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What is missing from the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Keeper of Secrets? Anubis on his shrine

Keeper of Secrets? Anubis on his shrine

The world of archaeology is holding its breath. Will radar results confirm recent claims that there may be more to the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) than it’s discoverer Howard Carter, and most Egyptologists since, believed?

The excitement centres on the claims of English Egyptologist and established authority on Tutankhamun Nicholas Reeves. Reeves is not a crack-pot, which makes the claims all the more exciting. Referring to recent 3D scans by high-tech conservation firm Factum Arte, Reeves identifies the possible traces of two previously undetected doorways leading off the burial chamber of KV 62 – with potentially sensational implications. Not least, that there is an intact storeroom to the west and a continuation of a one-time corridor leading north, perhaps containing the burial of Nefertiti (or, rather ‘Smenkhkare’ as she may have been styled as pharaoh and predecessor of Tutankhamun). Although other scholars have critiqued some of the methods, such as the art historical evaluation of the scenes on Tut’s burial chamber wall, Reeves’ claims seem intriguingly possible. Even if Nefertiti does not lie behind the north wall, two additional (intact) chambers of any size or shape would be of enormous interest.

I recently wrote an article on the objects – other than coffins, sarcophagi and canopics – found in the Kings Valley tombs for a Handbook of the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun’s tomb contents are often regarded as a ‘full set’ of objects, despite some losses of valuable items in (limited) robberies. While there are many correspondences between Tutankhamun’s objects and the fragmentary remains found in other tombs, it is interesting to consider what is not represented in Tut’s assemblage.

We know from records on ostraca that tombs were stocked in advance of the royal funeral proper, so this would have allowed time to seal up a storage chamber in the manner of the ‘Annexe’ and of the burial chamber itself. The ‘Treasury’ appears to have been left open in anticipation of the elongated poles used to carry the Anubis shrine.

Ram-headed divine statue from the tomb of Tuthmose III now in the British Museum (EA 50702)

Ram-headed divine statue from the tomb of Tuthmose III now in the British Museum (EA 50702)

One curious category of divine statues is not attested in KV 62, showing fearsome entities with hippo, gazelle or turtle heads. These are known from wooden examples in the tombs of Tuthmose III, Horemheb and Ramesses I, some now in the British Museum. As so often, these wooden sculptures had their precious metal coatings removed either by tomb robbers or during a state-sanctioned sweep of the Valley at the end of the New Kingdom. Tutankhamun’s objects are unique in that they retain their gilding. At a discussion of Tutankhamun’s tomb goods in Cairo in May, Professor Stephen Quirke emphasised the importance of these divinities being in close proximity to the king’s sarcophagus. Might the putative ‘secret’ western chamber contain (fine, gilded) versions of such images?

The number of shabti figures provided for a royal burial seems to have increased steadily during the 18th Dynasty – from the one known example for Ahmose I to the supposedly “complete” set of 413 examples for Tutankhamun. But a couple of generations after Tut, Seti I was given in excess of 1000 examples – so should more shabtis be expected of Tut?


So-called ‘guardian statue’ of Tutankhamun

Thirty years ago, Reeves drew attention to the fact that no papyri had been found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Drawing analogies with hollow statues containing papyri in the tombs of Amenhotep II, Ramesses I and Seti I, papyrus scrolls might have been secreted in the kilt parts of the so-called ‘guardian statues’ flanking the entrance to the burial chamber. Though X-rays showed no such cavities, the question remains: if they existed at all, where are Tutankhamun’s papyri and what might they contain? While hardly likely to be a diary of the Boy King, they are likely to be funerary texts from an interesting time of religious transition.

While the original intended contents of Tutankhamun’s burial is unknowable, it is an intriguing possibility that further objects may await discovery.

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Snakes unlikely to have killed Cleopatra…

Cleopatra VII  at the temple of Dendera

Cleopatra VII at the temple of Dendera

Academics at The University of Manchester have dismissed the long-held argument that the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite.

Andrew Gray, Curator of Herpetology at Manchester Museum (and fellow blogger), says venomous snakes in Egypt –  Cobras or Vipers – would have been too large to get unseen into the queen’s palace.

He was speaking  to fellow Manchester Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tyldesley in a new video which is part of a new online course introducing ancient Egyptian history, using six items from the Museum’s collection.

According to Dr Tyldesley, the ancient accounts say a snake hid in a basket of figs brought in from the countryside, and was also used to kill one or two of her serving maids.

But according to Andrew Gray, Cobras are typically 5 to 6 feet long but can grow up to 8 feet – too big to hide very easily.

There would also be too little time to kill 2 or 3 people-  because snake venom kills you slowly-  with in any case only a 10 per cent chance of death.

He said: “Not only are Cobras too big, but  there’s just a 10 per cent chance you would die from a  snake bite: most bites are dry bites that don’t inject venom.

“That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly.

“So it would be impossible to use a snake to kill  2 or 3 people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting – so they conserve their venom and use it in times of need.”

Cleopatra is strongly associated with snakes, like many ancient Egyptian kings and queens of Egypt. In addition, Cleopatra also believed she was the embodiment of the Goddess Isis, who can take on the form of a snake.

Dr Tyldesley, whose book Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last Queen was a BBC Radio 4 book of the week, says one aspect of the accounts has proved to be correct. The ancient Egyptians believed snakes were good mothers.

“Very few snakes have a maternal instinct. However, the cobra is an exception: they sit on the nest and protect them until they hatch. So in this case, it seems the Egyptians were right,” agrees Gray

The free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’, launches on 26 October. 

Dr Tyldesley added: “The MOOC includes behind-the-scenes access at the Museum and detailed descriptions of many objects from our Egypt and Sudan collection.”

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Come along and join us at Manchester Museum with a range of ‘Gifts for the Gods’ events!

Originally posted on Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank:

Well, it’s been a week since Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed opened to the public and plenty of visitors have already come along to see what all the fuss is about! To mark the occasion, the Museum have compiled a series of public engagement events to entice visitors to come along and learn more about the fascinating topic of votive animal mummification.


Science Week will kick off with a talk by Steph on some of the stories behind key objects in the exhibition on Friday 23rd October at 1pm. During the following week there will be a range of activities for children based around the topic of animal mummification – including trying your hand at mummifying an orange and building junk animals.

On Saturday 14th November, the team will be hosting a dedicated study day where we will explore the subject further. We are very pleased to be…

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Investigating Animal Mummies (I): Crocodiles at Hawara

Preparations are now well underway for our upcoming exhibition, ‘Gifts for the Gods: Animal Mummies Revealed’, opening October 8th. Working with the Ancient Egyptian Animal Bio Bank at the University of Manchester, the exhibition will present their research, investigating how animal mummies were made, deposited, collected, excavated and studied. In the first of a series of blogs in the run up to the exhibition, we look at the origin of some of the mummies.


The site of Hawara, with the pyramid of Amenemhat III in background, was home to thousands of croc mummies

The Classical historian Herodotus, living in the 5th Century BC, records the importance (some) Egyptians gave to crocodiles in Book II of his Histories: “The crocodile is esteemed sacred by some of the Egyptians, by others he is treated as an enemy. Those who live near Thebes, and those who dwell around Lake Moeris (the Faiyum region, including Hawara), regard them with especial veneration.… The people of Elephantine on the other hand, are so far from considering these animals as sacred that they even eat their flesh.”

Herodotus also mentions a spectacular monument at Hawara, associated with the crocodile god Sobek, “Lord of the Lake” which he calls ‘The Labyrinth’, “near the place called the City of Crocodiles”:

It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms … they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles.

The site was first investigated archaeologically by W. M. Flinders Petrie between 1888 and 1889, when his main sponsor was Manchester cotton industrialist Jesse Haworth. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester collection contains several crocodile mummies from these excavations. Petrie remarked on the great quantities of crocodile mummies all over the site. While some were apparently buried in reused non-royal tombs, others were found in less discrete groups amidst the limestone chips of earlier buildings. Petrie observed that the large number of mummies related to their ancient function:

On the north-east of the cemetery, out in the desert, was a region of broken ground with a large amount of limestone chips. I looked over it several times, and in the last week at Hawara I excavated here to ascertain the nature of the remains. In every direction the work brought up crocodiles, of all sizes, from monsters 15 feet long, to infants, and even eggs. The apparent number was swelled moreover by quantities of dummies, evidently made for a ceremonial purpose. The imitation crocodile mummies consist of bundles of reeds or grass, with an egg or only a single bone inside; and they seem to have been intended to testify a worshipper’s devotion to Sebek by such pious care bestowed on the sacred animal: doubtless their preparation and sale was a priestly trade.

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Mummified baby crocodile from Hawara, EA 19/2

Botanical examination by Percy Newberry identified Egyptian sugar cane, sea club-rush, and Phoenician juniper from inside crocodile mummies, implying that at least a selection of these mummy bundles had been unwrapped – the only possible means of identification in the field at the end of the 19th Century.

Recent research at the University of Manchester has indicated the presence of Cyperus papyrus (papyrus sedge) in mummies lacking full skeletons of individual crocodiles. As sugar cane does not appear in Egypt until the mid-eighth century, this identification is unlikely. It is possible that there was some confusion about the two plant species which both exhibit rigid characteristics, although the lack of nodes at regular intervals displayed on radiographs present in Saccharum aegyptiacum indicated that Cyperus papyrus was more likely.

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

Investigating the radiograph of a crocodile mummy

The question of why some mummy bundles were composed in this way will be the subject of future posts.

Read more:

Petrie, W.M.F. (1889) Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe. London: Field and Tuer.

Atherton-Woolham, S. D. (2015). ‘Imaging ancient Egyptian crocodile mummies from Hawara.’ Current Research in Egyptology 2014. Oxford and Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 181-193.

McKnight, L and S. Atherton-Woolham (eds) (In press) Gifts for the Gods: Ancient Egyptian Animal Mummies and the British. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Articles in forthcoming issues of Ancient Egypt Magazine and Egyptian Archaeology

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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 2


The second part of Jemma’s blog on Botany in Ancient Egypt

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

by Jemma

Part 1 of this blog post ( focused primarily on how the ancient Egyptians acquired their extensive botanical knowledge. This second blog post will now look more closely at some of the plants that they commonly used – some of which you may know!

An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants. An Egyptian mummy wrapped in garlands of unidentified plants.


One of the most well-known plants associated with ancient Egypt is Cyperus papyrus. The most famous use for this plant was to make an early form of paper. However, papyrus was used by the Egyptians for multiple purposes and was not limited solely to the production of paper. Other common uses of papyrus include the production of ropes, mats, baskets, sandals and chairs. The plant was also used to hold together bouquets of flowers and eaten as food. The open head of a papyrus plant was also a hieroglyph called ‘wadj’, meaning ‘green’, or…

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Botany in Ancient Egypt – Part 1


A great blog from Jemma in the Herbarium on Botany in Ancient Egypt!

Originally posted on Herbology Manchester:

by Jemma

During my research into the Materia Medica collection (plant, animal and mineral based medicines used in from the 1800s) at the Manchester Museum, I have notice a recurring feature; many of the plants had in fact been used by humans for thousands of years and a large portion of these by the ancient Egyptians!

Plants featured heavily in Egyptian culture: in food, medicine, religion, perfumes and beyond. Early medicinal texts, such as the Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BCE, provide detailed insight into their extensive herbal knowledge. Unfortunately no complete record has yet to be found, but the fragments that have survived show just how knowledgeable these ancient peoples were when it came to plants and their uses. Many of the applications documented are the same used right up until the introduction of modern medicinal practices. Even today, large portions of herbal remedies used as ‘alternative’ medicines feature plants…

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Rah-rah, Senenmut – Lover of the Egyptian Queen?


Upcoming lecture on Senenmut

Originally posted on Museum Meets:

Collection Bites: Rah-rah, Senenmut – Lover of the Egyptian Queen?

Wed 4 Feb, 1-2pm. In 2013, an unassuming stone fragment in the Egyptology stores was identified as part of a statue of one of ancient Egypt’s most famous personalities: Senenmut, chief minister and possible lover of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s female pharaoh. Dr Campbell Price will explain the significance of the statue, and tell the story of an incredible personality from the past – as heard on BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time”!

Book online at or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults

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