Borneo Odyssey – a “Live from the Archives” performance

Before a house in Borneo. Penn Museum image 16273

Before a house in Borneo. Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed. Penn Museum image 16273

Early in September, during the HAIKU conference on Humanities and Science, the Penn Museum hosted a performance by Thai born visual artist Skowmon Hastanan, based on a collection of records from an early expedition to Borneo. Skowmon had been invited a year earlier to explore the archives to see if something sparked her creativity in an experiment in artistic use of primary source materials. She focused on the tinted glass lantern slides from what became known as the Furness, Harrison, and Hiller expedition to Borneo, 1896-1898. The expedition was a particularly colorful one, in which the three young men, all with connections to the University of Pennsylvania, traversed the globe in 1896, ending up in Sumatra and Borneo for a number of months.

William Henry Furness. Penn Museum image 139022

William Henry Furness.
Penn Museum image 139022

Aside from being extensively tattooed, the three also kept journals. But most interestingly to Skowmon, an obituary of Furness detailed his attempts to teach an orangutan to speak English.

Orangutan on the porch. Photograph by Alfred C. Harrison, Jr.; hand-colored by Katharine Gordon Breed. Penn Museum image 216299

Orangutan on the porch. Penn Museum image 216299

Catching this as a point of interest, Skowmon, together with her creative team, including Joel Holub, came up with a performance piece in which the orangutan speaks as if reading from a “learned report” on the Borneo trip, originally presented by Hiller at the American Philosophical Society. Furness’ ghost, in period costume and a pith helmet, shares the stage as a counterpoint, going through the artifacts collected in Borneo (a number of which can be found in the online collections of the Museum), recreated for the stage in facsimile by the artists for the performance. At the end of the slide show, in the pitch dark Harrison auditorium, the artists passed the facsimile artifacts—including decorated skulls— out to the audience, with small personal lanterns for illumination. Together with the lush original score and live musical accompaniment, the performance set a mood that was well received by the audience, numbering over 200.

Though not purposely didactic, from one angle the meaning of the piece is a critique of the ethos of collecting, especially in the 19th century, as well as on scientific (or Western) views of other cultures and animals.

Performers included: Jeff Gottesfeld as Furness, Joel Holub as the orangutan, Eric Schnittke as the archivist/lantern slide projectionist, Skowmon Hastanan (artist in residence) as the assistant. Composer and pianist: Theodore Kersten, Stephen Gauci: Flute and clarinet. Stage assistants: Carmen Guzman y Lombert, Nina Simoneaux and Minou Pourshariati. Video and sound engineer: Katia Berg. Thanks are offered to the Events department, Tena Thomason and Rachelle Kaspin for their indispensable work, and to Alessandro Pezzati for his archival knowledge and support of the project, and to the Haiku conference and Dr. Beckman for her extensive support as well.
See also the previous post on the expedition slides of William Henry Furness III, Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., and Hiram M. Hiller, by Senior Archivist Alessandro Pezzati

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Ur Project: September 2014

Gold Fit for a Queen (or) How to Wear a Headdress
Spotlight on Puabi’s headdress (museum numbers B17711, etc.)
Display of jewelry on model heads

Royal Cemetery grave PG800 was excavated in December of 1927 (announced in a telegram of Jan 4, 1928). It contained the burial of a woman identified by a cylinder seal at her shoulder as “Puabi” (originally read Shub-Ad) followed by the word NIN, meaning “The Lady.” The presence of the title with no reference to a husband “The King” might well mean that she ruled as Queen in her own right.

Whether or not she ruled as regent, co-regent, or not at all, she was certainly adorned like a queen. The summary description of her headdress alone takes up a page or more in Woolley’s publication Ur Excavations 2: The Royal Cemetery. Gold ribbons criss-crossed about her head, four wreaths of gold leaves sat atop (B17711), and gold rings hung down over her forehead. Large gold earrings (B17712), carnelian, lapis and gold beads as well as a large gold comb with gold flowers (B16693) completed the ensemble. The total weight of this gold and semiprecious stone crowning jewelry was over three kilograms.

Model head created by Katharine Woolley for display of Puabi's headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 191121

Model head created by Katharine Woolley for display of Puabi’s headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 191121.

Woolley believed that it all sat atop an exaggerated hairdo, likely a padded wig. He removed the gold ribbons from the ground intact, retaining as closely as he could the measurements of the hair on which they would have sat. It amounted to a hefty 38cm—more than twice the typical diameter of a skull from ear to ear. His wife made a model head and wig onto which the jewels were placed and originally displayed in the 1928 exhibition at the British Museum, before the artifacts were sent to Penn. Since Puabi’s skull was badly preserved, Katharine based her reconstruction on a plaster cast of a skull from the nearby site of Tell el’Ubaid.

The reconstruction of the face, head, and hairstyle led to some controversy, however.

Penn’s Babylonian Section Curator, Father Leon Legrain, felt the model didn’t look anything like Sumerian sculpture, which he believed was a more accurate depiction of personal appearance in the minds of the Sumerians themselves. For example, artwork almost always showed eyebrows meeting in the middle over the nose, whereas Mrs. Woolley’s reconstruction showed separated eyebrows.

Model head created by Leon Legrain for display of Puabi's headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 8312.

Model head created by Leon Legrain for display of Puabi’s headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 8312.

In 1929, Legrain set about making his own model head, on which the jewelry would be displayed at Penn for a few years. He based his model on a particular sculpture, known as “la femme a l’echarpe,” housed in the Louvre. The Penn museum has a plaster cast of this artifact, museum number B15573, obtained in 1924. The original comes from the site of Tello (Girsu) in the time of Gudea of Lagash, some 500 years after Puabi, which was one of Woolley’s many objections to Legrain’s reconstruction. But Legrain felt it was the best model of feminine features in the ancient Near East, saying in a Museum Journal article for winter of 1929: “She has the high cheek bones, large nose, and large eyes under powerful eyebrows of a true oriental beauty.”

Plaster cast of Musee du Louvre object known as 'la femme a l'echarpe'. The cast is accessioned at the Penn Museum as object B15573.

Plaster cast of an artifact from Tello. The cast is accessioned at the Penn Museum as object B15573 and formed the basis of Legrain’s model head reconstruction.

The hairdo on the Tello sculpture scales up to much less than Woolley’s measures for Puabi’s coiffure, but Legrain suggested this was because the ribbons ran from front to back rather than side to side and that they held a fold of hair raised at the back. Even in this position, his model didn’t have enough room for all four wreaths and he called into question whether Puabi could have worn them all at the same time. Woolley responded by saying that the question was moot. Whether she could have worn them or not, she was unquestionably buried with them on her head.

There are a number of interesting letters showing the disagreement between various parties in the question, with the Penn Museum director, Horace Jayne, trying to remain impartial. That he was not fond of model heads and their controversy is shown by his final word, in a post-script of a letter dated December 23, 1932: “P.S. Legrain’s head of Queen Shubad is abandoned. We have the coronets and comb separately shown. It is a considerable improvement.”


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Ringo’s Newest Production

The work in the Penn Museum Archives never ends. The backlog resists attempts at taming it. The archives is happy to have a number of interns and volunteers who are willing to help organize, catalog, and preserve the documents, drawings, and photographs in the collections. Alyssa Velazquez is one such intern, who is presently reorganizing the storage of the old glass plate negatives. The Museum has at least 30,000 glass plates, in sizes ranging from 3×4 inches to 11×14 inches. Many of these were originally transported into the field, were shot and developed there, and were then brought back to the Museum. Others were taken in the Museum’s photo studio, which was established by at least 1902. The Adventures of Ringo and Sobek is a social science satire centered around the Museum’s old records, surroundings, and areas of study.

In The Continuing Adventures of Ringo and Sobek:


Some of the vermin have begun to talk.
Mosquitoes are thinning out;
Ants are abandoning their hilled houses;
Flies, always buzzing about their personal business, are dwindling;
And bees- industrious laborers- no longer swarm into regimented formations.
There won’t be any left of us if we continue at this rate.
A counter measure must be crafted-
A cease and desist blockbuster.

We shall start with,
A catchy digitization.
Interactive traps that suspend our classroom in cyber space-
Above textbooks or critical thinking;
Our space: the architecture of a wireless next generation.
What this may lack in legitimacy, we will most assuredly make up for in scale.
Reconstruction is unavoidable.

The roof necessitates dissembling for the laser light show,
Artifacts will undoubtedly be laid off,
Replaced by more interactive prop pieces.
And the Middle East’s exhibition hall wall requires bulldozing, so as to fit the simulator.
It’s true to life depictions have a museum enhancement guarantee.

We need to bigger the bill, so as to heighten the return.
The investment to our survival: sensationalism;
Just the right IOU for lingering interest problems.
Relevancy and authenticity shall no longer hang in the balance of what: “we think.”
Under this new age-
Public interest Totalitarianism-
Accessible elements must be provided for so as to ensure continued foot traffic.

Our first production?
Return of The Raiders.
After a brief word from our sponsors within the simulator,
Visitors shall emerge into a dystopian exhibit hall that is adorned with a Leondaro Da Vinci and Van Gough consumed in a lingering inferno.
À la mode old men in an otherwise destroyed classicism.
Confronted with droids hovering in a cross-galactic battle with pint-sized wizards,
Guests are meant to feel that they’re at the precipice of significance.
At which point, through the use of telescreens, we steer them to their only mode of transportation:
A time-beaten yellow submarine;
Piloted by our own Dr. Jones.
After an annotated underwater archaeological pillage, our company still infused with the glitter of piracy,
By way of the subterranean aquarium,
Complete their adventure in the gift shop.

What say you Sobek?
What are your opinions on my own force of creation?
Yes-you are very right my insightful friend-
I must included a dinosaur fossil,
For the sake of authenticity.


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Self-guided walking tours for visitors to Gordion, Turkey

Jane, me, and Beth checking the view from Tumulus P. Photo by Carolyn Aslan.

Jane, me, and Beth checking the view from Tumulus P. Photo by Carolyn Aslan

In earlier posts (August 3, 2012 and August 8, 2014), I mentioned the Gordion “ecopark” project’s goal of preserving regional biodiversity, the historical landscape, and the archaeological site itself. One part of the project concerns visitor education.

I first visited Gordion as a tourist in 1983 and began archaeobotanical fieldwork there in 1988. I have returned most years since then, and never tire of the landscape—cultural, historical, and botanical. In an attempt to share some of my appreciation for the place, I have put together a few self-guided tours that may encourage visitors to go beyond the local Museum and the excavated remains.

Before I went to Gordion this summer, I already had a general idea of what the tours should include:

The question was, how to give easy-to-follow directions and just enough information to be interesting, but not so much that people would spend more time reading than actually looking around them. From the beginning, my plan was to field test the routes and information. My first drafts were overthought and overcomplicated; Gordion colleagues were quite happy to set me straight on that score (I hope I am not forgetting anyone: Dave Bescoby, Beth Dusinberre, Emily Miller, Jane Gordon, Carolyn Aslan, Canan Çakırlar), as seen in the photograph above.

Gordion is particularly rich in ancient monuments: over 100 burial mounds dot the landscape. The land between the mounds is equally important. Herding and farming have been practiced for millennia, but suburban and agricultural development threaten the area. If the sole measure of value is economic, much of what I love about Gordion will be lost, but in the interim, I hope that the economic value of tourism can exceed that of destructive alternative land uses, like excessive irrigation agriculture. Tourism alone will not save the place. The local population, too, has to value the natural and cultural heritage of the region. To that end, Turkish versions of these tours are under development .

The tours are designed to be used at the site itself; if you are planning a trip to Turkey, do visit Gordion.

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The True North Strong and Free: Summer Research with Canadian Tree Planters

I arrived to northern Ontario not knowing a single person I would meet. This wouldn’t be the first time in my dissertation study of tree planters that I was to introduce myself to a room full of strangers, telling them that I’m an anthropologist and that I come in peace.  And, in fact, this time was pretty easy.  The first time was in a cheap hotel in Monterrey, Mexico, surrounded by 150 Mexican guest workers waiting for a H2B visa en route to the United States. That was difficult given the fact my Spanish was still weak and the rumor had already started I was a government agent.  The second time was slightly easier, introducing myself at 11 PM in a hay barn to a group of American planters who were enjoying the little leisure time they had.  It was still hard – it’s never easy telling someone you are there to observe them – but at least there was no language barrier.

So this June I found myself in Heart, Ontario, on a school bus with 45 Canadian planters, most of whom were college kids on summer break.  I quieted down the school bus and explained that I was a PhD student from the US who studies tree planting and that I would spend a week with them to learn more about how and why they do the job. Saying I was a student is key. It puts people at ease more than almost any other line.  Most people warmed up to me quickly, and some even approached me, asking if I could interview them on camera. That said, I did encounter one problem, itself a familiar one that happened when spending time with American planters too: people who assumed I was an undercover cop or a narcotics officer.  I am loathe to claim a connection with Sadaam Hussein but we can agree on one thing: it is really hard to prove something that doesn’t exist.

The work of research in Canada went well. I left with a better understanding of tree planting and new Canadian friends.  In the United States, Latin American workers, both imported guest workers and undocumented immigrants who permanently reside in America, have mostly replaced the native workforce that planted trees in the 70s and 80s.  These workers plant out of necessity. It is a difficult job. Each person plants thousands of saplings a day, and these immigrant workers typically sleep in motel rooms a long drive from the worksite.  There are some Americans who do this work, mostly white Americans in their 20s and 30s, who enjoy the lifestyle and freedom that migrant work affords them.  But in Canada, the native workforce doesn’t plan on making a lifestyle out of it.  Most people choose the work cause it’s a way to make money during the summer when they’re not in school, as well as a rite of passage where they work hard, party hard, and leave knowing they can do this difficult labor.

I understand the appeal for the Canadian workers. The crew I was with would come to spend almost 7 weeks in the wilderness, away from cell reception and surrounded by flies and mosquitoes.  It reminded me of summer camp, except replace boating and wood shop with arduous agricultural work.  This meant it also had the same sense of camaraderie and liminality.  I left happy (and grateful!) to have had this research experience, as well as tempted myself to return one year as a worker and not a researcher.

One last note of interest: I was featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s radio and tv stations, as part of a piece done by a French-speaking journalist. You can see me at 33 seconds into this piece:

Boarding the bus after a day of work

Boarding the bus after a day of work

On the bus returning to the campsite.

On the bus returning to the campsite.

Planting a tree.

Planting a tree.


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An Excavation, An Education: My Summer at the Roman Peasant Project

This summer I was lucky enough to spend a month in the small town of Cinigiano, Tuscany excavating for the Roman Peasant Project. The project, led by its directors Kim Bowes, Cam Grey, Emanuele Vaccaro, and Mari Ghisleni, was in its sixth and final season. The goal of the project was to understand the lives and economies of the Roman peasant. The larger purpose was to comprehend the meaning of what it was to be poor in antiquity. This season we excavated a site called Tombarelle, which we believed to be a Roman village.

The pace of the project was fast and the work was hard, but it was definitely a rewarding experience. Over the course of the four weeks I worked in four different trenches. Each day brought with it a myriad of different tasks. We pickaxed, shoveled, and troweled non-stop, uncovering different contexts. I learned how to identify changes in soil and fill out context sheets. We found a large quantity of pottery sherds and animal bones. After the hours spent in the field we went back to our lab to wash and quantify our finds from the day, and to float our soil samples. As grueling and hot as some days were, I learned something new each day.

After a few days in the field I began to work closely with a recent Penn graduate, Julia Hurley, on the total station. A total station is an instrument used in surveying to measure distance and depth of points. For archaeological purposes this means that the location and size of different contexts and finds within trenches can be recorded and stored. Once collected they can be compiled in GIS software to create 3D images of our trenches. I was taught how to set up and operate the total station. By week two, while I was still working in the trenches, I was operating the total station under the supervision of Julia whenever the archaeologists needed to record points.

The findings of this season were intriguing to say the least. The scatters had led us to believe that we should have found some signs of a house or living quarters. However, we found no signs of living quarters. Often it is assumed that where a scatter exists, one would expect to find a village. Our findings dispute this assumption. Instead we found signs of productivity and disposal. One of our trenches appeared to be a giant dump, containing waste such as animal bones. Another, which contained two poorly formed walls and a floor, seemed to be a workspace of some kind. The largest quantity of pottery was found here, some in very good condition. Finally we had two more trenches that provided us with very little information regarding Roman peasant life for two very distinct reasons. One of these trenches might have been a kiln, but yielded very little material culture. The final trench of the excavation we believed to be a Roman cistern at first, but upon further examination was determined to be the foundation of a medieval tower.

The Roman Peasant Project exposed me to many new experiences and taught me many new skills. As a student of Classical Languages I was excited and intrigued by the goals of this project. The classroom creates a very limited and skewed view of Roman life. It is the material culture of the elite that commonly shapes our understanding of the classical world. The literary works that I have translated in class revolve around matters of love, family, war, politics, and empire. My education has not presented the peasant’s point of view on any of these topics. In fact their desires, concerns, and ways of life are peripheral to my own studies. The Roman Peasant Project widened my perspective.


Floatation in the rain

Floatation in the rain


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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Survey Far Beyond the Hilly Flanks

Survey in the newly opened archaeological frontier of Iraqi Kurdistan comes with many challenges. Other reports from University of Pennsylvania graduate students on the project about various aspects of our work have been put up on the Beyond the Museum Walls blog but my own work deals specifically with the survey in our area. This season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Project (RAP) included excavations at Banahilk, Gird-i Dasht, Sidekan Bank and Gund-i Topzawa as well as survey in the area of Sidekan. These excavations uncovered material spanning from the Neolithic to the Ottoman periods and make up a large area. Simultaneously, we conducted a survey of the area of the Soran district of Iraqi Kurdistan, but with particular attention on the Sidekan district. In addition to participating in the excavations at Gird-i Dasht and Gund-i Topzawa, my role on the project is to conduct the survey, which has its own challenges and rewards.

Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom

Map of RAP 2013 survey area, with sites noted on the bottom

Survey, in general, consists of traveling the landscape looking for evidence of human occupation and interaction. A great number of posts on this blog have also dealt with this aspect of archaeology. One of the most commonly used methods for survey is walking straight transects along fields and other flat areas to locate and document the presence of pottery on the surface. The amount and location of the pottery sherds is noted and an overall picture of the density of pottery can be seen. This information can then be used to show areas where humans in the past spent time and presumably participated in activities. I performed field transects in areas around known sites and encountered a challenge to survey in the area— dense vegetation covering much of the surface. While it yielded some results, the low visibility of the surface led to imperfect results.

View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.

View across the Topzawa Valley. Most of the area has thick vegetation except for the small plowed field.

Prospection, on the other hand, is a method that usually takes place over large areas and attempts to find sites and features. One can travel by foot, car or anything in between noting areas that look modified by humans or that have artifacts on the surface. GPS points are taken at points of interest and sites and their corresponding characteristics are noted. This became the most productive ways in which to locate sites and gather valuable data. Two major factors make this possible. One is the scarcity of archaeological survey taken in the area. Only one foreign survey by Rainer Boehmer, in 1973, occurred in this area, and it was merely a few days. The second is a massive road cut running parallel to the Topzawa River which cut a number of sites and burials. It was this construction and destruction that first alerted us to the presence of the site of Gund-i Topzawa. Walking this road cut is a special type of archaeological survey; massive walls, complete stratigraphy, burnt layers, complete pottery vessels and even complete rooms with ceilings are visible in the cut. It was my job to record the location of these sites along the cut which will help lead to finding similar sites buried below the surface.

Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background

Survey along the road-cut (left) with the highest peaks of the Zagros in the background

This season the survey took place almost exclusively in the area around Sidekan, a mountainous valley that extends to the Iran-Iraq border. While the areas under governance of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have been experiencing rapid growth and development, Sidekan remains a rural village of only a few thousand people.

The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan

The main commercial area of the village of Sidekan

Soran’s population, in contrast, swelled over the last few years to nearly 200,000.

View of the city of Soran at dusk

View of the city of Soran at dusk

Most of the population in the Sidekan area lives along the rivers of Topzawa and Senne that wind their way down from the peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the border. This border was not only an important division in antiquity but throughout recent history. Remnants of the massive destruction during the Iran-Iraq war are minefields that were placed along this frontier, a number of which still remain. With regards to archaeological survey this creates difficulties as these areas obviously must be avoided. They are, of course, also a danger to the many people who live in this area.

Mountains are the defining feature of the terrain in the survey. Sidekan rests in a valley system that forms the last set of peaks before the chaine magistrale, the highest peaks of the Zagros Mountains that form the modern border between Iran and Iraq. Our site of Gund-i Topzawa was at about 4,000 feet above sea level and during a day of survey, our car reached an altitude of 10,000 feet.

View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!

View down into the Topzawa Valley. Hiked to current point surveying hill for archaeological remains. Steep way down!

These high elevations manifest themselves in steep slopes and limited flat areas which make walking many of the areas difficult, many times impossible. Sometimes a moderately difficult hike up the hill can become frightening descent down the mountain. Archaeologically, it also changes the types of occupation compared to the vast flat plains of Mesopotamia. Massive mounds which characterize much of Near Eastern archaeology are near absent from the landscape. Rather, settlement seems to take place in terraces along the rivers into the hills, as the excavation at Gund-i Topzawa has begun to reveal.

This season’s survey revealed a number of sites along this cut with pottery dating to the Iron Age (approximately 1000 BC -300BC), large stone walls and thick layers of burning. These seem to be part of a larger settlement pattern of villages that interacted with each other and were struck by a massive destruction event. The nature of this destruction and the identity of the attackers still must be solved, but it gives a fascinating beginning for the survey to begin.

Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.

Penn graduates students: (left to right) Myself, Darren Ashby and Katherine Burge. Sitting in a room at Gund-i Topzawa, likely typical of the type of sites surveyed.

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LiDAR Scans and Sacred Lakes: A Report from the 2014 Summer Season at Abydos- Part 2

The Malih in the late 19th Century. Photo from Auguste Mariette, L’Egypt de Mariette: Voyage en Egypte par Auguste Mariette Pacha (Editions Errance: 1999), planche 33

The Malih in the late 19th Century. Photo from Auguste Mariette, L’Egypt de Mariette: Voyage en Egypte par Auguste Mariette Pacha (Editions Errance: 1999), planche 33

In my previous post, I talked about the technological methods utilized in Abydos this season. Another major part of my season at Abydos was to do a preliminary investigation of the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple. The remnants of this sacred lake, known now as the Malih or the Salty, survived into the 20th Century until it was filled in and covered by houses. Even though a few scholars from the 19th  and 20th Centuries recognized the Malih as the remnants of a sacred lake, it appears that modern scholars have forgotten this sacred lake and its association with the Osiris temple and the annual Osiris procession. The goal of this research on the sacred lake is to bring it back into modern scholarship and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos.

The identification of the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple has to do with its location at the eastern edge of the Osiris temple within the ancient settlement of the Kom es-Sultan. Textual evidence from two Middle Kingdom officials supports the idea of the close proximity between temples and lakes at Abydos as they indicate the building of temples involved the construction of a lake nearby. According to an official named Meri, the building of a temple to Senwosret I included the construction of a lake that connected it to the Nile River. Another official named Mentuhotep built a temple to a god at Abydos, presumably Osiris, and constructed a lake nearby. These sources help to support the idea that building temples at Abydos involved the construction of a lake in close proximity. If this is the case, then the Malih most likely represents the remnants of a sacred lake constructed for the Osiris temple.

The area of the Kom es-Sultan (A) with the Osiris temple (B) and Malih (C) at Abydos. Photo from Google Earth

The area of the Kom es-Sultan (A) with the Osiris temple (B) and Malih (C) at Abydos. Photo from Google Earth

The close proximity between the Osiris temple and the Malih indicates that the temple and sacred lake had a close relationship. As with similar sacred lakes at sites like Karnak, Dendera and Tanis, the sacred lake at Abydos served as a place for rituals conducted by the priests at the Osiris temple. The sacred lake of the Osiris temple had a specific purpose during the annual Osiris procession, which was a religious occasion when the image of Osiris was taken from the temple in the Kom es-Sultan and led south through the naturally occurring wadi to Osiris’ symbolic tomb at Umm el-Qaab. This procession included many stops and rituals along its route, but one of the first rituals and stops involved some sort of water element in which the image of Osiris crossed a lake at night in his boat called the Neschmet bark. Even though what happened on the lake is not known, accounts by a 12th Dynasty official named Ikhernofret and the 13th Dynasty King Neferhotep, both relate accounts of each acting as Horus and repelling Osiris’ enemies from the Neschmet bark. The close proximity of the Malih to the Osiris temple and the need for a lake during the Osiris procession, gives weight to the idea that the Malih is the sacred lake associated to the Osiris temple and is the lake Osiris’s golden Neschmet bark glided over.

Landscape of Abydos with the Osiris processional route indicated from the Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Gaab. Photo from Josef Wegner, “Abydos and the Penn Museum,” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (2014): 5

Landscape of Abydos with the Osiris processional route indicated from the Kom es-Sultan to Umm el-Gaab. Photo from Josef Wegner, “Abydos and the Penn Museum,” Expedition Magazine 56.1 (2014): 5

The use of the sacred lake for the Osiris temple and Osiris procession indicates that it was a prominent feature of the Abydos landscape until the 19th to 20th Centuries when its silted-up remnants consisted of two ponds that covered a roughly 200 by 400 meter area and it became known as the Malih or Salty. Some 19th Century scholars identified the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple and others included its outline on their maps of Abydos, but the last account of the Malih as a sacred lake came from Dorothy Eady, better known as Omm Sety, in the early 1970’s. She commented on the Malih as a sacred lake, its use in the Osiris procession and stories from locals who say they saw a golden boat floating on the Malih. She also gives the only account of the Malih’s fate as the standing water in the ponds caused a malaria epidemic, which led local officials to fill it in during the early 1950’s. It is as if the Malih’s dwindling prominence and eventual disappearance under houses caused scholars to forget about its identification as a sacred lake and relationship to the landscape of Abydos.

Corona Satellite image of the Malih in 1968 (left) and the modern housing covering, but showing the rough outline of the Malih from a 2014 Google Earth image (right)

Corona Satellite image of the Malih in 1968 (left) and the modern residential covering, which shows the rough outline of the Malih from a 2014 Google Earth image (right)

In order to re-introduce the Malih to modern scholarship, my advisor Dr. Joe Wegner and I undertook a project to investigate the Malih during the 2014 summer season at Abydos. The first steps of this project involved researching the Malih while at Penn and then visiting the area while at Abydos. Upon arriving at Abydos, we walked to the Kom es-Sultan, where I began to take pictures of the Malih to document its current appearance. From the Malih’s western side, which borders the Kom es-Sultan, one can see the houses built into the depression of the lake that still gives the general outline of the Malih. Any visible boundary of the lake at the northern or eastern edges is not easy to see since houses completely cover it and there are no noticeable depressions marking an edge like on the western and southern sides. The chance to investigate the northern and eastern boundaries of the Malih was possible through attending a local wedding within Beni Mansour. Attending the wedding was a fun experience, but it also gave me the chance to realize that unless you had knowledge of the area as the Malih, you would not be able to tell that it was once two ponds, let alone an ancient sacred lake. I will admit that it was not until I started this project that I finally looked at the area of Malih as a body of water rather than just a part of a modern town. Investigating the Malih not only occurred from the ground, but also through satellite images gathered by Joe. By combining what we learned from ground exploration and these images, we gained a better understanding of the Malih’s overall size along with its relation to the Osiris temple and the sacred processional way.

The southwestern edge of the Malih from the Kom es-Sultan

The southwestern edge of the Malih from the Kom es-Sultan

The western edge of the Malih from the remnants of the Osiris temple

The western edge of the Malih from the remnants of the Osiris temple

The culmination of this summer’s research on the Malih/sacred lake occurred in Prague when Joe and I presented our current findings at the Profane Landscapes, Sacred Places Conference held by the Czech Institute for Egyptology on June 26th and June 27th. The conference’s topic of sacred landscape and places in ancient Egypt offered a great opportunity for us to present our current research as well as receive feedback. We were not the only lake people at the conference, other presenters talked about lakes at Giza and Abusir, which provided comparable research and some new ideas concerning the investigation of lakes in the ancient Egyptian landscape. Joe and I co-presented on the Malih/sacred lake the second day of the conference to a well-receiving group of Egyptologists who provided valuable comments and ideas. Overall, the conference was an important experience and concluded with some well-deserved Czech Pilsner.

Now that Joe and I are back from Abydos and Prague, we are discussing the next steps of the sacred lake project. Listening to other conference presenters gave us the chance to figure out how to answer some questions we already had and develop new questions, with two questions that stand out in particular. What was the original size of the sacred lake? Was the water source that filled the sacred lake from the Nile River or a desert source? Answering the first question will involve sediment core drillings across Beni Mansour, which will allow us to look at the sediment pattern of different areas, like the desert and floodplain, as well as distinguish the boundaries of a sediment pattern typical for a lake that could indicate the sacred lake’s original size. Answering the second question will involve learning more about the hydrology of the floodplain and desert, along with looking at studies done on the Osireion and its water source. Another part of this project is to interview locals and record any stories related to the Malih before it was covered. We hoped to find stories like those recorded by Omm Sety, such as the nightly visit of a golden boat on the Malih. These stories might provide some useful details about the Malih as well as preserve some interesting and colorful stories.

Houmdi (left) and I (right) at his daughter’s wedding, sitting in the courtyard of his home built within the area of the Malih. Photo from Jamie Kelly

Houmdi (left) and I (right) at his daughter’s wedding, sitting in the courtyard of his home built within the area of the Malih. Photo from Jamie Kelly

In the upcoming seasons, it will be exciting to see more information about the sacred lake come to light as we continue to conduct research and answer more questions. I hope this research will re-introduce the Malih as the sacred lake of the Osiris temple and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos. In the future, the knowledge gained from this project can contribute to other questions about the changing boundary of the floodplain and desert at Abydos as well as discover additional lakes that once dotted the Abydos landscape.

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Ur Digitization Project: August 2014

Deep Pits and Early Burials
Spotlight on 31-17-404: Ubaid Period Skeleton from Ur
More about the rediscovered skeleton from grave PFG/Z

On August 5, 2014, the Penn Museum released a press announcement about a 6,500-year-old skeleton in its collection that had been reconnected to a key piece of its history by the Ur Digitization Project. The announcement captured imaginations worldwide and we have been inundated with questions about it. So, what better topic for this month’s Ur blog than this, the earliest skeleton preserved from the site of Ur?

31-17-404 in its original crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.

31-17-404 in its original shipping crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Even though Woolley uncovered thousands of bodies, he only saved about 30 skeletons or parts of skeletons from the Royal Cemetery, ones that were in good enough condition for analysis of the day. Most of these went to Sir Arthur Keith at the Royal College of Surgeons and are now in the Natural History Museum in London.

The majority of bodies at Ur were not in good condition. Woolley preserved a few of these by pouring wax over the fragile bones and the dirt surrounding them. He did this for several skulls from the Royal Cemetery, dating approximately 2500BCE. Penn received two of these skulls, both currently on display. One is the skull of a soldier or guard, complete with helmet. The other is the skull of a female attendant, complete with golden headdress. Woolley meant these for display rather than for analysis, as techniques of his day couldn’t work well with largely flattened ancient bone.

After completing excavations in the Royal Cemetery, Woolley became interested in the earliest periods of the site. Thus, he dug a very deep trench (designated Pit F) in an already low spot inside the Temenos wall (the area surrounding the sacred space). This was a relatively central point and one where he would not be burdened by huge amounts of later remains since it was already worn down. He reported the level of the top of the pit “not more than 18 meters above sea level,” though his section drawing shows it at 17 meters above.

He dug through eight occupation levels at the top of Pit F and then through a large-scale pottery-making area and finally through deposits that were cut through with burials. One of the lowest of these deposits was the ‘flood layer,’ about three meters of water-lain silt. In Ur Excavations volume 4 Woolley reports: “we found some 49 graves dug down to and into the Flood deposit,” though the appendix to the volume only describes 48 (the 49th is almost certainly one mentioned as a possible second burial immediately beneath Grave U). He labeled each with PFG (Pit F Grave) followed by a letter from A to VV, skipping H, I, and II (skipping H was probably a simple error, as he did not skip HH, but it was Woolley’s general practice to leave out the letter I in designators as it would too often be mistaken for the numeral 1).

The burials were not in one mass, but spread across the lower portion of Pit F, the result of an ancient cemetery. Furthermore, they divided into two major groups. In the uppermost group, bodies were ‘flexed,’ that is, they lay on their sides with their knees drawn up. In the lower group, the bodies lay on their backs, stretched out to their full length. Woolley believed that both groups were Ubaid period, but later analysis indicates that the upper group is probably early Uruk period.

Woolley found Ubaid house remains beneath the flood layer and he assigned this period Ubaid 1. The burials in the flood layer he assigned Ubaid 2, but he mentioned the similarity in pottery of both groups. The pottery found with the graves is the chief way we date the skeletons and the particular skeleton 31-17-404, from PFG/Z, had 10 clay vessels buried at its feet. These are of distinctive Ubaid types, but types we now know to be late Ubaid, somewhere around the division between Ubaid 3 and 4, approximately 4500BCE.

Woolley didn’t map the location of his deep pits terribly well, but he did divide Pit F into 5×5 meter grid squares. He didn’t show the exact location of every burial, but he did report them to their five meter squares and to their elevations above sea level. With the help of aerial photos, we can place Pit F in its correct location on the site and show just where each the grave was placed in all three dimensions with relatively good accuracy.

Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley's map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).

Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley’s map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).

Pit F Grave Z was found in square D5 at 3.15 meters above sea level (~14 meters below the surface of the mound). It was in the lower of the two groups, but like all of the burials, it was dug down from above the flood layer and into it. This shows that the man in the grave lived after the flood, though we don’t know exactly how long after. He was not covered over by the flood as some might think when looking at the drawing of the location of his body inside the silt.

The bones of the Ubaid burials were in particularly bad condition and the one in PFG/Z (later designated 31-17-404) was the only one that Woolley spoke of as in any shape to be preserved. He covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. The body had been excavated either in December of 1929 or January of 1930 and had spent a long time thereafter getting to London. It then became part of the division that was conducted in March of 1931.

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted. It’s a great example of why the Ur Digitization Project is doing what it’s doing: reexamining all the records from Ur.

Note: The Ubaid skeleton will be on display in the Penn Museum Artifact Lab in September and October where conservators can be observed working on it. Come see this amazing discovery!

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Archaeology at the border: Survey and excavation in Xinjiang (continued)

As we approach the end of the field season, with 2 weeks remaining, the cold weather  also begins to settle in. Since I last wrote, the grass has yellowed, leaving flocks of sheep and cow to scavenge from what is left from a summer much drier than prior years. The rainmakers had to be called in to induce precipitation by dispersing silver iodide into the clouds.

Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.

Up goes the rocket and down comes the rain.

We are currently excavating the twenty graves we exposed at the site of Adonqolu this season. The site lies on the gentle south-facing slopes between two mountain ranges (please refer to my previous post for description). The graves are all oriented east-west with their capstones arranged generally in a north-south direction. They are lined with, most commonly, erect stone slabs on all four sides of the grave, and they sit inside quadrangular structures outlined by either erect stone slabs or flat-lying stones. Graves in the same enclosure may be dated to different time periods, and this chronological gap can be discerned by observing the stratigraphy as well as structural configurations. To understand their spatial arrangement and chronological relationship, we are also creating 3D reconstruction models using a photogrammetry software. All archaeological findings are shot in with a total station and the distribution of finds will be correlated with the structures in three dimensional space.

DSCF2912Besides gazing at human crania with Europoid features, the other highlight of my fieldwork has been the bronze objects I excavated in one of the graves, which include bronze beads, bronze bracelets/anklets, small bronze ornaments that might have been affixed to clothing, and what look like bronze mirrors (see picture at left). What is also interesting is that the bronze objects are mixed in a concentrated deposit of burnt human bones. Unlike this grave, most other graves yielded flat bottomed ceramic pots with incised patterns (picture below) that can be attributed to the Andronovo Culture of Central Asia, bronze objects are limited to one or two pieces if not absent. Where the bones of the deceased have been preserved, they are usually placed in a fetal position with the head facing north in the western end of the grave. Secondary burials have also been found.


Since our day is long, starting normally at 9am when the moon still hangs high in the sky, and ending at 8pm when the evening sun is still above the horizon, we take a siesta in our Mongol yurts with a pot of traditional milk tea. In the month of August, the weather has varied from tank top and shorts to thermal wear with fleece and wind jacket. The strong winds in the mountains are unrelenting at times, leaving us covered  completely in dirt at the excavation site. Teamwork is one of the most paramount aspects of archaeological fieldwork, and I am privileged to have worked with a team that has held its own through rain and shine.

Lifting the capstones with a pulley.

Lifting the capstones with a pulley.

While I find the hospitality of the herds equalling endearing as their owners, my companions beg to differ – we often find cows and camels roaming near our site, finding their way into our latrines and once, through our kitchen. They are also the most unperturbed pedestrians, they would stroll into the middle of the road at the most inopportune moments. But to be fair, this vast area of grassland is their home and we are the trespassers. They are the livelihood of many Mongols and Kazakhs who practice pastoralism in the area today, and most of whom I met have enthusiastically showed me their lifeways. I learnt how they make milk products including yoghurt, butter, hard cheese, and what they call milk wine (you add a dollop of butter and drink it hot!), all products derived from animal husbandry. They also showed me how to felt by hand. With increased industrialization, these traditional skills are gradually losing their limelight; it is also difficult for the pastoralists to keep making these products once they move into the urban environment, these processes require communal effort, an outdoor setting, and tools that cannot be found in stores. As I made these observations, it became more apparent to me the importance of documenting these activities before the skill sets are completely forgone by future generations.

[My summer fieldwork is supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS and the Penn Museum.]

Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.

Making milk wine from fermented milk by distillation.

Making cheese

Making cheese 

Preparing the wool for felting.

Preparing the wool for felting.

Laying the felt

Laying the felt

The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.

The kids love kicking and rolling the felt roll.

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