Transcript

Ancient Egyptian bling

Mark EcclestonMark Eccleston
Email: m.eccleston@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 12.8MB].

iTunes

Visit this channel at La Trobe on iTunesU.

Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith. And sitting there beside me is somebody from the archaeology department, it's Dr. Mark Eccleston. Thank you for joining me, Mark.

Mark Eccleston:

No problem, Matt.

Matt Smith:

You're here today to talk to me about some ancient Egyptian findings that you've been finding.

Mark Eccleston:

Yes. We've been finding findings, yes.

Matt Smith:

Tell me about the discoveries that you've been making.

Mark Eccleston:

Well there is a couple of different parts to it. There are things we've been finding on site in Egypt. And then the project I've been doing with the physics department at the synchrotron, you would be looking at materials that we've got in the museum collection here at La Trobe. So the material from Egypt is from the site of Amarna, which was a royal capital in about 1250 B.C. And I've been looking a workshop activity there, so metal working and glazing and pottery making at that site at the royal capital.

Matt Smith:

What sort of objects have you been looking at?

Mark Eccleston:

We've been looking at metal objects made of bronze or copper alloy and glazed objects called faience. Egyptologists call them faience era, glazed bead or amulet kind of material and pottery.

Matt Smith:

So what sort of uses were these materials for?

Mark Eccleston:

They would've had a domestic kind of use. People in household would have used them. For the metal objects it would've been tools and weapons as well. Pottery would've had a domestic use either within the household for storing liquids, grains or solid or for cooking in and glazed material related for jewellery for decoration. They were sometimes handed out at political festivals or religious festivals working on propaganda material or they're used in graves as grave goods.

Matt Smith:

OK. So it's sounds a bit like ancient Egyptian bling then.

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah. Some of the glazed material was definitely bling.

Matt Smith:

What sort of period are we talking about here?

Mark Eccleston:

It's called the Egyptian New Kingdom, so we're talking about 1250 BC. It's actually just before the reign of Tutankhamun. It was Tutankhamun's father and he revolutionized the Egyptian religion and society, redirected the Egyptian religious practice to focus on one god and also on himself a bit more and he relocated the entire Egyptian bureaucracy away from where it had been, at Thebes which is near modern Luxor to this new site of Amarna which is about halfway between where modern Cairo and Luxor are on the north valley.

Matt Smith:

So it was Akhenaten?

Mark Eccleston:

Akhenaten, yeah. That's right.

Matt Smith:

Did it change the way that Egyptians were manufacturing their bling?

Mark Eccleston:

It didn't really change the way they were manufacturing their bling. But the advantage of this site is that it was never occupied before Akhenaten was pharaoh. He moved everything there. They were there for about 20 years or so. And then they moved away again. So we've got a very good snapshot of how every aspect of daily life was organized. We have workshops and houses that were only occupied for a relatively short amount of time in archaeological terms. And we can get a really good snapshot of what was happening in the life of people and the way they made things and use things at this particular period in history.

Matt Smith:

You've got your artefacts. What's the next step?

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah, the next step is to try and work out from my point of view how they were made and the process of actually making them. So we had a house that was excavated recently and we know that in the courtyard of this house that they were making metal objects. So they were melting bronze casting it into objects in this courtyard. And beside that they were also making these glazed beads and other plaques and tiles and other amulets. And we know that the raw material that's used in both on them is copper, which is the colour which was added to the glaze to make it turn turquoise blue so it's making a synthetic turquoise material.

Matt Smith:

Counterfeiting it a bit.

Mark Eccleston:

Kind of counterfeiting it. You're making a cheap knock off version of it if you like.

Matt Smith:

And you said you're analysing these artefacts using the synchrotron?

Mark Eccleston:

That's right, yeah.

Matt Smith:

What does it involve and how does that work?

Mark Eccleston:

That involves taking the objects to in this case either Clayton where the Australian synchrotron is or to Hamburg in Germany where we've accessed the German synchrotron with the collaboration of Peter Kappen who is a physicist here at La Trobe. He and I have been working on this material. We can take whole beads and put them in the synchrotron.

Because of the properties of the light that's generated by the synchrotron and the very high-tech nature of the facility, we're able to get a very detailed information about the structure or the makeup of these objects by putting them in and either targeting very small areas of whole objects, whereas in the past we would've had to cut it off and crush it up and dissolve it in acid or something maybe. And museum curators don't like us doing that to their objects understandably.

Matt Smith:

So it sounds like a less destructive way of doing research.

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah. And this was to try and demonstrate that this was possible. What we've done so far is like a pilot study to take some objects that are held in the Australian Institute of Archaeology collection here at La Trobe, take them to the synchrotron and see whether it's possible to get good results by analysing these non-destructively. So we can fire the beam of light at them and send x-ray and look at the structure of the copper within the glaze.

Matt Smith:

Does it give you insight into how the object was made at all?

Mark Eccleston:

Hopefully it does. At the moment we've got further work to do on it. But we're getting some idea of how the actual raw materials were mixed together and how they were fired. And we can tell that from looking at the kilns or the ovens that are in this house. And we can see how they would have been fired. And I have been able to replicate that in the field in Egypt. I built a replica of one of these ovens and manufacture the glazed beads in that oven to see physically how it would've been done.

But then we can look at the possible raw materials whether they're using copper minerals like malachite or turquoise or azurite that the Egyptians were known to mine and whether you could add that to the quartz and the salt that you need to make the glazed bead, whether they were adding scrap metal to it or whether they were doing some other primitive taking rust off copper or copper objects or soaking it in a liquid like urine or fruit acid and extracting the copper in that way. And up until now we've got no idea how they added the copper. We know the copper makes the glaze go blue. But we have no idea how they added the copper to the glaze.

Matt Smith:

So it looks like they still have some secrets from you.

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah, they still do have some secrets from us.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, it sounds like you get some quite detailed information from these. Can you tell where the raw materials came from in the world?

Mark Eccleston:

We can get an idea of that from the results we've got so far. We've got fingerprint of copper minerals which seem to suggest that may have been coming from Jordan based on the types of copper minerals that are in the glaze. So it won't tell us directly where it's from. But by looking at the known geology of different copper mines where the Egyptians were actually getting a lot of copper minerals to smelt into copper metal, we can look at that and then look at the analytical results and try and match them up. At the moment we've got a possible match for the body find and copper mines in Jordan.

Matt Smith:

So that sort of information can maybe tell you about their mining practices or even their territory or their trade practices as well.

Mark Eccleston:

That's right, yeah, by using these results. Hopefully when we work into the broader study of metals in mining that I'm doing from a more archaeological point of view, we can combine all these data and the data from the synchrotron and help us better understand broader economic and trading aspects as well as very fine detail about who was actually making these and where in villages. So that goes from broad macro kind of scale to the micro scale of who was making things.

Matt Smith:

From all of these what sort of things can you find out about the ancient Egyptian people and about how they were making these?

Mark Eccleston:

Partly because these workshops seem to have been in houses, we're able to try and imply something about who may have been doing the work within the household. And we know from other archaeological models and from anthropological work of looking at industry in more contemporary society in the past 100 or 200 years that women and children are often doing work in households and that men are more stereotypically doing work in specialized factories.

So we can start to build up a picture of broader family involvement of maybe women and children and men in these industries within houses in Egypt at this time. We know this to have been the case probably in industries like the textile industry. But in industries where you normally heat things up and burn them or get high temperature like pottery making and metal working and glazing, these are often thought to have been male-dominant-added industries.

But now that they're in households it starts to raise some interesting questions about the possibility that women and children were also involved based on observations of modern blacksmiths in Egypt where I worked. There is no reason why women and children are involved and they certainly aren't today.

Matt Smith:

It's not really a traditional view there. Wasn't it more so seen as something that only artisans were involved in?

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah, it was. It's a very 19th century view of the world if you like that men would have been involved in these industries and women would have been involved more in cooking and household industries. But we think that the ovens that they were using to fire these glaze materials may also have been used as cooking ovens and bread ovens. So there's no reason why women and children would have been unable to do these things. It's certainly the way in which children were used in the labour force in household. It is very different to the way we might think about it today in current western society.

Matt Smith:

What are some of the artefacts that you would like to work on, that you're trying to get access to?

Mark Eccleston:

On the back of this research we have made an approach to the Berlin Museum where they hold a large collection of material excavated at Amarna before the 1st World War by the German archaeologist, Borchardt. And we're hoping to get a reasonable size group of material from Berlin. But when Peter Kappen and I return to Germany to Hamburg likely in a year to the synchrotron there and to take the material from the actual site that we've working at that's in Germany to the synchrotron and then use these new techniques that we have developed to then gain hopefully a very good understanding of the material from this one site that is housed in Berlin, so that's our next objective.

Matt Smith:

So the site itself it sounds like it has been excavated for a long time?

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah. It was first excavated in the 1890s. The current project which is directed by professor from Cambridge called Barry Kemp began in 1977. And it has been going on every year since 1977. But it was excavated as well in the 1920s and 30s and then before the first World War in 1890s. So it has got a very long history partly because of the significance of the site being a royal capital and only occupied for one pharaoh's reign.

Matt Smith:

What I ask every archaeologist now is what is the most exciting thing that you've ever found on a dig or the most unexpected thing?

Mark Eccleston:

Well the most unexpected thing was once falling through the roof of a tomb which we didn't know existed on the site that I was working on. And I was walking across the surface of the site and disappeared up to my hips in the sand as I plunged through the collapsing mud brick roof of a tomb, which was not very exciting but surprising and amusing for the person that I was walking along with.

The most interesting or exciting thing that I've excavated myself was I suppose not that interesting to a lot of people because it deals with industry and dirty little burnt things. But I've excavated a complete blacksmith's workshop that had a lot of debris in it that gave us a lot of information about the way the blacksmithing operations took place and expanded our knowledge of that enormously, which is interesting to the work that I do. But it isn't exactly the gold of Tutankhamen, that's what I like to do.

Matt Smith:

It was a complete workshop, wasn't it?

Mark Eccleston:

Yeah. It was a complete abandoned workshop. So there were no tools or anvils there. But based on the material that was there and the deposition of the objects on the floor, I was able to excavate it and determine a pretty good idea of how the blacksmith's workshop would've functioned in the Roman periods about the 2nd century A.D., how it was attached to a farmhouse and how it would've functioned as a part of village life at that time. So what I'm more interested is building up an idea of how every day people worked and functioned within communities and how that work affected daily life of people. But that is not something that is very well represented or discussed often.

Matt Smith:

And what was in the tomb? Was there anything in the tomb?

Mark Eccleston:

I don't know what was in the tomb. It was the day before we were due to leave the site. And unexcavated tombs were bit of a problem. Once you break into a tomb, you got to finish it because it will get looted otherwise. So we had to make a decision to cover it up. And so we filled it back in, covered it up and that was the last year I actually worked on that site. I don't think they've been back to that tomb. So I've no idea. It could have been anything. It could have been gold. I have no idea.

Matt Smith:

You should've checked that out.

Mark Eccleston:

I know. If I've gone a little bit further, I would have plummeted down a couple of meters and hit the bottom of the tomb.

Matt Smith:

OK, Dr. Mark Eccleston. Thank you for your time today.

Mark Eccleston:

No problem. Thanks very much.

No results found. Try searching again:

Search for ...

Find an expert

Search our experts database.