Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Olmec" burial found in Puebla

One of the great problems of Mesoamerican archaeology is the lack of osteological remains from the Olmec civilization. The environment of the Olmec heartland, the steamy and wet Gulf Coastal plains of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco states in Mexico, has destroyed almost all traces of bone from the archaeological sites in this region. This week Mexican authorities have reported on the discovery of a burial that was found underneath the Casa del Mendrugo and that dates apparently to the Early Preclassic period, roughly 1500 - 1200 B.C. The burial included the remains of two individuals, one a woman and the second possibly a man. The woman's remains were better preserved and indicate she was around 55 years old at the time of her death. Archaeologist Arnulfo Allende found 35 objects with these bodies, including 26 ceramic vessels as well as at least 3 mirrors (two essentially complete) and figurines and pectoral jewelry made of greenstone. (Images of some of these objects, as well some of the skeletal material, can be seen HERE.) A DNA study from one of the teeth in this burial is planned, to test the ethnicity of the individual, although the fact that osteological remains from the Olmec heartland are so few would make any test of these bones as being of immigrant Olmecs exceedingly difficult. Furthermore, determining ethnicity from remains more than 3000 years ago is questionable, given the intervening cultural changes and genetic transmission between groups over that span of time.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Supposed Reference to December 21, 2012 on a Brick Found at Comalcalco

On November 24, 2011 the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) of Mexico revealed, in a communiqué regarding the Mesa Redonda of Palenque that occurred in late November, the existence of a second reference to the infamous December 21, 2012 date. 

This second putative inscription mentioning the 2012 date is written on a brick found at the site of Comalcalco, Tabasco. [Click HERE for a drawing of the brick in question.] Mark Stevenson, of the Associated Press, subsequently released a short news report on this new revelation, entitled “Mexico acknowledges 2nd Mayan reference to 2012”:

Stevenson’s report has exploded across the internet, with editors giving the story ever more sensationalistic titles. The Huffington Post ran the story as “Mayan 2012 Prophesy: Mexico Finds Second Reference Among Ruins”: while msnbc went with  “Mexico adds yet another brick to the 2012 Maya legend”. ABC News went even more hyperbolic, with “Apocalypse 2012 Back On? Second Inscription Uncovered” and even had a video report on the subject on their Good Morning America program, in which they had John Major Jenkins speaking but identified as David Stuart.

Some of these reports have tried to run images of the Comalcalco brick in question, but to date I have only seen images popping up of bricks that have no inscriptions on them at all, or of the Aztec calendar stone, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the 2012 date at all.

Apart from revealing that news editors these days are woefully informed of not only Maya archaeology and epigraphy, but simple English grammar and the need to check stories and images before publishing them, the popularity of this report demonstrates what widespread interest the 2012 meme has generated in contemporary society. Not unpredictably, this story has been picked up with glee by the 2012ers themselves, those pseudoscientists and their believers who insist that December 21, 2012 was an epochal event for the Maya, and which has meaning and importance for not only ancient or modern Maya, but also for all of us in the modern world.

Mayan experts keen to debunk 2012 doomsday theories used to point out how strange it was that the Mayans never mentioned the specific date of (their equivalent to) Dec 21, 2012, not anywhere. The only way we knew of it is by determining when their Long Count would finish, and start again. Then a few years ago some scholars let us in on a secret, the date is inscribed upon Tortuguero Monument 6 ... Given that there was just one mention, experts assured us that Dec 21 2012 was not an important date for the Mayans. But what about two mentions? Making the news this week, the National Institute of Anthropology and History have let it be known that a second reference exists ... Which begs the question, how many more are there, kept secret? 
Not unsurprisingly, there is no conspiracy, although, since 2012ers often run in the same company as conspiracy theorists, it is not surprising that they choose to see one here. Neither is there any second reference to December 21, 2012 in this Comalcalco brick. Given how much traction this misinformation has received, it is worthwhile exposing the reality of what this inscription says and why some think it may refer to the 2012 date. In addition, I think revealing how this story came to explode across the media in late November provides a cautionary tale to epigraphers and archaeologists as to why we must be very careful with our comments on issues as popular and sensitive as the 2012 meme, and also instructive to non-experts as to how epigraphic work is carried out, and why, although this information may have seemed hidden from them, there was no conspiracy to keep genuine data on the 2012 date from the general public.

The media circus over an apparent reference to December 21, 2012 on the Comalcalco brick actually goes back a year and a half, when on July 6, 2010, INAH published a news report on a course on Classic Maya religion and mythology, taught by Mexican epigrapher Carlos Pallán Gayol at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (ENAH). In the article Pallán Gayol is cited as saying “Conforme la correlación GMT + 2 (Goodman-Martínez-Thompson, más dos días) que utilizan los epigrafistas para convertir las fechas mayas al calendario gregoriano, la fecha exacta sería el 23 de diciembre de 2012 y no el día 21. Ésta se halla registrada en el Monumento 6 de Tortuguero y en un fragmento encontrado en Comalcalco, ambas zonas arqueológicas de Tabasco y relativamente cercanas entre sí”.

Pallán’s source for the idea that the Comalcalco brick may refer to the 2012 date was Erik Boot, who in January of 2010 had prepared a short contribution for an exhibition on 2012 and the Maya being prepared at the Museum Volkenkunde, in the Netherlands. This unpublished work was circulated amongst a number of fellow epigraphers, and would ultimately be cited in Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara MacLeod’s “What Could Happen in 2012” paper, published online in the Wayeb Notes series (Wayeb Note 34).

The original INAH report spread around Mexican websites and within days came to the attention of a number of posters on the Aztlan webserverOn July 7, 2010 Thiago Cavalcanti posted links to the INAH report published on the website of the Diario de Yucatan and on July 8 he followed up with a question on whether anyone else knew anything about the 2012 date on the Comalcalco brickJohn Major Jenkins, a prominent proponent of the 2012 meme, then replied on July 9, revealing Erik Boot as the ultimate source for this idea.

Jenkins' reply is worth quoting in full:

In answer to your query, Maya scholar Erik Boot noted last December that an incised brick from Comalcalco probably contains a 4 Ahau 3 Kankin tzolkin-haab combo. The accompanying inscription states "it will be completed" which lends credence to this being a reference to the future 2012 period ending. Sven Gronemeyer, in his study of Tortuguero, writes that Comalcalco may have become the successor to Tortuguero; another fragment at Comalcalco mentions Bahlam Ajaw, the 7th-century king of Tortuguero who is the protagonist of TRT Monument 6, which contains the 2012 date.   

The probable 2012 reference from Comalcalco was first illustrated in Neil Steede, 1984, Catálogo preliminar de los tabiques de Comalcalco. Cárdenas: Centro de Investigación Precolombina, p. 40.

Steede did not recognize it as such back in 1984; I found an image of it online in the context of a different discussion, which I have reposted here:

Now, all those "only one 2012 date reference" statements will have to be revised.

John Major Jenkins

It should be noted that both in the original INAH press report and Jenkins’ reply to Aztlan the idea that the Comalcalco brick carries a 2012 reference are taken almost as a given. While Jenkins does admit that Boot merely noted that the brick “probably” contains a reference to the 2012 date, his final sentence “all those “only one 2012 date reference” statements will have to be revised” is anything but nuanced.

Jenkins’ note came to the attention of epigrapher Marc Zender, who has conducted archaeological work at Comalcalco with Miriam Judith Gallegos and Ricardo Armijo Torres, and he has examined the original brick in question in detail. Given that no other epigrapher has more familiarity with this text, it is worth quoting Zender’s response in full as well, as he demonstrates that the Comalcalco brick simply cannot be said to bear a reference to December 21, 2012.

Hi all,

I don't post here very often, but I wanted to follow up
on John's recent discussion (copied below) of the text on
an inscribed brick from Comalcalco.  It was thoughtful of
him to bring up Erik's recent suggestion that this contains
a reference to the 2012 date, but I'm afraid this is
unlikely to be the case.  For reference, here's the link
where John has usefully posted a drawing of the text:

Unfortunately, it's pretty clear that the month sign cannot be K'ank'in.  Granted, there's a well-known "dog" variant of this month that Erik must have had in mind when he made his suggestion late last year (see for example the Chinikiha Throne, B1 and PNG Altar 2, D2), but this never has the infixed AK'AB "darkness" elements which appear just below the ear of this sign.  As I've argued elsewhere, this is a trait of nocturnal animals in Maya art and writing (e.g., jaguar, bat, rodents, fireflies and other insects, etc). As a result, only Zodz (anciently Suutz' "bat") and Xul (anciently Tzikin or perhaps Chikin, some kind of rodent) emerge as feasible candidates, with the latter offering the most likely identification.

Second, I'm afraid the verb isn't "completion" and it isn't cast into the future.  Rather, the verb appears in block 3 and seems to be made of up the two syllables hu and li, spelling the incompletive intransitive verb hul-i-Ø "he arrives".

The fourth glyph block, interpreted by Erik as the verb tzu2-jo-ma (tzuhtz-j-oom-Ø "it will have ended") is admittedly not terribly clear, but the final element is most likely K'AHK', and certainly not the -ma demanded by the future ending.  (It's also more likely that the sign above it is cha rather than jo, but it's very rapidly executed and hard to make out.)  More importantly, the syntax requires this glyph block to provide either the name of the subject  (i.e., the individual arriving, present tense) or a toponym (i.e., the place being arrived at), so it can hardly be another verb.

Given other dates known from the inscriptions of Comalcalco, I'd say a placement at 4 Ahau 3 Xul (10 May, 769) is most likely, but the text is too rapidly executed (I've seen the original, and it really does look like this) and too thoroughly decontextualized for this to be more than a suggestion.   To the extent that we can read it, then, I think the most reasonable interpretations are either "He arrives at Tzutz? ... K'ahk' on 4 Ahau 3 Xul" or "Tzutz? ... K'ahk' arrives on 4 Ahau 3 Xul".

On July 20, 2010 Michael Ruggeri, a frequent poster to Aztlan, forwarded a letter from Erik Boot (not a member of the Aztlan webserver), in which Boot revealed his own actual thoughts on the subject and the history of the dissemination of his idea, prior to its actual publication.

It is most unfortunate that Boot’s idea was leaked to the press before their actual publication date, and especially that the original INAH publication did not cite him properly for his idea. This emphasizes the need for epigraphers and archaeologists to be careful when talking to the press as the popular media are not in the same business as us, and will jump at sound bites and sensational titles, often not caring about nuances or citations. I learned this lesson the hard way myself, and with the popularity of the 2012 meme, and especially the possibility of a second reference to this date, we epigraphers must be very careful. The media circus attendant to the "revelation" of this putative second 2012 reference at Comalcalco attests well enough to that fact.

While epigraphers must be wary of the press running away with a story they manifestly do not understand (and few reporters seem to have much interest in actually understanding such an esoteric subject), epigraphers must also be careful about rushing to press with preliminary analyses that will be sure to generate such a media circus. In his reply to Aztlan, Boot criticized Zender for having commented without having seen the original claim or any of the caveats that went along with it. However, it is unclear that this is really an issue, given that Zender’s critique was of the basic idea that the Comalcalco brick refers to the date 4 Ahau 3 Kankin and that the associated text includes a completion verb. Zender’s critique shows quite clearly why this inscription provides no evidence at all that this constitutes a second reference to December 21, 2012, and reading Boot’s original writeup on this does not change my estimation of this argument. While Boot criticizes Zender for not doing proper science by commenting without having seen Boot’s original writeup, Boot admits in his letter that he has never seen the original brick, and it is clear from his own writings that he never discussed his ideas with Zender, the epigrapher at Comalcalco, and the one man who would be most knowledgeable on the subject. Nor, apparently, did Boot ask Zender for pictures of the brick before writing up and submitting his article for publication. To use Boot’s own words, “this is not the way one practices science”.

The field of epigraphy is quite competitive, and publications are the bread and butter of our profession. Every epigrapher wants to make certain that he or she gets proper credit for their own ideas, and so there is an understandable rush to presses sometimes, especially when many of these deadlines are not of our own choosing. Ideally, epigraphers with new interpretations of inscriptions, especially sensationalistic claims such as those involving the subject of 2012, should run their ideas by those who work professionally at the sites where these inscriptions are found. This should be all the more the case when the epigrapher is working with eroded or problematic texts and has no access to the original pieces, or even to photographs of them. 

The field of epigraphy is held in not inconsiderable suspicion by many archaeologists and this is to no small degree a product of the fact that many published epigraphic ideas have been overturned by later scholarship. This is no different a case than we see in archaeology, and it is important to note that healthy debate and a difference of opinion are things of which the field of epigraphy should be proud, not ashamed. However, we should avoid providing unnecessary fuel for the pseudoscientific hijacking of the Maya and their cosmology. Thankfully, the 2012 meme has only one more year to run its course before it will hopefully and mercifully come to an end; unlike the Maya calendar itself. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New Queen's Tomb Found at Nakum

National Geographic is reporting a new royal tomb found at the site of Nakum, in the Petén district of northern Guatemala. The Nakum Archaeological Project is led by Jarosław Źrałka and Wiesław Koszkul of the Jagiellonian University of Kraków, Poland, and they have just published (along with Bernard Hermes and Simon Martin) a report on a previous royal tomb found in 2006 the same building, Structure 15 (Antiquity Vol. 85, No. 329). The first tomb dates to the Late Classic period, although the deceased was buried with an Early Classic jade plaque. This second tomb dates to the Early Classic period and most interestingly is that of a woman, making this one of only a handful of queenly burials discovered in the Maya area. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Maps of Francia and other Medieval Miscellanea

In researching the Fall of Rome and early medieval Europe I have come across some interesting websites. Regnum Francorum Online is a website that presents in cartographic form information on the Kingdom of Francia, the predecessor of France ruled over by the Merovingians and Carolingians. If you want to follow the routes of Charlemagne or Carloman or find out how much land was owned by the crown or various monasteries and church establishments, this is a very handy website.

Another excellent set of maps, with ancient place-names, can be found on the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization. And, if you want to check out original documents (mostly in Latin) about the early history of the Germanic peoples, you can check out the digital version of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. I am reading Gregory of Tours at the moment, the Penguin Classics edition, and this definitely helps in figuring out what the ancient names of these cities were. I much prefer Arvernum to Clermont-Ferrand, at least when I am considering the pre-Medieval city.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Deification of Constantine

Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, courtesy of Wikipedia.

1674 years ago today the Emperor Constantine the Great died; May 22, A.D. 337. Constantine is famous for being the first Christian emperor and beginning the Christianization of the Roman Empire. What is ironic is that after his death the Senate of Rome actually deified him. The Senate of ancient Rome did this not infrequently, whenever they felt an emperor had been extraordinarily beneficial to Rome. However, given Constantine's promotion of his new religion, one has to view this move as misguided at best and deluded at worst. Given Harold Camping's spectacular failure at prophecy yesterday I wonder what kinds of rationalization and special pleading his followers will engage in to maintain their faith in the face of such an embarrassment.

In the meantime, check out the amazing work at Byzantium 1200, where the buildings of Constantinople have been recreated through the wonders of modern computer graphics and you can see what this, one of the greatest cities of antiquity, would have looked like ca. A.D. 1200.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Angkor and the Ancient Maya: Complementary Civilizations?

Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, courtesy of Wikipedia.
I am currently finishing my dissertation on the famous Collapse of the Classic Maya civilization. However, while my dissertation centers on the ancient Maya, I am also examining many other ancient civilizations, many of which also suffered collapses of their own. One of these is the civilization of Angkor, most famous for producing the wonder that is Angkor Wat, built during the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled A.D. 1113 - 1150). However, the civilization which produced this, one of the largest constructions of the ancient world, began long before Suryavarman II and continued, ultimately producing the modern Khmer culture of Cambodia.

The Angkor, or "Classic", period of this civilization begins traditionally with the assumption of the title of chakravartin, or "universal ruler", by Jayavarman II in A.D. 802, and continues to A.D. 1431, when, according to the Royal Chronicles, a 19th century official history of dubious reliability, the Thai sacked the capital city of Angkor. Unfortunately, the tropical climate of Cambodia has meant that all written documents that date back more than 200 years, inscribed traditionally in palm-leaf books, have rotted away, leaving historians having to reconstruct Angkor's history from laconic monumental dedicatory texts on stone temples, which obviously give a very distorted view of the past and were never meant as the basis of histories, either. These dedicatory texts do provide the basic outline of a history of the Angkor period, however, and what is interesting is that despite later kings reckoning the foundation of their kingdom from Jayavarman II's ritual in 802, there are no contemporary inscriptions until 880, when the Preah Ko temple was dedicated. The last inscriptions at Angkor that can be dated are from the reign of Jayavarman IX (also known as Jayavarman Paramesvara), who took the throne in 1327.

Thus the Ankgor period begins in 802, and is in full gear by 880, continuing to ca. 1330/1340 and finally fading out in the 15th century. Interestingly, this corresponds very well to a 'Dark Age' in ancient Maya civilization. The Classic Maya civilization is pretty much defined by the use of the Long Count calendar, and the earliest Long Count date in the Maya Lowlands dates to A.D. 292 and the last to A.D. 909. However, the Classic Maya world went into a major crisis shortly after A.D. 800 and the next century saw sites fading out, with the final population in most cities gone entirely by A.D. 1000. The Early Postclassic period is attested at hardly any sites and not until the rise of Mayapan and other sites, such as Topoxte, in the 13th and 14th centuries do we see much evidence of Maya civilization. Thus, at just the time that the Classic Maya went into the crisis that would ultimately consume their civilization, we see the rise of the Angkor period in Cambodia.

This inverse correlation exists even for the earlier period of both cultural areas as well. The height of the Classic Maya civilization is the Late Classic period, especially the 8th century. This period in Cambodia, however, is one in which few temples were constructed and inscriptions are few and far between. There are a number of pre-Angkor inscriptions found throughout the rest of Cambodia. The earliest are undated but appear to date to the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. Dated pre-Angkorian inscriptions are relatively abundant from 611 to the beginning of the 8th century, but are almost non-existant for the subsequent century and a half. The period of most intense carving of pre-Angkorian inscriptions in Cambodia, then, is during the 7th century, which corresponds quite closely to the famous hiatus period of the southern Maya lowlands.

Now, I would not take these correlations too strongly - the hiatus at Tikal ends in the 690s while at sites such as Palenque and Copan it ends even earlier, by the 650s. However, it is interesting to see that the general ups and downs of Maya and Angkor civilizations do seem to be the inverse of each other. Michael Coe has written about comparisons between the Maya and Angkor civilizations and while he thinks there may have been direct contacts between the two regions, I do not see any evidence for such contacts. Therefore, I cannot see this inverse correlation between the two regions' cultural histories as being directly related. However, I do wonder whether general trends in climate change around the globe might not be at least partially responsible. Last year Brendan Buckley and his colleagues published their study on the ancient climate of Cambodia, and have proposed that Angkor was hit by two severe droughts, one in the mid-14th century and a second in the early 15th century, which were followed immediately by extra-severe monsoons. These extreme climate disasters overtaxed the civilization of Angkor and led to the abandonment of the city's famous irrigation network of canals, and ultimately to the move of the capital city to the southeast. You can read a popular article of their research here, and you can see their more academic publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences here. In my dissertation I argue that the Classic Maya Collapse was largely due to similar changes in climate and that while there is evidence for accompanying warfare and social changes, these were more results than causal factors of the Collapse.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Smenkhkare: The Phantom Pharaoh

Photo of the famous bust of Nefertiti in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin by Philip Pikart, courtesy of Wikipedia

This last semester I taught a class on deciphering ancient writing systems. In preparing my classes on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs I bought a couple of new books by Aidan Dodson, a popular British Egyptologist working out of Bristol University. I eagerly await his forthcoming book on the Third Intermediate Period, which is essentially the eleventh through the eighth centuries B.C., and has proven to be one of the most confusing and poorly understood periods of Egyptian history. In the meanwhile, he has two recent books that have been published by the American University in Cairo, both of which address other difficult periods in Egyptian history. The earlier of these two, published in 2009, is entitled Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. The full citation can be found below.

First, a few basic notes. I have the hardcover version and it is printed on high quality paper, and is an attractive volume. However, the book itself is relatively small, rendering the critical details in the illustrations oftentimes difficult to see and evaluate. The book appears to have been published in some haste as there are a number of typos and grammatical mistakes, especially in the early chapters. The maps at the beginning of the book also leave a lot to be desired, and certain places referred to in the text (eg// Isuwa, p. 54) are not found on any of the maps. A series of helpful appendices are provided at the end of the book. I most appreciated Appendix 3, which provides examples of the hieroglyphic names of the major royal characters in the book. Unfortunately, these are produced at such a small scale that one’s eyes are strained badly in trying to examine them.

On to the actual contents of the book: the “counter-reformation” referred to in the subtitle is the response to pharaoh Akhenaten’s attempt to do away with the cult of all gods other than the object of his own devotion, the Aten, the physical manifestation of the Sun God as a solar disk. During his 17 year reign this king overturned two millennia of royal tradition, shutting down the numerous temples for which Egypt has been so famous, and even moving the capital city away from Thebes, home of massive state temples dedicated to the local god Amun, in his fifth year. The new capital city was established in the virgin territory of Akhetaten (today known as el Amarna), in the middle of the country. At the same time this pharaoh changed his name to Akhenaten (meaning “Spirit of the Aten”, or “Effective for the Aten”), from the previous Amenhotep (which means “Amun is content”). Akhenaten’s great royal wife was the famous Nefertiti, and she gave birth to at least six daughters – in order of birth, Merytaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten, Neferneferuaten Jr., Neferneferure, and Setepenre - who in ubiquitous scenes found throughout Akhetaten, are shown in intimate, familial scenes with their parents. The intimacy appears to have extended well beyond these idyllic scenes, however, for Akhenaten seems to have fathered two further daughters – Merytaten Jr. and Ankhesenpaaten Jr. – named after their mothers, his own first and third daughters.

Throughout the art of Amarna Akhenaten and his family are shown being bathed in the life-giving rays of the Aten. Late in his reign Akhenaten carried out a wave of oppression against the god Amun (and presumably his powerful priesthood in Thebes), destroying this god’s images and gouging out his name, even when found in the personal names of his royal ancestors. Akhenaten died shortly thereafter and was ultimately succeeded by the boy king, Tutankhaten, who a year or two later expressed his return to orthodoxy by changing his name to Tutankhamun. (His name was actually pronounced something like TawatanakhamAN.) Tutankhamun had a short reign of a little less than 10 years, and upon his premature death was buried in his famous tomb, KV 62 in the Valley of the Kings. His burial was overseen by his probable maternal grandfather, Ay, who acceded as the new pharaoh. Ay ruled only 4 years before he was succeeded in turn by Horemheb, who subsequently damned the memory of all of these kings by erasing their cartouches and usurping their images, and later Egyptians simply counted their regnal years as those of Horemheb himself.

That is the basic picture of this era of Egyptian history. However, numerous questions remain about this period, caused in no small part by the damnatio memoriae inflicted upon pretty much everything associated with Akhenaten, who to later Egyptians was known simply as “the criminal of Akhetaten” or even just “the Enemy”. The biggest question has been over the royal person known popularly as Smenkhkare. Since this person takes a royal praenomen (the “royal name”, taken only upon accession) and included his personal name inside a cartouche, he was clearly a pharaoh.

The Royal Name, Ankhkheperure

The Personal Name, Smenkhkare (Djoserkheperu)

However, the question remains of who this individual was and how he was related to his predecessor, Akhenaten, as well as his successor, Tutankhamun. The debate over the identity of this pharaoh has been heated for a century now, with speculation ranging from the younger brother of Akhenaten (and thus another son of Amenhotep III), an older brother of Tutankhamun (and thus either the son of Amenhotep III or of Akhenaten), Akhenaten’s homosexual lover, the Hittite prince Zananza (more on him in a later post), or even the famous Queen Nefertiti or her daughter Merytaten, disguised as a male pharaoh.

Obviously, very little is known of this pharaoh. Only one known image of the sovereign exists, a scene found in the tomb of Meryre II at Amarna, where he is shown along with his consort, Merytaten, rewarding Meryre himself. This image was only painted on the wall, and had not been carved before the tomb was abandoned, along with the city of Akhetaten as a whole, when the court relocated to Thebes and Memphis, the traditional capital cities of Egypt. Apart from this image there are half a dozen royal seals and a single wine jar label bearing this name. The latter bears a reference to “Year 1” of a pharaoh, but while this could refer to Smenkhkare’s own regnal count, it could as easily refer to Tutankhamun, who appears to have been Smenkhkare’s direct successor and in whose reign the estates established by Smenkhkare just a few years earlier would have still been functioning.

A crucial part of the puzzle, and source of the controversy, surrounding Smenkhkare is tomb KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings. This tomb was discovered in 1907 and excavated by Theodore Davis, who found the jumbled remains of a number of different objects originally from separate tombs. This material included parts of a gilded wooden shrine inscribed for Queen Tiye by pharaoh Akhenaten, her son. At some point this chamber was broken into and the image and cartouches of Akhenaten were destroyed. The tomb also contained a gilded wooden coffin, inlaid with glass and badly damaged by rot. The anthropomorphic coffin had had its face ripped off, and a hieroglyphic text naming the owner with royal titles had had the cartouches gouged out. There were also four canopic jars, with stoppers in the form of human heads in the same style as the coffin. 

As with so much of the material in this tomb, the names on the canopic jars had been abraded and are essentially illegible, although they have been argued to represent Kiya, a junior wife of Akhenaten. Four “magical bricks” were found arranged around the tomb, and at least two of these did bear the name of Akhenaten himself. A few wooden boxes in the tomb, ransacked in antiquity, had originally been sealed in the reign of Tutankhamun, informing us when this eclectic assortment of objects were moved into this tomb from their original location in Akhetaten.

The body within the coffin in KV55 was badly damaged through water seeping in from flash flooding, and was mostly just poorly preserved bones, as well as the skull. The gilded shrine suggested to Davis that this should have been the body of Lady Tiye, but Arthur Weigall, who had been working as an archaeologist for Davis, thought it was Akhenaten himself, not least because the preliminary investigation of the osteological material indicated the occupant was male. However, Grafton Elliot Smith, the renowned anatomist of the early 20th century (and one of the key men involved in the Piltdown Man controversy), declared that his analysis of the bones indicated the person was only 25 or 26 years of age at death. This was problematic if this was to be Akhenaten as this pharaoh had a 17 year reign and the dramatic and forceful events he oversaw in the early years of his reign, including his proscription against the old gods and the building of and transfer of the capital to Akhetaten all suggest the actions of an adult and not a boy. Douglas Derry carried out another examination of the bones and his estimation of age at death was even lower than that of Smith; 23 years at the oldest. This definitely put Akhenaten out of the running and so many if not most scholars identified the body as that of Smenkhkare, especially after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62) in 1922, which included the latter pharaoh’s mummy. This left Smenkhkare as the only remaining male pharaoh of this period as a viable candidate. However, it is important to note that not a single item within KV55 bears any of Smenkhkare’s names or titles, a point that is often overlooked or glossed over by scholars.

While the specific name “Smenkhkare” is known from only a few surviving references, his praenomen Ankhkheperure is associated in a number of other texts and inscriptions with another nomen, that of Neferneferuaten (see below). This would normally be interpreted simply as a name change, where a pharaoh changed one of his names (for uncertain reasons). Akhenaten did just this, changing his nomen from Amenhotep to Akhenaten but retaining the praenomen of Neferkheperure. However, as with so much of Amarna’s history, things aren’t quite so simple.

The cartouches of Neferneferuaten indicate an intimate connection with Akhenaten, as his names regularly include the epithet “beloved of Akhenaten”. In the examples below we see the royal praenomen, Ankhkheperure, is suffixed with mery Neferkheperure, “beloved of Neferkheperure”, the latter being the praenomen of Akhenaten. Neferneferuaten’s nomen reads Neferneferuaten, mery Wa’enre. The latter, meaning “the sole one of Re’”, is a ubiquitous moniker of Akhenaten, and so this name means “Neferneferuaten, beloved of Akhenaten”.

Ankhkheperure mery Neferkheperure
Neferneferuaten mery Wa'enre
   So, if Smenkhkare were a male pharaoh, he apparently had an intimate relationship with his predecessor, Akhenaten, and the idea of a homosexual relationship between the two was born, first suggested by Percy Newberry in the 1920s following his analysis of the so-called ‘Pase Stela’, an image of which can be seen here. Here we see two rulers, both clearly pharaohs by their wearing pharaonic headdresses, in an intimate embrace. The image of Aten, the sun god, above indicates that one of these rulers was Akhenaten and for Newberry the second had to be Smenkhkare. As outlined in Nicholas Reeves’ superb book Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, John R. Harris noted that on this stela there are 7 uninscribed cartouches. “Two pairs of ovals, flanking the solar disc, had clearly been meant to contain the name of the Aten – which left a block of three blank cartouches, clearly, from their positioning, intended to identify the senior and junior kings. Two kings, however, require two sets of two cartouches; three can only refer to a king and his queen – despite the kingly crowns” (Reeves 2001:168).

Akhenaten’s chief queen was the famous Nefertiti and it so happens that when her husband changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten she changed her own name to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti. Could Nefertiti be the real identity behind Smenkhkare? Certainly this would handily explain a whole series of puzzles about the end of the Amarna period in Egypt. It would explain the Pase Stela depiction, which would show Akhenaten and Nefertiti, both wearing royal crowns, in a loving embrace, typical of how this royal couple was depicted at Amarna. In addition, it explains why some pharaonic statues, found usurped from an earlier ruler in the tomb of Tutankhamun, clearly depict a female ruler. (Sadly, this was one of the statues damaged in the recent vandalism in the Cairo Museum.) One can also note that some seals of Ankhkheperure are actually spelled Ankhetkheperure, which is a feminine version of the name.

It would also explain why Nefertiti seems to have disappeared without a trace after Year 12 of Akhenaten’s reign. At the same time as references to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti cease there emerges the coregent of Akhenaten, Ankhkheperure. While coregent this ruler bore the nomen of Neferneferuaten, the same as taken earlier by Nefertiti. Probably after Akhenaten’s death this nomen was changed to Smenkhkare, perhaps to signal her independent rule as sole pharaoh.

This is the conclusion of Nicholas Reeves, and he in turn is following the pioneering work of John R. Harris. This is not the conclusion, however, of Aidan Dodson. Dodson, like many, seems to be in thrall of the osteological age-estimates for the body in KV55, and, by eliminating Akhenaten as a possible candidate for this individual, is forced to accommodate in his reconstruction of the dynastic history of this period a young, male pharaoh named Smenkhkare.  However, unlike many earlier scholars who saw only one, male, ruler bearing the praenomen of Ankhkheperure, Dodson accepts that Nefertiti was a coregent with Akhenaten under the name Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, but one that ruled after the earlier coregent, the male Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare. (I will leave the reader to investigate in Dodson’s book why he places these two coregencies in this order.)

The problem I have with Dodson’s interpretation is that it is entirely dependent upon the age estimates for the body in KV55 being so young. Dodson does try to bring in the only surviving image of Smenkhkare, from the tomb of Meryre II, which shows this ruler in typical male garb, but this cannot be considered anything like conclusive proof, since the earlier and certainly female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, also had herself portrayed regularly as a male. Given that the office of pharaoh was traditionally that of a male, the notoriously conservative artists of Egypt typically portrayed all pharaohs in very stylized poses and costumes and an image of a ruler as a male does not exclude the possibility that the individual was actually female. This leaves the body in KV55, and Dodson is not alone in taking these age-estimates, most of which were done half a century to a century ago, as solid and accurate data.

The trouble is that estimating the age of bodies, especially ancient remains, has always been at least as much an art as a science, and the field is fraught with examples of estimates that were subsequently proven to be quite wrong. Ironically, in Dodson’s subsequent publication, Poisoned Legacy: The Fall of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty (2010), he admits as much, pointing to the famous Spitalfields studies as reason to be wary of accepting the estimated ages of the mummies of Merenptah and Seti II (Dodson 2010:29, 80-81). When the Christ Church cemetery in Spitalfields, London, was excavated, osteologists had the chance to compare their estimates of the age of the interred against the actual burial records. Only 30% of the age estimates were correct to within 5 years, and only 50% to within 10 years (ibid). In Mesoamerican archaeology a classic example is the tomb of Pakal at Palenque. While the hieroglyphic texts indicated that Pakal was 80 years old when he died, the earliest estimates for the age of the body in his tomb were only 40 – 50 years. However, fifty years after they were first examined a more recent study has concluded that the bones are indeed those of an elderly man, and while it is very difficult to precisely age the bones of a long-lived person (they are old because their bones are comparatively young), this new examination concluded that an age of 80 is indeed consistent with the actual bones (Tiesler Blos and Cucina 2006).

In fact, just such a re-examination has occurred. Under the direction of Zahi Hawass a reanalysis of the KV55 mummy took place, indicating that this individual could indeed have been much older than previously thought. Hawass also oversaw a DNA study of a number of Amarna period mummies, but I won’t get into those details here. They can be seen in his 2010 article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (see bibliography below). Hawass has concluded from these studies, though, that the body in KV55 is none other than that of Akhenaten himself. For me the evidence regarding Smenkhkare is, while not absolutely conclusive (and circumstantial archaeological evidence never can be), very strong that this is just another guise of Nefertiti. She has long been renowned as a great beauty but can now be credited as an ambitious woman who ruled as pharaoh, likely first as a coregent under the name Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten in the later years of her husband, Akhenaten, and then (probably quite briefly) as an independent ruler under the name Smenkhkare.


Dodson, Aidan
2009            Amarna Sunset: Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, and the Egyptian Counter-Reformation. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, Egypt.
2010            Poisoned Legacy: The Fall of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty. The American University in Cairo Press, Egypt.

Hawass, Z., Y. Z. Gad, et al.
2010            Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family. Journal of the American Medical Association 303/7: 638-647.

Reeves, Nicholas
2001            Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Tiesler Blos, Vera, and Andrea Cucina
2006            Reconstructing the Life and Death of a Maya Ruler. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Another Death Knell of Civilization

My colleague Annabeth Headrick, professor of art history at the University of Denver, has reported that her university's library is moving 80% of its volumes to an off-site holding facility, to make room for an "Academic Commons", which will feature "more seating, group space, and technological capacity". This continues a trend in academic institutions away from traditional libraries and towards a more "digital" environment, as exemplified by James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy, a Boston prep school, who a few years ago decided to do away with 100% of his school's library in favor of digital readers and e-books.

As an academic, I am truly horrified by these developments. As Headrick points out in the first article, one of the greatest things about libraries are the serendipitous finds one encounters by just going through the stacks. Some of the greatest books I've ever read I only found out about because I just happened to see them in the stacks. Furthermore, many of the books I thought I wanted to read I quickly realized were irrelevant to my research or interest based upon cursory examination in the stacks. To force students to make requests to have these books brought up hours or even days later is a body blow to academic research and learning. It is clear that those who are instituting these changes are not academics themselves and this highlights one of the ugliest sides of this new academic-institutions-as-businesses model, in which professional CEOs are brought in to head these universities and make them profitable. While universities can't function by losing money, they don't need to be run as Fortune 500 companies if their product, which is so hard to quantify, suffers in the process. The trouble is that since this product is so difficult to quantify it will take years, even decades, before the negative aspects of this trend in academia becomes truly apparent. And by then we will have regressed intellectually to a staggering degree.

The part that really gets my goat, though, is that the freed-up library space is going to be used for group study space. Having taught as a teaching assistant and professor now for the better part of a decade I have come to see a steady and continuous decline in the abilities and interest of students in their academic work, and I blame in no small part digital media and group study. The internet should provide students incredibly more opportunity to research and educate themselves but I have found that the vast amount of time students spend online is not in pursuit of educating themselves. I always include research papers in my courses and so many of these kids simply do not know how to research,  nor have much interest in critically evaluating what they read. Most of their time online appears to be spent on either facebook, youtube or on popular media gossip sites. They know all about the latest reality TV stars and their troubles with the law or with the bottle, but haven't a clue where India or Pakistan are located, or what language they speak in Brazil.

Since fewer and fewer professors assign research papers the students only go to the library for group study sessions. So, while the books get dusty, the edifying solitude of the library is now broken by kids loudly chatting about the latest antics of Snookie or who got kicked off of American Idol. This is the real problem with group study; while students consider this to be "study time" they actually spend little time at all on actual studying and most of it chatting with their friends, either in person or online. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published this year (2011) the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and they document many of the problems of modern academia. Inefficient group study and students who cannot disconnect from the addictive online world for even a 50 minute class are in no small way contributing to the crisis in education the United States is facing. University administrators trying to "modernize" universities by tossing the books out of libraries and replacing them with more group study space and more technology isn't going to help a wit, mark my words. It is only going to further the problem.

Monday, February 28, 2011

There Be Gold ...

Bild magazine has just published an article about German mathematician Joachim Rittstieg's claim that page 52 of the Dresden codex records an earthquake on October 30, 666 B.C. destroyed the Maya capital city of Atlan, which sank beneath the waves of Lake Izabal, concealing a treasure of 2156 tablets of gold, that together weigh 8 tonnes. It is not clear which "Page 52" Rittstieg is referring to (there are two pages bearing this number, depending on which sequence you follow), but it matters not which of these two he is considering. This claim, of course, should be laughable. There is no evidence the ancient Maya had any gold, let alone 8 tonnes of it, prior to the Late Classic and even then it arrived only as small jewels brought in from lower Central America as trade items. Even when the Spanish arrived, at the end of the Late Postclassic, there was so little gold in the Maya area that it was one of the last areas of Mesoamerica to be subjugated by the conquistadors, as there simply wasn't the financial incentive to conquer lands so bereft of the primary resource they were after. "The Maya" had no capital city, certainly not in the 7th century B.C., when most Maya sites were still relatively simple farming villages. The Lake Izabal area, in fact, never saw the rise of any major cities along its banks, or on any islands, a curiosity given how attractive this area should have been for Maya settlement.

This situation would be laughable if the story hadn't been picked up by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre and reported as if this was a credible theory and not simply utter nonsense without even the slightest credibility. Prensa Libre reports a lot on ancient Maya discoveries in Guatemala and should have higher standards than this. Bild magazine isn't even held in high esteem by Germans, and should never form the source for a story, especially one on the ancient Maya. Sadly, journalism today is all about sensationalism and the "scoop" and it seems that too often a lot of the news media feel it is easier to print a retraction rather than do the necessary background information to vet a "fantastic" story that too easily is shown to be pure fantasy. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Decline in Tourism to Tikal

This article from the Prensa Libre in Guatemala indicates that tourism to Tikal has declined for the fifth year in a row. Part of the decline could be blamed on the volcano/hurricane double whammy that hit Guatemala City in late May of 2010. I visited Tikal during this time and there was practically not a single other soul in the park at that time, when normally there would be many hundreds of visitors every day. The general decline in tourism following the 2008 economic crash could not have helped either, but if this is the fifth straight year of declining number of visitors this does not explain the general trend. The article suggests a lack of air transport may be the biggest reason, but I am skeptical. There are daily flights to Flores from Guatemala City and relatively easy transport from Belize. Guatemala would do well to improve the road between Flores and Melchor de Mencos, however, and escalating violence between authorities and drug gangs does not help tourism. The forthcoming years will be interesting ones in terms of Guatemala's ability to harness this lucrative source of income.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Language(s) of Scrabble

Those who know me know that my sister Margo and I always engage in "scrabble death matches" when we get together, usually only about once a year, during the holidays. These are very competitive matches, and while one of us may bomb out in a set of games, we usually recover and get our revenge back the next time. What has interested me over the last few years of these scrabble death matches is how my own work with foreign and ancient languages has actually made this game much tougher on me, which you might not think would be the case. The trouble is that with the 7 tiles you are allowed in scrabble you are supposed to derive words that you can add to the board. The trouble that I have is that most of the words that first pop into my mind are in other languages. While I used to play scrabble with some Mexican friends, in which we allowed words in either Spanish or English, Margo and I have stuck to English-only in terms of our games. And thus I have to usually go through numerous words in my head before I'll find one that is actually usable in our games. Or, at least that's my excuse for taking so long on my turns.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Sunrise in Placencia

In testing out how this whole deal works I figured I would first try to add a picture, and a sunrise shot from my recent tour of Belize seemed most appropriate. This picture was taken at the Maya Beach Hotel on the north end of the Placencia peninsula. This is a great hotel and the owners and staff were incredibly helpful, and the food was phenomenal, so 'good on yah' to all of them. Thanks also to all the great people who came on my trip and made the tour so enjoyable; a great way to ring in the new year of 2011. Onward and upward!