Brown archaeology students to reenact Egyptian Battle of Kadesh
The performance is the brainchild of associate professor of archaeology Laurel Bestock, who uses the event to challenge students to learn the history and to understand how to interpret the historical record.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, the thwack of Masonite on cardboard and blood-curdling war cries will ring out across the Quiet Green as the armies of Ramesses the Great and Muwatalli II fight for control of the ancient city of Kadesh, just as they did 3,300 years ago and 5,400 miles away.
Well, actually, the armies will be students in associate professor of archaeology Laurel Bestock's Ancient Egyptian Warfare course. And Kadesh will look an awful lot like Manning Chapel.
Cecil B. DeMille, eat your heart out.
In 1274 B.C.E. the army commanders of two Bronze Age superpowers, Ramesses the Great and the Hittite King Mutawalli, were jousting for control of what is now Syria and Lebanon. Bestock's students will be fighting for 30 percent of their final grade.
Those who come to watch the reenactment will see more than playacting. The footnotes won't be visible, but every spoken line, costume and weapon used will be product of research into the leaders and the societies that produced them.
Bestock said she only does the course once every four years. The 2018 version is the third.
"I don't ever want it to get stale," she said.
Accurate information for time of Kadesh is spotty, Bestock said. That's the point of the project, she said. Students must confront holes in the historical record, she said, and fill them with their own interpretations and justify them.
"They have to make informed, intelligent guesses," she said. "Incorporate what they do know. Engage with the holes."
For instance, the weapons committee didn't have exact descriptions of the swords Ramesses' army used at Kadesh, committee member Hunter Ray said, so they modeled their weapons after swords found in King Tut's tomb. Tut reigned about 40 years before Ramesses, he said, and the group felt sword design probably hadn't changed that much over that time.
As the class rehearsed in a light rain Thursday, Ray said the committee was still grappling with how to render chariots. The plan going into the weekend was to use large cardboard boxes held up by straps, "like 'The Flintstones,' " he said.
The Egyptians, and Ramesses the Great in particular, were fond of recording great events using sculpture and carved reliefs, often on a monumental scale, as well as in paintings on the walls of their kings' tombs. Those illustrations gave the costume committee a good source of information, said committee member Emma Rook.
The Hittites usually wore white skirts to battle. The Egyptian army's color was red. Though because they came from a desert kingdom, Egyptians usually fought shirtless. Rook said in consideration of modern sensibilities, and the weather, Egyptian soldiers will wear red.
"We didn't want people to feel uncomfortable," she said.
The class had a rehearsal Thursday, but Rook said they decided not to do it in full battle dress. The costumes are made for authenticity, she said, not longevity.
"Everything needs to be perfect for two hours," she said. "And then it can start falling apart."
Logistics were a problem for the committee last week. Zachary Pockrose was seething that the 300 feet of fabric they ordered online for the Hittite skirts hadn't arrived and it was four days til battle.
"I paid $100 for express shipping and it's not here," he said. "I scrounged a sheet I found in my basement."
In a way, the students' effort to recreate the battle mirrors what Ramesses had to do for the real thing. They must raise funds (taxes) to pay for uniforms and weapons; they have to recruit volunteers (soldiers) and come up with a choreographed battle plan.
The class attracts students from diverse majors — engineering, biological sciences, literature and environmental science were among them — and those different specialties all came in handy. Engineering majors, like Ray, for instance, knew about the Brown Design Workshop, where laser-cutting equipment could carve and engrave the Masonite weapons.
Shivam Agarwal, a theater student, trained the would-be Hittites and Egyptians on fake fighting and dying.
"Don't punch somebody unless you have eye contact," he warned.
When two soldiers meet on the field, he said, it's important for one to signal he or she is the one to get killed, so they don't both drop dead. And don't die right away, he said, it ruins the show if everyone's killed in the first 30 seconds.
Bestock said the course is more than the show. She said she uses warfare in ancient Egypt to look at the politics of how an ancient society made decisions, who they fought, why and how the almost constant warfare in that era affected the kingdom.
"War itself seems not to have been thought of as a social pathology," she said. "It was how the world worked."
When asked why the signed up, the students all said it was the battle.
"I told it to a friend who said, 'that's the most Brown thing I've ever heard,' " Hannah Blakely said.
But they also said the experience of designing wearing clothing and weapons made the lesson more memorable.
"I've never really experienced something like this before, " Ray said as he looked at the sword design on his tablet screen. "You can read an essay, you can read a book, but I can hold this in my hand.
"This will really stick with me."
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