Art of Counting Egypt, Art History, Statistics Sun, 15 May 2016 18:46:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 And the arguments over Tutankamun’s tomb continue Mon, 09 May 2016 01:17:34 +0000 At the Tutankhamun Conference this weekend at the GEM, the mysterious potential spaces behind the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was a major topic. The program this morning featured Mamdouh Eldamaty, Nicholas Reeves, Hirokatsu Watanabe, Yasser El Shayb, and Zahi Hawass, all providing their perspectives in quick succession. One can only imagine the lively open discussion after that session.


One brief summary can be found here.


Ben Carson and his Pyramid Schemes: Not a Grain of Truth Sat, 07 Nov 2015 22:55:08 +0000 It takes a lot to get me, an ancient historian, to be interested in, much less talk about, modern politics. Enter Ben Carson.

Earlier this week, after the commencement speech from 1998 that records U.S. GOP Presidential candidate Ben Carson stating his (completely off the wall) opinion that the Great Pyramids of Giza were in fact “Joseph’s Granaries” came to light, a journalist from a major news network reached out to me. They were seeking someone who could:

…explain, in professional and expert terms, why we know that the pyramids were built for the interment of pharaohs. And not, as one candidate has been saying, to store grain ahead of a augured famine.

The questions were emailed and answered, but then yesterday the controversial news about Carson and his representation of his relationship with West Point exploded and the pyramid story was set aside. It may yet appear on the aforementioned network, but in case it gets lost on that channel, the questions I received (shown in blue) & answers given, seemed worth posting since, apparently, they were deemed worth asking. These facts have also be stated in far more depth on numerous other channels, and Carson’s granary “theory” has been thoroughly trounced (see this article from the BBC that discusses the history of the “Joseph’s granaries” theory, this article from Forbes about how much the Egyptian themselves recorded, another Forbes article that highlights the economic import of the pyramids, this fellow Egyptologist’s podcast on why the structures were built, etc.). However, since there seems to still be some confusion on this matter, here’s another voice of reason.


Re: Ben Carson and the Great Pyramids

So my questions for you!

Why were the pyramids built and by whom (and when)?

The Great Pyramids of Giza, the three iconic pyramids sitting on the southwestern edge of Cairo, are only a few of the myriad pyramids documented in Egypt. The shape was actually used for royal mortuary monuments in the region for thousands of years, although the primary period of pyramid construction dates from approximately 2600 BC through 1800 BC.

The three main Giza pyramids were constructed for a series of kings in a period that modern Egyptologists refer to as the Old Kingdom, with the earliest (and largest) being begun around 2550 BC for the pharaoh Khufu. Khufu’s son, Khafre, and his grandson, Menkaure, are the owners of the other two major pyramids. They were clearly intended as part of the royal burial burial complex; we have hundreds of years of architectural development that precede the marvels of the Giza plateau that clearly demonstrate this fact. Please see my Khan Academy essays on the Giza plateau and the Great Pyramids for further general discussion on this topic. If one requires more evidence, sarcophagi (massive stone coffins) were discovered within both Khufu’s burial chamber (at the precise center of the pyramid, by the way…lots of precision for a silo) and the burial chamber of Menkaure, although all three structures were thoroughly looted well before modern times.

Contrary to another semi-popular belief more commonly held than Carson’s, but that still continues to be perpetuated despite the evidence, the pyramids were constructed by Egyptians. There is no archeological evidence that large numbers of slaves of any origin were involved in the construction. Rather, the workforce was made up of layers of full-time, skilled artisans, overseers and managers, and seasonal conscripts from all over Egypt. The pyramids were major public works projects, viewed through a certain lens, as that ‘season’ was during the Nile’s annual flood when the fields that usually needed tending instead needed to lie fallow.


What purpose did they serve — was it to inter dead pharaohs or for siloing food for the people?

That pyramids were built for dead pharaohs is not a matter of debate. These structures were designed and executed as part of the royal mortuary complex; we have extensive textual and archaeological evidence to prove this fact. As for storing grain, the chambers within the almost entirely solid pyramids are few and quite small.


Interior of the Pyramid of Khufu. CC

It would be highly inefficient to use these massive mountains of stone for grain storage, especially considering the cost of the material and the fact that the diagram above represents one of the the roomiest interior spaces in any pyramid. Many are completely solid piles of stone with chambers dug out underneath. To be clear—pyramids are not hollow.


How do we know this?

The ancient Egyptians were kind enough to write it down.

Besides the mass of archaeological evidence, the numerous similar structures to compare them to, and the obvious lack of the open storage space within the pyramids, we also have depictions of granaries from contemporary tomb scenes; they are very different in shape.

We know what they were for because the ancient Egyptians told us what they were for. They extensively documented a great deal about many things, in fact, and the purpose of pyramids was well defined. This is not to say that there are no unsolved questions regarding the pyramids and their function in Egyptian culture–of course there are. There always will be; that is the perpetual wonder of Egyptology. There are always going to be questions, but Carson’s theory is not only absurd, but easily disproved by a marginally clever child. You don’t use solid structures to store stuff.


Related — what did they look like on the inside? Were there spaces for food and such?

Much of the inside is solid stone, so I’ll focus on where there are open spaces. While later royal pyramids had walls covered in carved texts, the three Great Pyramids of Giza are basically bare. Within the pyramid of Menkaure, there are carved recesses in the walls, but otherwise the interiors of these monuments are devoid of decoration.

Symbolic food offerings would have absolutely been part of the burial rituals and were required in the ongoing worship of the deified deceased pharaoh, but would have occurred in an entirely different area of the mortuary complex than the pyramids. Regardless, it is essential to recognize that small food offerings placed in the tomb for the deceased are very different from using the space to store large amounts of food intended for the living.


Is there any chance Carson has it right, or do you recognize this as a strictly biblical interpretation (not just that he cites the Old Testament, but in how he characterizes the pyramids’ use.)


His interpretation is based on no facts, scientific or otherwise, but instead on Medieval mythology – “Joseph’s granaries” appears in the literature as early as the 6th century AD (by people who plainly made it up), the pyramids were explicitly depicted as granaries in 12th century mosaics in a dome at St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, and the myth was reinforced by a popular 14th century travelogue (which also, quite laughably, claimed the structures to be “completely full of snakes”). 

Egyptology is a science; just because the culture seems very mysterious to a willfully ignorant layperson, that does not mean that specialists and experts in the field don’t have verified, quantifiable answers about many of those ‘mysteries’. There is a plethora of easily available resources that thoroughly and scientifically debunk this antiquated interpretation; one does not have to dig into scholarly sources to investigate this question.

Is it possible he’s referencing other pyramid-like structures — were there a reasonably similar set of structures used for what he is describing?

Granaries in ancient Egypt were quite different in form. A model granary from @ 2200 BC and now in the British Museum, London, shows the typical (and repeatedly attested) design. Granaries were often capped with high, domed silos, but these are far from pyramidal in shape, and would have been constructed of mud brick rather than stone. Granaries were significantly smaller than any pyramid, and (importantly) were clearly hollow, a rather necessary feature of a storage structure. Here is an image of a tomb scene showing men pouring grain into the top of such silos:


Egyptian granaries. CC


I’ve read that the pharaohs were interred with grains for the afterlife. Is that true? Would they have been stored then in the way Carson describes — hermetically sealed, etc?


Grain was commonly interred with the deceased, royal and non-royal. It was a very important element of the tomb offerings designed to provide for the spirit of the deceased in the afterlife. The living generally stored their household grain in sacks, baskets, or jars; grain deposited in the tomb for the deceased was generally interred the same way.

There are no ‘hermetically sealed compartments’ in any pyramid. The Great Pyramid, and others, had a series of massive stone slabs that acted as a lock and closed off passage into the pyramid. These were slid into place as the last of the priests and workmen exited the structure for the last time. However, these were one-way locks; the only way to get back in after the stones slid into place was to tunnel around them. Again, not terribly efficient for grain storage.


Honestly, it amazes me that this is even an actual question, or that there is any true confusion on this particular point, but just in case there is…here you go! Can we go focus on some actual questions now?

Best Time to be an Archaeologist! Sun, 18 Oct 2015 20:15:05 +0000 Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist.

Technology doesn’t mean we aren’t digging in the dirt anymore—it’s just that we know better where to dig.


Using this technology, archaeologists have found many thousands of previously unknown sites. I’ve used satellite datasets in Egypt—I believe we have still found less than 1 percent of its sites—to show ancient settlements, tombs, and even some potential pyramids. We collaborated with a French team at the site of Tanis to test high-resolution imagery that showed nearly the entire layout of the ancient city. So far, we’ve confirmed one elite house.

For the full article on Slate, see here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art announces free access to 400,000 digital images! Tue, 20 May 2014 20:40:30 +0000 The MMA in New York announced that they are making a huge number of high-resolution digital images available for free.

Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced today that more than 400,000 high-resolution digital images of public domain works in the Museum’s world-renowned collection may be downloaded directly from the Museum’s website for non-commercial use—including in scholarly publications in any media—without permission from the Museum and without a fee.

The Metropolitan Museum’s initiative—called Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC)—provides access to images of art in its collection that the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions; these images are now available for scholarly use in any media. Works that are covered by the new policy are identified on the Museum’s website with the acronym OASC.

Take advantage and search the MMA’s astonishing digital archive! For more information, see Art Daily’s report.


Vehicle of the Sun: The Royal Chariot in the New Kingdom (excerpt from Chasing Chariots, eds. Veldmeijer and Ikram) available for free download Tue, 21 Jan 2014 20:11:14 +0000 It is with great pleasure that I announce the availability of my recently published article, “Vehicle of the Sun: The Royal Chariot in the New Kingdom”, for free pdf download.

This 20+ page article explores the significance of the king’s chariot and developed from my award-wining MA thesis at the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology (University of Memphis), which was directed by Dr. Stephen Harvey.  The discussion and analysis focused on the iconography on the decorated chariot body discovered in the tomb of Thutmosis IV.   This intricately embellished vehicle is covered with battle scenes of the king riding in his chariot and, on the interior, pharaoh is shown as winged sphinx trampling Asiatic and Nubian foes.  By analyzing the scenes, examining comparative material (such as the chariots discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun), and correlating this visual data with the body of textual references to the chariot, this discussion linked the royal vehicle with the king’s solar connections and his role in maintaining cosmic order.

These concepts were extensively developed under the tutelage of Dr. David O’Connor, resulting in the current article.

If you would like to download this excerpt from Chasing Chariots: Proceedings of the First Egyptian Chariot Conference, edited by A. Veldmeijer and S. Ikram, please visit our Downloads page and select the link.    Also note that on this page you may also gain access to other publications as well as a pdf of my PhD dissertation on which the Art of Counting project is based.

egyptian art chariot tuthmose battle



Chasing Chariots coming soon! Tue, 15 Oct 2013 14:03:25 +0000 Sidestone Press has announced the forthcoming publication of Chasing Chariots: Proceedings of the First International Chariot Conference (Cairo 2012), edited by André J. Veldmeijer & Salima Ikram.

Although I was unfortunately unable to attend the conference in Cairo last December, my article on the significance of the royal chariot in New Kingdom Egypt was accepted.  I am truly thrilled and honored that my work appears in this exciting volume focused on these marvelous vehicles!

egyptian art chariot tuthmose battle


Forthcoming publication on the symbolism of the royal chariot in New Kingdom Egypt Fri, 05 Jul 2013 17:35:18 +0000 It is with immense pleasure that I announce the forthcoming publication of my article “Vehicle of the Sun: The Royal Chariot in the New Kingdom”.  This substantial investigation into the iconographic significance of the king’s chariot in ancient Egypt will appear in the Proceedings of the First International Chariot Conference, edited by André J. Veldmeijer and Salima Ikram.

Drs. Veldmeijer and Ikram are co-directors of the Egyptian Museum Chariot Project, which has been scouring the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and uncovering incredible pieces of leather from their massive collection almost lost to the dust.

During the 2008 season of the Egyptian Leatherwork Project in the Cairo Museum we came upon a cache of leather objects. This cache consisted of several trays of red and green leather containing some 60 large and numerous small leather fragments, all under a single JE and SR number. This acquisition was purchased from the dealer Georges Tano in 1932.


Upon investigating the contents of these trays, we realized that they all came from a single chariot, including portions of the bow-case and quiver that were attached to either side. These last two objects are elaborately decorated in green and red leather. Based on the decoration of the leather and the technology used to achieve these effects, it seems to date from sometime between the late 18th Dynasty and the end of the 19th Dynasty, although this needs to be further investigated.


The find is very rare and unusual: only a handful of complete chariots are known from ancient Egypt, and of these, only one heavily restored one in Florence, and that of Yuya and Tjuiu in the Egyptian Museum, have any significant amount of leather, albeit largely undecorated, preserved.

This past December, the First International Chariot Conference was organized and held in Cairo.  Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this fascinating conference–chariots have long been a strong area of research interest; my MA thesis completed under the direction of Stephen Harvey was focused on the symbolism of the chariot body found in the tomb of Tuthmose IV and for some time I had been revising this text to publish as an article.  This revised article was reviewed and commented on by not only Dr. Harvey, but also Katherine Eaton and David O’Connor, who provided immensely valuable insight and guidance to this research.

Despite my inability to attend the conference, Dr. Veldmeijer suggested that I submit the manuscript to their proceedings and, to my great delight, it was accepted for this prestigious and ideal venue.


This paper will focus on the symbolic importance of the royal chariot later in the New Kingdom, using the chariot body discovered in the tomb of Tuthmose IV as the basis for discussion. A detailed examination of the iconography of this vehicle, taken together with evidence from other royal chariots and the texts that refer to the pharaoh in his chariot in general, will suggest layers of significance for these vehicles. There is a strong use of solar imagery tied to the chariot, and it also appears to have connections to the akhet and with the maintenance of cosmic order and regeneration. Relief evidence points to the use of the chariot as a mobile throne on the field of battle. Moreover, important elements of the iconography of chariot decoration are shared with thrones, windows of appearance, palanquins, and royal barks—all venues for royal appearance. Of particular interest are the aggressively apotropaic and potentially powerful terrestrial focus of the scenes on the chariot body of Tuthmose IV, which suggests that the ritual significance of these vehicles was always balanced by their importance and functions in the real world. The iconography surrounding the king was particularly complex and a number of royal iconographic themes appear intertwined on this chariot. Beyond the aggressively protective elements designed to guard the king against his enemies (both terrestrial and celestial), these include a heavy emphasis on the king’s solar connections, symbols relating to his place in the Egyptian cosmic view, and indications of the pharaoh embodying and merging with certain deities in particular contexts, with the chariot itself acting as a conduit for this interaction.


The chariot body from the tomb of Tuthmose IV is covered with extremely detailed and intricate relief.

egyptian art chariot tuthmose battle

Detail of the right exterior scene on the chariot of Tuthmose IV showing the king firing his bow while being guided and supported by the falcon-headed war deity Montu

Using these scenes in conjunction with other surviving chariot equipment, relief depictions, and textual references, the article outlines the multiple layers of significance attached to these vehicles.  The royal chariot was not only a prestigious manner of transportation, but it also served a transformative function allowing pharaoh to “become” incarnations of different deities for different contexts.  While it served a function in the terrestrial world, shielding the king physically, the vehicle also supported his role as maintainer of cosmic order and as the “Dazzling Sun”.  It was used as a venue for royal appearance and shared many characteristics with thrones and Windows of Appearance.  The specific iconography on the Tuthmose IV chariot body also links the vehicle to primal cosmic regeneration.

egyptian art chariot diagram

Diagram showing the layout of the scenes on the chariot of Tuthmose IV

The publication of the Proceedings should appear later this year.

Variable of the Day, Ancient Egypt: Sash skirt Sun, 19 May 2013 15:12:37 +0000 egyptian art pharaoh Seti Abydos

Temple of Seti I at Abydos

NOTE:  This general term is used to record instances of skirts that include a sash tie at the front of the waist.  There are several different configurations, including examples that have long sashes that hang down the sides and others (such as above) that show the skirt hiked up in the front.  Often, as in this example where he wears a pleated, hiked sash skirt together with a long transparent skirt, the king wears more than one skirt layered one atop another.   These layers and the various types of sash skirts are recorded separately in the database along with the general appearance of the sash tie.

At Medinet Habu, this type of garment is almost always worn in scenes where the king offers wine.  There are a number of indicators that this skirt is chosen for certain scenes–compelling examples come from the depictions of the king in the corners of the first courtyard.  As shown in the diagram below, these four scenes include many shared elements of costume, but only the two northern corners wear the sash skirt.

egyptian art medinet habu courtyard pharaoh

Variable of the Day, Ancient Egypt: Cloth offering Wed, 27 Feb 2013 01:41:47 +0000 egyptian art abydos seti offering cloth amun

Temple of Seti I at Abydos

NOTE: Cloth offerings were presented as part of the Daily Cultic Ritual sequence.  Texts often describe the king as ‘dressing’ the image of the deity with these textiles.  Fabrics of different colors were featured, including white, green, and red, all of which were associated with aspects of divine rejuvenation and radiance.  White cloth is referred to in the texts as being connected with the bright Eye of Horus; green is related to freshness and rejuvenation; and red is associated with the fiery Eye of Re, the “Great One, Lady of rage.”  In the database, the forms of these cloths–whether looped (as in two of the above examples), grouped on trays, or straight bolts (like the third)–are tracked in addition to their color.

For more on the symbolic significance of these cloths in the Daily Ritual, see K. Goebs, “King as God and God as King,” in Palace and Temple, R. Gundlach and K. Spence (eds.), 2011, esp. pages 65-70, 76, 77, and 79.

Variable of the Day, Ancient Egypt: Pinky gesture Fri, 08 Feb 2013 00:58:52 +0000 Egyptian art Seti Abydos

Temple of Seti I at Abydos

NOTE: This gesture, where the king extends his pinky finger, is used to apply ointment to a deity.  In his other hand, the king holds the jar of ointment.  Usually, the ointment is actually shown as being applied to the god’s uraeus rather than to the deity themselves.  This gesture may have an apotropaic aspect, suggesting that in the act of applying ointment, it may have been considered inappropriate to have physical contact with the god, although this is implied as part of the ritual.  Often, as in this example, the king’s finger is not shown making actual contact.  This gesture is tracked as an individual variable in the database.

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