Friday, December 10, 2010

TV notes: The Silver Pharaoh Mystery

Thanks very much to Kate Phizackerley (News from the Valley of the Kings blog) for pointing out that this programme was on last night! I was only 10 minutes away from missing it when I saw her post.

The show was produced by PBS. You can find the Image Gallery for the show (and links to other information about it) on the PBS website.

I typed the notes below as I was watching it, which is always a bit of a hit or miss process, so apologies for any vague bits in the summary below. If you watched it please do comment/email with any additions.

The Silver Pharaoh Mystery


For a period of over 5000 years tomb raiders have plundered the graves of Egypt’s pharaohs, with one exception - the tomb of the Silver Pharaoh enshrined in a casket of solid silver. Details of its discovery are still largely unknown because the discovery of the tomb came as the world was plunged into WWII. Now the life and times of the Pharaoh Psusennes I are being pieced together. He lived in Tanis at a time when civil war divided Egypt into north and south. Using source material uncovered by the original excavation, the city and tomb have recently been re-examined by archaeologists and a medic has subjected the Pharaoh’s remains to another analysis.

The Story

In February 1940 Adolf Hitler had advanced into Europe. Egypt was remote from the battlefield but at Tanis in the Delta a French team which had been digging for more than a decade work found that they were under increasing pressure from the approaching war. The excavations were led by French archaeologist Pierre Montet.

Montet dug at Tanis hoping to find link with Holy Land. Through the 1930s the team uncovered the remains of vast temple dedicated to Amun, which was protected by massive mudbrick wall in which Montet believed that tombs might be discovered. At a spot close to mud brick wall at south west corner an enormous tomb complex was uncovered, revealing a whole series of burial chambers. But worst fears confirmed during the initial investigations of the first of the clearly royal tombs because there was a hole in the roof which must have meant that tomb robbers had entered it. The tomb datd to c.850BC and was the 22nd Dynasty (Third Intermediate period) royal tomb of Osorkon II.

Undeterred Montet ordered workmen to extend the excavation to around 10 yards away. A second tomb complex alongside the one that had been ransacked was discovered. On the 15th February the team found what appeared to be an intact tomb., and it is surprising that the tomb robbers missed this when it was so close to its neighbours. Montet entered the antechamber and found the cartouches of the pharaoh Psusennes I, a virtually unknown pharaoh who lived from c.1047-1001BC. The name Psusennes is the Hellenized version. In ancient Egyptian his names were Pasebakhaenniut Aakheperra Setepenamun, meaning "The Star Appearing in the City, Great are the Manifestations of Re, chosen of Amun". He was the son of the founder of the 21st Dynasty, the Pharaoh Smendes (Third Intermediate Period). Psusennes I ruled north of Egypt whilst most of the real wealth and power was concentrated in the south. So who were the northern kings? Montet had the chance to fill out knowledge about this elusive period in the north.

The dooorway of the tomb was still tightly sealed with a block of granite when Montet found it, and this took six days to shatter. When the tomb was entered it was “filled with marvels worthy of 1001 knights” – including objects of great beauty and value. At first there was no sign of a mummy or casket because these were sealed within a huge stone sarcophagus which almost fulled the chamber and was both sculpted and covered in hieroglyphs. The lid alone weighed half a ton. Another stone sarcophagus within it was richly carved and it took another six days to remove them to locate the inner casket.

The casket was left sealed until the visit on the 28th February of King Farouk of Egypt so that Farouk could witness it being opened. What confronted them when they revealed the final coffin was a solid silver casket which is completely unique. Within the remarkable silver casket Psusennes wore a death mask of solid gold. Also discovered in the tomb were huge quantities of lapis lazuli which was imported from Afghanistan and was very valuable. The value of the objects isn’t just in the precious metals but in the quality of the craftsmanship. The wealth of the tomb, the silver coffin and the golden mask demonstrated that this is no small-time war lord or regional ruler but was an indiviudal of power who commanded considerable wealth.

Montet had only days to examine the contents of the tomb because Hitler’s invasion of France was only a short time away. He ordered the tomb to be shut, went back to France and wouldn’t return for five years. The objects were were moved to Cairo Museum for safe-keeping.

Douglas Derry (who had analysed the remains of the body of Tutankhamun) was asked to look at the remains of the king in 1940. The remains were very badly damaged because of the wetness of the Delta which decayed the body. The analysis conducted by Derry seems to have been somewhat cursory because he missed a lot of evidence although he pointed out that the Pharaoh died an old man. For 70 years his bones were stored, almost forgotten, but the remains were recently reviewed by Dr Fawzi Gaballah to determine the Pharaoh’s state of health and his lifestyle. All of the soft tissue had gone but the bones indicated that the Pharaoh was 5ft 5, around 13 stone and was powerfully built. He died a very old man, possibly approaching 80 when the average lifespan at the time was usually around 35 years of age. These results were confirmed by examination of his teeth. Psusennes reigned for 46 years, meaning that he ruled long enough to be able to make a difference, one of the longest ruling Pharaohs. One of the Pharaoh’s vertebrae had been fractured in a way that usually indicates hard work with the upper limbs.

A forensic artist, Melissa Dring, who has worked with the FBI was set to work on the skull and produced a really evocative image of how he may have looked. You can see it on the National Geographic website.

The silver casket was examined by Jon Privett archaeologist and silversmith. Silver is harder and less malleable than gold, requiring it to be heated every now and again to make it continually workable. The craftsmanship was much more demanding than that required for working gold. In all 200lbs of pure silver were used, with some of it formed into sheets so thin and delicate that they were damaged during the removal of the casket. Other parts of it were cast. The silver casket is one of great treasures of Egyptian Museum.

The turmoil that existed in the time of Psusennes was seeded under Ramesses II. over 200 years previously. Before Ramesses II the only two cities of importance were Thebes (Luxor in Upper Egypt) and Memphis (near Cairo in Lower Egypt). Ramesses II created a new capital in the Nile Delta Piramesse (near Qantir) in a frontier zone. This may have thrown Egypt off balance after his reign. Trouble began in Thebes where the only figure with enough authority to challenge a pharaoh was the high priest of Karnak, a political and business leader. Kings would win the favour of the priests, responsible for care in the afterlife by giving them wealth, and putting them into the position of such power that they were eventually able to challenge the pharaohs for power. A High Priest seized the south and the pharaoh was banished to the Delta, with a checkpoint at Memphis. The High Priest Penedjem (c.1070bc) had four sons one of whom became pharaoh in the north and had the title High Priest in the north and made political marriages and alliances. One of the objects from the tomb of Psusennes indicates that he too was a High Priest as well as a pharaoh and he appears to have benefited from Penedjem's legacy.

The exact location of Piramesse was a mystery to archaeologists at the time that Montet was working in Tanis. It had been home to one quarter of a million people but no-one could find it. Montet began to think that Tanis was Piramesse and went on record to say so, mainly because he found stones with the names of Ramesses II at the site. But Montet had made a mistake. His theory sounded good because Tanis was a riverside city which records show Piramesse was too. But the Nile had many Delta branches and they moved over time due to flooding and siltation and Montet's findings were eventually questioned. Instead 15 miles away new evidence pointed to a long lost branch of the Nile where Ramesside pottery was found and Ground Penetrating Radar was used which found the foundations of a huge city complex, complete with temple, military installations, stables, and vast numbers of other structures. Under the crops of today was an ancient city. It is thought that the Nile became so badly silted up that it switched direction, leaving Piramesse literally high and dry and completely unsustainable. So Psusennes had the great temples dismantled and moved 15km away to Tanis, an amazing feat, demonstrating his organization and authority.

Pierre Montet died in 1966

Comments about the show

The story is put into context with a brief history of Egypt from the beginning giving key dates which is useful. the show highlights problems filling gaps in timeline, particularly during the so-called Third Intermediate periods (which the show simply calls the "intermediate period") and the problems that those gaps cause for archaeologists in terms of the evidence needed to construct histories. The show also gives a brief description of relationship between Egypt and holy land.

Although actors are used to dramatize some of the narrative, this is confined to the archaeological investigations and there aren't any of those infuriating reconstructions of the Pharaonic period that so many shows insist on making.

The account of the discovery of the tomb is excellent, and the details about the pharaoh which resulted from the new examination of the body are on considerable interest, but there is remarkably little information about the Pharaoh in the context of Tanis and the role that Tanis played, or how Psusennes actually accumulated his wealth. There is also nothing about where the silver and gold were sourced. It would have been interesting to know what, if any, the relationship (political, social, economic) was with Upper Egypt during his reign. I found the absence of how Lower Egypt actually functioned during his reign to be the most frustrating part of the show.

There are very few images of the finds from the tomb, or the tomb itself, which is a real shame. Even the footage of the silver casket weren't brilliant. This is a real downside of the show.

On the other hand there are lots of of great images and footage of Tanis and some lovely GPR images of the Piramesse city beneath the fields of crops.

There are, as usual, far too many comparisons with Indiana Jones!!

Egyptology experts quoted

Peter Lacovara
Selima Ikram
Fawzi Gaballah
Jon Privett
Melissa Dring

Radio Times summary:
Radio Times

Silver Pharaoh Mystery

Thursday 09 December
8:00pm - 9:00pm
Channel 5

Documentary exploring the life of one of Egypt's forgotten pharaohs as historians take a fresh look at Psusennes I's remains, which were found intact by Pierre Montet in 1940. The discovery of the mummy encased in an unusual silver casket was overshadowed by the Second World War, but experts now hope to learn more about the powerful ruler and shed light on a murky period of Egyptian history.

Other Info about Psusennes I:

PBS (makers of the show with video preview if you happen to be in the right part of the world, which the UK apparently isn't)
National Geographic Photos


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, I missed it and only remembered when I was nearly at a lecture.


Drastic Plastic said...

I saw the programme myself. I was just delighted to see something about Montet's work, so little known as it is. The producers rightly thought that it ought to have been massive when it was discovered.

I found the programme very watchable, actually. I'm sure we're all tired of the cliched Egypt programmes - this avoided all the stuff we're all tired of.

I agree that more footage of the tomb would have been good. But it was a much better programme than perhaps comes across from your notes.

Andie said...

I'm sorry that I appear to have come over as less than enthusiastic because I really enjoyed the programme, but I do see that my comments at the end were about the things that the show lacked rather than what it delivered. There is only a limited amount that can be shown in an hour.

I knew almost nothing about Psusennes I or about Montet's work at Tanis and I went away afterwards to find out more, which I always think is the sign of a successful documentary.

It still amazes me that the discovery is so little known, and perhaps if the programme had shown more of the items found in the tomb it would have highlighted how very rich and special the discovery was. But perhaps they couldn't get the access they needed.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the summary. I'll have to see if I can maybe catch a rerun sometime. I love the image of Psusennes from NatGeo. He looks live such a crotchety old man.