The big questions of ancient Egypt

From pyramids to mummies and Cleopatra to Tutankhamun, Egyptologist Joann Fletcher reveals the latest discoveries and controversies surrounding the ancient civilisation...

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

1) What is the earliest evidence of ‘art’ in Egypt?

The oldest graphic activity ever recorded in Egypt – indeed, in the whole of north Africa – was carved into the sandstone cliffs of Qurta around 25 miles south of Edfu, between Luxor and Aswan. Recently scientifically dated at 19,000 years old by Dr Dirk Huyge, director of the Belgian Mission who has studied the site since 2005, the gallery comprises at least 185 individual images, almost three-quarters of which depict the now-extinct, powerfully built wild cattle known as aurochs, the ancestors of domestic cows.

Some of these huge creatures – almost 2 metres long – have ‘cut’ marks scratched around the head and neck area. Huyge believes that these ‘cuts’ have some kind of symbolical meaning, possibly as an attempt to ensure a successful outcome for hunting expeditions. The Qurta scenes also feature hippos, gazelle, birds, fish and strange hybrid beings, along with several stylised female figures representing the earliest Egyptian attempts at self-portraits.

Huyge has dubbed the rich repertoire of scenes a veritable “Lascaux along the Nile”, observing that these lifelike and vivid images are “uncannily close” in style to European cave art such as that seen at Lascaux in France, which also features aurochs and other large animals. He adds that “perhaps direct influence or cultural exchange over such a long distance is not as improbable as it seems… The Mediterranean Sea at the time of the last Ice Age was at least 100 metres lower than it is now: could it be that Palaeolithic people established an intercontinental exchange of iconographic and symbolic concepts?”

The pictures carved into the sandstone cliffs at Qurta are dominated by depictions of aurochs – now-extinct wild cattle – dating back 19,000 years. © Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels

 

2) Who was the real Tutankhamun?

Though undeniably Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, little is known about Tutankhamun. When born, probably around 1346 BC at the city of Amarna, some 180 miles south of modern Cairo, he was named Tutankhaten – ‘Living Image of [sun god] Aten’. His father was the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, while his mother may have been Kiya, one of Akhenaten’s minor wives, or possibly even Akhenaten’s chief wife and co-ruler Nefertiti.

Tutankhaten took the throne at his father’s death in c1336 BC, changing his name to the more familiar Tutankhamun when the Aten cult was terminated and worship of the state god Amun reinstated.

He ruled until his death in c1327 BC, the cause of which remains a focus of debate. Studies of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its contents also continue to reveal all manner of unexpected details. Not least is the possibility that at least 80 per cent of his grave goods were originally made for other members of his family, from the famous gold throne to at least one of his three golden coffins. Even the gold death mask “had originally been a Nefertiti piece”, claims Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves.

The famous gold death mask of Tutankhamun was discovered in tomb KV62 by Howard Carter and his team – but was it originally made for Nefertiti? © Alamy

 

3) Why did hieroglyphs develop?

The deceptively simple-looking picture writing evolved over several millennia into a sophisticated system using thousands of signs. First described as hieroglyphs (‘sacred carvings’) by the Greeks, they were largely used to create the ritual texts covering the walls of temples and tombs, while a form of hieroglyphic shorthand known as ‘hieratic’ was used by the literate elite. These were mainly the scribes and officials who administered the country for the king, even before Egypt emerged as the world’s first nation state in c3100 BC.

German archaeologists excavating the tombs of Egypt’s earliest rulers at Abydos in the late 1980s discovered some 150 small labels of bone, ivory and wood carved with simple pictograms – ‘proto-hieroglyphs’ – describing everything from bolts of linen to jars of oil, together with their quantity and place of origin.

The labels, once attached to grave goods, have been dated to c3250 BC and are the earliest evidence for the way officials raised and recorded taxes in kind. They are among the most important documents in history, as the pictograms form a phonetically readable script that some claim was the earliest writing in the world – apparently predating that of the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.

 

4) When were dead bodies first mummified?

Mummification is so synonymous with ancient Egypt that most people assume it has been completely understood for some time. Yet recent research is rewriting much of what was previously known – from the most effective techniques used during the 14th century BC ‘New Kingdom’ to the preservatives that were used to obtain the most lifelike results.

The origins of embalming are now known to be much earlier than the Pyramid Age (from c2600 BC). Well before that time, linen was used to wrap bodies at sites such as Mostagedda (north of Luxor), some of it coated in a toffee-like substance. But only in 2014 was this substance finally identified, by archaeological chemist Dr Stephen Buckley of the University of York, as a blend of oils, fats and antibacterial pine resin. He discovered that “some of the ingredients were brought from the north-east Mediterranean. For example, the pine resin must have come from what is now south-eastern Turkey.”

But such long-distance trade links were not the only big surprise. Carbon dating carried out on the Mostagedda linen by researchers at the University of Oxford revealed that the wrappings and mixtures both date to c4300 BC – some 1,700 years earlier than mummification was previously believed to have first been used in Egypt.

 

5) How many pyramids are there?

It is estimated that 138 pyramids survive in Egypt, varying widely in layout, size, location and purpose. The first was built in c2650 BC for King Djoser. His bench-shaped ‘mastaba’ tomb was embellished to form a six-tiered, 60 metre-high step pyramid.

King Djoser's six-tiered pyramid tomb. © Alamy

Snefru (c2613–c2589 BC), the greatest of all Egypt’s pyramid builders, moved 9 million tonnes of stone to build three successive pyramids as he refined his plans, and his son Khufu created the Great Pyramid of Giza. This was the standard royal tomb till superseded in c1750 BC by rock-cut tombs such as those in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Some smaller pyramids are believed to have served as territorial markers or tax-collecting points; these were built throughout the Nile Valley as far south as Aswan in around 2600 BC.

 

6) How old was the oldest known ‘Egyptian’?

The remains of the earliest human yet found in Egypt were discovered by Belgian archaeologists in 1994 during their excavation of a Stone Age quarry at Taramsa Hill near Dendera, about 40 miles north of Luxor. They unexpectedly uncovered the shallow pit grave of a young child. Its body was carefully buried in a seated position, oriented east toward the rising sun, with its head resting back on a sand bed to face skyward. The child, who lived during the late Pleistocene, approximately 60,000–55,000 years ago, was aged between 8 and 10 when it died, though the remains were so fragile and fragmentary that it was impossible to determine whether they were male or female.

Not only is this the oldest known burial from north Africa, but it also provides a vital missing link in the human story. As the anthropologists who examined the child’s remains explained: “The location of this find is significant, because it’s on a possible dispersion route of modern humans from Africa into Asia and Europe between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.”

 

7) Was Cleopatra an Egyptian?

Cleopatra VII ‘the Great’ was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC). The Macedonian king Alexander the Great had taken Egypt in 332 BC during his conquest of the Persian empire; on his death, Ptolemy I – one of Alexander’s generals and rumoured half-brother – took control. His descendants – 15 male pharaohs, all called Ptolemy – shared the throne with female co-rulers. Cleopatra VII ruled first with her father, then her brothers and finally her son (by Julius Caesar) Ptolemy XV, called Caesarion.

Some Egyptologists believe that this basalt statue, now  in St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, depicts Cleopatra. The Ptolemaic dynasty was Macedonian in origin, but Cleopatra’s mother and grandmother may have been Egyptian. © Bridgeman

Though the Ptolemies initially spoke Greek and clung to Greek culture, they gradually became influenced by Egypt’s ancient traditions. In 181 BC Ptolemy V was mummified rather than cremated, and Ptolemy VIII married one of his daughters into the Egyptian nobility.

Cleopatra VII was born in Egypt, as were most of her predecessors, but was the first to learn the Egyptian language and gain the support of her subjects against the growing power of Rome. Images within Egypt’s temples show her as a typical Egyptian figure with traditional regalia and long hair. However, classical-style marble portrait busts show her wavy locks swept up in a Greek-style bun. One painted image even suggests red hair. Controversy about Cleopatra’s ethnicity continues to rage; the identities of her mother and grandmother are unknown – they might have been members of the Egyptian aristocracy.

 

8) Are any discoveries still to be made?

This is perhaps the question most often asked of Egyptologists – and the answer is a resounding yes!

Some of the most exciting discoveries are being made in museums. Last year museum staff in Wigan, combining their collections in new storage facilities, rediscovered antiquities covering the entire span of Egypt’s ancient history, from c3500 BC to the early centuries AD, the highlight being a gilded face from an 18th-dynasty coffin. Also last year, a re-examination of ancient linen wrappings from Mostagedda stored in Bolton Museum pushed back the origins of mummification by 1,700 years. Even the British Museum still produces surprises. In 2012, computed tomography (CT) scans revealed that the naturally mummified body of a man – known to generations of schoolchildren as ‘Ginger’, thanks to his faded red hair – had literally been stabbed in the back around 3500 BC.

A member of staff at the British Museum next to  a scan of Gebelein Man, also known as ‘Ginger’. © Getty

In Egypt itself, of course, new finds are announced almost every week. Even the Valley of the Kings has not yet been completely explored. Nor, it seems, has its most famous tomb. In 2014, high-resolution scans of the walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber revealed the outlines of two intact sealed doorways. Some experts believe these may lead to additional unexplored chambers.

So, much like the iconic golden death mask, even the tomb of Tutankhamun still conceals secrets.

Joann Fletcher is honorary visiting professor at the University of York.

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