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.

The Gosford Glyphs Hoax, Part 1


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Australia brings up images of exotic landscapes and vast tracts of wilderness. It was originally inhabited by Aborigines tens of thousands of years ago and, much later, by Europeans as a penal colony. Australia has brought us colorful characters like Crocodile Dundee (I’m dating myself by that reference) and Steve Irwin. The dialect of English spoken there is charming and immediately recognizable. This land is a modern tourist destination for those among us who want to experience the culture of Sydney and the adventures of the Outback.

But who would’ve thought that one of the first bands of tourists were ancient Egyptians, thousands of years ago?  Few would imagine that the builders of the Great Pyramid and the founders of the world’s first nation-state would also sail the wide-open seas and find themselves Down Under.

If you find yourself in southeast Australia in the area of Gosford, not far from the coast, you can see the evidence for yourself. There, on numerous sandstone rock faces, are hieroglyphs carved by Egyptians themselves. If you have Google Earth, plug in the coordinates 33°27’4.69″S, 151°18’9.44″E and you can explore the area yourself. Google “Gosford Glyphs” and you’ll come up with all sorts of photos of these enigmatic hieroglyphs, such as this one:

Courtesy of All things Woy

Gosford Glyphs: Courtesy of All things Woy

What do the glyphs tell us? What story lay hidden in the ancient script?

Well, of course, the glyphs have been translated and the translation is widely available on the internet. I shall share the story here:

Thus speaks his Highness the Prince from this wretched place within this land, transported there by ship.
Doing this writing for the Crown of Lower Egypt, according to God’s Words. The fellaheen call out from this place in this strange land, for Suti.
I, Nefer-Djeseb, Son of the King Khufu, The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, beloved of “Ptah” have transported “Suti.”
“He (Nefer-Ti-Ru) is kind (and) benevolent, (a) follower (of the) golden-haired God, “Ra-Heru.” “Two years* that I (He ?) make way westwards, I (He, Nefer Ti-Ru) (put) up strong front, praying, joyful, smiting Insects. His Highness, a Servant of God, He (say’s) God brings the Insects, thus thine own Fellaheen protect.”
The snake bit twice, all those behind the divine Lord of Khufu, the Lord of the two Adzes , mighty one of LOWER EGYPT. Not all go back. (we are) marching forward, (we) do not look back.
(We) all damaged the Boat at low tide. Our boat is tied up. The snake caused the death. (We) gave half an egg (from Medicine) Box (or Chest), (and) prayed to the Hidden One, for he was struck twice.”
A hard road, we all wept over the body, keeping to that, which is allowed. “Seated (by) the Side way.” “With concern and deep love, (the) Fellaheen.
Plants wilting, Land dying, is this my lot from the most high God, of the sacred Mer. The Sun pours down upon (my back), O! Khepera, most High, this is not as the Oracle said. My Obelisk is overturned, but not broken.
The bandaged one is confined, Hear, The Red Earth Region.” Then of Time to grow, (i.e. Spring), We walled in with local Stones the entrance to the side chamber. I counted and impounded the daggers (of the) Fellaheen.
The three doors to Eternity are connected to the rear end behind the bulwark (of the Grave).
A Necklace placed by his side. A Royal Token, signifying Heavens Gift, as from thou…! O Holy Shining Ones. Taken across (to) private sanctuary (of this) Tomb. (Along with) the Silver Dagger, a Royal Token (of the) Great Maker.
Separated from (the city of) “ PENU” (is) the Royal Body (and from) all others. That Regal Person that came from the House of God, Nefer-ti-ru, the Son of Khufu, King of Upper and Lower Egypt , who died before, is laid to rest.
He is not of this place. His home is Penu. Return him to his town . One third of (the) fruits, I myself divided for the burial service. Hold his Spirit with love, O most High. Worms in the basket of fruit, going into (him), shall not be.
May he have Life, everlasting. Am I not to go back besides the Waters of the Sacred Mer, Then clasp him, my Brother’s Spirit to thy side, O Father of the Earth.

There you have it. We have two princes, Nefer-Djeseb and Nefer-Ti-Ru, sons of the great king Khufu, leading a band of Egyptian sailers to far-off Australia. Their ship ran aground, and evidently Prince Nefer-Ti-Ru succumbed to a snake bite. He was interred there, in the rocky outcrops near modern Gosford, 4,500 years ago.

We know the timeline because of the clear mention of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, one of the mightiest edifices of pharaonic Egypt. Khufu reigned around 2547-2524 BCE, the second king of Dynasty 4, early in the Old Kingdom. His father was Sneferu (2597-2547 BCE), builder of three large masonry pyramids.

So, we know the backstory, we know the timeline, we know the main players. We can see the hieroglyphs for ourselves, splashed over those sandstone rock faces. The inscriptions are most commonly referred to as the Gosford Glyphs due to the nearby community of Gosford. They’re also known as the Kariong Glyphs because they’re located in the Brisbaine Water National Park, Kariong, which is a wilderness area governed by Australia’s National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

But are the inscriptions real? Did a hardy band of Egyptian sailors really set out from Early Bronze Age Egypt and ply the open waters of the ocean for thousands of miles to travel to Australia? Logic and reason would tell you, no.

Logic and reason would be correct, of course.

This is absurd on the face of it. Nevertheless, the Gosford hoax has a zealously loyal band of believers, most of whom seem to be a number of Australians who passionately build on the hoax to deliver it to us as authentic. Whether some or most of these Australian believers had anything to do with the creation of the hoax is not clear, and it’s not even clear if they honestly believe in it themselves, but goodness, do they rise up in defense of it!

So in honor of the Gosford Glyphs I’m writing this article to explain and demonstrate in no uncertain terms why they’re so obviously a fraud. If nothing else, my humble article will be one more voice of reason out there on the Net. There is too much material to cover in one segment, so I intend to break it up into more than one entry.

To begin, let’s introduce a couple of the modern players who defend the Gosford Glyphs. The above translation was concocted by an Australian named Ray Johnson, who passed away some years ago. You will see on any number of web pages mentioning that Mr. Johnson was an Egyptologist. This is not accurate. By the statements Johnson made and by the things he wrote, it is abundantly clear that Johnson did not possess much understanding of pharaonic Egypt and definitely did not understand the protocols and techniques necessary to translate hieroglyphs.

You will see any number of people who promote the Gosford Glyphs proclaiming themselves to be archaeologists and/or Egyptologists, when it’s clear none of these people possess any credentials in those fields. You’ll also notice they love attaching “Ph.D.” to their names. While I’ve spent years studying Egyptian hieroglyphs myself, and have worked hard on my ability to conduct translations, I have no problem stating outright that I am neither an archaeologist nor an Egyptologist. Honesty is critical in historical studies and research, so few things push my buttons like folks who enjoy pretending to be things they are not.

Some of the characters in this Gosford drama have written documents you can find and download on the internet. They’re in this format, of course, because no publisher would dare to touch them. I am not interested in promoting their work or linking you to their “papers,” so I leave it to you to hunt them down, if you wish to.

Ray Johnson is obviously something of a cult hero to these fringies. They proudly refer to him as an Australian Egyptologist and intimate that Johnson performed cutting-edge linguistic research at the Gosford site. As laughable as the whole thing is, admittedly I’ve taken the time to download and read their papers. There is immediate confusion with the name Ray Johnson, and to me this is troublesome.

Many people familiar with the field of Egyptology will probably have encountered an Egyptologist named Ray Johnson. Indeed there is one. Dr. Ray Johnson is from the University of Chicago, Oriental Institute, and is the director of the Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. Dr. Johnson is a leader in the field of Egyptian epigraphy.

It must be stressed that the Australian Ray Johnson and the University of Chicago Ray Johnson are two different men. Do the acolytes of the Australian Johnson make this clear? One would think so, especially given the fact that the Australian Johnson is deceased and the University of Chicago Johnson is still very much with us (he was one of the speakers around five years ago at the Oriental Institute when I was training to be a docent there). But it’s not always that clear, in fact.

One of those papers you can download from the internet is called “Burial Site of Lord Nefer-Ti-Ru,” by an individual called Dr. R.M. de Jonge. The manner in which de Jonge provides citations and references is very loose and free, and at least two different references definitely refer to the University of Chicago Ray Johnson in a manner that seems to imply he was involved with the study of the Gosford Glyphs. I can’t outright state that de Jonge is trying to pull a trick on us because it might be nothing more than a case of an individual not knowing how to cite properly.

This matter was brought to the attention of the University of Chicago Ray Johnson, who kindly replied by email and explained:

That Ray Johnson is not me. I have never translated any faux Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions in Australia (those rock inscriptions were clearly not done by any ancient Egyptians). That Ray Johnson, whoever he is/was, has/had no association with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and I suspect is not an Egyptologist…

That’s clear enough, then. But the real Dr. Ray Johnson is not the only Egyptologist who’s weighed in on this issue. Professor Nageeb Kanawati, from the Department of Egyptology at Macquarie University, stated in May 2011:

…A few years ago I examined, only from photographs, these so-called Egyptian inscriptions at Kariong, and am sure that they mean nothing and are mere scratches made by a amateur…

Additionally, another Australian Egyptologist named Dr. Gregory Gilbert, noted in 2000:

I recognise these photographs as being from an Australian rock depiction which supposedly has evidence of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I believe that the inscription is a modern forgery, and not a good one at that.

I bother to share the words of these three Egyptologists because one of the claims of the fringies who so ardently support the Gosford Glyphs is that they’ve never received attention from academia and that all counterarguments are sloppy and incorrect. In other words, they present their own work as infallible while all negative comments are inherently flawed. As arrogant and unrealistic as this is, it is a common tactic of fringe adherents.

Incidentally, another big promoter of Gosford is an Australian named Rex Gilroy. He has his own website. I’m sure pretty much everyone living in Australia must know of Rex Gilroy, and no doubt many fringies enjoy his work. Gilroy argues that not only Egyptians but Phoenicians were ancient visitors to his land. Then again, Mr. Gilroy also argues in favor of UFOs and the Australian version of Bigfoot (Yowie), so I don’t know how credible he is to begin with. I’ll bet he’s a hell of a story teller, however.

In my next installment I’ll break down the specifics of the Gosford Glyphs: when they actually date to, the nature of the hieroglyphs, the story the Australian Ray Johnson concocted, and how we know for certain all of this is just a tremendous load of bull-flop.

On a closing note, the photos I’m sharing in the Gosford articles are used with the permission of Steve S., author of a terrific Australian blog named All things Woy (LINK). More than probably anyone Steve has documented the Gosford phenomenon, its origins, its development, and its investigations. I’m indebted to Steve and highly recommend his blog.

Sheshonq I and Jerusalem


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My own personal studies of Egypt have led me into researching the foreign peoples with whom it came into contact, either through diplomacy, trade, or war. Egypt would never have become the superpower of the Near East had it not been for its conquests of the New Kingdom, in the Late Bronze Age. These studies eventually nurtured in me a strong interest in ancient Israel and the development of its kingdoms and the Old Testament.

Some years back I read Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s David and Solomon. Finkelstein is a colorful and outspoken biblical scholar, and is certainly regarded as controversial by some of his colleagues (especially William Dever, another noted scholar). What I like about Finkelstein is his secular approach through the latest findings of archaeology and his careful, pragmatic dissections of biblical passages, as well as extrabiblical texts. Even to this day too many biblical scholars tend to take the Bible at its word, which is a stale and unreliable approach. Finkelstein is especially adept at searching out the kernels of historical truth at which the Old Testament hints. To be honest, however, Finkelstein’s minimalist leanings are quite obvious, and he goes against the flow. But maybe that’s why I enjoy his work.

David and Solomon takes a close look at these two principal characters in the earliest stages of the Judaic kingdom, and sorts out the facts from the fables. There is very little evidence that either of these two men actually existed, though David himself, as Finkelstein argues convincingly, may have arisen mythically from an actual leader of bandits at the dawn of the first millennium BCE. It’s possible the real David headed a group of Apiru, those raiding ruffians who made life so difficult for the rulers of Canaanite city states at that time—and even as far back as Dynasty 18 in Egypt (the Amarna Letters allude to them).

But what interests me here is the campaign of the Libyan pharaoh Sheshonq I (950-929 BCE), who ruled from Tanis at the start of Dynasty 22. This is one rare instance in which the Old Testament provides the name of a particular Egyptian pharaoh, in the Book of Kings. There is little doubt among scholars that the biblical Shishak and the historical Sheshonq I are one and the same; moreover, it’s an historical fact that the Egyptian army swept through the Levant at this time in a decisive military victory. The fact is we can’t be certain if there was one or two or more campaigns, but it is certain that Sheshonq I invaded Canaan. His reign in Egypt was one of the brief stretches of former glory and conquest in the otherwise bleak Third Intermediate Period.

One of the victims of the invasion from the perspective of the Old Testament was Jerusalem. In 1 Kings 14:25-26 it is written:

In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. He carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made.

Rehoboam is actually the first Judaic king for which scholars have some extrabiblical evidence; he reigned from 931 to 914 BCE. These numbers don’t mix perfectly with the recorded reign of Sheshonq I (950-929 BCE), but the figures for this early time in Judah are especially muddled and not always reliable. And it’s important to note that Rehoboam’s link to the Deuteronomistic History at the time of Sheshonq I’s invasion “may be more theological than historical,” as Finkelstein puts it. It’s a memorable example of the “Deuteronomistic principle of sin and divine retribution” (Finkelstein & Silberman 2006: 74). Rehoboam was sinful to the extent that he allowed idolatry, so he darn well deserved to get beat up by the Egyptians. The truth is we can’t be absolutely certain who was in charge of the chiefdom of Judah at this particular time in history.

In any case, this account of the sack of Jerusalem at the hands of Sheshonq I brings up a serious problem. On a massive inscription at the Temple of Amun (Karnak), Sheshonq I left a detailed account of his campaign in the Levant :

Relief carving of Sheshonq I at Karnak

Nowhere on this list does the town of Jerusalem appear. In fact, not a single village or town from the southern Judah highlands is on the list. Some scholars argue that Jerusalem may have been inscribed in one of the sections of the inscription that has broken off and been lost, but this is unlikely. The area of the inscription listing that whole area of Canaan is well preserved.

The archaeological evidence in fact shows that at this time Jerusalem and all of the Judah highlands was little more than a minor dimorphic chiefdom—a simple socio-political unit based on subsistence farming and herding. But to the north of Judah was an emerging polity of greater note (what would later be called the northern kingdom of Israel, though the word “kingdom” doesn’t quite fit in that area at the time of Sheshonq I’s invasion). The north developed at a much faster and more healthy rate than the south in the highlands of Canaan, and it was much heavier populated and contained more towns. And in fact northern settlements like Gibeon and Megiddo are included on the Karnak list of Sheshonq I.

So why does the Old Testament proclaim that Jerusalem was one of the Egytpians’ main targets, when most likely Judah was of little consequence to Sheshonq I? It so happens the rising power in the northern highlands of the Early Iron Age would, biblically speaking, correspond with the kingdom of Saul, the original king of Israel. But the Old Testament teaches us that Saul was deeply flawed (bug-nuts insane might also be an apt description, in his later years), and it is written that God himself more or less regreted anointing Saul as king. Saul would later die a violent and unpretty death along with some of his sons in a battle far to the north, at the hands of the Philistines. This is how David came to the throne, then to unite all of Judah and Israel, and to be followed by his son Solomon.

Again, this is all from the Bible and is not reflected in the archaeological record, but the point is, the scribes who started to write down the first passages of the Old Testament sometime in or after the eighth century BCE, were free to record history as they saw fit. And as the kingdom of Judah saw the kingdom of Israel as wicked, it was best always to record Judah and Jerusalem as the rightful power. It was important to make Jerusalem come across as the most important city of the highlands, even though at the time of Sheshonq I it was likely just a marginal and backward chiefdom.

Ironically, Sheshonq I’s invasion may have been the impetus for the rise of Jerusalem. Destruction levels clearly show that many of the smaller settlements in the northern highlands were never repopulated to any significant extent after the Egyptians withdrew, and it’s likely a lot of these displaced people fled the north and resettled in the southern highlands of Judah.


Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman’s David and Solomon. 2006.


The Osiris Shaft: a Giza cenotaph


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On the Giza Plateau and below the stone-hewn causeway of Khafre’s pyramid complex lies an unusual tomb structure. It’s known today as the Tomb of Osiris or, more commonly, the Osiris Shaft. The latter was so-named by Zahi Hawass, former Minister of Antiquities Affairs. The existence of the shaft tomb has been known for many years, but it was only until relatively recently that it was properly excavated and reported.

A thorough excavation was conducted by a team led by Hawass in 1999. Subsequently Hawass wrote an article called “The Discovery of the Osiris Shaft at Giza” for inclusion in a collection of essays in the publication The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B. O’Connor (2007). Although Hawass certainly didn’t “discover” this subterranean shaft complex, his team was the first to excavate it all the way to the bottom. His essay in the 2007 publication is a summary of the excavation report generated from the findings.

Hawass’s publication of the Osiris Shaft generated widespread interest among archaeologists, Egyptologists, and laypeople alike. To Egyptologists and other professional researchers the Osiris Shaft provided further insight into the general usage of the Giza necropolis down through pharaonic history, and served as an interesting example of the reuse of a putative Old Kingdom cenotaph in the Saite Period (Dynasty 26), when Giza experienced a resurgence of attention and devotion among ancient Egyptians. To laypeople the Osiris Shaft seemed very enigmatic and unusual, even if such might not be true.

And to New Agers, Rosecrutians, and other fringe sects the Osiris Shaft was fuel for vivid imagination and wild speculation, from which has been generated all sorts of mistaken, misleading, and implausible information. You will see web pages, for example, which show mysterious tunnels branching off the Osiris Shaft this way and that, implying secret passages to the Dynasty 4 pyramids at Giza. There are intimations of initiation rites and mystery schools and other phenomena not truly of relevance to pharaonic Egypt. I’ve come across such notions many times myself. Probably you have, too.

I’d like to summarize the known facts about the Osiris Shaft and hope to present a realistic understanding of what this shaft complex below Khafre’s causeway actually is. I will draw mostly from Hawass’s essay mentioned above. The schematic diagrams I will be using are drawn from Hawass’s essay; other diagrams and photos come from various other Web resources.

Earlier Archaeological History

As mentioned, the feature now typically called the Osiris Shaft has been known at Giza for a very long time. In my research I could find no certain mention of the Osiris Shaft under any designation in Porter and Moss’s venerable 1974 publication of the Memphite necropolis (what we call “Giza” today was in ancient times just one extension of the massive and sprawling Memphite cemetery, which also includes Saqqara). The earliest mention I could find for the shaft complex was Selim Hassan’s 1933-34 excavations report for Giza. Hassan describes the finding of the opening to the shaft complex in the sixth season of his work, and goes on to report:

Upon the surface of the causeway they first built a platform in the shape of a mastaba, using stones taken from the ruins of the covered corridor of the causeway. In the centre of this superstructure they sank a shaft, which passed through the roof and floor of the subway running under the causeway to a depth of about 9.00 m. At the bottom of this shaft is a rectangular chamber, in the floor of the eastern side of which is another shaft. This descends about 14.00 m. and terminates in a spacious hall surrounded by seven burial-chambers, in each of which is a sarcophagus. Two of these sarcophagi, which are of basalt and are monolithic, are so enormous that at first we wondered if they contained the bodies of sacred bulls.

In the eastern side of this hall is yet another shaft, about 10.00 m. deep, but unfortunately it is flooded. Through the clear water we can see that it ends in a colonnaded hall, also having side-chambers containing sarcophagi. We tried in vain to pump out the water, but it seems that a spring must have broken through the rock, for continual daily pumping over a period of four years was unable to reduce the water-level. I may add that I had this water analysed and finding it pure utilized it for drinking purposes (Hassan 1944: 193).

Hassan and his men, then, were able to get part way down the shaft complex, but found the remainder flooded. Efforts at pumping were unsuccessful. Hassan was not the only person to find the water in the shaft pleasing because for many years hence it was, in fact, a source of drinking water on the Giza Plateau. In other times Giza guides and nearby village children would swim in the shaft, when the rising water table flooded the complex still further.

Particularly interesting to me in this old report is the suggestion of some sort of superstructure which Hassan notes was “in the shape of a mastaba.” That the shaft complex should have a ground-level structure of some sort is not the least unusual, for if it indeed had been used for burial, such a feature is to be expected. But in more modern publications, Hawass’s included, the remains of a ground-level structure are not reported. It’s possible the ruins of the superstructure were still in evidence in Hassan’s day but have since disappeared.

Take note also of Hassan’s mention of a “subway running under the causeway.” The use of the word “subway” is sometimes mishandled by modern people trying to make sense of the archaeology of the shaft complex, and they take it to reinforce the New Age notion that there are “subways” running this way and that below the surface of the Giza Plateau. All the term refers to is a small tunnel burrowed under the causeway of Khafre’s pyramid complex. This tunnel probably served as a shortcut for priests and other temple personnel to bypass the causeway; a similar bypass was excavated under the remains of Khufu’s ruined causeway, to the north (Hawass 2007: 395).

Hawass’s Excavation: The Physical Plan

Zahi Hawass and his team performed the first full-scale excavation of the Osiris Shaft in 1999. By this point the water table on the Plateau had lowered to the point that a thorough excavation was possible, although groundwater still flooded the lowest areas. Constant pumping operations were required to reach the very bottom chamber of the complex. Hawass’s team revealed three different shafts comprising three different levels, as seen here (from Hawass 2007):

Overview of the Osiris Shaft

The opening to the Osiris Shaft lies near the western wall of the tunnel running under Khafre’s causeway; the tunnel itself is situated south to north under the causeway. The opening to Shaft A can be seen in this photo, in which is visible a modern metal ladder providing access to the first chamber. At its widest the entrance is about 10 feet. The depth of Shaft A is about 32 feet.

Shaft A opens into the first chamber, Level 1. It’s a roughly rectangular chamber 9 feet at its highest point and 13 feet at its widest point. The chamber runs to about a length of 28 feet. As with all three chambers it is roughly cut. No artifacts were found in Level 1.

Shaft B sinks down from the north end of the chamber in Level 1. This second shaft is about 6 feet square and descends to a depth of about 43 feet; the shaft includes a small niche in one wall. Shaft B opens at the bottom into Level 2, which is about 7 feet in height; the original chamber (Chamber B below) was about 12 feet wide and 22 feet long. However, during the resurgence of interest in the necropolis in the Saite Period (Dynasty 26), Level 2 was expanded for the purpose of intrusive burials to include six new, small burial chambers (Chambers C-H below, from Hawass 2007):

Level 2 of the Osiris Shaft

A number of artifacts were excavated from these side chambers, including pottery sherds, ceramic beads, and ushabtis (small servant figurines). Additionally, basalt sarcophagi were found in Chambers C, D, and G; badly decomposed skeletal remains were found in the sarcophagi in Chambers C and G. Based on stylistic grounds the artifacts, sarcophagi included, date to Dynasty 26 (ibid: 386-87).

In a large niche in the southeast corner of Level 2, Shaft C sinks down to the lowest chamber in the Osiris Shaft complex. Shaft C is about 6 feet at its widest point and descends to a depth of 25 feet. There are seven little niches carved into the walls around the opening to Shaft C, in Level 2. It is believed these little niches were used as anchor points for wooden braces used to lower a sarcophagus down Shaft C to the lowest chamber (ibid: 388).

Shaft C opens into Level 3, the lowest space in the Osiris Shaft. This chamber is more complex architecturally, although still rough-cut. The length of the eastern wall is about 29 feet, the western wall about 30 feet, the northern wall about 31 feet, and the southern wall about 28 feet. Therefore, the chamber in Level 3 is more or less squarish in nature. There is a narrow ledge carved into the living rock around the edges of the chamber, and at center a large rectangular emplacement also carved from the rock. This provides a trench running around the stone emplacement, and during excavation operations this trench remained water-filled. At the corners of the trench were the remains of four square pillars, roughly cut and now almost completely destroyed.

A shallow pit had been excavated from the center of the emplacement, and in the pit was found a pseudo-anthropoid sarcophagus carved from basalt. The lid had been found in the floor of Shaft C and Hawass’s team hoisted it back on top of the coffer. Skeletal remains were found inside the sarcophagus which, together with amulets and other artifacts found within Level 3, date to Dynasty 26 (see photo here and plan below, from Hawass 2007).

Level 3 of the Osiris Shaft

An important find in Level 3 was red-polished pottery with traces of white paint, which stylistically can be dated to Dynasty 6, from the end of the Old Kingdom. Therefore, this pottery represents the oldest possible datable material in the entire complex.

As an aside, Hawass does not include it in his 2007 publication, but on his website he has a page devoted to the Osiris Shaft in which he describes an unusual tunnel found in Level 3:

One interesting feature of the Osiris Shaft is a narrow tunnel that extends from the northwest corner of the lowest level. This tunnel is only large enough to admit a young child at its entrance, and further along, it becomes filled with mud. In 1999, I sent a boy into the tunnel to explore it. He was able to go only 5 meters before it became too narrow for even his slight frame…

The web page includes this photo of the young boy exploring the tunnel. Whatever reason the original workmen had for excavating this tunnel, they abruptly ceased their work on it after about 16.5 feet. It would appear to follow the course of a natural fissure, but robotic exploration and endoscopic cameras were unable to learn anything substantial about the course the natural fissure took. This failed side tunnel, then, represents the only “passage” within the entire complex of the Osiris Shaft, which represents an otherwise sealed and self-contained environment. Contrary to New Age and fringe notions, there are no vast networks of secret passageways intersecting with the Osiris Shaft.

Interpretation of Osiris Shaft

From the archaeological evidence the Osiris Shaft seems to date originally from the Old Kingdom and specifically to Dynasty 6 (2355-2195 BCE). As was established during the excavation certain parts of the complex were expanded and/or repurposed for intrusive burials in the Late Period, specifically in Dynasty 26 (Saite Period, 664-525 BCE). Intrusive burial was an extremely common phenomenon throughout the 3,100 years of pharaonic Egypt, and tombs of any sort from earlier ages were basically ready-made for the purpose. Intrusive burials were especially common in the countless tombs of the sprawling Memphite necropolis during the Late Period and subsequent periods.

The Osiris Shaft might date to as early as Dynasty 6 but there is no certain evidence for a burial from Dynasty 6. As stated, the sarcophagus found in Level 3, the original and deepest part of the complex, dates to the Late Period. Hawass argues that the Osiris Shaft was a cenotaph for the god Osiris (ibid: 390). I agree with the possibility of this but not necessarily with all of the conclusions Hawass reaches in his essay to support the argument. There is indeed a well-known cenotaph for Osiris in Abydos: the Osireion in the large temple complex of Seti I. Like the Osiris Shaft at Giza, the Osireion at Abydos was a subterranean ritual tomb for Osiris, and the Osireion seems to have been deliberately built so that its lowest area would be constantly flooded. I question whether the groundwater in the Osiris Shaft was, however, a deliberate design feature of this complex at Giza. It certainly might have been but, in my opinion, it’s not definitively understood. The water table at Giza has fluctuated significantly down through time, and for all we know the men who originally cut the Osiris Shaft encountered no water seepage during their work.

Also, it seems to me Hawass draws on perhaps too much later material to form his conclusions about the nature of the Osiris Shaft. The Osireion at Abydos, for example, was built in Dynasty 19, around 1,000 years after the earliest possible period for the Giza tomb. Now, Osiris as a god does not seem to have been prominent until later in the Old Kingdom, and the earliest evidence for any cult for him is during the reign of Djedkare-Isesi in Dynasty 5 (Wilkinson 2003: 120-21). This means a date of Dynasty 6 will work for Hawass’s argument, so that much is in his favor.

Hawass also notes that the Giza Plateau was known as “House of Osiris, Lord of Rosetau” (pr Wsir nb rA-sTAw) in the New Kingdom (Hawass 2007: 391). This is, however, the New Kingdom, not the Old Kingdom, so the Egyptian word “Rosetau” (rA-sTAw) needs further attention. It’s typically translated as “entrance to underground regions” (Zivie-Coche 2002: 75) or in similar ways. The literal translation for Rosetau is “passage of dragging,” a reference to the sloping entranceway to tombs; eventually the word was extended to mean “cemetry” in general and the Memphite necropolis specifically, later also being applied to Abydos (Lesko 1991: 119-20). Christiane Zivie-Coche argues that Rosetau went on to refer to a specific place at Giza south of the Great Sphinx (2002: 75).

Hawass notes that the water-filled trench in Level 3 bears a resemblance to the hieroglyphic biliteral for pr, “house.” This is perhaps an overemphasis on Hawass’s part for seeing the original construct of the shaft complex as “House of Osiris, Lord of Rosetau.” I personally am not convinced that the tench in Level 3 was designed for that purpose. It seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. The shaft complex itself is uninscribed.

The first god to be associated with Rosetau was not Osiris but Sokar. Originally Osiris appears to have risen as a deity in the southern regions and especially at Abydos, whereas Sokar, a hawk-headed deity, was the original afterlife god of the Memphite region (Wilkinson 2003: 209-10). This means that in the time of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, in all likelihood Sokar held more prominence at Giza than did Osiris. The sum total of archaeological evidence from Dynasty 4 at Giza would seem to bear this out, given the absence of Osiris until the end of Dynasty 5.

The Osiris Shaft as a cenotaph for Osiris remains plausible for Dynasty 6, but equally plausible is as a cenotaph for Sokar. Then again, also plausible is that Level 3 was indeed used for the burial of someone from late in the Old Kingdom, even if no archaeological evidence remains to clarify the possibility.

I might disagree with some of Hawass’s conclusions about the nature and purpose of the Osiris Shaft, but I applaud him and his team in 1999 for their thorough excavation of the complex under unpleasant and dangerous conditions. They at last brought this little-understood feature into the light of day. We can outright dismiss misguided notions that the Osiris Shaft is part of some vast network of secret passageways, and we can equally dismiss arguments that the Osiris Shaft had anything to do with the three Giza pyramids. There is simply nothing archaeological to substantiate such an idea. We can continue to debate what exactly the shaft complex was originally intended for, but at the same time we needn’t expend effort or time in arguing things it was clearly not intended for.

Zahi Hawass’s essay can be downloaded from this link: The Discovery of the Osiris Shaft at Giza.


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

Hassan, Selim. Excavations at Giza, Vol. V: 1933-1934. 1944.

Hawass, Zahi. “The Discovery of the Osiris Shaft at Giza,” The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B. O’Connor. 2007.

Hawass, Zahi. “The Mysterious Osiris Shaft of Giza.” http://www.drhawass….iris-shaft-giza

Lesko, Leonard H. “Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology,” Religion in Ancient Egypt. Ed. Byron E. Shafer. 1991.

Porter, Bertha and Rosalind L. B. Moss. Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings: III. Memphis. 1974.

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

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

Flying machines in ancient Egypt?


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Many people are convinced that the ancient Egyptians were an extremely advanced civilization possessing all sorts of technology that would not be seen again until modern times. Imagined technologies range from remarkably sophisticated machinery to nuclear capabilities. I have no problem whatsoever conceding that the ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilization, but the proper context must be observed. What exactly is meant by “advanced”? To be sure the Egyptians were masterful builders, engineers, and artisans, but all this means is that they were advanced for a mostly Bronze Age people. Facts need to be separated from whimsical fiction.

The image above is notorious for just this thing. You’ll see it all over the internet on half-baked websites; very few authors of websites have bothered to analyze it properly. You can’t help notice that at the right end of the image is a collection of what seems to be flying machines: a helicopter, jet, flying saucer. I concede the unusual coincidence is there, but that’s all it is: a coincidence. Here’s a closer look:

What’s actually going on here? First, when encountering such a thing, one must approach the analysis of it with logic and reason. Where does it appear? What’s its context? What other explanations are there? A common failing of the fringe is to rush to judgement, accept coincidences at face value, and abandon any further attempt at evaluation. “Yes, that thing looks like a helicopter, so it has to be a helicopter!” Well, no, of course it doesn’t. Let’s dig deeper. Below is a wider shot of the actual context for the image:

The image is part of the decoration plan of an architrave, an architectural beam resting atop columns. It can be found in the temple built by Seti I in honor of the god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. This temple is wonderfully preserved and stands in Abydos, one of the most ancient necropoli of pharaonic Egypt and the primary cult center for the veneration of Osiris. Here is the facade of the temple as it stands today:

A true architectural masterpiece. The plan of the temple shows that it is quite large, and is indeed one of the largest temples in the Abydos necropolis. It was commissioned by Seti I (1296-1279 BCE), second king of Dynasty 19 and one of the most powerful monarchs of the New Kingdom, the Egyptian period of empire. He died before the Abydos temple was finished, so it was completed by his son and successor, Ramesses II (1279-1212 BCE). That Ramesses II stepped in to finish his father’s temple is significant to the nature of the odd image which is the subject of this article, so we shall return to that in a while.

A king’s most important monument was his tomb. Seti I was buried in the Valley of the Kings in the tomb designated KV17 (also known as “Belzoni’s tomb” in honor of its discover, the charismatic Giovanni Belzoni). Of next importance, one might argue, was the king’s mortuary temple. This is where his soul would be venerated and serviced in perpetuity. As with almost all of the other many New Kingdom pharaohs interred in the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary temple of Seti I was located to the east of the valley, on the other side of the ridge and near the cultivation bordering the River Nile. Beyond that, a king might commission any number of monuments, depending on his longevity, the stability and wealth of the kingdom when he happened to be on the throne, and his overall status. The Abydos temple was one of these ancillary temples of Seti I, and a very important one for his own ideology and status.

The Abydos temple honored numerous deities, including Isis, Horus, Set, Amun-Re, Re-Horakhty, and Ptah. But the deity who received the focus of veneration was the great god Osiris, for while in life the king was regarded as a deity like Horus or Amun-Re, in death he was recognized as none other than Osiris. The formal name for the temple was “Menmaatre Happy in Abydos” (Menmaatre was Seti’s throne name), although it was also called “The conclave of deities which resides in Seti’s temple” in honor of the above-named deities (O’Connor 2009: 45).

The beautiful decoration plan of the Abydos temple makes its overriding purpose quite clear: it was meant to present Seti I in the guise of Seti-as-Osiris. The temple complemented Seti’s tomb and mortuary temple at Thebes in the further assurance that he would not only reach the afterlife but would become one with Osiris, forever (ibid: 43).

So that’s the background for the temple of Seti I at Abydos, as well as the proper context for the odd image that seems to show flying machines. As I mentioned earlier, Seti’s son and successor, Ramesses II, finished the temple where Seti I himself had been unable to. The sections completed by Ramesses were in particular the outer pylons and courts as well as the first hypostyle hall. By all appearances, Ramesses II was in a hurry to finish the temple; in fact, numerous doorways were filled in and closed off, indicating an abbreviation of the original temple plan. And significantly, the portions finished by Ramesses II were only hurriedly decorated (Wilkinson 2000: 146). The architrave in question belongs in one of the areas finished off by Ramesses II.

The architrave itself is a good example of a palimpsest, which is a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed. This was commonly done in pharaonic times for reasons of cost or expediency, the latter of which was more the case for Ramesses II. This king reigned for 67 years and was an enthusiastic builder, but archaeologists like to call Ramesses “the Chiseler” due to his penchant for helping himself to other, older monuments. The fact that the Abydos temple belonged to his father is immaterial: as long as Ramesses II was taking the time to finish it, he was going to leave his presence there.

Below is a color-coded image showing how glyphs were superimposed on the architrave when Ramesses II commissioned its reinscription (credit):

Also at play is erosion, which has obliterated portions of the original inscription, so together with the over-writing, that part commissioned by Seti I is very difficult to read and is not fully translatable. But along with the rest of the architrave the portion over-written by Ramesses is simple enough to translate, and it’s a fairly ordinary royal titulary. It begins Nbty mk kmt waf xAswt…, meaning “The two mistress, he who protects Egypt and repels the foreign lands…” To the left of that are the standard epithets “He of the Sedge and  Bee, Lord of the Two Lands,” followed by the cartouche containing the throne name of Ramesses II, Usermaatre Setepen-re, which over-writes the original name of Seti I (see the image at the top of the article).

This is actual explanation for the “flying machines” of the Abydos temple. There are no flying machines, of course. They are merely the eroded glyphs of a palimpsest. Anyone familiar with the workings of hieroglyphs understands that they represent a fully developed written script guided by grammar and syntax, just like any written language, so it would be illogical in the first place to suppose that the Egyptians were tossing random images of flying machines onto this architrave. The context would not make sense. Nor would such images have anything to do with the purpose of the temple itself, in its intent to unite the deceased Seti I with the great god Osiris.

That is, unless Seti-as-Osiris was hoping to bop around the afterlife in helicopters, jets, and flying saucers. I think not.


O’Connor, David. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs the the Cult of Osiris. 2009.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. 2000.