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.