May 12, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 18

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    Medinet Habu: Press coverage brings forth missing records

    A second set of records related to the excavation of the sacred site of Medinet Habu in Egypt has been returned to the Oriental Institute.

    The records, which fill 11 volumes, were recovered after news accounts of the return of the first set of records were published in America and Germany in September 1993, said Emily Teeter, Assistant Curator in the Oriental Institute.

    The newly recovered records complete the excavation's set of field notes and provide additional commentary about the archaeological work at Medinet Habu, a site excavated by the Oriental Institute from 1926 to 1933. Records of the dig were taken to Germany for publication, but the project was interrupted by World War II. The division of Berlin after the war created confusion about the materials' whereabouts, and it was assumed that all the documents had been destroyed in the war.

    Then, after reunification, some of the records were found in Berlin, and that portion was returned to Chicago last fall. Those records, as well as the latest set, provide important information about thousands of artifacts on display at the Oriental Institute Museum and at the Cairo Museum in Egypt. Since the artifacts were recovered from a site that was a major religious center as well as a town from the 12th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D., scholars expected that the finds would tell much about daily life and ritual in ancient Egypt. But until the recovery of the records, there was little information about where individual artifacts were discovered, and in many cases it was impossible to assign dates to, or determine the significance of, individual objects.

    The latest set of records was sent by the grandson of Uvo Hoelscher, the head archaeologist for the Oriental Institute dig at Medinet Habu. The institute learned of the records in a letter that was a bit startling as well as pleasing, Teeter said. "We were stunned to receive a letter signed 'Hoelscher.' We had no information about our former field director Uvo Hoelscher's family," she said.

    In his letter, the grandson, Uvo Hoelscher, explained that he had read news accounts about the return of the first set of Medinet Habu records and was eager for all the records to be reunited. The second group of manuscripts was found at the Technical University of Hannover during restoration work on the facility in 1972, nine years after the death of Uvo Hoelscher Sr., the grandson said. The elder Hoelscher had been a professor at that institution and apparently had worked on the records during his tenure there.

    In 1972, the records were returned to Hoelscher's widow, who then wrote to the Oriental Institute. But the letter was never received, and scholars in Chicago continued to assume that all of the documentation had been lost in World War II. Fortunately, the Hoelscher family saved the documents.

    "Now we will be able to complete our documentation of the site and its thousands of artifacts. We are very grateful to the Hoelschers for their generosity," Teeter said. Seven of the volumes are registers that list and describe the objects recovered during the excavation. These volumes are duplicates of material already received from Berlin in 1993, but unlike the other material, the new volumes are complete.

    The other four volumes, bound in tan paper and boldly imprinted "Medinet Habu," turned out to be the handwritten daily log in which Hoelscher recorded general comments about the excavation. Teeter said, "These volumes are particularly welcome, for the object registers have frequent references to the detailed plans and drawings in these logs. They are also fascinating reading, because they supply the human and anecdotal side of the massive excavation. The information ranges from notes about meetings with other Egyptologists -- many of whom are now famous figures in the history of Egyptology -- to comments about ancient Egyptian architecture and detailed plans of the areas the archaeologists were excavating. There are also references to the transport of the colossal statue of King Tutankhamun, which is one of our museum's most famous objects."

    Of particular interest are detailed plans and comments on the excavation of the tomb chapels of several women who held the title "Gods' Wife." The daily logs document every step in the clearing of the tombs as well as the archaeologists' musings on the tombs and their contents.

    Both sets of documents will be used by scholars at Chicago to study the artifacts now at the Oriental Institute Museum and the Cairo Museum.