The History of Archaeology in Action, or, In Which “X” May Actually Mark The Spot

First, thanks to Shereif Nasr, Chris Naunton, and Meegan Neeb for helping in my adventure.

When I was in Cairo in September, not only was I doing research for a new project, I was also having fun.  How can you not?  Cairo demands you enjoy yourself.  From the beauty of the Nile, to the energy of the city and the fun-loving people who live there, it’s hard not to join in.  On the flip side of that, Cairo can make you tired, and quickly so.  The energy the city gives off also means you use a lot of energy, too.

The Nile, Cairo Tower, 6th October Bridge

The Nile, Cairo Tower, 6th October Bridge

There are so many options—the new, modern, desert developments offer high-end shopping; the older, 19th century buildings offer hints at the city’s “belle epoque;” the even older medieval souks offer textiles and tourist trinkets as well as important cultural experience.

El Fishawy

El Fishawy

Turkish coffee and mint tea at Fishawy

Turkish coffee and mint tea at Fishawy

But this is not a magazine article or advert for visiting Cairo, even though it is an amazing city and you should go.  No, it is a tale of me, a historian, practicing my craft.

I met a childhood friend of mine who had never been to Cairo, and as I had lived there from 2010-2011 I acted as a sort of guide for her.  Our first day, we wandered the Egyptian museum, and went further into the city (which I will tell you about in another post) making friends at every turn who were only too happy to help us find where we needed to go.

The second day was what I like to call Pyramid Day.  This is a day everyone must do.  When I lived in Cairo, I usually booked our neighborhood taxi driver, or a big van through my university, but this time we decided to book through the hotel, the recently reopened Ramses Hilton, just behind Tahrir Square and the Egyptian museum.  The American Express company’s system was a bit expensive, but we got a giant van all to ourselves with an Egyptologist as our guide.  That was actually really helpful because, as I have training in Egyptology, I’ve been a historian of the discipline for 13 years so a lot of that science information is pretty much gone.  For example, I can tell you who dug a site, when, for how long, and what this means in the history of Egyptology, but I struggle to remember who lived at that site, when they lived there, and where that fits in ancient Egyptian history.  So, our excellent guide Sherief was crucial to our day.  He got his Egyptology degree from Cairo University, and it showed.  He was extremely well-trained, funny, and answered all of our questions.  He liked to challenge me one he found out I was a historian.  He usually won those challenges.  He was pretty great in that I mentioned I love fresh dates, so he got us a bag of them from the date palms near Dashur.  YUM.

Fresh dates!

Fresh dates!

Usually I prefer starting at the Giza plateau, since it takes so long to see that entire pyramid complex, but Shereif suggested starting at the oldest and working our way to the newest pyramids.  So, we started at Dashur, with the Red, Bent, and Black pyramids.

View from the Red Pyramid entrance.

View from the Red Pyramid entrance. There is a military installation in the foreground, the Step Pyramid of Djoser in the background.

Red Pyramid

Red Pyramid

We went to Saqqara and saw the Step Pyramid and the Serapeum.  The Serapeum is OPEN, you guys.  And it was beautiful.



Serapeum corridor

Serapeum corridor. There are windows in the new wood floors to show you the uneven ground below.

Sarcophagus of an Apis Bull

Sarcophagus of an Apis Bull–these things were HUGE

We ate lunch at a tourist restaurant with good food and kitties who wanted you to share your food.  Then, we went back to Cairo for the Giza pyramids.  At Giza, I made Meegan ride a camel.  Everyone should do it on the plateau, even if just for a little while.

We went inside the smallest of the three big pyramids, that of Menkaure.  It was my first time in this pyramid and it was worth it.  You should go into Khufu’s pyramid, too, but don’t skip Menkaure.  We also wandered down to the Sphinx.  But before we went to the Sphinx, we did a little search for a “lost” tomb.

Flinders Petrie arrived at the Giza plateau in the early 1880s in order to measure them to disprove Piazzi Smyth’s claims that there was some sort of special “pyramid inch.”  Petrie, ever the practical scientist, decided to stay in a tomb on the plateau.  It was free, and in an 1886 article in The English Illustrated Magazine wrote that “no better lodgings are to be had anywhere for solidity and equable temperature; the minor advantages may be a question of taste, such as the gratis supply of ancient bones or mummy cloth in the dust and sand of your floor.”   He realized there were other options, but, he argued, for the money, “the tomb is best.”*

There is a famous picture (famous to Egyptologists, anyway) of Petrie posing outside of his favorite tomb:

Petrie at his rock cut tomb in Giza, 1880.  He kept the goat for fresh milk.

Petrie at his rock cut tomb in Giza, 1880. He kept the goat for fresh milk.

For years, no one really knew where this tomb was.  Then, Christopher Naunton, the Director of the Egypt Exploration Society, and his team were working on a documentary about Petrie–they found the tomb.  The documentary is great.  BBC4s The Man Who Discovered Egypt is all about Petrie’s work in Egypt from the 1880s until the late 1930s.  Naunton and the team followed in Petrie’s steps in Egypt, which included finding the first place he stayed while in the country.  He recreated the image for the documentary, and put it on his website.

Since he found it after I moved back to the US, I knew that the next time I went to Cairo, I needed to see it.  I asked Chris for a map to the tomb, and he drew it out on a little piece of paper for me, and even put an “X” where the tomb should be.  I showed this map to Shereif and he was pretty excited to help me find it!  To be honest, I imagine that Meegan and I were not his normal tourists.

Shereif knows his way around the plateau and pretty much led me straight to the tomb.

It was down a cliff on the edge of the plateau.

It was down a cliff on the edge of the plateau.

Once you got down the cliff, your view from the tombs was the urban encroachment.

Once you got down the cliff, your view from the tombs was the urban encroachment.  Golf course in the background.

I realized when we got down there that I hadn’t brought a picture of Petrie at the tomb, so I wondered how I would recognize it.  But really, I recognized it right away.

Outside the tomb!  It was the three holes on the top of the door that keyed me in.

Outside the tomb! It was the three holes on the top of the door that keyed me in.

Guys, I totally copied Chris on this idea–posing like Petrie and pairing the pictures (see link to his site above).



Sure, I’m missing the door and the goat, but otherwise, it was the same.

It was such a fun day, with Meegan and Shereif, but this was the highlight!  After seeing this picture for years and years, I finally got to be in the place.  In the study of history, place and space are so important.  That’s why we want to go to the pyramids, or to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, or to Stonehenge, or to the trenches on the World War I front in France.  We want to see where history happened, what people experienced, what their point of view would have been.  I can see why Petrie would have chosen this tomb.  It was closed off (if you had a door) and is steps from the pyramids.  It was free, but close to the village of Giza for supplies when he needed them.  It was–and still is–off the beaten path for tourists.

Where do you want to go??  Will X mark the spot?

*W. M. Flinders Petrie, “A Digger’s Life,” The English Illustrated Magazine (March 1886): 440-41

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3 Responses to The History of Archaeology in Action, or, In Which “X” May Actually Mark The Spot

  1. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    Excellent post by Kate, and cheerful, so in complete contrast to me then!

  2. Pingback: The History of Archaeology in Action, Part 2: James Breasted was a Fiji…? | Adventures in History and Archaeology

  3. Pingback: Liverpool and the Garstang Museum | HARN Weblog

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