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The New York Times -- December 28, 1999

With New Finds, Egyptology Flowers


Courtesy The British Museum, London
The Indispensable Rosetta Stone
The object that allowed scientists to decipher hieroglyphics was discovered 200 years ago. It set the field of Egyptology in motion, and enthusiasm for the ancient civilization has yet to subside.
Two centuries ago, an engineer with Napoleon's army in Egypt snatched intellectual triumph from the jaws of military defeat by discovering the Rosetta Stone. This marked the start of scientific Egyptology, a field that, more than ever, is bursting with discoveries and new ideas about one of the most splendid and durable civilizations in the ancient world.

Napoleon had landed in the Nile delta the year before, 1798, with plans to seize Egypt and disrupt the overland link in Britain's vital trade route to India. "Soldiers, 40 centuries are looking down on you," Napoleon reminded his troops before leading them to battle within sight of the pyramids of Giza. His army prevailed over the Egyptians, but 10 days later, the French fleet was destroyed by Adm. Horatio Nelson, ending Bonaparte's dream of further conquest.

Of surpassing importance to the scholarship of antiquity, however, Napoleon brought with him a corps of some 150 scientists, geographers and linguists from among the best minds of France, an expression of the Enlightenment in the midst of imperial adventurism. Over several decades, they described and classified all they learned from the ruins of ancient Egypt, including the especially rewarding Rosetta Stone.

Inscriptions on the slab of dark basalt found in the summer of 1799 at the site of ancient Rosetta, near Alexandria, were the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, the formal and ceremonial language of the pharaohs. Scholars could then read the writings on the walls of tombs and temples and on the rolls of moldering papyrus. Opened to them for the first time was more than 3,000 years of the history and religion behind the monumental ruins along the Nile.

"Two hundred years later, we can read ancient Egyptian almost as well as any other foreign language," said Dr. James P. Allen, a curator of Egyptian art and specialist in the culture's language and religion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Perhaps no other branch of archaeology has fascinated the general public longer and deeper. Tourists flock to the massive pyramids outside Cairo and the temple ruins of Thebes up the Nile. At museums people stand in awe before the graceful form of Nefertiti and all the mummies carefully prepared long ago for the afterlife.

Two major new exhibitions of Egyptian art and artifacts, at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are drawing large crowds.

After a thorough cleaning, the Rosetta Stone itself went back on display last summer at the British Museum. True to the axiom of warfare that to the victor goes the spoils, the jewel of the French campaign in Egypt ended up in London.

What is even more remarkable, scholars say, the prodigious explorations of the last two centuries have only whetted public and professional appetites, making Egyptology one of the most robust endeavors of archaeologists. New discoveries have pushed back the beginnings of Egyptian history. New interpretations of earlier findings have refined thinking about the lives of pharaohs and their subjects, the origins and richness of the language and the philosophy of life and death that inspired the pyramids. Yet mysteries abound, driving further searches among the ruins.

"It's a growth field," said Dr. Emily Teeter, a curator of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. "Each year there are probably four or five very significant discoveries. And there's so much material that has been excavated in the past but has not been studied."

This year has been especially rich in discoveries:

• In the desert west of the Nile, between Thebes and Abydos, archaeologists from Yale found inscriptions that they say are the earliest known examples of alphabetic writing. Dated to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 B.C., two or three centuries earlier than previously recognized examples of uses of an alphabet, the writing is in a Semitic script with Egyptian influences.

• In the ruins of a 3,700-year-old town near Abydos, excavators from the University of Pennsylvania uncovered a mayor's mansion. Its grandeur suggested that at the time mayors enjoyed significant affluence and political power, in some cases as much as a reigning pharaoh, and may also have supervised religious activities.

• In the silt of Alexandria harbor, French underwater archaeologists found numerous fallen stone columns, statues, sphinxes and masonry blocks with hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions. Judging by the location, archaeologists said these could be remains of Cleopatra's palace in the last century B.C. Her suicide, immortalized by Shakespeare, was a dramatic stroke in transforming a declining Egypt into a province of the Roman Empire.

• In another exploration into the Roman period, Egyptian archaeologists made what they said was one of the most spectacular discoveries in recent decades. At the Bahariya oasis 230 miles southwest of Cairo, they found a cemetery of buried tombs extending over two square miles. In the first four tombs examined, they counted 105 mummies decorated with elaborate masks and waistcoats covered in gold. As many as 10,000 mummies may yet be uncovered in the place archaeologists are calling the Valley of the Golden Mummies.

All the while, Dr. Kent R. Weeks of the American University of Cairo continued exploring the dark interior of the huge tomb for most of the 52 sons of Ramses II, one of the most powerful pharaohs who reigned in the 13th century B.C. At the time of its discovery in 1995 in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb was hailed as the greatest royal find since Howard Carter in 1922 came upon the treasures of Tutankhamen, the young King Tut.

Dr. Mark Lehner of the University of Chicago kept digging in the quarters inhabited by workers who built the pyramids at Giza, which are the last survivors of the so-called seven wonders of the ancient world. "For those who claim spacemen built the pyramids, we can point to these workers' villages," Dr. Teeter said.

Dr. Barry Kemp of Cambridge University in England excavated more sections of Amarna, site of the capital of Akhenaten and Nefertiti in the 14th century B.C., a revolutionary interlude for Egyptian sculpture and religion.

At Abydos, 250 miles south of Cairo, Dr. Gunter Dreyer, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Egypt, continued research that uncovered evidence of Egyptian kings preceding by two or three centuries the usual date, 3000 B.C., for the start of the early dynastic period. A year ago, he reported finding hieroglyphic inscriptions on pots and bone that were made as early as 3200 B.C., possibly 3400. Although controversial, the inscriptions suggested that writing first appeared in Egypt, not in Mesopotamia, the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq.

"The scale of individual excavations today is small, compared to the early expeditions, but the number is larger than ever before," said Dr. Rita E. Freed, curator of ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art at the Museum of Art in Boston.

"The reason to excavate now is not so much to find beautiful museum pieces but to answer questions, and they're different questions compared to those of early generations," she said. "They are more about the institutions surrounding the temples, and how the people lived. We know about pharaohs but not a whole lot about what you might call the man in the street."

The Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition, "Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids," covers a period of some 500 years, from about 2650 B.C. to 2150 B.C., which ranks as one of the world's most creative epochs. For reasons still not clearly understood, rulers of the Old Kingdom, as the period is called, forged a powerful state and brought people of diverse regions together through a shared national consciousness. They left a stunning physical legacy in the pyramids, the enigmatic Sphinx and statues and other works of art that would define Egyptian culture for centuries to come.

"Egyptians were probably the first to be aware of the nobility inherent in the human form and to express it in art," Heinrich Schäfer, a German art historian, wrote in 1919.

Strolling through the gallery at the Metropolitan, Dr. Allen came to an almost life-size statue of Sepa, a man wearing a kilt and holding a staff. It is one of the earliest known examples of large Egyptian nonroyal statuary and evocative of what was happening in this creative period. "This is Egypt emerging from a two-dimensional background, all flat and obscure, into something that stands out in three dimensions," Dr. Allen said.

A significant shift in understanding ancient Egypt began about 50 years ago, Dr. Allen said, with new interpretations of ancient texts by Henri Frankfort and John Wilson of the University of Chicago. Until then, scholars tended to see everything with Western eyes, often concentrating on what Egypt could tell them about the Bible. A deeper understanding of the nuances of the texts has given scholars a more Egyptian view of the culture.

In previous translations, for example, the word "ka" was thought to mean soul or spirit, which has strong Western theological connotations. Now it is understood, Dr. Allen said, to mean "life force" or "life energy," the difference between the living and the dead. Scholars think these and other interpretive changes are giving them a truer understanding of the Egyptian concept of the afterlife and the metaphorical writings about creation and the cosmos, a way of explaining how everything came from a single source that in some way resembles the Big Bang.

The exhibition at the Boston museum, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," concentrates on another period of political change and artistic creativity. In the 14th century B.C., the pharaoh who became known as Akhenaten assumed the throne and broke with past ideologies, notably the religion of many gods. Shrines and other evidence indicate that most of the people in their homes continued to worship their several gods, but in official art, the only god depicted was Aten, and in the temples, the liturgy included "The Great Hymn to Aten."

Whether Akhenaten was the world's first monotheist is still debated, Dr. Freed said, but it was clear that he tried to change Egyptian religion to a belief in one god who was an all-powerful creator. This god was worshiped through the pharaoh and his chief wife, Nefertiti, who seemed to share her husband's power. The reforms of Akhenaten's 17-year reign came to an end during the time of Tutankhamen, and Egypt returned to most of its old ways.

In the exhibition catalog, Dr. Freed observed, referring to the seat of Akhenaten's reign, "In many respects, Amarna is still with us today: in the concept of a single god, man's intimacy with his deity, naturalistic expression in art, and the ability of a single individual to dramatically influence the lives of so many."

The many unanswered questions and the expectations of new discoveries may drive archaeologists, but why the unending popular fascination with ancient Egypt, ever since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone?

Perhaps it is the mummies. "Most of us got interested in Egypt at a young age by being taken to museums to see the mummies," Dr. Freed said. "Young children discover mummies at the time they are beginning to comprehend death."

Or perhaps it was the civilization's grandeur and gold, its romance and intrigue, its imperial ambitions and vaulting hubris. "For a lot of people," Dr. Allen said, "the big fascination about ancient Egypt is the amazement of discovering how some of their thought processes were so very much like those with which we are familiar today."

The grand architecture surely is a factor. Unlike the rival Sumerians and Assyrians, who had little stone to work with, the pharaohs commanded the erection of awesome temples and tombs meant to last the eternity of their anticipated afterlives. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, which overshadowed Napoleon's troops, rose 482 feet and was the world's tallest structure until the Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889.

"We as modern people believe in progress, of things getting better and more sophisticated as time moves forward," Dr. Teeter said. "So it's with a sense of awe and curiosity that we think about why and how people in antiquity built such things so long ago without the tools we have. We wonder if the Egyptians had some knowledge lost to us today."

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