Egyptians Moving Large Statue

Physicists Might Be Jerks and Other Things I Learned While Researching Egypt

For the past 3 weeks I’ve been holed up in the library at Rosicrucian Park, a magnificent place that is also home to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, one of my favorite museums in the country. I needed to do some deep research for the novel I’m writing, and I figured this particular research library would be an excellent place to do just that. I was not disappointed.

One of the great things about researching there is that they have several older Egyptology books, some dating to the early 1900s (oh man… I typed that like it was some old timey century ago but that’s literally the century I was born in… ack). One of the interesting things I discovered as I went through some of these older books is that the paradigms of Egyptology that I’m used to encountering in books written in the past 40 years or so are not the paradigms that have always existed. Some scholars at the beginning of everything had different–and sometimes more interesting–ideas about ancient Egyptian culture that have fallen away. Some have fallen away due to more finds and better understanding of the language. But some seem to have dissipated for no good reason. I find it all fascinating.

One aspect of the shifting paradigms is shifting ideas about how advanced or primitive the ancient Egyptians were compared to the ancient Greeks or Romans or even modern peoples, for whatever value of modern one is talking about. I found varying views on the types of tools and simple machines the Egyptians must have had for them to have built massive monuments and temples of multi-ton granite stones, varying views on how sophisticated their knowledge of astronomy was, and varying views on the meaning of their mythologies. So much to take in!

One particular aspect of this caught my eye while researching, which I wanted to share with you. That is the supposed mystery of how Egyptians were able to move such large stones.

A few years ago some physicists published a paper called “Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand,” which proved that one needed less force to pull a heavy object over wet sand than dry sand. The way science journalists got everyone’s attention when reporting on this somewhat boring topic is with headlines like “The surprisingly simple way Egyptians moved massive pyramid stones without modern technology” and “Solved! How Ancient Egyptians Moved Massive Pyramid Stones.” First of all, nothing in this research paper proves anything about pyramid stones, but clickbait headlines gotta clickbait, right?

Anyway, the reason why most people remember these articles is because of this:

It has long been believed that Egyptians used wooden sleds to haul the stone, but until now it hasn’t been entirely understood how they overcame the problem of friction. … “The Egyptians… placed the heavy objects on a sledge that workers pulled over the sand. Research … revealed that the Egyptians probably made the desert sand in front of the sledge wet.”

Adding more evidence to the conclusion that Egyptians used water is a wall painting in the tomb of Djehutihotep. A splash of orange and gray, it appears to show a person standing at the front of a massive sledge, pouring water onto the sand just in front of the progressing sled. What this man was doing has been a matter of great debate and discussion.

Egyptians Moving Large Statue

Bonn [one of the researchers] wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “In fact, Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation…”

When I first read this my thought was: Ugh, typical Egyptologists/archaeologists, assuming something practical is ritualistic. Cuz, well, this happens often.

But then.

As I was going through older books, I came across that picture of the pulling of the giant stone statue several times, and every single time I did, the author explained the picture or captioned it with something along the lines of: Workers pulling granite statue of the pharaoh while someone pours water on the sand to help make moving it easier.

Um. But wait. I thought that “Egyptologists had been interpreting the water as part of a purification ritual, and had never sought a scientific explanation.”

HMM.

Either the early Egyptologists were smarter than the ones that came later about these things or maybe, just maybe, the physicist who gave that quote doesn’t know what the hell he’s fucking talking about and/or made it seem like the people in a different scientific discipline than he is were being stupid.

Quite honestly, it could be either or both.

I want to run over all those articles about this thing with a giant CITATION NEEDED stamp.

Science journalism has so much to answer for.

At any rate, I am very grateful for the opportunity to spend time reading these older books and widening my understanding of ancient Egyptian culture as well as some of the people who were formative to Egyptology. This research trip was made possible by the folks who support me via Patreon, and I am so, so appreciative of them! They’ve put up with a lot of lag from me, but next month I’ll be able to get back on track and start sending them chapters again.

If you would like to read more about my research finds, I’ve been blogging about them on Patreon for all patrons. I have a few more research posts coming this week. If you’re interested in seeing them, click on over!

Tempest Challenge - History According to Women

History, According to Women | The Tempest Challenge

Today is the close of women’s history month! It doesn’t quite loom as large, or as annoyingly, as Black History Month in terms of the kinds of narratives it perpetuates about women. There’s still probably far too narrow a focus on what Women’s History means (I see a bunch of suffragette stuff bandied about). The thing that interests me most about women and history is how different history looks when women write it.

Take the research I’m currently engaged in. The novel I’m writing is a historical fantasy novel set in a real time in earth’s history. I’ve spent over a decade reading books and journal articles about Ancient Egypt for various versions of this project. A few years ago I hit a point where I decided that I just wasn’t going to read any more books on the subject written by men. The more I began to understand my research subject, the more I could see how much patriarchal nonsense plays a role in how everything from artifacts to culture are interpreted and presented.

I recently picked up Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman and found in the introduction a reaffirmation of the observations I’d made.

…another problem I encountered was the sexual and religious bias of many of the erudite scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of the available information in both archaeology and ancient religious history was compiled and discussed by male authors. The overwhelming prevalence of male scholars, and the fact that nearly all archaeologists, historians and theologians of both sexes were raised in societies that embrace the male-oriented religions of Judaism or Christianity, appeared to influence heavily what was included and expanded upon and what was considered to be minor and hardly worth mentioning.

…Despite the discovery of temples of the Goddess in nearly every Neolithic and historic excavation, Werner Keller writes that the female deity was worshiped primarily on “hills and knolls,” simply echoing the words of the Old Testament. Professor W. F. Albright, one of the leading authorities on the archaeology of Palestine, wrote of the female religion as “orgiastic nature worship, sensuous nudity and gross mythology.” He continued by saying that “It was replaced by Israel with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism and its severe code of ethics.” It is difficult to understand how these words can be academically justified after reading of the massacres perpetrated by the Hebrews on the original inhabitants of Canaan as portrayed in the Book of Joshua, especially chapters nine to eleven.

This part in particular caught my eye, given my proclivities:

In 1961 a series of mistakes was described by Professor Walter Emery, who took part in the excavations of some of the earliest Egyptian tombs. He tells us that “The chronological position and status of Meryet-Nit is uncertain, but there is reason to suppose that she might be the successor of Zer and the third sovereign of the First Dynasty.” Writing of the excavation of this tomb by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1900 he says, “At that time it was believed that Meryet-Nit was a king, but later research has shown the name to be that of a woman and, to judge by the richness of the burial, a queen.” He goes on to say, “In 1896 de Morgan, then Director of the Service of Antiquities discovered at Nagadeh a gigantic tomb which, from the objects found in it, was identified as the burial place of Hor-Aha, first king of the First Dynasty. However later research has shown that it is more probable that it was the sepulchre of Nit-Hotep, Hor-Aha’s mother.” And again he tells us that “On the mace of Narmer a seated figure in a canopied palanquin was once thought to be that of a man, but a comparison of similar figures on a wooden label from Sakkara shows that this is improbable and that it almost certainly represents a woman.” Yet, despite his own accounts of this series of assumptions that the richest burials and royal palanquins of the past were for men, rather than women, in describing the tomb of King Narmer he then states, “This monument is almost insignificant in comparison with the tomb of Nit-Hotep at Nagadeh and we can only conclude that this was only the king’s southern tomb and that his real burial place still awaits discovery …” Though some pharaohs did build two tombs, one might expect a “possibly” or “probably” rather than such an absolute conclusion and the implied dismissal of the possibility that, in that period of earliest dynastic Egypt, a queen’s tomb just might have been larger and more richly decorated than a king’s. (emphasis mine)

If you’re interested in this subject you should read the entire introduction because I can’t excerpt all the good parts here.

When God Was A Woman was written in the 1970s, but lo these almost 40 years later, this is still a problem. That’s because many of these foundational ideas of archaeology aren’t being challenged, they’re being taught. So new discoveries are often analyzed through these faulty, patriarchal lenses.

It’s not just men who do this, mind you. On one of my trips to Powell’s I came across a book I should have wanted to buy immediately: Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen by Joyce Tyldesley. But when I read the introduction I came across a paragraph that made me shut the entire thing and fling it back at the shelf.

The women of the 18th Dynasty enjoyed a freedom that made them unique in the ancient world. They had the same legal rights as men, and were permitted to own property, to work outside the home, and to live alone and raise their children without the protection of a male guardian.

Pause right here. This kind of paragraph can be found in many books or articles that tackle the subject of women in Ancient Egypt. These conclusions are based on several things, including existing records around Egyptian law, plus first person observations of historians and travelers from ancient times. This is where I wish most of these paragraphs would end. Yet there is always a But. Or, in this case, a:

Nevertheless, few women received a formal education and, in a country where maybe between two and ten per cent of the population was literate, few women could read or write. Women were not expected to train for careers.

Pausing again to slam my fist on a table. Because first, no one ever backs that bit about the formal education up with actual data and, second, what is the criteria for “formal education”? Is it “training men receive to do jobs generally done by men in these times”? I bet if you asked Joyce Tyldesley if masonry required a “formal education” she’d say yes, but if we asked her if weaving required one, she’d say no. And she’d be wrong.

Also, that line about “few women could read or write” is always, ALWAYS included in these things. But if less than ten percent of the population could read or write then that means few men could read or write, so why are we taking this time to single out women?

And finally, what constitutes a career in Ancient Egypt? Once again I’m going to bet if we asked, the answers would reveal this is some patriarchal nonsense. Because:

They were expected to marry and produce children, and mothers enjoyed a position of great respect within the home and the wider community. Nefertiti was no exception. Born a non-royal member of Egypt’s elite, she was married as a young girl to the most enigmatic individual in Egyptian history. By the age of thirty Nefertiti had borne at least six children and had transformed herself into a semi-divine human being. Meanwhile her husband, Akhenaten, had instigated a religious revolution and founded a capital city.

I don’t have time to dismantle all the nonsense around the idea of women being wives and mothers means they couldn’t have careers or read or anything, because this would turn into a book and other people have written far better ones on this than I could. But do you see how she positions Nefertiti as a person who was just expected to produce children, which she did, proving she was just like any other woman, but hey she was married to an extraordinary man! This is a book about Nefertiti.

You see why I put it back on the shelf.

And yeah, Joyce Tyldesley is a woman, and she still falls under the sway of patriarchal nonsense, because she was educated by the institutions that uphold it. That’s going to be true for many of the books I come across in my research quest. Still, of the books about Egypt, and about history in general, that I read, the ones I see stepping out of the shadow of patriarchy are all written by women. I’m more willing to give those books my time and money.

Many of the research books I’ve come across in the last few years are written by women who seem to acknowledge that early pioneers in this field had unexamined biases and that their conclusions and conjectures need not be dismissed, but rather re-examined in that light. Still, they are willing to step back and see new things, reach different conclusions, and present a different paradigm.

And that’s so important, not just in archaeology, but in many disciplines that examine the past. The assumptions and base viewpoints of the scholars doing the research will always have an impact. And it would not surprise me to find that across many different history categories there are women writing books, papers, articles, and more that are more willing to poke at those paradigms. It probably costs them to do so. That’s another good reason to seek out their work.

Here are my current favorite books that touch on Ancient Egypt written by women. I’m always on the hunt for new ones. If you know of any, please do share them in the comments.

When God Was A Woman by Merlin StoneWhen God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone

This book doesn’t focus on Egypt specifically, yet it’s been very valuable to me as I try to construct a matrifocal[1] culture for my book. Stone talks about the evidence she found for how spiritualities and religions with goddesses at the center as well as how women were treated in the cultures where this was prevalent. Then she goes into how matrifocal cultures were invaded and replaced by patrifocal ones. It’s all fascinating and still relevant many decades on. More relevant right now, I’d say.

Hathor Rising The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt by Alison Roberts Ph.D.Hathor Rising: The Power of the Goddess in Ancient Egypt by Alison Roberts Ph.D.

The way Dr. Roberts illuminates the story of the goddess Hathor through textual, mythological, and archaeological evidence is amazing. Hathor is so much more than just Egypt’s Aphrodite, and is so intertwined with the other major female deities as well as the history and evolution of dynastic Egypt that I’m surprised more alternative Egyptologists don’t spend more time on her. The author is not necessarily of that alternative set; I do find it interesting that the press where she chose to publish this leans heavily toward books on spirituality and not serious books on Ancient Egypt.

The Dawning Moon of the Mind Unlocking the Pyramid Texts by Susan Brind MorrowThe Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts by Susan Brind Morrow

If, like me, you have ever tried to read the Pyramid Texts or the so-called Book of the Dead and went: “The hell? This doesn’t make sense…” you need to read this book. It’s a new translation of the texts by a woman who understands poetry, knows multiple languages derived from Ancient Egyptian, and views the texts from a spiritual perspective most of the original translators don’t. The middle of the book is the straight up translation, but the first and third parts go through the texts line by line, column by column, explaining the author’s conclusions and readings. It’s so wonderful.

The Woman Who Would Be King Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara CooneyThe Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

I haven’t read this one yet! I’m recommending it, anyway, based on the reviews that I’ve read, including this one from a woman Egyptologist on Goodreads. Hatshepsut may be the protagonist of my next book in the Steampunk Egypt books, so this is near the top of my To Read pile. I am side-eyeing that cover, though.


I do have a few other go to Egyptology books that I always keep around written by men. So let’s not hear any of you saying BUT BUT BUT YOU’RE MISSING OUT BLAARRGGG because I’m not. Going forward, though, if an Egyptology book isn’t written by a woman or a trans person or a non-binary person, it’s going to have to prove itself to me in several specific ways before I get too deep into it.

For those who venture into the comments, which books about history written by women are your favorites?

Footnotes

  1. Matrifocal is a new term I heard at this year’s ICFA conference. It encompasses matriarchal and matrilineal, which aren’t exactly the same thing. It’s a nice umbrella term.[]

Life is Compliated, I’ll Talk About Tarot, Instead

Life is Compliated, I'll Talk About Tarot, Instead

There are about 7 million things I need to attend to, but due to various life stuff, I haven’t been able to.  And, of course, I’ve been quiet on the blog for two days.  Horrors!

So, let’s talk about something fun: Tarot.

I’ve been reading various things about tarot for months because I’m writing a kids book for CatsCurious Press based on tarot.  Yes, I know, this is the first time you’re hearing about this. I kept waiting and waiting to make the announcement and now I am just like: yes, book deal, moving on.  Sometimes I can be strange.

ANYWAY, tarot books. After coming across more than my fair share of really silly books about tarot I pinged my homie Barth Anderson, because he wrote a novel about tarot.  Tarot and a bunch of other crazy mythological shit, and you know how I love the mythological shit. The Magician and The Fool is a pretty awesome book and I’m going to talk about it in a sec.

Back to Barth.  I asked him if he could point me toward some non-stupid books.  We chatted a bit about tarot and crazy new-age books and sucklike.  He pointed me toward one book, and in looking for that book at the store I came across this one: The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. This book is interesting, particularly the history bits. I’m going to use a few of the ideas in constructing my story, yay. Reading that book made me want to read The Magician and The Fool again, because I was trying to remember how much of the history stuff Barth mentioned there.  So, I did.

When I first read this book, I was totally hooked.  For people like me who are totally into mythology and ancient mysteries, this was some serious crackfic.  I liked it just as much the second time around, but had the same feeling that all the threads were not resolved to my satisfaction. Possibly because I want answers to ancient mysteries and care less about the character arcs being resolved. This is completely opposite from my normal reactions to fiction — this must be how hard SF readers feel about Spin.

After I finished The Magician and The Fool, I had a serious itch to pick up one of my many tarot decks. I went through a period where I scooped up a bunch of decks based on a variety of reasons. I only have two decks I ever regularly used, though: the Goddess deck and the William Blake deck, which is annoyingly obscure. I had to buy it from the dude who created it because it wasn’t available on Amazon at the time. I only use the Blake deck for artistic/creative work. I lost the book to the Goddess deck a while ago and felt kind of lost without it. But the desire to throw down was really strong, so I pulled the deck out and decided to see what happened if I just tried to interpret the cards themselves.

And now it’s as if I’ve always known what the cards mean even though I didn’t before. My brain is all inside-out!

I’ve done a few readings in the past couple of days and just as spot on as I used to be. (Yes, I used to be kind of good at reading.) This is very weird to me, and I can’t even explain why it is so weird. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I crack the Blake deck again, because that one is even more mind-bending than “regular” tarots.

Okay, back to 7 million things.

Cosmology

Cosmology

I’m hitting a strange wall in writing this novel now in that I have not nailed down the cosmology of the culture, therefore I can’t write the interstitial bits between the chapters explaining what the purpose of the different neighborhoods are, which all depend on the cosmology.  This does not completely stop me from writing the chapters because I can work around it, come back and change, etc.  But having that nailed down would really help me figure out what needs to happen in some of the pivotal parts.

When I first conceived of the city, I put it in an alternate universe of dynastic Egypt where certain stupidities did not happen.  But now I’m waffling — I’m not sure if I want the timeframe to be dynastic Egypt or pre-dynastic.  And I don’t know if I want my gods and goddesses to be actual deities or closer to the indigenous concept of NTRs (the word some Egyptologists translate as gods) as senses or aspects of consciousness.  The reason for all this waffling is that I’m reading some books by alternative Egyptologists, some of which I’ve read before (but it’s becoming obvious to me that I’ve forgotten a fair bit of the info), and they keep presenting theories that make me want to rework the cosmology and some parts of the culture to fit them.  At the same time, I feel like if I tried to incorporate all of this stuff, I’ll end up with a culture so alien and strange no one will be able to relate.  And then there’s the stuff that would also totally mess up my overall plot, which I cannot have.  But… it’s all so interesting!

Right now I’m resolved to finish the books, then try to sort out all the ideas and such in my head.  I obviously need a cosmology and culture that feels real nd thought-out, but I am afraid of too much complexity overwhelming the story.

And the final thing I am trying to keep in mind is that I’m writing a novel and not a historical essay.  I’m not even writing a historical novel, but a fantasy novel set in a fantasy world that is based on an actual historical period.  And therefore I am allowed to make stuff up.  I actually do need to remind myself of this when I go into Writing Egypt mode because I’ve done so much research on this stuff and I love the real history and culture and want to be true to those things I love.  Still, it’s my novel, I am allowed to make shit up.

Right?