Huh? Nope, it’s Heh: How the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity

The week is finally over! While only five days long, the workweek can certainly feel like an eternity. Which got me thinking (as many things do) about how the Egyptians measured time and thought about eternity.

Houston HehBarely an inch in height, this small hammered gold object depicts a man kneeling, wearing a knee-length pleated linen kilt and a long wig which comes down in two lappets on either side of his face – the typical get-up of Egyptian gods. His right hand stretches out to grasp a tall element with a curving top; his missing left hand originally did the same.

His pose and accessories identify him as the god Heh. Larger, more detailed representations show that the curved objects he holds are palm ribs, notched to tally up the years. The ‘years’ often rest on crouching frogs or tadpoles, the hieroglyphic sign for ‘100,000;’ these in turn sit on top of tied rings, symbolizing enduring protection.

Big HehWith all this in mind, it’s no surprise that Heh was considered the god of eternity, and was himself used as the hieroglyphic sign for ‘1,000,000’ – the largest number the Egyptians wished to write. Images of Heh in temples and on royal objects provided an eternal framework for the rituals that surrounded them. Tutankhamun was buried with a mirror in a Heh-shaped case, keeping him forever safe and youthful.

Our Heh is smaller and less finely worked than these, but is still made from expensive gold and would have been a cherished possession of its owner. A loop soldered to his back allowed him to be attached to a cord, where he would have served as an amuletic charm on a necklace, or possibly an element of a diadem.

Excavated parallels to our Heh date to the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period (which we Egyptologists abbreviate to ‘FIP’) of Egyptian history (Dynasties 6-10, around 2300-2000 BC), and illuminate the problems we can run into when studying the past. Literary accounts of the First Intermediate Period describe it as a period in which the legitimate king was unable to exercise his authority: chaos, fighting, and famine ensued until the kings of the Middle Kingdom were able to reunite the country.

Excavations of FIP cemeteries, however, reveal a different picture. Valuable metal objects like weapons and our Heh are preserved in far higher quantities from FIP graves than Old Kingdom graves. If the FIP didn’t benefit the king and his court, less privileged people used the weakening of royal control as an opportunity to enrich themselves in this life and the next.

The amulet of Heh will go on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt in the summer. Keep an eye out for him!

Trust but verify: Was an artifact in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt made from a meteorite?

Back in a June issue of the HMNScoop (our weekly e-newsletter that you should totally be subscribed to, ahem), we told you about an exciting discovery made amongst the artifacts in our new Hall of Ancient Egypt: we suspected that one of them was made from a meteorite!

So we put it to the test. A simple magnetic test, that is. To see if this figurine of a human head, on loan from Chiddingstone Castle in the UK, contained any meteoric iron.

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We turned to our in-house experts to verify or debunk the assertion: Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout, our Curator of Anthropology, and James Wooten, our Planetarium Astronomer (and the voice behind your monthly stargazing reports here on BEYONDbones).

The verdict?

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Sorry, folks.

Don’t believe everything that you read, because those scrawled words aren’t telling the truth. The object wasn’t magnetic, and it wasn’t made out of a meteorite, either. Bummer.

But now we know, right?

Preserving Egypt’s cultural past: A conversation about conservation with Dina Aboul Saad

Editor’s Note: Today’s post was written by Dina Aboul Saad, Director of Development at the American Research Center in Egypt.

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Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Coptic and Islamic sites further our understanding of the rich cultural history of Egypt, but there’s much more to Egypt than digging up artifacts. Have you ever thought about what happens to the sites and objects once they are uncovered? And why do we endeavor to preserve Egypt’s cultural past?

The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) answers these questions through the most extensive program of conservation and training in Egypt today. In recent years the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) has conducted large-scale preservation and training activities at important archaeological sites throughout Egypt in collaboration with Egyptian colleagues and the Ministry of State for Antiquities.

On Nov. 7th at HMNS, you have an opportunity to see some of the iconic sites ARCE works to conserve and document.

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Working in Egypt since 1948, ARCE supports scholarly research in Egypt in a variety of areas including archaeology, training, site documentation and mapping, and conservation.

Brian Eno, the British rock musician and avant-garde artist, once remarked, “We are convinced by things that show internal complexity; [things] that show the traces of an interesting evolution. That is what makes old buildings interesting. Humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.”

We feel disconnected when the opportunity to involve ourselves with cultural history, even from a distance, is taken away.

Don’t miss Dina’s presentation, where she will give an overview of ARCE’s archaeological projects and the impact these projects have in Egypt. This event is co-sponsored by the Egyptian American Society of Houston here at HMNS on Thurs., Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or get them online.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze Disease

Editor’s Note: Alexis North is a third-year graduate student in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials at UCLA. She specializes in the conservation of archaeological objects and is working at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University this summer, preparing a group of objects for display here at HMNS. Read the first blog from her series here.

You may think of metal as a strong, impervious material. It’s used in bridge and building construction, and many of the tools we use today are made of metal (like silverware, hammers and screwdrivers, medical scalpels, etc.). Despite its strength, however, metal can be one of the more fragile materials found in archaeological sites. This is because different types of metal can very easily corrode in the presence of moisture and salts, both of which are found in the burial soils of archaeological sites. If you’ve ever seen red rust on an iron fence, or an old penny turn green, then you’ve seen what corrosion can look like.

Five of the objects I am working on this summer are made of copper alloy. An alloy is a mixture of metals. Copper is most often alloyed with silver, tin, arsenic or lead (or any combination of those) and the resulting mixture will have different strengths and working properties depending on the components and the proportions of those components. Here at the conservation laboratory at the Carlos Museum, one way we can determine which metals are present in an alloy is by using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF).

XRF analysis uses X-rays to excite the electrons within a material. These electrons jump to a higher energy level when they come into contact with the X-rays. The electrons of each element give off a characteristic amount of energy when they return to their unexcited state.

By measuring the amounts of energy emitted, we can determine which elements comprise a certain object. Here, the XRF spectrum of the cat figurine seen in my first blog post shows that the metal is an alloy of copper (Cu) and lead (Pb), with a possible trace amount of silver (Ag). The iron (Fe) most likely comes from the burial environment.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseXRF spectrum of 1999.001.043, revealing copper and lead as major components.

Copper and its alloys are susceptible to several different types of corrosion, some of which are good or protective corrosion, and some of which can be very damaging to the objects. After a copper alloy object is buried, it forms a protective layer of copper oxide (cuprite) on its surface. Cuprite can be bright to deep red in color, and will preserve the original surface of the object, even when additional corrosion layers form on top. That upper layer of corrosion is usually made of copper carbonates, called malachite and azurite. These compounds are bright green and blue in color, respectively, and have historically been used as pigments, in Egypt and elsewhere.

The real bad boys of copper corrosion are the copper chlorides. These appear as a pale turquoise green compound, usually in spots on the metal’s surface. When copper metal comes into contact with chloride anions, it forms deep pits full of copper chlorides. These pits disrupt the metal’s surface, damaging the original appearance of the object and obscuring surface details. These pits are also autocatalytic, meaning that once one appears, it will continue to grow and form additional pits until the copper chlorides are removed. This cycle of corrosion is commonly called “Bronze Disease,” like a kind of copper Chicken Pox!

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseSchematic diagram of copper alloy object with various types of corrosion products.

All five copper alloy objects that I am working on show evidence of Bronze Disease, as well as malachite and cuprite formations. The cat figurine has very little corrosion, and will not require much treatment at all before it will be ready to pack up and ship to the HMNS. This mirror, on the other hand, has significant corrosion all over its surface. In the detail image on the right, you can see where I’ve found an area of Bronze Disease, and the powdery light green copper chlorides are erupting onto the surface.

Copper, corrosion and curbing the damaging effects of Bronze DiseaseBefore treatment image of copper alloy mirror (left) and close-up image of Bronze Disease pit with copper chloride corrosion products (right).

Treating Bronze Disease is a two-step process. First, the copper chlorides must be mechanically removed. I do this using a variety of tools, including scalpels and dental tools (if they work for cleaning your teeth, then they should work for cleaning copper!). The copper chlorides are gently scraped away, while making sure that I don’t damage the rest of the mirror’s surface. The pits made by the copper chlorides are carefully cleaned out, so they can then be chemically treated to help prevent the formation of new copper chlorides. Once the corrosion products have been removed, the objects are treated with Benzotriazole (BTA), a corrosion inhibitor that forms a stable coating with the superficial copper ions, so they cannot react with any chloride ions which may come around.

Corrosion cannot be stopped completely, but these treatments help to significantly slow down the deterioration process, allowing the objects to continue to be displayed and studied. While the corrosion may not be vanquished entirely, with careful consideration the right conservation treatment can be undertaken, allowing these objects to be enjoyed both by scholars and museum visitors like you for many years to come!

References:
“Benzotriazole,” Conservation and Art Material Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Benzotriazole, accessed 7/16/2013
Scott, David A. Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002.