Sept. 30, 1993
Vol. 13, No. 3

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    'Lost' records unlock mysteries of excavation

    Valuable field records from a University-sponsored excavation in Egypt, which were believed lost in the former East Berlin for 50 years, have been returned to the Oriental Institute, where scholars are studying them to gain new insights into the royal and common life of a temple community at the center of much of Egypt's history.

    The records document the work of an Oriental Institute excavation at the sacred site of Medinet Habu from 1926 to 1932. Artifacts from the excavation were divided between the Oriental Institute and the Cairo Museum, while the field records were taken to Berlin by German researchers working for the Oriental Institute. The researchers' plans to publish the records were never carried out, however, because the documents and study notes were reported to have been destroyed during the bombing of Berlin in World War II. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Oriental Institute received word that the records had been located, and German officials offered to give them to the Oriental Institute, thereby reuniting an important collection of Egyptian antiquities with its documentation.

    "The archaeological record includes both artifacts and field records. Having the field records is of supreme importance because they tell us the context in which the artifacts were found," said William Sumner, Director of the Oriental Institute. "We know from the field records, for instance, in which strata the artifacts were found; we know which artifacts were found together and what their relationships were. We also know what kind of building the artifacts were found in--a temple, a home, or a workshop.

    "All of this information is vital to our understanding of the artifacts, and for that reason having the field records from Medinet Habu is tremendously important to us as we study the material now in the Oriental Institute collection," Sumner added.

    The Oriental Institute excavated more than 5,000 artifacts at Medinet Habu, a site in western Thebes (modern Luxor). The site is dominated by the ruins of an enormous fortified enclosure that surrounds a series of temples built by Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Ramses III and several successors of Tutankhamun. During one period of the city's history, common people built homes within the 60-foot-high walls to seek safety from invaders.

    As a result of the documents' recovery, Egyptologists will be better able to explore fields ranging from ancient religious practices to folk art. They will also learn much more about how common people lived, a topic that has recently become an important focus in the study of ancient Egypt.

    Emily Teeter, Assistant Curator of the Oriental Institute Museum and an Egyptologist, traveled to Berlin late this summer to collect the documents. "This happy development allows the objects from Medinet Habu finally to be studied and cataloged," Teeter said.

    Teeter noted that the records are annotated not only with sketches of individual tombs, "but also with detailed descriptions of objects that were so badly decayed they were not collected."

    The notes also contain valuable information about artifacts that were kept by the Egyptian Antiquities organization, allowing Egyptologists to reconstruct a more comprehensive picture of the overall finds from the site.

    "We can proceed with the completion of several publication projects now that we have fuller documentation," Teeter said. "Our work is being aided by the unexpected dividend of notes that give us valuable information about the conditions under which certain key objects were discovered. For example, we now have information about the relative depth of the many bronze statues that were found in the so-called Osiris Grave, a pit filled with statues of the god Osiris, the major god of the afterlife. This sort of information will give us a better idea of the cult practices at Medinet Habu."

    Artifacts believed to have been associated with the common people as well as materials connected with royalty were recovered from Medinet Habu during the expedition, the biggest the Oriental Institute ever conducted in Egypt. Among the 3,000 objects from the expedition that are at the Oriental Institute are statuary, figurines, glazed plaques, jewelry, tools, weapons, offering tables and pottery from every period of the site's occupation, from about 1500 B.C. to 800 A.D. The artifacts constitute one of the largest groups of excavated materials from a single site.

    The collection includes such unusual objects as ancient erotica and so-called votive beds, which are about the size of modern dolls' beds and are made of baked clay and decorated with religious symbols. Using the information contained in the Berlin records, Teeter and her colleagues have discovered that these beds were found with clay female figurines, confirming their suspected ritual function relating to fertility.

    "Until we recovered the notebooks, we had questions about whether this type of material came from temples or houses," Teeter said. "Now we are sure that they are a reflection of an ancient fertility cult enacted in private homes. The material is an intriguing reflection of the cares of women and their families in ancient Egypt.

    "So much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians is related to court life," Teeter added. "By determining which objects came from commoners' homes, we gain whole new insights into the Egyptian way of life. This material allows us to see the art and ritual objects of the common man and woman and to see how most of the society lived."

    The records also provide a more accurate dating of important artifacts, some of which have probably been misdated by as much as 1,000 years. "There are objects now ascribed to the Coptic era (about 800 A.D.) that were probably made 1,000 years earlier," Teeter said. "These records help us fix more precise dates because we know for the first time with what other objects they were found and how deeply buried they were."

    --William Harms