Wednesday, February 27, 2013

DNA Testing on Arsinoe IV (?) Fails

Once again, the alleged body of Arsinoe IV (the sister or half-sister of Cleopatra) is in the news. Hilke Thur, an archaeologist at the Acadamy of Sciences in Austria had a DNA analysis done on a body believed to be that of Arsinoe IV, but the body has been touched too many times for an uncontaminated DNA sample to be obtained.

Arsinoe's murder was ordered by Cleopatra after Arsinoe opposed Julius Caesar's conquest of Egypt.

More details are available here:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mesopotamian Winged Genie

Figure 1 - a winged genius from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II
     I have long been fascinated with the representations of winged "geniuses" (or spirits or demons depending on the person describing the reliefs) carved on the walls of the palaces of Assyrian Kings. Sometimes they are portrayed as winged humans, while at other times they are shown as lion-headed or bird-headed humans (see figure 1).

     The iconography of these carvings is not always obvious even to expert assyriologists, but here is a summary of what is known.

     The pine cone held by the genius seems to be used to drip some sort of oil or magical "potion" on the Assyrian King or upon a sacred tree. The oil or potion is contained in the bucket held in the genius' other hand.

Figure 2 - detail of the cloak of the relief in figure 1
     The "demon" wears a fringed cloak (see figure 2) similar to the ones that Assyrian court officials are portrayed as wearing.    
When the genius is shown as a "winged human", he often wears a horned crown that designates him as "divine". Notice also the two handled dagger (a symbol of divinity) tucked into the top of the cloak (figure 2). Also note the rosette worn on a bracelet (on the arm that carries the bucket). This rosette symbolizes the divine source of the spirit's power (even if a friend of mine does jokingly refer to them as assyrian "wrist-watches", see figure 3).

     If you get a chance to view one of these reliefs up close take the time to look at them in detail. The carving of them is often exquisite. The highly detailed carving of the cloak's fringe and of the hair and beards of the human figures is remarkable. Note also how the muscles in the arms and legs are clearly delineated (perhaps too the point of looking a little unrealistic). Also look at the detail work in the feathers of the genius' wings.

Figure 3 - the bucket and "wrist watch"

     One thing to remember about these carvings is that they were once very brightly painted, so we are really not seeing them as they would have originally appeared. Given the great detail-work done on these carvings, it almost seems to be a shame to have painted them as this no doubt partially obscured the beautiful work of some great master sculptors.

Photos copyright (c) 2013 by John Freed

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gudea, Ensi of Lagash

Figure 1 - Statue of Gudea, Metropolitan Museum
     Gudea was the King of Lagash, and possibly a large amount of territory around that city, somewhere around 2150 - 2125 B. C. He styled himself "Ensi" (Governor) of Lagash.

     There are more than twenty statues of Gudea in the museums of the world, so he certainly seems to have been a major King, but little is actually known about his life. We know that he successfully battled the Elamites and constructed a temple for Ningirsu. He also seems to have repaired or added on to the temples of a number of other gods and goddesses.

Figure 2 - Profile view of the status
     In the photos we see a statue portraying Gudea wearing a toga-like garment and a skull-cap crown. The skull-cap is covered with curls that may indicate that the cap is made of the fur of an animal (a sheep?). The King clasps his hands in front of him; archaeologists think that this shows his devoutness to the gods and goddesses of the region. The King's eye-brows bear a herring-bone decoration and the eyes have a clearly delineated eyelids.

     The lower portion of the "toga" that Gudea is wearing is covered with an inscription dedicated to Ningishzida, the King's personal deity. Ningishzida is a god of the underworld and is thought to be portrayed as a serpent on a libation vase that Gudea dedicated during his reign.

     The statue is made of diorite, which is a very hard stone that was possibly imported from what is now Oman.

Photos Copyright (c) - John Freed, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rishi Coffins - a Whole Book on the Topic

During the course of researching the posts I have been doing recently on rishi coffins, I came across a book published on the topic in 2011. The book is entitled Rishi Coffins and the funerary culture of Second Intermediate Period Egypt.

The book, written by Gianluca Miniaci, grew out of the author's doctoral dissertation and contains about one hundred and fifty pages of text followed by a catalog (about one hundred and seventy pages long) of all of the rishi coffins known to the author. This volume is lavishly illustrated with line drawings and photos showing tomb plans, canopic chests and, of course, the coffins in question.

This is the only book on the topic that has been published and it is a really fine piece of scholarship. It is well written and packed with information. It has been published in a large format and is a bit heavy to carry around because it is printed on heavy, high-quality, paper.

This is definitely a specialist's book. It is not intended for lay readers, but is well enough written that an interested lay reader will have no difficulty reading it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Queen Meryetamun

Meryetamun was an Egyptian Queen of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. It is not clear which Pharaoh she was married to. Herbert Winlock, who found her tomb in 1929, suggested that she was married to Amenhotep II.

The Queen's coffins were made in the rishi style that was used for royalty throughout the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasties.

The first of her coffins had originally been covered with sheet gold that was removed either by tomb robbers or by the officials who restored the tomb in the Twenty-First Dynasty. The original decoration seems to have consisted of two wings wrapped around the deceased and crossing at about the knee level of the coffin. Earlier rishi coffins had the wings running along the sides of the lid with an inscription running down from the waist area to the feet, but this coffin does not seem to have had an inscription on it. Above the wings of Meryetamun's coffin was a pattern of small feathers that were "covered" by a broad collar worn around the queen's neck.

The second of Meryetamun's coffins was immense, being over nine feet in length. The arm and breast area of the coffin have numerous carved depressions that contain small amounts of plaster that would have held inlaid "glass" decoration. From the arms down to the feet the coffin seems to have been covered with gold that was decorated with a father-work pattern

The Queen seems to have had a third coffin, even larger than the second one, but only fragments of it survived the attentions of the ancient tomb robbers.

Source: Winlock, Herbert. The Tomb of Queen Meryet-Amun at Thebes, New York: Arno Press, 1973 (a reprint of the original volume published in 1932).    

Thursday, February 7, 2013

New Finds in the Sudan

I saw an article about some interesting finds in the Sudan and thought I would pass it along to everyone.

At a site called Sedeinga, a huge number of pyramids were built. Inside the pyramids are circular constructions that, according to the archaeologists, add nothing to the stability of the pyramid. So why are these circular structures there? One possibility is that the circular structures are a "nod" to the tumuli that were used in earlier times for burials in the region, while the pyramid was a conscious imitation of ancient Egyptian pyramids.

Here is a link to the article:

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Rishi Coffins in the British Museum

Fig. 1 - Seventeenth Dynasty Rishi Coffin
Figure 2 - Dynasty 17 / Dynasty 18 rishi coffin
There are a number of Second Intermediate Period rishi Coffins in the British Museum, including that of Nekheperre Intef, a Pharaoh of the Seventeenth Dynasty.

Figure 1 is a wood coffin covered with gesso and then painted. It is fairly typical of the period, with painted wings extending from the chest down to the feet on either side of a central inscription. The deceased is shown wearing a broad collar on the their chest and the nemes headdress is feathered at the top and decorated with stripes on the lappets. The arms of the deceased are not shown crossed on the chest.

Figure 3 - the coffin of Nebkheperre Intef, Dynasty 17
Figure 2 shows the coffin of another private person. It is possibly from the early Eighteenth Dynasty as the artwork is better and the style seems to fit with a slightly later date than the coffin in figure 1.  The headdress is not a names and the feather-work on the lid is limited to the wings that extend down from the chest area. The usual inscription appears between the wings and a broad collar and vulture necklace adorn the lid's chest area.

The third coffin is that of the Seventeenth Dynasty Pharaoh Nebkheperre Intef. The coffin is made of wood covered with a thin layer of gold. The nemes headdress is the standard one worn by the king since the Old Kingdom and includes a uraeus on its brow.

Nebkheperre’s burial was found at Dra abu Naga in 1827 by local tomb robbers. Inside this coffin were two bows and six arrowsa diadem and a mummy from a later period that was almost certainly placed there by the tomb robbers in an attempt to increase the value of their discovery.

In the next post I will take a look at the Eighteenth Dynasty burial of  Queen Meryt-Amun which also contained some rishi coffins.