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.

A Lost Persian Army Returns

Spirit of Osiris
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

The place is the famous Siwa Oasis in Egypt. The time is 525 B.C.  Ancient Egypt is but a former shadow of itself. Tutankhamun has been dead and buried for 800 years (and his tomb plundered twice already by now). Slowly but surely, Egypt’s power was fading as it was drawn into the orbit of mightier empires in the region.

During the 6th century B.C., Egypt was plagued by massive internal unrest. Egyptian armies were involved in expeditions heading south into Nubia, as well as into southern Palestine. Greek-speaking mercenaries were now gainfully employed in Egypt. Greek merchants even received permission to settle in their own city, Naucratis, in the Nile delta. Things were definitely different in Egypt and they were about to take a turn for the worse in 525 B.C.

Cambyses II, ruler of the Persian Empire, invaded Egypt in that year. Psammetichus III faced the Persian army at the great frontier fortress of Pelusium eastern gateway into Egypt. The Egyptian forces and their Greek mercenaries were no match. The king fled to Memphis, where he was captured and taken to Susa, the Persian capital. One can only imagine what his fate was.

Mui ne -  Sanddüne - Vietnam
Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

Greek historian Herodotus, father of history writing, lived a mere 75 years later and wrote about this momentous event. He relates how the Persian king sent off an army – of 50,000 soldiers no less – to destroy the oracle located in the Siwa Oasis. It is alleged that the oracle had predicted the king’s downfall, and Cambyses was having none of it. Yet the oracle proved to be right. The army never reached its destination and was swallowed up by the desert. Cambyses did eventually bite the dust as well in 522 B.C.

Then the sands of time and the desert covered up the story of the army that set off to destroy the oracle. Eventually, it was relegated to the realm of legend. Numerous expeditions were launched to find it, but without success.


Until relatively recent discoveries in the desert now seem to have located the unfortunate Persian army. Relatively recent indeed; it appears that for the last 13 years two Italian brothers, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, undertook five expeditions in search of Cambyses’ troops. They claim they have found good evidence of Persian-era and Persian-style military gear in the Egyptian desert. The media are buzzing with the news. Numerous online videos have popped up on the subject, showing the Italian and Egyptian teams working at a rock shelter in the desert and finding Persian arrow heads, a partial sword or dagger and bits and pieces of horse gear.

Is this for real? Are we dealing with something else altogether? Time will tell. For now, it appears very likely that the lost army has been found. As they say, stay tuned. I am sure a documentary will soon appear on TV. I wonder if a book is coming out soon as well….

Science Doesn’t Sleep (9.2.08)

Touchdown! The Tigers Win the Game!
He’s excited because he’s getting smarter.
Creative Commons License
photo credit: foundphotoslj

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Crew aboard the International Space Station had a bit of excitement over the long weekend (on top of the presumably high levels created by living in space) – as they had to fire the station’s thrusters in a “debris avoidance maneuver.” This is a fancy way of saying they were about to be hit with space trash.

Not really a “team player?” No worries – even watching sports improves brain function.

The Rodney Dangerfield of the solar system: Astronomer Heidi Hammel wants you to know why the Icy Giants deserve more respect.

Even geniuses make mistakes: Einstein made at least 23 of them.

He was only 18 when he died, but King Tut may already have been a father – of twins.

Rap + Physics = awesome. A rap video about the science behind CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has been viewed over 600,000 times. It’s no dramatic hamster – but for a video about science, that’s pretty solid.

Meltdown: The Houston Chronicle weighed in on climate change today – what are your thoughts?