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New Tech Offers New Clues to Egypt’s Past

Posted in Ancient Egypt  by antiques

new-tech-offers-new-clues-to-egypts-pastOver the last three decades, technological advancement has allowed archeologists to answer longstanding questions and refute misconceptions about missing details of Egypt’s history. From the remains of ancient rulers to Napoleon’s flagship, et takes you through some of archeology’s most significant discoveries in the last 30 years.

Tombs of the Pyramid Builders

For years it has been assumed that sites exist that could shed light on the lives of the Giza pyramid builders. Now that assumption is backed up by proof.

Since 1990, an Egyptian archeological team headed by Dr. Zahi Hawass has been excavating the remains of the town where the permanent workforce of pyramid artisans and their supervisors lived, In addition, the team also excavated a section where temporary workmen were housed and fed, and a vast cemetery in which all of the pyramid builders were buried.

The cemetery is divided into two sections — an upper section for the artistic overseers, including the overseers of the sculptors, and a lower section for the actual workers. At the time of the pyramid construction, 20 percent of Egyptians were royalty. The tombs yield important information about how the other 80 percent lived.

“The construction of the pyramids was a national project,” says Hawass. “The massive monument symbolized the might and power of the royal house, and many of the large families in Upper Egypt and the Delta contributed to its construction. This was either done by sending money or food.”

New evidence in the tombs put much speculation about the pyramids’ construction to rest. Unlike the 100,000 workers the Greek historian Herodotus estimated to have built the pyramids, the new evidence points to a figure closer to 10,000. Aside from providing proof of their actual numbers, the tombs also confirm their true identities.
“One of the biggest falsehoods about the Great Pyramid of Khufu is that it was built by slaves,” says Hawass. “The discovery of the tombs of the pyramid builders on the Giza Plateau has finally and conclusively put this theory to rest. We now know with certainty that the Pyramids were built by Egyptian men and women — not slaves!”

Had the workers been slaves, he says, they would never have been buried beside the pyramids with tombs prepared for the afterlife.

A Golden Opportunity

Dating back to Roman times, the Valley of the Golden Mummies was discovered by pure chance. In 1996, on the road to Farafra, the donkey of an antiquities guard tripped on the edge of what turned out to be a hidden tomb. The tomb held the mummies of men, women and children, many of which were covered in gold.

The site is of particular significance for the information it provides about the religious and social customs of the Greco-Roman era. Though many of the funerary traditions of the Pharaonic period were still in use until the second century AD, mummification methods used for the Bahariyya bodies were different than those used on New Kingdom-era mummies. Reeds were placed to the right and left of the body, then wrapped with linen and covered with resin. This made the mummies more stable and ultimately better preserved than their New Kingdom-era counterparts.

Hawass and his team brought an x-ray machine to the site and were able to find evidence of how the people buried in the tomb died; they were even able to detect signs of diseases such as cancer.

The Clue of the Queen’s Molar

Archeological technology took another step forward with the search for Queen Hatshepsut.

“[The Discovery Channel] built for us the only DNA lab in the world that is dedicated exclusively to mummies,” says Hawass. “DNA has never before been shown to be reliable for mummies, since it is hard to get a long enough sequence to learn anything useful, and it is very hard to be sure that the sample has not been contaminated. When you take a mummy and put it in another lab that is used for other things, you can have a 40 percent rate of error in the results due to contamination.”

Conducting DNA tests and CT scans on a portable machine donated by National Geographic, the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, one of the notable exceptions in the overwhelmingly male list of pharoahs, was conclusively identified, Hawass says.

The project examined unidentified New Kingdom mummies found in the Royal Mummy Caches. Hawass describes the site as a series of secret tombs in the Valley of the Kings where the high priests of Amun hid royal mummies from the Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth dynasties.

Identifying these mummies is difficult, according to Hawass. “We have to keep in mind that these mummies were moved at night, and we have to know that the bodies could be misplaced and misidentified. When they were being transferred, the mummy of one king could easily be placed in a coffin intended for another.”

In the search for Hatshepsut, two mummies were examined first: a small woman found inside an Eighteenth Dynasty coffin inscribed with the name of a royal nurse called In and an obese woman lying on the floor next to In’s coffin.

Originally discovered by Howard Carter in 1903, the tomb’s inscription named the small woman’s mummy as Sitre-In, Hatshepsut’s wet-nurse. The mummy of the obese woman has its left hand clenched across its chest — a sign of a royal mummy. The obese woman was assumed to be Hatshepsut, but there was no concrete proof.

CT scans were conducted on the two mummies and objects found in the tomb, including Hatshepsut’s canopic jars and a wooden box bearing her cartouches. The wooden box held the key to Hatshepsut’s identity.

“We know from other embalming caches that anything associated with a body or its mummification became ritually charged and had to be buried properly,” Hawass says. “Therefore, it seemed that during the mummification of Queen Hatshepsut, the embalmers put into the box anything that came loose from the body during the mummification process.” Aside from mummified viscera, there was a single tooth inside the box.

Dr. Galal El Beheri, a dentist from Cairo University, was brought in to study the CT scans of the mummies. The obese woman was missing a tooth, and an empty socket in her mouth was an exact match for the tooth in the box. When the results came in, Hawass was finally able to proclaim: “We therefore have scientific proof that this is the mummy of Queen Hatshepsut.”

According to an article by Dan Morrison for National Geographic News in June 2007, Hatshepsut and suffered from diabetes and died of bone cancer around the age of 50.

Identification of the mummies set new scientific standards for Egyptologists. The specialized DNA lab for mummies and the use of CT scans were groundbreaking in the world of archeology.

The Theban Mapping Project

Technology is not simply being used to unearth new treasures; it is being used to preserve old ones.

Packed with countless monuments and riches, Luxor was once the New Kingdom’s capital Thebes. Unfortunately, its notoriety has made it the target of treasure hunters throughout history. Now it is seeing traffic of a different sort, as millions of tourists visit every year to see what remains of the New Kingdom.

To prevent future degradation of the site, the Theban Mapping Project (TMP), led by Dr. Kent Weeks, has worked since 1978 to document archeological finds at the site, beginning with the Valley of the Kings.

As a first step in protecting the heritage of the site, a comprehensive database is being compiled using modern surveying techniques. Future plans include 3D computer models of the tombs. Due to heavy tourist traffic at the delicate site, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) demanded a management plan to preserve the Valley of the Kings in 2004. The World Monument Fund and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), along with private donors, supported the initiative.

The management plan includes a comprehensive diagnosis of factors affecting the monuments on a daily basis. With such a massive task at hand, the project is still underway and remains critical to finding a balance between tourism, exploration and preservation in the area.

The Sons of Ramses II

While working on the mapping project, the team rediscovered the tomb of Ramses II’s sons, the largest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. James Burton, who visited the tomb in 1825, only managed to crawl through a few chambers and never discovered the full extent of the site. In subsequent years the tomb was essentially forgotten.

In 1989, events took an unexpected turn when the TMP team started excavating the tomb and found decorations on the walls. Among the decorations were the names of six of Ramses II’s sons.

A narrow channel was cut through debris that blocked chamber three of the tomb in 1995. Instead of leading to a small side chamber as expected, it led to a 60-meter-long corridor lined with side chambers. Objects including human and animal remains, jewelry and written documents were found at the site. Today the tomb remains closed to the public as cleaning and conservation work takes place.

Hidden Portraits

Sohag’s Church of Saints Bishai and Bigol is unique in Coptic history. Known as the Red Monastery, the site dates back to the early Byzantine period, and contains a number of beautiful architectural artworks.

ARCE headed the campaign to conserve and study the monastery under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Bolman from Temple University. In 2007 the cleaning and conservation of niches and architecture in the southern apse revealed elaborate, colorful paintings. As work progresses, intriguing discoveries are being made, such as a bearded figure emerging from green foliage, reminiscent of the Green Man in Gothic sculpture. Others include peacocks and gazelles among plants and painted curtains.Many images remain a mystery, waiting to be uncovered from behind blackened surfaces.

With substantial support from the Coptic Church, the work continues to reveal more about the monastery, regarded as the heart of a monastic community in the fifth century AD.

Making Waves

Founded by Alexander the Great and once the nation’s cultural and political capital, Alexandria today is being rediscovered underwater. But underwater archeology has a less extensive history in Egypt than the land-based excavations. It was not until 1962 that Kamel Abu-Saadat, now considered a pioneer of underwater diving in Alexandria, convinced the navy to raise a colossal statue of Isis lying eight meters under the waves near the Qaitbey fortress. The project opened the door for other underwater excavations in Alexandria and an underwater archeology department was opened in 1996.

After Abu-Saadat’s work, underwater discoveries took off. Franck Goddio, a French underwater archeologist, and a team of Egyptian archeologists have recovered antiquities that included a statue of a high priest of Isis and another statue thought to be a sphinx representing Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy VII.

In the coastal town of Abu Qir, exciting recoveries were made when Jacques Dumas excavated L’Orient, the flagship of Napoleon’s fleet. Napoleon’s command ship lay 11 meters deep and yielded a treasure of gold coins from Egypt, Malta, Spain and Turkey, as well as artifacts that provided clues about the lives of its crew.

Three other ships, Le Guerrier, L’Artemise and La Serieuse, were also identified; objects recovered from them include iron cannons, small arms, and ammunition, ceramic plates, wine bottles and glass perfume flasks, along with gold, silver and bronze coins.

Underwater discoveries have gained increased importance for Alexandria. According to Dr. Ibrahim Darwish, director of the Alexandria National Museum and former director of the Underwater Archeology Department at the SCA, three earthquakes damaged the city in the second, fourth and twelfth centuries AD and many monuments fell into the sea.

“The Ptolemaic era remains a shady one in history, as we only have accounts from historians from the fourth, fifth and eighth centuries and no substantial material,” says Darwish. “Salvaging and rediscovering many of these sites is important for the study of that period.”

Advances in underwater archeology mean that much of the area’s Ptolemaic history may finally be recovered.

The Islamic Period

Dr. Bernard O’Kane, professor of Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo, is navigating a landscape far different from the watery depths of the Mediterranean, but no less challenging. His project is to record every inscription on Cairo’s monuments, including prayers and Qur’anic inscriptions, not just dates and foundation stones.

“The project is designed to be a tool for historians and architects,” O’Kane explains. “It covers all Cairene monuments constructed before 1800, starting with the earliest Islamic monumental inscription.”

O’Kane’s team is photographing and translating every inscription. “This is a unique feature in the project because it was not done before,” says O’Kane. “Even though records were made by Max Van Berschem in the 1920s to record monumental inscriptions, [they did] not include translation.”

Because some monuments in the city have not stood the test of time, like the Musafir Khana palace that burned down in 1998, the project is invaluable for preserving monuments and providing a resource for future researchers.

The project’s fieldwork required an adventurous three-person team to scale imposing heights and deal with the awkward positions required to access some inscriptions. O’Kane explains, “One took the photos, another kept records and the third sketched a ground plan with arrows pointing to where photos of the inscription were taken.” The crew was recruited from students at AUC’s Islamic Art and Architecture Department, who received fellowships from the project. Some graduate students based their master’s theses on the project.

“Many collaborated in this project,” says O’Kane. “AUC and the American Research Center in Egypt covered many of the costs, especially because I got course release during the time I was working on the project. Also, there was a project director, Dr. Lubna Lufti and three students who received fellowships.”

The project has encountered problems trying to record monuments in military areas such as Moqqatam and Heliopolis; due to restoration efforts some monument inscriptions cannot be photographed. Nonetheless, publication is underway. The Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (Cultnat) is developing user-friendly software for the database so that it can be put on a DVD, slated for release later in the year, followed by a website that will provide updates on the project.

“The publication of this data is most likely going to be a collaboration between ARCE, AUC and Cultnat,” says O’Kane. “It will have worldwide distribution through AUC and will be most beneficial to Islamic art historians, epigraphers and calligraphers, as well as linguists.” — Inspired by

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