One of the fun things about running a website like Em Hotep is that you get to see behind-the-scenes things, like the queries people are entering into search engines to find Em Hotep. The vast majority are terms and questions you would expect for an Egyptology website, but some questions can seem a little off the wall, until I think back to my own early interest in ancient Egypt and the questions I used to ask. So some friends recommended I answer them. Some might make you chuckle, some might make you think. But either way, it should be a fun read. The answers will be brief, so don’t expect to get any research done with this article, just pour a cup of coffee and enjoy.
Special thanks goes to writer and artist Ben Morales-Correa, who operates both the All About Egypt and BMC PhotoArt Tutorials websites for suggesting that I take these questions seriously and answer some of them, as well as Donna Elliot who suggested that this might even be a good idea for a chapter in a book, also an idea I rather like…
Much Ado About Mummies
Mummies are ever-popular so naturally some of the queries were on that topic. From time to time someone asks whether or not Egyptologists have discovered Hatshepsut’s mummy. Although not without controversy, in 2007 it was announced that Hatshepsut’s mummy had been matched with a tooth found in her grave goods. Dental detectives can drudge the details from this story in The Guardian, “Tooth Solves Hatshepsut Mummy Mystery”.
Others wanted to know if it was ok to touch a mummy. This query can be addressed on several different levels, depending on what inspired the question. For example, are there superstitious reasons for not touching a mummy? The answer to that is as variable as the individuals asking. If there are taboos within your personal belief system against touching dead bodies, then yes, a mummy qualifies for a dead body.
Alternately, you might be wondering if we are disrespecting the dead by removing mummies from their tombs and placing them in museums, which certainly qualifies for touching them. Yes, there are some people who think just that. How would we feel if someone dug up our dead grandparents and put them in a museum? But this is not something that is taken lightly by Egyptologists. I am reminded of a quote from George Reisner regarding archaeology in general:
The excavator is a destroyer; and the object which he destroys is a part of the record of man’s history which can never be replaced or made good. He must approach fieldwork with a full consciousness of that fact. The only possible justification for his proceeding is that he endeavor to obtain from the ancient site which he destroys all the historical evidence that it contains.
What does this have to do with touching a mummy? The way I read it, Reisner is saying that the archaeologist by the very nature of his work is breaking taboos and in many ways destroying the historical artifacts he endeavors to study by removing them, and the only way you can justify that is to be damned certain you get from them every bit of historical and cultural information they contain in order to give something back to the people whom you are violating. Does this justify putting a mummy in a museum? That is something you have to decide for yourself. The rationalization can only be subjective, so it falls to you to decide where you stand.
One way of looking at it is that the ancient Egyptians believed that in order to survive in the afterlife, they had to not only preserve their remains, but they had to be remembered. There is magic in words, especially names, and by keeping names like Ramesses the Great and Tutankhamun in circulation we are honoring that sacred request to remember the dead. A museum is also arguably a more secure location for a royal mummy than in a grave. The ancient Egyptians themselves often relocated mummies in an attempt to better preserve them and protect them from tomb robbers. Museums do the same. Do these rationalizations really hold water? Like I said, it’s subjective. But personally, they work for me.
A third potential motive behind wondering whether or not it is ok to touch a mummy might have to do with health—yours and the mummy’s. Touching a mummy with an ungloved hand is both bad practice and a bad idea in general. Touching any ancient dead body with your bare hands is Not Good! You can end up with all manner of exotic bacteria and mold on your fingers, and fingers have a way of ending up around your mouth and eyes. Dungeons & Dragons players, does the term “mummy rot” ring any bells? Don’t touch mummies with your bare hands, it is just bad, bad, bad.
But for the mummy it is worse, worse, worse. You can wash your hands and all is well. Washing a mummy is a different matter altogether. To begin with, simple soap and water is probably a bad idea, as it is the absence of moisture which preserves them. It is the transfer of moisture in the form of sweat and oil from your hands which is destructive to the mummy. Other cleaning agents besides water exist, but even these should be used minimally as any cleaning will inevitably cause destruction. The bottom line is, if you touch a mummy with your bare hands you are either directly or indirectly contributing to its destruction, so no, under no circumstances should you do so.
King Tut is another common search topic, and most of the questions were pretty straight forward. How old was Tutankhamun when he died? Around eighteen or nineteen. Did he have children? Two mummified fetuses were discovered in his tomb and have been genetically linked to him as the father, so it would seem that he did father two children, neither of whom survived to term. One query was “Was King Tut murdered by his wife?” The easy answer is no, he was not murdered by his wife, or at least there is no evidence of any such plot that I am aware of. But the not-so-easy answer is that there is a theory that Tut was murdered.
There are a couple of reasons for the theory that Tut may have been murdered, albeit not by his wife. He came to the throne on the heels of the Amarna Heresy instituted by his father, Akhenaten. This earned him many enemies in court just by nature of his pedigree. There is also the matter of a hole in the base of his skull which some have attributed to a fatal blow. But more recent analysis indicates that the hole may have been the product of the mummification process, or may have been caused by mishandling his mummy in times ancient and modern.
The answer I favor is no, Tutankhamun was not murdered by anyone, especially not his wife. In 2005 full-body CT scans were performed on Tut’s mummy and revealed that he had suffered from a very nasty compound fracture to his left thigh which would have almost certainly led to a major infection. The bone shows no sign of healing, so Tut certainly died while suffering from the wound. You can read more about it in this article from National Geographic News: “King Tut Died from a Broken Leg, Not Murder, Scientists Conclude.” You can also read more about the Tut mystery here on Em Hotep—“King Tut’s Death: Solved, Resolved, or Just Restated?”
One question I originally shrugged off as too odd was “Could King Tut Fly?” I could not imagine the line of query which led to that question until my wife put me into place. Maybe it was asked by a young person who had seen movies about Persian princes and their flying carpets, or, maybe it was a writer or movie producer doing research for a fictional Tutankhamun and who was looking for legends surrounding the famous Eighteenth Dynasty monarch. Either way, the question deserves an answer, if I am to be true to Em Hotep’s purpose.
To my knowledge, there are no legends attributing the gift of flight to Tutankhamun. Nor was there the concept of a flying carpet during Tut’s time and place. The flying carpet is mostly associated with the magical Persia of One Thousand Nights, although a magic carpet was also associated with King Solomon in some legends. Baba Yaga of Russian lore could conjure up a magic flying carpet as well, but in all of these cases the story comes later in history than Tutankhamun’s time. To my knowledge there are no legends of flying carpets contemporary to King Tut, so attributing one to him in a fictional story would be anachronistic. But in the world of fantasy anything goes. Traditionalists may groan, but if you feel compelled to take such liberties, I can imagine Tut and his bride, Ankhesenamun, escaping the intrigues of court on a flying carpet. I say go for it.
Cleopatra the Alchemist
One query that might initially be a stumper was “Could Cleopatra turn lead into gold?” I had heard many legends about Cleopatra regarding her beauty and prowess, but never anything about turning lead into gold, unless you are thinking metaphorically about how she could turn Roman politics to her advantage. But I suspected there was more to this question, and I was right.
It turns out that there was a third or fourth century alchemist who wrote under the pen name “Cleopatra”. This woman was obviously not Cleopatra VII Philopator, the Egyptian Ptolemaic queen who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, although she is referred to in alchemical texts as the Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra the alchemist was an important figure in early alchemical lore and is credited by other early alchemists with being one of four women who could create the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Among its many powers, such as granting perpetual youth, the Philosopher’s Stone was also said to be able to turn lead into gold, so the long answer to the query is, “Yes, according to legend there was a Cleopatra who could turn lead into gold, but not our Cleopatra.”
Questions about the Great Pyramid are, as you can probably guess, very common. Did the Great Pyramid originally have smooth sides? Yes, at one time the entire outer surface of the Great Pyramid was faced with a finer grade of limestone from Tura which would have caused the pyramid to gleam in the sun in a dazzling way. Some of this facing can still be seen on the Bent Pyramid at Dashur and at the top of Khafre’s Pyramid at Giza.
Was the Great Pyramid built by slaves? No, the Great Pyramid was built by everyday Egyptians working during the flood season, when they could not work their fields. They were organized into a sort of feudal system called bak which required all Egyptians, from the nobility to the commoners, to contribute in some way every year to national building projects such as the Great Pyramid. There were probably slaves involved in some aspects of the work, but not the type of scene presented by Hollywood of tethered slaves being whipped into pulling blocks up the plateau. There was no need for it—by all indications Egyptians took pride in participating in these works and being associated with the pharaoh, who was their ticket to an afterlife. Besides, Mark Lehner is excavating the village where the workers were housed, and they ate and lived better than they probably did the rest of the year.
Was the Great Pyramid built by aliens? No. This question is usually asked by people who do not believe that human beings, using the tools available to the ancient Egyptians, could have possibly built something as impressive as the Great Pyramid. A related theory is that some sort of now-lost technology was used, either given to the ancient Egyptians by aliens or by an even-more-ancient-yet-more-advanced culture such as Atlantis. But the premise of the query is fallacious. True, the ancient Egyptians only had copper tools which, alone, could not have worked granite and would have dulled pretty quickly on limestone as well. But that does not mean it was impossible, or even unlikely, that the ancients used these tools to build the Great Pyramid.
The truth is, we have reverse engineered many of the tools and methods used by the pyramid builders. While it is true that we have yet to find an explicit account from the ancient Egyptians regarding how the Great Pyramid was built, the same can be said of mummification, and nobody is arguing that a hidden class of aliens were busy making mummies for thousands of years (ok, maybe some people are saying that, but you can find adherents to practically any theory you can imagine). But while we do not have a how-to manual for building pyramids, we do have depictions of other monuments being built, of megalithic statues being pulled on sleds, and we have the tell-tale signs of the tools they used in the pyramid itself.
We know, for instance, that the ancient Egyptians used tubular copper drills to bore into limestone and granite alike. We have the cores from such work being done, and there are marks from such drills in Khufu’s granite sarcophagus inside the Great Pyramid. These drills did not use teeth the way modern tubular drills do—the soft copper would have dulled immediately. Instead they used grit from harder stone which the tubular drill would grind into the surface of the softer stones. Yes, it took time and labor, but when you are a pharaoh you start early and labor is not a problem. Copper saws were also employed to cut and dress stone, again using a powdered abrasive such as quartzite.
As for copper chisels, even against limestone these would have dulled rather quickly, but the solution was simple: there were those who did the chiseling, those who did the recasting and sharpening, and those who ran between the two. Again, we are talking about projects where no expense—in both materials and labor—was spared. Difficult does not mean impossible, especially in pharaonic Egypt. The best going theory for how the Great Pyramid was built, in the official opinion of Em Hotep, is that of Jean-Pierre Houdin. You can find many articles on Jean-Pierre’s work here on Em Hotep in the sidebars, along with the media in the Project Khufu Clearinghouse and at the Khufu Reborn interactive website.
Whence Came Egypt?
Another somewhat related query is “Where did the Egyptians come from?” These days the question is usually asked by folks who still want to see aliens and lost civilizations as being behind the miracle of Egypt. The miracle behind Egypt is the Nile, plain and simple. It allowed life to flourish and divided the year into segments which permitted the mustering of a huge national workforce for a few months at the same time every year. Logistics, plain and simple. But there is an older version of the question which may have prompted the modern speculation, because early Egyptologists were stumped by this as well. So did the Egyptians just drop from the sky, or escape from Atlantis?
An early theory was that the ancient Egyptians were imports from some other more developed culture. Not necessarily Atlantis, but somehow a well-developed people with their own material culture (pottery, stoneware, etc.) arrived on the scene and began to prosper. They had to come from somewhere, right? But starting with Flinders Petrie, we began to question the notion of an outside culture having arrived in Egypt and set up shop. At early sites such as Abydos, Naqada, and especially Hierakonpolis current research is setting the date for indigenous Egyptian culture further back in time, practically with each new discovery. The more we learn, the better we understand how Egypt developed locally with no more cultural diffusion than might be expected from regular trade and contact with their ancient neighbors.
At Hierakonpolis in particular, the date for Egyptian royalty has been set back by as much as 500 years before Narmer. Narmer, known from the famous palette named for him, is considered to be the founder of dynastic Egypt because he was the first king of a unified Upper and Lower Egypt. We knew there were predynastic kings, but we did not know much about how they arose, leading to theories of invading foreigners subjugating the native populace. But at Hierakonpolis we are seeing the emergence of a very early elite with all the trappings of royalty, including elaborate tombs filled with grave goods such as falcon statuettes and burial masks that presage Tutankhamun’s golden icon.
The picture that has emerged is one of a gradual development from hunter-gatherer tribes to permanent settlements that included industrial zones, a fulltime artisan class, and well-defined social stratification. Being able to see how this emerged indigenously puts to rest the notion of Atlantians and Space Brothers seeding the Nile Valley with an advanced civilization, and makes it pretty clear that the ancient Egyptians came from Egypt. To learn more about the most current research into Egyptian origins, visit the Hierakonpolis Expedition website.
The Banana Papyrus Conspiracy
The last query which I thought was worth looking into is probably more recent in origin: “Can you make papyrus out of banana peels?” I think a more accurate question is “Can you make a papyrus-like paper out of banana peels”, as papyrus is specifically made out of the stalks of the plant by the same name. But can you roll out banana peels into a papyrus-like paper? Hmmm.
There is an eco-friendly paper called banana paper, but it is not made from rolled out banana peels. Modern banana paper is made from either the bark of the banana tree or from the leftover waste from industrial banana production. There may be some banana peels in the mix, but it is a pulp, not the criss-cross weave of papyrus fiber that we think of when we imagine papyrus paper.
There is, reportedly, a type of low-quality papyrus-like paper made from banana leaves which irreputable papyrus vendors will attempt to foist onto tourists visiting Egypt. I am not certain if this is really an epidemic threatening the modern papyrus industry, or a way for shop owners to discourage you from buying papyrus from the scores of youngsters who swarm every arriving and departing bus, trying to sell you papyrus for less than the shops charge. In truth, I do not know if banana papyrus is an urban legend. In other words, is it a conspiracy of the Papyrus Industrial Complex to fix the price of papyrus? Only the Illuminated and Right Ancient Order of Papyrinati knows.
And So Forth
There are many other queries that come through with all manner of strange and bizarre questions. Was Khafre a queen? No he was a pharaoh. Although there were queens who were also pharaohs, I don’t think it went the other way around. Hatshepsut, for example, was a queen who found it politically expedient to become a king. I can’t think of a reason why a king would want to become a queen, and would not want to speculate. Did Zahi Hawass insult Beyonce? Yes, yes he did. Was Wennefer French? No, he was a High Priest of Amun under Tutankhamun and Horemheb. I cannot for the life of me imagine any manner of connection between Wennefer and France, so I won’t try.
Other queries were pretty basic and straightforward. “What does ‘KV’ stand for with tombs?” ‘KV’ stands for ‘Valley of the Kings’, as in, KV64 is the sixty-fourth tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun’s tomb, when discovered by Howard Carter, was the sixty-second tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings, so instead of “Tut’s Tomb” it is known mainly as KV62. Did the Egyptians mummify dogs and cats? Yes, by the millions. Are there UFOs and helicopters on the wall of the Temple of Osiris at Abydos? No, those are the result of both erosion and hieroglyphs being carved over top of other hieroglyphs as one inscription usurped another, a very common practice. The enigma disappears when one reads them in context and realizes they are just writing, not time travelers.
For me, it does not really matter what line of enquiry brought you to Em Hotep, my desire is that you found an interesting and informative site where Egyptology is presented in an understandable manner, devoid of some of the more sensational elements that one might find when Googling ancient Egypt. Our philosophy is that you do not need sensationalism, conspiracy theories, or alternative science (“Was the Great Pyramid a power generator?” No, it was a tomb) to find Egyptology fascinating, but if those queries brought you here, I still hope you found something of interest.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2013. All rights reserved.
All images are in the public domain or are shared via Creative Commons with the exceptions of Boris Karloff as “The Mummy,” Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, and the Jetson’s flying car, which are, believe it or not, used for purposes of discussion and within the stipulations of the Fair Use provisions of copyright law. Although I am loathe to admit it, Wikipedia played a role in answering some of these questions, but mostly as a pointer to other sources.