|Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), |
Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
If you had ever wondered how I came to be writing cranky blog posts debunking memes on the internet, and for that matter, critiquing old art history publications, it is a slightly organic process for me. I often use the internet for research and I research Near Eastern iconography, which naturally now and then involves searching for images or publications.
After resolutely excluding Pinterest from searches I quite often also come across links to pseudo-science posts that make uninformed claims about ancient art. Rather than have a complete meltdown, or shun the internet entirely, I write these responses. It is surprisingly relaxing, my partner sorts stamps, I sort blog posts, in a manner of speaking.
Today’s example comes from 2015 when I was searching for images from the tomb of Amenhotep (he preferred to be called Huy) for an article I was writing on Meroitic iconography. I was hoping for a few good photos that I could draw to illustrate the motif of monkeys on date palms. Instead, I discovered that there are mainly out of date artist’s interpretations available to study and that Zecharia Sitchin took his Anunnaki to Egypt in the books The 12th Planet and Stairway to Heaven.
If you do not know who Sitchin is ... well done you … off you toddle … nothing to see here.
If you have heard of him, or are curious, continue reading, as his interpretation of this object from the tomb of Huy is a perfect illustration of the need to read ancient art from a basis of knowledge, from an understanding of their artistic conventions, rather than from a specific agenda and from healthy quantities of pure fantasy.
The image Zecharia Sitchin uses in his books to prove his theories about little green men visiting our planet is a small detail from a larger scene from a New Kingdom Egyptian tomb. He is not interested in this information, but rather, he uses modern drawing of the object in isolation as an argument that the ancient Egyptians built rockets (with the help of the little green men). Yes you read that correctly, rockets and aliens.
According to Sitchin this illustration shows a rocket ship just like today’s multi-stage rockets.
The ‘command module’ is the triangular object above centre in the image, which apparently has signs of burning, windows and could hold three people!!! Around this real people are worshipping the rocket among full sized palm trees. The command module is resting over a large underground silo within which the body of the rocket is housed. Directly under the rocket two technicians are working on hoses and levers, with a row of circular dials above them.
“The underground chamber is decorated with leopard skins, and this provides a direct link with certain phases in the Pharaoh's Journey to Immortality”… say what? They must have been very big leopards.
So I am going to start with the same rules that I hammer into the poor unsuspecting students here … Never … absolutely never … look at iconography without taking into account the entire context of an image. This means look at the object it is drawn on, look at the composition, the colour, the medium, not just a specific scene in isolation, and always pay attention to the text, if there is one.
Secondly, avoid using artist’s impressions of an object or painting, and where possible, always look at the original. Artist’s interpretations can lie, or may misinterpret content due to varying understanding of what they are looking at. An artist can read things into an image they are trying to reproduce, just like an uninformed audience can misread the meaning.
However, there is a problem in regard to the second rule. For many tombs from ancient Egypt the current condition of their paintings is infinitely poorer than it was 200 years ago unless a lot of money and time has been put into restoration. In the case of Huy, the best examples of this scene are also the paintings or drawings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. These copies vary enormously in accuracy and understanding of the content. Sitchin has used one of these sketches for his rocket argument.
The tomb of Huy
This is a scene from the tomb of a wealthy ancient Egyptian royal official from around 1340-1330 BCE in the Eighteenth Dynasty. It is in Western Thebes near the Valley of the Kings. The image is part of a large scene on the south side of the west wall of the transverse hall of the tomb of Huy, TT 40, and it documents rich offerings of tribute being given to the king Tutankhamen by the rulers of Nubia.
The tomb owner is the most important figure in the paintings (after the Egyptian king). His larger figure is all over this scene, where he is shown in various poses overseeing numerous tribute processes as intermediary for the king. Huy was the Egyptian viceroy of Nubia (king’s son of Kush) and king’s right hand man (‘fan bearer on the right of the king’). The images show how important he and his job were, combined with creating a magical instrument that assures he may enjoy royal favour in his afterlife for eternity.
Then there is ‘style’. Egyptian artistic conventions were not like ours, they are unique to ancient Egypt. They did not observe perspective or scale, which means they were not interested in depth or photographic realism. An image is not a picture of a single moment in time. If that were the case, we would have to remove all the extra figures of Huy. Instead, they were interested in showing as much information as possible about objects and people, and also how important they were.
To achieve this they showed the view with the most information, often different views grouped together. Hence the weird way of depicting the human figure. The intention of this is efficiency, to show symbolic value and the basic nature of the object … as shorthand for the object or person they represent, preferably arranged in neat groups of information. They did not draw a two dimensional figure in outline, they provided a visual summary that defined the figure. Because of this it is quite important to learn their visual program.
This scene from the tomb of Huy is intended to show the range of fabulous objects that were presented to the Egyptian king by his loyal subjects. These luxuries fill up the available space in front of the king and they are arranged in rows behind and above the various representations of Huy, almost from the top of the wall to the bottom.
Right at the top there are stacks of gold rings and wide jars that contain fine granular gold. The sign for gold is written next to all to make this absolutely clear. To their left are gifts of cow-hide shields, beds, chairs and stools. Beneath these is a row with bowls containing various ground raw ingredients piled up in a heap within them, most likely incenses or spices. To the left a tiny Nubian man brings a much larger chariot, and between these two groups are piles of ivory tusks and ebony. We know this because often these objects are carefully labelled.
The row below the bowls has three larger bowls with gold triangular shapes in them and palm trees, but this time the bowls are made of animal hide and are sitting on upright stands. Wooden stands for holding vessels are quite characteristic furniture of ancient Egypt. All those round bottomed pots had to go somewhere. To the left of these there is a small gold shrine with royal inscriptions and a stand on its side. None of these objects are drawn to scale, scale was not important (unless it was about showing value), fitting in the object range of Nubian tribute to Tutankhamen was the priority.
The scene with the rocket
The grouping of objects that Sitchin claimed has a rocket is singularly larger in scale than the rest of the gifts and is placed directly before the king and behind Huy, which makes it important. It is placed in the manner of an offering table placed before a god or a deceased person and true to that idea the main feature is in fact a table.
But the ancient Egyptians did not necessarily do tables like we imagine a table, with four legs and a wooden top. They used these, but they were a bit special and often used for funerary goods. Instead the most convenient method for creating a table in Egypt was portable. They used a vertical stand with a horizontal top, and this is mostly a woven reed mat. Therefore, offering scenes in Egyptian art involve viewing a vertical stand with a thin horizontal top which is then drawn viewed from the side. Like this one here and behind Huy.
The so-called life sized scenes of men, giraffes, monkeys and palm trees are placed across this surface with a large bowl sitting in the centre. These human and plant figures are most likely fancy metalwork, as this is not the only example of this type of artwork being presented to a king. They are not life sized, nor are they Egyptian. The men are Nubian and in various poses of worship. There are even prone Nubian figures as end pieces on the edges of the table and under the bowl ... One also has to wonder what Sitchin thought the giraffes and monkeys were there for … local colour?
The bowl in the centre (Sitchin’s command module), appears to be made out of cowhide and a leopard skin, exactly like those in the row above, so it is potentially not a small vessel. It has a steep triangular gold object, like a model of a shrine or a small pyramid in it. This is shown viewed from the side and resembles the other bowls with palm trees and gold structures that are directly above. The objects that Sitchin called ‘windows’ are actually tiny heads of Nubian warriors decorating the rim.
Nubian tribute to Ramses II from his temple at Beit el Wali in Sudan. British Museum, image from Wiki, by Soutekh67.
Underneath this tableau, two leopard skins and two groups of looped gold rings hang down from the table top facing the viewer. This interpretation is not unique and there is another very similar scene from a temple of Ramses II in Sudan showing him receiving similar offerings from Nubia.
The leopard skins and gold may have hung from different sides, or have been actually laid across the board or mat, if this table was taken from a real ceremonial event (not particularly likely). All commodities in the image; warriors, gold, giraffes, date palms, monkeys, animal hides were products of ancient Nubia that Egypt valued highly. They are naturally not drawn to scale.
Finally, right in the centre, under the table top, (Sitchin’s rocket in an underground silo) is the pedestal stand itself, which is decorated pretty consistently with Egyptian luxury objects from that time. Basically, it has the king’s royal names in cartouches in the centre, which are then topped with ostrich feather crowns and solar disks, with a temple (cavetto) facade above. Below the king’s names there is a horizontal row of solar disks (Sitchin’s circular dials).
The decorative borders on the stand are common for Egyptian furniture and cosmetic objects, and going by the decoration of other vessel stands from Tutankhamen’s tomb this stand may have been four sided (so not tubular) and could have been made of alabaster that was carved in openwork, or of ebony, which was then decorated with gold, blue and red painted details.
Beneath the king’s name and the symbols of the sun god is the standard motif that was placed under a king, or under the royal name; the binding of the two lands symbol (‘sema-tawy’) with two foreign prisoners tied to it by the neck and elbows. The ties holding them are the two plants that symbolised the Egyptian state ... It must be awfully hard to service the jets of that rocket when you are tied to a pole under it ... Both figures are Nubian to maintain the theme of the king’s power over Nubia.
Therefore, the composition of this pedestal stand and table is actually about the king’s role in controlling the universe ... Not a rocket to be seen. The entire composition of the table grouping is about power over resources, people and wealth.
Nubian and Near Eastern priconers tied to the sema-tawy. Frieze below Akhenaten and Nafertiti from the tomb of Parenefer at Tell el Amarna. Davies 1903, frontispiece.
Intuition provides people with their understanding and experience of the world. It is a useful general survival tool. However, intuition is not a particularly useful tool for reading ancient art. Their world view is not ours … their way of expressing this visually is not ours.
I have studied ancient eastern Mediterranean iconography now for more than 15 years and while some things are a given for me these days, there are still many gaps in my knowledge, and probably always will be. An informed approach also involves knowing you don’t know everything. That is why I double check every source available to me.
And then there is Zecharia Sitchin, an individual who not only employed intuition to the max in his interpretations of ancient art, in the absence of any cultural understanding at all, but who repeatedly published this trash, and whose publisher continues to do so.
In all seriousness, it is not a rocket.
N.M. Davies and A.H. Gardiner, 1926. The Tomb of Huy, Viceroy of Nubia in the Reign of Tut’ankhamun (No. 40). Theban Tombs Series 4.
N. de Garis Davies, 1903. Rock Tombs of Amarna.
C. Desroches-Noblecourt, 1967. Tutankhamen.
G. Maspero 1901. History of Egypt, Chaldea, Babylonia and Assyria.
I. Rosellini, 1832. I Monumenti dell’ Egitto E della Nubia IV. No. 1.
H. Schäfer, 1963. Von Ägyptischer Kunst: Eine Grundlager.
G. Steindorff, 1901. Grabfunde des mittleren Reichs in den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin II.
Theban Mapping Project Bibliography for TT 40 - Huy
C.R. Lepsius Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien at Halle. Vol.VI:115-118.
Painting by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s) in Metropolitan Museum, New York
Tomb of Huy at Osirisnet