A lovely morning from Cairo, Egypt. A wonderful weather and picturesque scenery.
A lovely morning from Cairo, Egypt. A wonderful weather and picturesque scenery.
Nearly 300 leather fragments from an ancient Egyptian chariot, believed to date back to the New Kingdom, have been recently uncovered from the depths of the Egyptian Museum by a team of renowned archaeologists. Studying the technology and resources utilized in the building of such chariots, the team aims to reconstruct an ancient Egyptian royal chariot in 2014, using the same technology as that used by the ancient Egyptians.
Although horse-drawn chariots are often illustrated in ancient Egyptian artwork, archaeological evidence that goes beyond wooden frames is scarce. Due to their organic nature, leather fragments seldom survive. “The pieces were in a much better shape than we originally anticipated, and we were able to achieve a sense of how the leather unfolds,” said Ikram. “The fine condition that the leather was in suggests that it may have been preserved in a tomb. Leather finds from urban contexts such as Amarna, although still relatively good compared to those from many sites elsewhere in the world, usually show signs of disintegration, are brittle and, overall, in far worse condition.”
In constructing an exact replica of the chariot, Ikram and the team aim to gain an understanding of the construction technology and the leather used in its fabrication, as well as to test hypotheses about the uses of the different pieces of leather, which may prove to be a challenging endeavor. “Some leather pieces are folded over in a crumpled state, and the reconstruction of certain portions while trying to maintain accuracy in reproducing the technologies used might be more difficult than we anticipate,” said Ikram.
Back in 2008, Ikram commenced work with Andre Veldmeijer, head of the Egyptology section at the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo, on the Ancient Egypt Leatherwork Project, when they came across a 1950s publication by Robert Jacobus Forbes titled Studies in Ancient Technology. The manuscript spoke of a black and white photograph of ancient trappings and horse harnesses, evidently intact and said to exist at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Intrigued by Forbes’s findings, Ikram and Veldmeijer sought the help of museum curators to locate a cache of leather trays pertaining to an Egyptian chariot, including parts of the bow-case.
Ikram and Veldmeijer sought to document, examine and conduct analytical studies of the technology and resources utilized. They categorized the leather into two main groups based on color and sturdiness: red and green fine leather, and beige and green robust leather. Some of the uncovered leather pieces were highly decorated with leather appliqué work, while others were plainer. The leather fragments have been numbered and described, and include nave hoops, neck straps, gauntlets and parts of the bow-case. The remnants evidently comprised all parts of the chariot. “Everything we saw about the chariot leather was new,” affirmed Ikram. “It presented a revelation on how the chariot was put together, the technologies and materials used. Our examinations also disclosed how drawstrings served as the means of securing leather components over the skeleton of the chariot.”
By closely examining the findings, Ikram hopes to be able to better situate them within the backdrop of Egyptian chariotry. The Egyptian Museum Chariot Project findings fit in with a larger multidisciplinary and holistic research venture on leatherwork in ancient Egypt, which also includes the study of other fragmentary chariot pieces, such as those originating from the tombs of Thutmose IV (Carter and Newberry, 1904), Amenhotep II (Daressy, 1902) and Amenhotep III (Littauer and Crouwel, 1985, 1968 and 1987), as well as the leather finds from the Amarna period (Veldmeijer, 2010). This larger project is directed by Veldmeijer and Ikram.
“Chariots changed the way people looked at terrains and the way they interacted with them,” said Ikram. “Before the chariot, transportation means in ancient Egypt were limited to boats, donkeys and walking. It introduced the notion of roadways for faster wheel conveyance, revolutionizing the way Egyptians moved through the landscape and pioneering means of transportation and warfare.”
Aside from peaceable pursuits, the chariot was closely linked to the military, providing a moving platform from which the archer could shoot at the enemy. Hunting is also repeatedly depicted as a favorite sport of Egyptian royalty and nobility, and both are frequently represented pursuing desert games while riding in their chariots. Chariot processional scenes are believed to be popular from the 18th Dynasty onward, where the triumphant pharaoh is often shown to be returning alone from the battlefield.
From ancient eras to contemporary times, Ikram believes that chariots denoted one of the earliest personal transport concepts known to mankind. “The chariot is the precursor to the car,” she said. “The ancient Egyptians used it in the same way in which early motorized vehicles were used by us.”
In the first full excavation of the dog catacombs at Saqqara, Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo (AUC), along with an international team of researchers led by Paul Nicholson of Cardiff University, has estimated that approximately 8 million animal mummies are present at the burial site and is working to establish whether different breeds are represented there. “We are recording the animal bones and the mummification techniques used to prepare the animals,” said Ikram. “In doing so, we hope to identify the dog breeds present at the site. Thus far, our bone measurements indicate that there are different breeds that were mummified there.” The mummified animals at Saqqara are not limited to canines. “There are cat and mongoose remains in the deposit,” explained Ikram. “We are trying to understand how this fits religiously with the cult of Anubis, to whom the catacomb is dedicated.”
For Ikram, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in the field of mummification with a specialization in archaeozoology, the study of animal mummies offers deep insights into ancient Egyptian culture. “Animal mummies are really manifestations of daily life –– pets, food, death, religion and technology. They cover everything the Egyptians were concerned with,” said Ikram, adding that when Egyptology was becoming established as an academic discipline in the 19th century, archaeologists pushed past hundreds of thousands of animal mummies in their haste to uncover the human ones and, more significantly, their grave goods.
Salima Ikram on site at Saqqara
The dog catacombs research at Saqqara, funded by National Geographic, is one of several archaeological field projects in which Ikram is involved. She directed the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum, resurrecting a neglected exhibition that first caught her attention when she visited the museum as a child. In addition, in Project Djehuty, directed by Jose Galan and which focuses on the excavation and restoration of tombs T11 and T12 in the Dra’ Abu el-Naga necropolis in Thebes, Ikram sees great potential for her work with animal mummies, combined with the efforts of other specialists, to yield revelations about ancient Egyptian life. “This project is the first time that an area like this has been examined so holistically,” she said. “While I study the animal mummies, there are others in the group studying the texts written on the walls by the same people who embalmed them. By studying everything from textiles to text to animal remains, we can elucidate quite a bit about what these people thought, their religion and the economic effects of mummifying hundreds of thousands of animals.”
Discoveries have shown that there are four main reasons ancient Egyptians mummified animals. “They were mummified as sacred creatures that were representative of the gods, as beloved pets, as gifts to the gods and as food for the afterlife,” said Ikram, explaining that these varying motives reveal much about the behavioral patterns of the ancient Egyptians. She added, “Using DNA testing of mummified ibis remains found in geographically different locations, we hope to establish isolated breeding groups. An abundance of recessive genes showing, for example, would indicate interbreeding of animals in captivity. This also signifies something of an economy of breeding animals for mummification.”
For Egyptologists, mummies reflect everything, from the sacred to the suspicious. “Animal mummies were a very visceral and organic way for people to communicate with the gods,” Ikram said. “At the same time, they were also a business, and many of the mummies I’ve studied are ancient false mummies -– a fragment of an animal wrapped as if it were a whole one, or an interior containing nothing but mud. Maybe the Egyptians thought that the intention was sufficient for divine communication.”
Whether it is dogs in Saqqara or ibises in Thebes, Ikram sees familiar human motives at the heart of animal mummification. “You look at these animals, and suddenly you say, Oh, King so-and-so had a pet. I have a pet. And instead of being at a distance of 5,000-plus years, the ancient Egyptians become people,” she said.