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A Lucky Find in Egypt

by Bruno Van de Casteele

October 12, 2014

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Donate I really liked the following news item, and for two reasons. Well three, actually, because it’s about archaeology (favorite subject of mine), but also because it features a really lucky once-in-a-lifetime find and because it features experimental archaeology (trying to recreate artifacts using old techniques).

The University of Leuven here in Belgium recently reported [Dutch] on work their Egyptology department did last year. For at least a decade that department has been digging in Dayr al-Barsha in Egypt, specializing in ancient cave graves from about 4,000 years ago (the era of Egypt's Old Kingdom). Mind you, it has nothing to do with pyramids or elaborate sarcophagi, but it is at least as interesting.

By sheer luck, one of the researchers, Marleen De Meyer, found a very interesting plaster death mask. Because it was probably from a robbed grave, the mask lay with its face to the ground in a pile of rubble (sans the owner). She initially thought it was just a pot shard. (Aah... the curse and money maker of every archaeologist: the pot shard.) But when she brought it to the storage tent she turned it around and realized she probably had a career-defining artifact in her hands.

These death masks, made from plaster, are quite rare and not very well studied. The initial idea was that they were modelled. There are a fewproblems with that hypothesis. Firstly, it’s easy to model clay, but not plaster. Secondly, the face would probably look more "artsy" or stylized, but for instance the round bulge of the eyes seems atypical for art from that period. Thirdly, layers of textile were visible, suggesting that the plaster was applied in layers on the face of the defunct person.

So the team went ahead and tried the presumed procedure. The victim of choice was one of the professors, Harco Willems, who volunteered and even had to shave off his beard. The things people do for science...

The result can be seen in the video below or in the stills included here, and it shows a quite convincingly comparable result. It seems therefore probably correct that plaster was applied with textile bands to the face of the deceased person in order to create a lifelike image.

To be correct, no traces of the face at the inside are visible, only clay. What probably happened is that the plaster mask was made, and then removed. The person was then mummified, clay applied to the face and the mask pressed into that clay. The team would really love to check with a CT scan in order to see the “real” face within, and is currently seeking permission to perform such a scan on the artifact.

In all, this is really a nice story, showing that “luck” does indeed exist. And that one should really check all pot shards… you never know!

The video below shows the researchers in action. The interviews are in Dutch but the experimental archeology bit starts at 2:33.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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