The Ancient Historian

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Archive for the category “Egyptology”

Material from the important harbor excavations at Heracleion to go on display

The Catholic news online consortium reports the following, which is excellent news. The French excavators have done some marvelous work here. The main reason the site was abandoned, of course, is the building of the Ptolemaic harbors at Alexandria.

Ancient Egyptian city of Heracleion to share its sunken secret at long last

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 6th, 2013
Catholic Online (
The ancient Egyptian city of Heracleion, engulfed by the Mediterranean Sea more than 1,200 years ago will soon be sharing its underwater treasures with the modern world. Relics, such as 16-foot sculptures, gold coins and giant tablets are among some of the items recovered from the ancient port city, 20 miles northeast of Alexandria in Egypt.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) – The city of Heracleion, which was also known as Thonis, was believed to only be legend for hundreds of years. The city was mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus, who told of Helen of Troy visiting Heracleion with her lover Paris before the Trojan War.

The city was discovered during a survey of the Egyptian shore at the beginning of the last decade. French researcher Franck Goddio discovered it in 2000 with a team from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology.

An international team of marine archaeologists is now preparing to show some of the objects found in the underwater city.

Weights from Athens have also been discovered at the site, confirming beliefs the city was once an important trading port.

A University of Oxford archaeologist working at the site, Elsbeth van der Wilt told reporters the port was an important hub in the network for long-distance trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Excavations in the harbor basins yielded an interesting group of lead weights, likely to have been used by both temple officials and merchants in the payment of taxes and the purchasing of goods,” she said.

“Amongst these are an important group of Athenian weights. They are a significant archaeological find because it is the first time that weights like these have been identified during excavations in Egypt.”

Scientists remain baffled as to why the city suddenly disappeared. One theory suggests a rise in sea level and unstable collapsing sediment combined to submerge the city.

Dr Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, who worked on the excavation, told The Telegraph: “It is a major city we are excavating.

“The site has amazing preservation. We are now starting to look at some of the more interesting areas within it to try to understand life there.”

© 2013, Distributed by NEWS CONSORTIUM.


The Ptolemaic Serapeum at Sakkara and the Archive of Ptolemy, son of Glaukias, the recluse


I’ve been reading through the early part of a very famous archive from Sakkara, dated to the 160’s BC with students in my Daily Life in the Greek Papyri course this term. It is one of the most fascinating group of texts from the ancient Mediterranean world for sure. Dorothy Thompson’s (who by the way is the next Rostovtzeff lecturer here at Yale, November 2013) Memphis under the Ptolemies, Princeton U Press ( now just out in a 2d ed.) analyzes the archive (all in Greek, but some of the petitions anyway were probably originally in Demotic and translated) in wonderful detail. The BBC did a kind of docudrama of some parts of the archive-makes for fun watching, especially after having read and thought about the texts. I was just recently in Vienna, where the famous Apis embalming text (mentioned in the film) is on display in a lonely corner of one of the rooms. A bit of a shame. It is a profoundly beautiful text written in the finest Demotic hand I’ve ever seen.  There are a few howlers in the film, but it’s fun. The actors are speaking mainly Moroccan Arabic, but there is some Coptic in the dialogue, attempting to vocalize the spoken demotic of the 2d century BC.

The file is here (may take a while to load)

And an American version in 5 parts on Youtube is here

Widespread destruction of antiquities in Egypt continues

From recent BBC reporting found here. Just awfully depressing.

studying Egyptian papyri in the shadow of Mt Fuji, Japan

RJ and I have finished our first day examining a collection of papyri at Tokai University, near Mt Fuji. A gloriously clear day, as you can see. Wanted very much to get some climbing in, and what a beautiful mountain! Anyway, we spent all day looking at texts, and there were many surprises, including finding several Saite Period documents, and some Ptolemaic documents (fragmentary, but some good information) and even a few late Greek texts as well. Quite a range of material

More anon of course


Egyptian papyri in Japan

I am off to Japan in a few hours to examine, along with my good colleague Richard Jasnow from Johns Hopkins, a collection of unpublished papyri, mostly Demotic, mostly of early to mid Ptolemaic in date (some earlier things though) They are primarily documents (contracts and letters). We are going to examine them,  make some conservation recommendations and, we hope, use this as a means to introduce both conservation of papyri and Papyrology to Japanese students. This could be a very exciting venture. This is the only (as far as I know at the moment) significant collection of Egyptian papyri in Asia. Full report when i am back in a week’s time.

Brief review of Jeffrey Abt’s bio of James Henry Breasted

Finally finished up Jeffrey Abt’s American Egyptologist. The life of James Henry Breasted and the creation of his Oriental Institute. Chicago, 2011. The book is an excellent account of the professional career of the man, a very welcome (finally) biography to supplement Charles Breasted bio of his father. Breasted is of course very well known in Egyptology circles, the first professional Egyptologist in the US, the first Professor of Egyptology in North America and the founder of the O.I. in Chicago. As a Chicago kid with the Egyptology bug, Breasted, who spent his early years in Downers Grove before his family moved to Rockford, and who attended what is now known as North Central College in Naperville, just down the road from my High School, was a boyhood hero of mine. I used to beg my parents to drive me down to the Institute’s museum on Saturdays, and I eventually did my A.M. and Ph.D. at the OI. So needless to say I was eager for this book. And it does not disappoint. It provides a much rounder and fuller account than his son’s bio Pioneer to the past. The story of James H. Breasted, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943 . I knew a lot about his career, but I got a better sense of the man, and his incredible ambitions in Abt’s account. “His” Oriental Institute in the title says it all. Indeed the Institute never really lived up to Breasted’s ambitions. Perhaps no place could have indeed. Breasted was a singular figure in American academia in the early 20th century, knowing a good many of the leading scientists of the day and advocating that Humanities should be a vital part of the National Academy of Sciences. Even in the 1920’s this was ambitious! He is also singular in writing a great deal of popular history textbooks and a general history of Egypt (1905) that in my opinion is still the best written in the English language, even though I would disagree strongly with his view of history.

Abt’s work is thorough, and he must have spent a lot of time in the archives reading Breasted’s copious correspondence and his papers. There are some nice historic photos in the volume, including one I had never seen before of the planned new Egyptian museum in Cairo-ambitious to say the least. So much so that  he thoroughly undervalued (or did not care about) the Egyptians response. Given the post WWI context of the proposed project and the rise of Egyptian nationalism, Breasted seriously overplayed his hand in trying to strengthen the European and American hand in antiquities. But a shame the museum and research institute was never built.

I was inspired to look again at the short film made by Breasted in 1935 The Human Adventure. It had been a long time since I had seen it. Apparently this was widely seen and well received when it appeared, even causing near sell-out lines at Carnegie Hall over four days! It is a wonderful historic record of how Breasted was trying to integrate Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies into a very big historic picture.  By the way, at the beginning of the film in the account of the rise of ear;y man, a nice few seconds of film is devoted to Mt Rainier (unattributed in the film). I presume this was shot during a Breasted family vacation. Anyway, nice to see the mountain and its glaciers in 1935, even if a bit out of context. Well worth viewing. I am sorry to say that Egyptology has not advanced very far past Breasted’s vision, and in many ways has retreated from it. Reading Abt’s book reminds us that historic vision, and thinking through why we study what we do, is still a vital part of being an ancient historian. Abt does not intend this kind of reflection I think, but it results from Breasted’s career. For this reason alone, I highly recommended the book. Breasted and his remarkable career deserves to be known by more people.

Coptic Jesus marriage text continues to make news

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education appeared 1 October. You can find it here. I agree with those who say why not wait to announce results in the forthcoming article until the spectometry results on the ink were completed. These are set to be published later this month in fact. Too tempting to hold onto the work when fame is involved potentially, I guess, but considerable downside here.

The Coptic Jesus text and fraud

As I mentioned a couple of days ago my first thoughts on this new text brought back memories of the so – called “Batson D. Sealing affair.” I misspelled the name previously. This was something that began in the late 80’s but hit the presses in 1991 after an article was published in Discussions in Egyptology 19 (1991). This was an elaborate fraud. The nom de plume Batson D. Sealing, obviously meant to be funny, was the supposed author of small piece in a New Orleans History Journal discussing a hand copy (no photographs of texts in this period) of a demotic Roman period Sayings of Jesus. The Journal really existed, but was not published in the year this fraudulent article appeared. Very clever. An amazing amount of effort went into creating this article, and then sending it for commentary to a journal in Oxford. All designed to embarrass someone. Robin Lane Fox commented on this in the Financial Times, 18 and 25 May 1991. It made a huge splash in British newspapers. I’ll try to dig up some of these articles. Meanwhile it is a sober reminder that scholars can commit fraud; and the “Sayings of Jesus” seem to be a special target of affection. I don’t mean to imply that this Coptic text is fraudulent, although I have my doubts about it. I’ll let Coptic scholars make the final determination.

More on the Coptic sayings of Jesus

Reaction continues to pour in on the text from many places and from many angles. Francis Watson of Durham University had the following to say in the Guardian.

The Coptic Jesus text

This new fourth century Coptic text is making the rounds in spectacular fashion, so it prompts me to say a few words.My first reaction to seeing it was that it could not be real, I am just cynical about such things. Very good scholars have actually seen the text though ( no substitute for inspection), and I respect their opinions. So far, reaction is mixed in the world of Coptic Studies, so we’ll see. It is indeed hard to imagine a scholarly fraud, as Roger Bagnall points out, But there was the famous “Batson D. Ceiling” affair in the late 80’s. There, it was a Demotic text, hand copy only, of the sayings of Jesus. That made it to the front pages of many newspapers. I’ll dig that out soon.

Script of papyrus from fourth century

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