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Thursday, April 28, 2022

Call for Applications: ARCE NorCal Marie Buttery $1000 Student Grant

2022 Marie Buttery Student Grant

Call for Applications

The Board of Directors of the American Research Center in Egypt, Northern California chapter, is offering one $1,000 grant to a qualified student. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, May 31, 2022 with the winner to be recognized at our August 21 meeting.

To qualify for this grant, the applicant must be an undergraduate or graduate student who is enrolled at a Northern California college or university (Monterey County to the Oregon border) or who has a home address in this area. They must be pursuing a degree that incorporates Egyptian anthropology, archaeology, art, history, museum studies or language, or Coptic or Arabic studies in any period. Proof of enrollment may be required.

Applicants are to submit 1) a brief summary (250-500 words) describing how they will use the grant and 2) a 1-2 page CV. The grant will be awarded by the Board based on merit. Possible uses include but are not limited to research, travel, or preparation of an exhibition or program. Proposals involving work with research materials should secure any permissions required for that work before the application is sent.

Students should apply by email (Word or PDF file) to If possible, the winner is expected to attend the August 21 ARCE meeting – via Zoom if it is held virtually, and at the University of California, Berkeley if it is held in person.

The grant honors the memory of Marie Buttery, founding president of our chapter.

ARCE Northern California also offers a $1,500 student grant each fall in memory of its former member Professor Eugene Cruz-Uribe. Call for applications for this grant will go out later in 2022.


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

What Egyptian Pharaohs Can Tell Us About Modern Tyrants - SAPIENS

What Egyptian Pharaohs Can Tell Us About Modern Tyrants


Excerpted from The Good Kings. © 2021 by Kara Cooney. Published by National Geographic Books. Courtesy of National Geographic Books.

I am a recovering Egyptologist.

Like many of us in the field, I was initially attracted to the subject because of some unexplainable, irrational love for an ancient culture that lay millennia in the past. Maybe I was drawn in by the dazzling gold, the massive statuary, the pyramids whose codes have yet to be cracked, the unabashed displays of power. Or maybe I fell for the idea of divine kingship that could reify miracles in stone and craft philosophical tales of complex religiosity.

But that unassailable strength of ancient rule, once so attractive to me, has now soured. The realization was like suddenly understanding that you're in an abusive relationship.

I can't help but view my once beloved Egyptian kings—and their stunningly beautiful artistic and cerebral productions—in light of the testosterone-soaked power politics of the patriarchal system in which I live in the U.S. I am quickly becoming anti-patriarchal and anti-pharaoh, in whatever form the absolutism takes, ancient or modern. I now dwell in a strange in-between world in which the script has been flipped, where those gorgeous, chiseled kings have been revealed as bullies and narcissists.

I'm being naive, you might say. And, of course, you could be right. But how many of us have had deep obsessions with the ancient world—I just love Egyptian temples! I adore Greek mythology!—that are really symptoms of an ongoing addiction to male power that we just can't kick?

This book presents an analysis of how we make ourselves easy marks for the next charismatic authoritarian to come along. It's high time we see how fetishism of ancient cultures is used to prop up modern power grabs. And many of us need to admit—somewhere down deep—that we think the powerful patriarch, coolly in control, is superhot. Only then can we actually figure out how to smash him.

Anti-patriarchal thinking doesn't mean being anti-male; I have a son and a husband, and I love and support them both. Being anti-patriarchal means refusing to support a "rule of the fathers," in which a few masculine elements of society pull most of the resources to themselves: a scenario in which fear, violence, threat, shame, and moralizing are used to keep everyone in line.

If we want a more just future in which we all have equal opportunities—the same chance to pursue prosperity and happiness—then the patriarchy has to go.

Read more about the reaction to The Good Kings in "Egyptology Has a Problem: Patriarchy"

I work in a field of apologists who believe in an Egypt of truth, beauty, and power—and in many ways, I am still an adherent to my chosen faith. We can't simply cancel ancient Egyptian culture. There is much beauty in ancient Egypt, and I am not here to deride or belittle it.

Instead, I think the ancient Egyptians can help us recognize the king in our own system, show us how he behaves, and thereby teach us how we might neutralize him ourselves. We are all subject to our short lifetimes, which makes seeing the long term difficult, but we can look back in history and watch the ancient Egyptian dynasties rise and fall.

For millennia, Egypt engaged in a push-and-pull relationship with the monarch. Sometimes he was strong; sometimes he was weak. Sometimes the country got out from under the heavy boot of absolute power, only to slip back under it. But throughout those ups and downs, Egypt maintained a flourishing continuity of religious ritual, language and literature, artistic production, and cultural beauty. Egypt didn't need its kings; the kings needed Egypt. It's useful to remember that.

The kings of ancient Egypt can help us decode the tactics of the patriarchal system under which most people live. There was Khufu, the tax-and-spend creator of pyramid propaganda; Senwosret and his absolutist crackdowns; Akhenaten, the evangelical king; Ramses II, the needy populist; and Taharqa, the colonized imperialist. Those rulers were all products of their time. Today we create our own kings (perhaps at a faster clip because technology speeds up our political development).

Perhaps you think ancient Egypt shouldn't be compared to any other regime—most especially, a modern state. But keeping ancient Egypt separate and vacuum-sealed allows us to fetishize it, to see the believers in these god-kings as primitive, silly people, nothing like us. Isolating any ancient culture to such a degree demands a belief that we would never fall for such manipulations by primeval demiurges.

With one state after another succumbing to authoritarianism while calling it democracy, though, we need to leave the safe confines of our modern exceptionalism behind. As we dissect our own cultural understandings of patriarchal power, ancient Egypt provides a useful lens.

Hotly contested debates in 2020 about Confederate monuments in the United States, as well as statues of those who benefited from the slave trade or colonialism throughout the world, inspire the defensiveness of cultural apologism. When people assert that a particular statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee must come down, defenders of the status quo retort that we should tear down the pyramids, too, resulting in a common response from many an Egyptologist who rallies around the kings' tombs to say: "These monuments were not built by slaves but by Egypt's people!"

Two identical black-and-white images feature a sphinx in        front of a pyramid and a person in dark robes standing near the        bottom of the image and people in the distance.
European colonizers' rediscovery of ancient Egypt in the 19th century has been romanticized, including fetishizing modern Egyptian caretakers as part of a derogatorily called "primitive" past and thus "needy" of outsiders' patriarchal rule.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (1s21300)

It's worth noting, though, that both perspectives defend an authoritarian regime. Jim Crow statues and Egyptian pyramids represent the same masculine repressive powers; the only difference is the millennia separating one from the other—long years hiding the deep wounds carved into Egyptian flesh in the same ways that scarred U.S. society. And the distinction between slavery and draft labor is meaningless if participants were forced to take part.

Make no mistake: The Egyptian pyramids were built because the kings needed them. Just like statues of heroic Confederate Army generals on horseback, the Giza pyramids are signs of a crackdown after a loss of power. However, neither kind of monument is evocative of absolute strength; Confederate monuments and pyramids alike embody a kind of political rally to an insecure toxic masculinity that must impose its will and constantly remind people of its god-given superiority, lest it be lost.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for the destruction of the pyramids any more than I am pushing to melt down statues that reify Black oppression in the U.S. I am pushing for a reframing of every such monument, a paradigm shift that allows us to recognize how they cast a shadow over the power that abides there.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Celebrating Champollion - Culture - Al-Ahram Weekly - Ahram Online

Celebrating Champollion

David Tresilian , Tuesday 26 Apr 2022

A new Paris exhibition is celebrating Jean-François Champollion, the French decipherer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics at the beginning of the 19th century and one of the founding figures of modern Egyptology, writes David Tresilian

The story of the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics – the pictorial writing best known from the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments and tombs – was one of the main achievements of the heroic age of 19th-century Egyptology, when not only were the foundations laid for a modern understanding of the ancient civilisation, but new discoveries from it also seemed to be found in ever-greater numbers with every passing year.

Following the French Expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century and the installation of a new and outward-looking regime in Cairo that eagerly invited foreign interest in the country, scores of budding Egyptologists poured into Egypt from across Europe, making what had once been a difficult destination into one exerting a new and powerful magnetism over all those having an interest in the ancient world.

The publication of the famous Description de l'Egypte in Paris in the early decades of the 19th century, eventually occupying dozens of folio volumes covering virtually every aspect of the modern and ancient country, stimulated this interest further. It gave rise to the kind of Egyptomania in many European capitals that perhaps only really returned with the same intensity after the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun a century later.

Cairo's new government, led by the pro-European Mohamed Ali, made visiting Egypt easier for such new Egyptologists. Some of them turned out to have only a temporary interest in ancient Egypt, among them Giovanni Belzoni, originally a circus strongman, who wound up in Egypt by chance in 1815 and turned himself into an Egyptological entrepreneur. He opened an exhibition of ancient Egyptian finds in London that attracted thousands of visitors and ran for the best part of a year.

However, in addition to the adventurers and other elements from the Egyptological underworld, there were also those who had a more sober interest in the country and hoped to uncover secrets lost for thousands of years thanks to its new openness to investigation and the application of new scientific techniques. Few early Egyptologists better exemplify this second type than French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, the decipherer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and thus the man who perhaps did more than anyone else to set the new discipline of Egyptology on its feet.

As a new exhibition, entitled L'aventure Champollion, on Champollion's life and work at the French National Library in Paris makes clear, without the deciphering of hieroglyphics, and with it that of the other two scripts used by the ancient Egyptians to record their language, commonly called the hieratic and demotic, work on separating out fact from fiction in ancient Egyptian history could never have progressed.

At the beginning of the 19th century, little was known with certainty about the history and civilisation of ancient Egypt, and what was known came from mostly ancient Greek or Roman sources. A few decades later, this situation had changed out of all recognition as for the first time in nearly 2,000 years it was possible to read the writing that covered the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and monuments and the many papyrus fragments, sometimes entire scrolls, that were then being discovered.

Suddenly, what had appeared to be an insoluble mystery only a few decades before was opened up to scientific investigation. The ancient Egyptian king lists, now readable thanks to Champollion's work, allowed a chronology of ancient Egyptian history to be drawn up. Temples and monuments whose function had earlier been largely unknown suddenly began to be understood as newly readable ancient Egyptian texts provided information on religion and with it on the gods and goddesses whose names had previously only been known from Greek equivalents.

If anyone has the right to the title of the founder of modern Egyptology it is surely Champollion, the exhibition says. It emphasises the rags-to-riches elements in his biography, showing how a talented young man from the provinces, at first making his way only with difficulty in the capital, eventually ended up as the first professor of Archaeology at the prestigious Collège de France and curator of the Egyptian collections at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

It underlines his exceptional application and industry, presenting him almost as a typical figure of an age that had seen a Corsican soldier without connections – Napoleon Bonaparte – become the emperor of France and slotting him into the work of the generation of French scholars and scientists, many of them still remembered today, which had produced the enormous Description de l'Egypte.

Perhaps some visitors to the exhibition, balking at the gallocentrism, will remember that at the time there was controversy, not settled today, about whether it was the Englishman Thomas Young or the Frenchman Champollion who first cracked the hieroglyphic code. Young earlier made the kind of moves that Champollion later built upon in his deciphering of the ancient Egyptian script, though he is scarcely mentioned in the exhibition.

But few will want to dwell unduly on this question of national priority. All visitors to the exhibition will come out of it with their interest in ancient Egypt rekindled by the extraordinary story of human ingenuity in the decipherment of hieroglyphics it presents.

Possibly, it will also remind them of earlier encounters with Champollion, whether in the name of Champollion Street in Downtown Cairo, a stone's throw from the Egyptian Museum in Tahir Square that his work helped to establish, or in the statue of Champollion that today stands in the centre of the main courtyard of the Collège de France in Paris.


DECIPHERING THE CODE: The exhibition begins by taking visitors back to the aftermath of the French expedition to Egypt, the development of Egyptomania in Paris and other European capitals, and the discovery of materials promising a solution to the mystery of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, including the famous Rosetta Stone.

Found by French soldiers near Rosetta in 1799, this is an ancient Egyptian stele inscribed with three versions of a decree issued by king Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BCE, one in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, one in the demotic script, and one a Greek translation of the ancient Egyptian text. The stone was confiscated by the British in 1801 and sent to the British Museum in London, where it remains today. It was quickly realised that it could provide clues to the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian scripts, and copies of the inscription were circulated to scholars across Europe, including Champollion in Paris.

From there, the story of the decipherment of the scripts and then of the understanding of the ancient Egyptian language is well known. After the early recognition that the three versions on the stone were all of the same text, two in ancient Egyptian and one a translation into ancient Greek, it became a relatively simple matter to plot correspondences between blocs of letters in the Greek text, whose meaning was known, to blocs in the demotic and hieroglyphic versions of the same text.

The names of kings and queens were particularly fertile starting points since these are surrounded by a rectangular frame in hieroglyphics called a "cartouche," meaning not only could correspondences be found between such names in the Greek text and cartouches in the hieroglyphics, but also that the phonetic values of the latter could be worked out.

As Stéphane Polis, a professor of ancient Egyptian at the University of Liège in Belgium, writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, "two centuries later the deciphering of hieroglyphics by Champollion remains the paradigm of every other decipherment."

"While the deciphering of cuneiform writing [from the ancient civilisations of what is now Iraq], of Mayan and Aztec, and of Linear B [an early form of ancient Greek] are famous later successes, Champollion's work was fundamental in that it brought together the conditions necessary for being able to make sense of an otherwise unreadable script," including the existence of translations into and out of the language concerned, a reasonably large selection of texts, and a working hypothesis on the grammatical and phonetic features of the language represented in the unknown script.

The exhibition presents Champollion's work in deciphering hieroglyphics as well as on the grammatical and phonetic characteristics of the underlying language, which he was able to deduce not only from his study of the large number of texts in ancient Egyptian then being discovered and made available to European and other scholars, but also from his knowledge of the Coptic language, a descendant of ancient Egyptian and used mostly for religious purposes and written in an alphabetical script derived from Greek. It shows how Champollion's efforts did not stop with the decipherment of the hieroglyphic and then the hieratic and demotic scripts but extended to what the exhibition calls an "Egyptological encyclopaedism" as he made himself familiar with virtually every aspect of ancient Egypt.

There were journeys across Europe in search of ancient Egyptian materials, for example, with Champollion spending extended periods in Turin in Italy studying ancient Egyptian texts such as the king lists kept in the city's museum. There was also a visit to Egypt itself in 1828-29, during which Champollion conferred with Mohamed Ali on the need to safeguard the country's ancient sites, eventually sending him an extensive list, and travelled the length of the Nile from Alexandria and Rosetta on the Mediterranean coast to Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt.

There was Champollion's work as first curator of the Egyptological collections at the Louvre, leading to the opening of the museum's first Egyptian galleries in 1827. This was part of the extension of the institution away from simply being a showcase or repository for European art and towards its more familiar later role as an "encyclopaedic" museum of the world's civilisations, including, of course, the ancient Egyptian. The important synoptic works that Champollion was also somehow finding time to work on during these years, among them his Grammaire égyptienne, the first overall account of ancient Egyptian, and Dictionnaire égyptien, the first comprehensive dictionary of hieroglyphics, were published after his early death in 1832.

The Paris exhibition takes visitors through these and other aspects of Champollion's life and work by drawing on the unparalleled collection of Champollion papers on deposit at the French National Library as well as on the Egyptological collections of the Louvre. It sets Champollion against the background of the world he lived in, one in which the secrets of ancient civilisations were finally emerging into the light of day after having been hidden in obscurity for thousands of years and where great efforts were being made not only to uncover and understand these secrets but also to present them to the wider world.


L'aventure Champollion. Dans le secret des hiéroglyphes, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, until 24 July.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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Monday, April 25, 2022

Ruins of an ancient temple for Zeus were unearthed in Egypt : NPR

Ruins of an ancient temple for Zeus were unearthed in Egypt

Archeologists work in the ruins of a temple for Zeus-Kasios, the ancient Greek god, at the Tell el-Farma archaeological site in the northwestern corner of the Sinai Peninsula. Tell el-Farma, also known by its ancient name Pelusium, dates back to the late Pharaonic period and was also used during Greco-Roman and Byzantine times.

Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry via AP

CAIRO — Egyptian archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a temple for the ancient Greek god Zeus in the Sinai Peninsula, antiquities authorities said Monday.

The Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said in a statement the temple ruins were found in the Tell el-Farma archaeological site in northwestern Sinai.

Tell el-Farma, also known by its ancient name Pelusium, dates back to the late Pharaonic period and was also used during Greco-Roman and Byzantine times. There are also remains dating to the Christian and early Islamic periods.

Archeologists work at the Tell el-Farma archaeological site.

Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry via AP

Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said archaeologists excavated the temple ruins through its entrance gate, where two huge fallen granite columns were visible. The gate was destroyed in a powerful earthquake in ancient times, he said.

Waziri said the ruins were found between the Pelusium Fort and a memorial church at the site. Archaeologists found a set of granite blocks probably used to build a staircase for worshipers to reach the temple.

Excavations at the area date back to early 1900 when French Egyptologist Jean Clédat found ancient Greek inscriptions that showed the existence of the Zeus-Kasios temple but he didn't unearth it, according to the ministry.

Tell el-Farma, also known by its ancient name Pelusium, dates back to the late Pharaonic period and was also used during Greco-Roman and Byzantine times.

Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry via AP

Zeus-Kasios is a conflation of Zeus, the God of the sky in ancient Greek mythology, and Mount Kasios in Syria, where Zeus once worshipped.

Hisham Hussein, the director of Sinai archaeological sites, said inscriptions found in the area show that Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138) renovated the temple.

He said experts will study the unearthed blocks and do a photogrammetry survey to help determine the architectural design of the temple.

The temple ruins are the latest in a series of ancient discoveries Egypt has touted in the past couple of years in the hope of attracting more tourists.

The tourism industry has been reeling from the political turmoil following the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The sector was also dealt further blows by the coronavirus pandemic and most recently Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Reminder - ARCE-NC Lecture May 1 by Aidan Dodson: The Resurrection of the First Pharaohs

The American Research Center in Egypt, Northern California Chapter, and the Near Eastern Studies Department, University of California, Berkeley, invite you to attend a virtual lecture by Dr. Aidan Dodson, University of Bristol:

The Resurrection of the First Pharaohs

Sunday, May 1, 2022, 2 PM Pacific Time (note the earlier time)

Zoom Lecture. A registration link will be automatically sent to ARCE-NC members. Non-members may request a registration link by sending email with your name and email address to Non-members, please send any registration requests no later than Friday, April 29. The number of registrations is limited, so the sooner you register, the better.

Glenn Meyer
ARCE-NC ePublicity

(Scorpion macehead, image courtesy of Wikimedia)

About the Lecture:
Egypt was unified around 3000 BC, beginning the history of pharaonic Egypt and setting the ground-rules for the nature and constitution of the state and kingship that would endure for three millennia. This afternoon we will explore the way in which the memories of the first pharaohs were maintained and used by their successors down to Roman times, and how, after millennia of oblivion, they were rediscovered by modern scholarship.

About the Speaker:

Professor Aidan Dodson has taught at the University of Bristol since 1996, where he has been honorary Professor of Egyptology since 2018. A graduate of Liverpool and Cambridge Universities, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2003, and was Simpson Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo for spring 2013. He is the author of some 400 articles and reviews, and 25 books; his latest is The First Pharaohs: Their Lives and Afterlives, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press in October 2021.

About ARCE-NC:

For more information, please visit,,, or To join the chapter or renew your membership, please go to and select "Berkeley, CA" as your chapter when you sign up.

Friday, April 22, 2022

New Lecture posted on Northern California ARCE YouTube Channel

A video of the lecture "Brilliant Corruptions: Scribal influence on Transmission Variation in the Coffin Texts", by Dr. Jorke Grotenhuis, a Postdoctoral researcher in the department of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, was just published on Northern California ARCE's YouTube channel at  Many thanks to Dr. Grotenhuis and to Dr. Rita Lucarelli, UC Berkeley, for making this video available to the chapter.

If you have any questions about this video, please email me at or

For other lecture videos on the Northern California ARCE channel, please go to .


Glenn Meyer
ePublicity Director
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Thursday, April 21, 2022

Egypt sends former MP to prison for antiquities smuggling - Eyewitness News

Egypt sends former MP to prison for antiquities smuggling

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court sentenced a former member of parliament and others to ten years in prison on Thursday for smuggling antiquities out of the country, as part of a campaign to stop the trade.

Egypt's state news agency said that former member of parliament Alaa Hassanein and four others would serve 10 years. Hassan Rateb, a prominent businessmen, and 17 others will face five years in prison. All were fined 1 million Egyptian pounds, or $54,000 roughly.

Egypt has drastically stepped up efforts in recent years to stop the trafficking of its antiquities, which flourished in the turmoil following a 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. Often the suspects have been high-profile figures. In 2020, an actor and brother of the country's former minister of finance Raouf Boutros-Ghali was sentenced to 30 years for smuggling antiques.

The state news report did not specify what kind of antiquities were being smuggled — but it said that in some cases the convicted had organized and funded secret excavations. Egypt is still rich in undiscovered ancient sites dating back to the time of the Pharoahs, and its Greek and Roman era.

The country has in recent years warned foreign museums that it will not help them mount exhibits on ancient Egyptian antiquities unless they return smuggled artifacts. The Antiquities Ministry said it has retrieved more than 1,000 artifacts and around 22,000 ancient coins since 2016.

In 2019, the ministry displayed a gilded ancient coffin from the 1st Century B.C., which New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned after U.S. investigators determined it to be a looted antiquity.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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Fish, fruit and beeswax: What an Ancient Egyptian tomb smells like | Science & Tech | EL PAÍS English Edition

Fish, fruit and beeswax: What an Ancient Egyptian tomb smells like

A team of chemists and archaeologists has analyzed the volatile compounds emitted by objects in a burial chamber in order to find out the nature and origin of their contents

The analysis of an alabaster jar via mass                  spectrometry. / JACOPO LA NASA
The analysis of an alabaster jar via mass spectrometry. / JACOPO LA NASA

Ernesto Schiaparelli, the director of the Egyptian Museum in the Italian city of Turin, started his day on February 15, 1906, in the necropolis of Deir el-Medina, on the west bank of the Nile, just across from the modern-day city of Luxor. He had no idea of the treasure he was about to unearth. Hiding in the bowels of this site – the ancient village of the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings – was the tomb of Kha and Merit, a noble couple who lived during the second half of the 18th dynasty, around 1450 and 1400 BC. And now that same site has helped revealed one of the secrets best kept of Ancient Egypt: what a tomb smells like.

Kha and Merit's burial chamber would have become just one of many had it not been for the fact that a landslide left it completely sealed, blocking access to future looters and keeping it intact for almost 3,500 years, until the arrival of Schiaparelli's team. Inside, the tomb was overflowing with more than 440 objects, including ceramic furniture, tools, metal bowls, fabrics and alabaster jars. Even today, the find continues to represent one of the biggest and most-complete non-royal burial assemblages ever unearthed in Egypt.

Aware of the technological limitations of his time, Schiaparelli made another decision that also helped preserve the treasure. Instead of launching an invasive investigation into the funerary items he had just found, the Italian archaeologist chose to limit his research to just a few objects that were not unique, thus leaving most of the find intact and ensuring its good state of conservation for future studies.

Today, a team of chemists and archaeologists has been able to analyze almost 50 vessels from Kha and Merit's tomb to identify their contents. And they have achieved thanks to a very peculiar method: smell. The researchers, who conducted their study in 2019 and published the results a few weeks ago, examined by mass spectrometry the volatile compounds – that is, the odors – emitted by the organic materials of the chosen containers. This method enabled the investigators to identify the chemical nature of the materials and deduce their origin.

"The identification of the materials of the burial assemblage offers a unique possibility to complement, confirm and expand archaeological research on ancient rituals and on the use and purpose of archaeological vessels and jars," says Jacopo La Nasa, a professor from Italy's University of Pisa and one of the lead authors of the investigation.

A total of 46 objects from the tomb of Kha and Merit were selected for the study, including pilgrim jars, amphorae sealed with linen cloth, bowls with nuts and seeds, vessels with remains of rotten food and alabaster jars, some closed with lids. Then, La Nasa's team isolated the chosen artifacts in hermetically sealed inert bags for a week in order to contain the volatile molecules that they would release. Finally, the team inserted the needle of a mass spectrometer inside each bag to analyze the odors emitted. All this, without even leaving the museum in Turin.

"The experimental design and the analytical approach that we use do not require taking samples of the investigated material, since SIFT mass spectrometry analyzes the volatile organic compounds released by the objects," says La Nasa. "The analysis of the volatile molecules released [the odor] provides information on the chemical composition and the nature of the material that emits that odor, so that we can understand what materials were included in the burial assemblage without needing to take samples," he adds.

In total, the team was able to deliver a solid result for two-thirds of the objects analyzed. For example, the molecules of some analyzed amphorae and vessels presented characteristics typical of dried fish, combined, in some cases, with the presence of an aromatic vegetable resin – a result consistent with the importance of this food in the diet of the ancient Egyptians, they explain in the study.

Also, some cups and bowls had scent profiles that corresponded to fruits and plants, which explains the fruity aroma inside their display cases in the museum, although their markers were not specific enough to determine which specific fruits they contained. In an amphora, it was also possible to identify elements of barley flour, which was commonly used in Ancient Egypt to make beer, another staple of their diet. And in other containers, elements typical of oils, vegetable fats and beeswax were detected, all of which were frequent at the time.

The                amphora is analyzed via mass spectrometry. / JACOPO LA                NASA
The amphora is analyzed via mass spectrometry. / JACOPO LA NASA

"Although we were aware of the potentialities of the analytical approach, the analysis allowed us to detect some chemical species that we did not expect, such as those that can be correlated with the degradation of barley or fish," says La Nasa, noting that it was not always easy to determine the original product. "The main challenge is that the odor emitted by aged archaeological materials is different from that of native substances. Aged reference materials and degradation studies are needed to address the chemical analysis of ancient organic material residues," he explains.

With their study, La Nasa's team has also expanded the research on smell in the context of culture, which has been developing over the past two decades in fields such as anthropology, but remains a recent trend in archaeology despite the possibilities it offers, explains Cecilia Bembibre, professor at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London.

"It's new information about Ancient Egypt, and it's very valuable," says Bembibre. "[This study] allows us to understand the function of certain objects, depending on what they kept, and of course open up, beyond their function, the role they had in society, the type of diet [or] the type of cosmetics, " she adds.

Over time, this new information can also contribute to making museums more dynamic spaces. "We are used to connecting to heritage primarily with the sense of sight, with the eyes," says Bembibre. "Opening this multisensory, olfactory dimension makes the experience of visiting a museum more similar to how we experience the world, which is with five senses."

According to La Nasa points, studies such as the one on Kha and Merit's tomb are key to achieving this kind of sensory experience. "The modern odor of the collection does not give an adequate idea of the magnificence of the original odor of the tomb, since most of the molecules that can be used for the characterization of the material are not comparable," he points out. "So the information obtained in this study can be very useful in recreating the atmosphere of the ancient tomb. This will enrich the story of exhibits."

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The archeology of smell: Behind this UH professor’s ongoing quest for Cleopatra’s perfume | Features |

The archeology of smell: Behind this UH professor's ongoing quest for Cleopatra's perfume

Robert Littman and a team of perfume experts, archeologists and historians are still waiting to see if their decades-long hunt may finally pay off.

  • Updated
Cleopatra collage.png

Photos courtesy of the University of Hawai'i System, Jay Silverstein and Dora Goldsmith.

Thousands of years have passed since anyone knew what Cleopatra's perfume smelled like, but University of Hawaii professor Robert Littman hopes he'll know for certain soon.

He spent the last half-century in pursuit of such answers while teaching and mastering the Greek classics, ancient medicine and archaeology.

After a decade-long dig in Cairo, Littman and colleagues around the world may have uncovered residue of a perfume that has been dubbed the "Chanel No.5 of late antiquity." It is highly likely to have been worn by the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom herself. But will they be right? And when will they know for sure?

They're so close to getting answers, they can almost smell it.

Littman, 78, who celebrated his 50th anniversary at UH Mānoa last year, thought he and his colleagues would have the answer by now. They first uncovered the possible perfume residue around 2012.

But a global pandemic hampered their plans to test the compounds of the ancient residue they found in the UH Tell Timai excavation site in Egypt.

The site, according to Littman, "was once the flourishing city of Mendes, from about 500 B.C. to about 600 A.D., and was a settlement of ancient Egyptians followed by Greeks, and then Romans."

Every summer since the beginning of the project in 2007, students at UH Mānoa have had the opportunity to go to Egypt and participate in the archaeological dig at the site with Littman, with the long-term goal of reconstructing the entire city.

Researchers have already reconstructed the perfume recipe using modern ingredients. But for now, Littman and others are still waiting to see if what they found really is an ancient Egyptian perfume in the last leg of a journey that extends from Hawaii, to the sands of Egyptian catacombs, to labs in Berlin and Prague.

A life of digging

Littman, a professor of Classics at UH Mānoa, is a world renowned scholar in Greek history and literature, ancient medicine, and archaeology.

By the age of 14, Littman had read the entirety of Homer's work (in Greek), and went from washing dishes in a commercial kitchen for 60 cents an hour, to tutoring college students in calculus when he was 15 years old.

Now, at 78, after an education at both Columbia and the University of Oxford, a career at Columbia, Rutgers, and Brandeis, Littman is currently teaching a class in Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and another in Greek, Roman, and Ancient Myths at UH.

This summer, he plans to return to the Tell Timai site with 10 students from UH. Littman said the spots for next year's trip have already been booked in advance, and will cost each student approximately $4,000, which covers expenses, room and board, but not airfare.

In 2012, Littman, co-director of the Tell Timai site, Jay Silverstein — who at the time was an affiliate professor at UH — and their team of Egyptian staff uncovered a possible manufacturing center. Soon after, Silverstein said their Egyptian staff came across the ancient residue.

About 90 miles northeast of Cairo, Thmouis, which Littman translated as "New Land," is the southern suburb of the city Mendes, located in the Nile Delta. Mendes is now known as Timai El Amdid, next to a hill where the excavation is sited. The site itself is about the size of the UH Mānoa campus, Littman said.

An ancient manufacturing center

Spices were imported from all over the world to Mendes, Littman said, including from India, Arabia and Africa, making Mendes a major center of the perfume trade from about 300 B.C. to about 800 A.D.

During the third century B.C., the ancient city of Thmouis produced a perfume, which was named after the main city and called the Mendesian perfume. That's the one Littman considers to be the "Chanel No. 5" of late antiquity – Cleopatra's perfume.

Although no one can prove with absolute certainty which perfumes Cleopatra used, Littman said, "We have an account from the biographer, Plutarch, written about 100 years later, that says Cleopatra doused her sails in scents and incense when she first went to meet Marc Antony, so that when she sailed up the river to meet him, one could smell her fragrance along the river."

However, to excavate in Egypt, permits must be obtained from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, an Egyptian government entity. Littman and co-director Silverstein were initially granted that permission, but due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Silverstein has been unable to return to Egypt since January 2020, and the permit they had expired.

Now, they are in the process of re-submitting their paperwork and waiting for approval. The permit, in short, is to transfer the residue that was found at the Tell Timai site, from an armed storage facility to the laboratory where it will be tested. The paperwork is a necessary hurdle.

"One must remember that archaeology in Egypt, and in most of the world, was a colonial affair for much of history. So when countries were able to reassert their control over their antiquities, they didn't want to make the mistake of allowing colonial powers to work without their permission," Silverstein said.

Silverstein said this particular storage facility was under attack twice during the uprising in Egypt 10 years ago, wounding one of the guards. "They have dedicated people who put their lives on the line to protect these antiquities," Silverstein said.

Silverstein plans to transfer the materials this summer. Once the transfer happens, he expects that they will have results of the residue within 30 days.

Silverstein said that Abdelrahman Medhat, who is the Conservator of Organic Materials at the Cairo Egyptian Museum, will be using a series of different techniques for analyzing the residue.

First, he will break down what are the organic compounds, then match them to the appropriate plants from which they're likely derived. He'll then be able to compare the plants that he's identified to the formulas and recipes known for perfumes. That could tell researchers which ancient perfume the residue came from.

Though Silverstein said there were some Egyptian scholars who were concerned about the association of the perfume with Cleopatra, researchers connected the two because of the time period.

Cleopatra even wrote a book on perfumes. Although the book did not survive, it was often referenced by other authors, and in particular, noted the medicinal characteristics of perfume.

"The Mendesian being the most famous perfume at that time certainly means it was something that she was aware of and involved in, both collecting and early, in controlling the selling of, in the Greco-Roman world," Silverstein said.

Littman likened perfume recipes to homemade stews.

"Anyone can tell you what's in a basic meat and potato stew, but everyone that makes stew has their own take on it, and each time they make it, it may not necessarily be the same. You might add something or be out of an ingredient and just make do. The analysis tells us precisely what is in the residue," he said.

Is it really Cleopatra's perfume?

Silverstein believes the residue could come from a Mendesian, or another type of perfume such as a Metopian or Kyphi.

"I strongly suspect that it's one of those three, but I wouldn't commit to any one at this point," Silverstein sad, "It could even be that the residue may contain elements of all three if they reused the pots, you know — today we're making Metopian, tomorrow we're making Mendesian, and now we're making Kyphi."

The possible perfume residue was found in an exposed fragment of the bottom of an amphora, which is a tall ancient Greco-Roman container used to store various products, both liquid and dry, such as oil, wine, grains and perfume.

The possible manufacturing center discovered by Littman and Silverstein — if confirmed — would be one of the very few perfume factories identified from the period and place. Perhaps even the only one.

Dora Goldsmith, an Egyptologist who is in the final stages of completing her PhD at the Freie Universität Berlin and specializes in the sense and archaeology of smell in ancient Egypt, agreed that because the residue was found in Mendes, which was known as the center of perfumery in late antiquity, it is logical to assume that the residue is from a perfume.

But she suggested that the residue could be anything and might not be perfume at all.

"That's why you do the analysis," Goldsmith said. "Because you just don't know, and there can be very big surprises when you analyze something. What you expect and what is actually in the bottle could be very different."

Recreating an ancient scent

Goldsmith, who Littman contacted after the residue was uncovered, was brought on to the research team to recreate the Mendesian perfume.

By collaborating with Sean Coughlin, a historian of Greco-Roman philosophy and science at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, the two experimented with different materials, ingredients, and approaches – one process took 67 days – and recreated a sample of Mendesian perfume.

The experiment was funded by National Geographic. The final sample Goldsmith and Coughlin produced became a part of the "Queens of Egypt" exhibition at the National Geographic Museum, where patrons were able to take a whiff of several Egyptian-style perfumes and scents, including blue lotus, cardamom, and the Mendesian perfume recreated by Goldsmith and Coughlin.

Goldsmith and Coughlin began recreating the perfume based on an 11th century manuscript from the medical books of Paul of Aegina, a 7th-century Byzantine Greek physician. They cross-referenced the recipe found in the manuscript with other sources, eventually finding the most probable ingredients, methods, and quantities.

Goldsmith and Coughlin used two different oils, balanites and moringa, at different temperatures, and tested both oils by combining myrrh (a gum-resin extracted from a tree), cinnamon, and resin, all of which were ground finely in a mortar.

"There's not really a recipe from a modern perspective," Goldsmith said, "It's not a very typical recipe, because it's a transmission of knowledge in antiquity between two cultures."

Goldsmith explained that when the Greeks took over Egypt, ancient Egyptians were unwilling to share their recipes for perfumes because the recipes were sacred to them. Goldsmith has learned from translations of ancient writings that the Egyptians may have succeeded in keeping many of their perfumes hidden from the Greeks.

In their findings, Goldsmith and Coughlin discovered that the oils they used had different reactions to heat. Specifically, moringa oil "smelled burnt" when heated, and the unheated moringa "went rancid, and eventually developed a white growth" after several weeks, Coughlin said.

Their final combination of ingredients, method, and temperatures, produced "an extremely pleasant, elegant and sweet scent," that primarily smelled of myrrh and cinnamon, and "remained potent for almost two years."

"The Mendesian would be something that's supposed to be moistening and warming you up, so it was also used to kind of bring balance back that way, or even applied to treat a wound," Coughlin said.

The Mendesian recipe could be repurposed for other uses, like alleviating hangovers. The recipe would be mixed with goose fat, and put on a bandage to be wrapped around the head of the user, Coughlin said.

Scents and incense could also be used to mask or help remove human waste, Littman said. He added, the widespread individual use of perfume in subsequent generations is because frequent bathing is a relatively modern phenomenon.

In contrast to modern day perfumes, which usually contain oils that have been dissolved in alcohol, ancient perfumes were primarily oil-based, and, according to Goldsmith and Coughlin, were dispensed in almost "a lotion-like consistency."

"The Mendesian perfume opened up a world of scent composing that hadn't been there before," Coughlin said. "The classical recipe for the Mendesain stays pretty much intact. It's actually remarkable. From all the evidence that we have, we know that the recipe doesn't change from the moment it appears in the Greek or Latin sources for 800 years. It's just like a brand name. You know, like, Chanel No. 5 doesn't change. It just stays the same."

Yet unlike Chanel No. 5, which is available to anyone who can afford it, Coughlin said his research suggests that the Egyptian Pharaohs had a monopoly on the production, and possibly the sale of the Mendesian perfume. Meaning that if you wanted Mendesian, you had to buy it from the state.

However, Goldsmith has made the Mendesian more accessible to the modern day public by putting together do-it-yourself kits, which she's made available online.

But without an analysis of the residue Littman and his team found, there's still no way of knowing if the residue really is the remnant of a Mendesian perfume. That hasn't stopped researchers like Goldsmith from asking questions about the role smell played in ancient cultures.

"I was curious about the sense that they describe when they say something smells divine," Goldsmith said, "Or something smells exceedingly pleasant, or something smells bad, or the garden smell, or the smell of temple, or the smell of love making — what does that mean?"

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