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Monday, 28 December 2020

The Eyes Have It: A Pair of Inlaid Eyes from Sanam

In August 2019 the reserve collection of the Egypt Centre was moved into a new state of the art storage facility. Yet this was only the beginning of the task to reorganise roughly 4,000 objects not currently on display in the museum. Over the subsequent eight months, around 3,000 objects had been repacked and given a new locations. However, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, this project went eye-dle for six months. Therefore, the project to reorganise these objects was only completed last Wednesday. A few weeks ago Sam Powell and I were going through one particular box when we made an eye-opening discovery. This blog post will outline the process of the discovery and the subsequent archival material related to it.


Working directly with the Egypt Centre collection during the pandemic has been a challenge since, because of the social distancing rules, I’m the only person able to work in the storeroom. However, with the rise of Zoom, it has been possible for me to work with the objects while Zooming with Sam who updates our online catalogue remotely. Therefore, this greatly improves the productivity and processing speed. A few weeks ago, we were going through a box of thirty-eight eye inlays, many of which originally belonged to wooden coffins. Some eagle-eyed readers might remember that this box of inlays featured in a previous guest post by Jiayun Zhu, a Museum Studies placement student from Leicester University. One particular pair of eyes immediately attracted our attention (W624 & W626). They are made of a copper alloy frame with the white scleras made of ostrich eggshell. Ostrich shell was used throughout Egyptian history for inlays, including occasionally for the whites of eyes (Phillips 2009). Unfortunately, in both cases the pupils are missing, although the stained outlines are still visible (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Eye inlays

So what makes these objects so interesting? Well, with the Egypt Centre collection it is always important to keep an eye out for any previous numbers written on the objects. In the case of W624 and W626, faint five-digit numbers were spotted in the lower right corners of the scleras, written in white ink (fig. 2). Only the number on W624 could be fully read (12440), which I immediately identified as a Wellcome “R” number. These were written on objects as they were registered at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WHMM) from 1913 until 1933. In recent years, the Wellcome has digitised many of their historical archives, including the registration ledgers. The entry for 12440 indicates that the object was identical to 12439, which is described as an “eye - of bone - with haematite pupil + bronze rim from mummy”. Thus, while the number on W626 was only partially readable, it was possible to identify it as 12439 having located its matching eye.

Fig. 2: Faint Wellcome number in lower left

But the story doesn’t end here! The next page of the ledger indicates that these eyes were “excavated at Sanam cemetery by Llewelyn Griffith”. I couldn’t believe my eyes! We had no idea that the Egypt Centre housed any of the objects from Sanam, which was excavated during the 1912–13 season of the University of Oxford Excavations in Nubia led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862–1934). The eyes were subsequently presented to the WHMM in 1921. I searched the Wellcome archives further for additional details on the eyes. One file contained letters of correspondence between Griffith and Wellcome, often via the curator of the WHMM, Charles J. S. Thompson (1862–1943). In one letter written by Thompson to Griffith, dated 02 February 1921, an “enamelled eye” is mentioned as one of several objects from Sanam that “would be of most interest for his [Wellcome’s] collection” (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Letter from Thompson to Griffith (WA/HMM/CO/Ear/351:Box 42)

Looking further through the file, I was excited to see that the eyes were listed as having been found in tomb 691, which dates to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (fig. 4). The accompanying tomb record reads as: “Cave tomb, 15 steep steps, drop of 70 to narrow platform before embrasure, approach L. 380, W. 100–120, total D. 380, main chamber 600 by 180, with two side chambers, axis 320. On floor of main chamber, pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the former inlaid with white (ostrich egg?) shell on which is fixed a raised disc of obsidian? as pupil; fragments of hollow bronze; some bluish glaze tubular and ring beads; [smaller green and yellow glaze tubular beads; a few small yellow red green and black ring beads; small yellow ball beads]. In entrance, sandstone table of offerings with papyrus stem in middle and 8 loaves between hes vases, 40 by 35, including spout.” With this information, I then searched the excavation report and found that the eyes were mentioned twice. Firstly, Griffith says that “amongst the cave graves 691 preserves clear evidence of having contained a coffin in a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows, such as are found inlaid in well-made wooden coffins from Egypt” (Griffith 1923, 84). Secondly, he said that “in the cave grave 691 were found a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the eyes inlaid with white (ostrich egg) shell on which is fixed a raised disk of obsidian (?) as pupil; also fragments of hollow bronze, which perhaps had formed the lobes, etc., of a pair of ears” (Griffith 1923, 106).

Fig. 4: Selection of finds from the cemetery (Griffith 1923, pl. 21)

Sanam is located 25km south of the Fourth Cataract in modern day Sudan (fig. 5 MAP). The site is situated just a few kilometres south of the sacred site of Gebel Barkal, and between the royal cemeteries of el-Kurru (to the south) and Nuri (to the north). Over the course of four months at the site, Griffith and his team excavated an eye-popping 1550 tombs. Finds from the cemetery are scattered throughout the world, including the collections of the National Museum Khartoum, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin, and now Swansea. Knowing that the eyes were from the cemetery of Sanam, I contacted Professor Angelika Lohwasser, who has been researching the site for many years (Lohwasser 2010; 2012). Remarkably, W624 and W626 are the only eye inlays from a coffin found in the cemetery (Lohwasser 2012, 92). While the pupils of the eyes were recorded at the time of their registration of the WHMM, they have since become detached and subsequently lost. The eyebrows listed in the excavation report were not, however, listed as having been accessioned at the WHMM and it can only be assumed that they never accompanied the eyes to the museum.

Fig. 5: Map of the Napata district (Lohwasser 2010, fig. 1)

This blog post has presented an example of the archaeology of museums, showing that sometimes discoveries can be made right in front of your eyes!


**I am grateful to Professor Lohwasser for sending me the relevant pages from her 2012 publication. 


Griffith, Francis Llewellyn 1923. Oxford excavations in Nubia. XVIII. The cemetery of Sanam. Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology 10, 73–171.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2010. The Kushite cemetery of Sanam: a non-royal burial ground of the Nubian capital, c. 800–600 BC. London: Golden House.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2012. Aspekte der napatanischen Gesellschaft: archäologisches Inventar und funeräre Praxis im Friedhof von Sanam - Perspektiven einer kulturhistorischen Interpretation. Denkschriften der Gesamtakademie 67; Contributions to the Archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant 1. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Morkot, Robert G. 2000. The black pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian rulers. London: Rubicon Press.

Phillips, Jacke S. 2009. Ostrich eggshell. Edited by Willeke Wendrich. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 1–4. Available at:

Pope, Jeremy 2014. The double kingdom under Taharqo: studies in the history of Kush and Egypt, c. 690–664 BC. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 69. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Asklepios, Imhotep, and Onias’ Temple

The entry for this week is written by the Reverend Jim Collins, a retired Anglican priest from Ottawa, Canada. Jim is very grateful for all he has been learning from the Egypt Centre and the Egypt Exploration Society lectures during the COVID-19 pandemic.


For someone who has dabbled in Egyptology since an undergraduate essay on ma’at in the Story of Sinuhe more than forty years ago, it has been both an honour and a privilege to be attending Dr Ken Griffin’s online courses from the Egypt Centre, Swansea University. Ken brings such a depth of knowledge of his subject and an enthusiasm that his courses can be both daunting and incredibly inspiring. I love the way that he brings in artifacts as well as pictures and drawings to illustrate his lectures. I feel as though I am actually visiting the sites and monuments he is describing. He and Sam Powell create a welcoming and respectful environment online and over time I feel that I am also getting to know at least some of the other course participants who ask such interesting questions and bring some of their own insights.


Fig. 1: Plaster cast relief of Ptolemy III offering to Ptah and Imhotep (EC1959)

The importance of Imhotep to the Ptolemies is illustrated by a scene depicting Ptolemy III Euergetes I with Imhotep and Ptah in the Ptah Temple of Karnak (fig. 1). Pharaonic involvement in the building and restoration of temples in ancient Egypt has a long history. Although Imhotep’s involvement with king Djoser is well known, contemporary documentation from the Third Dynasty is sketchy at best. However, as pointed out by Jadwiga Iwaszczuk (2015), there are important historical features of royal temple building and restoration evident by the Eighteenth Dynasty. It may be observed that there are parallels between political motivations in Eighteenth Dynasty temple construction and the Ptolemaic Period, but also differences. Among the inscriptions, Iwaszczuk cites is one from the western wall of the so-called “Birth Portico” in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, in which the gods of Egypt, whom the queen had visited with her divine father, are depicted as saying to her: …you will see your instructions in the land which is in your possession, you will restore (srwḏ) what was decaying, you will raise your monuments in your temples, you will enrich your altars of him who begot you” (Iwaszczuk 2015, 35). It may be that this divine command to build was a form of justification for political office that was used by Hatshepsut, which may not have been lost on either the Ptolemies nor Onias, the Judean high priest. Might Imhotep have served as a role model in this or was he seen only as a healer?

Fig. 2: Copper alloy statue of Imhotep (BM EA 11060)

Although Apollo was the father of Askelpios, already in Homer there was an emphasis on healing art through the use of medicines and surgical intervention. Arguably for the Judean high priest Onias, the biblical patriarch Joseph served as more of a role model than Imhotep, but on the other hand, the Ptolemies were clearly committed to temple building and refurbishment, so surely it is possible that Imhotep may have proved useful as well (fig. 2). Arguably, for Ptolemaic kings there were similar periods of chaos in Egypt to which their building programs were similarly addressed. Could it be that the Judean priest Onias, in a manner similar to Hatshepsut but in the mid-second century BCE, took advantage of such traditional Egyptian policies around temple building and reconstruction to justify his own unorthodox position in traditional Egyptian society?

Fig. 3: Screenshot of the SITH Projet Karnak

Ken says that he debated how best to teach the subject of Karnak and decided on a historical approach. He says that it probably would have been better to make the course longer because so much material has had to be dropped but still this course has been an amazing learning experience. Throughout the Karnak course, Ken showed how the SITH Projet Karnak website can be used to find photographs and transcriptions of the scenes at Karnak (fig. 3). The fifth week was both a survey of the Graeco-Roman developments at Karnak as well as a historical summary using the UCLA video animating most of the various constructions over two thousand years. It was of particular interest to me because of my own interest in the mid-second century building project of the Judean high priest Onias. This sixth week was an added bonus over the five originally advertised and was a final overview of the gods and festivals, which for me was also a continuation of my own interest in these areas. It also tied in further to my interest area because of various connections to Memphis and the Heliopolis Nome in the Ptolemaic era.  

Fig. 4: Block 37, “Ritual Burning of Fans” Magical Practice from Hatshepsut’s Chapelle Rouge 

In the final week of the course, he explained further surviving evidence from Hatshepsut’s Chapelle Rouge, of what is sometimes described as a magical practice of “Burning of Fans” (perhaps irt
m ḫfty). The hieroglyph symbol of the bound captive signifying enemies appears on the fans as well as in the text. As explained by Mariam F. Ayad (2009, 92), the burning of the signs of the enemy symbolized that, without a body, the enemies of Egypt would have no place in the after life. The rekḫyt-people were also involved in this ceremony (figs. 4–5). Robert K. Ritner (1993, 210ff), notes Pascal Vernus, “Un témoignage cultuel du conflit avec les éthiopiens,” in interpreting the the fourteen-day Festival of Behdet at Edfu, where their symbolic interpretation is clearly stated: the palms of dom-palm are the hair of their enemies. Although perhaps not the same ceremony as depicted at Karnak, Ritner argues “The crucial importance for this ‘magical’ act for Egyptian ‘religion’ can be seen not only from the numerous manifestations of the rite, but by its transmission from temple to private concerns.”

Fig. 5: Participants in the Ritual Burning of Fans


Ayad, Mariam F. 2009. God’s Wife, God’s Servant: the God’s Wife of Amun (ca.740–525 BC). London; New York: Routledge.

Griffin, Kenneth 2018. All the rḫyt-people adore: the role of the rekhyt-people in Egyptian religion. GHP Egyptology 29. London: Golden House Publications.

Iwaszczuk, Jadwiga 2015. Rebirth of temples under the rule of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III: vocabulary. Études et Travaux 28, 29–58.

Ritner, Robert Kriech 1993. The mechanics of ancient Egyptian magical practice. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 54. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Wildung, Dietrich 1977. Egyptian saints: deification in pharaonic Egypt. Hagop Kevorkian series on Near Eastern art and civilization. New York: New York University Press.

——— 1977. Imhotep und Amenhotep: Gottwerdung im alten Ägypten. Münchner Ägyptologische Studien 36; Münchener Universitätsschriften, Philosophische Fakultät für Geschichts- und Kunstwissenschaften. München; Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Karnak during the Graeco-Roman Period

The blog post for this week has been written by Jan Stremme, who is a member of the Egyptian Study Society in Denver, Colorado. She has no formal studies in Egyptology, but has enjoyed a very informal education for over thirty years. While not very tech savvy, she believes that the Egypt Centre classes have been the best thing to come out of the COVID pandemic. She has even been known to stay awake for an occasional 2:00AM lecture!

When COVID-19 forced us all into lockdown, I knew I’d have to embrace twenty-first century technology in order to survive. However, one advantage to the Zoom world is that it has given me access to a world of new experiences, like the Karnak class from the Egypt Centre. Week 5 concentrated on the Graeco-Roman Period (fig. 1). As Dr. Griffin pointed out, many people tune out when Egyptology gets into this period. Because it’s not as popular, I had previously learned less about this period in my explorations. Therefore, this week’s class helped me fill in a few blanks, and they seem quite interesting to me. 

Fig. 1: Recently cleaned relief in the Opet Temple

The Graeco-Roman pharaohs did not build on a massive scale at Karnak. It is not that these people were incapable of building: Philae, Edfu, and Dendera prove they were. For whatever reason however, they chose to invest their efforts at Karnak on restoration and redecoration. It is interesting how their attitudes towards restoration varied. For example, when Alexander the Great restored the Akhmenu, he chose to keep the old style and existing themes of the walls. They are completed in beautiful raised relief. He even left the name of Thutmose III on one wall—quite a tribute, considering the usual tendency to over write and claim the works of predecessors. However, on another wall, he showed himself offering to the gods, with his cartouche carved above. As a result, it is not always easy to spot the recreations based on style alone. Clues include skin-tight robes and prominent breasts (which I associate with the Ptolemaic era), contemporary clothing, and of course the new hieroglyphs to accommodate the new language. In one inscription dating to the time of Augustus, the indicators for “Lord of the Two Lands” included a pair of seated kings, one with the crown of Upper Egypt and the second with the crown of Lower Egypt. In addition, a bull over two scarabs read as “Lord of the Two Lands” (fig. 2). These symbols were not new to me, but they were used in new ways. The inscription also contains one of the few instances where Rome is mentioned by name the name hrm. 

Fig. 2: Roman hieroglyphs at the Opet Temple

It is also interesting that wall scenes began to include the ruler’s wives, mothers, and/or sisters in deified form on the same scale as the gods. Imhotep, the famous “architect” of Djoser, is deified for his healing skills (fig. 3). Perhaps the lines between the realm of the Gods and mortal men were becoming a little more blurred? I found it interesting that when Ptolemy VIII modified the Eastern Temple he “unveiled that which was veiled. Since his Majesty had made it open to all.” Might this indicate a more inclusive attitude toward religion? 

Fig. 3: Plaster cast in the Egypt Centre (EC1959) of a relief from the Ptah Temple depicting Ptolemy III Euergetes I offering to Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu

At the end of class, we saw a graphic from Digital Karnak, which attempted to show how the temple grew and changed over the centuries. This was quite a helpful graphic. After taking the class, I definitely want to see Karnak again—now that I have a better understanding. A bonus for this class has been the e-mailed supplementary materials, including pdfs and other useful links. I have enjoyed “meeting” Dr Griffin, Sam Powell, and a few other members of the Egypt Centre team online. This has been my silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud!

Monday, 7 December 2020

Karnak in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods

The blog post for this week has been written by Terri Natale, who has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Victorian Studies. She also received a Certificate and Diploma in Egyptology from Birkbeck College. Terri has previously worked as a volunteer on the South Asasif Conservation Project for five seasons.

I won’t attempt to copy Dr Ken Griffin’s comprehensive survey of the changes at Karnak during the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. Instead, I will only look at some highlights of the changes in the religious and political effects these had at Karnak and the country. The Third Intermediate Period was a time of fragmentation of the Egyptian state. It was a time when local rulers once more came into prominence. For much of this time, Egypt was no longer a country under the control of one king.

In the Twenty-first Dynasty, the king had control of Lower Egypt at Tanis. Herihor, the High Priest of Amun under Ramesses XI, was the de facto ruler at Karnak and possibly the greater Theban region. He is viewed as a bridge between the Twentieth and Twenty-first dynasties. In a significant departure from tradition, he was depicted wearing the regalia of Pharaoh and his name was enclosed in a cartouche. Additionally, within the temple of Khonsu at Karnak, he is depicted presenting maat to the gods (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Herihor presenting maat to Amun

His successor, the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem, adopted the five-fold titulary of the king in year 15/16 of Smendes. He usurped the colossal statue of Ramesses II (or Amenhotep III?) at the entrance to the Second Pylon, while also adding the avenue of sphinxes in front of Karnak (fig. 2). At the entrance to the Khonsu Temple, he was depicted offering to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. His son, Menkheperre, carried out an inspection of all the Theban temples and built a mudbrick enclosure wall around Karnak.

Fig. 2: Colossal statue of Pinedjem

The Twenty-second Dynasty started with Sheshonq I, the first first foreign ruler of Egypt in 600 years. He was a Libyan military commander whose family had lived in the Delta region at Bubastis for generations. He appointed his son, Iwput, as the High Priest of Amun, thus tightening control of this important office (fig. 3). Sheshonq I undertook a range of building projects at Karnak, one of which was the Bubastis Portal. Its southern wall depicted his victory over Israel and Judea. He was the first pharaoh to be identified by name (Shishak) in the Old Testament, although some scholars dispute this association. This is significant as it became possible to view the military victories of the Egyptians from other contemporary sources.

Fig. 3: Sheshonq I, accompanied by Iwput, being suckled by Hathor

The influence and power of the God’s Wife of Amun increased during the Twenty-second/Twenty-third dynasties, reaching its height during the Kushite (Twenty-fifth Dynasty) and Saite (Twenty-sixth Dynasty) periods. This also coincided with the increase in the worship of Osiris. Karnak had always been dedicated to multiple gods, with Osiris now having numerous chapels built for him. In total, there are close to 20 Osiris chapels at Karnak. The earliest chapel is that of Osiris Wep-ished, which was decorated during the reign of Osorkon II under the High Priest of Amun, Takelot (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Chapel of Osiris Wep-ished

In the early Twenty-third Dynasty, the God’s Wife of Amun Shepenwepet was depicted more times in the Chapel of Osiris Heqa-Djet than the kings. This is a clear indication of how important this position had become. In the New Kingdom, the God’s Wife of Amun was the wife or daughter of the ruler. By the Twenty-third Dynasty, she was celibate. It is significant that as the power and influence of the God’s Wife of Amun increased, the power of the High Priest of Amun decreased. In the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, God’s Wife is shown in roles previously allotted to the king. She was shown presenting maat to the gods, receiving the ankh from the gods, and intimately embracing the gods (fig. 5). The God’s Wife was his consort, who is even shown being suckled by Hathor in some scenes. The title of God’s Wife became synonymous with that of the Divine Adoratrice, with the office having a large personnel of attendants and a Chief Steward.

Fig. 5: The God’s Wife Amenirdis embracing Amun

The Twenty-fifth Dynasty heralded the arrival of the Kushites. Shabataka (Shebitqo) was the first Kushite ruler to add to Karnak, including decorating the exterior parts of the Chapel of Osiris Heqa-Djet. He wears a double uraeus on his crown, which symbolised his rule over the two lands (Egypt and Kush). However, since the Kushite ruler were content to govern from Kush, it was the God’s Wife of Amun who was the de facto ruler at Thebes. Shabataka was succeeded by Shabaka, who was responsible for renewing a gateway of the Fourth Pylon.  He also built a treasury (fig. 6) and the “House of Gold”. He constructed two Osiris chapels. Osiris Neb-Ankh and Osiris Coptos. His successor, Taharqa, embarked on an impressive building programme at Karnak. He constructed the so-called Edifice of Taharqa, which is located next to the Sacred Lake. He built and decorated at least three Osiris chapels.


Fig. 6: The Treasury of Shabaka

The Third Intermediate Period saw the fragmentation of the Egyptian state and the arrival of foreign rulers. It witnessed the rise in power of the God’s Wife of Amun and the change to Osiris as a major god at Karnak. This was a big departure from the stability of the New Kingdom and was to be the precursor of future change in later dynasties.


Anonymous 1981. The Temple of Khonsu, volume 2: scenes and inscriptions in the Court and the First Hypostyle Hall, with translations of texts and glossary for volumes 1 and 2. Oriental Institute Publications 103. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Ayad, Mariam F. 2009. God’s Wife, God’s Servant: the God’s Wife of Amun (ca.740–525 BC). London; New York: Routledge.

Cooney, Kathlyn M. 2000. The edifice of Taharqa by the Sacred Lake: ritual function and the role of the kingJournal of the American Research Center in Egypt 37, 15–47.

Coulon, Laurent, Aleksandra Hallmann, and Frédéric Payraudeau 2018. The Osirian chapels at Karnak: an historical and art historical overview based on recent fieldwork and studies. In Pischikova, Elena, Julia Budka, and Kenneth Griffin (eds), Thebes in the first millennium BC: art and archaeology of the Kushite period and beyond, 271–293. London: Golden House Publications.

Epigraphic Survey, The 1954. Reliefs and inscriptions at Karnak, volume 3: the Bubastite portal. Oriental Institute Publications 74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gregory, Steven R. W. 2014. Herihor in art and iconography: kingship and the gods in the ritual landscape of Late New Kingdom Thebes. London: Golden House Publications.