The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Letters from Luxor and the Egyptian Society of South Africa

Dear all,
since last year John and I have had the honor and great pleasure to write a series of smaller articles under the umbrella title “Letters from Luxor”, exploring the still preserved archaeological material in the southern valleys of the Theban Mountains. When we started to document this material, which include everything that is visible on the surface, we followed the maps provided by the famous Howard Carter as a result of his 1916 explorations. Thus, we trace not only the trail of ancient pottery, graffiti and well trodden pathways, but we follow also in the very footsteps of Howard Carter, who’s carved initials, H. C. 1916, illuminate the limestone surface in close proximity of a signature of an ancient forerunner.

We have been given the very kind permission by the editors of Shemu to publish our previous contributions also here on our blog, although for the newest edition including images we would like to encourage you to sign up and become a member of the small, but great Egyptian Society of South Africa!

So, here is our first Letters from Luxor! We hope you’ll enjoy!

November 4th 2012 marks the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. However, since the golden treasures of the famous boy king receive exclusive attention, Carter’s previous expeditions are often neglected. In a series of letters from Luxor we aim to take you on a journey through the western valleys of the Theban Mountains, following in the footsteps of Carter’s 1916 expedition, rediscovering those archaeological remains marked on cliff faces with his engraved signature HC 1916, combined with surrounding ancient records undocumented by the British archaeologist.

Living and researching together in Luxor for many years, we work with an interdisciplinary project called the Sirius Project, dealing with ancient symbolism. We trace its origin, development, assimilation and eventually usurpation into new, more modern cultures. Modern Luxor is not just a grand open museum with its wonderful variety of monuments; it is also an extraordinary site demonstrating various stages of dynastic expressions. Moreover, preserved within its architecture and its mountains’ cliff faces are testimonies engraved by individuals other than the aristocratic elite. Included under symbolism, these graffiti reflect a piece of society less acknowledged by the general public, unfortunately too often put in the shadow of Egypt’s more glorious historical events.

Graffiti have traditionally held an important role in archaeologists’ quest for the ancients’ burials: it led Carter to the unfinished tomb of Hatshepsut deeply embedded within the Theban Mountains’ so called lost cemetery of the royal families. As the valley landscape has changed little since the time of Carter’s expedition, the three routes to approach remain identical: one can enter via the two mountain passes to the sides, or one can walk in from the plain above Malqata. Since our interest was not that of entering the tomb of Hatshepsut as it was for Carter who had himself wired down from the plateau, we choose to ride in on our horses, enabling us to notice and document along the path all tell tale signs of the ancients.

Sherds of pottery from various dynasties and periods of late antiquity lay strewn around us, providing us with a bread crumb trail to the various archaeological records. Most of the pottery trails were the result of run offs, where water has cascaded down through the valleys and deposited the pottery sherds when the water was soaked up by the thirsty earth that it ran over. Traversing the boulder ridden surface of the wadi we (re-)discovered a plethora of inscriptions and graffiti together with pottery thrown out of the four documented plundered tombs.

Today, following years of excavations by professionals as well as plunderers, all tombs are opened. Two of these are pit tombs, deep shafts cut into the cliff face, descending several meters making it impossible for anyone to enter without the aid of ropes and tackle. The third burial is a corridor tomb, documented by Carter as plundered by Arabs. The main burial in the valley, the unfinished tomb of Hatshepsut, is located 70 metres (229 feet) above ground in the main cliff face with no obvious means to gain access. While the tomb itself is of undeniable interest for many reasons, we were more intrigued by the ancient graffiti dotted along the cliff face below the tomb.

These graffiti range from simple scratched geometrical patterns to carefully engraved hieroglyphic inscriptions, showing a continuation of human interference primarily from the New Kingdom to early Coptic times, including also modern graffiti and signatures of archaeologists. Among the hieroglyphic inscriptions, the most acknowledged belong to the 21st Dynasty scribe Butehamun. Similar to elsewhere in the Theban Mountains, the Coptic graffiti encompass a great variation of messages, depicting religious attributes, expressing piety, naming a visitor, or being simple scribbles with no apparent significance for the modern viewer. One specific symbol caught our interest as we have come across it in a variety of ancient Egyptian sites. It is a symbol we refer to as ‘offering table’, similar to the hieroglyphic sign:

When Carter documented this symbol he used it as an indicator of so far undiscovered tombs in the area. However, this symbol is far from limited to the traditional pharaonic period as it appears also in later times, both Graeco-Roman and Coptic, hastily scratched on the cliff face or more elaborately engraved in quarries. Below the tomb of Hatshepsut it appears three times, more likely to express the sacredness of the site rather than additional tombs. These graffiti most probably belong to a later period of antiquity based on their simple and irregular composition.
Carter’s account of surveying the wadi was brief and although he mentioned the graffiti he did not provide his audience with an in-depth analysis. He also neglected to mention a close-by ledge which greeted us with a great variety of Gnostic and Hermetic graffiti. In our next letter from Luxor we will explore together the characteristics of these graffiti and their archaeological location.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Addenda to the conference in Budapest!!!

Dearest all, in all haste I made a terrible mistake in not including the very interesting contribution presented by Eleni Tsatsou from Thessaloniki. Being one of few who actually dared to present an alternative interpretation to a material which for a long time has been restrained due to traditional view points, Eleni analysed the so called uterine amulets from a more erotic, sexual perspective. While scholars traditionally refer to these amulets as connected with the womb and protection of pregnancy, Eleni presented a comparison with the sun disc, and instead of interpreting the uterine symbol as a womb, she suggests that these amulets could be regarded as a type of love amulet. Listening to Eleni’s contribution was refreshing and while the debate of application will continue for sure, it is nice to follow scholars who dare to take a step against the mainstream! 

Magical gems in their Contexts - international workshop in Budapest 16-18 February 2012

Finally, a brief moment to enable a new blog post following months of silence…

The international workshop “Magical Gems in their Contexts” was arranged in the magnificent Baroque Hall at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest 16-18 February 2012. Arriving in Budapest one day too early gave us the opportunity of strolling around, looking at some rather amazing architecture and enjoying a break from Luxor (I know, many of you think, what is there in Luxor to need a break from…). However, the most apparent shock for John and I both was to arrive in a country, which together with the majority of European countries suffered from one of the coldest and snowiest winters in years. So, while we have been freezing in our office in Luxor (as the houses here are not built to stay warm…), we were now reminded of one of the reasons why we left our respective countries in northern Europe.

Entering into the Baroque Hall on the first day of the conference was wonderful; seeing the typical mixture of scholars of different academic levels and from universities all over the world. The most prominent speakers included Joachim Quack, Christian Faraone, Jeffrey Spier and Richard Gordon. The latter, however, had to cancel in last minute, which, of course, was a shame for all of us. Once Árpád M. Nagy and László Török officially opened the conference, they handed over the word to Isabelle Veillard, speaking as a senior manager and representative for Métiers d’Art & Bespoke Watches, Vacheron Constantin – the main sponsor for the conference and the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems database. For several reasons her presentation was illuminating, as the company shows a continuation of symbolism applied still today in watches worn by today’s societies upper elite. Hidden behind the main, often very symbolic motif of their watches is a templar cross, and their interest in the conference was clearly clarified over the coming days.

Starting with the conference per se, Erika Zwierlein-Diehl from Bonn discussed the problems of dating magical gems, followed by Véronique Dasen’s contribution “Jeux d’images, jeux de mots sur les gemmes magiques”. Attilo Mastrocinque from Verona passionately tried to convince the audience of the existence of much larger versions of Ialdabaoth based on iconographic and textual arguments. The so called Challenge Day that followed in the afternoon was there for anyone who wanted to present material to discuss, ask questions and for advice. Chris Entwistle presented a couple of interesting gems from the Byzantine collection at the British Museum, asking for the help of determining their iconography. To our great surprise and disappointment, in a room full of experts on magical amulets no one stood up and discussed theories and possible identifications. In a way, that was what the joint dinners were there for.

The second day opened up with the theme “Magical gems in archaeological context” with Simone Michel-von Dungern presenting an upcoming exhibition at the small local museum in Marktbreit. Her presentation was followed by Shua Amorai-Stark from Beer-Sheba, discussing a selection of unpublished magical stones and rings found in the city of, and on the shores of Caesarea Maritima in Israel. Of great interest here was the fact that an outstanding majority of the stones and rings had been cut in halves or pieces intentionally. Shua explained to us that lately the sand along the shorelines of Caesarea Maritima have withdrawn, leaving large areas exposed with ancient artefacts, among those these magical items. Following this intriguing subject Despina Idnatiadou from Thessaloniki presented two magical gems from the Roman cemetery in Thessaloniki, discussing their origin and cultural belonging.

Next session up was on Jewish and Christian contexts, opened by Gideon Bohak from Tel-Aviv, a scholar known among his own as the Jewish magician, presenting a paper on the use of engraved gems in ancient Jewish magic. Jeffrey Spier from Arizona presented a paper on Solomon and Asmodeus on Graeco-Roman magical amulets and rings, followed by Árpád M. Nagy’s (Budapest) paper on Jewish magical gems.
After lunch it was time for the session “Magical gems and Egypt” in which our contribution was included! Chaired by Christopher Faraone, Joachim Quack from Heidelberg discussed the possibilities and pitfalls in scholarly analysis in studying the development of Egyptian traditions into magical gems. Then it was time for us to enter the podium. While John introduced our topic, I kept pressing the button on the computer, bombarding the audience with images of quarry symbols/marks every 5 seconds, thereby using the power of imagery in a true sense. 

Our contribution was to present a comparison between Graeco-Roman signs of magical amulets and symbols carved onto the Egyptian quarry faces. With John finishing the introduction to our project, I continued with a presentation of the quarries at Gebel el Silsila and our process in cataloguing each individual quarry mark and their surroundings. This work incorporates the documentation of several previously unpublished textual inscriptions, primarily demotic and a few Greek ones, and our aim is to republish the material that George Legrain once gave to William Spiegelberg to publish, with corrections and several new additions of texts! This work is carried out together with Adrienn Almasy, who specialises in demotic texts, and to whom John and I are very grateful to have the opportunity to work with!

Once my part of the talk came to an end, with some evident examples of similarities between quarry symbols and those presented on magical gems (not only the charakteres, but also more fundamental ideas that are expressed, such as the solar deity drawn in his chariot by four horses, represented in Silsila as four stylistic horses placed in the formation of a solar wheel). John then focused on the continuation of ancient symbolism, how we can document symbols and marks during late Byzantine times and in medieval templar architecture being identical with those represented within the ancient Egyptian quarries. Four examples were provided, all present in the templar church of St. Michael in Garway, Herefordshire, representing the hourglass, swastika, alpha, and a symbol commonly known as the vulva. These symbols show no clear indications of being masons’ marks, positioning marks or to have any other purely practical functions. Instead, they are placed in a manner where it is difficult to deny a symbolic significance. So, we handed over to Kirsten Dzwiza with the final words of John (do I sense a touch of Jungian theory in this?) “The amulets performed a specific function as far as the owner believed in the presence of a certain intent that was carried by the symbols placed upon the amulets themselves and had subsequently been activated by its maker. Are we to consider that the same symbols or marks that are not placed on an amulet but on other surfaces, be that architecture or other vehicles, do not carry the same intent? This is surely the essence of all symbolism within the framework of the placebo effect and one’s own personal interpretation of the said symbol or it’s collective.”

One of the great opportunities that was given during these days was for us to meet Kirsten in person, since we have been in contact for some time now, hoping to come together in one way or another with our work. Kirsten has spent several years in collecting information and data on the so called charakteres, the smaller signs and figures that often are depicted on magical gems and occasionally on papyri. Creating a database may sound easy enough, but when dealing with material that need finer classification, such as Kirsten’s and our own, one can come across several problems. So, Kirsten’s paper dealt with the results achieved so far, focusing on pure facts and statistics of “The writing of charakteres on magical gems – decoration patterns, contexts and techniques”. For anyone of you readers who has any good ideas or information on existing computer programs that can be applied to ancient material for classification of finer details, please let us know and we will forward it to Kirsten! For her blog, please go to:

The afternoon was spent listening to the topic of magical gems as protective objects. Christopher Faraone from Chicago presented a very interesting paper on magical gems as miniature statues, a topic, which in terms of theory connects well with our ideas on the quarry marks. We discussed with Chris a plausible development from monumental to smaller and smaller items in line with the individualisation of Egyptian religion, and with the turning away from the traditional temples into the more protected private sphere during the latter part of Egyptian antiquity.

Following Chris’ paper, Paolo Viellozzi from Perugia presented an alternative interpretation of a magical gem in Perugia, connecting its motif with the myth of Dardanos. Unfortunately, very few people in the audience could follow the presentation in detail as Paolo choose to present his paper in Italian, although his slides were 
very informative.

The last session of the conference focused on magical gems in late antiquity and the middle ages. Felicity Harley-McGowan from Melbourne presented the topic of Jesus as a magician, using engraved gems and the representation of crucifixion in late antiquity as arguments. From a personal point of view, two graffiti used by Felicity as comparative material, caught my attention, while John found a companion to discuss the theme of the passions of Christ, represented in Garway church. Following Felicity’s paper, Genevra Kornbluth from Maryland presented the interesting topic of “Pilulae and bound pendants: Roman and Merovingian amulets”. And as the last contributor of the conference, Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth from Pennsylvania presented “For glysterying of the ryche ston”:  Near East magical gems and the sexual body in the Middle English romance Emaré.

In general, attending the conference in Budapest was a true honour and a great pleasure, and it facilitated several new pathways and contacts! The museum and university personal did their very best in providing everything for the speakers, and for John and I it gave us a great opportunity of meeting in person a dear friend of ours, Zoltán Horváth!

The organisers are now giving all attendants time to write up their contributions, eventually to publish the conference proceedings!