Lecture: Update in Egyptology

On October 26, 2016 Dr. Mostafa Waziri and Salah El Masekh will present a lecture in our Wortham Gian Screen Theater. Titled Update in Egyptology the lecture will discuss some of the most exciting discoveries being made right now in Egypt. The lecture will discuss several discoveries at the ancient temple complex of Karnak, and will also touch on a controversial topic in Egyptology: the search for Queen Nerfertiti’s lost mummy.

Do you recall the Temples of Karnak and Luxor? Even though most of us have never been there, we can instantly conjure an image of great pillars and sphinx-lined avenues baking in the hot sun, as the cool Nile washes past not far away. It is a classic image of Egypt, embedded in all our minds after countless re-watchings of adventure films and one documentary after another about the site appearing on the History, Discovery, National Geographic Channels, and PBS as well, or course. 

Well it looks like the collective memories of the world regarding that famous site may no longer be complete, as Egyptian archaeologists have recently unearthed several new features around the complex that may help us understand how these important ceremonial centers functioned in Ancient Egypt. 

It turns out that the spectacular ” Avenue of the Sphinxes” is much longer than everyone thought. Hundreds of nearly identical statues have been discovered along what was once an ancient roadway connecting the temples of Karnak and Luxor. 


A new temple has been unearthed in the vicinity of the Temple Complex at Karnak. The newly discovered structure was devoted to Amon Re, like many of the other temples at the site were.  Amon was kind of like the “Patron God” of the ancient city of Thebes, where the complex is located. Amon Re is the combination of the gods Amon and Re, basically a  “super god”. As Thebes was an important spiritual and political center for much of Egyptian history,  Pharohs would build Temples on the site as a symbol of devotion to the powerful God, and also as a show of power and wealth. They would usually try to one-up their predecessors and sometimes even destroyed the constructions of former kings in order to build their “improved” version on the site.

The title given to Amon Re in the recently unearthed temple is ” The One Who Hears The Petitions (Prayers)”. As Amun was a very important diety in Ancient Egypt for a very long time, many Pharohs championed his Temple and his name. But to each Pharoh Amon represented something slightly different. The character and title of the god changed sometimes to suit the character of the different kings who worshiped him. The newly discovered Temple may add to our knowledge of the rich history and mythology surrounding one of ancient Egypt’s most holy sites. New research on the structure, as well as a statue of Remeses II discovered within it, will be presented in the lecture.


Another interesting discovery that will be discussed is the Roman baths dating to the second century BC that were unearthed in front of the Karnak temple complex in 2006. The baths are a fascinating example of the fusion of Greco-Roman and Egyptian style in architecture and culture that began with Alexander the Great’s Conquest of Egypt in 332 BC and continued for the better part of the next nine hundred years. Mosaic images of dolphins, a very exotic sight in sweltering Upper Egypt, mingle with Tilapia, a native Egyptian fish, and floral designs based on plants introduced from the East before the days of Alexander.



The site features two circles of “hip-bathtubs” whose lazy-boy-esque appearance have attracted the lens of many a photographer, but beyond that the site is teaching archaeologists a lot about the evolution of Hellenistic baths in Ancient Egypt. It’s unique system of heating water includes features unlike any found in other parts of Egypt, or the Greek world. In the words of the renowned Egyptian archaeologist Salah El Mesekh, who manages the site, “these baths teach us more about how the Romans spent their free time- their social time”.  The lecture will also discuss a Roman Era winery recently unearthed.

Tomb Tut head

Last, but definitely not least, the lecture will address the flurry of debate surrounding the theory that Queen Nefertiti’s lost mummy may be hidden  behind one of the walls within King Tut’s tomb. Our Curator of Egyptology, Dr. Tom Hardwicke recently wrote a blog featuring his take on the issue. Dr. Waziri and El Masekh will discuss the evidence behind this theory and the feasibility of excavating to determine if there is indeed something there.

Be sure to check out Update in Egyptology A lecture on new discoveries in Egypt this Wednesday, October 26, 2016 starting at 6:30pm!


Amid King Tut Tumult, Hardwick Re-Caps What We Really Know About this Famous Pharaoh

Over the weekend in Cairo, conflict broke out in the archaeology community. Ground-penetrating radar has revealed peculiar results that some believe indicate additional rooms behind a solid wall in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Others reject this new theory.

British Egyptologist Nicolas Reeves offered up this theory last year following scanning results that he says suggest two open spaces filled with metal and organic matter. Zahi Hawass, famous Egyptologist and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, remains dubious.

Those backing Reeves are pushing to excavate, but to the naysayers, causing damage to the ancient burial chambers to follow a hunch is something antiquities of this magnitude can ill-afford. But one thing’s for certain in this battle of the minds — the issue has renewed interest in the exploration of these chambers that once housed one of pharaonic Egypt’s most iconic figures, a boy-king buried behind a magnificent golden mask.


Burial Chamber. North wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings. Some archaeologists believe an additional space exists behind this ancient artwork.

As the world of archaeology continues to bring to light new information on the issue, Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Consulting Curator of Egyptology Tom Hardwick is keeping his eye on the ball. No matter what news should erupt from Egypt in the next few weeks, he believes a return to the science of King Tut is of greater importance.

“In point of fact, we still know relatively little about him, and yet we try to read our own interests and preoccupations into the evidence,” Hardwick said. “The facts we in the 21st century want to know about people, who their parents were, what they thought, is information which the evidence from an Egyptian burial context doesn’t give you.”

Tut’s character as a “poor, sweet little boy” are fabrications of our own culture, Hardwick said, a kind of ontology that requires as much the injection of our society’s values into ancient history as the discoveries we’ve made from exploration, interpretation and scientific testing. And the marriage of the two is a big problem.


King Tutanhkamun’s famous death mask.


“It’s a matter of conjecture and filling in the gaps, and what we use to fill in the gaps tells us far more about us than what it tells about Tut and his family,” Hardwick said. “You’re trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but the way in which you do it is invariably influenced by who you are and your own preoccupations.”

From evidence unearthed from the tomb of a single pharaoh like Tutankhamun, we can learn more about the society and culture of entire Egyptian states in 1300 B.C. than we can about the pharaoh’s life. Hardwick will explore this thesis in an HMNS Distinguished Lecture Wednesday night. His presentation will compare the solid facts the archaeological community has accumulated over time with the stories we’ve invented to enrich the science with narrative.

“It’s interesting how things change over time,” Hardwick said. “It’s like a game of telephone. Conjectures get solidified into facts, then used as the base for further conjectures.”

Tom Hardwick

Egyptologist Tom Hardwick.

The story of the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb highlights another central issue involving the international trade of Egyptian antiquities — where do these finds belong? In the countries of the archaeologists who discovered them or the nations in which they were discovered? In Hardwick’s words, King Tut was “a wind-vane of our own preoccupations” at the time of his discovery.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s through painstaking research and excavation in the Valley of the Kings, the several thousand exquisite objects inside became the subject of great contention between Egypt and Great Britain. In the years following, the tug-of-war elevated King Tut to an iconic status as a symbol of the struggle of two governments to come to a mutual resolution in the interest of human history.

Visit HMNS Wednesday night to hear these stories and more as news develops in Cairo. To see our own collection of historical treasures, explore the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Zahi Hawass delivers inspiring speech at HMNS Excellence in Science Luncheon

He’s met President Barack Obama, Shia LaBeouf, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Megan Fox and Susan Sarandon. He looked King Tutankhamun in the face, burrowed under the Sphinx and claims to have found the temple of Alexander the Great and the mummy of Hatshepsut. With a lifetime of distinguished discoveries and achievements to draw from, famed archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass shared his adventures with the students and educators present at the 2015 Houston Museum of Natural Science Excellence in Science Awards Luncheon.


Thursday, Oct. 22, Hawass delivered an astounding keynote speech to 182 attendees, including HMNS President Joel A. Bartsch and Ernie D. Cockrell of the Cockrell Foundation. The pair awarded Eleanor S. Frensley Student Scholarships to Rolando Marquez and Philip Tan and presented Mycael Parks and Dr. Thomas Heilman with Wilhelmina C. Robertson Teacher Awards.

In his speech, Hawass inspired both adults and students in the audience with his experience growing up from humble beginnings and coming late to the game.

“I was not always a good student,” Hawass admitted. “I wanted to be a lawyer so I could make money. Then I thought, I couldn’t stand this.”

Before he was 20 years old, Hawass pursued careers as a lawyer, a diplomat, and in archaeology. He hated being out in the desert, he said, because of the high temperatures and the punishing sun. But when he was sent on an excavation and asked to sit down in a tomb to brush dust from a statue of Aphrodite, he found his love of archaeology.


Now, Hawass lives by one word: passion. “You can like anything,” he said. “You can love anything. But if you give your passion to anything, you make it great.”

In a riveting slideshow of shots from Egypt, Hawass shared new discoveries about the location of Nefertiti, the use of contemporary imaging software to peer inside the great pyramids, working with actors and meeting the President of the United States, and excavation projects in the Valley of the Kings.

Beyond #BeardGate – What else has happened to Tut?

Museum displays, labels, and blogs provide an excellent way for us to look beyond the headlines and get to grips with the full picture. While the hubbub surrounding #beardgate has died down, I’ve kept thinking about it. In my last blog, I included a picture of Tutankhamun’s mask without its beard, photographed during the 1920s. I meant it as a reminder that, whatever happened during the news-grabbing re-attachment of the beard, it wasn’t ‘snapped’ off. The mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.

Egypt Blog Beard 1937

Courtesy R. Hölzl

A friend then sent me a photograph taken in the museum by her grandfather in 1937. Mask at top, beard lying below. But what’s the lump on the bottom left? It’s part of a collar of gold and faience beads that had been attached around the neck of the mask.

Egypt Blog Mask and necklace

Burton photograph p0750a Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Here you can see the collar (and beard) in position on the mask as the mummy lies in the coffin. If you look closely at the mask today, you can still see the holes punched on either side of the neck to fix it in position. The collar itself is still displayed detached from the mask. It took fifteen years or so for the beard to make it back on to the mask, but the collar has still not been re-attached. Egyptologists are naturally conservative people, but this takes some beating. When the mask was taken abroad on tour in the 1970s, the exhibition catalog says that the necklace was removed from the mask for display “to reveal the neck.” Slim and elegant though Tutankhamun’s neck is, I don’t find this very satisfactory. Should we consider replacing it and restoring the mask to what it really was like?

Like most questions Egyptologists ask, this isn’t expecting a yes/no answer. It’s looking for more information.

Tutankhamun’s collar, with its flat disc-shaped beads, is a costlier example of the same type of necklace (shebyu for the Egyptians) as you can see in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

For non-royals, shebyu necklaces were marks of honor, royal gifts for good service. Receiving the ‘gold of honor’ was an event that merited being carved or painted on your tomb walls; when the mummy of the architect Kha, now in Turin Museum, was x-rayed, his shebyu necklace could be seen still proudly around his neck (along with some serious gold hoop earrings).

For the king, the shebyu had a slightly different function: it emphasized his divinity and union with the gods – the same thing that the rituals of mummification and burial were designed to achieve once he died. It’s not surprising that the shebyu collar was an essential component of Tutankhamun’s burial, since wearing it showed that the dead king had successfully joined his fellow gods for eternity. I wonder if the reason Howard Carter could remove the necklace easily when he extracted the mask was because it was meant to be put on as part of the funerary rites that activated Tutankhamun’s mummy. What we now think of as a permanent fixture on the mask may have been intended for ‘performative’ use.  Perhaps the opening of the mouth ritual that activated statues and mummies needed extra components when carried out on a royal mummy?

We now see the mask first off as an icon of Egyptian culture, or a masterpiece of Egyptian art. For the craftsmen and priests who made it and installed it on Tut’s wrapped mummy, however, it was just one piece of a jigsaw of objects, spells, smells, and gestures that gave the dead king magical protection and kick-started his afterlife.

Tutankhamun’s burial equipment, from the mask – beard, necklace and all – to the three coffins, stone sarcophagus, and gilded wood shrines surrounding them, was never made to be seen. It was made to do a job: to transform his body into something eternal, divine, and protected. Alter one part of this arrangement and perhaps the job would be sabotaged.

Given this, there’s no single ‘right’ or ‘original’ way for Cairo Museum to display Tutankhamun’s mask and burial equipment, nor for us to display our Egyptian material at HMNS. What we can do in museums is to look after the objects in our care and make them accessible to anyone who is interested. We can keep thinking about what they may have meant to the people who made and used them, and how we can convey this in displays and labels (and, now, blog posts). Every so often, new interpretations and new objects allow us to change the way we view and display our collections.

And this is the long lead in to say that we will be making some changes to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. By the start of March, we’ll have added some new objects and tweaked our labels – and we look forward to hearing what you make of the changes.

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about Tutankhamun’s burial, and more generally what wrapping, mummification, and burial meant to the Egyptians, here are two suggestions for further reading. The first is the Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation website, run by the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. The Griffith houses the Tutankhamun excavation archive, and has placed most of this online. You can read transcripts of Howard Carter’s notes, and see the excavation photographs taken by Harry Burton. To see how the mask related to Tutankhamun’s mummy, follow this link and browse the ‘object card’ section for object number 256 (the unwrapped mummy) and its hundred-odd sub-divisions.

The second is Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, by Christina Riggs (full disclosure: Dr Riggs taught me at university). Christina looks at what it meant for the Egyptians to wrap things up – to make things and then carefully hide them away under layers of cloth – and what it has meant for us, in the last two hundred years, to unwrap and display them.