The Fringe Scorecard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexplained-Myseries forum discussion:

The Joseph Smith Papyri: A critical analysis


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The papyrus Smith called "The Book of Abraham"

The papyrus Smith called “The Book of Abraham.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intact mummification scene from another funerary text.

Intact mummification scene from another funerary text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


A mummy named Harwa


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

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

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

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

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

The mummy of Harwa

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

Harwa's display in the exhibit

Harwa’s display in the exhibit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The face of Harwa

The face of Harwa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The coffin of Harwa

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

Coffin of Harwa

Coffin of Harwa

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

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

On the coffin’s midriff is a funerary scene:

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

Funerary scene on the front of the coffin

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

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

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

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

The goddess Nut, wings spread to protect Harwa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading. I welcome comments and questions.


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

Erman, Adolf. Life in Ancient Egypt. 1894.

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

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

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

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

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

Nip Tuck: circumcision in ancient Egypt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mummy of Ahmose I, Dynasty 18

Mummy of Ahmose I, Dynasty 18

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

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


Late Period mummy of a boy (Field Museum)

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

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

Stela of Uha, First Intermediate Period (Oriental Institute)

Stela of Uha, First Intermediate Period (Oriental Institute)

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

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

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

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

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

Tomb relief showing circumcision, Saqqara

Tomb relief showing circumcision, Saqqara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading. As always, I welcome comments.


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

Filer, Joyce. Disease. 1995.

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

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

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. 2002.

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

Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. 2011.

The enigma of Akhenaten


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amunhotep IV Comes to the Throne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Religious Zealot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Acting Against the Amun Priesthood

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

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

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

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

3. Plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

A boundary stela of the city of Akhetaten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Style of Amarna Period Art

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

Statue of Akhenaten.

Statue of Akhenaten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Akhenaten and Atenism Failed 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

A modern aerial view of Tell el Amarna.

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

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

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

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

Thanks for joining me. I welcome comments and questions.


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

Filer, Joyce. Disease. 1995.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Autopsy in 1925

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

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

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

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

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

The First X-rays: Evidence for Murder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raging Hippo, Panicked Horse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

Head of Tutankhamun as it is today.

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

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


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

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

Amarna Period stela of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

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

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

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

The Original CT Scans: Questions Answered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, Then, Killed King Tut?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. 1999.

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

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

Griffith Institute (The) – University of Oxford website.

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

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

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

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.