What do hippos, pigs, little kids, spa ladies and John Lithgow all have in common? If your answer included a word from the title of this article, bravo! (For the John Lithgow connection check out his musical efforts in an album entitled “Singin’ in the Bathtub”).
But what (you ask intelligently) do these have to do with archeology and the ancient Egyptians? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I found something this week that has to do with just such a question. To be sure mothers have been dragging children away from mud puddles for thousands of years. Animals and humans have used it’s soothing properties for just as long. But what mud was most useful for way back when (and actually still is in many places) was as a building material. The sticky-when-wet-hard-when-dry qualities make it perfect for molding. When baked in the sun, or sometimes in an oven, it can become as solid as a rock and therefore quite durable. And when layered thickly it is also an incredible insulator against the heat of the day. I’m experiencing this aspect first hand these days as my bedroom’s mud-brick walls are the only type of air conditioning I have access to here.
Mud has been used as a construction material for thousands of years. When I excavated at Ashkelon I once found a 4000 year old covered water channel that had the dried finger marks of the construction workers still visible in the casing mud. Here at Abydos we have found floors with footprints and sealing stamps with thumbprints. Time travel seems real when I can place my own hands in the grooves made so long ago by others. The human connection, the craved for link between past and present, exists in these moments.
The area at Abydos that I am working at has it’s own special link with mud. The pyramid that we are excavating was built of mud bricks. Yes, a pyramid made of mud. You heard right. There are all sorts of fancy architectural and archeological terms used to describe the “how” and “why” of this, but what I find more interesting are the personal elements that can be found in the remnants of this structure’s mud. The pharaoh responsible for having this building made was the last to build a pyramid but the first to have his name stamped into every single brick used in royal construction. Kind of the ancient version of the “George Washington Slept Here” signs. Instead, these ones use hieroglyphics to tell everybody that the pharaoh Ahmose “the beloved of the god Osiris” was definitely in charge. Here is what they look like…….this is a broken one but you can get the idea.
As we analyze the remaining bricks we daily see these stamps. We are reminded of the power of the pharaoh. Visions of imperial authority run through our minds. The process of how the bricks are made and then used to build the walls comes to life for us. Every day we experience this. But this week we found a very unusual kind of stamp that set our minds to a completely different scene. Here it is……….
Can you see what I see? It’s a dog’s paw print! Now….. can you imagine the scene surrounding the process of it’s creation? Not exactly the royal scene that one expects: dogs running loose, brick makers chasing them out of the yard, curses and yelps, material getting tromped on. Or maybe instead: a deserted brick yard, security asleep, prowling canine walking through the moonlight across not-quite-dry building blocks. The possibilities are many but the result is the same. Rather than Ahmose’s prestigious link with the divine we have the immortalized imprint of a rogue critter.
Anyways, that’s how my scientific, analytic, research based mind goes off on tangents occasionally. Snapshots of moments. The human element. Or in this case, the animal.
And we have mud to thank for it!