Recent Events

    Wednesday 24th April 2019: John Wyatt, Birds of Egypt

    Note: This report does not include illustrations.

    It might not say so on his CV, but John is an ornithological history detective. The modern Champollion of Ancient Egyptian avian images, he deciphers tomb paintings and artefacts to identify the species of birds seen in pharaonic times. On this occasion he took time out from his work as the world’s only full-time Ancient Egypt ornithologist to give a remarkable talk to a meeting of Ankh.

    The former deputy director of the British Trust for Ornithology, now scientific consultant for the Birds of the Nile Valley, John was trained as an anthropologist and ethnographer and is a specialist in African birds and mammals. Studying birds of the ancient Nile is easier than most ornithologists’ work because, he quipped, dead bones don’t fly away.
    However, as the compelling presentation progressed it became apparent that binoculars and bird hides don’t help much either as many of the images John studies are representational or unclear. Patrick Houlihan’s book Birds of Ancient Egypt, published in 1986 gave a foundation to John’s interest, giving rise to decades of detailed investigation of Ancient Egyptian images to determine the exact identification of the birds that existed at that time.

    It was fascinating to learn that such species as black-necked and great crested grebes, both relatively recently found in Kent, were also fluffing their feathers around Pyramid workers. John’s investigation into images taken from Deir el Bahri, now in the Museum of New York, identified red-necked grebes, now rarely found in modern Egypt, amongst the plentiful spur-winged plovers, pintails and swallows – often seen flying inside the ancient temples. He showed photos of pied wagtails and sparrow hawks, African and European hoopoes, turtle doves and water fowl, parakeets brought into Egypt along with red-billed and red-footed black stork by Alexander the Great, Siberian white cranes, northern lapwings, the white-bellied stork (probably eaten) and cob-nosed ducks. There were nightjars and goshawks and houbara bustard, all identified from original artwork thousands of years old.

    Not just birds however. Closer to the ground John’s work has authenticated a statement by ancient historian Herodotus, who wrote of two crocodiles seen in Ancient Egypt: the Nile and the Desert crocs. He spoke of the crocodile bird, who went into the mouth of desert crocodiles and cleaned the mouth and teeth. John was able to verify this by citing that the desert plovers do exactly this now to the great Nile crocodiles and indeed even, like the crocodiles, lay their eggs in the sandbanks so the sun hatches them.
    The Brooklyn Knife we learnt has a solitary giraffe amongst the bird images, looking into the future. The Davis comb handle, sports a saddle-billed stork which boasts a huge throat sac. Not, says John, because of any significance to the bird, but to denote wellbeing.
    One of the most iconic Egyptian ornithological images is the ibis; the bald-headed ibis which was associated with Thoth, the Ancient Egyptians’ god of the moon, magic and of wisdom. Perhaps, John said, because the black tail and head could be seen to represent the moon in the sky – as could the bird in flight echo the movement of the moon. This, the ankh bird, was considered such John suggests, as it resembles a spirit flying. Now there are thought to be less than 200 remaining worldwide.

    Perhaps the most recognised ancient Egyptian bird iconography is the Horus falcon, represented in dramatic statuary at Kom Ombu wearing the double crown of Egypt.  This tutelary diety image was thought, probably to be inspired the peregrine falcon who also displays a red crown.

    In the Valley of the Queens, Nefertiti’s tomb shows what was thought to be falcons but now are classified as female kites. While at Abydos, in the Temple of Seti, two species of kestrels are depicted. We learnt that in Ancient Egypt the grey-necked goose was domesticated and edible and 4,000 year-old bones show that pigeons were plentiful. From Kom Ombo again, two bone records show remains of owls – leading to the connection with Horus perhaps as these majestic birds were considered to symbolise the safe passage of a spirit after death?

    Over at Deir el Medina, Neferhotep’s tomb housed the mummified remains of a barn owl which is also depicted in the artwork. Appropriately at Saqqara 51 Pharaoh’s eagle owls have been found and in the tomb of Ti, shoe bill storks were shown and what was thought to be African spoon-bills.  Over at Medinet Habu hieroglyphs clearly illustrate swallows and elsewhere no less than eight types of swallow are depicted alongside house martins, sand martins, rocks and crag martins.

    Rather surprisingly perhaps the somewhat unattractive vulture was chosen to depict the eye of Ra, Nekheb and Mut, the wife of Amon and caring motherhood. Not surprising at all, said John, as they fly at great height seeing all and remain on their nests for three to four months protecting their eggs.

    During his examinations of mummified remains, John has identified some 77 different species of bird. In all he has identified 130 species of bird living in Ancient Egypt including the common kingfisher, now extinct Syrian ostrich and amazingly, flamingos found in the Sahara desert, now thousands of miles from water. He estimates that there were probably around 250 species existing. So he continues his search into identifying the birds of Ancient Egypt and we in Ankh look forward to more discoveries about the wildlife he identifies.

    Eileen Marsh

    Wednesday 27th February 2019: Dr Csaba La’da: Hellenistic Egypt-Twilight of the Ancient Egyptian Civilisation.

     Csaba began by saying that his interest in presenting this lecture was to show that the Hellenistic Period in Egypt was not a time when its culture was in decline, as many have claimed, but was to demonstrate that native Egyptian civilization, in important aspects, continued to thrive in a multicultural environment. The period has often been neglected by scholars in favour of Old, Middle, and New Kingdom studies, and Csaba’s aim has been to work towards redressing this situation.

    He mapped out, in some detail, political events in Egypt from the end of the Persian occupation and into the Hellenistic period when Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian generals, founded a line of rulers which came to an abrupt end with the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. The Greeks, since before the time Solon visited Egypt in the early C6th BC, held Egyptian civilization and culture in a certain amount of awe, with the result that they were too respectful to impose their own ways on all aspects of Egyptian life. The Persians, who had previously occupied the country from 525 to 404B and 343 to 332 BC did not, according to some, treat the Egyptians or their culture anywhere near so well. Herodotus writes that they showed scant respect for their Egyptian subjects, their culture and religion, but it is probable that he had been biased in his opinions by stories told him by the Egyptian priesthood (Ed: Herodotus writes that Cambyses suffered from periods of madness and instigated many atrocities whilst in Egypt, and that he personally slaughtered the Apis bull at Sakkara. However, archaeologists point out that the funerary monument of the Apis bull that died in 524 BC depicts Cambyses actually worshipping the divine bull! Herodotus was probably misled by the Egyptian priesthood, who hated Cambyses for withdrawing earlier royal grants made to them by rulers such as Amasis. Generally the Persians were quite accommodating as an occupying power, provided that their subjects “kept their noses clean”. There are virtually no temples from the Persian period, but the temple at Hibis, in Kharga Oasis, was decorated in the Egyptian style by Darius I. Csaba also noted that a few statues from the period suggest that Egyptian officials were encouraged to dress in Persian costume.

    The Egyptian language continued to be used by the people, while the upper strata of society spoke a less classic form of Attic Greek, which linguists call the koine. Egyptian hieroglyphs continued to be used for more serious matters, while Demotic and Greek were used for everyday purposes by all classes of society. Csaba said that during the Hellenistic period the number of hieroglyphs expanded to over 8000 from the early total of about 700, and that inscriptions are consequently more difficult to decipher than are Middle Egyptian ones. Literature became more narrative, and included romantic, instructional, legal, medical, wisdom and prophetic texts, and was either recorded in hieratic, or more usually in demotic. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which is inscribed using the three main methods of writing, was the primary key to the decipherment of hieroglyphic in the early C19th due to its readable Greek text. Csaba said that copies of tri-lingual inscriptions published by the state were commonly installed throughout the land for the populace to view, with the top and middle texts in Hieroglyphic and Demotic, and the bottom in Greek.

    Alexandria, founded by Alexander in 331 BC, was the centre of Greek influence and political power, and was also the site of the famous Great Library, which was a centre of learning containing tens of thousands of scrolls, mostly of papyrus and written in Greek. Unfortunately its destruction began during the Alexandrine War when it was partially burned, probably by accident when Julius Caesar’s troops were attacked by the Alexandrine mob. One of the Egyptian priests, Manetho, was commissioned by an early Ptolemy to write a history of Egypt in Greek, using Egyptian records as a source. The original has not survived, but extracts copied by various ancient writers do exist, and were used as prime sources for understanding Egyptian history before hieroglyphics were deciphered. He divided Egyptian history into thirty dynasties, which is still the basis for modern chronology.

    Csaba pointed out that, remarkably, traditional styles in Egyptian architecture continue to be used and that Greek styles of building were not introduced except at a few locations such as at Alexandria itself, and for a very few isolated examples such as a temple to Astarte in Memphis (Ed: this was established very early and could have been more in a Phoenician style than Greek). In the delta, at Naucratis, which was the only permanent Greek settlement and trading centre in Egypt, a Hellenion has been excavated which contained a number of temples specifically dedicated to the Greek gods. Most other civilisations, from the Romans to recent colonial powers, introduced their own architectural styles into the foreign territories they subjugated, particularly for public buildings

    Sculpture was another subject Csaba covered. It is well known that Egyptian statuary influenced early Greek sculpture, as illustrated by the archaic kouros statues dating from the mid C7/6th BC (Ed: Kleobis and Biton are good examples – with left feet forward, in true Egyptian fashion, and with hair arranged in the form of the Egyptian nemes headdress). Busts of personalities are sometimes remarkable in their quality, and are often a delightful combination of Egyptian and Greek styles. Alexandrian sculpture does, naturally, tend more to the Greek style. Generally, art and inscriptions from the period increase in both quantity and quality, and usually maintain age-old Egyptian methods of representation.

    To illustrate the longevity of the Egyptian style of architecture Csaba quickly ran through some slides of temples such as those at Dendera, Esna, Kom Ombo, Edfu and Philae, which were centres of worship right through to Christian times. As there were few temples built in either Greek or Roman styles it is apparent that non-Egyptians were content to worship in temples of Egyptian type, where they would probably  worship their own deities in a corresponding Egyptian form  (Ed: Herodotus names twelve of these, including Amon/Zeus, Ptah/Hephaestus, Horus/Apollo, Osiris/Dionysius, Isis/Demeter, Hathor/Aphrodite, Min/Pan and Imhotep/Asclepius).

    After the death of Cleopatra VII Egypt came under direct Roman state control and native Egyptian culture began its terminal decline, which became even more rapid when Christianity became the state religion, leading to the complete banning of pagan worship by Theodosius in 393 AD. Isis, however, continued to be venerated at Philae, particularly by the Nubian tribes, until the last priests were forced out by Justinian in 537 AD. It is interesting how the statues of Isis cradling the infant Horus represented such an appealing concept that they were translated into virtually identical statues of Mary cradling the Christ child.