#AskACurator: Ancient Egypt with Egyptologist Dr. Peter Lacovara

On Wednesday, April 15, 2020 the Albany Institute hosted a Q&A on the Albany Institute's Facebook page with Egyptologist Dr. Peter Lacovara, Guest Curator and Director of the Ancient Egyptian Archaeology and Heritage Fund. These are the questions and answers from that online "event":

What's the biggest misconception about Ancient Egypt?

There are so many. That we don't know how the pyramids were built. We actually do, we have the tools, partly built pyramids, even recently discoverd papyrus documents that detail orders and shipment of construction materials. And that they were built by slaves. People were paid to work on the pyramids, with food - and they ate very well. The "curse" of King Tutankhamun. This was a story made up to sell newspapers, Lord Carnarvon, the patron of the expedition died but he was already in ill health when he went to Egypt and most of the crew including Howard Carter lived decades after the discovery.

What's the most significant recent discovery by Egyptologists? Or what do you think the next big discovery may be?

I think the most interesting recent work is by Hourig Sourouzian at the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III.  This was the temple that was fronted by the famous 'Colossi of Memnon'.  Behind them she recently found four more colossal statues of the king and hundreds of other statues.  https://www.wmf.org/sites/default/files/article/pdfs/pg_10-17_memnon.pdf

It would be hard to predict what the next big discovery will be.  That is what makes the field so exciting is you never know what will turn up!

I know that we often hear about the importance and sacred nature of cats in ancient Egyptian culture; do we know much about the role or importance dogs had?

Dogs were also very important in ancient Egypt both as hunting dogs and as pets.  They had leashes and even studded leather dog collars as well as pet names,  usually referring to their color like "blackie" or their qualities, "the brave one" or "pointed ears."  The last one was a favorite of the king and when he died he had a tomb constructed for him at the Giza Pyramids.  Dogs were also sacred to a number of gods, the most famous being Anubis, the Jackal God of the Dead.  Huge numbers of dog mummies were offered to to him and catacomb was recently found with thousands of them. https://www.livescience.com/51232-millions-of-dog-mummies-found.html

What lead you to specialize in Ancient Egyptian heritage?

I was interested in the subject as a child, reading books on it and seeing movies.  I was fortunate to go to college in Boston where I was able to take classes at the Museum of Fine Arts and volunteer and ultimately work there.

Albany Free School 4th and 5th graders would like to know if there was anything comparable to doughnuts in Ancient Egypt.

Not exactly donuts, but they did have sweet cakes with a kind of dimple in the middle.  They did have the first animal cookies though!  There is a gazelle shaped cake from Deir el Medina as well as one in the shape of a flower.

Lincoln from Albany Free School asks: What can you tell us about Anubis? Have you ever excavated any shrines of Anubis?

Anubis was the god of embalming and helped preside over the final judgement and was seen as the protector of the dead.

I have worked at Abydos the location of the most sacred cemetery where it is thought that the cliffs at the edge of the desert looked like a reclining jackal.  Many dog mummies have been found there.

Aidan from Albany Free School asks: did ancient Egyptian kids sleep with or play with stuffed animals?

Egyptian children did have toy dolls including stuffed ones and some mechanical toys in the shape of dogs, but no stuffed animals as of yet.

I would be curious to hear your take on Ahmed Osman's hypothesis that Akhenaten and the Biblical Moses are one and the same person.

It is unlikely, Akhenaten's monotheism is thought to have been an attempt by him to consolidate power and  it disappeared after his death.

Kristen asks: has cleopatra’s tomb ever been found? And or excavated?

No, it hasn't been found. It is most probably somewhere under the city of Alexandria or even under the water.  Kathleen Martinez, a scholar from the Dominican Republic has been looking for it at the Temple of Taposiris Magna located about 25 miles southwest of Alexandria, but most Egyptologists have their doubts it would be there.  Presumably, she would have been buried in her family's cemetery. the Ptolomies who ruled Egypt after the conquest of Alexander the Great and none of those tombs have ever been found.

I’m curious about what a typical day for someone considered royalty/upper class would be like. What would they be doing for fun and what would their responsibilities be?

A lot of the time of the Kings and Queens would be taken up with ritual performances in temples and at festivals or in diplomatic meetings.  The wealthy would enjoy sailing on the Nile, hunting in the desert, playing games like senet and attending festivals. 

What are some activities/things started in Ancient Egypt that we do/use today? I'm wondering about more obscure things.

There are a lot of things we do/use every day that come from ancient Egypt from our 365 day calendar to serving food on a bed of lettuce.  Even a lot of names we use today go back to ancient Egypt like Mary, Martha and Sue. 

What was the average height of an Egyptian in ancient Egypt?

Most Egyptians were shorter than people today, averaging a little over five feet, but some could be quite tall, Amenhotep II was nearly 6 feet tall.

There weren't many big trees in Egypt since it is a desert country.  The tallest trees would be date palms which can grow to a height of about 75 feet.  The next biggest would probably be the tamarisk which could get up to around 55 feet.

What is your favorite object in the Albany Institute's Ancient Egypt collection?

That is easy!  It would have to be the coffin and mummy of Ankhefenmut.

If you might be able to elaborate on some of the customs or traditions of Ancient Egyptian culture, I would find that to be fascinating. I know this is a broad question, if there are maybe one or two specific customs or traditions, maybe the importance of the Nile or Egyptian architecture to the Egyptian community, I would greatly appreciate it.

There are so many.  They did like their holidays, their calendar was clogged with festivals at least one a week.  A big one was "the festival of drunkenness" held annually at the Temple of Mut.  Of course their funerary customs were extremely elaborate and one of their festivals including visiting the graves of friends and relatives and having a picnic with them.  The annual flooding of the Nile was cause for a big celebration marking the start of the agricultural calendar and people would give one another little bottles of Nile water that said, "Happy New Year!"