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.