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Messengers to the Gods

During a turbulent period in ancient Egypt, common people turned to animal mummies to petition the gods, inspiring the rise of a massive religious industry


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ibis Shrew Animal Mummies


For decades, 30 boxes lay forgotten in the storage vaults of the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptology department. The contents had not been catalogued, or even seen, since the 1930s and 40s, when they were purchased from the New-York Historical Society. But in 2009, curatorial assistant Kathy Zurek-Doule finally opened the boxes. Lying nestled inside each one was an elaborately wrapped mummy in the shape of an animal. Ibises, hawks, cats, dogs, snakes, and even a shrew were all represented in the collection, which had been amassed by a wealthy New York businessman in the mid-nineteenth century. Faced with an unexpected trove of objects unlike any other the museum has, Egyptology curator Edward Bleiberg and his team embarked on a comprehensive study of the mummies. The rediscovered objects gave Bleiberg the chance to investigate a question that has puzzled archaeologists ever since they first realized that vast animal cemeteries along the Nile hold millions of mummies: Why did the ancient Egyptians invest so much in the afterlife of creatures?


Unlike Greeks and Romans, ancient Egyptians believed animals possess a soul, or ba, just as humans do. “We forget how significant it is to ascribe a soul to an animal,” says Bleiberg. “For ancient Egyptians, animals were both physical and spiritual beings.” In fact, the ancient Egyptian language had no word for “animal” as a separate category until the spread of Christianity. Animal cults flourished outside the established state temples for much of Egyptian history and animals played a critical role in Egypt’s spiritual life. The gods themselves sometimes took animal form. Horus, the patron god of Egypt, was often portrayed with the head of a hawk; Thoth, the scribe god, was represented as an ibis or a baboon; and the fertility goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow. Even the pharaohs revered animals, and at least a few royal pets were mummified. In 1400 B.C., the pharaoh Amenhotep II went to the afterlife accompanied by his hunting dog, and a decade later his heir Thutmose IV was buried with a royal cat.


However, large numbers of mummies in dedicated animal necropolises did not appear until after the fall of the New Kingdom, around 1075 B.C. During the subsequent chaotic 400-year span known as the Third Intermediate Period, the central Egyptian state collapsed and a series of local dynasties and foreign kings rose and fell in rapid succession. This time is often depicted as calamitous in official accounts, but Bleiberg notes that during the First Intermediate Period, a similarly chaotic era without central authority that lasted from 2181 to 2055 B.C., life for the average Egyptian went on as normal. In fact, University of Cambridge Egyptologist Barry Kemp has shown that villagers were relatively prosperous during this time, perhaps because they paid taxes only to local authorities, and not to the central state. If life in the Third Intermediate Period was similar, then the average Egyptian may have had more disposable income. With no pharaoh to mediate Egypt’s relationship to the gods, and with foreigners undermining religious traditions, there was also a turn to personal piety among the general public. “Without the pharaoh, people needed to approach the gods on their own,” says Bleiberg.



Online Exclusive:
Animal Mummy Coffins of Ancient Egypt

All Hands on Deck

Inviting the world to explore a shipwreck deep in the Gulf of Mexico


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hercules Monterrey Shipwrecks


At the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, far enough from both shore and surface that the water no longer carries the silt of the Mississippi, the wreck of a ship rests at a slight angle. The boat’s structure has collapsed and artifacts litter the sandy seafloor—ceramics, demijohns, old medicine bottles, and more. Copper nails and bronze spikes stand in lines where the planks they once held together have partially rotted away. Crouching in the shadow of a toppled, heavily concreted old stove, a long-legged black crab eyes an odd interloper with suspicion. At 4,300 feet below the surface, no human—archaeologist or otherwise—should be bothering it. But, with the help of a remotely operated submersible named HerculesHerc for short—the crab is enduring a moment of online celebrity. “Folks at shoreside would like to get a measurement on that crab,” a voice crackles over the live video feed. “And let’s take a look at those cannons.”


From where Herc hovers, just above the ocean floor, cables stretch up through thousands of feet of murky water to a state-of-the-art research vessel called Nautilus. There, in a room illuminated only by video screens, James Delgado, underwater archaeologist and director of Maritime Heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Brendan Phillips, one of Herc’s pilots, guide the exploration of the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century wreck they call Monterrey A. From Nautilus, the video feed from Herc is sent by satellite to a building on the campus of the University of Rhode Island. It also goes to various other “command centers,” where groups of scientists gather to communicate directly with an archaeologist on watch duty and to help guide the exploration. The feed is also being streamed live over the Internet, so thousands more people across the world can write in with questions or just have a moment with this big crab and the shipwreck it lives on.


“What’s giving us a sense of the nineteenth century are the anchors, cannons, some of the bottles, and the navigational instruments,” says Delgado on the video feed. “And if the ship had been abandoned, the captain would have grabbed the instruments to navigate the small boat away. This suggests these guys did not make it.”


Monterrey Shipwrecks OctantThe study of the Monterrey A has been a landmark project, bringing together archaeologists from around the country in a collaboration facilitated by telepresence—a technology similar to videoconferencing. Except, in this case, the technology is connecting a robot thousands of feet underwater, a ship bobbing 170 miles out to sea, and rooms full of experts on land. The excavation, conducted over seven days in July 2013, was inclusive and public, as anyone with a computer could ride shotgun with Herc and observe the successes and challenges of deepwater archaeology. And, through the wreck, online viewers could explore a time when the Gulf of Mexico was the epicenter of shifting empires—plied with merchant, naval, and privateer ships on missions of commerce, war, and thievery. 






Anatomy of a Deep Wreck
Update from 716 Fathoms


Saving the Villa of the Mysteries

Beneath the surface of Pompeii's most famous house


Monday, February 10, 2014

Pompeii Villa Mysteries Dionysus


The moment the Villa of the Mysteries was discovered in spring 1909, it was at risk. Once protected by a layer of at least 30 feet of the volcanic ash and soil that had fallen on Pompeii in A.D. 79, the villa’s stunning decoration was immediately exposed to potential damage from the elements and earthquakes, one of which occurred a bit more than a month after excavations began. As each wheelbarrow of debris was removed, revealing columns, artifacts, mosaics, and frescoes, the threat increased. It soon became clear that the house and its vibrant paintings were extraordinarily vulnerable, not only to sun, rain, and wind, but also to theft. Just three weeks after the discovery of one of the most stunning finds in the famed ancient city, excavations were halted and the focus shifted to protection and conservation. It would take archaeologists two more decades to completely excavate the property.


For more than a century, there have been many efforts, some successful, some less so, to conserve the villa’s walls, floors, and frescoes. Now, several teams of archaeologists, architects, chemists, and physicists have embarked on a yearlong project, using both time-tested methods and innovative technologies, to remedy the damage done by earlier conservators and by time, and to restore the villa and its remarkable interior once again.


Pompeii Villa Mysteries Ultrasonic SurveyBuilt just outside one of Pompeii’s main gates in the first half of the second century B.C., the Villa of the Mysteries covered about 40,000 square feet and had at least 60 rooms. In A.D. 79, the house was already more than two hundred years old and had likely had several different owners, been redecorated, and been heavily repaired, particularly after a large earthquake struck Pompeii in A.D. 62, damaging many buildings and necessitating repairs all over the city. At various times the villa functioned, as many ancient Roman estates did, as both luxury home and working farm. There were areas for pressing grapes into wine, several large kitchens and baths, gardens, shrines, marble statues, and all the spaces necessary for a wealthy patron to welcome guests for both business and pleasure. Many rooms were covered in frescoes, including a bedroom with simple black walls, an atrium decorated with panels painted to resemble stone, several rooms that contain fantastical architecture and landscapes, and scenes of sacrifices, gods, and satyrs.


The most spectacular frescoes, painted in the mid-first century B.C., were found less than a week after excavations began, in an approximately 15-by-15-foot space that was likely used as a dining room. There, against a vivid red background, more than two dozen life-size figures engage in what has been variously interpreted as a play or pantomime, a bride’s preparations for her wedding, or, most often, an initiation ritual into the mystery cult of Dionysus. (In contrast to recognized public religion and worship, in the Greco-Roman world the mystery cults required the worshipper to be initiated.) 


For more than two decades the house was known as the “Villa Item” after Aurelio Item, owner of Pompeii’s Hotel Suisse, and the private excavator who first discovered the villa. But in 1931, Amadeo Maiuri, the director of excavations at Pompeii, changed the name to the “Villa of the Mysteries” upon publication of his excavation report to focus attention on the red room’s decoration, the property’s most extraordinary feature.





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