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Tree Roots: an analytical ‘culture’ of economy and religion – case-study Egypt 2050-1550 BC.

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Long-neglected wooden artefacts reveal secrets of the past to those who can read them

New analytical tools, portable enough to be transported to museums and the field, have opened up a window on materials from distant cultures. Manufactured items are increasingly giving up their secrets.


Until relatively recently, wooden artefacts had not attracted the attention of archaeologists. Egyptology has been, and still is, closely focused on the study of ancient texts. Where artefacts are considered, high-status objects are more frequently the subject of research. “Egyptian archaeological wooden furniture, which is the subject of my research, is not alone in being neglected. Until recently wood in general has not interested the scientific community. Yet Egyptian archaeological wooden furniture is the most important corpus of preserved wooden objects in the ancient world,” explains principal investigator, Dr Gersande Eschenbrenner-Diemer who undertook the research with the support of the Marie Curie programme through the TRACER project. “The multidisciplinary methodology I have developed combines archaeometry, a branch of archaeology that uses physical and chemical methods, and the theoretical analysis of society,” says Dr Eschenbrenner-Diemer. “I carry out the technological examination and the stylistic and epigraphic study of each object in the corpus in order to identify the assembly techniques and the specificities of each.” She then puts the data into perspective using the non-literary texts that mention wood. “Thanks to the dialogue between all these sources, I can identify workshop productions and map the economic and social networks of wood.” Dr Eschenbrenner-Diemer brings her expertise to bear on objects from the chronological period covering the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period (SIP). She chose this period, she explains, due to the many societal changes Egypt experienced at this pivotal period in its history, which covers several millennia. “Between 2025 and 1550 BC, Egypt was confronted with many changes. The location of the country's successive capitals changed, foreign incursions into Egyptian territory fragmented Egyptian authority and territory but also introduced new materials and technologies. Literature and funerary furniture underwent a real evolution that materialised in wooden furniture.” One example of her findings concerns the evolution of the religious significance of the sycamore fig in the Middle Kingdom and the SIP. The tree, which grew widely across the area, is linked in the contemporary ancient writings to Hathor the maternal goddess. “It takes on a new significance in the SIP when the coffins of both kings and subjects were cut from the trunk of the tree rather than assembled from multiple planks. So the deceased individual was placed in the heart of the tree itself and thus bodily within the embrace of the goddess.” Dr Eschenbrenner-Diemer has embraced the transnational nature of her research, facilitated by her Marie Curie grant. She had the opportunity to work on three archaeological sites in the Aswan region, on the Elephantine sites with a Swiss team led by Dr Cornelius Van Pilgrim and Qoubbet el-Hawa with a Spanish team led by Prof. Alejandro Jimenez-Serrano. She has also been working with a French team from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Deir el-Medina, the village of the craftsmen who built the kings tombs during the New Kingdom. There she led a team dedicated to the research of wooden furniture which allows her to study, in situ, the wooden material manufactured during the period. “What I am most proud of is that I have succeeded in forging particularly strong and diverse professional links with my colleagues at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the British museum, and Kew Gardens. Working in a team helps you to develop your own ideas and spot synergies otherwise denied one.”


TRACER, Middle Kingdom, archaeology, funerary furniture, Second Intermediate Period, wooden artefacts

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