Tour 5,000 years of Egypt’s heritage

Five of Egypt’s most spectacular heritage sites are open for virtual business with outstanding 3D models. The oldest of the four sites is the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, consort of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khafre, builder of the second largest pyramid at Giza. She was her husband’s niece and the granddaughter of Pharaoh Khufu, builder of the largest, the Great Pyramid of Giza. She died shortly after Khafre around 2532 B.C. Her elaborately decorated mastaba tomb, possibly built for her mother who ended up outliving her, is just east of her grandfather’s pyramid.

The next in chronological order is the tomb of Menna in the Theban Necropolis. Menna was an 18th Dynasty scribe and overseer of fields owned by the pharaoh and the temple of Amun-Ra. His duties included supervising the small army of scribes who recorded the size of fields and their crop yields and inspected the laborers at work. Menna would then report to the administration of the pharaoh’s granaries. These activities are recorded on wall paintings whose style identifies them as having been created during the reign of Amenhotep III. The tomb is one of the most visited sites on Luxor’s west bank because of how excellently preserved the paintings still are today.

The tomb of Menna underwent an ambitious conservation project from 2007-2009 during which it was precisely documented with high-resolution photography and precisely mapped. The paintings were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence, RAMAN spectrometry and colorimetry to help conservators determine how best to stabilize and repair them.

Still ancient but not quite so ancient is the Red Monastery, a Coptic Orthodox monastery built in the 5th century near the modern city of Sohag on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. Its main church, dedicated to Saint Pshoi, is built of red brick and has unique architectural features. Its portals and columns were custom-built instead of pilfered from ancient Roman or pharaonic monuments. The triconch sanctuary’s three apses are adorned with richly painted columns. Its walls are decorated top to bottom, with frescoes of saints in niches. It is still an active monastery today and is a site of pilgrimage for Coptic Christians.

Medieval Egypt is also on the virtual menu. The 14th century Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Barquq is not open to tourists, so the virtual tour is a rare opportunity to view some pretty spectacular architectural features that you couldn’t see in person.

Rounding out the religious heritage of Egypt is Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. While the current building was completed in 1892, there were predecessor synagogues on the site going back at least to the 9th century, and the Ben Ezra congregation is even older than that, possibly predating Islam. Its antiquity was confirmed when a massive trove of almost half a million Jewish manuscript fragments were discovered in the synagogue’s geniza (storeroom). This extraordinary collection of documents date from 870 to the 19th century and include both secular and religious writings in several languages. They were removed to Britain in the late 19th century and are now scattered in libraries throughout the UK and the US.

Sadly, there is no Ben Ezra congregation anymore; there are only a handful of Egyptian Jews remaining in Cairo today. The synagogue is a museum now, no longer used for services.

Ram’s skull found inside human clay head

The remains of a ram skull have been found inside a clay funerary mask of a 2,100-year-old human head from Siberia’s Bronze Age Tagar culture. A Scythian people who inhabited southwestern Siberia between then 8th and 2nd century B.C., the Tagar farmed and raised livestock. They are also known for their fine bronze metalwork and left an indelible mark on the landscape with their large burial mounds. More than a thousand Tagar barrows have been excavated in the Minusinsk Hollow, now in the Republic of Khakassia and in the eastern part of the Kemerovo Oblast.

Low in height and edged with vertical stone slabs, the mounds started out as single burials for the societal elite. They contained one or two individuals in chambered graves. Come the 5th century B.C., the funerary tradition shifted. The mounds grew much larger, up to 100 feet high and exceeding 130 feet in diameter. Inside was a large single pit containing as many as 100 bodies.

The clay heads belong to the final stage of the Tagar culture, the Tesinsky stage (2nd-1st century B.C.). In Tesinsky crypts, believed to be large family tombs, the remains were treated with an attempt at mummification. Archaeologist Dr Elga Vadetskaya believes they were buried in two stages. First their bodies were placed in a stone coffin and buried in a shallow grave or under a pile of rocks. After a few years, the skeleton and any surviving soft tissues (mainly tendons and spinal cord) were wrapped with grass, leather and bark to make a sort of human-remain doll.

The skull was then fashioned into a clay head. The nose, eye sockets and mouth were filled with clay. A layer of clay was applied to the whole skull and the facial features sculpted with no care to replicating the real facial features of the deceased. The clay was coated in gypsum and painted. The paint patterns on the faces are believed to have been marks identifying family or clan membership.

The clay face of a young man was unearthed in 1968 from a Tagar tumulus in the Shestakovsky burial ground in Khakassia. It was X-rayed at the time, but the technology could only convey that the presence of skull bones and a hollow space smaller than the interior of a human skull. Researchers decided not to open the clay exterior as it would be damaged beyond the repair.

That head was recently given new X-rays using fluoroscopy imaging and this time the results were unambiguous: inside the human-featured head was the skull of a sheep. This is the first time a non-human skull has been found inside a Tagar clay funerary head. Researcher Natalya Polosmak has two hypotheses explaining this practice.

She believes the Tagar people ‘may have buried in this extraordinary manner a man whose body had not been found’.

She surmises that the man ‘could have got lost in the taiga, drowned, or disappeared in alien lands’.

For this reason he was ‘replaced with his double – the animal in which his soul was embodied’ and in this was sent to the afterlife alongside the remains of his fellow humans.

‘This must have been the only way to ensure the after-death life of a person who had not returned home.

‘Archaeologists know a number of such burials, referred to as cenotaphs, which have no human remains but may contain a symbolic replacement. As the latter, an animal could have been used.’

Her other theory for the ‘false burial’ is that it may have been done to give the man ‘a chance to have a fresh start, a new life in a new status.

‘Instead of a living man whose death was staged for some reason, an animal – a sheep in human disguise – was offered.’

Dr. Vadetskaya posits the mummy “dolls” and clay heads were returned to the family who kept them until a second funeral was held. The evidence for this is that the gypsum and paint of some of the clay heads has been repaired, sometimes repeatedly. This had to have been a precarious wait. The bodies and heads ran the risk of decomposing or being too damaged to rebury, in which case the families would have to recreate at least the clay heads.

That is what Vadetskaya thinks happened in this case; that the families used a ram’s skull as a placeholder for the lost human skull so that the second funeral could still take place.

Synchrotron casts light on dino embryos

The ultra-bright light of the European Synchrotron in France (ESRF) has been shone on dinosaur eggs, enabling scientists to create the first 3D reconstructions of dinosaur embryos. Synchronton X-rays are so high-powered that they can scan extremely dense material, including fossils.

An international team of scientists led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa enlisted the aid of the ESRF in Grenoble to get a closer look at a clutch of seven fossilized eggs, two with visibly exposed embryos, discovered in South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park in in 1976. They were identified as Massospondylus carinatus, a sauropodomorph dinosaur from the Jurassic period that could grow to be as much as 17 feet long. The herbivore roamed what is now South Africa 200 million years ago.

Because the embryonic dinosaur bones are so tiny, very little information could be drawn from visual examination. They appeared to be fully developed skeletally. The ESRF scans revealed that in fact the embryos were only 60% developed. The team compared the tiny bones in their skulls with those from living descendants of the dinosaurs (crocodiles, chickens, turtles, lizards) which ossify in a similar way: starting at the tip of the snout and concluding with the top and back of the skull. The cranial ossification sequence indicated the dinosaur embryos were not close to hatching and that they had another 40% of their time in ovo left to serve.

The team also found that each embryo had two types of teeth preserved in its developing jaws. One set was made up of very simple triangular teeth that would have been resorbed or shed before hatching, just like geckos and crocodiles today. The second set was very similar to those of adults, and would be the ones that the embryos hatched with. “I was really surprised to find that these embryos not only had teeth, but had two types of teeth. The teeth are so tiny; they range from 0.4 to 0.7 mm wide. That’s smaller than the tip of a toothpick,” says [University of Witwatersrand researcher] Kimi Chapelle.

The researchers concluded that the dinosaurs developed in the egg just like their reptilian relatives, whose embryonic developmental pattern hasn’t changed in 200 million years. “It’s incredible that in more than 250 million years of reptile evolution, the way the skull develops in the egg remains more or less the same. Goes to show—you don’t mess with a good thing,” says Jonah Choiniere, professor at the University of Witwatersrand and also co-author of the study.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read online.

Bronze Age ostrich egg hunts

For thousands of years during the Bronze and Iron Ages, carved and painted ostrich eggs were traded around the Mediterranean, objects so highly prized by the elite of the region that they were buried with them. Up until now the decorative eggs have been classified by scholars according to style and motif, but a new study enlists state-of-the-art technology to determine where the eggs came from, the trade routes they took and the techniques used in their manufacture.

Eggs have been symbols of rebirth and renewal marking the transition from winter to spring in many religious and cultural traditions ancient and modern. Egg-shaped stones with a flattened base were used by Phoenicians as cippi (altar pedestals) or placed on top of pillar-style cippi, and ovoid sacred stones known as betyls have a very ancient lineage going back to the Bronze Age cultic traditions of prehistoric Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ostrich eggs have been found in funerary contexts dating as far back as the 2nd millennium B.C. in Cyprus and Syria and extending to Greece, Italy and Spain where there are no native ostriches.

For this study, researchers examined five whole ostrich eggs from the Etruscan Isis Tomb at Vulci (625-550 B.C.), now in the collection of the British Museum. This tomb belonged to people of very high rank, likely a wealthy family, who were buried with rich grave goods including the bronze bust of a goddess originally believed to represent Isis (now thought to be a local deity), gold jewelry, bronze vessels, Greek pottery and Egyptian scarabs. The combination of high-end local and imported objects is typical of the Etruscan Orientalizing Period (720-575 B.C.), characterized by intense contact between the Etruscans, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks.

Four of the five eggs were decorated with both carving and paint. One was painted without carvings. The decorative motifs include sphinxes, wild animals, plants, geometric designs, warriors and chariots. Holes were drilled in the thick shells to drain the contents, then the empty eggs decorated. They were originally mounted with metal fixtures — spouts, stands — to convert the eggs into vessels.

In the study, published in the journal Antiquity, the researchers describe for the first time the surprisingly complex system behind ostrich egg production. This includes evidence about where the ostrich eggs were sourced, if the ostriches were captive or wild, and how the manufacture methods can be related to techniques and materials used by artisans in specific areas.

“The entire system of decorated ostrich egg production was much more complicated than we had imagined! We also found evidence to suggest the ancient world was much more interconnected than previously thought,” said Dr Hodos, Reader in Mediterranean Archaeology in Bristol’s School of Arts.

“Mediterranean ostriches were indigenous to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. Using a variety of isotopic indicators, we were able to distinguish eggs laid in different climatic zones (cooler, wetter and hotter, drier).  What was most surprising to us was that eggs from both zones were found at sites in the other zone, suggestive of more extensive trade routes.”

Ostriches are known to have been hunted and killed as well as captured. Assyrian texts document the practice and point to the birds having been kept for breeding, perhaps to stock exotic gardens, or as sources of feathers, leather and giant eggs.

Dr Hodos and colleagues believe eggs were taken from wild birds’ nests despite evidence of ostriches being kept in captivity during this period. This was no ordinary egg-hunt – ostriches can be extremely dangerous so there was a tremendous risk involved in taking eggs from wild birds.

“We also found eggs require time to dry before the shell can be carved and therefore require safe storage. This has economic implications, since storage necessitates a long-term investment and this, combined with the risk involved, would add to an egg’s luxury value,” said Dr Hodos.

Virtual guided tour of Pompeii’s Regio V houses

There is a great deal of online content from museums and historical sites right now. I could never get enough of that kind of programming even before quarantine because most of the treasures of the world are out of individuals’ reach anyway just due to cost, time and distance. Virtual visits bridge those gaps, and while nothing can replace the in-vivo experience (is cyberStendhal Sydrome a thing?), they can open up vantage points that could not possibly be explored in person.

Today’s example of this comes to us from the eternal font of archaeological wonder that is Pompeii. The exploration of a previously unexcavated section of Regio V has been immensely production, discovering, among other big finds, a row of houses with balconies, the remains of a man found in a Wil E. Coyote-like posture under a stone and the beautifully frescoed walls of the House of the Garden.  The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has put together a video tour of two of the Regio V houses with stand-out features: the House with the Garden with its frescoes and the House of Orion, named after a floor mosaic of the mythical hunter being placed among the stars. 

Narrated by Director Massimo Osanna who is able to pack an incredible density of information in every sentence, the video uses high-definition film captured by drone to give us a fly-through view of both homes. It offers breathtaking bird’s eye views of Pompeii before swooping down into the House of the Garden and then on to the House of Orion. It’s like an archaeological Space Mountain with Walt Disney as your guide. The only negative is that it’s not twice as long and I’m hoping there will be more such videos to come.

The narration is in Italian and the auto-translated closed captions are as bad as ever, but you can follow along with the English transcript here