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Friday, June 30, 2006

Flowers & Mummies

Archaeologists find a 3000-year-old flower garland in the Valley of the Kings.


Egyptologist Nadia Lokma points with light inside the sarcophagus.

Photo: Khaled Desouki, for AFP

Flowers are ephemeral, right?

We tended to think so, until this week’s discovery in Egypt. Archaeologists and the press had gathered for the opening of the last sarcophagus in chamber KV63, adjacent to King Tut’s tomb. All were spellbound as Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, opened the coffin. Expecting to find the mummy of Tut’s mother, they were greeted instead with a garland of flowers, 3000 years old.

“A tangle of fabric and rusty-colored dehydrated flowers woven together in laurels that looked likely to crumble to dust if touched,” writes AP’s Alfred de Montesquiou. (We’re glad the hard-working ancient florist is spared this unflattering description.)

Since the chamber was discovered last year and more recently excavated, several archaeologists have suggested that it was a kind of underground funeral home, where royal bodies were embalmed, decorated, and otherwise prepared for formal burial. In addition to the flower garland, pottery and embalming materials—but no mummies—have been found in KV63.

Though perhaps Mr. Hawass was chagrined not to have encountered Mother Tut,  Nadia Lokma, curator of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, appeared elated. She vouched that the living and the dead of ancient Egypt wore about their shoulders such garlands of flowers, woven with strips of gold. Familiar with drawings of these ornaments, Lokma said, “we’ve never seen this before in real life - it’s magnificent.”

We’re puzzled. For thanks to the equally magnificent Project Gutenberg, which is making fine books freely available online, we found this photograph of a 3000-year-old Egyptian floral collar in Arthur E.B.P. Weigall’s 1912 work, The Treasury of Ancient Egypt. And according to the credit line, this very piece belongs to the Cairo Museum. Perhaps it’s significantly different from the newly discovered garland. We’ll try to contact Prof. Lokma and learn more.


Garland of leaves and flowers (c. 1000 B.C.)

“placed upon the neck of a mummy”—A. Weigall

in the Cairo Museum collection

Photo: Project Gutenberg

If you’d thought the Egyptians were rather stodgy—always standing around in profile—take a look at Weigall’s book. He has quite a lot to say about the ancient Egyptians’ joie de vivre, with special attention to their love of flowers:

“An intense craving for brightness and cheerfulness is to be observed on all sides, and the attempt to cover every action of life with a kind of lustre is perhaps the most apparent characteristic of the race. At all times the Egyptians decked themselves with flowers, and rich and poor alike breathed what they called “the sweet north wind” through a screen of blossoms. At their feasts and festivals each guest was presented with necklaces and crowns of lotus-flowers, and a specially selected bouquet was carried in the hands. Constantly, as the hours passed, fresh flowers were brought to them, and the guests are shown in the tomb paintings in the act of burying their noses in the delicate petals with an air of luxury which even the conventionalities of the draughtsman cannot hide.

“In the women’s hair a flower was pinned which hung down before the forehead; and a cake of ointment, concocted of some sweet-smelling unguent, was so arranged upon the head that, as it slowly melted, it re-perfumed the flower. Complete wreaths of flowers were sometimes worn, and this was the custom as much in the dress of the home as in that of the feast. The common people also arrayed themselves with wreaths of lotuses at all galas and carnivals. The room in which a feast was held was decorated lavishly with flowers. Blossoms crept up the delicate pillars to the roof; garlands twined themselves around the tables and about the jars of wine; and single buds lay in every dish of food. Even the dead were decked in their tombs with a mass of flowers, as though the mourners would hide with the living delights of the earth the misery of the grave.”

With “intense craving for brightness and cheerfulness,” we remember Stan Humphreys (1954-2006).


Posted by Julie on 06/30 at 09:16 AM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsSciencePermalink