Friday 25 December 2009

Christmas with Meretsegar

Happy Christmas to anybody who may still be looking in on this blog.

Last night (24th Dec) I spent a traditional Polish "Wigilia" with the skeleton crew left in Deir El Bahari to which we invited our local staff and the family of one of them.

I spent Christmas Day in the Theban mountains, visiting the Qurn, the peak sacred to Hathor which dominates the necropolis where I live and work. Beats spending Christmas at the table with aunty Nora and her tantrum-throwing kids, and a good deal healthier.

There were very few tourists today in the valley, on the way to the foot of the Qurn, I was able to spend some time chatting to the shady characters (all nice guys really) who peddle all sorts of tat to the tourists. These include those who tell them they are genuine antiquities they've dug up. I am trying to find the factory which is producing some very good imitation faience at the moment. So far without success. On the way up the mountain I visited the shrine of Meretsegar, who - as "she who loves silence" - sounds like my kind of goddess. Off the beaten track to visit a spectacular hidden valley, I also found some most amazing porno-grafiti dating to the pharaonic period on a rock at its foot. Four ladies wearing heavy New Kingdom wigs and nothing else, one depicted full frontal in total defiance of ancient Egyptian artistic convention. This is the view from the top [Medinet Habu, the Ramesseum, Hatshepsut (access road), Valley of the Kings, West valley, Thoth Hill].

Tomorrow we have a day off too and I am taking the team to Abydos, across the desert rather than along the Nile. I've not been there before and am looking forward to it. Then Sunday its back on site to the tombs and rubble left by previous excavators.

UPDATE: Abydos was superb, I recommend it though its a bit off the beaten track - especially the way the team member reading the map took us (!), but we got there and the mastaba at Beit Khallaf which was another aim of the trip, that was an eye-opener.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Sayles sounds off on Egypt

Well, the coin dealing lobbyist Wayne Sayles certainly wasted no time responding to the last post about my work in Egypt (The Straight Skinny (sic) Dec 18th 2009). What a pity is that he misunderstands it totally - "doing grunt work" for whom? "Disillusionment" Mr Sayles? Far from it, I clearly made the point that I am finding participation in the mission extremely thought-provoking. I am not sure what I am to make of the last comment. Mr Sayles seems to be unaware of quite a few things about what archaeology is about... still, bloggers cannot choose their readers.

Mr Sayles announces he feels "sorry for the poor bloke". Don't waste your charity on me Mr Sayles, you obviously fail to appreciate the spirit in which the post was written. No, no coins in da temple.... except those left this tourist season by New Age neo-pagans in the Chapel of Hathor, including one he would perhaps appreciate - a (very) modern fake Danubian 'Celtic silver unit', it is odd to consider what that was doing being brought to Egypt.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Between the wall and the Hole: Egyptian update

As I explained in a previous post, I am out here at the edge of the Egyptian desert doing some real archaeology, so have little time for blogging. Last night at five past five my colleague and I placed the last strokes on the massive drawing of the offering scenes on the north and west walls of the Chapel of Hatshepsut in her funerary temple at Deir el Bahari (the bit the public do not get to see). Then she rushed back to the dig house to wash and pack (!) and from the time we got off the scaffolding and ladders on the wall I had two hours to get her to the station in the middle of Luxor on the other bank of the Nile - and the only bridge is quite a long way upstream. Anyone who has ever driven in rural Egypt at night might imagine what a trip that was (actually not that much worse than driving in Warsaw, but there even the craziest tend to stay on their side of the road and have their headlights ON). Anyhow my colleague is safely on her way with the season's recording on the way to be scanned and then back home for Christmas in Poland.

By the end of it I really came to hate those squiggly "n" hierglyphs and yesterday had a couple of columns still to do full of them - and the one in the form of an erect penis repeated which was the name of one of the Seven Heavenly cows on my wall... Matters were not helped by the traces of the work of an ancient gang of Hatshepsut-hating Tuthmosids, and hammer-happy Armarnan zealots followed by some slovenly Ramessid "restorers" followed by the further wall-hacking and paint and plaster splashing of iconoclast Copts ... and then an earthquake or two.

Huddled on a scorching day over a hot halogen lamp up a wobbly ladder in a twisted position to catch the light right on the convoluted vestiges of the original decoration trying to work out which line is which phase and where my red pen has gone again really begins to wear, no matter how wonderful the reliefs. I had not imagined how much my elbows would ache from drawing, but to get close enough to the wall to see the lines under the drawing foil, you have to hover over it (can't touch the polychrome) in an extremely cramped position. Not to mentions the sweating and all-pervasive dust. The "contact with the antiquities" of the previous post does not really end up being as glamorous as some might think. Archaeology against a deadline and the Tuthmosids and so on is not good for the blood pressure either.

Anyhow, the wall is finished and now we are digging. The dust is even more insufferable. In the dust and rubble (read "archaeological deposits") at the moment we have bits of old newspaper, a paper bag from the cement used from old restorations and numerous scraps of mummy bandage... and a toe and neck vertebra from one of the unfortunate individuals whose Third Intermediate period tombs had been in the place where nineteenth century archaeologists had dug a huge hole. There are a also number of faience ("mummy") beads and ceramic shabtis and cartonage fragments... Even at this stage it can be seen that the original Hatshepsut foundations go in one direction, the early twentieth century capping to them illogically run in another, and the wall rebuilt on the latter in the 1930s from fallen stones in another... Vigorous brushing though is a health-threatening activity, best put-off till tomorrow. Shovelling is right out.

On the portable antiquities front I tried to get access to TT15 (Tetiki) but somehow the people I approached were unable to even locate that particular tomb... I know it is there and can imagine the reasons they might be coy about showing it.

I have also been lucky enough to have visited a number of the archaeological storerooms of the SCA. As we know there is a bunch of dealer-lobbyists who insist on telling us all what they "know" about what, in the countries where the inhabitants have brown skins, they look like inside and the state of the artefacts in them is . I'm pretty sure none of them have been where I have been able to see for myself and verify the truth behind their glib assumptions and pronouncements. Not all is bright and rosy however and I will be writing about this in due course I expect.

In short (while not trying to keep up with editorial obligations from home), I am having fun trying to apply the arguments offered by the noisiest group of pro-collecting ranters (the US collectors of dug-up ancient coins) to the specific circumstances of Egypt, the "source- country" I happen to be working in at the moment, which puts both sides of the arguments offered into a different perspective. Most thought-provoking stuff. Maybe the pro-collecting ranters should try to "step outside their box" a little.
To be continued...
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