Magdalenian Girl…or Woman…or Girl?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

Archaeologists excavating the Magdalenian Woman in 1911.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

An old display of the Magdalenian Woman with inaccurate positioning.

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

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

Postscript (6/22/13)

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

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

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


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

Brothwell, DR. Digging up Bones. 1981.

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

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

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

A response to nonesense, on Giants


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mummification is one of the biggest lies they invented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Answer: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.


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

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

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

Giza Mastaba Series. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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

Lehner, Mark et al. Giza Plateau Mapping Project

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

A Giant Misconception


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramesses II, Battle of Kadesh, Dynasty 19

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

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

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

Scene from a Dynasty 11 funerary stela

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

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

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

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

Scene from the tomb of Rekhmire, Dynasty 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relief showing the goddess Hathor in bovine form

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

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

Facade of the Small Temple at Abu Simbel, Dynasty 19

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

I jest.

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

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

The mummy of Ramesses II, Dynasty 19

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

The mummy of Tutankhamun, Dynasty 18

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

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

The mummy of Unknown Man E, New Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giants are a myth.

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


Heiser, Michael S. Sitchin Is Wrong.

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

Nunn, John F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. 1996.

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

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


What’s up with Mummies?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Deal with reality

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

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

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

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

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

Are they real?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was amused and embarrassed at the same time.

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

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

Why did they mummify?

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

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

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

The ba of Ani rejoining his mummy, British Museum

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

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

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

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

How did they mummify?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canopic jars dating to the Late Period, Field Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profile of the mummy Harwa

A very serene and peaceful-looking old man.

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

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

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

What do mummies feel like / smell like?

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

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

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

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

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

Why show mummies?

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

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

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

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

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

Were they bad/good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactics of the Fringe: Exercises in Futility


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

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

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

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

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

The Origin of Fringe Thought

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Piazzi Smyth, 1819 – 1900

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

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

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

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, 1853-1942

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chronic Astonishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misrepresenting Evidence

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

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

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

Zecharia Sitchin, 1920-2010

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

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

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

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

Cylinder seal VA243

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

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

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

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

Historical Research is Just Plain Wrong/Misleading/Insufficient

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

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

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

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

The Grand Conspiracy

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

Alien overlords!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Heiser, Michael S. Sitchin Is Wrong.

Sitchin, Zecharia. The Stairway to Heaven. 1980.

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

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

Hall of Records: More Atlantis Bunkum?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drilling at the Sphinx in 2008

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

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading.


AERA wesbite on the Giza Plateau Mapping Project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilkinson, Toby. Early Dynastic Egypt. 2000.

Wilkinson, Toby. Genesis of the Pharaohs. 2003.

Exodus: Fact or Fiction?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Delta region of Egypt

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

Mummy of Ramesses II, Dynasty 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory Stela of Mernetpah, Dynasty 19

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

"Israel" on the Merneptah Victory Stela, 1208 BCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.


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

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

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

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

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

Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 1992.

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

The Gosford Glyphs Hoax, Part 4


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

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

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

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

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

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

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

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

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

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• 2000: Australian Egyptologist Dr. Gregory Gilbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is enough for now.

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

As always, thanks for reading.


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

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


The Gosford Glyphs Hoax, Part 3


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We’ve examined the backstory of the Gosford Glyphs, the main players in the story, some of the people who’ve fervently promoted the site as authentic, and have analyzed the inscription itself. Now let’s take a closer look at the hieroglyphs themselves.

I stress again that I am not an Egyptologist nor a professional historian. Nevertheless, anyone who has undergone a certain level of training in Egyptian hieroglyphs should be able, in the span of a few seconds, to determine that the Gosford Glyphs are indeed a hoax. I like to joke that it looks as though a sixth grader who likes hieroglyphs etched the Gosford Glyphs, but in point of fact the sloppy and cartoonish nature of the glyphs is not enough by itself to reveal them as a hoax. Plenty of authentic Egyptian monuments were not carved by skilled artisans simply because the people who commissioned them could not afford skilled artisans. Some authentic stelae and statuettes and the like were originally considered fake because of their poor quality, only later to be determined authentic (this was recently the case with a simple stela in the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago).

Rather, other aspects of the Gosford Glyphs establish beyond question that they’re fraudulent. The most important point is, all of the inscribed glyphs at the Gosford site really don’t say anything. At all. They tell no story. They are almost in total nothing more than a random scattering of Egyptian hieroglyphs. They make about as much sense as anything you or I might type by closing our eyes and pecking randomly on a keyboard. As with any written script, ancient or modern, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs required a fairly regimented system of rules following the grammar and syntax of the language.

So, one might ask, how do Australians like the late Ray Johnson and Rex Gilroy and other Gosford promoters get around this conundrum?

To be sure none of them really understand Egyptian hieroglyphs, or they would at once determine like everyone else has that the Gosford Glyphs are a hoax. Rather, they’ve come up with all sorts of creative and inventive explanations to get around the issue. Most of this stems from the original efforts of Ray Johnson to promote Gosford as real. It’s on him whom we must concentrate since so much of the silly fiction began with him.

One senses in Johnson’s enthusiastic efforts a degree of duplicity. One must wonder, how on earth did Johnson arrive at his “translation” when the glyphs at Gosford clearly don’t relate any narrative at all? It must have required a lot of work on his part to concoct the story and to build the myth from there. I have to wonder if Johnson even believed what he was preaching about Gosford, but he went to real lengths to pass off the glyphs as authentic. This includes letters fired off to people Johnson thought ought to know, such as this one from 1997 to the Gosford City Council and this one from 1994 to Dr. Dia’ Abou-Ghazi in Egypt. I wonder how Dr. Abou-Ghazi, a former director of the Cairo Museum, must feel about being dragged into this sorry tale. Johnson and the other Gosford promoters have folded her into the myth in a fashion that makes it seem as though she were in support of them, when in fact there is no evidence for this. She is merely a peripheral victim in the Gosford saga.

Johnson arrived at a creative explanation for the apparently random and scattered nature of the glyphs. He announced that they are in fact “proto-Egyptian,” of the sort used by ancient Egyptians when the writing system was brand new. Like Johnson argued in his day, those who’ve taken up the banner on his behalf insist that the style of glyphs at Gosford are so archaic that even most real Egyptologists can’t decipher them. So, one can’t help but ask, how is it that Johnson and his retinue somehow can read them so easily?

Now, for a moment of reality. The earliest-known Egyptian hieroglyphs come from a site in southern Egypt called Abydos. Specifically, they were discovered in Tomb Uj by the German Egyptologist Günter Dreyer. Tomb Uj was created in late prehistory, before the kingdom of pharaonic Egypt existed; the glyphs appear on ivory dockets and pottery fragments and date to around 3320 BCE (MacArthur 2010: 119).

Dreyer has proposed a system of translating these extremely ancient glyphs, but not all Egyptologists agree with him. While it does seem many of the glyphs are phonetic in nature, as later hieroglyphs would function, the fact is these glyphs are notoriously difficult to make sense of in some cases. I can’t say that the late Ray Johnson had Dreyer’s discovery in mind when he argued that the Gosford glyphs were “proto-Egyptian” in nature, but even if he did his argument doesn’t hold water. Here is a photo of some of the glyphs at the Gosford site:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

For comparison, here is a sampling of some of the Tomb Uj ivory dockets with their hieroglyphs:

Hieroglyphs from Tomb Uj, Abydos

Clearly, in form and style, there is no comparison. If anything, as cartoonish as the Gosford Glyphs are, they are obviously more similar in form to hieroglyphs from most of pharaonic Egypt.

Some of the glyphs at Gosford do not even seem to be from the ancient Egyptian repertoire. One resembles a bell and another a spaceship (although alien encounters were not being implied…one hopes). Johnson got around this by stating the earliest stages of hieroglyphs numbered far more than most Egyptologists are aware of. Again, one wonders how Johnson, not an Egyptologist or historian, knew this fact when legitimate Egyptologists and historians do not. In any case Johnson argued that in the earliest stages of the script, there were more than 2,800 hieroglyphs. This would explain it, then.

Or not. Through most of pharaonic history, the repertoire of hieroglyphs exceeded 700. Some came and went, some were joined with others, and there were always a number of variants for certain glyphs. In point of fact the number of hieroglyphs was larger in the earliest periods, but reached its peak at around 1,000 in the Early Dynastic Period (Stauder 2010: 145). Some hieroglyphs were already falling by the wayside at this earliest time, and much of the full repertoire of glyphs recognizable from later periods was already in place by early in the Early Dynastic Period.

Johnson muddied the waters a bit more by explaining the glyphs might look a bit rough and contain errors because the men who cut them in the Early Bronze Age were not adept at such work. There is a hint of truth in this because not all scribes were blessed with noticeable skills, but let’s remember that this was supposed to be a royal expedition. We’ve already seen that the two principal players, princes Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru, are not attested as sons of King Khufu and are more than likely just made up, but allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

These were two royal sons supposedly setting out on a dangerous and adventurous voyage. The Egyptians really did like this sort of thing, and it was the stuff of legends. Whenever a royal expedition set out, be it for trading or war, professional scribes accompanied the expedition so as to record everything. On more than a few occasions, what scribes recorded on trading or military expeditions ended up as official royal propaganda on the walls of state temples.

So Johnson’s explanation falls flat here, too. The alternative is to believe that Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru were a pair of misfits who were embarrassments to the court, so King Khufu dispatched them on a perilous journey with half-assed scribes in the hopes they would all die somewhere far away. If that’s the case, then Khufu’s plan was a grand success and the Gosford Glyphs are the real deal.

I jest. It’s hard to avoid chuckling over things like this.

About the only places where the glyphs actually do spell something are several names. We can read them on the sandstone walls of Gosford. Still, even here there are obvious errors. We can focus on one pair of names, as seen below:

"Cartouches" at Gosford

This image has been enhanced to make the pair of names stand out clearer. Immediately one notices the odd, squarish nature of the “cartouches” surrounding the names. They resemble something midway between cartouches and serekhs. The cartouche was a highly sacred symbol representing eternity—specifically the path of the sun; the name written inside a cartouche basically implied the owner of that name held dominion over everything around which the sun travels (in other words, absolutely everything). No true ancient scribe, even of minimal training, would carve cartouches like these. This would’ve been akin to an insult.

The name at left is Khufu and the name at right is our imaginary prince Nefer-Ti-Ru. The glyphs for Khufu are correct in form and orientation. However, the glyphs for Nefer-Ti-Ru are muddled and out of order, specifically the two at top. For that matter, the glyph at top-right, which is supposed to represent the “Ti” portion of the name, is not correct for that sound value. It more resembles the glyph designated S39, a shepherd’s crook (Allen 2001: 442), which carries the sound value awt (pronounced something like “ah-oot”).

These are not the mistakes of a poorly trained pharaonic scribe: these are the mistakes of a modern person not acquainted with hieroglyphs.

I might be nitpicking, as I tend to do, but now let us turn our attention to the glyphs positioned above the cartouches. The two paired above Khufu’s cartouche (left) are more or less correct and can be translated as “King of Upper and Lower Egypt” or “He of the Sedge and Bee” or “King of the Dualities,” depending on your preference. However, they’re oriented backwards—they read in the opposite direction from the name. A real scribe would never have committed such an obvious and egregious error. Those above the name of Nefer-Ti-Ru (right) are also oriented backwards. They read “Son of Re” (sA-ra), a title used by kings for most of pharaonic history.

However, two things are clearly wrong about this. First, Nefer-Ti-Ru was not a king at all. It’s not just that he’s imaginary and cannot be attested in the historical record—his name should not be in a cartouche and he definitely should not carry the epithet “Son of Re.” Moreover, although widely attested in the historical record, this title did not appear for kings until the reign of Djedefre, son and successor of Khufu (Quirke 1996: 47). This is the kind of mistake made by someone not well acquainted with ancient Egypt and the development of royal titles and epithets—but not something a real scribe would ever have done.

We can toss in here an instance for the name of the other main player, Nefer-Djeseb:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

At the top is an imaginative blending of titles which seems to read “The king, Son of Re.” I’m not aware of this in the royal titularly, but then again, as with Nefer-Ti-Ru, Nefer-Djeseb was a prince and should not be referred to as Son of Re in the first place. In any case the fact that the name appears inside a box is decidedly odd. This is not attested for personal names in pharaonic Egypt. And the glyphs certainly do not spell Nefer-Djeseb. Rather, they seem to render something like “Nefer-es-ed-eb.”

I particularly like this photograph because it’s a terrific example of random carvings made by the original hoaxer. Most of the shapes around the name-box don’t even seem to be Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hoaxer must have been running out of ideas by this point.

In our analysis of the hieroglyphs themselves we have seen that in total they do not say anything. They are a random scattering of glyphs that relate no narrative, and so how Ray Johnson arrived at his “translation” is anyone’s guess. To be sure, what Johnson concocted is complete imagination on his part. We have seen how Johnson’s arguments about “proto-Egyptian” and “unknown” glyphs do not survive scrutiny. We have seen the clumsy and amateurish errors. We have even seen how some of the glyphs are not ancient Egyptian at all.

As I said at the beginning of this installment, one can determine in the work of a few seconds that the Gosford Glyphs are a clear hoax. Those who promote the glyphs continue to build on the farce, and they do so with conviction and passion, but it doesn’t matter. They’re not taken seriously for a reason. The more they contrive, the more they fail.

I’ll share one more installment to the hoax of the Gosford Glyphs. We’ll look at what others have to say about the site and will bring this business to a close. As always, thanks for reading.


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

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

Stauder, Andréas. “The Earliest Egyptian Writing.” Visible Language. Christopher Woods, Emily Teeter, & Geoff Emberling, ed. 2010.

Quirke, Stephen. Who Were the Pharaohs? 1996

The Gosford Glyphs Hoax, Part 2


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For our new segment on the hoax of the Gosford Glyphs, it’s a good idea to take a closer and more analytical look at the story itself, as translated by the Australian Ray Johnson. For anyone who is versed in the ancient Egyptian culture, religion, and inscriptional material, the story presents a number of notable oddities. For the sake of convenience, I repeat the translation below:


The Egyptians left us a veritable wealth of inscriptions and texts from all periods of pharaonic history. Indeed, until Jean-François Champollion cracked the hieroglyphic code in 1822, no one knew anything meaningful or substantial about ancient Egypt. Almost two centuries of steady decipherment, linguistics, and philology have opened Egypt to us—teaching us everything from their personal names to the names of their deities to the most enigmatic rituals in their religion.

I’ll pull only some examples of oddities from Ray Johnson’s translation. The more I read it, the more fault I can find in the translation, to the point that almost every line presents something dubious or unlikely.

We can start with the main players in the story, the princes Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru. As I explained in Part I, these were supposedly sons of King Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid and one of the most powerful monarchs of the entire Old Kingdom. If we search actual monuments from the reign of Khufu, can we find evidence for two sons named Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru? This should be easy enough. In the tombs of Giza, especially in the mastaba field to the east of the Great Pyramid, we find the family members of Khufu—their names inscribed not only in their own tombs but also in the tombs of fellow family members. Khufu’s family is well attested, in other words.

The answer for Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru is: No. They are not mentioned. And yet we know the names of Khufu’s children, both sons and daughters: Neferetiabet, Kawab, Hetepheres II, Djedefre, Hordjedef, Minkhaf, Babaef A, Meryetyotes II, Bauefre, Khufukhaf I, Meresankh II, Horbaef (Dodson & Hilton 2004: 52-61). So why should two sons named Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru be completely unattested except for a dubious smattering of glyphs on rock faces in Australia? This alone is highly suspect.

Whoever etched the Gosford Glyphs may have been decidedly unlearned in Egyptian hieroglyphs but they knew at least enough to be clever. The “nefer” element was safe to go with. Meaning such things as “beautiful,” “good,” and “perfect” in the ancient language, “nefer” was a common part of names for both males and females (think of two of pharaonic Egypt’s most famous queens, Nefertiti and Nefertari). To the uninitiated, then, the two “nefer” names at Gosford have a familiar ring and are therefore believable. However, as much as “Djeseb” might sound like ancient Egyptian, try as I might I could not find any record of this name or root or word in the ancient language. It’s a modern invention. As for “Nefer-Ti-Ru,” I could find very little at all. The only thing I came across that might be close is the name Nefertiry (another way to render Nefertari), and there was a Nefertiry B: a daughter of Tuthmosis III whose name appears in that king’s tomb, KV34 (ibid 140). This of course would have no relation with the invented “Nefer-Ti-Ru.”

So right off the bat the two main players in the story clearly come across as a modern attempt to represent Egyptian-sounding names. What else can the translation tell us?

Quite a lot. It’s loaded with factual errors. One that jumped out at me is the reference to the “Golden-haired god Re-Heru.” Re was of course the principal solar deity of ancient Egypt, and Heru is a decent rendering of the name of the falcon god Horus as it might have actually been spoken in the ancient tongue. The synthesis of these two gods, Re and Horus, goes back to the very earliest times in Egypt, but the proper form of the name is Re-Horakhty. This might be a fussy point for me to make but I admit to being a stickler for details, and this is not the sort of error a real translator should make. More bizarre, however, is the epithet “Golden-haired god,” which makes Re-Horakhty sound like some sort of Scandinavian studmuffin. In point of fact the Egyptians themselves held that the skin of Re was made of gold, his bones were of silver, and his hair was of lapis lazuli (which means his hair wasn’t golden but blue).

There is also the repeated reference to “fellahin.” I can’t think of any modern translation that would use this term to refer to ordinary people or a work crew of sailing crew in ancient Egypt. In fact, “fellahin” is an Arabic word to describe farmers or agricultural workers. A word in ancient Egyptian for ordinary people would be “khet” (Xt) or even more commonly “rekhyt” (rxyt) (Faulkner 2002: 152, 200). To refer to the men specifically as the crew of a ship, as these men were supposed to be, the term would be “iset” (ist) (ibid 30). This might also be a fussy point, but it goes to the accuracy of translation (or lack thereof) and whether the translator is merely making it up based on his or her lack of training in the ancient script.

Titles and epithets in the story are particularly odd. In one line, for instance, Khufu is provided the title “Lord of the Two Adzes.” King’s titles and epithets are particularly well attested from all periods, understandably, but this isn’t one of them. “Lord of the Two Lands” was certainly a common title for kings, but one wonders where “Two Adzes” comes from? “Father of the Earth” is found at the end of the story but who or what is “Father of the Earth?” Geb was a prominent earth deity but this isn’t a title for him. The phrases “Great Maker” and “O Most High” sound a lot more Judeo-Christian than ancient Egyptian.

Unusual is the point near the middle of the story where we’re told the crew “prayed to the Hidden One.” Now, this does fit well with the god Amun, whose name more or less translates as “Hidden One.” It is a decidedly noticeable anachronism in this case, however, because Amun was a very minor deity in the Old Kingdom and isn’t seen in the Egyptian pantheon until the earliest appearances of the Pyramid Texts at the end of Dynasty 5, more than 150 years after the time of Khufu. This was not a deity to whom this sailing crew should have been praying. Amun would not have been important to them. Amun did eventually become an extremely important deity, but in Egyptian history he didn’t start to emerge as prominent until the Middle Kingdom (Wilkinson 2003: 92).

At one point we are told of an obelisk that was “overturned, but not broken.” The obelisk is one of the hallmarks of ancient Egypt, and a familiar sight to us all. It was co-opted by all sorts of cultures, ancient and modern; think of the Washington Monument. However, obelisks were not always a fixture in pharaonic Egypt. The earliest one on record which was carved for someone other than a king dates to Dynasty 6 at the end of the Old Kingdom (Quirke 2001: 135), and this is of course well after Khufu.

On a last note, one of the most prominent carvings at Gosford is this tall figure:

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

This is the deity recorded as “Suti” in the translation of Ray Johnson. Even most kids whom I’ve met would immediately know that this is supposed to be Anubis, one of the primary deities of the underworld and patron god of ancient Egyptian embalmers, so where does “Suti” come from? “Suti” is an alternate spelling for the name of the god Set, the deity associated with chaos, storms, and the desert. So why did Johnson “translate” the above figure as Suti and not Anubis?

This is a bit of a puzzle. One of the followers of Ray Johnson’s work is an Australian man called Hans-Dieter von Senff. He wrote a paper titled “Ancient Egyptians in Australia: The Kariong Glyphs, a Proto-Egyptian script deciphered.” It’s one of those papers you can download on the internet, which is the only place it exists. Von Senff clearly worked hard to support Johnson’s translation and his “Ancient Egyptians in Australia” paper stretches on to 149 pages. It’s a tortured attempt to make Johnson’s translation seem legitimate and, aside from falling well short in that regard, von Senff attempts to explain this odd discrepancy between Anubis and Set by framing “Suti” as more suitable for travelers and the only deity that could be used in this Australian setting for the deceased Nefer-Ti-Ru.

One could go on for a while refuting the flawed reasoning in von Senff’s explanation, but one is immediately caused to ask: if the Egyptian carver intended the figure to be Set, why not use a figure of Set instead of Anubis? The forms and iconography of Anubis and Set are entirely different and would’ve been very familiar to ancient Egyptians, from all periods. In any case, Set was not an afterlife deity in most respects, especially in the Old Kingdom when our story is supposed to have taken place.

In my next installment on the Gosford hoax I’ll go into more detail on other clear errors in the glyphs. But all in all, whoever carved the glyphs and initiated this hoax, they don’t seem to have anything whatsoever in common with the translation Ray Johnson concocted. It’s a completely transparent invention on the part of Johnson, and it’s just plain silly. This is not the translation work of anyone truly acquainted with the ancient Egyptian language, the orthography of hieroglyphs, or the fundamentals of ancient Egyptian religion and culture.

I hope you’ll keep reading.


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

Faulkner, Raymond O. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. 1962.

Quirke, Stephen. The Cult of Re: Sun-Worship in Ancient Egypt. 2001.

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