspaper article” can put together real-looking images. Common sense alone is what should be the determining factor. Most of us will see such images and chuckle, but certain people out there will see such an image and think it’s rock-hard proof. That’s unfortunate.

Ancient Egypt is a favorite for the folks who want to believe in giants roaming the world of millennia ago. Certain things about the great pharaonic culture make it simple for the hoaxers to use Egypt, as well as for the gullible to fall for it.

For example, look at wall depictions of the great pharaohs. Here’s one of Ramesses II charing forth on his chariot into battle at Kadesh in Syria:

Ramesses II, Battle of Kadesh, Dynasty 19

This was an actual battle which took place in 1274 BCE, early in Ramesses’ reign. The Egyptians faced the Hittites at Kadesh, and although no clear winner was determined, Ramesses covered the walls of several temples with such battle scenes not only to make it seem as though the Egyptians had won but, of course, to show his own great prowess and courage.

Look below the figures of the rearing horses pulling Ramesses’ chariot. You will notice itty-bitty Hittite soldiers. They’re fleeing in the face of the great Egyptian pharaoh, who is clearly a literal giant because he is shown in the scene as towering above them.

The same sort of depiction is seen in countless Egyptian tombs and on funeral stelae and other monuments, such as this one dating to Dynasty 11 (2160-1781 BCE):

Scene from a Dynasty 11 funerary stela

It’s beautifully cut and inscribed. At right are seated a husband and wife in the act of receiving offerings. Chances are, both of them were deceased when this monument was made. But look to the left and you’ll see who’s presenting the offerings: tiny little servants. Clearly, then, it was not only the royals who were giants, but also many of the people in the ranks of the elite.

Many of you may be aware of why the ancient Egyptians produced art this way, but even so, if some of you readers do not know why this was done, I’m willing to bet you’re not going to chalk it up to giants. It’s that common sense thing, again.

For those who would like to know the explanation, it’s due to a principle modern art historians call hierarchical scaling. Whether the ancient Egyptians even had a word for it is not of importance, because it was simply part of their artistic traditions and practices from the very dawn of their kingdom at the end of the fourth millennium BCE. Basically, in any scene where more than one person was shown, the figure of most importance and greatest status in that scene was usually depicted as physically larger than the other people (Robins 2008: 21). The bigger the better, in other words. Kings are usually shown the largest in any given scene, of course, with the exception of deities appearing in the same scene; in such cases the king is often shown at the same scale as deities, but any other human figure usually will look diminutive. Where a male and female are shown together, often the male is shown larger, including depictions of kings and queens. This was not a universal practice, of course, as you can see in the stela of the husband and wife above. And on occasion kings and queens when shown together were sometimes of equal size, which is evident in the artwork of several pharaohs such as Amunhotep III and Queen Tiye, Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, and Ramesses II and Queen Nefertari.

But the pro-giants crowd will find exceptions to the rule. The following scene is often used to show ancient giants:

Scene from the tomb of Rekhmire, Dynasty 18

I’ve seen this scene used to show that even regular workmen could be giants. A handy thing to have around for all of those huge buildings the Egyptians erected. The giants crowd would have you believe this is a depiction of workmen cutting blocks of masonry, and carrying them with ease, for the building of the Great Pyramid. (I’ve also seen this depiction used by the crowd which believes the Great Pyramid was composed of blocks made from a poured synthetic stone, which is being produced here—an idea with little scientific corroboration and perhaps the subject of a future article for me.)

The scene comes from the tomb of Rekhmire, a powerful nobleman who served as a vizier under both Tuthmosis III and Amunhotep II, in Dynasty 18. He lived around 1420 BCE. His tomb (TT100) is in western Thebes, the most popular burial ground through most of the New Kingdom. TT100 is particularly famous for its rich depictions of all manner of workmen and craftsmen performing their labors, under the steady supervision of the great vizier himself.

What we have here is a good example of people in the fringe camp seeing an image but not knowing how to interpret it, nor decipher what it meant to the ancient Egyptians. I rather doubt the ancients would care how someone living over 3,000 years later would understand such scenes, other than to be offended by extremes in misdirection.

The Great Pyramid was built around 2500 BCE, in Dynasty 4. Again, Rekhmire was a nobleman of Dynasty 18, over a thousand years after the time of the Great Pyramid. By Rekhmire’s time, in fact, pyramids were no longer even part of royal burials. The religion of the state had changed considerably since the days of the Old Kingdom.

As is the case with so many ancient tomb depictions, the figures in TT100 are accompanied by hieroglyphic captions which explain what they’re doing. In the case of the scene shown above, the caption for these workers states that they’re “Molding bricks to build a magazine anew [for the Temple] of Karnak” (Hodel-Hoenes 2000: 162). It’s notable that the Karnak temple is explicitly mentioned, which alone discounts any connection with the Great Pyramid or any other monument far to the north at Giza. A “magazine” is a modern term used to describe the ancient Egyptian word for storehouse. These ancient storehouses were often made from small mud bricks, which the men are shown making and carrying. The men themselves comprise a group of Syrian and Nubian prisoners of war (ibid); such men were often bought back to Egypt as labor-slaves. So, no, they’re not giants.

Even animals are singled out as “giants.” You might have noticed this with the horses pulling Ramesses’ chariot in the earlier photo—even the horses are much larger than the Hittite enemies over whom they are rearing. But you will see many images in which animals appear to be gigantic, sometimes even towering over royals:

Relief showing the goddess Hathor in bovine form

Here a pharaoh is shown drinking from the utters of an enormous cow—certain proof that giant animals once roamed the Nile Valley? No, probably not. Inscriptions are not evident in this scene and it’s not like I have all of them memorized, but based on the iconography of the cow (e.g., sun disk and diminutive king) I think I’m safe in identifying it as the common bovine manifestation of the goddess Hathor. As with other important deities Hathor had a very busy job description and performed a number of roles, and one of the most important was as the divine mother-figure to the king; she is the nurturing bovine (Wilkinson 2003: 141). Here, the king is as a child gaining nourishment from his mother’s breast. In other such depictions the king is shown standing in front of the divine bovine, whose head extends protectively over and beyond the king.

There are also those monuments where kings and queens are depicted along with their royal children. This is a common motif in the Amarna Period during the reign of Akhenaten. But a good example for our purposes here is the Small Temple of Abu Simbel, which Ramesses II commissioned for his queen Nefertari. The facade of this magnificent temple is illustrative:

Facade of the Small Temple at Abu Simbel, Dynasty 19

The colossal statues represent Ramesses II and Nefertari. They are indeed gigantic. Look to the sides of their legs and you will see small statues of their children; included here are princes Meryatum, Meryre, Rahirwenemef and Amun-her-khepeshef; and princesses Meritamun and Henuttawy. It would seem, if Ramesses II and Nefertari were actually literal giants, they were giving birth to runts. No wonder the giants died out.

I jest.

What might the archaeological record show? After so many years of people excavating the land of Egypt, where are the remains of giant humans? We are obligated to dismiss cleverly Photoshopped internet images, so what we’re left with is rather disappointing to the pro-giants crowd. No giant skeleton has ever been found. Anywhere. Historians and scientists have been studying the human remains of ancient Egyptians for many years now, and what we learn is that the ancient Egyptians were of the same physical stature and size of pretty much everyone else in the ancient Mediterranean world. Men averaged 5’3″ and women 4’10” (Nunn 1996: 20). These were not gigantic people, of course.

Some of them were pretty damn tall, however. Their height in life can be determined forensically in several different ways, but a well-preserved mummy certainly helps. Such is the case with Ramesses II, who is one of the best preserved of them all:

The mummy of Ramesses II, Dynasty 19

In life Ramesses II was probably around 5’8,” which is almost as unusual as the fact that he probably died at around 90 years of age (in a time when the average lifespan was around 35 years). Also pretty tall for his time was the boy-king, Tutankhamun:

The mummy of Tutankhamun, Dynasty 18

Tut’s is not the best-looking mummy on record, but in life this young man stood at about 5’6″, a good three inches taller than most adult men in the Bronze Age.

In my own years of research, the tallest ancient Egyptian of whom I’m aware is a man whose name no one even knows. He goes by the designation of Unknown Man E:

The mummy of Unknown Man E, New Kingdom

Unknown Man E is rather infamous for his particularly ghoulish appearance. Early historians first thought he had been violently killed or mummified alive, but there is no evidence to prove either. The prominent researcher Bob Brier has argued that this is the body of a prince of Dynasty 20 named Pentaweret, who was involved with the harem conspiracy of Ramesses III and was forced to commit suicide by ingesting poison. It is an attractive theory but not proven. Unknown Man E was not mummified but seems to have been naturally preserved inside the uninscribed coffin in which he’d been interred. Consensus is that he lived in the New Kingdom.

Unknown Man E is quite well preserved for someone who was not mummified, but that’s sometimes how it worked out when people were buried in the arid environment of the desert. Most unusual, however, is that in life this man was around 5’9″ tall.

Quite a tall man, in other words. But not a giant.

Considering this, I often think of David and Goliath. If there is any truth to this biblical tale, David was probably a man of ordinary height (around 5’3″) while Goliath could’ve been something like a towering 6’2″. Now, to the average man of the ancient Near East, that would’ve been a giant.

We can think of modern people who’ve suffered from disorders like gigantism. Such people can grow to between seven and nine feet. These are indeed giants among us. But as is well understood, gigantism is a disorder caused by the over-production of growth hormones, and folks afflicted with it suffer from all manner of complications. Human beings are not meant to grow to such heights.

The archaeological record is silent on the subject of a race of giants. Ancient man was, indeed, considerably shorter than the average modern man. Depictions of colossal figures must be understood in the context in which they were created in wall paintings and other monuments. Perhaps most important, no one should fall for cleverly devised Photoshopped images and fake newspaper articles. When we dig deeper and evaluate things from the right perspective, we find the real answers.

This brings me to my concluding point, and I had some fun with it in the fake 1936 newspaper article I concocted at the top of the page. People of the pro-giants crowd well understand, I think, how silent real-world evidence is for giants, so they frequently turn to the one desperate measure left to them: they claim the world of academia is conspiring to hide “the truth” from all of us. I wrote about this in my recent article Tactics of the Fringe. Not only is such a claim desperate, it is quite divorced from reality. Such folks would have us believe that all archaeologists and Egyptologists and historians and other specialists who’ve been at work in Egypt for the past two centuries, have worked in concert to conceal ancient giant humans from us. All this reveals is the pro-giants crowd has no real understanding of the world of academia. If they possessed an understanding, they would know such a grand and all-encompassing conspiracy could not survive a few years, much less 200 of them.

Giants are a myth.

As always, I thank you for reading my article, and I welcome comments and questions.


Heiser, Michael S. Sitchin Is Wrong.

Hodel-Hoenes, Sigrid. Life and Death in Ancient Egypt. 2000.

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. 1996.

Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. 2008.

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


What’s up with Mummies?


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I thought I might switch gears and write about something a little different. For now I’ll put aside my battles against pseudo-archaeology and proffer something that might be practical to some folks—especially people with young kids.

I consider it an important duty as a museum docent to put a “human face” on Egyptian mummies. I meet and talk with a lot of people in our Egyptian galleries, from the very young to the very old, and realized a long time ago that many people really do not understand why the Egyptians mummified their dead and what mummies meant to them. Misconceptions abound. I try to clear them up. Am I always successful? Probably not, but the topic isn’t terribly difficult to grasp. I hope most people leave with a better understanding than when they arrived.

As it says in my blog’s “About Me” link, I live in Chicago and serve as a docent at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Both have large Egyptian exhibits but the Field in particular has a lot of mummies. More than most other museums, in fact. There are twenty human mummies in the public exhibit and twenty more in storage, deep within the mysterious and secretive bowels of the museum’s sub-basements. This does not include mummified Egyptian animals, a number of which are on display and more of which are in storage (I’m not sure of the count). Nor does it include South American mummies, mostly from ancient Peruvian cultures and numbering around fifty.

This is to say, if you function in any capacity at the Field Museum, you are always among quite a number of the ancient dead. This creeps out some people but not me. I spend a lot of time in our Egyptian galleries at the Field and have become quite fond of the mummies in there. They’re like old friends.

So, how best to understand these mummies when you visit a museum like the Field, where the anciently departed are on display? More so, for you parents out there, how do you introduce your kids to mummies in a meaningful and positive way? After all, you want them to leave the exhibit well informed and enlightened, not waking up in a pee-puddle that night and shrieking about mummies coming to get ’em. You might think I’m joking, but some adults have told me that after the first time they had visited the exhibit as little kids years back, they had nightmares for days. We chuckle over this, but the truth is, I don’t want any child to leave frightened.

I hope this article will help both kids and grown-ups to have a better understanding and appreciation of the situation.

Deal with reality

The first important thing when entering an Egyptian exhibit which contains mummies, is to deal with the exhibit realistically and with an open mind. I really do not like it when a parent is accompanying a child through the exhibit and has her hands covering the child’s eyes (this might sound odd to some of you readers, but in my years as a docent I have seen it many times). This is not productive. Nor is it helpful. Yes, it’s perfectly fine if you feel your child isn’t ready to deal with the topic of death or if you know your child is easily frightened by such things.

But if this is the case, do not visit the exhibit with the child. By ushering a kid through the hall while covering his eyes, you’re essentially telling him there’s something bad in there that they must not see. This only reinforces apprehension and anxiety. If you have an older child eager to see the exhibit and a younger child afraid of the exhibit, have one spouse accompany the older child though the exhibit while the other takes the younger child to a different exhibit in the museum.

Often you cannot know how a kid will deal with mummies. They may enter the place with little to no real experience with ancient human remains, beyond episodes of Scooby Doo, movies, and books written for young kids. Seeing the real thing for the first time can result in unpredictable encounters. I’ve met families whose kids were eager to see mummies, only to discover the mummies freak them out. Conversely, I’ve met families whose kids were very nervous about seeing mummies for the first time, only to discover that the experience greatly interests them.

If a child enters enthusiastically but quickly becomes upset and scared, quietly and gently usher him out. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mummies aren’t for everyone, but most museums will have any number of other exhibits that might be more to the kid’s liking.

A sense of humor is okay. I consider it essential to my educational kit as a docent. While it’s important to treat mummies with respect, approaching them with appropriate lightheartedness is all right. In fact, it might help a nervous child to ease up. I’ll return later to how I think mummies should be understood, but I’ve certainly used a sense of humor with adults and children alike.

Are they real?

This is probably the most common question I get in the Egyptian exhibit. I joke with people that it’s even more common than where the bathroom is, but in truth the bathroom is not even a close second. (I mention the bathroom question only as an opportunity to share what some of us ancient Egypt docents call it: the Temple of Relief.)

I get a kick out of how in awe some folks are by the fact that, yes, the mummies are real. Some people are so surprised by this fact that even after I emphasize that all of the mummies are authentic, they’ll point at different mummies and ask: “Is this one real? Is that one real, too?” Yes, they’re all real. I usually don’t mind this particular repetition because I enjoy how enthralled many people are by this fact.

Mind you, it’s usually adults who ask me this question, but naturally many kids ask it, too. Almost always I leave it to the parents to answer them, and I’ll take my cue from them. In most cases the parent will see me standing there and will ask me to answer the kids. Of course, I answer frankly with the correct answer. I don’t see any need to sugar-coat such a simple question.

In nearly all cases the parents appreciate this answer, and if anything the kids are even more enthralled by the truth, but on rare occasions I’ve met parents who don’t want their kids to hear it. Rather, they will insist to their children that the mummies are “statues.” I do not like this explanation. Not only is it dishonest but, again, it reinforces that real mummies must be frightening and should be avoided. No, they’re not statues. They were real people. I’m left thinking, If you think your kid is that afraid of the truth, why did you bring him in here? But I will not correct them. It’s not my place to do so, even if I feel compelled to do it.

I’ll accommodate visitors as much as I can. It’s part of my position, of course. I’ve met kids who are very hesitant to see mummies but are fascinated by nearly everything else in the exhibit. I remember an intelligent and articulate boy named Brandon, who was around nine years old. He was fascinated by amulets and wanted to see real examples. One of the mummies on display is a Late Period man named Harwa—the most popular mummy at the Field Museum. He’s in a standing position with a plate of glass before him, and it happens that the glass is arrayed with a display of amulets to show how they were positioned on the corpse, during the wrapping process:

Harwa, Late Period, late seventh century BCE, Dynasty 25 or early Dynasty 26, Field Museum

It also happens that Harwa’s head is unwrapped. This probably happened well over a hundred years ago, even before Harwa arrived at the Field Museum. Now, Brandon was one of those kids very nervous about mummies, but he wanted to see the amulets in front of Harwa. He bravely stepped up but shielded the area above his face with his hand. I lent a hand, too, just to make sure he couldn’t see Harwa’s mummified face. In that position, Brandon and I spent quite awhile together looking at the amulets, as he asked questions and absorbed our little teachable moment.

This worked out well for both of us. The point is, some accommodation might be necessary, and visitors of all ages tend to be very flexible. The important thing is to try to aid a nervous kid through the experience so that he walks away with a positive feeling.

There was also a father who brought his little boy into the exhibit. I do not recall the boy’s name, but he was younger than Brandon. The kid was positively beside himself with anxiety over the room full of mummies. He cried for a good ten minutes, but his dad would not relent. He wanted to guide his kid through the experience. Had it been me, I probably would’ve ushered the kid out of the exhibit to see something else, but I could see the dad’s desire to help his kid, so I assisted as best as I could. In the end we were successful and the boy’s tears dried up. He ultimately looked at many of the mummies and even asked a few questions about them, but for a while afterward I was afraid the kid would be one of those to go home and have nightmares for days to come.

Also on display is a fully unwrapped boy from the Late Period. He is absent a coffin or any other identifying artifact, so we have no way of determining what his name may have been:

Mummified boy, Late Period, probably dating to Dynasty 26, Field Museum

Past radiographic studies of the boy’s skeletal structure have established that he may have died at around ten years of age. People are fascinated by this mummified child, but I once had a good reminder about the importance of describing mummies with respect and tact. I was talking to a little girl and her mom and pointed to the boy’s foot, which evidences a cavus deformity:

Close-up of the same mummy’s feet; note the arrow indicating the deformity of the right foot

I explained to the little girl that we do not know for certain why the boy died so young, but the deformity of his right foot indicated some kind of disease he had suffered. The girl got a very concerned look on her face, and the mom must have seen the confused look I wore because she pulled down the top of her daughter’s shirt. The little girl had a large scar from cardiac surgery, due to a congenital condition. In this case I was glad I had not used any humor in my description of the mummified boy.

Then there was a group of young kids I met next to the same mummy. Most of them were boys, and they wanted to know how we knew the mummified child was a boy (the label copy identifies him as such). Not being a parent myself, and suffering from a stubborn sort of naiveté in such situations, I explained very frankly that the boy’s private parts were preserved. As with many males in pharaonic times, this boy had been positioned with his hands over his genitalia, so the entire group of kids with whom I was speaking dropped to their knees to see for themselves.

I was amused and embarrassed at the same time.

Speaking of label copy, if you’re visiting an Egyptian exhibit and are wondering about the authenticity of a mummy, read what it has to say about that mummy. I’ve heard of artificial mummies but have never seen one, myself. However, nearly all museums will be honest about whether something they’re displaying is authentic or a replica.

But at the Field Museum they’re real. Yes, all of them.

Why did they mummify?

Now there’s a good question. It seems odd to many people that the Egyptians would go through so much work just to preserve a dead body, but then again most of the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt are nothing like those of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any other modern religion. In fact, although traces of ancient Egyptian religion are preserved in Judeo-Christianity, the ancient religion itself is long extinct.

So it can be tricky for many people to grasp the reason the Egyptians mummified their dead. To be sure, most of the Egyptian population wasn’t mummified. Most simply couldn’t afford it. Perhaps by the later dynasties, no more than around ten percent of the population was being mummified—the wealthiest ten percent, of course. Still, over the course of the long-lasting pharaonic civilization (in excess of 3,000 years), something on the order of 70 million people were mummified. That’s a hell of a lot of mummies. Clearly those who could afford it, took it very seriously.

Put yourself in the place of an ancient Egyptian. You’ve died, and your family has brought you to the embalmer’s workshop. Your soul, or ba, has left your body and cannot rejoin it until the proper funerary rituals have been performed and your mummy is properly placed within the burial chamber of your tomb. Once all of this is accomplished, your soul is safe to return. You see this depicted on many ancient Egyptian artifacts, from coffins to papyri. A good example is from the Book of the Dead of Ani, dating to Dynasty 19:

The ba of Ani rejoining his mummy, British Museum

The ba was usually depicted as a bird with a human head and often with little human arms. Now, the Egyptians believed in several different soul components with which all people were imbued, but the ba was the freest of all these components. It could travel to the land of the dead and back, and venture out into the world to be among us.

But at desk when the sun was setting, it was in peril. Nighttime was considered mysterious and dangerous, with the absence of Re and his life-giving sun. The ba was vulnerable at this time to demons and other nasty nightly creatures, so it had to find a safe place. This safe place was the mummy. Every night it was believed that the ba would return to the mummy, there to reside until the rebirth of Re at dawn. The mummy was the safest place for the ba to go. This is why the scene of the ba fluttering above the mummy is depicted on the bellies of many coffins in later dynasties. To do so was not an act of art but one of magic. Depicting the ba as such ensured that it would, in fact, return to that mummy every night. In other cases a ceramic or wooden ba figure was placed atop the chest of the mummy, inside its coffin.

So in one sense the mummy was an anchor for the ba, a safe place to return at night. But it served another purpose, too. In the Egyptian mind the afterlife was a place of paradise exactly mirroring the Egypt of the living. The land of the dead was not just a location for the dead to dwell but was physical at the same time. All the physical pleasures enjoyed in life could be enjoyed in death—eating, drinking, singing, dancing, hugging, kissing, and, yes, even sex. But to do this, a deceased person needed a physical form. The mummy enabled this. In ancient Egyptian the word for mummy was sah, which means “noble.” The mummy, in other words, was a noble, purified, eternal form (just like the everlasting mummified body of the king of the dead, the god Osiris). A physically preserved body in this plane of existence ensured that you would have a physical spirit in the afterlife.

Not so complicated, right? Nothing really like Judeo-Christianity, I agree, but to understand the beliefs and practices of an ancient civilization, it is often necessary to step outside the cultural box in which you were raised.

How did they mummify?

This is actually more complicated than it sounds. There wasn’t just one way to perform a mummification, and it took many centuries of experimentation before the Egyptians got it right. This is why most Egyptian mummies you see in museum exhibits date to later periods of pharaonic history. Most mummies from the earliest periods are poorly preserved and often in a skeletal state.

As I like to joke, the Egyptians couldn’t run out to a book store and buy Mummies for Dummies. As I said, it took a long time before the Egyptians were particularly good at mummifying bodies. The Greek writer Herodotus wrote that there were different levels of mummification according to what the family could afford, and aside from the plethora of errors he put in his The Histories (mid-5th century BCE), he seems to have gotten this right.

In essence, Egyptian mummification was a deliberate desiccation of the body. Internal organs were removed (see below) and the body was packed in a natural salt compound called natron. This process lasted anywhere from 35 to 40 days. The body was then washed and tightly bandaged in many layers of linen bandages and, in many case, full-body linen burial shrouds. Amulets might be placed on the body during the wrapping process. You’ll often hear that the wrapping process alone could take around 30 days, and in fact the Egyptians recorded a full “70 days” of mummification (40 for drying, 30 for wrapping), but this almost certainly reflected the mummification of royals and nobles. Very few people below that station would’ve undergone a month of wrapping—considerably less, in fact—but 35 to 40 days of drying seems to have been probably fairly standard in most good mummifications.

In other words, the Egyptians figured out how to turn the human body into beef jerky (another favorite joke of mine). And they got very good at it. The body was reduced to little more than skin and bones. It’s not that the Egyptians understood the bacterial processes of decay. They didn’t. But they didn’t need to. They could see how an untreated body would quickly putrefy in a desert environment. They were very familiar with the idea of salting meat to make it last—the Egyptians were domesticating cattle around 8,000 years ago, after all. Eventually they just applied the same idea to their burial practices.

What did they do with the guts…and other stuff?

Part of a high-status mummification (meaning the most expensive sort) required in most cases that several organs be removed. An embalmer sliced usually the left flank to create a wound the size of a fist, then reached in to cut out the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines (I say usually because sometimes this wound has been found on the right side, and in other cases the organs were removed through the pelvic floor). The reason for doing this goes back to the explanation for why they mummified in the first place: the mummified body was something of a mirror image for the physical soul that would dwell forever in the land of the dead. A body needs its parts, so the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines were often withdrawn to be dried out, as well. These were often stored in stone vessels which go by the modern term canopic jars:

Canopic jars dating to the Late Period, Field Museum

The heads on the jars represent four deities known as the Sons of Hours. The Egyptians stored the organs in such a regularized way that we can usually be fairly certain which organ went into which jar: the baboon god Hapi (from left in the above photo) held the lungs, the falcon god Qebehsenuef held the intestines, the human god Imseti held the liver, and the jackal god Duamutef held the stomach. The four jars were often stored in an elaborately decorated box known as the canopic chest.

Jars were not always used. In some cases the organs were wrapped in linen bundles fitted with plaster heads of the same gods. In the case of King Tut, his organs were stored in four beautiful gold coffinettes. And for reasons not clear, at the end of the New Kingdom (c. 1069 BCE) the jars were no longer used for storage. They continued to be made for centuries, if just to represent the four above-mentioned gods in the tomb, but following the New Kingdom the preserved organs were usually placed back inside the abdomen of the mummy or in bundles between its legs. The point was to have the organs with or near the body forever: complete in this physical world so that the physical spirit form in the afterlife would likewise be complete.

In an out-of-the-way spot in our exhibit at the Field Museum, we actually have all four organs on display. These viscera did not even usually survive till modern times, so I like that we have a full set. And I enjoy pointing them out to people. It’s funny to see their faces, adult and kid alike. They seem to be somewhat disgusted and fascinated at the same time. I always tell the kids: “Be sure to tell all your friends you saw real mummy guts!”

Mummified organs fitted with bronze Sons of Horus masks, Late Period, Field Museum

What about other body parts? The kidneys do not seem to have been of importance in pharaonic times, and were usually left in place. So was the heart, but for a different reason. The heart was the most important part of the body—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Egyptians more or less viewed it as the brain. People tend to chuckle when I say this, but try to think about it from the perspective of a pre-scientific society. When you’re scared or in love or are in some other way emotionally charged, your heart responds by beating faster. It makes perfect sense. The Egyptians believed the heart was the seat of emotion and intellect, and would circulate thoughts and feelings and life energy through the body. As the most important part of the body, it needed to be left in place inside the body.

Another reason for this was the hall of judgement the ba had to encounter on its journey to the afterlife, following the death of the body. The ba had to surrender its heart to the god Anubis for weighing on the scales. This is often seen in Books of the Dead:

From the Book of the Dead of Khonsurenpe, Dynasty 19 or 20, Field Museum

The heart is weighed opposite a feather, representing the concept of maat or cosmic order, balance, and justice. Only the heart of a righteous person will weigh the same as the feather. Should the heart outweigh the feather, the deceased is judged to be wicked and unworthy and his heart is promptly devoured by the monstrous creature Ammit (note this creature reclining below the scales in the above image); the soul of the deceased would be destroyed along with his heart. Naturally this never happens in the Book of the Dead. All who owned such a papyrus were judged to be righteous and worthy, of course. Ammit never gets a snack.

The point is, the heart needed to be left in place so that it would be present, in spirit form, in the hall of judgement.

The Egyptians were big on ideals. They were rather obsessed with ideals, but ideals do not always reflect reality. On occasion a mummy studied through CT-scan images reveals that no heart was left in the chest. It’s difficult to understand why this happened, but it was probably due to nothing more than sloppy work. Again, ideals do not always reflect reality.

So if the Egyptians didn’t really understand the brain, what did they do with it? I’m always a bit surprised (and pleased) by how many kids know this. The brain was usually extracted through the nose via a long rod with a hook on the end. The hook was used to break apart the brain matter, so that it flowed out the nostril in chunks. This has been confirmed in tests on human cadavers, including the famous experiment conducted by Bob Brier in the 1990s:

X-ray film of excerabration (removal of the brain), University of Maryland’s School of Medicine

I often hear people tell their kids or friends that the Egyptians sucked the brains out. No, that’s not true…thank God. And I almost always hear people say that the ruined brain matter was thrown away. In fact, I believe I’ve heard this on one or more ancient Egypt specials on the History Channel. This also is not true. While no attempt was made to preserve the brain, it wasn’t tossed out like spoiled meat. Together with all of the other waste products from mummification—this was a messy business, after all—the brain was bundled up and buried in a pit or cache nearby the tomb.

Many people, almost always kids, ask me if they took out the mummy’s eyes. No, they didn’t. Naturally the eyes just dried out in the desiccation process during mummification, so usually nothing is left of them. On occasion, however, some eye tissue does remain. In earlier times of mummification nothing special was done with the eyes or their orbits. Many of these mummies just have vacant holes where the eyes used to be. But in later periods the empty orbits were often stuffed with wads of linen or other materials, and the eyelids glued shut. In essence the mummified person looks almost like he or she is sleeping. Our Field Museum mummy Harwa is a good example of this. I introduced you to him earlier but here’s a closer shot of his profile:

Profile of the mummy Harwa

A very serene and peaceful-looking old man.

People also ask about the tongue. They didn’t usually do anything with that, either. Remember, however, that the afterlife was believed to be an eternal physical existence, so it was rather important to have a tongue so one could speak. As a backup, in case the tongue didn’t survive the mummification process or the millennia following it, they often placed an amulet in the shape of a tongue onto the tongue itself. If I might rerutn to the heart for a moment, the same concern existed for it, too. Only more so. Should the heart not survive, the soul would die. Therefore, heart amulets were commonly placed on mummies.

There’s another part of the body about which people inquire. It involves a certain part of the male anatomy. I’ve been asked this question quite a few times over the years, and it always comes from younger boys (nothing surprising there). Sometimes boys really do want to know what the embalmers did with a male mummy’s penis or scrotum. This is important business to a young boy, of course. My usual answer is, nothing. As a docent colleague of mine puts it, “Packed and ready to go.” It’s a legitimate question and it deserves a frank and honest answer. (By the way, moms are usually a little embarrassed by this question, but I find that dads often want to know the answer, too.)

But “nothing” is not a complete answer, even if I tend to leave it at that in the exhibit. On the occasional mummy, the penis is found affixed to a thigh or tied against a rod, to make it appear erect. Remember the physical nature of the afterlife—the erect penis represents male fertility and virility.

What do mummies feel like / smell like?

This is a question I’ve fielded many times. It’s almost always kids who are curious to know. Some years ago one of the museum scientists from the Anthropology Department brought out an assortment of mummified Egyptian animals that are not usually displayed. This was quite a treat and I spent awhile talking with him and examining the specimens. The animals were laid out on several tables and were accessible for close inspection by anyone passing by. While we were not allowed to touch them, of course, I was curious about what they might smell like, so I didn’t hold back. I bent down and carefully smelled most of them. There was very little odor at all, aside from a hint of mustiness from a couple of them.

I’ve never smelled a human mummy but a docent colleague with whom I work recently had the opportunity to volunteer his assistance in the CT scanning of numerous animal mummies and one human mummy. This gave him the highly enviable chance to enter Human Storage, where docents rarely are allowed to go. He reported that the entire room had a rather noticeable resinous scent. Most of the woman in attendance found it rather disconcerting but my friend thought it quite pleasant.

The resinous scent is understandable. Many mummies in ancient embalmers workshops were coated with thick layers of heated pine resin prior to wrapping, and then the wrappings themselves were often thickly coated with the same. This was especially true with mummies dating to later periods. In other cases quite a lot of incenses were used, too. Because of this mummies from later periods might not only smell resinous but sweet, too. It’s my understanding mummies from earlier periods do not have much of a scent at all, like I experienced with the animal mummies.

The same is not true if mummies are subjected to poor environmental conditions. There are stories from Victorian England of people bringing mummies home to their manors, only to have them spoil in the damp conditions of Great Britain. This is why mummies in modern museums are kept inside specially controlled display cases with the temperature and humidity carefully maintained and monitored. The same is true for the Human Storage area at the Field Museum. Mummies might look like they need moisturizer but there’s nothing a mummy hates more than dampness. If a mummy is subjected to excess humidity, there is a good chance it will quickly grow moldy, and by that point conservators might not be able to save it.

As for how they feel, I’ve never personally felt one. In most cases when scientists are working with mummies, they avoid touching them with their bare hands. Latex gloves are worn. This is because our skin contains oils and acids that can easily damage ancient human remains. More or less, however, mummies are described as feeling like very old leather. I like to describe the texture as beef jerky.

Why show mummies?

Sometimes people ask why we show mummies at all. These tend to be folks of a more sensitive nature. Some people plainly find it offensive, while in other cases it’s my understanding that people practicing certain religions or sects within religions are not allowed to view dead bodies. I can only hope that these folks don’t wander into any large Egyptian exhibit.

Some museums have actually pulled Egyptian mummies from their exhibits so as not to put dead bodies on display. This strikes me as an over-reaction and an unnecessary practice, but it’s been known to happen. Occasionally people find the display of human remains disrespectful, and while I understand their reasoning, I disagree. It’s how the human remains are displayed that’s important. It must be done not only with respect but with relevance to the culture from which the bodies came.

The Field Museum used to have a number of shrunken heads on display. This was before my time at the museum, but every now and then someone will ask me where they can find the shrunken heads. They cannot. The heads were taken off display years ago because, I’ve been told, they were not displayed in any relevant cultural context.

Our Egyptian mummies are displayed in a tactful, respectful, and culturally relevant manner. This is the case with most museums, in my opinion. Still, answering why the mummies are displayed is not always an easy or simple thing to do. If the person asking the question is dead-set on finding fault, nothing I or anyone says will be satisfactory. In most cases, however, people who ask this question just want to have a better understanding of the situation.

Mummification was an integral aspect of ancient Egyptian tradition and religion for more than 3,000 years. When one thinks of ancient Egypt, the two most common images to appear are pyramids and…mummies. The ability to view authentic mummies is an important part of the overall experience, and enables museum people such as I to provide a better and more tangible learning experience. Not to mention more memorable. Without the study of mummies we would have a poor understanding of who the Egyptians were (lifespans, diseases, diets, average height, et cetera). In other words, mummies are a powerful educational tool. Certainly the ancient people whose mummies have ended up in museum exhibits could not have fathomed such a thing happening, but their very remains have been incredibly important to us. They will become only more important as our sciences and research methods become more sophisticated.

Were they bad/good?

Many very young children have asked this question. It’s also one that’s difficult to answer because, quite frankly, we rarely have any idea what a particular ancient Egyptian man or woman was like in life. Due to movies and cartoons and other modern media many little kids have formed an opinion that mummies must be bad, so I suppose this is the origin of the question.

In nearly all cases the Egyptians strived to leave us with only good impressions of themselves. They were the ultimate spin doctors. On their own inscribed monuments many ancient Egyptians stressed how they clothed the naked and fed the hungry—this might sound very Old Testament but it was an Egyptian notion centuries before the Old Testament first existed. Orphans were protected and widows were cared for. Wives were pampered, children were doted on, and the gods were properly venerated.

No one wants to be remembered in a negative light, and the Egyptians were careful to emphasize their goodness. We certainly know about criminals and corrupt officials and heretical kings, but these were the exception.

So obviously with this sort of rigid propaganda, we can’t really know about the day-to-day, real-life personalities of most ancient Egyptians. That’s a simple fact. Still, the ancient Egyptians were human, just like us. Even a curmudgeon such as I must admit that most people are good and decent. Why would the Egyptians have been any different? There must have been a great many wonderful people in their society, as well as their share of bad apples.

At the end of the day, what I try to stress with people I meet in our exhibit, is that the mummies they’re seeing were real people. It may have been thousands of years ago, but they lived and breathed, held jobs and paid taxes, experienced triumphs and failures, knew joys and sorrows. These mummies in the display cases were moms and dads, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They were loved and valued family members. They lived their lives in all their fullness, and eventually died—some at old ages, some at very young ages.

Mummies are people too. We should always try to remember that. They deserve their share of respect and attention. And after all, they came from one of the greatest civilizations ever to have existed.

Tactics of the Fringe: Exercises in Futility


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I’ve noticed a disturbing trend as of late. I’m not the only one. It’s become evident to many who appreciate the orthodox and conventional approach to historical studies. More and more have we seen the growing popularity in alternative history and alternative science. It goes by other names, my own favorite being “fringe.” You’ll also see “pyramiodiocy” applied to those strange theories smacking against the academic understanding of pharaonic Egypt. “Pseudoscience” and “pseudohistory” are also commonly used, as is “junk science.” “Cult archaeology” is yet another.

Whatever you wish to call it, the phenomenon reflects a growing trend among laypeople to question orthodox science and research in favor of the implausible, the unrealistic, and the just plain bizarre. Exactly why this trend is on the rise is not always clear, but to me it seems many adults seem to lack the ability to apply critical thinking in their everyday lives.

This very problem was the subject of a recent article in the Chicago Tribune (see online article here). Whether our students are being educated to learn and apply critical thinking is a subject unto itself, so I encourage you to read the article in the link. For the subject of my current blog article, I’d like to touch on the phenomenon as it concerns historical studies specifically.

We are bombarded in our modern media by all manner of questionable literature and television programming, and to be sure this is part of the problem. The sharp decline in the quality of programming on the History Channel as of late is a painfully obvious example of this. That the once-solid channel should now air and promote uninformed flotsam such as Ancient Aliens is a symptom of a much larger problem. More and more I’m encountering people in my museum work who watch and actually believe this program to be accurate. It’s cute when a little kid tells me this, but rather depressing when the same is said by an adult.

Fringe media are aimed at the non-expert due to overt and covert reasons, be they religious, political, or commercial (Flemming 2006: 47-49). Think of the books sold by the likes of Zecharia Sitchin, Erich von Däniken, Graham Hancock, and Robert Bauval. While I don’t decry these people’s right to earn a living in they way they might best be suited, I definitely charge them with patent dishonesty and intellectual malfeasance in trying to pass off their literature as hard-core fact. As with Ancient Aliens, such literature is an artful collection of half-truths, twisted truths, incomplete information, distorted evidence, and just plain nonsense. Few people have contributed so heartily to human stupidity.

The Origin of Fringe Thought

Where this all began is not so easy to pinpoint. It’s not exactly a modern problem—it has become only much more serious in modern times. Wherever and whenever man does not understand something and does not have the opportunity to educate himself—or just plain doesn’t have the desire to educate himself—he tends to replace facts with fantasy.

There have always been kooks among us. It’s human nature. I can take us back to the nineteenth century, when the study of the great ancient Near Eastern civilizations was still in its early stages. Not everyone touring and exploring the ancient pharaonic monuments was doing so with sound academic mind.

In 1859 a Brit named John Taylor published a book called The Great Pyramid: Why was it built and Who built it? Taylor devised all sorts of supernatural origins for the Great Pyramid and argued that its astonishing precision meant it simply could not have been built by man. Science itself was still in its early days, if you will, so Taylor was one of many in his time who regarded the Bible as literal truth. This means he held to Archbishop Usher’s conclusions that the Earth was created in 4004 BCE (Drower 1995: 27). Even in Taylor’s day many people must have fathomed the great antiquity of the Great Pyramid, so they could not reconcile it with Archbishop Usher’s dates.

(By the way, please do not confuse the nineteenth century John Taylor with the modern Egyptologist John Taylor, whose contributions to our understanding of pharaonic Egypt are considerable. I always wonder if Dr. Taylor cringes when the nineteenth century John Taylor is mentioned. I know I do.)

A friend and supporter of Taylor’s was Chalres Piazzi Smyth, who was much influenced by the former and published a book in 1874 called Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid. Smyth wasn’t completely daft, I have to admit. An educated man, he was  Astronomer Royal for Scotland. His enthusiasm for Taylor’s work and his own writing on the subject was arguably more due to his religious faith than to any scientific thought.

Charles Piazzi Smyth, 1819 – 1900

Consider, for example that Smyth belonged to the British Israelites and believed the British were the Lost Tribes of Israel. His odd leanings toward the Great Pyramid were more or less certain to follow. Smyth believed that locked within the Great Pyramid were divine mathematical measurements reflecting the physical location of the pyramid itself and the world in general. When the measurements were drawn and correctly interpreted, Smyth argued, the divinely constructed Great Pyramid would convey God’s message. To help to affect this, Smyth even devised a means of measurement called the “pyramid inch” that he based on the Hebrew cubit so that each pyramid inch was equal to 1.001 of a British inch (ibid 28).

Talk about critical thinking, or a lack thereof. I have to hope, due to the man’s sound scientific training in astronomy, that Smyth himself understood his pyramid inch was not something known in ancient Egypt. In other words, the pyramid inch is irrelevant.

Enter William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a self-educated Brit and one of the founders of the modern field of Egyptology. What follows is what I consider to be a delicious irony. As a young man Petrie read Smyth’s Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid and was thrilled by it. His imagination was charged. Petrie originally went to Egypt to measure the Great Pyramid for himself, to see how precise Smyth’s scheme might be reflected in real surveying. Petrie and Smyth were actually friends, so Petrie was hoping to corroborate his friend’s beliefs.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, 1853-1942

Petrie’s father, William Petrie, was a talented land surveyor and passed on his skills to his son. Petrie himself went on to improve on his father’s techniques and built his own surveying equipment. In fact, Petrie was the first man to perform an accurate land survey of Stonehenge.

Petrie spent considerable time surveying the Great Pyramid. He lived on-site. Petrie’s surveys were so precise and thorough that they are still used today (see Craig B. Smith, 2004). And upon his conclusions, Petrie couldn’t help but report that Piazzi Smyth’s entire theme of divine mathematics was a load of bull-flop (my words, not Petrie’s). The science doesn’t lie. Needless to say, Petrie and Smyth were no longer friends after Petrie’s work was published.

Nevertheless, many other people were inspired by the writing of folks like Taylor and Smyth, and went to Egypt for themselves to explore and poke and prod the Great Pyramid. And measure it, of course. So rose the derogatory term “Pyramid-measurer,” employed by Petrie and others of sound academic mind to refer to Taylor’s and Smyth’s misguided acolytes.

And just like today, the pyramidiots of Petrie’s time were not above dishonesty to prove their schemes. One day a friend of Petrie’s, Dr. James Grant, came upon a Pyramid-measurer at the Great Pyramid who was busy filing down a granite boss. When Grant inquired to the fellow as to why he was doing this, the Pyramid-measurer relied that he wanted to refine the spot so it would work for his “Inspiration theories” (ibid 40).

It would appear, then, that a lack of critical thinking was quite a problem in Petrie’s day, too.


Let’s turn to the tactics of the fringe. What do fringe writers do to present their themes? How do they deal with real-world evidence as established by research and the scientific method? (You might notice that when I write about the fringe, I often use the word “theme” in place of “theory,” and it’s because I’m not comfortable giving fringe conclusions the legitimate word “theory,” which implies at least some measure of real-world research.)

Chronic Astonishment

A common tactic is summarily to dismiss ancient achievements as those of regular humankind. The Great Pyramid couldn’t have been built by men living in the Early Bronze Age. The wonderful stonework of Puma Punku in Bolivia couldn’t have been achieved by primitive indigenous populations. The beautiful stoneware vessels of the ancient Near East, going back into Neolithic times, just couldn’t have been made by such primitives.

You’ll see the sentiment echoed by the likes of Chris Dunn, who sees only modern-type tool marks in ancient engineering and believes the Great Pyramid was actually a gigantic machine. Dunn is popular with a lot of fringe adherents today, but the chief failing in such people is their lack of familiarity with ancient engineering and the capabilities as well as limitations of craftsmen and builders in the Bronze Age. Their conclusions are simply divorced from reality.

It’s also a tactic employed in almost every episode of the History Channel’s program Ancient Aliens. Time and again you’ll see Erich von Däniken and Giorgio Tsoukalos express chronic astonishment at the feats of ancient engineering, and the common theme is, again, that ancient man simply couldn’t have made or built these things. Of course, in the case of Ancient Aliens, the conclusion is always and forever that aliens are responsible for these ancient wonders.

Erich von Däniken (left) and GiorgioTsoukalos, the faces of the History Channel’s regrettable program Ancient Aliens

Never mind that von Däniken has a criminal record in Europe for fraud, and has been caught falsifying “evidence” for his alien stories. The man has still sold a hell of a lot of books. The gullible among us seem to lap them up.

It also strikes me as decidedly odd that all of this should be ascribed to aliens. We are to imagine an alien race so advanced that they can travel the cosmos in interstellar spacecraft, and possess levels of technology we humans can’t even fathom. We are still supposed to believe that these aliens came all the way to our lovely little blue planet to teach ancient humans to build in…stone.

Maybe these aliens accidentally left all of their tools back on their home planet.

So instead of taking the time to research ancient engineering and the tools and techniques ancient man used to achieve his wonders—and trust me, the body of literature on this research is ample—we should instead exercise chronic astonishment and just chalk it up to aliens. Or lost technologies. Or lost civilizations. Atlanteans, maybe? This is the point where I might use the emoticon with rolling eyes.

Misrepresenting Evidence

Here is a tactic fringe writers are more or less obligated to use. And they have done so with great abandon. I personally consider dishonesty in presenting historical accounts to be loathsome, so this one bothers me in particular.

For example, for a NOVA special called The Case of the Ancient Astronauts Erich von Däniken presented photos of ancient Peruvian stones showing men employing modern technologies that could only have been taught to them by aliens. However, NOVA investigated this independently and learned that the stones were modern, and even found the potter in Peru who made them. Von Däniken had not admitted that he’d met this potter himself.

Other fringe writers have turned to more subtle tactics. One of the most prolific fringe writers was Zecharia Sitchin, an author who published many books on ancient alien visitation. It is from Sitchin that the popular myth of Planet X, otherwise known as Nibiru, has proliferated on the internet—on countless half-baked websites.

Zecharia Sitchin, 1920-2010

One could write an entire book, if not several, in pointing out the errors, omissions, and  misrepresentations in Sitchin’s many books. A legitimate scholar of the ancient Near East named Michael Heiser has his own website with that in mind (source). The mythical planet Nibiru is a good example.

Sitchin wrote in The 12th Planet that Nibiru is a planet beyond Pluto that once collided with a planet between Mars and Jupiter called Tiamat. The resulting destruction of Tiamat led to the creation of Earth, as well as other celestial bodies in our solar system. Sitchin believed Nibiru, which is still in orbit, is the home world of an advanced race of aliens known as the Anunnaki.

This is of course an obvious and clumsy bastardization of ancient Mesopotamian myths and names, and goodness only knows how in the hell Sitchin even came up with it. Whether Sitchin himself actually believed in this stuff can be argued, but it sold his books.

As “proof” for the planet Nibiru Sitchin turned to a Mesopotamian cylinder seal known as VA243, which resides in the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin.

Cylinder seal VA243

Note the area in the image circled in red. Sitchin argued it was a depiction of the sun circled by planets, and indicated an additional planet unknown to modern astronomy. Sitchin wrote that the ancient Sumerians received advanced knowledge of science and astronomy from the visiting aliens known as the Anunnaki.

This is not correct. The cylinder seal imparts no such information. The writing on it in cuneiform merely mentions a couple of names of minor officials. The circled portion in the “sky” of the seal does not show sun and planets, but stars. In Sumerian iconography, such depictions represented either stars or deities, not planets. It’s possible the small dots and larger star represen the Pleaides, which is represented as such on other cylinder seals from this region (see Heiser’s article, in PDF).

In his book The Stairway to Heaven Sitchin spent a considerable amount of time misrepresenting the colossal masonry pyramids of Egypt’s Dynasty 3 and Dynasty 4. For example, he notes that these pyramids do not have hieroglyphs inscribed outside or inside them, which leads him to believe that these pyramids were either built long before hieroglyphs existed and thus long before conventional research dates them, or were not built by the Egyptians at all (1980: 339). The implication is, once again, aliens built the pyramids.

This flies in the face of science and legitimate historical research. We know the Great Pyramid, for example, was built no more than about a century earlier than the conventional date of 2500 BCE (see Bonani et al 2001). And we know that no pyramid bore hieroglyphic inscriptions prior to the end of Dynasty 5, about 150 years after the erection of the Great Pyramid. There is ample research in the professional literature to explain the reasons behind this, but Sitchin’s twisting of facts is not an explanation on which one should rely.

Historical Research is Just Plain Wrong/Misleading/Insufficient

This represents a tactic of desperation on the part of fringe authors. Very few fringe writers ever attempt to deal with professional research head on, for the simple reason that they know professional historical research disproves their claims in a swift stroke. Rather, it is easier just to ignore and dismiss professional research without cause.

I’ve encountered numerous fringe adherents who claim modern historical research can’t be trusted simply because it’s not really modern at all. They claim modern historians use the same tools, the same approaches, and the same attitudes as historians did in the nineteenth century.

All such a comment reveals is that the person making it does not have any working understanding of modern historical research. Egyptology is a good example. I know an Egyptoloist at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, who likes to joke that everything she learned back in her days as a graduate student is now wrong. The field of research of pharaonic Egypt has made leaps and bounds in all facets of study in just the last several decades. At the present time Egyptology makes use of a wide range of modern specialists including surveyors, architects, cartographers, photographers, conservators, forensic anthropologists, X-ray technicians, archaeobotonists, archaeozoologists, palynologists, geologists, mineralogists, hydrologists, artists, art historians, ceramic specialists, soil experts, stratigraphy experts, hot-air balloon pilots, aerial photographers, satellite imaging technicians, electrical, mining, and structural engineers, chemists, computer programmers, draftsmen, graphic designers, cultural resource managers, statisticians, philologists, epigraphers, geophysicists, and stone technology experts (Weeks 2008: 15). As scientific fields expand and refine their methods and tools, Egyptologists turn to them for expert analysis. Paleopathologists have become an important part of studying ancient human remains, and genetics have now entered the sphere of research, too.

Fringe writers will often resort to acerbic tactics to bolster their own claims while simultaneously whittling away at the world of orthodox study. These writers will paint unflattering pictures of professional historians and present them as close-minded, stale, dusty old professors. While this might aptly describe some historians, it is hardly a fair or accurate assessment. And it really doesn’t work for fringe writers. Whether they realize it or not, the more time fringe adherents spend on ridiculing professional historians, the more they themselves damage their own credibility. Personally I find this tactic to be childish.

The Grand Conspiracy

This is perhaps the most absurd and comical tactic employed by fringe writers. It definitely lacks observable critical thinking on the face of it. In this ploy fringe writers try to present the world of orthodox research as one great, shady, nefarious cabal bent on hiding “the truth” from all of us and maintaining the status quo. So there must be evidence out there for ancient alien intervention—or Atlantis or Nibiru or lost advanced technologies, what have you—but orthodox academia is working in concert to keep the information contained.

Alien overlords!

So in this tactic it is known, for example, that the Great Pyramid was built by aliens or the building of it was overseen by aliens, et cetera. Egyptologists know this, but if they admit it they’ll have to rewrite all of their books and papers and all of our knowledge will have to be refashioned. Heaven forbid!

This implies, then, that over the course of the past two centuries, all Egyptologists working for all institutions and universities from all over the world, have been in league with governments to keep the secret.

A moment’s thought reveals the grand absurdity of this notion. Governments have never been terribly good at keeping secrets—academia, less so. This might make for an entertaining sci-fi movie, and I like movies as much as the next guy, but I do not see how any thinking, reasoning, educated adult could believe this for even a moment.


So why is the appeal for the fringe so strong? Why does it continue to grow? Is it a reflection of human nature where we favor the underdog over the big and sinister opponent, in this case academia (Flemming 2006: 56)? Are people uncomfortable with science and professional research because it seems so daunting and inaccessible? I personally believe this has much to do with it, but I think the intimidation many might feel is quite exaggerated.

More so than ever, the information is out there and accessible to anyone who wants to learn it. Advanced college degrees are not necessarily needed, especially if one is just an enthusiast and wants to learn. People have all manner of literature and media to educate themselves. Archaeological expeditions like Çatalhöyük, Göbekli Tepe, and the Giza Plateau Mapping Project have their own websites to keep professionals and laypeople alike informed on the work conducted there. More and more archaeologists post blogs to deliver their own work to an immediate audience. Going forward, the internet will become an even more common medium for all manner of scientific and historical information.

The trick is to discern fact from fiction. For every credible and worthwhile website put up by an institute or university, I’d wager there are at least ten others of little to no scientific or historical merit. Let’s face it: any nut case with a computer and an internet connection can slap together a website to showcase his ideas, regardless of how bizarre and divorced from reality they are. One needs to recognize which is which in some cases. Sometimes websites smack of legitimate merit and reel you in, even if uniformed or misinformed material is there (something at which numerous religious zealots excel, in their bias on religious history).

I worry about sincere and curious young people who want to learn about ancient history and inadvertently stumble first into the tar-pit literature of Erich von Däniken or Zecharia Sitchin. Make no mistake: these guys are good writers. It’s just that the material they impart is more fitting to Hollywood than to academia.

I am always heartened, then, when I visit a book store and see this kind of stuff not in the history section but somewhere else, like occult or New Age. I feel all book stores should follow this procedure.

In the end it boils down to an individual’s ability to know what is worthwhile and what is bull-flop. And this boils down to critical thinking, an ability many adults nowadays seem to lack. And so I worry.


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

Drower, Margaret S. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. 1995.

Flemming, N.C. “The attraction of non-rational archaeological hypotheses.” Archaeological Fantasies. Garrett G. Fagan, ed. 2006.

Heiser, Michael S. Sitchin Is Wrong.

Sitchin, Zecharia. The Stairway to Heaven. 1980.

Smith, Craig B. How the Great Pyramid Was Built. 2004.

Weeks, Kent. “Archaeology and Egyptology.” Egyptology Today. Richard H. Wilkinson, ed. 2008.

Hall of Records: More Atlantis Bunkum?


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Few ancient monuments are as enigmatic as the Great Sphinx of Giza. To this day people debate its purpose, when it was built, and what it meant to its builders. And few ancient monuments have been so fixed as a target for fringe and New Age whimsy.

One my own favorite examples of the latter is the fabled Hall of Records, a vast library of esoteric and forgotten wisdom stored in a stone-hewn cavern below the Sphinx. To think of great ancient wisdom so close and yet so far, never seen by modern human eyes, drives the imagination.

If you allow it to, that is. What can we really say about the Hall of Records? What is fact and what is fable? Where does the story come from? Can we search the ancient texts and inscriptions of the pharaonic Egyptians and allow them to show us the truth? Well, no, the ancient Egyptian written record is completely silent on the subject of the Hall of Records. There is very little ancient Egyptian writing about the Sphinx in general, much less what’s supposed to be underneath it. This means we have to turn to the ancient writings of other people.

Plenty of writers from Classical times and through Late Antiquity commented on the Sphinx. In his Natural History, for instance, Pliny the Elder explained the following (Bostock 1890: 336):

In front of them [the pyramids] is the Sphinx, which deserves to be described even more than they, and yet the Egyptians have passed it over in silence. The inhabitants of the region regard it as a deity. They are of the opinion that a King Harmais is buried inside it… (XXXVI: Chapter 17)

We know Pliny was incorrect. The Sphinx was never a tomb, nor is there anything inside it. With the exception of a couple of minor tunnels and aborted passages, likely carved at a later time, the Sphinx is solid limestone. It was carved from an original massif that protruded from the Giza Plateau.

There is ample modern writing about the Sphinx in fringe and New Age literature written by the likes of Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock, but of course these are not authors to whom one should turn when in the search for real-world, reliable, historically valid facts.

The Rosicrucians, ever obsessed with rituals and ceremonies of arcane initiation rights in the manner of the mystery cults of Rome, have forwarded all sorts of strange notions about the Sphinx and other Giza monuments and the secrets of the vast temples and other features which lie below the surface of the Plateau:

Needless to say, in the real-world of archaeology, no such features are known.

We can trace the existence of the Hall of Records, in fact, no farther back than Edgar Cayce (1877-1945). I should hope anyone who’s reading this article or was attracted to it by the mention of the “Hall of Records” in the title, already knows who Edgar Cayce was.

For those who actually do not, Cayce was known as the “sleeping prophet” because he would recline, put himself into a trance-like state, and receive “visions.” Sometimes he would channel ancient history, at other times he would perform readings about the health of visitors who came to see him.

In the 1930s and early 1940s Cayce received a series of visions supposedly about the origins of ancient Egypt and the reasons the Giza pyramids and Sphinx were built. The stories Cayce related are rather detailed and meandering and could be the subject for any number of debunking articles, so I prefer to keep it simple. Some examples of his readings will suffice for our purpose:

A record of Atlantis from the beginning of those periods when the Spirit took form, or began the encasements in that land; and the developments of the peoples throughout their sojourn; together with the record of the first destruction, and the changes that took place in the land; with the record of the sojournings of the peoples and their varied activities in other lands, and a record of the meetings of all the nations or lands, for the activities in the destruction of Atlantis; and the building of the pyramid of initiation, together with whom, what, and where the opening of the records would come, that are as copies from the sunken Atlantis. For with the change, it [Atlantis] must rise again. In position, this lies — as the sun rises from the waters — as the line of the shadows (or light) falls between the paws of the Sphinx; that was set later as the sentinel or guard and which may not be entered from the connecting chambers from the Sphinx’s right paw until the time has been fulfilled when the changes must be active in this sphere of man’s experience. Then [it lies] between the Sphinx and the river. [378-16; Oct 29, 1933]

It would be well if this entity were to seek either of the three phases of the ways and means in which those records of the activities of individuals were preserved — the one in the Atlantean land, that sank, which will rise and is rising again; another in the place of the records that leadeth from the Sphinx to the hall of records, in the Egyptian land; and another in the Aryan or Yucatan land, where the temple there is overshadowing same. [2012-1; Sep 25, 1939]

… the entity joined with those who were active in putting the records in forms that were partially of the old characters of the ancient or early Egyptian, and part in the newer form of the Atlanteans. These may be found, especially when the house or tomb of records is opened, in a few years from now. [2537-1; Jul 17, 1941]

… [the entity] was among the first to set the records that are yet to be discovered or yet to be had of those activities in the Atlantean land, and for the preservation of data that is yet to be found from the chambers of the way between the Sphinx and the pyramid of records. [3575-2; Jan 20, 1944]

In essence, Edgar Cayce’s visions tell us the great land of Egypt was founded by refugees from the sundered and sunk Atlantis. Atlanteans fled in all directions, taking their written wisdom with them. These records were supposed to have been stashed in hidden chambers in a couple of South American sites as well as at Giza, Egypt. It is only Egypt with which we concern ourselves here, as Cayce himself seemed to emphasize it. The Sphinx, then, was a guardian figure for the Hall of Records, while the Giza pyramids were built as temples and monuments for the rituals of the Atlanteans who founded Egypt.

Moreover, we can see according to Cayce’s visions that the Hall of Records actually doesn’t lie beneath the Sphinx but in some location to the east of it (“Then [it lies] between the Sphinx and the river”). The Sphinx stands watch over the entrance to the passage that leads to the Hall of Records.

So this is the origin of the Hall of Records. No ancient record of it occurs, aside from writers like Pliny who entertained other notions about the Sphinx. Perhaps this is where Cayce got the idea for his vision. Perhaps he got the idea from science-fiction novels of his time, which some skeptics have posited.

I don’t know where Cayce got the idea. Do I personally believe he received visions that supplied him with fantastic details about Atlantis and the civilizations its fleeing inhabitants would go on to settle? No, of course I do not. Nothing in Cayce’s visions about Atlantis or Egypt rings of truth, and none of it can be supported by real facts. Certainly, none of Cayce’s visions about Egypt have bee proved true.

For one thing, Cayce’s visions of Atlantis seem more like a cheesy science-fiction movie than anything else. The legend of Atlantis comes from the great Greek philosopher Plato, who created the story in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias. I’m perfectly aware plenty of people today believe that Atlantis was a real place as described by Plato, as were the events he portrayed in the dialogues. As ridiculous as this has always seemed to me—and no doubt at some point I’ll compose an article about Atlantis—what Plato wrote about the fabled island civilization really bears no similarities to the bizarre and unrealistic visions of Cayce, and that’s what we’re dealing with here.

In Cayce’s version of events, after Atlanteans had reached the Nile Valley, they were led to create the monuments at Giza by their high priest Ra-Ta in honor of their king Araaraat. (It’s interesting in the first place that the refugees of a western Mediterranean island, now sunk, should have Egyptian- or Semitic-sounding names all of a sudden.) Furthermore, this was supposed to have taken place many, many thousands of years before conventional research places the Giza pyramids and Sphinx: orthodox history places the Great Pyramid, for example, at around 2500 BCE, in the reign of King Khufu, while Cayce’s story takes place in the eleventh millennium BCE!

This is absurd on the face of it, of course. A great deal of work in recent decades has gone into the archaeology and research of prehistoric, late-prehistoric, and Early Dynastic Egypt (I recommend in particular the literature on this topic written by Toby Wilkinson and David Wengrow; see the references at the end of the article). Careful studies to this effect have established beyond dispute that the great kingdom of Egypt, which was founded around 3100 BCE, was the creation of the people who had lived in the Nile Valley all along; and the material culture and societal evolution of these original inhabitants show that they were none other than the people we know as the ancient Egyptians. No one came from without to create this civilization: the civilization of the Nile Valley was definitively and uniquely Egyptian from start to finish.

Moreover, as popular as it might be for all manner of fringe writers to try to pass off the Giza monuments as thousands of years older than anyone thought, modern science has comfortably put such nonsense to rest. Extensive carbon dating of the Giza pyramids, conducted in two rounds of testing, have established that the pyramids could not be much older than a century or so than originally thought (Bonani et al 2001). Radiocarbon dating of material objects dating to the Old Kingdom of Egypt have reinforced the accuracy of orthodox researchers’ long-held dating system for pharaonic Egypt (Ramsey et al 2010). And the work of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, headed by Mark Lehner, has established beyond reasonable doubt that the Great Sphinx was indeed commissioned by King Khafre, owner of the second pyramid at Giza (source). In fact, the Sphinx was an integral part of the pyramid complex of Khafre.

People who believe Cayce’s visions have long demanded that the Egyptian government conduct ground-penetrating radar examinations of the Plateau to prove this one way or the other. Such techniques have indeed been conducted at Giza (as well as at many other pharaonic sites), and nothing much of note at Giza has been found. You will see on countless websites of dubious veracity that huge chambers were found by GPR analysis, which is an obvious distortion of the truth. While it’s true that small pockets and voids were discerned—small pockets and voids are the nature of limestone, after all—there is no indication of vast chambers or halls or passageways lying beneath the Giza Plateau.

Very telling was some work conducted by the Egyptian government at the Sphinx in 2008. At that time there was considerable water rising to the surface and pooling around the Sphinx. The Supreme Council of Antiquities (now the Ministry of State for Antiquities) was concerned that the water might contain sewage and damage the already frail Sphinx, so they sunk a series of deep bore holes all around the Sphinx to determine the source of the water (source). They were relieved to determine it was just normal groundwater.

Drilling at the Sphinx in 2008

This was the beginning of an examination that would lead to pumping operations to keep the Sphinx clear of water, but as long as they were drilling these deep holes, they decided to send down cameras to see if anything of interest could be found down there.

Nothing of interest was found. No chamber, no passageway, no cavern, no hallways leading to a Hall of Records.

Edgar Cayce’s elaborate stories about the founding of Egypt and the purposes for the Giza monuments are complete fiction. That should be obvious to anyone who can exercise critical thinking, and yet the idea of the Hall of Records continues to thrive. It enjoys a lively and colorful existence on the internet, where you can find it extolled on many half-baked websites of a New Age flavor. New Age might be all the rage among many people in our modern world, but rarely does it reflect reality. Rarely does it accurately address or present ancient history.

Part of the reason for the longevity of the Hall of Records fable is the organization called the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE). This organization is in honor of Edgar Cayce and his visions. The ARE takes things a bit far and descends into the realm of conspiracy theories by claiming the Egyptian government conceals facts and prohibits research work, which is certainly a distortion. I imagine they’re frustrated. After all, none of the visions of their sleeping prophet have ever come true, so they’re desperate for validation. I’ll give the ARE some credit, however. They have sponsored and financed a number of scientific explorations of the Giza Plateau. They’ve put themselves out there, and in spit of never knowing success, they continue to try.

I think the majority of us can see the absurdity in the Hall of Records. I see the strong possibility that Cayce was a fraud to begin with, but in the very least, it’s painfully obvious that “psychic visions” cannot in any way be regarded as evidence for anything. Fringe notions rarely contain the sort of logic and reason one needs when examining and studying ancient history, but it’s extremely hard to put an end to such notions. I’ve never understood why many people avoid professional research and disciplined, legitimate historical study in favor of whimsical falderal, but it seems to be an epidemic in our society. One wonders if modern educational institutions are adequately teaching students to learn and exercise critical thinking, because so many adults today seem to lack the ability to do so.

As always, thanks for reading.


AERA wesbite on the Giza Plateau Mapping Project.

Bostock, John. The Natural History of Pliny. 1890.

Cayce, Edgar Evans. Edgar Cayce on Atlantis. 1968.

Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E.: Association for Research and Enlightenment.

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

Hawass, Zahi. Drilling Under the Sphinx.” Blog of Zahi Hawass.

Ramsey, Christopher Bronk, et al. “Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt.” Science. 2010.

Wengrow, David. The Archaeology of Early Egypt. 2006.

Wilkinson, Toby. Early Dynastic Egypt. 2000.

Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs. 2003.

Exodus: Fact or Fiction?


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Everyone likes an underdog. There’s no story like the underprivileged or the disadvantaged rising against his stronger foe and coming out the winner. This is probably why the biblical tale of Exodus has such staying power: the humble and oppressed Hebrew slaves rise up against mighty Egypt and escape to the Promised Land. It is a morality tale about trusting in God and the ultimate humanity of both hero (Moses) and oppressor (Pharaoh).

But is it true? Does the biblical tale of Exodus preserve factual events about the early days of Israel and the deliverance of its chosen people? The answer is both simple and complicated at the same time and requires attention to detail, so I would like to summarize the facts and fictions of Exodus.

I should preface this by emphasizing that although I’m something of a minimalist when it comes to biblical historicity, it is never my intention to act with disrespect or dismissal toward any religion. I am not an atheist. At the same time, when it comes to historical research, I feel it is vital to approach all avenues of study with objectivity and adherence to extant evidence. What does the full weight of this evidence reveal to us—the textual and the archaeological? This must be the approach when studying history.

That said, let’s first turn to the sources for Exodus. Where is this tale preserved for us? That’s simple. The Hebrew Bible. The Book of Exodus as well as scattered passages throughout the Old Testament represent the first and oldest sources for the events of Moses and his people. Although there is plentiful mention of Exodus outside the Hebrew Bible and from different cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, it cannot be stressed enough that all such writings are subsequent to the Old Testament and draw from the same.

For example, the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus writes about Exodus. Josephus includes important passages from an even older account penned by an Egyptian historian-priest named Manetho of Sebennytos, who composed his history of Egypt in the third century BCE. Manetho’s work was commissioned by the early Ptolemaic pharaohs who ruled over Egypt, and unfortunately none of Mantho’s original work survives. What we have, has come down to us through the work of men like Josephus. It is clear, however, that the writings of both Manetho and Josephus concerning Exodus were inspired by the Old Testament.

What this means is that we, too, are obligated to turn to the Old Testament for information about Exodus. It’s literally all we have. Now, few events in the literary genre of history have been as misrepresented as Exodus, especially at the pens of misguided fringe writers like Ahmed Osman and David Rohl. And as entertaining as it might be to tear apart such fringe literature (perhaps the topic of a future article?) I prefer to stick to the facts and the original sources. We needn’t muddy the waters anymore than they already are.

What does Exodus tell us? Let’s first turn to the timeframe and determine when the Old Testament tells us Exodus took place. Those of you who know your Bible should remember this one. In 1 Kings 6:1 we are told:

In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord.

King Solomon died in 930 BCE after a reign of 40 years, so we can place his ascension to the throne in 970 BCE. He began to build the great Temple in Jerusalem four years later, in 966 BCE. To this last number we can add the 480 years specified in 1 Kings 6:1, and we arrive at a date of 1446 BCE (Dever 2003: 8). This immediately presents a problem, however.

A date of 1446 BCE places us square in the reign of the great Egyptian king Menkheperre Tuthmosis (1479-1424 BCE), otherwise known as Tuthmosis III. Some fringe writers have in fact tried to paint Tuthmosis III as the pharaoh of Exodus, but the real problem here is, Tuthmosis III was the greatest warrior pharaoh of Egyptian history and in his time cemented Egypt as the single-greatest power of the entire Near East. Tuthmosis III led 40 years of sweeping military campaigns that brought under Egyptian control practically everyone and everything between Lower Nubia and northern Syria. This means that part of Egypt’s sphere of influence was the Levant and Canaan, where the Hebrews were supposed to have conquered cities left and right after fleeing Egypt to establish the Promised Land as their own. Obviously a great conquerer like Tuthmosis III was not going to allow a bunch of escaped slaves to upset his hegemony. Egypt ruled the entire region with an iron fist. Simply put, Tuthmosis III could not have been the pharaoh of Exodus. As it is, almost no self-respecting, gainfully employed, professional historian would try to argue otherwise.

So the numbers as provided in 1 Kings 6:1 do not work. It’s more likely the figure of “480” is not literal but is instead a symbolic length of time representing the lifespans of 12 generations (Finkelstein & Silberman 2001: 56). In biblical accounts certain numbers are repeated or appear as divisible by other numbers, and few numbers appear to be as sacred as 40 (go ahead, do the math for yourself with 480 and 40). The reason is simple: 40 in the ancient Near East was a common sacred number among numerous cultures because, at the time, it represented a generation.

It must be understood that some Hebrew scribe was not following on Moses’ heels and writing down an exacting journal as the Jews fled Egypt and spent the next 40 years (there it is again) in the desert. Most of the books of the Hebrew Bible were penned a very long time after the events they portray. Exodus, for example, was probably written around 500 years after the fact (Dever 2003: 8). As it is, the emergence of an identifiable Hebrew culture occurs only at the very end of the Bronze Age. We’ll come back to that point later.

So if not in the time of Tuthmosis III, when might Exodus have taken place? We can again turn to the Old Testament and the Book of Exodus. There is a vital clue it provides. We can find it in Exodus 1:11:

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.

Here the Old Testament provides the names of two specific places in Egypt. Are they real places? Yes, they are. And their mention is important in nailing down a real timeframe for Exodus.

Many of the earliest scholars and antiquarians who explored the Middle East were well-educated individuals, schooled in the Classics and in biblical studies. In their tireless searches of Egypt and the Holy Land they were hoping to find physical proof that the stories of the Bible were true. In those days, especially the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, few people from Western nations doubted the Bible in any manner; indeed, they viewed it as rock-hard fact, a real history of the ancient Near East.

In almost all cases they came up quite disappointed. It seemed the more they searched, the less corroboration they found. Indeed, in many cases, all they found were blatant contradictions. But not in all cases.

One can imagine the excitement when archaeologists finally determined the historical reality of the city called Rameses in Exodus. To the Egyptians it was Per-Ramesses, meaning “the House of Ramesses.” See the red circle in the map below:

The Delta region of Egypt

Per-Ramesses was built practically on the same site as the ancient city of Avaris (modern Tell el-Dab’a). This had been the capital city of the infamous Hyksos, a federation of Canaanite tribes which had ruled Egypt for a time prior to the New Kingdom. (Contrary to popular and widespread misconception among fringe circles, the Hyksos were not the Hebrews, which could be the subject of yet another article. Tempting.) And it is the city of Per-Ramesses that helps us finally to decide on a timeframe for Exodus, because this city was founded as the new capital in early Dynasty 19 by the king named User-maatre Setepenre Ramesses meryamun (1279-1212 BCE), otherwise known as Ramesses II or Ramesses the Great:

Mummy of Ramesses II, Dynasty 19

Ramesses II reigned for almost seventy years and was a great warrior pharaoh himself. It is the Old Testament’s mention of his city that leads most historians to place Ramesses as the pharaoh of Exodus. The king is never mentioned by name in Exodus, so we are left to discern his identity by such clues.

The city of Pithom has been more difficult to locate. In the map above, circled in blue, is a site called Tell el-Maskhuta, and many historians agree this might be it. Pithom would be rendered in ancient Egyptian as Per-Atum, and records of the New Kingdom confirm it was a real city. However, on archaeological grounds Tell el-Maskhuta appears to have seen little activity or occupation in the New Kingdom, so it’s not clear if this is actually the correct site. Another possibility is a site called Tell el Retabeh but it, too, does not show occupation until after the Ramesside Period (ibid: 14).

At least we have Per-Ramesses, which is the more important. As this city did not exist prior to the reign of Ramesses II, Exodus must have occurred during the reign of this great pharaoh. Fringe writers have tried to assign the tale of Exodus to earlier kings like Ahmose I and Hatshepsut (as well as Tuthmosis III), but we can see how it doesn’t work. Can we find anything from the reign of Ramesses II to confirm Exodus? The researcher Bob Brier (2004) has entertained indirect evidence that places Exodus later in the reign of Ramesses II, after the death of his son and crown prince Amunhirkepshef. The truth is, however, nothing from the reign of Ramesses II lends historical veracity to Exodus.

Ramesses lived around 200 years after Tuthmosis III, the creator of the Egyptian empire. It’s true that by the time Ramesses came to the throne, Egypt’s hegemony had slipped somewhat.

A new power far to the north was competing with Egypt for control of Canaan. The great Indo-European kingdom of Hatti, storming from their capital city of Hattusa in central Turkey, had caused no end to grief for pharaohs in the time of the New Kingdom. Many might be familiar with Ramesses’ great military campaign against the Hittites at the Syrian city of Kadesh. This great battle of chariots and infantry probably took place around 1274 BCE, early in the reign of Ramesses, and the pharaoh portrayed it back home as an overwhelming victory for Egypt. The truth is, the battle of Kadesh was at best a draw. The Egyptians ended up besting the Hittites in battle, during which Ramesses himself was almost killed, but the Hittites managed to hold onto Kadesh. Ramesses would go on in succeeding years to lead other campaigns deep into Syria, but never again would Egypt take Kadesh.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. The Egyptians and Hittites might have been duking it out for a long time, but between the two, all of the Levant and Canaan were under the solid control of either Egypt or Hatti. A state of cold war existed between the two great powers for years (Wilkinson 2010: 314). In the peace treaty that Ramesses eventually signed with Hatti, the Egyptians and the Hittites ended up splitting control of the entire region between themselves. There was no place for an upstart force of escaped slaves to carve out a home for themselves in Canaan. Had such an attempt been made, either Egypt or Hatti (probably the former) would’ve squashed them.

Moreover, throughout the New Kingdom the rulers of Egypt maintained rigid control of their own borders. The escaping Hebrews would’ve had to flee Egypt to the east, out into the Sinai, but all points of ingress and egress in this region were controlled by a well-regulated system of forts garrisoned by military detachments; records from garrison commanders of this period preserve the accounts of who was coming and going (Finkelstein & Silberman 2001: 59).

Another important point to consider is Exodus 14:6 where we are told Pharaoh “…had his chariot made ready and took his army with him.” In other words, the Egyptian king led his army to retrieve the Hebrew slaves. He’d experienced second thoughts about letting them go. Yet the Egyptian army is said to have been swallowed up by the sea which Moses had parted, so how is it that the body of Ramesses II survived so intact? Note the photo of his mummy, above. This is one of the best-preserved royal mummies from all of pharaonic history. No, Ramesses died in his bed, a very old man probably around 90 years of age.

I recently watched a TV special in which one commentator stated Ramesses probably sent one of his sons in his place. The commentator stated that an Egyptian king wouldn’t have bothered. Yet Ramesses would’ve considered this a military action, and while many pharaohs may not have personally led their men into battle, Ramesses II never would’ve shied from this duty. He craved action.

Finding historical veracity for Exodus is becoming exceedingly difficult. What about Moses? Do we know anything about him? As with all other things Exodus, there is no evidence for such a man outside the pages of the Old Testament. Many writers exercise a sloppy approach in playing with his name, noting that it sounds quite Egyptian. In fact, the Egyptian word ms or mss, which means “born of” or, in a looser sense, “child of,” is a common element in ancient Egyptian names, kings included. Think of Tuthmosis, which would’ve sounded more like Djehutymose in the ancient Egyptian tongue (“Tuthmosis” is the rendering from Greek): the name means “Born of [the god] Djehuty,” the great ibis-headed god. And of course there’s the name Ramesses, which means “Born of Re.” And there are some instances from ancient Egypt where men were called simply Mess or Messes. We do not usually know the vowels from ancient Egyptian scripts, so one can see how “Moses” can be derived from “Messes.” I take no issue with that.

But the Old Testament explains this for us. Moses’ name is Hebrew. In Exodus 2:10, after the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh retrieves the baby Moses from the river, we are told:

When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”

This is from the Hebrew verb מֹשֶׁה‎ (modern “Moshe”), meaning “to draw.” Interestingly, the scribes who penned Exodus may have turned to a much-older tradition attributed to the great Akkadian ruler Sargon I, who as legend has it was also found as an infant in a basket floating in a river (Roux 1992: 151-152).

What of the enslaved Hebrews themselves? Did Egypt keep slaves? Absolutely. They were probably especially prevalent in the New Kingdom, many if not most having come to Egypt as prisoners of war. Whole families were enslaved, the men often folded into the Egyptian military or brought into agricultural labor, and the women and children into homes and temples and estates as domestic slaves.

But Egypt did not enslave entire populations. True, by the accounts of some pharaohs we would think they did, but pharaonic propaganda and reality are two different things. Again the Old Testament provides an important fact to consider. In Exodus 12:37-38 we are told:

And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children. And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

The math is not hard to do. The slaves numbered 600,000 men alone. Factor in all of the women and children and those among the “mixed multitude” and we easily come to a number of around two million slaves fleeing Egypt. This is altogether unrealistic. Two million people would’ve represented about a third of the Egyptian population in the Nile Valley, so the number cannot stand. Numerous authors have suggested the number was no longer remembered by the scribes who penned the account and perhaps the fleeing slaves numbered only several thousand. Whatever the number, it’s unlikely they would’ve made it alive through the forts that controlled ingress and egress to the east of the Delta.

I won’t dwell long on the Plagues, as interesting as they are. All I need say is that practically all of them can be the result of natural climatic events. Not that all would’ve occurred at the same time, but the Plagues might have been a literary device on the part of the Hebrew scribes who wrote Exodus (as a demonstration of Yahweh’s power) or they may represent any number of different climatic upheavals from different periods, brought together into the narrative.

The Hebrews spent 40 years wandering the desert before arriving in the Promised Land, at which time they took up their arms and violently cleared the land and its cities of the Canaanites. Is there evidence for this? Surely widespread destruction of Canaan at this time would leave signs in the archaeological record. This is usually discernible in the strata of any archaeological site.

The archaeological record definitely shows destruction events at sites like Jericho, Hormach, and Arad. The problem is, all such destruction events can be dated to the Early Bronze Age or the Middle Bronze Age, but not to the Late Bronze Age (Redford 1992: 265). In fact, these sites appear not to have been occupied in the period when the Hebrews were supposed to be sweeping through Canaan to establish their kingdom. Some sites do evidence destruction in the Late Bronze Age, of course, but this could’ve been more realistically the result of widespread invasions by the Sea Peoples—this federation was bested by Egypt at the end of the Bronze Age but wreaked havoc all over the Levant.

The fact is, as I intimated earlier, we can find no evidence for the existence of Israel prior to the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE). For this we can turn to the king called Baenre-merynetjeru Merneptah hotep-her-maat (1212-1201 BCE), the son and successor of Ramesses II. Merneptah was the first Egyptian pharaoh to drive out incursions of the Sea Peoples, with their Libyan allies. This king then went on to invade neighboring regions to be certain the Sea Peoples would stay clear of Egypt. (They would in fact return in the next dynasty, during the reign of Ramesses III, but at least Merneptah didn’t live long enough to have to deal with them again.)

To celebrate his campaigns Merneptah erected the victory stela seen below:

Victory Stela of Mernetpah, Dynasty 19

This stela dates to around 1208 BCE. It is a particularly important piece of history—not so much for Merneptah’s military conquests but for one of the names of the vanquished appearing on the monument. It’s sometimes referred to as the Israel Stela because it contains the world’s first written mention of the name “Israel.” See the highlighted area below:

"Israel" on the Merneptah Victory Stela, 1208 BCE

This earliest mention of Israel, by the way, has led some scholars to argue that Merneptah was the pharaoh of Exodus. They represent a minority, however: most still argue in favor of Ramesses II.

The way the name is written is itself interesting. The determinative used in the script for Israel does not denote a nation or polity or city-state but simply a people, a tribe. It appears the Egyptians viewed these early Hebrews as semi-nomads. Archaeology of the Holy Land more or less corroborates Merneptah’s assessment.

A noticeable shift between “Canaanite” to “Israelite” culture appears in the highlands of Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age. In the span of only a few generations a dramatic social transformation was taking place in this central hill country; scattered villages were popping up, as many as 250 in number (Finkelstein & Silberman 2001: 107).

This is as far back as we can trace the origins of the Hebrews. It correlates to the later periods of the Egyptian New Kingdom. At this time the entire eastern Mediterranean region was experiencing collapse and upheaval, for reasons still not clear to scholars. It allowed the Sea Peoples to depart from their Aegean and Asia Minor homelands to sweep south and invade the Levant. Hatti mysteriously disappears from history. Egypt falters and would never again be a great empire. Great polities like Babylon and Assur shrink back. Great cities like Ugarit are laid waste and never reoccupied.

It is in this vacuum that the people of Israel began to take root. By all accounts there was never an invasion from without, but an entire shifting of peoples in the Levant. As coastal Canaanite cities were experiencing turmoil and collapse, people fled inland. The once sparsely occupied central hill country was now dotted with the villages of a semi-nomadic people most scholars refer to as proto-Hebrew. The material culture they left for archaeologists of the present to discover, paints the picture of their origin and development. Many generations would pass in these highlands before there was actually a Hebraic kingdom centered on Jerusalem.

The events of Exodus, as portrayed in the Old Testament, never happened.

So what is Exodus actually about? Without a doubt later peoples believed in the historicity of Exodus, as many devout people do today, but what really happened? In all likelihood Exodus was one means by which the nascent kingdom of Jerusalem painted itself as legitimate: it was the rightful ruler of what was once Canaan.

Many historians feel Exodus may have been a conflation of several unrelated historical events (Wilkinson 2010: 313). For example, there probably was a dim memory among many ancient Near Easterners of the great Theran volcanic eruption that marked the beginning of the end for the Minoan thalassocracy of the Aegean. Modern carbon dating has confirmed that the eruption occurred between 1627-1600 BCE (Bruins 2010: 1489). The climatic upheaval caused by this devastating event could’ve created many of the biblical Plagues in Egypt. The death of the first-born is more mysterious, but it’s my own theory that this was but a distorted memory of a particularly deadly epidemic that took many lives, a great many children among them (the ancient Near East experienced any number of plague events that killed off the very young and the very old).

Although the Hyksos were not the Hebrews, and in fact lived a very long time before the earliest Hebrews, they were nonetheless Semitic peoples. They were violently expelled from Egypt around 1550 BCE by Ahmose I, but this itself could’ve been a distorted memory of Semitic peoples fleeing Egypt. The Hyksos themselves were for the most part exterminated by the Egyptians, but their memory was not. Perhaps they, too, found their way into the biblical Exodus: as the Hebrews under Moses.

I hope I’ve presented my case adequately. A secular approach to historical study will usually remove the fictions from the facts and leave us with something reliable to consider, but do not be mistaken. In my opinion this does not take away from the value of the Bible. It remains the greatest book ever written.

Thanks for reading.


Brier, Bob, “Ramses the Great: The Twilight Years.” The Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The Teaching Company. 2004.

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.

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

The Gosford Glyphs Hoax, Part 4


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It’s time to put this issue to rest. This is my fourth and final installment in the hoax of the Gosford Glyphs. I suppose there’s always the chance I’ll return to the story at some future point, should more information surface that is worth comment. But for now I’d like to close our examination of the Gosford hoax with a review of modern investigations of the site and what relevant experts and witnesses have to say on the matter. Most of the material in Part 4 comes from Steve S., author of the blog All things Woy, whose investigative experience in the Gosford matter is the most throrough and rational I’ve encountered.

To begin, how far back can the Gosford glyphs really be tracked? When were they first brought to public attention? The site of the glyphs is somewhat remote, but not so much that one would expect them to have remained hidden for 4,500 years. That is, in fact, not what happened. Although it’s possible some of the glyphs may have been carved as early as the 1960s by local students, most of the carving seems to have begun in the early 1970s.

The first person to document the site was a local surveyor, now retired, named Alan Dash (Source). Dash was surveying a water easement in the early 1970s when he observed a man walking away from the Gosford site and heading toward a nearby abandoned cabin. Dash investigated the site and noticed some hieroglyphs carved along the western wall of sandstone, although at the time nothing was carved into the eastern wall.

Several months later Dash returned with a coworker to explore the site again, and noticed carvings on the eastern wall. About a year later more glyphs had been added, this time about 160 feet away from the original etchings.

The cabin to which Dash observed the man heading was frequently used by transients, and the man’s identity was never learned. The cabin was destroyed by brushfires in 1979, but this doesn’t seem to have stopped the carving activities. Early observers and photographers could chart the development of the glyphs, to a point, and the changes and additions are quite obvious. The photo below, from 1983, shows freshly cut glyphs:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

Several of the most prominent glyphs were apparently some of the last added, and include the cartouches (see Part 3). Also among these additions was the large figure of the god Anubis. The photo below was taken in 1983:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

Take note of the figure’s ears and compare them to the ears of the same figure in this photo from 2007:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

The fresh quality of the cutting is painfully obvious in the first photo. When the details to the ears were added is not known, but one can see the wear to the carving in the intervening 20-plus years. This is actually significant. We are supposed to believe that these glyphs were carved in the reign of King Khufu, well over 4,000 years ago. Yet in the vicinity are authentic Aboriginal petroglyphs that are dated to about 250 years ago. These authentic petroglyphs are barely discernible today and most believe they will be entirely gone within 200 years, because of the poor quality of the sandstone. It is the same stone into which the “Egyptian hieroglyphs” were carved, but we are told by the Gosford promoters that they really do date to the third millennium BCE.

These promoters will go to great lengths to bolster their claims. Probably the staunchest supporter today is a man named Hans Dieter von Senff. I mentioned him briefly in Part 2. I am not an Australian nor have I ever been to that country, but I have a strong feeling that von Senff has taken it upon himself to pick up where Ray Johnson left off (recall that Johnson died some years ago). I’ve personally debated von Senff on the Gosford issue in an internet forum to which I belong, and while von Senff is an intelligent and articulate man, I was not left impressed.

Von Senff claims to have found a basalt chisel dating to the original carving of the glyphs (in von Senff’s position, this means 2500 BCE). He insists the chisel contains geological inclusions not native to Australia, the implication being the Egyptian sailors carried it with them from their distant desert homeland. There’s a photo of the chisel in von Senff’s paper, “Ancient Egyptians in Australia. The Kariong Glyphs, a Proto-Egyptian script deciphered” (Page 16), which can be downloaded from the internet as a PDF.

This brings up concerns of removing a possible artifact from government land—remember that Gosford is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While such an act is highly unethical, we needn’t worry. Not surprisingly, there isn’t much to this chisel. The closest access to Gosford is Bambara Road, and in past roadwork the Gosford City Council used countless chunks of basalt identical to von Senff’s chisel as fill. Basalt is plentiful in this area.

A bit of slight of hand, yes, but this is what hoaxers will resort to in desperation.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the Gosford promoters’ chief complaints is that no one credible has been to the site or observed the glyphs to render an expert opinion. Bear in mind that neither Ray Johnson nor Rex Gilroy, nor anyone else among the promoters, are themselves qualified in Egyptology or Egyptian hieroglyphs to render an informed opinion. But if you recall, in Part 1 I included quotes from three different Egyptologists who have seen photos of the glyphs, and all three are in agreement that the site is a hoax. What more need be asked of real experts?

Well, there is more. Numerous witnesses and experts of various fields also agree the site is a hoax. Here is a summary of some of them, together with our Egyptologists:

• 1983: David Lambert, Rock Art Conservator of the Cultural Heritage Division of the NPWS

• 1983: Professor Nageeb Kanawati, Department of Egyptology at Macquarie University, Sydney

• 2000: Australian Egyptologist Dr. Gregory Gilbert

• 2003: David Coltheart in Archaeological Diggings, Vol 10 No 5 Oct/Nov 2003 Issue No 58

• 2012: Dr. Ray Johnson, Egyptologist, University of Chicago, director of the Epigraphic Survey in Luxor, Egypt

I hate to beat a dead horse but please do remember that the above Dr. Johnson, a real Egyptologist, must not be confused with the late Australian by the same name.

Some of this is also summarized in a letter penned by Gosford Area Ranger Laurie Pasco (see here), dated May 17, 2011. The effect of this letter is that the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service is officially on record as stating that the Gosford glyphs are a hoax.

And, finally, there is Kenneth Feder’s book Encyclopedia Of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis To The Walam Olum. Feder covers the Gosford site and provides a succinct and convincing conclusion that the site is a hoax. Feder himself comments that the glyphs “are a trasnparent fraud” (2010: 121).

I hope that in the four parts of this article, I have been able to demonstrate the obvious nature of the Gosford hoax. Numerous experts have evaluated the glyphs and have judged them to be fake. I should hope the average amateur historian could come to the same conclusion in a few seconds’ time. For that matter, the average layperson ought to be able to do so. The nature of the Gosford site is absurd on the face of it and stretches logic beyond its limits, but this has never thwarted its ardent supporters from insisting they’re real.

Still, I think we can all agree, no matter how ardent the supporters are, they remain wrong. No amount of zeal can change reality.

Who carved the glyphs? No one seems to know. In all likelihood more than one person is responsible. Why did the original hoaxer(s) do this? The answer to that is even more elusive. Whoever he or they are, I have a feeling he or they are having a great laugh.

This brings it to a close, then. Is there any more to be said? About Gosford, I don’t think so. Yet recently I encountered a fellow on the Net who claims to have found early Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions near Cairns. He insists he was able to translate them, yet he refuses to release his translations or drawings or photos of the inscriptions. And there’s always Rex Gilroy’s yarns about Gympie Pyramid, so all in all there’s no shortage of fringe fun to address Down Under.

But this is enough for now.

My special thanks to Steve S. of All things Woy for allowing me to use his photos and to draw on his own investigative research.

As always, thanks for reading.


Blog All things Woy: It’s life , it’s the constitution , it’s mabo .. it’s just the general vibe of things.

Feder. Kennth L. Encyclopedia Of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis To The Walam Olum. 2010.