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Thursday, April 11, 2024

'Exciting' New Insight Into Ancient Egyptian Astronomy and Mythology

'Exciting' New Insight Into Ancient Egyptian Astronomy and Mythology


An astrophysicist has shed new light on how the ancient Egyptians viewed our galaxy thousands of years ago.

In an "exciting" study published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Or Graur with the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, has revealed how the Milky Way may have been linked to the ancient Egyptian sky goddess Nut.

"This [study] is a new way to look at the sky goddess and at the way astronomy may have been used by the ancient Egyptians," Graur told Newsweek.

The Egyptians had an advanced understanding of astronomy for their time. They cataloged stars, mapped constellations, tracked the movements of celestial bodies like the sun and moon, and created the concept of a 365-day calendar, among other achievements. Further, the Egyptians wove the workings of the night sky into many aspects of their culture and mythology.

The ancient Egyptian sky goddess Nut
This reconstruction of a fresco from a tomb at Thebes in Egypt's Valley of the Kings shows the sky goddess Nut, studded with stars, arched over her brother Geb, god of the earth, and held...
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images

For most of humanity, prior to modern light pollution, the visible band of our galaxy was one of the most distinctive features in the night sky. Most, if not all, cultures have a specific name and origin story for it. But despite the ancient Egyptians' interest in the night sky, the name and role of the Milky Way in their culture remain unclear.

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One suggestion previously proposed by experts is the Milky Way was seen by the Egyptians as a celestial manifestation of Nut. In the latest study, Graur set out to determine whether or not this was the case and if the goddess could be linked to our galaxy.

It was already clear that Nut played a key role in ancient Egyptian cosmology, with the goddess often depicted arched over her brother, Geb—and sometimes studded with stars.

"In Egyptian cosmology, the world, which consisted of Egypt and its immediate neighbors, was surrounded by infinite, inert waters," Graur wrote in the study. "The Earth, personified by the god Geb, was protected from the encroaching waters by the sky, personified by Geb's sister and consort, Nut, who was held aloft by the atmosphere, represented by their father, Shu."

Nut also played an important role in the Egyptian conception of the solar cycle, in which the sun is ferried by boat across the water of the sky from dawn to dusk. It was believed that Nut swallows the sun as it sets before giving birth to it once more when it rises.

Graur is an astrophysicist, not an Egyptologist, but the scholar came across Nut while investigating the many names and creation stories different cultures have for the Milky Way during research for an upcoming book on galaxies.

"In the case of ancient Egypt, that led me to read the original articles on Nut and the Milky Way," Graur told Newsweek.

The researcher was not convinced by the arguments made by the original Egyptologists, so he decided to try and test the link between Nut and the Milky Way using modern astronomical simulations of the night sky, in addition to studying the goddess' description in as many Egyptian texts as possible.

These investigations drew from a rich collection of ancient Egyptian sources, with the most relevant information in this case found in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts and Book of Nut.

"None of the previous studies had used the Book of Nut, which turned out to contain the most important link between Nut and the Milky Way," Graur said.

The astronomical simulations Graur ran showed what the night sky would have looked like in ancient Egyptian times.

"Then, as today, the Milky Way's appearance changed as it rose and set throughout the night, as well as from one season to the next," Graur wrote in Scientific American. "In the winter, it would cross the sky diagonally from the southeast to the northwest, whereas in the summer, its orientation would flip so that it arched from the northeast to the southwest."

couple looking at the milkway
Couple sitting on the top of a hill over a city looking at shooting stars and the Milky Way in the background. A scholar recently worked to link the Milky Way to the Egyptian goddess...
Oscar Gutierrez Zozulia/Getty Images

Combining the Egyptian texts and astronomical simulations led Graur to propose that there could have been a link between Nut and the Milky Way, although his argument differs to previously suggested hypotheses.

"As opposed to previous attempts to link them, I don't think the Milky Way is Nut—i.e., a manifestation of her," Graur told Newsweek. "Instead, I think the Milky Way helped the ancient Egyptians see Nut fulfilling her role as the sky."

In the paper, the researcher proposes that the description of the goddess in the Book of Nut is consistent with the appearance of the Milky Way in the night sky—her head and groin associated with the western and eastern horizons, respectively.

Graur argues that Nut's cosmological roles (swallowing and giving birth to the sun, for example) require her to be ever-present and static in the night sky.

"As a consequence, Nut's body could never be mapped onto the Milky Way. If it were, then she would be seen to rise and set with the Milky Way instead of remaining fixed to the horizons," Graur told Scientific American.

Instead, the researcher proposes that the summer and winter orientations of the Milky Way could be seen as figurative markers of Nut's torso (or backbone) and her arms, respectively—a reminder of her constant presence in the sky.

"During the winter, the Milky Way highlighted Nut's outstretched arms, while during the summer it sketched out her backbone (or torso)," Graur told Newsweek. "You can think of the Milky Way as a spotlight illuminating different parts of Nut (the sky) throughout the year."

Graur said the latest study does not provide definitive proof that Nut was linked to the Milky Way in ancient Egypt—it is only one interpretation. But he said his research also fits well into a larger framework of Milky Way creation stories across cultures.

"The more I research the creation stories of the Milky Way, the more similarities I find between cultures around the world and throughout time," Graur said. "There's something deeply, fundamentally human about the way in which we think of the Milky Way."

"This paper is an exciting start to a larger project to catalogue and study the multicultural mythology of the Milky Way," he said in a press release.

Update 4/10/24, 4:39 p.m. ET: This article was updated to clarify that a reference to the western and eastern horizons refers to the night sky.

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Ancient Egyptian Caregivers - Archaeology Magazine

Ancient Egyptian Caregivers

May/June 2024

MJ24DD Egypt Luxor Stela
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Painted limestone stela

If Egyptologists studied only massive stone monuments, gleaming golden sarcophagi, and brightly painted tomb walls, they would understand ancient Egypt as an almost exclusively masculine world. Most of the pyramids and temples were built to glorify male pharaohs and most of the sumptuously decorated tombs that archaeologists have unearthed belonged to men. "There's a huge gender gap and a bias toward men in the archaeological record," says Egyptologist Ines Köhler of Humboldt University. "But people had children, so there must have been at least some women." Some of these unseen women may be hiding in plain sight on less conspicuous artifacts, such as a 19-inch-tall painted limestone stela on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Unearthed by a team from the museum during the 1930s in a prominently located shaft tomb in the necropolis at Thebes, the stela dates to the later part of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.). Köhler and her fellow Humboldt University Egyptologist Eva-Maria Engel recently reexamined the stela and translated its hieroglyphic inscription. It depicts two adult women and two young girls, possibly sisters, identified by their personal names, which appear above their heads. They stand next to an offering table topped with meat, vegetables, fruit, and bread, under which sit vessels filled with beverages. These four are not, however, the only women mentioned on the stela, as there are nine female names in total. Köhler and Engel have concluded that some of the women belonged to four generations of a single family, including a grandmother, mother, and her niece and daughters. Scholars originally surmised that the stela had fallen into a man's tomb by accident. "Men's stelas are never described as falling into shafts by accident. We still say it's a man's tomb," says Engel. "Why can't this tomb have belonged to a woman or to several women?"


Egyptian stelas identifying extended families of multiple generations are common, but Köhler says that examples including only women are very rare. And, although at least some of the women were blood relatives, she and Engel believe they may also have been linked by a shared profession connected to women's health, childbirth, and childcare. "Most female professions in ancient Egypt don't have titles," Engel says. There are exceptions, such as chantress and priestess, but, she explains, other roles are less frequently attested and therefore difficult to identify. Köhler suggests that women would pass on information about midwifery, child-rearing, and mothers' and children's illnesses and health, creating a network of untitled professionals. "Maybe the women on the stela were really close because they all did the same thing and shared their accumulated knowledge," she says.


MJ24 DD Egypt Women Stela Tusk
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Birth tusk

Köhler and Engel's identification of the tomb as belonging to a woman or women engaged in women's and children's care is bolstered by the discovery in the shaft of a birth tusk, made of hippopotamus ivory, also dating to the late Middle Kingdom. The object is carved with an image of a fox head with lotus blossoms between its ears and a row of figures including a knife-wielding jackal, a frog, a crocodile, and a griffin. There are many examples of birth tusks, which are sometimes called magic wands, but Köhler explains that since most came to museums by way of the art market, it's usually impossible to establish their original context. Nevertheless, based on the images found on these artifacts—protective symbols, demons, animals, and sometimes particular deities or even an inscription related to the safety of a mother and child—it seems clear that they were associated with birth and the protection of pre- and postpartum mothers and children, and with what Köhler and Engel call a more feminine setting. "There are medical papyri that say a lot about women's health, and especially about contraception, menstruation, and maybe even abortion, but not about how to deal with birth, midwifery, breastfeeding, or children's care," Köhler says. "Who do you ask what to do when your baby won't stop crying? This type of knowledge is transmitted orally, and these women can be somewhat invisible in the archaeological record." No doubt there are many more subtle traces of women's lives in the Egyptological record that are waiting to be found by those who know to look for them.

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Egyptological Open Access Journals

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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Museum removes Egyptian body parts from galleries

Museum removes Egyptian body parts from galleries

Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in 'The Science of Everything' and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

From University of Sydney news

Unwrapped ancient Egyptian mummified body parts will be returned to the University of Sydney's Museum store while it works to implement better practices with Egyptian communities and authorities. 

The University of Sydney's museum is home to Australia's largest permanent collection of Egyptian antiquities, a holding of more than 5,000 items, including mummified human and animal remains. More than 300 items are on display at any one time. 

The remains of two mummified bodies (Meruah and Horus), their 3D visualisations generated from CT scans, and CT scan data of another mummified body (Mer-Neith-it-es) remain on display. Materials excavated from the coffin of Mer-Neith-it-es, including an endocast (internal cast) of the skull, resin and wax ear, and glazed pottery beads, have also been removed, to accommodate a new display.  

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The fully wrapped mummified body of Meruah (c. 1000 BC) in her coffin, and her CT scan visualisations (left) and the empty coffin of Padiashakhet (c. 700 BC) (right), probably both from Thebes. (Image Usyd)

Unwrapped body parts will be returned to the Museum's closely monitored collection store.

"For hundreds of years body parts in museum collections have been treated as objects," says Dr Melanie Pitkin, Senior Curator of the museum's Nicholson Collection.  "We have become so accustomed to seeing them on show that we often forget they once belonged to living people."

Pitkin says the changes come after extensive research into attitudes towards the ethics and display of human remains, undertaken with museum visitors, and Egyptian communities locally and abroad. This included a survey of museum goers, a weekend of intensive focus groups with 17 members of the Egyptian-Australian community from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, and an in-depth survey for local Egyptians who have visited the Chau Chak Wing Museum. 
Melanie pitkin 1
Melanie Pitkin, Senior Curator, Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum (Image: Usyd)

The museum is also planning to reframe the language and messaging around human remains. This includes the renaming of 'The Mummy Room' in consultation with Egyptian communities for next year.

"The word mummy derives from the Arabic word mūmiya, meaning bitumen, which refers to how a mummified body looked after resins were applied." says Pitkin. "It's a colonial term embraced when Egyptomania took hold in Western cultures in the 19th century. 

"In renaming the room we'd like to focus more on the transformation of the body into an eternal being, which is the whole point of mummification, rather than the body itself. We also encourage visitors to critically reflect on the ethical complexities museums face when caring for human remains." 

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Sunday, April 7, 2024

Northern Cal. ARCE Egyptology Lecture by Aidan Dodson April 28: The Nubian Pharaohs of Egypt

The American Research Center in Egypt, Northern California chapter, and the UC Berkeley Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures invite you to attend a lecture by
Dr. Aidan Dodson, University of Bristol:

The Nubian Pharaohs of Egypt
Sunday April 28, 2024, 3 PM Pacific Time
Room 20, Social Sciences Building, UC Berkeley
This in-person lecture will be recorded for later publication on YouTube

Statues of various rulers of the late 25th Dynasty–early Napatan period. From left to right: Tantamani, Taharqa (rear), Senkamanisken, again Tantamani (rear), Aspelta, Anlamani, again Senkamanisken; Kerma Museum. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

About the Lecture:

For a few decades during the 8th to 7th centuries BC, there was a remarkable reversal of the age-old imperial domination of Nubia by Egypt. In the wake of the fragmentation of the Egyptian state during the 8th century, the Kushite state that had evolved in Nubia since Egyptian withdrawal at the beginning of the 11th century expanded northwards, ultimately absorbing the south of Egypt, including Thebes itself. Having established themselves as overlords of the various regional rulers in Egypt, the Nubian pharaohs led a national revival in Egypt, until an Assyrian onslaught drove them back into Nubia, where their composite of Egyptian and Nubian culture would survive into the 4th century AD.

About the Speaker:

Aidan Mark Dodson is an English Egyptologist and historian. He has been honorary professor of Egyptology at the University of Bristol since August 2018. Born in London in 1962, he studied at Langley Grammar School (1975–81), before moving to Collingwood College, Durham (1981-2). He completed a BA at the University of Liverpool (1985), and an MPhil (1986, museum practice and archaeology) and PhD (1995, Egyptology) at Christ's College, Cambridge. He began teaching at the University of Bristol in October 1996, also holding the post of Simpson Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo from January to July 2013. Dodson was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2003. His primary research interests concern Ancient Egypt, including dynastic history and chronology, tomb architecture, sarcophagus and coffin design, canopic equipment, and the history of Egyptology; he is also a historian of late 19th and early 20th century navies, and has written on the royal tombs of Great Britain. He is the author of some 27 books and 400 articles and reviews. His latest book, The Nubian Pharaohs of Egypt: Their Lives and Afterlives, was published by the American University in Cairo Press at the end of 2023.

Parking is available in UC lots all day on weekends, for a fee. Ticket dispensing machines accept debit or credit cards. Parking is available in lots around the Social Sciences Building, and in lots along Bancroft. A map of the campus is available online at .

About ARCE-NC:

For more information, please visit,, http://www.arce-nc.org, and To join the chapter or renew your membership, please go to and select "Berkeley, CA" as your chapter when you sign up.