A split photo of the petroglyphs from Stein Park. The right half is enhanced by DStretch.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 1)

The field of epigraphy has under gone a silent revolution over the last decade.  The problem of epigraphy has always been the same.  That is, being able to read inscriptions that are hard to see.  The process was laborious with readers taking weeks to carefully examine and untease a difficult to read inscription.

Today, while reading an inscription still can take weeks to unlock, the following advanced technologies transformed epigraphy into a more scientific endeavor.  The difference is not so much how long things take, but that epigraphers are now able to engage ever more difficult inscriptions.

In fact, the way that epigraphy is done today would hardly be recognizable to the epigrapher of a decade ago.  Gone are the days of crudely magnifying blurry photographs taken on site.  A host of new technologies now exist that would put the space shuttle to shame.  Today’s bog will give the briefest introduction to three of these tools.

Digital Photography

Digital photography is the foundation of 21st century epigraphy.  Even as late as the 1990’s, black and white film photography was preferred over digital images because of the detail captured by film.  Today, that is no longer true.  Even older DSLR cameras can capture an image resolution that exceeds many film photos.  But more importantly,  DSLR color images can capture color information that is simply not preserved by film photography.

Furthermore, in the old days, if you wanted to manipulate an image, you needed to digitize a photograph with a scanner.  Even the best scanners resulted in some image degradation.  A DSLR camera can create a RAW image that preserves what the camera sees directly from the camera sensor.  More image data means a greater capacity to extract information from an image.


Photoshop is the Swiss Army knife of the epigrapher.   And the ability of Photoshop to manipulate photographic information is practically limitless.  Photoshop can enhance a single image, and it can composite many smaller images together.

With Photoshop, the epigrapher can amplify the color curve of a photo.  This can make a photograph with low contrast easier to read.  Photoshop can also convert a color image to black and white using existing color information.  This can provide not just one, but many black and white images that can show different aspects of the same photo.


One of the more interesting advances in the last decade has been the invention of DStretch.  The developer of DStretch sells the program as a plugin used with ImageJ, a free imaging software package.   The plugin pulls the colors of red ochre from an image and allows the epigrapher to see the image more clearly.  For example, I used DStretch to make the petroglyphs from Stein Park, BC (photo by Sebastian Rakowski) easily seen.

While originally designed for prehistoric anthropologists to extract hard to read petroglyphs from rock faces, others in the fields of archaeology and epigraphy have found the tool exceptionally useful.   Roland Enmarch has used DStretch to read inscriptions at the quarry site of Hatnub.  I have also found it useful to separate out damage from inscription in one of the early alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim.

An image taken from the Ramesseum showing Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh.

The Reed (Red) Sea

After the Israelites escaped Egypt through the Wadi Tumilat, they did something hard to fathom.  Instead of making a clean break down the west coast of the Sinai as they had intended, they turn northward.  They made their way towards the Way of Horus, the military road that runs along the north Sinai.  After that, they “wandered” in the wilderness aimlessly to lure Pharaoh into thinking they were lost (Exod 14:3).

From a strategic perspective, this move makes little sense.  The Israelites essentially boxed themselves in.  Pi-Hahiroth was to the west, desert to the south, Pharaoh’s chariots to the east, and their backs to the sea.  Strategically, this was the worst possible position to be in.  Trapped with nowhere to run.   And yet, the sea opened up and the Israelites escaped what would otherwise be certain death.

In several sections, the biblical narrative simply calls this body of water the “Sea.”  But some texts (e.g., Exod 13:18 and 15:22) refer to it as the yam suf (יַם סוּף).  The translation of yam suf as the “Red Sea” entered into English Bibles through the Greek Septuagint (ca. 250 BCE) translation Ερυθρὰ θάλασσα. However, in Hebrew yam suf means “Sea of Reeds.”

This place name most likely comes from the Semitic-Egyptian pȜ ṯwfy, “The Reeds.”  Papyrus Anastasi III (2:11-12) mentions this body of water and states that the “foliage and greenery” of Pi-Hahiroth was nearby (Papyrus Anastasi III, 3:3).  Thus, the pȜ ṯwfy was probably one of the lakes (possibly Lake Ballah or Lake Timsah) that were part of the marshy area along what is now the Suez Canal.

P. Anastasi III mentions three toponyms (Piramesses, Pi-Hahiroth, and the “Reeds”) in a geographic sequence similar to that found in Exodus.  This suggests a strong correspondence between what the Egyptians knew about the region and the biblical record of the sites.

A bust of Akhenaten from the Louvre Museum.

Atenism, was it really monotheistic?

I have recently given a lot of thought into the relationship between Atenism and monotheism.  Donald B. Redford (1976) described Atenism as after having stripped mythology from Egyptian religion, all that remained “were the concepts of universalism, dependence of life on the sun, transcendence, creativity, cosmic regularity, and absolute power,” concluding Atenism was a monotheism.  But was Redford correct?

Amunist theology viewed Amun-Re as the “king of the gods.”  However, Atenism denied other divine authority so Aten was simply “the king.”  The Aten also held the role of creator and father.  But the Aten was not a universal father like the God of Judeo-Christian theology.  He only had this paternal relationship with his unique son, the king:

Aten living daily content in the sky,
Your offspring, your august son, Sole one of Re;
The Son of Re does not cease to extol his beauty,
Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re.
I am your son who serves you, who exalts your name.

Lichtheim, Literature, 2:91-92.

The theological implication of this is important.  James Hoffmeier summarizes this situation as “the anointing of the king to make him the Son of God.”  Kingship in Atenism is the manifestation of the incarnate Aten. The reference to a unique son speaks to a common theme in ancient Near Eastern literature, which is the idea of an offspring that will carry the legacy of the parent.  This motif appears in the inheritance laws of ancient Mesopotamia.  It also is found in early Israelite thought with the promise of a son to Abraham even though he already had a son in Ishmael.  In ancient Egypt, inheritance often was associated with the passing on of a title or occupation as well as property.

Atenism differed from classical Egyptian thought in the belief of creation.  Traditional Egyptian belief focused upon creation myth as foundational.  But Atenism disregarded physical creation altogether while maintaining the Aten as creator.  Akhenaten extolled the Aten as the “creator of all, who makes them live, Great Falcon, bright of plume; a beetle who raised himself, he who was self-created, he who was never born.”  Atenism accepted the idea of immanence in the act of continuous creation.  The substance and breath of the Aten made every living being alive.  “You are One, yet a million lives are in you, To make them live <you give> the breath of life to their noses.”

Aten was bidirectionally eternal.  That is the Aten was in eternity past the same as he is today and going forward will remain the same.  Thus, the answer to the question of origins always centered upon manifestations of the Aten.

This sort of divinity was not quite henotheism in the classical sense nor was it any kind of monotheism per se.  Because Atenism popularized “the One and the Many” theology, Akhenaten’s religious reforms transformed Egyptian religion from a plurality of gods to one deity radiating from a single source incorporating the substance of all other gods. Atenism was the ultimate deconstruction of deity that Amenhotep III had first attempted, carving out of Egyptian religion a monolatrous pantheism.

The preceding  preview was an edited extract taken from a book chapter recently submitted to Oxford University Press.

Seti I relief from Karnak Temple (Illustration from A. H. Gardiner, JEA 6 [1920], pl. 11), with the Migdol.

The Tower Migdol

After the Israelites fled Pharaoh, they took the Wadi Tumilat to leave Egypt but God told them to double back (Exod 14:1).  So they moved northward camping between Pi-Hahiroth, the sea, and Migdol (Exod 14:2).

Migdol was one of the fortresses on the Way of Horus.  The Way of Horus was the road that hugged the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula.  Several fortresses on this road controlled the flow of traffic from the Levant. The Egyptian version of this name, mˁktir actually derives from a Semitic loan word מגדל, “tower”.  The location of Migdol is unknown, but the name appears in a couple of extra-biblical sources.

Papyrus Anastasis V (20:2-3) implies that the fortress was built by Pharaoh Seti I of the 19th dynasty.  This is the same king who first established the city of Piramesses.  According to a map of the Way of Horus found at Karnak Temple, Migdol (Karnak map, “E”) is east of the Dwelling of the Lion (Karnak map, “D”).

The Dwelling of the Lion has been located at Tell el-Borg, near the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula and the estuary of the Ballah Lakes. The Egyptians reconstructed the site multiple times, as evidenced by its multiple phases including a destruction layer.

Eliezer Oren excavated a different Migdol, which survived as a fortress into Roman times, but this site has no Ramesside period remains. Thus, if this is “the same” Migdol, then the site migrated over time.

Chronology is like the internal mechanism of a pocket watch.

Groundhog: Latest Breakthrough in Chronology

The field of chronology has developed with very little regard to theory or practice.  It used to be that anyone could develop a chronology without having to prove their assertions.  Even today, the field remains awash in untestable and unproven theories.  Recently, my research achieved a breakthrough that solved a serious deficiency in the practice of chronology.

The Problem of Chronology

The fundamental problem was that anyone could develop a chronology without any rigor.  Even conservative theories from otherwise respectable academics often had the same epistemological basis as the lunatic theories.  Theories asserted to be true couldn’t be shown to be true or false.  Prior to 2017 the “sniff  test” of plausibility was the best that scholars thought that they could hope for.

During my PhD studies I was a research assistant under Kenneth A. Kitchen, a man dubbed “the father of modern chronology.”  As I watched Professor Kitchen work, I noticed how mechanical chronology creation could be.  Based upon my observations of how Kitchen constructed chronologies, I began to work on Groundhog: Chronology Test Laboratory in 2014.

At first I tried to create a program that could simply reconstruct Kitchen’s chronological process with a computer.  But the deeper I got into it, I observed several things about chronology that were never before documented in any meaningful way.

My Observations

(1) Theories of chronology are essentially the dates or reign-lengths ascribed to the various kings of the ancient Near East.  This is the subjective data or hypothesis that any particular modern scholar would be trying to prove.   These numbers vary with each tested theory.

(2) Kings in the ancient Near East sent letters and treaties to each other.  These documents created synchronisms.  A synchronism is a relationship between two people that shows that they lived at the same time.

Regardless of the dates assigned to the reigns of the kings, synchronisms are static.  Synchronisms do not change.  The marriage contract between Ramesses II and Hattusili III is a synchronism that will never change regardless of the dates assigned.   Synchronisms are the objective data.

(3) If we have a subjective hypothesis and objective data, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis against the data, provided that the data is sufficient, becomes possible.  In the ancient Near East, about 500 kings and 150 synchronisms are attested well enough for this purpose.  This provides a sufficient basis for testing.

Development of Groundhog

Having the pieces in place, I developed a software platform with the ability to take a chronology and test it for internal consistency.  Using Groundhog, one can reconstruct a chronology and test it against the 150 synchronisms.  This test  produces a result that shows the chronology to be internally consistent or not.  While this test does not show if a chronology is true, it can show if a chronology must be false.

For the first time, a chronology can be tested objectively, rejecting certain theories from further consideration.  This new tool can also assist human operators to eliminate errors from a chronology that are caused by an inability to factor the consequences of extended interdependencies.   And finally, Groundhog introduces to the field a theoretical basis and methodological praxis that has been sorely lacking.

For more information about Groundhog see the project web site at http://www.groundhogchronology.com

A bronze figure of a deity from Alalakh.

Baal-Zephon, Lord of the North

After the Israelites camped before Pi-Hahiroth, they wandered in the desert near the fortress Migdol.  They camped between Migdol, Pi-Hahiroth, the Reed Sea, and a looking post nearby known as Baal-Zephon.

Unlike the previous Egyptian toponyms, Baal-Zephon has a Semitic etymology.  Baal is common to many Semitic languages and means “lord,” a term often used for a god.  The name, Baal, was used during the Old Babylonian period for a variety of deities including Marduk (bel) but is perhaps best known from the Bible as an epithet for the northwest Semitic storm-god (Hadad/Adad).

The biblical text parallels “before Pi-Hahiroth” and “before Baal-Zephon,” implying that the two sites are adjacent (Exod 14:9).  Papyrus Sallier IV mentioned Ball-Zephon in the following:

To Amūn of the temple of the gods; to the Ennead that is in Pi-Ptaḥ; to Baˁalim, to Ḳadesh, and to Anyt; (to) Baˁal Zephon (bˁr-ḏȜpn), to Sopd.

Papyrus Sallier IV (vs. 1:6)

The Hyksos who worshipped the storm god associated this god with the Egyptian storm god, Seth.  The Egyptians continued to use this association after the Hyksos left Egypt.  Given that the author of Papyrus Sallier IV wrote the toponym Baˁal-Zephon with the Seth character; Baal in this toponym may be a reference to Seth.

The second element of the toponym, the word zephon, means “north” in Semitic languages. However, Zephon by itself also appears as a toponym in Amarna Letter 274, most likely as a name of a Levantine city. Thus, it is unclear whether zephon in Baal-Zephon refers to a direction, yielding “Baal of the North,” or a place, “Baal of (the city) Zephon.”


Infrared Luminescence and the Beads of Nuzi and Serebit el-Khadim

When I visited the Harvard Semitic Museum during Oct 2017, I brought my infrared camera gear to do some tests on HSM 1935.4.7 (=Sinai 375a).  I was looking for the presence (or absence) of Egyptian Blue pigment.  And while there, I asked the director of the museum if they wanted anything else tested.

They had me test beads from the city of Nuzi in Iraq and the Egyptian mining colony at Serabit el-Khadim.  In both cases, the beads looked similar, mostly chalk white and unremarkable.  Some beads from Serabit el-Khadim had a faint blue cast.

Using a process called infrared luminescence, an artifact can be tested for the presence of certain pigments.  The process is quite simple.  Ambient light is reduced and a red light is shone upon the artifacts.  The artifacts are then photographed used a camera modified to capture infrared light.  If the red light stimulates the production of infrared light, this infrared light will be detected by the camera.  In the case of Egyptian Blue pigment, the camera detects the otherwise faded pigment as a bright blue glow.

Under testing, the beads from Serabit el-Khadim showed no presence of Egyptian Blue pigment.  But the Nuzi beads glowed intensely with infrared luminosity (see photo). This is interesting and makes a lot of sense if one thinks about it.

Serabit el-Khadim was a mining colony where turquoise was mined.  And even though the miners had all the materials to make Egyptian Blue, it was unnecessary for them to do so since the pigment was a substitute for turquoise.  Why make a counterfeit when you have easy access to the genuine article?   They simply decorated their beads with turquoise paint.

Nuzi had no natural source of turquoise and therefore imported beads decorated with Egyptian Blue pigment as trade goods.

A relief of Montu at Tod with two Wadjet amulets

Pi-Hahiroth, “Estate of the Temple of the Wadjet” by any other name

After Pithom, the Israelites camped before the fortress of Pi-Hahiroth (Exod 14:2).  The origin of the name Pi-Hahiroth comes from the Egyptian pr-ḥwt-ḥrt.  The toponym pr-ḥwt-ḥrt appears in one extra-biblical text, Papyrus Anastasis III:

The (Sea of) Reeds (pȜṯwfy) comes to papyrus reeds and the (Waters-of)-Horus (pȜḥr) to rushes.  Twigs of the orchards and wreaths of the vine-yards [ … ] birds from the Cataract region.  It leans upon [ … ] the Sea (pȜ ym) with bg-fish and bȗrἰ-fish, and even their hinterlands provide it.  The Great-of-Victories youths are in festive attire every day; sweet moringa-oil is upon their heads having hair freshly braided.  They stand beside their doors. Their hands bowed down with foliage and greenery of Pi-Hahirot (pr-ḥwt-ḥrt) and flax of the Waters-of-Horus.  The day that one enters (Pi)ramesses (wsr-mȜˁ-rˁ stp-n-rˁ) l.p.h., Montu-of-the-Two-Lands.

Papyrus Anastasis III (2:11-3:4)

This document, dated to the third year of Ramesses II’s successor, Merneptah (ca. 1222-1212 BCE), locates Pi-Hahiroth on the way from the Sea of Reeds (pȜ ṯwfy) towards Piramesses.  It appears as though Pi-Hahiroth was probably on the south coast of the Sea of Reeds in a marshy area on the edge of the desert.  While no one knows the exact location of Pi-Hahiroth, it was probably is in close proximity to Migdol and Baal Zephon.

Egyptologists have long struggled with the meaning of the pr-ḥwt-ḥrt toponym.  And early Egyptologists suggested that it might mean “House of (the goddess) Hathor,” assuming that the word ḥrt was an unusual or mistaken spelling of Hathor. The toponym follows Egyptian convention beginning with the hieroglyphic pr-ḥwt, “estate of the temple” or “house of the precinct.” It ends with the goddess character indicating that the final element, ḥrt, is theophoric.

William F. Albright suggested that it might mean “the mouth of the canals,” which he suggested was perhaps a Semitic etymology of the Egyptian Pi-Ḥ-r-t, yet this creative solution ultimately did not solve the problem of the theophoric name.  He suggested that Heret was the name of a Semitic goddess.  The problem is that, even though the name could mean “Estate of the Temple of (the goddess) Heret,” no such goddess is known. Therefore, Albright’s proposal was not a tenable solution to the problem.

I believe that ḥrt is an abbreviated spelling of ḥry(t)-tp, “the one who is on top.” The term ḥry(t)-tp is one of the epithets of the Uraeus serpent goddess, Wadjet, and therefore, the name would mean, “Estate of the goddess who is on top (=Wadjet).”  This solution retains the theophoric aspects of the toponym and is consistent with known examples of the Wadjet epithet (e.g. Karnak Rhetorical Stela [KRI V 89.10]).

Bust of Hatshepsut with some original paint intact.

Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs (Reviewed)

When one lives in British Columbia, few opportunities exist to view Egyptian antiquities first hand.  Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs is a traveling exhibit currently on display at the Royal BC Museum in beautiful Victoria.  The collection is curated jointly from the University of Aberdeen and the Roemer- and Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim.

The greatest strength of this collection is its sheer diversity of objects.  The exhibition has a large selection items dating from the pre-dynastic period until the Roman period.  The time period covered is wide in scope, and the collection covers all walks of life.  Items included are objects from everyday life, e.g. beer jugs, to luxury goods from the tombs of great kings.  On the basis of the items alone, this exhibit is worth the modest price of admission.

This is not to say, however, that the exhibit does not have some shortcomings.  It definitely does.  The descriptions that accompany the artifacts are often 20 years out of date and many contain glaring factual errors.  A couple of examples include the description of a “woman miller” that clearly is male and a “stool” that is obviously a chair with the back broken off.  The description of a 21st dynasty “yellow coffin” cover states that the yellow reflected the symbolism of the sun when David Singleton in 2003 proved that these coffins were originally painted white and the varnish only yellowed with age.

Another issue is the dim lighting used in the exhibit.  Quite frankly, the lighting is darker than what other exhibits of this kind employ.  Many objects of this kind do not require lighting this dark, particularly artifacts that baked in the harsh Egyptian sun for over 3,000 years.  The darkest areas of the exhibit house objects made of granite or bronze, non-fugitive materials.  Some of the lighting choices were a bit silly.

The other shortcoming revolves around the Royal BC Museum’s decision to exclude local Egyptologists from actively participating in the exhibit. The museum would not dream of a first nations exhibit without the participation of Canadian anthropologists and archaeologists.  Yet, the museum shut out local Egyptologists who are few but active in the scholarly community.  This failure is a lost opportunity to leverage local talent.

Overall, the Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs is a rich and worthwhile exhibit to see.  And it is no doubt one of the best exhibits of Egyptian artifacts that has ever come to Canada.  Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs runs until December 31, 2018.

The Palermo stone and a clock set against a starscape

Chronology: Why it Matters.

What is chronology

Simply defined chronology is the science (or art) of arranging things in order of time.  It is primarily concerned with the arrangement of past events and persons in an cohesive, logical order of occurrence.  Chronology deals with three things: (1) the order of events, (2) the length events runs, and (3) the grouping of events.

The story of chronology begins long before the origin of the wheel (ca 2500 BCE) and even before the invention of writing (ca. 3000 BCE).  If we believe the Mesopotamian chronicles, chronology began with an oral tradition concerning the kings of the distant past.

Before the advent of precise record keeping, people were keeping track of the sequences of actors.  The archaeological record confirms the real existence of some kings thought at one time to be strictly mythological, e.g., Gilgamesh.  The oral tradition has preserved the sequence of actors at least in some semblance.

Why chronology matters

No study is more fundamental to the questions of “who are we?” and “where did we come from?” than chronology.  It is difficult to answer these questions, but this study affords us the opportunity for a few precious answers.  And as we glean the distant past, we can gain these insights by studying the archaeological and textual remains of our ancestors.

Chronology is not simply an attempt of modern peoples to understand the past.  It is a need that taps deep into what it means to be human.  No other animal seeks connection to the past or gains significance by being part of an unbroken chain of causal events.

The need to know where we come from owes its existence to the human faculty of externalizing our existence.  Our existence is extended to the continuity of our community.  However, this drive to know where our ancestors came from was not the same as what we would now consider to be history.  The peoples of the ancient world had a sense of history but it is not history as we know it.

The preceding blog was an abridged excerpt out of the book that I am currently writing.